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Dr. Lizabeth Johnson,   



In modern society, we are accustomed to the discussion of scientific theories and discoveries, as well as debates over the appropriate use of that scientific knowledge.  For example, we frequently hear about debates over the teaching of evolution in schools versus the teaching of creationism.  Similarly, since the discovery of the nature of DNA in the 1950s, interest in and information about genetics has spilled over from scientific research facilities and into popular culture, even appearing in movies such as the X-Men franchise.  However, this interest in and concern over scientific theories and discoveries is not unique to modern society.  Since the birth of science as a philosophical and practical pursuit in the ancient Greek world, scientists and ordinary people have debated the study and use of scientific knowledge.  The work of ancient Greek scientists and natural philosophers was parodied in plays, such as Aristophanes’ The Clouds.  While Roman scientists and physicians debated astronomical and medical theories among themselves, philosophers such as Lucretius supported the theory of atomism, drawing the ire of all those who accepted traditional Roman polytheism.  In the medieval period, those societies that inherited Greco-Roman scientific and medical knowledge made few advances on that knowledge, and scientists and physicians faced resistance from religious figures, both Catholic and Muslim, because much of Greco-Roman science hailed from a pagan past.  With the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, however, not only did scientists begin to question the received wisdom of the Greco-Roman world, they also began to question the limitations placed on scientific discovery by religious authorities.  Since that time, science has steadily made progress, but the old debate over the development and use of scientific knowledge has remained.  While scientists have argued among themselves the potential applications of and ethical issues regarding their work, aspects of that argument have appeared in literature as well, such as in the works of H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick.  In the 21st century, discussions of the appropriate use and application of scientific knowledge have become more prominent because of various developments such as genetic research and testing, the anti-vaccine movement, climate change and global warming, and funding for space exploration.  In this course, we will examine works of science from these different eras and societies, as well as works that describe negative reactions to scientific discoveries, in order to come to a better understanding of how scientific discoveries, theories, and debates have changed the study of science over time and have shaped modern society itself.


Dava Sobel.  Longitude:  The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.  Walker Books, reprint ed., 2007.  ISBN 978-0007790166.

H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, 1996. ISBN 978-0486290270.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Del Rey, 1996. ISBN 978-0345404473.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Reprint edition. Broadway, 2011. ISBN 978-1400052189.

Other readings will be available through the course website (UNM Learn)


Active participation in class discussions

One 10-minute biographical presentation on a scientist

Two analytical papers of 3-4 pages each

One synthesis paper of 5-6 pages

Participation in a group project on a modern scientific debate

Oral presentation of group project



Dr. Lizabeth Johnson has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History.  She teaches courses on law, gender, science, the environment, and social responses to disease outbreaks.  She has published several articles and book reviews on medieval British history, specifically in the area of women’s activities in courts of law.