We will explore the changing political choices and ethical dilemmas of American scientists from the atomic scientists of World War II to biologists in the present wrestling with the questions raised by cloning and other biotechnologies. As well as asking how we would behave if confronted with the same choices, we will try to understand the choices scientists have made by seeing them in their historical and political contexts. Some of the topics covered include: the original development of nuclear weapons and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the effects of the Cold War on American science; the space shuttle disasters; debates on the use of nuclear power, wind power, and biofuels; abuse of human subjects in psychological and other experiments; deliberations on genetically modified food, the human genome project, human cloning, embryonic stem cell research; and the ethics of archaeological science in light of controversies over museum collections.


Course requirements include three 6-7 page papers, and a final exam. Besides lectures, there will be class videos. As far as the class size permits, there will also be considerable class discussion, and you should come prepared to share your thoughts and engage your classmates in debate. That means doing the reading before class; motivational help will be in the form of unannounced reading quizzes during the term.

Regular attendance is required and unexcused absences will be penalized. If you need to miss a class (traveling for interviews, family or health emergencies), please phone or email the instructor ahead of time so your absence can be excused. Absences for religious observance are allowed.


The final course grade will be determined as follows:

Activities Percentages
Class participation 10%
Reading quizzes 10%
First paper grade 20%
Second paper grade 20%
Third paper grade 20%
Final exam grade 20%



Finally, a word about plagiarism. The MIT website says this about plagiarism: "Plagiarism is a very serious offense. If it is found that you have plagiarized — deliberately or inadvertently — you may face serious consequences. In some instances, plagiarism has meant that students have had to leave the institutions where they were studying. MIT addresses plagiarism and its consequences in Policies and Procedures, section 10. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to cite your sources - both within the body of your paper and in a bibliography of sources you used at the end of your paper."

See "Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students" (July 2007) for an excellent overview of these issues. (This resource may not render correctly in a screen reader.PDF)


1 Introduction  
I. Military influence on American science
2 World War II: Hiroshima, Nagasaki  
3 Manhattan project  

Science, military research, and the national security state

Guest lecturer: Prof. David Kaiser

5 Military influence on American science  

Apollo space program

Guest lecturer: Prof. David Mindell

II. Risk
7 Space program: Challenger and Columbia  

Space program: Challenger and Columbia (cont.)

Guest lecturer: Prof. Jeffrey Hoffman

Essay 1 due
9 Health and environment  
10 Health and environment (cont.)  
11 Biotechnology: genetically modified foods  
12 Biotechnology: stem cell research  
13 Biotechnology: stem cell research (cont.)  
14 Biotechnology: cloning  
15 Biotechnology: market forces  
16 Biotechnology: genome and health insurance  
17 Biotechnology: genome and health insurance (cont.) Essay 2 due
III. The environment
18 Climate change research  

Climate change research (cont.)

Guest lecturer: Dr. William Curry, WHOI


Alternatives to fossil fuels

Guest lecturer: Mark Rogers, Communications Director, Cape Wind

IV. Politics, ethics, and social science
21 Experimentation on human subjects  

Experimentation on human subjects (cont.)

Guest lecturer: Prof. David Jones


Archaeological science: politics of antiquities trade and collection

Guest lecturers: Katie Getchell and Christine Kondoleon, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

24 Archaeological science: ethical conflicts and political choices in deep water archeological research Essay 3 due

Politics in the public presentation of science

Guest lecturer: Raney Aronson-Rath, Senior Producer, WGBH Boston

26 Conclusions: review of term, discuss final exam