ASTR 204 (Great Debates in Astronomy), Fall 2008

T/Th 2-3:15 PM, Steward Observatory, Room N210

Prof. Ann Zabludoff (Instructor), Mr. Shawn Wheelock (Teaching Assistant)

Office Phone: 626-2509 (Zabludoff), 621-5082 (Wheelock)

Office Hours:

Email (please use "204" in the subject line):,

Web Page:



Steward Observatory sponsors an excellent public lecture series in astronomy. For more info, click here.

SPECIAL NOTE: The Writing Skills Improvement Program has designed a special series of workshops on writing for students taking General Education courses. They are free and open to all students. Click here for more info.

This course satisfies the Natural Sciences Tier 2 requirement and is intended for non-science majors. We will take an in-depth look at some of the questions that stumped astronomers of the past and that puzzle astronomers today. The four questions for this semester are: 1) How did the dinosaurs die? 2) What is the origin of the Moon? 3) What is dark matter? and 4) Are we alone in the Universe? We will study the highlights of work that sheds light on these questions, learn about the scientific personalities behind the discoveries, and debate the issues in class. The physical principles necessary to understand why these questions are important, how astronomers have learned what they know, and what issues remain uncertain will be reviewed in lecture. There will be a total of four in-class debates conducted by the students and moderated by the instructor. One debate will end each of the four units of the course. Each student will choose a creative project related to one of the course themes or will research and write a detailed essay on a raging controversy in modern astronomy. The emphasis of the course is on understanding, not on memorization.


Prerequisites: either NATS 102 or NATS 101.

The concepts of the electromagnetic spectrum (light at all wavelengths), the solar system, stars, and galaxies are fundamental to understanding the information presented in this course. If you have not been exposed to these concepts before, you must study them immediately in a general astronomy book like that used for NATS 102 (The Physical Universe). You should also be familiar with basic algebra, trigonometry, fractions, and scientific notation. The development of basic physical concepts as they relate to the detection and workings of astronomical objects will be a basic part of the course. This course will also require frequent reading and discussion of popular science articles, as well as a great deal of independent research on the part of the student. A strong interest in the course material is the best prerequisite! You should have a small inexpensive calculator at your disposal (one that does powers, roots, and trigonometric functions). Please seek help when you encounter a concept that you do not understand. You are encouraged to get and to use a U of A computer account.


Your grade in this course will depend on your participation in class (20%) and your performance on the homework exercises (15% in total), midterm exam (15%), the final exam (30%), and the creative project (or research essay of 10-15 pages) (20%). Both exams are closed-note and will consist of multiple-choice and short written answer questions. Your worst homework will be discarded. You may either choose 1) a creative project related to the themes of the course and your own academic interests or 2) an essay topic from your own interests in astronomy or from a list of unresolved or classic astronomical questions handed out by the instructor at the beginning of the semester. The creative project is chosen by the student with the instructor's prior approval and can take many forms, including art, video/audio presentations, games, plays/short stories, model building, songs, original experiments or astronomical observations, or development of lesson plans for grade school. A written report is required for all projects (roughly 4-5 pages for the creative project or 10-15 pages for the essay). Abstracts that outline your plans for the creative project or the essay are due in lecture on Sept 30. Your abstract will be evaluated and returned to you with comments and suggestions. The final project or essay is due on Nov 25. The instructor will show some of the more interesting projects to the class at the end of the semester.

Interactive Learning

At the beginning of the semester, the class will be divided into eight groups of approximately 10-15 students each. Each group will be assigned one of the eight sides of the four debate questions, so that each student will participate directly in one in-class debate. On some Thursdays, one or two questions on the recent material will be posed to the class. The students will then discuss the question within their debate groups and one or two of these groups will be chosen at random to present the answer to the class. The rest of the class is encouraged to ask questions of the presenting group and to discuss the material. These question sessions will not only help you review important elements of the course, but also provide some experience interacting with your debating group prior to your group's classroom debate.


  • Do your own work. Modern science is collaborative, and people learn from talking to each other. Feel free to talk to the instructor, TA, or other students about homework assignments. But the work you turn in must be your own -- don't just copy assignments. Copying is cheating and will be handled according to university policies. The instructor subscribes to the University's Code of Academic Integrity (click here for more info). The Code prohibits all forms of academic dishonesty, including cheating, plagiarism, and facilitating dishonesty by others. The repercussions for those found guilty of violating the Code will include loss of credit for the work and may include failure of the course or more extreme measures.
  • Attendance, participation, and conduct. Attendance and participation in class and in your debate group are an important part of your class grade. Students who are regularly absent will be dropped from the course. It is mandatory that each student be present for all four in-class debates, whose dates are already posted on the class schedule. If you know that you will be unable to attend an in-class debate, you must talk with the instructor during the first two weeks of the course. You are strongly encouraged to participate in class by asking questions (your in-class participation is also a large part of your course grade). Eating or drinking are not permitted in the lecture hall. Talking is also prohibited unless you want to ask a question during lecture or unless you are preparing a presentation with your debate group during the Thursday discussion sessions.
  • Late Homework. No credit, WITH NO EXCEPTIONS, will be given for late homework. Because we want to be fair to those that turn in work on time, we will not accept late work. There is an absolute deadline for homeworks. If you are concerned about not being able to turn in your work in class on the due date, feel free to turn it in early! We will accept homework at any class meeting prior to the deadline.
  • Missed Tests. No makeup tests, WITH NO EXCEPTIONS, will be administered. The exams are already scheduled and posted on the class schedule. If you know that you will miss an test, you must make arrangements (for valid reasons) for an oral exam at a time and date prior to the written test. Missing the midterm exam is an automatic loss of 15% of your course grade. Missing the final is a loss of 30%.
  • There will be no makeup or extra credit assignments near the end of term. Do not expect to compensate for poor homeworks or exams at the end of the term with additional work.
  • Grading. You have one week from the time an assignment or exam is returned to challenge any perceived errors. Although rare, there are occasions when grading errors occur, and you should review your returned work.

    The final course grades will be on a curve, but you can be assured that if you have > 90% of the total number of points available you will receive an A, 80 to 90% at least a B, 70 to 80% at least a C.

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