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Fall 2012 First-Year Investigations


Thomas Habinek
Department of Classics
The Truth About Myth
Monday 2-3:50 p.m.

What is mythology?  Where does it come from?  Why does it last?  How can we identify present-day myths?   This course will investigate the development and persistence of stories, stereotypes, and images from classical Greece and Rome to contemporary advertising and cinema.  We will consider myth from the vantage point of literature and art, but also in the light of recent research in anthropology, religion, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience.


Larry Swanson
Department of Biological Sciences
Thinking About The Brain
Monday 2-3:50 p.m.

People have been thinking about what the brain does and how it does it since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. This seminar will explore a whole range of theories about brain structure and function, starting with historical perspectives and ending with brainstorming about novel ideas that could lead to future revolutions in neuroscience. The seminar will also critically evaluate the current trends in the brain sciences that could spark these potential revolutions: brain scans of people while they are thinking and dreaming, gene programs that construct the brain during pregnancy, and online informatics systems for looking up facts, building models, and testing ideas. A good course in high school biology will help but is not essential if you are really interested in the topic.


Gene Bickers
Department of Physics and Astronomy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Particle Physics
Monday 3-4:50 p.m.

What is a quark? How about a neutrino? What are the ultimate constituents of matter, and how do these constituents interact? Hundreds of physicists are now working at the world’s largest scientific machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), to expand our knowledge of the universe on the smallest length scales. In this First Year Investigation seminar we will trace the history of particle physics from its origins in the late nineteenth century to the present day, examining the creation of the so-called Standard Model. We will look at the implications of experiments at the LHC for our understanding of the Standard Model and the physics that may lie beyond.

Craig Stanford
Department of Anthropology
What Does It Mean to Be Human?  Evolutionary Perspectives
Monday 4:00-5:50 p.m.

There are many ways to define a human being:  biologically, psychologically, philosophically, among many perspectives.  In this lecture I take an evolutionary, Darwinian approach to the human species, and present a series of short lectures on the meaning of the human species.  We will consider ourselves in relation to our earliest ancestors – based on our study of the human fossil record – and also based on perspective from the study of our closest relatives, the other primates.  We will also consider how recent advances in genetics and human biology have changed our views of our ancestry.  My goal is that you come away from this lecture series with a different level of understanding, and a new angle, of who you are and where you fit into your own evolutionary history, and into the universe.



Lynn Swartz Dodd
Department of Religion
Human Survival: Learning From The Past
Tuesday 2-3:50 p.m.

Have you ever wanted to learn how to make your own stone tools? Brew beer? Make cheese? Smelt copper?  If you had lived 6,000 years ago, you were part of a culture that taught you how to do these things, in order to survive. You would have fished, hunted, used stone and metal tools to cut up and skin animals, plants and many other things. You would have learned how to create sickles to harvest grain and other plants. Grain went into bread and beer – and we’ll make both in this class. If you wanted to warm or protect your naked body, you would have spun wool or plant fibers into cloth or tanned skins. Some cheese could be stored for more than a year – a ready, portable food source that we will make ourselves.  And you would have needed to know how to transform bits of rock into molten metal that would harden into wonderful things. 


This is an active learning course that enables you –through weekly hands-on activities and field trips – to acquire and experience skills that humans devised in order to survive in pre-modern times.   This course is ideal for students in any major. You’ll learn how to survive 6,000 years ago while gaining skills of value in medicine, economics, business, psychology, politics, and history, too. 


Stephen Bradforth
Department of Chemistry
The Global Energy Crisis How To Make Sense of It All
Tuesday 2:00-3:50 p.m.

The rush for the remaining planetary oil and gas resources and decisions on cutting carbon emissions versus economic growth will define 21st century geopolitics, the condition of our planet and, quite possibly, whether there is sustained peace or a new cycle of world wars.  Decisions about the energy supply will inevitably determine the quality of life for us all.   The goal of this FYI is for you to be armed with sufficient tools to understand the science behind alternative energy sources, what is possible and what is not and who to believe so you can help shape solutions to this defining issue for our century.


JoAnn Farver
Department of Psychology
Why Do People Believe Weird Things…and How Can Psychology Help Us Answer This Question?
Tuesday 2:00-3:50 p.m.

Each week, supermarket tabloid headlines claim people have been abducted by extraterrestrials, Elvis is alive and a waiter in a Hollywood restaurant, hypnosis cures cancer, and ESP can solve crimes. What standards or rules should we apply when we try to sort out truth from fiction? This seminar will take you on a journey- not into outer space but into the inner space of thinking critically about the world around you, about stories and arguments made by other people, about human behavior and mental processes. Using principles and research from psychology, we will explore limits to our reasoning abilities, and learn how to develop “habits of mind” that promote a more accurate view of the world.


