Perspectives on the Cosmos:
From the Ancient Philosophers to Modern Science
Spring 2008

Prof: Stacy McGaugh
Office: CSS 1251
Phone: (301) 405-7897
e-mail: ssm
Office Hours: M 3-4pm, W 9-10am, or by appointment
Course web page: www.astro.umd.edu/~ssm/HONR219Q
Harrison: Cosmology: The Science of the Universe
Stenudd: Cosmos of the Ancients: The Greek Philosophers on Myth and Cosmology

Course Description

For all of recorded history, and presumably well before that, people have asked the Big Questions: What is the nature of the Universe? How big is it? How old? What is our place in it? For just as long, we've been making up the answers.

Cosmology is the subject that seeks to answer the big questions. As such, it is the nexus where science, philosophy, and religion collide. This course will explore the subject of cosmology, from both an historical and scientific perspective. In the process, we will examine the roles of faith, philosophy, and empirical knowledge. We will survey prevailing attitudes towards the nature of the world model over time, examining the impact of belief systems on the interpretation of physical evidence. Subjects to be covered include the first vital steps of the ancient philosophers, the tension between geocentric and heliocentric world models at the time of Copernicus and Galileo, and the modern scientific world view.

Students will learn to critically examine evidence and its interpretation, learning to appreciate the strengths and shortcomings of various forms of human knowledge. Emphasis will be placed on the importance and limitations of empirical evidence, and the dangers inherent in the interpretation of evidence within a preconceived framework. The student will gain a detailed knowledge of modern cosmology, and develop an appreciation for both its strengths and inherent weaknesses. In the process comes a respect for the diverse paths to knowledge followed by humanity.

Course work will include a midterm and final. There will be weekly readings and written reading responses. An essential part of the seminar will be lively discussion of the topic at hand; as such, class participation will constitute a portion of the grade. Students will be responsible for researching and presenting an appropriate subject chosen in consultation with the instructor. The presentation will take the form of a term paper and an oral presentation to the class. Examples of potential topics and readings can be found at http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/greekworldview.htm.

Course Structure

Meetings: Tuesdays 2:00-4:30PM in ARM 0102

This is a three credit course consisting of weekly meetings. Typical meetings will be a mixture of lecture and class discussion. The role of the Professor in this seminar is more tour guide than lecturer. The point is to giude and inform an intelligent discussion involving the entire class.

The discussion each week will be start from the assigned readings. As such, it is essential that each student complete the reading prior to the class in which it is to be discussed. To foster careful thought on the readings, a concise written response to each assigned reading will be due at the time they are to be discussed.

The readings serve as the launching point for the discussion, which will focus on the topic at hand but need not be limited to it. Participation in the discussions is fundamental to this seminar. Consequently, attendance and preparedness is essential. We seek to ask the Big Questions, ponder the answers others have offered, and perhaps develop a few answers - or at least questions - of our own.

Work and Grades

Please see http://www.astro.umd.edu/~ssm/HONR219Q/work.html for a description of the course work and grading policy.

This course seeks to inform your knowledge of cosmological issues, exercise your faculty for creative and philosophical thought, and develop your powers of critical thinking. One desires both questions and answers; how to recognize a compelling argument, and how to debunk a false one. The course work is structured to inform and exercise these abilities through reading, writing, and oral communication. The ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and orally is as important as thinking clearly in the first place.

Missed Classes

The first rule of missing class is: DON'T.
The University recognizes only a few excuses for missing classes, including religious holidays, University-approved travel, and illness. I am not aware of any conflicts with major recognized religious holidays. If there is one, please inform me ahead of time. Except in the case of emergencies, you will know beforehand if you will miss a scheduled class. Please inform me ahead of time and provide appropriate documentation. While it may be possible to make up some work (e.g., reading responses), I will not in general accept these without a valid reason and advanced notice. Moreover, it is impossible to make up class discussion, so missing too many classes will inevitibly have a negative impact on your grade.

If a class is missed because the university is closed for some dire reason (e.g., a blizzard) then of course there will be no penalty. We will simply pick up where we left off at the next regular class time. This includes exams; if the university is closed on the scheduled exam date, the exam will occur at the next available time.

Core Requirements

This course qualifies as a CORE Humanities (HO) Course in your CORE Liberal Arts and Sciences Studies Program, the general education portion of your degree program. This is a CORE Distributive Studies Course. CORE-general education has both broad learning outcomes for the program as a whole and outcomes for each of the different CORE Distributive Studies categories. To see the Student Learning Outcomes for CORE, please visit: http://www.ugst.umd.edu/core/LearningOutcome.htm. No one CORE course will address all of the Learning Outcome Goals listed for its category. Some courses may contribute to general education in important ways not directly covered by the learning outcomes listed.

University Standards

Please see http://www.astro.umd.edu/~ssm/HONR219Q/univ_std.html for the standards that the University of Maryland upholds for Academic Integrity and its policies concerning class conflicts with religious observances and academic accommodations for students with documented disabilities.

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