Fire is the quintessential human technology. It is also a potent symbol whose meaning has become central to our national and community discourse. Fire is the at the root of countless traditions, myths, and foodways, and through controlled combustion of fossil fuels, fire has grown to be the central process at the heart of modern industrial and agricultural systems. The deliberate release of energy through different forms of combustion has changed the course of human social- and potentially, biological evolution. But where does the energy in combustion come from? How do humans harness that energy to do work? And how do storytelling and cultural perceptions of fire influence the choices individuals and societies make about what resources to burn, where to burn them, and what to do with the waste products?
The goal of this course is to address four fundamental fire questions, 1) What do we burn? 2) Why do we burn it? 3) What are the consequences? 4) And who decides? Readings and discussion focus on the historical, cultural, and anthropological roles that fire, heating, and combustion have played in human societies. These will help provide the motivation for the empirical in-class laboratory projects and field trips that make up the key assignments in the course. Together, we’ll explore the physical, chemical, and geological processes and impacts of combustion.
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