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The energy challenge calls on humanities and social-science research

Courses on energy include economics, political science, history, literature and more.

In 2010, multiple crises related to energy production, distribution and safety — deaths in a West Virginia coal mine collapse and a catastrophic oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, to name two — were vivid reminders that America must have safer and more innovative ways to meet and manage its energy needs.

MIT's graduates in science, engineering and technology, many of whom will be deeply engaged in energy work, will be informed by both technical expertise and by perspectives from the humanities and social sciences. The Institute's faculty and researchers know that meeting 21st century energy needs requires a multidisciplinary approach to innovation and planning. As Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and professor of sociology and anthropology, said, “Technical issues have human and social components, and there is no one solution to the energy problem.”

Energy decisions | markets and policies

Silbey is a developer of "Energy Decisions, Markets and Policies," a social-science course required for students planning to minor in MIT’s new interdisciplinary energy-studies program. Endorsed by all five MIT schools in 2009, the energy-studies minor includes a cluster of required and elective classes in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Silbey’s class uses analytic tools from social science, management and technology to explore how individual and collective human behaviors affect — and are affected by — energy costs, consumption and regulations.

“You want people to invest in structures that conserve energy, like solar panels. Those have long-term payoffs. But the cultural norm — the Home Depot rule — is that most people want the payoff in three or four years. What will alter that? American culture changed people’s behavior with seat belts and smoking — could it work for energy, too?”

Questions like these "opened the floodgates for understanding the non-engineering aspects of the energy problem,” said Tim Grejtek, a mechanical-engineering major who is among the first MIT students to graduate with a minor in energy studies.

The school’s economics class within the energy minor gave Grejtek an “entirely different way to see energy — through a subject I’d not yet been exposed to."

Faculty experts in anthropology, economics, history, literature and philosophy offer both elective classes in the energy minor program and classes that address energy issues outside the new minor.

Philosophical history of energy

Philosophy Lecturer Lee D. Perlman PhD ’89 and chemical-engineering professor Bernhardt Trout co-teach “A Philosophical History of Energy,” 
an elective course within the energy-studies minor.

“We explore where ideas come from,” Perlman said. “I start off by asking a room full of physics majors, ‘What is energy?’ It’s a term they’ve used for years. But did they know Aristotle first used the word 2,300 years ago? They understand relativity, but have they read Einstein? My favorite assignment is reading Gottfried Leibniz, an inventor of calculus and a 16th-century role model for path-breaking scientists today. He was famously open to views quite different from those that were handed to him.”

Perlman and Trout’s class includes close reading of scientific authors from Plato to Isaac Newton. “We read out loud to gain clarity. They learn the languages of both math and humanities,” Perlman said.

Environmental policy and economics

The school’s economics faculty links energy policy, public health and markets in elective classes that may be taken for credit in the new minor. Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics, leads “Environmental Policy and Economics,” a class in which students investigate the proper role of government in the regulation of the environment.

Addressing energy issues broadly

Outside the formal energy minor program, the school’s classes in history, political science and literature address energy issues as an integral part of human endeavor.

Environmental history

In "Introduction to Environmental History," Harriet Ritvo, the Arthur J. Conner Professor of History, offers a survey of human interactions with the natural world from the end of the last glaciation to the present. An important theme in the class is the procurement and consumption of energy, considered in the broadest sense, including energy provided by food and muscle, as well as energy provided by machines and fossil fuels.

Technology in history

Rosalind Williams, the Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, teaches "Technology in History," in which students read about energy use and consumption going back to fire in prehistoric times.

“We cover energy in every age, from the agricultural civilizations of the Middle East to Easter Island to the atomic bomb. History — the record of human experience — shows how much energy affects everything about human life. It underscores how much the current ‘energy problem’ requires responses in every dimension of human life,” she says.

The energy crisis: past and present

Meg Jacobs, associate professor of history, takes up the role of energy in recent U.S. history. Students in her new class, "The Energy Crisis: Past and Present," study how attitudes toward energy consumption have changed from the spread of the highways in the 1950s to the proliferation of SUVs in the 1990s.

“We also study changing attitudes toward different energy supplies. We analyze changes in the debate over nuclear energy from the dropping of atomic bombs to contemporary concerns about waste and proliferation to the changing relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East. The class enables students to place technological solutions in their political, economic and social context,” Jacobs says.

Jacobs also guides her students to explore the territory mapped out by Silbey — the areas of politics, economics, public opinion and culture that affect the implementation and adoption of new energy technologies.

“We ask, ‘Why didn’t former President Jimmy Carter's solar initiatives spur long-term growth of the solar industry?' We analyze the many factors that might make development of alternative energies more or less likely today,” Jacobs said.

While social scientists ask, "Why did, or did not, an event or change occur?", the school’s music, theater and writing faculty may charge their students to ask, "What if?" and to go outside the box in thinking about energy.

Creative thinking

Joe Haldeman, adjunct professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, knows the "What if?" world well. A science-fiction author who has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for his novels, he teaches "Writing Science Fiction."

“Creativity is mysterious, and people working in science and engineering are not immune to random process, to weighing solutions in alien or seemingly absurd terms. Science fiction encourages creative thinking about energy because of its ‘if this goes on’ approach, extrapolating from current practices into future disaster,” Haldeman said.

“Any fiction course that requires the creation of a complete story gives an engineering student a different kind of challenge in setting up and solving problems. The creator is in charge of almost all the variables — and they learn this does not make things easier,” he noted.

MIT students as sources of energy

Williams, who has been at MIT since 1980 and served as the dean of students and of undergraduate education from 1995 to 2000, sees MIT students themselves as sources of energy, fueling innovation in every field. Having studied history, economics, literature and sociology alongside science or engineering, MIT graduates will generate both new technologies and new ways to frame energy crises and solutions, she predicts.

“They will address the big problems of humankind — health, food, water and, above all, energy,” she said. Most importantly, MIT grads will invent “whole new organizations and ways of working as they devote themselves to solving the problems of a crowded, complicated planet.”

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