Mona Lisa Overdrive: Science in Art and Culture

Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 quarters

Taught by

biology, fish biology
media studies, gender & women's studies, sexuality and queer studies

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. – Leonardo da Vinci

Throughout the two centuries that span the publication of Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein , and the 2012 release of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior , the worlds of science and art have been in dialogue, and those conversations lie at the heart of this two-quarter program. We will explore the many meanings of “science”: how do scientists and non-scientists (especially artists) define it, and on what points do they agree and disagree? We will examine science in a variety of contexts to gain a deeper understanding of how it functions in culture(s): what is the relationship between what chemist and novelist C.P. Snow termed “the two cultures” (the sciences and humanities) and the larger culture(s) of which they are part? Above all else, we will come to appreciate, even more, the wonders of the world we inhabit.

In fall quarter, we will focus on general biology, but will also touch on major concepts in evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, physiology and ecology. Equally importantly, students will supplement their humanities toolkit by honing their critical thinking, reading and writing skills. Equipped with this knowledge and these skills, students will examine how science is portrayed in nonfiction texts and contexts, such as the news media and documentary film. 

In winter quarter, we will continue to study biology, but our gaze will shift to how science is portrayed in literary fiction, film and the other arts. Singers and songwriters like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Maddy Prior and Ray Troll incorporate themes from biology and geology into their music. Visual artists like da Vinci have delved into science to lend their work a high degree of scientific accuracy and filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg hire scientists for similar reasons. Shelley, Kingsolver, William Gibson and a host of other creative writers merge science and art to produce what may be called “lab lit.” How these artists attempt to achieve balance between the application of scientific exactitude and the exercise of artistic license will be a guiding question in winter quarter.

Program activities will include biology lectures and labs, creative writing workshops, seminars on texts that explore science from a variety of different perspectives, film screenings and discussions and field trips. Students will have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of science, culture and art and to develop their skills in the analysis of texts and in academic and creative writing.

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

biology, humanities and education.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


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Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning

More information about online learning.

Required Fees

$60 in fall and winter for field trips.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter)

Class standing: Freshmen–Sophomore; 50% of the seats are reserved for freshmen Freshmen–Sophomore

Maximum enrollment: 40


Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 10127
So (16 credits): 10128

Go to to register for this program.


Accepting New Students


The faculty suggest that students entering the program in Winter have one quarter of college-level biology or are willing to do significant background reading over Winter Break. Contact Amy Cook at for more information

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 20074
So (16 credits): 20075

Go to to register for this program.

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