Environmental Science 142

Fall 2009

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

Text:  Web Readings

About the Course


Week Topic Video Power Point Reading
Sept. 4-6 The Scale Of The Universe And Human History: Early conceptions of the universe Cosmos: Harmony Of The Worlds    
Sept. 11-13 The Discovery Of Scientific Laws   Harmony of the Worlds Cosmos #3 Harmony of the Worlds
Sept. 18-20 The Earliest High-Tech Superpower Rivalries Shape Of The World Shape of the World Shape of the World II: The First Great Superpower High-Tech Rivalries
Sept. 25-27 Venturing Into Space QUIZ: Spaceflight: I Spaceflight I Important Early Rockets and Missiles
Beginning of the Space Age
Oct. 1 - 3 Sputnik, Apollo, and the Cold War Spaceflight excerpts  Going to the Moon Going to the Moon
Oct. 8-10 The Inner Solar System; Catastrophes in Nature   Impacts
Earth-Moon System
Venus and Mercury
Oct. 15-17 Mars in Fact and Fancy   Explorations of the Universe Cosmos #5: Blues for the Red Planet
Oct. 22-24 Jupiter and the spirit of exploration in two eras Cosmos: Travelers' Tales Asteroids
Travelers' Tales
Cosmos #6: Travelers' Tales
Oct. 29-31 The New Solar System   More About Orbits
Planetary Rings
The Outer Planets 
Planetary Missions
Nov. 3-5 New ideas about solar systems      
Nov. 10-12 Stars, Atoms and Galaxies QUIZ: Cosmos: The Lives Of The Stars Starlight and What it Tells Us
The Stars
Life Cycles of Stars
Explorations of the Universe
Cosmos #9: Lives of the Stars
Distances to the Sun and Stars

Nov. 17-19 Galaxies and the Universe   Galaxies and the Universe Galaxies: Their Structure and Distances
Cosmology: Structure, Origin and Fate of the Universe
Nov. 24 Evolution, Life, and Time      
Nov. 26-29 Thanksgiving     TBA
Dec. 1 - 3 Intelligence: Finding it and Communicating with it Cosmos: Encyclopedia Galactica Explorations of the Universe Cosmos #12 Encyclopedia Galactica
Dec. 8 - 10 Mirror in the Sky: What our ideas of aliens say about us. Video Excerpts   Mirror in the Sky: How We See Aliens and Ourselves

FINAL EXAM: Thursday December 17, 10:30-12:30 PM, WH 213 (Normal Class Room)

Professional conduct is expected in class:

Quizzes: 20%   A More than 90% of top score
Writing Assignment I  10% AB 85 - 89
Writing Assignment II  20% B 80 - 84
Final  30% BC 75 - 79
Attendance and participation  20% C 70 - 74

Keep All Course Work

I do sometimes make mistakes in grading, record a wrong grade, or sometimes miss recording a grade. Keep all course work until your final grade is in and all disputes have been resolved. It may be necessary to verify that you turned in an assignment, got a certain grade, etc.

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  the weaker and more dated 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 10 August 2009; Last Update 31 May 2020

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