Astronomy 161: Paper Assignment

This course is focused on learning what we know about the sky, the motions of the Sun, the Moon and the planets, the history of the Solar System, and how scientists came to learn about all this.

You have an opportunity to write a paper as part of your activities in this course. This is a voluntary activity, not required. Student grades will be determined and curved before considering the papers. Students who obtain among the highest grades in the class will obtain an A whether or not they write a paper. After this, students who have written good papers may have their letter grades raised, but the grades of students who have not written papers will not be affected.

The purpose of this paper is to explore a topic related to astronomy, to its effect on our society, its importance for our future, or its role in the evolution of philosophical and religious ideas. The paper can also be written on the subject of the greenhouse effect, even if it is somewhat less related to astronomy. The paper should be an independent piece of work that expresses the thoughts that a group of students have reached after a discussion.

The rules for papers are as follows: prior to writing the paper, a group of at least two students should meet to discuss the topic of the paper, after they all have read a book (or some chapters of a book) or article of their choice that relates to the topic of discussion. In this group there should be at least one person who is a Principal Author of the paper, who will be responsible for writing the paper once the discussion has taken place. The paper will summarize the views that the students expressed during the discussion. The paper should not be long: the length of the paper should not exceed about 2000 words. The front page of the paper should list all the Principal Authors who directly worked in writing the paper (this may be only one person, but some groups may find ways of combining the written work from several members), and it should list separately as Co-Authors the names of every student who summarized what he/she read and who participated in the discussion. The Principal Authors will have full responsibility for deciding how to write the paper. They should also list at the end all the books that were consulted by all the students who participated in the group. Students can only sign their names in one paper, so no student can be Principal Author or Co-Author in more than one paper that is turned in. There is no limit to the maximum number of Principal Authors or Co-Authors in a paper, as long as they have all participated.

At the end of the course, the class on December 2 is reserved for student presentations of their papers. If you are willing to make a presentation on this day to the class, please indicate this on the front page of your paper by writing the statement " (I) (We) are willing to present a summary of our paper to the class", signed by the names of the authors who would like to make this presentation. I will select the best papers among those that have this statement for a presentation. This should be a short presentation followed by a general discussion in which all the students can participate. The books that are listed below will help you to develop ideas to talk about in your discussion and to write the paper. You can use any other books or articles you wish, found in the libraries or on the web. However, your paper should not be just a summary of what you have read, it should express instead your own ideas and views, and justify them. You must reference all books or articles from which you have obtained any material or ideas for your paper. You are encouraged to use what you learn in the course to write your paper.

Grades: After all the number grades from the exams and homeworks have been converted to letter grades for all the students, according to the percentages given in the webpage, students who have written good papers may have their letter grades raised. The letter grade may be raised by one step (for example, from B to B+ or from C+ to B-), depending on the quality of the paper and how close a student was to reach the higher letter grade. It will be easier for Principal Authors to have a raise than for Co-Authors. A raise of two steps in the letter grade may occur in exceptional cases of students who write an excellent paper, especially if they make a presentation at the end of the course.

Writing the paper is a voluntary activity, and therefore the grades of students who do not write papers will not be affected.

Below I give you some guidelines and suggestions for topics to choose. Please print your paper with a computer printer or type it. Your paper should not exceed a length of approximately 2000 words; for example, if you have 30 lines per page and about 10 words per line on average, your paper should not be longer than about 7 pages. The paper will be due on November 19.


Suggestions for topics for your paper

  1. How do you think astronomy affected the development of civilization and society, of philosophy, theology and religion? How do you think it is affecting it today? How do you think it may affect it in the future? You could give an example of some astronomical discovery that has affected the development of society in a profound way, and explain what the effect has been.

  2. What do you think is the real motivation of scientists to work hard on their research, and to try to understand the world? Do you think this was similar in the past and at present? You may want to use examples of the scientists you have learned about who contributed to the development of astronomy. The book by Rocky Kolb listed below might be useful for this.

  3. How significant were the discoveries of women astronomers? Why do we still have relatively few women scientists today? Why do we still have so few Black, Native American, or Latino/a scientists? What needs to be done to increase diversity in science and offer equal opportunity to all for science education and scientific careers? The books by Neil Tyson and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin listed below may be particularly useful to analyze this topic. Check also the websites 4000 Years of Women in Science and Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics

  4. What do you think should be done about the problem of the greenhouse gases in the Earth atmosphere and the phenomenon of global warming? What solutions do you think are adequate? What should be the relation between politics and science in a problem like this? How should the society respond? What is the responsibility of scientists, politicians, business and institutional leaders, and citizens? There is a very good book listed below on this subject by Thomas Graedel and Paul Crutzen. There are also a lot of junky books and websites on this subject, some by environmentalists with a lack of scientific rigor, and others funded by the oil-coal industry (as you will find out if you go to Google search and type global warming).

    The best presentation of the science, in as much detail as you want, is in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . You can check also the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies , two science institutes where climate research is being done.

    A webpage with general information and news is Greenhouse Gas Online .

    I think among the groups working for a better environment, the ones doing the best work and providing the best information are The Union of Concerned Scientists and Environmental Defense .

    A very informative site on renewable energy technologies is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory .

    You may also be curious to check out what the American Petroleum Institute , the Competitive Enterprise Institute , and the Heartland Institute say about global warming.

Here is a list of books that I recommend that can help you find a subject for your paper. You are also encouraged to search for other books on the topic you have chosen in the University Libraries on-line catalog.