Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Frontier Sciences

Instructor: Christopher Laursen


This course is a cultural and historical examination of the emergence, successes, and problems of frontier sciences in gaining credibility in the greater scientific community. We will examine the importance of boundary-work in exploring the potentiality of science – from sciences and technologies that changed knowledge paradigms, such as quantum physics, organ transplants, and the Internet, to those that have struggled or failed to gain credibility, like parapsychology and catastrophism.


What transforms a frontier science into a mainstream science? How does imagination and speculation, for example in the form of science fiction, inspire the development of new sciences and technologies? Why have some sciences remained active, but only at the peripheries of accepted sciences? And why do some frontier sciences altogether fail?


Historical analyses, cultural studies, and literary speculation will guide us through the values and dangers of frontier sciences in the modern world.


Course Structure


The course is divided into five parts:


• Introduction: What are Frontier Sciences? (Aug 16-25), in which we think on how scientists envision the “frontier,” and how “frontier” rhetoric aims to gain public and political support.
• Part 1: Paradigm Shifts (Aug 26-Sept 15), in which we examine the making of innovations that dramatically changed science and technology.
• Part 2: Perpetual Peripheries (Sept 15-Oct 13), in which we consider ideas that remain controversial in the greater scientific community or in specific cultures.
• Part 3: Transformations (Oct 21-Nov 3), in which we explore how imagination and speculation, through science fiction, inspires the making of new science and tech.
• Part 4: The Damned (Nov 4-10), in which we discuss how certain frontier sciences are popular for a period of time, and then become largely discounted.


Students begin units by reading text that gives context to the topic and week’s readings. Online discussions provide a lively, interactive environment between students and the instructor. The assignments all culminate toward creating a final project.


Required Texts


• Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012). ISBN: 978-0226458120


• Margaret Lock, Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). ISBN: 978-0520228146


• David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012). ISBN: 978-0393342314


• William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984). ISBN: 978-0441569595


• Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012). ISBN: 978-0226304427


Reliable internet access is required for online courses.

Updated: December 10, 2018