Steven Finkel
Department of Biological Sciences
Sex, Poop and Cannibalism
Tuesday 2-3:50 p.m.

This course will focus on the roles of bacteria in all aspects of   living systems, their impact on the evolutionary and environmental history of life on earth, and their current impacts. For example, at  any moment bacteria are exchanging genetic information (“sex”),   living in symbiosis with other organisms (“poop”), and recycling  biomolecules (“cannibalism”) in an astonishing variety of  environments, from miles beneath the surface of the ocean floor to  human beings (from head to toe) and even water droplets in clouds  miles above the earth’s surface. We will explore these topics in-class discussions, including a relevant movie, and field trips.  Field trips may include the Huntington Library, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and even a visit to a sewage treatment plant.



Steve Ross
Department of History
Hollywood and Politics
Wednesday 2:00-3:50 p.m.

Can movies and movie stars really shape the ways in which we think about politics?  If so, how have they done so and what influence have they had on American life?  This seminar explores the relationship of movies, movies stars and politics from the beginning of the film industry to the present.  In addition to examining how filmmakers treated controversial issues surrounding democracy, Nazism and communism, we will also look at the impact of actors-turned-activists such as Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Reagan, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


David Román
Department of English
Wednesday 3-4:50 p.m.

This course examines the history of AIDS in the USA by using multiple disciplines to study this societal issue with an emphasis on the historical.  Thirty years into the epidemic, AIDS continues to challenge us.   We will read one book for the class, Randy Shilts’s journalistic tour-de-force And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and AIDS Epidemic, and screen various films and documentaries produced since the late 1980s.   These varied texts will provide us a foundation for our discussions.   We will study AIDS and AIDS activism, from the earliest cases surfacing in 1981 and the immediate grass-root response from the gay community, to our contemporary moment.     The course will be discussion driven and involve general discussions about sex and sexuality but will not be designed as a sex education course.  All first-year students are welcome to enroll.    The class will enable students to learn about AIDS and its history from multiple angles: the scientific, the political, and the personal.  


Suzanne Edmands
Department of Biological Sciences/MEB
The Brave New Post-Genomic World
Wednesday 3-4:50 p.m.

In the age of the “thousand dollar genome” we face questions that would have seemed like science fiction to previous generations. Should you have your personal genome sequenced? Should you “design” your baby? Should medicines be optimized to match different racial groups? Should you have your pet cloned? In this seminar we will explore the legal, social and ethical implications of modern genomic and reproductive technologies via literature, film and visits to local science museums.



Edwin McCann
Department of Philosophy
Philosophy of Film, Philosophy Through Film
Thursday 2-3:50 p.m


Film is one of the most recently developed art forms, and it works as an art form both at the level of high art and at the level of mass or popular culture.  It raises some distinctive philosophical questions:  what do we see when we see things (e.g., characters, settings, objects) in films?  What ontological status do these things have?  How do films relate to the stage plays and/or books on which they are based, if they are adaptations?  Is visual representation different in nature from linguistic representation?  We will explore these questions using a recent book in philosophy of film, George Wilson’s Seeing Fictions in Films.


We’ll also see and discuss a number of important films that embody, or at least stimulate, philosophical reflections about the nature of persons, the nature of ultimate reality and whether we can know it and the nature of ethics and the meaning of life.  The films we discuss will not be screened during class, except for short clips for discussion.  Students will actively engage in determining a list of films to discuss in the seminar. Films we will consider include: Blade Runner, The Matrix, Breathless (both Godard’s original and the Jim McBride remake), The Third Man, Double Indemnity, Casablanca, L'Atalante, and The Lady Eve. Other possibilities:  M, Pulp Fiction, No Country for Old Men, Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game, The American Friend, Total Recall, Chinatown, Titanic


Margaret Rosenthal
Department of Italian, Comparative Literature, English
Renaissance Man/Renaissance Woman
Thursday 2:00-3:50 p.m.

The idea of the Renaissance Man as a universal, multitalented individual originated in Italy during the fourteenth century. Men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Machiavelli are icons in world cultures. But what do we know about the Renaissance Woman? What was she doing when Leonardo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli were painting, observing nature and recording its wonders in sketch books and in frescoes that adorned the walls of the powerful, and writing about the ideal prince while living in forced exile?  How do we define her accomplishments? Was she viewed by her culture in the same way as the Renaissance Man?


In this course we will look at our fascination with the Renaissance Man, and we will add much information about what Renaissance women were writing, painting, composing and thinking about by reading their works, looking at their paintings, listening to their compositions and viewing contemporary movies that deal with Renaissance men and women in Europe, particularly in England, France, Spain and Italy.