Preface

With this edition, we mark the fifth year of the continuing series of VAST Essays, a collection of the best student writing to come out of Lafayette’s Values and Science/Technology Program. Each year, all Lafayette sophomores take a VAST course, selecting from a variety of topics taught by professors from every division of the College. The high quality of student writing attests to the vitality of these courses, which engage students and professors alike in some of our age’s most timely dilemmas of science and technology.

All our essayists this year are engaged with a similar question: How do science and technology construct the world we share?—our families, our lives, even our bodies? Ryan Tobin opens with a playfully nightmarish vision of a future where computer technology has allowed us to dispense altogether with the inconvenience of physical bodies: as he ends, in this world, "Planet Earth may be our physical home, but it’s no place to live!" But creating a better place to live is exactly what concerns Lisa Oliveri. Her essay looks at the many ways our present is starting to look a bit too much like Ryan’s technological nightmare, and poses the question: What will happen to people, to the human family, if we let machines take over too much of the daily business of life?

Our third essay, by Amanda Roth, takes a new look at the most basic constituent of family: gender. Instead of being "natural" and unproblematic, in her essay, gender is constructed—first by society, but second and rather more startlingly, by science, as doctors literally construct the bodies of intersexed infants to "make" them unambiguously male or female. Yet on what basis, Amanda wonders, does science make such culturally-determined decisions? A highly topical view of a similar question is taken by Katelyn Connell in her essay on AIDS in Africa: far from being a gender-neutral disease, AIDS is highly correlated with the construction of gender. Katelyn details how women, in the patriarchal societies of Africa, become uniquely vulnerable to the AIDS virus, contributing to the danger of all.

Finally, Katherine Rewinkel takes us to the past, to the moment when Charles Darwin instigated the revolution that changed our most basic ideas of what it means to be human. Her play dramatizes two key moments in Darwin’s battle to reshape our world: the beginning, when he first dares to communicate his radical ideas to his closest (yet skeptical) friends; and much later, when T. H. Huxley, his most brilliant convert, confronts Darwin face to face with the dangers of the new world he has set in motion.

Thanks must go to all the students and professors who submitted essays to this competition; to Tom Yuster, for his crucial editorial help; to Dave Veshosky, who helped as well in the process of selection; to all the professors who are engaging our students in these courses, and to all the students who willingly take the leap into these imaginative worlds.

Laura Dassow Walls
Associate Professor and VAST Coordinator