UChicago scientists wrestle with the apocalypse in new course

CHICAGO — The name of the class is “Are We Doomed?”—but its professors insist they didn’t plan their syllabus with an answer.

“It’s not a class where we came in with an agenda,” said Prof. Daniel Holz, who co-instructs the course and is a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which sets the hands of the Doomsday Clock

“These are questions that everyone is struggling with, and it draws together so many different ways of engaging with the world—from history to art to economics. The idea is that we would all wrestle with it together.”

“My sense is that everyone has really been looking for some structure in which to think about the end of civilization.”

An astrophysicist, Holz is co-teaching the class with Prof. James Evans, who directs the Knowledge Lab at UChicago and teaches in the Department of Sociology. Although the idea originated long before COVID-19, holding the class during a pandemic has given it additional weight: “The questions we’re discussing are a little less abstract than I was expecting,” Holz admitted.

Though he doesn’t think this pandemic itself is world-ending, it still has meaning. “If you look at it as a test case—is the world ready for a global threat?—I think the answer is very clearly no,” Holz said.

The students, who come from a wide range of majors, are assigned nonfiction readings every week on a different apocalyptic scenario: nuclear war, climate change, artificial intelligence, and of course, pandemics and related biological issues. Then guest speakers from UChicago and beyond, each an expert in their particular field, give a presentation and host a free-ranging discussion.

But each week of the course also includes creative works of art that struggle with the same questions: cinema like Dr. Strangelove and Snowpiercer, as well as novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Parable of the Sower. 

“At first, we weren’t planning to make art so central,” Holz said. “But in addition to being a bit more accessible and giving you a common language to discuss these interdisciplinary topics, they envision the future and our possible paths, and that’s a very productive way to engage with these questions.” 

The aim of the class is not to leave everyone feeling helpless and despondent; instead, Holz said, the class is meant to prompt students—as well as others—to work together to recognize existential threats, to consider the complex challenges they present, and to discuss how to effect positive change.

“The discussions we’ve had have been incredibly deep and wide-ranging,” Holz said. “My sense is that everyone has really been looking for some structure in which to think about the end of civilization.”

To schedule an interview or to learn more about the course, contact Cynthia Medina at [email protected]