Environmental Science 142


Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

TEXT: SAGAN, Cosmos; Any standard college style manual

About the Course


January 16 - 18 Cosmos: Shores Of The Cosmic Ocean The Scale Of The Universe And Human History Sagan Ch. 1
January 23 - 25 Cosmos: Harmony Of The Worlds The Discovery Of Scientific Laws Sagan Ch. 3,7
Jan. 30 - February 1 Shape Of The World The Earliest High-Tech Superpower Rivalries Web
February 6 - 8 QUIZ: Spaceflight: I Venturing Into Space Web
February 13 - 15 Spaceflight excerpts  Sputnik, Apollo, and the Cold War Web
February 20 - 22 Cosmos: Heaven And Hell Earth and Venus. Catastrophes in Nature Sagan Ch. 4
Feb. 27-March 1 Cosmos: Blues For A Red Planet Mars in Fact and Fancy Sagan Ch. 5
March 6 - 8 Cosmos: Travelers' Tales Jupiter and the spirit of exploration in two eras Sagan Ch. 6
March 10 - 18 Spring Break    
March 20 - 22   New ideas about solar systems Web
March 27 - 29 QUIZ: Cosmos: The Lives Of The Stars Stars, Atoms and Galaxies Sagan Ch. 8-10
April 3 - 5   Galaxies and the Universe Web
April 10 - 12 Cosmos: One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue Evolution, Life, and Time Sagan Ch. 2
April 17 - 19 Cosmos: Encyclopedia Galactica Close encounters of various kinds Sagan Ch. 11, 12
April 24 - 26 QUIZ: Video Excerpts Mirror in the Sky: What our ideas of aliens tell about us. Web
May 1 - 3 Video Excerpts Mirror in the Sky: What our ideas of aliens say about us. Web

FINAL EXAM: Thursday May 11, 8:00-10:00 PM, ES 328

Grading:     F Less than 70% of top score
Quizzes: 20%    
Writing Assignment I  10% C 70
Writing Assignment II  20% BC 75
Final  30% B 80
Attendance and participation  20% AB 85
    A More than 90% of top score

All writing assignments must be turned in to pass the course. Work that appears to have been hastily assembled solely to meet this requirement will not count. Late assignments penalized 20% per day. 

Writing Assignment Topics

Assignment I: Diagnostic: Due February 16, 2006 (2-3 pages)

How accurate is Wikipedia as a reference? How well is it regarded by experts in various fields? How would you advise someone to use it compared to a standard print encyclopedia?.

Assignment II: Pick one: due April 27, 2006 (4-6 pages)

Acceptable References:

Guidelines for referencing are available on the page References for College Papers. You are responsible for knowing and applying these guidelines. The following references are not to be used:


Standards I apply in grading writing are explained on the page What is an A? You are responsible for knowing and applying these standards. In simple terms, I expect professional quality prose of the sort you would expect to see in Time, Newsweek, or a good newspaper. A style manual is required for the course, therefore, you have no excuse for poor writing.

A minimally acceptable paper free of defects will get 7 points on a 10-point scale. Papers that explore the topic in depth, show originality or extra effort will be awarded sores of 8-10.

Any of the following defects will be docked one point per occurrence.

About the Course


When Carl Sagan's Cosmos series came out in 1979, the late George O'Hearn of the Education Program and I immediately decided to develop a course based on the series. We taught the course for the first time during the fall of 1981. It was very successful. I taught the course again during the summer of 1982 but only a handful of students enrolled. Because of that low enrollment, the course languished for several years (UW-Green Bay was under extreme pressure to raise enrollments in those days). Finally, in the fall of 1985, I had a one-course reassignment for serving as assistant chair of NAS. I decided to try offering the course as an overload. It drew a very good enrollment and has been offered just about every year since. I consider reviving Cosmos one of my best accomplishments as an instructor.

During the 90's, it started to become clear that Cosmos was becoming dated. Unfortunately, the things that distracted people most were not areas where the science had become outdated, but comparatively trivial issues like changing clothing and hair styles. In some areas, especially Solar System exploration and cosmology, science has progressed enormously since Cosmos was filmed. For the most part, the series stands up surprisingly well. Nevertheless, I changed the title of the course to Explorations of the Universe to eliminate any commitment to Cosmos and to allow the freedom to incorporate a broader range of other material. I have dropped a few of the weaker Cosmos episodes and added material from other sources.

Content of the Course

Explorations of the Universe differs from a conventional astronomy course in that it spends a lot of time on the broader social and historical context of science. For example, accurate determination of the shape of the earth was one of the major scientific problems of the 1700's. To determine the shape of the earth accurately, you need to do very accurate local surveys at widely separeted places in the tropics and in the arctic. You need to be able to mount sizable expeditions, get them there, supply them, and protect them. You also need world-class industry to make the extremely precise instruments needed, and world-class scientists to develop the mathematical techniques to analyze the data. You need, in short, to be a superpower. In the 1700's, Britain and France engaged in perhaps the first modern high-tech superpower rivalry, a forerunner of the Apollo Program and Star Wars.

Prerequisites for the course include any of a number of basic science courses, but these are not show-stoppers. A student with no scientific background at all might have difficulty, but if you have had reasonable exposure to science you should do all right. If in doubt, we can discuss the matter.

Teaching Philosophy

Since I was teaching the course as an overload myself when I revived it, I decided the basic philosophy should be to concentrate more on enjoying Sagan's series than on grading. That is still my belief. This should be an opportunity for students to learn about some of the exciting things science has discovered about the universe, without having to worry about being penalized for exploring outside their comfort zone.

I used to think it was just about impossible to get a D or F in this course, but eventually, alas, I was proven wrong. It became apparent that some students were treating the course as a blow-off course. It is emphatically not. I will make any reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) accommodation to students who have problems with illness, work, or difficulty understanding the material. I will not accommodate students who simply want three easy credits.

Carl and Me

I never met or even corresponded with Sagan, who died December 20, 1996. I differ from him on a number of serious points. Nevertheless I am an enthusiastic fan of his work

One of the most common criticisms of Sagan is that he's "arrogant". Sagan does not pretend that junk stops being junk if enough people believe in it. Believers in UFO's and the paranormal loathe Sagan for that reason. But it's not arrogance to state something boldly if the facts back you up. One of the organizing themes in Cosmos is the conflict between science and anti-intellectualism, a conflict science seems to be losing at the moment.

Sagan has his flaws. It sometimes unnerves students to hear me criticize Sagan while at the same time using his videos. I consider his occasional flaws to be good teaching points. They show that even a top scholar can make mistakes or fall prey to prejudices and stereotyping, they illustrate the need to use all sources critically, and they show that there are legitimate differences of opinion among scientists. Sagan's forays into religion, philosophy and politics provide a good case study in the limitations of scientific credentials outside of science.

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Created 23 Dec 1996; Last Update 14 September 2018

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