Syllabus for SCI201: Popular Science

Science as Metaphor


Week One: String Theory

Can we unify general relativity and quantum mechanics? Can two seemingly irreconcilable opposites create consensus? We will read about an over-achieving daughter and her free-spirited mother finding common ground at an electronic music festival.

Week Two: Parallel Universes

Is there another one of us out there, living a parallel life? We investigate twin brothers, separated at birth, who lead eerily similar lives.

Week Three: Black Holes

Black holes are some of the most complex and mysterious objects in the universe. We will meet several young men who lost themselves in the “black hole” of online role-playing games.

Week Four: Quantum Mechanics

If everything is relative, does that mean there’s no such thing as right and wrong? Is free will an illusion? Maybe there’s no such thing as truth or reality and nothing really matters. No reading.

Week Five: Special Relativity

Is time travel possible? We will read about a young widow who finds comfort researching genealogy, a bootlegger’s son wrestling with his family’s checkered past, and a series of interviews with temporary seasonal employees at Colonial Williamsburg.

Week Six: The Fibonacci Sequence

Math is truly the language of God. We will read a short biography of Paul Erdös: what was the deal with that guy?

Week Seven: Prime Numbers

What is infinite? Love.

Week Eight: Chaos Theory

Have you ever experienced a truly amazing coincidence? Reading: A young woman finds love in the very same hotel where her parents met forty years before.

Week Nine: Fractals in Nature

We look at pictures of snowflakes under a microscope. Seriously, how cool is that?

Midterm Exam: Make absolutely anything with a 3D printer.

Week Ten: Class canceled in commemoration of Pi Day.

Week Eleven: Astronomical Equivalences

It would take 52,594,876 minutes to travel from Earth to Alpha Centauri– that’s like playing the Beatles’ White Album 559,519 times!

Week Twelve: Robotics

Can a machine feel real emotions? What does it mean to be human? Can a robot learn to love? Readings: People who fall in love with robotic girlfriends, grandchildren, coworkers, nurses, nannies, and pets.

Bonus lab experiment: We will give a Turing test to a baby, a grocery checkout machine, and a captive gorilla.

Week Thirteen: Something about DNA

Week Fourteen: Neurology

Synesthesia, phantom limbs, face blindness: we look at what happens when things go really wrong with your brain. Readings include an interview with a woman who smells phone numbers.

Bonus lab experiment: we will put student volunteers into an fMRI machine and check out how their brains light up.

Week Fifteen: Evolutionary Psychology

What are the evolutionary origins of the wage gap? Is monogamy possible? How can you achieve greater facial symmetry? Readings: The New Paleo Cookbook.

Bonus lab experiment: We give a bonobo an iPhone.

Week Sixteen: Parasitology

You won’t believe what this ant will do to your brain.

Final Exam Essay Topic: What has studying the infinite complexity of the indifferent universe taught you about yourself and your personal relationships?

Required texts:

I Fucking Love Science

Neal deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed

Radiolab, any episode

Prerequisites:

None.


Summer Block occasionally writes essays, short fiction, and poetry for The Awl, McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Toast, The Rumpus, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications. Some people follow her on Twitter @teamblock.

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