Response paper prompts
You should submit ~1 typed page (single spaced) for each assignment.
Last updated November 17, 2008.
- #1 (due 9/8): Write a statement justifying what you
believe to be the appropriate level of involvement of Rutgers in the field of
astrobiology. Do you favor a new department? an interdisciplinary degree
program? an undergraduate major? no commitment at this time to such a
speculative enterprise? Your statement should be specific but written at
a level that is accessible to a nonspecialist (e.g., a university
- #2 (due 9/15): The British scientist James Lovelock has
proposed that Earth's living organisms, in conjunction with its physical
components (atmosphere, oceans, etc.), can be considered together as the
equivalent of a single "superorganism". Do you feel that such an entity
(dubbed "Gaia" by Lovelock) can satisfy all, some, or none of the definitions
of "life" that we have discussed in this class? Write a statement explaining
and justifying your answer to this question.
- #3 (due 9/22): High school students are often encouraged
to view their science fair projects in terms of a fixed sequence of steps
labelled the "Scientific Method": (1) choose a problem (2) formulate a
hypothesis (3) make a prediction based on the hypothesis (4) design and
conduct an experiment to test the prediction (5) evaluate and, if necessary,
revise the hypothesis in light of experimental results. (One among many
lengthier descriptions of this sequence can be found here.) Choose one or more of the scientists whose work
or writing we have already discussed in this class (this may be a single
individual-- e.g., Darwin or Margulis-- or multiple sets of authors), and
discuss the extent to which you feel his/her/their scientific activity matches
the steps of the Scientific Method.
- #4 (due 9/29): Describe one or more aspects of our visit
to Professor Vetriani's deep sea microbiology lab that you found especially
interesting or surprising.
- #5 (due 10/6): The International Astronomical Union
(IAU), the organization that expelled Pluto from the "planet club", is
responsible for choosing official names for minor solar system bodies
(satellites, asteroids, dwarf planets, etc.). After reading the guidelines for naming minor planets, explain your views
on whether and how you believe these rules (e.g., prohibitions on
names that are longer than sixteen characters, inspired by living politicians,
or "in questionable taste") should be modified.
- #6 (due 10/13): Explain whether and/or how you think that
study of the other planets (and their satellites) in the solar system has
improved, or can in the future improve, our understanding of our own world.
- #7 (due 11/3): Assuming that NASA only has enough money
to fund one astrobiological mission (i.e., a search for evidence of life) in
the next ten years, should this mission focus on Mars, Europa, or Titan?
Explain and justify your views.
- #8 (due 11/10): Responsible scientists who report a
measurement or a calculation of some quantity will also provide an estimate
of the uncertainty in that measurement or calculation, which other
people can use to assess the reliability of their result. Considering our
previous readings and discussions in this class, identify a measurement or
calculation whose uncertainty limits our ability to reach a conclusion
on some question in astrobiology, and explain why this is the case.
- #9 (due 11/17): The Arecibo Message, the Pioneer Plaques, and the
Voyager Golden Records are three examples of deliberate efforts
to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations. Assess the effectiveness
of one or more of these communications, and describe what information you feel
our next such electromagnetic or physical message to the cosmos should contain.
- #10 (due 11/24): The late sociologist Marcello Truzzi
deserves credit for the axiom (often attributed to Carl Sagan) that
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." Discuss whether and how
this axiom applies to one or more of the subjects we have discussed in this