HSTR 207: Weekly Readings


Prompt Question(s): In your own words, restate Yali’s question and explain its significance. Is Yali’s question the type of question that a natural/physical scientist or engineer would pursue? A historian or social scientist? Why or why not?

Why do natural/physical scientists or engineers rarely deal with questions of power, justice, or ethics?


Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, Prologue, Chapters 1-3

Prompt Question(s): In the middle of Chapter 1, Johnson presents three different models in the history of science: progressive (“great man”) history; paradigm shift (Kuhnian) history; and ecosystem theory. Describe each method in your own words, what types of actors or forces do each model take in account? How does each method try to explain historical change?

What method does Johnson use to explain Joseph Priestly’s discovery of oxygen? Use one example (coffeehouse culture, bourgeois-class patronage, energy flows, etc.) from the first half of Johnson’s book to illustrate this method. Try to use another example from outside of class that demonstrates this method.


Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, Chapters 4-5

Prompt Question(s): In the epigraph (a quote at the very beginning of the book), Joseph Priestly sates: “The English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble at an air pump, or an electrical machine.”

Why should governments or religions fear air pumps and electrical machines? Explain your response with evidence from the second half of Johnson’s book. Does Johnson’s work shed new light on any current examples of scientific or technological research that also holds social or political consequences?

According to Johnston, what is a “technological fix,” or techno-fix? Why have techno-fixes become popular among political and economic elites, especially after World War II? And why, according to Huesemann and Huesmann, should we be cautious or skeptical about techno-fixes?


Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Part I: The Cognitive Revolution & Part II: Agricultural Revolution

Prompt Question(s): Why did the Cognitive Revolution allow for larger-scale cooperation among humans? What is an “imagined order” and how do they further human cooperation? Give one example that Harari uses of an imagined order.

Are imagined orders a prerequisite for science? Is science an imagined order? Why or why not?


Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Part III: The Unification of Humankind

Prompt Question(s): How did money, empires, and religions lead to widespread cooperation across the globe, or in Harari’s words, to “the unification of humankind?”

On page 241, Harari writes: “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that are present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.” What does Harari mean by that? In other words, what value does Harari see in studying history? What value in studying the history of science and technology?


Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Part IV: The Scientific Revolution

Prompt Question(s): Why did the Scientific Revolution bring about an imagined order different from all previous traditions of knowledge? Why does modern science become wedded to imperialism and capitalism? Use specific examples from Harari’s book and Elmore’s article to show the connections.


James Garvey, “Air Pollution in the Coal Industry,” Mining Congress Journal, August 1966.

Prompt Question(s): You’ll often hear from climate contrarians that climate science is still in its infancy, too young to be reliable. Reading Swartz and Reidy’s articles, is that statement even true? When did private industry scientists come to understand the burning fossil fuels caused global warming?

If scientists have known about the climate-related dangers for a long time, why hasn’t something been done about it politically?


Clive Hamilton, “Everything you need to know about geoengineering in 11 minutes,” (2013)

David Keith, “Let’s Talk about Geoengineering,” Project Syndicate, 21 March 2019

Prompt Question(s): Why the sudden interest in geoengineering such as solar radiation management or carbon capture and storage? Is geoengineering a techno-fix? Why or why not? Do you think geoengineering is a viable solution to climate change?


U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race”

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Biological State: Nazi Racial Hygiene”

Prompt Question(s): What was “eugenics” and how did medical professionals use the language of evolutionary biology to justify it? For most the semester, we’ve discussed the connections between science and society. Do you think eugenics gives us reason to separate the two? Why or why not?


Prompt Question(s): What is CRISPR technology and why can it be described as both exhilarating and terrifying? Do you think CRISPR holds the potential to be developed into a second, market-based eugenics movement? Why or why not?


Prompt Question(s): How did the academic-military-industrial complex produce the age of “big science”? After reading excerpts from Vannevar Bush, Dwight Eisenhower, J. William Fulbright, and Barry Goldwater, why do you think are some leaders worried about scientific research under military control and some are not?


Adrian Cho, “Gravitational waves, Einstein’s ripples in space-time, spotted for first time,” Science, 11 February 2016

Department of Defense, “Development of Gravitational Radiation Technology for Military Applications,” 2013

Prompt Question(s): What are gravitational waves? How does LIGO equipment advance remote-sensing or communications technologies? Taking into consideration the history of Landsat, does LIGO present any ethical dilemmas about surveillance or sovereignty? Why or why not?

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