Welcome to the fourth in our continuing series of "VAST Essays," a collection of writings produced by students in Lafayette College’s Values and Science/Technology Program. All of this year’s writings are "thought experiments," reimaginings of the now, adventures in the realm of "what if?"

In the world you are about to enter, parents must sign over the genetic future of their unborn babies, as in Emily Ginsberg’s poem, and a century into that future, gene therapists will look back on a history of progress in taming genetic disease. Not, however, without misgivings, as the essay by Kimberly Posocco demonstrates. Her view from 2101 is encouraging, but although physicians of the 22nd century may have conquered disease, they still wrestle with the ethical dilemmas posed by genetic engineering. Meanwhile, back at the close of the twentieth century, metaphors put on boxing gloves and fight it out in the ring of public opinion—literally: Keli Whitnell imagines the lively scientific controversy over sociobiology as the sporting event of the season, complete with announcer, a ring historian, and cheering crowds.

Perhaps most provocatively, Daniel Swarr takes us on another kind of imaginative journey: into the world of the prison, where AIDS burns through a population abandoned by the rest of us. Swarr dares to ask how our world would look if prisons were to become the center of our moral imagination; and as he concludes, our nation’s blindness to the presence of AIDS among the impoverished, the minorities, and the marginalized that fill our prisons dishonors us all.

Finally, Emily Murphy takes us on an imaginative journey up the world’s slowest elevator (no doubt cousin to the ancient hydraulic lift in Pardee Hall), in which casual elevator chat becomes a riveting philosophical discussion on the moral responsibilities of scientists and the public. Her essay is a fitting close to this year’s sampling of the thought and work taking place in Lafayette’s VAST classrooms. Sometimes the best answers to the question, What is--? is What if--? Such an experimental approach to writing allows us to bend the boundaries of the normal just enough to see alternatives hidden before—and we return from the thought experiment with something genuinely new.

Thanks go to all who submitted essays, both to the VAST instructors who pushed their students to engage seriously with language, and to the students who in turn took that engagement seriously. Thanks also go to Tom Yuster of the Mathematics Department for helping to produce this collection of adventures, and for supplying the logarithmic spiral that graces our new cover design. Enjoy!

Laura Dassow Walls

Associate Professor and Co-Coordinator of VAST