Astronomy 172: Paper Assignment

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

The purpose of this paper is for you to explore a topic of your choice related to some facts in astronomy that you have learned in the course, or to your opinion on the way that science works, or about what importance science has to us. The paper should be an independent piece of work that expresses your thoughts, ideas or impressions on the topic you choose. One possibility is to read a book or articles in magazines that discuss a subject in astronomy. This will help you to develop an idea for writing your paper; however, your paper should not be just a summary of something you have read, it should express instead an idea, impression or point of view of your own. Do reference any books or articles you have read that have helped you in writing the paper. The textbook by Bless we have used in the course can also give you ideas for your paper. I encourage you to use the knowledge you have gained in the course to write your paper. Be careful not to make wrong statements about things you should know from the course, since that would lower your grade.

Here is a list of books that I recommend that can help you find a subject for your paper:

Before the Beginning... (Martin Rees)
Gravity's Fatal Attraction (Mitch Begelmann and Martin Rees)
Blind Watchers of the Sky (Rocky Kolb)
The Inflationary Universe (Alan Guth)
Universe (Michael Rowan-Robinson)

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 May 31.


Suggestions for topics for your paper

  1. How do you think astronomy affected the development of civilization and society, of philosophy and theology? 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.
  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. 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?
  5. 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! 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)


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