Astronomy 162: Paper Assignment

This course is focused on learning what we know about stars, galaxies and the origin and structure of the Universe, and how scientists came to learn about it.

The purpose of this paper is to explore a topic of your choice 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 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 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 (usually 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. No student can participate in more than one of these groups (so, no student can be Principal Author or Co-Author in more than one paper). There is no limit to the maximum number of Principal Authors or Co-Authors in a paper. 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. However, your paper should not be just a summary of what you have read, it should express instead your own ideas and views, although you can certainly quote any book you have read to support these views. 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. those 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 only in a very exceptional case of a student who writes an excellent paper and has a relatively low grade from the homeworks and exams.

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 5.

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 and cosmology. The book by Rocky Kolb listed below might be useful for this.

  3. A paradox of our time may be that, while we live at a moment when our knowledge of the universe we live in is advancing faster than ever before, perhaps many people today might know less about astronomy than the people of ancient civilizations. Even though in ancient civilizations the skies were understood in terms of the primitive geocentric model and the crystalline celestial sphere, people were generally aware of the events in the sky. Today, most people living in cities do not have a chance to look at the night sky without light pollution, and the sky is often replaced by luminous displays filled with advertising! Inadequate education might also contribute to a problem of public ignorance in astronomy and other sciences. Your paper could discuss some of these questions: What do you think is the best way to educate people in science? How important is science education for everybody in our society (not just for technical experts)? To what extent do you think most people are aware of scientific knowledge in our society? What should the objective and the role of science education be? What impact could science education have in the future of our society?

  4. 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.

  5. What do you think about the future of humanity in space? Will many people leave the Earth and live in space in the future? Are we going to populate the Solar System with space stations? Are we going to travel to other stars?
    Do you think that, somewhere in our Galaxy or in other galaxies, there are extraterretrial intelligent species who have created civilizations like ours, who may have moved into space, and who may attempt to communicate with us?

  6. Write an essay on some fact, question, or mystery about the universe that you think is particularly inspiring or mind-boggling for our view of the world and our place in it. A few examples might be: The Earth being an inconspicuous, tiny part of a vast universe. The limit of the speed of light for transmitting any information, and the fact that our observations of the universe are restricted to the present cosmological horizon. The origin of all matter in the Big Bang, and the origin of the elements in the interior of stars. The existence of black holes, as pits of no return. The possibility of extraterrestrial life, and of the existence of intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe. How do you think any of these discoveries or questions are affecting our philosophical or religious attitudes and beliefs?

  7. Is there something you have learned in the course about some astronomical phenomenon, about the nature of our universe and its relation to us, or about the relation of our cultural development to the discoveries in astronomy, which particularly evoked in you some emotional feelings? If so, you could try writing a poem about that! For this topic, the rules for writing the paper are different: there will be no Co-Authors, and every Principal Author will write a poem individually. They will then meet and discuss the meaning of their poems. There should be at least two Principal Authors in each paper, but no maximum. The poems should be shorter than one page, and the paper will include the poems by all the Authors.

    If you want to be inspired, here is some poetry that other students of mine wrote in the past:

    The Scientist and the Universe (Paula Colmenares)

    What is the Universe? (Paula Colmenares)

    Vandana Agrawal (no title)

    Brian Ferrell (no title)

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.