Mona Lisa Overdrive: Science in Art and Culture


Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 quarters

Taught by

ecology, vertebrate 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 centuries that span Leonardo's Mona Lisa (painted in the early 1500s) and William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Mona Lisa Overdrive (published in 1988), 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 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? To answer this question, students will consider, in detail, the choices that artists, writers and media creators make about how to interweave science with storytelling and aesthetics. 

We will undertake this journey by navigating a conceptual double helix that bridges introductory life science and introductory media studies (analyzing film, television, and new media). Such a schema involves thinking through how research and ideas about the nature of life have been shaped by media technologies and representations, and vice versa. In Fall quarter, we will begin a path of study in general biology with a focus on cell biology and genetics. Over the course of two quarters, we will cover major concepts in organic chemistry, microbiology, evolutionary biology, 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, we will examine and critique how issues like biotechnology, epidemics, race and gender have been presented in the news media and both nonfiction and science fiction film and television, from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park

In Winter quarter, we will continue our study of biology with a focus on organisms (plants, animals and fungi) and ecosystems. We will also explore the media's portrayal of these concepts through themes such as monsters, anthropomorphism, reproduction and eugenics, and the human/machine binary. The scope of our analysis will expand to include computers, the internet, video games, and other independent or varied multimedia. 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. Mary Shelley, Barbara 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, seminars on texts that explore science from a variety of different perspectives, film/media screenings and discussions, and field trips. Students will have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of science, culture and media and to develop their skills in the analysis of texts and in academic and creative writing and media practice.

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

biology, humanities, media, cultural studies, and education.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


Buy books for this program through Greener Bookstore.

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning: Access to web-based tools required, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.

Required Fees

$60 in fall and winter for field trips.


Date Revision
May 14th, 2014 Description has been updated.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter)

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

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 and one quarter of college-level humanities, or are willing to do significant background reading over Winter Break. Fall syllabus available on request. Contact Amy Cook (biology) at or Julie Russo (media studies) 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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