Suggested topics for Midterm and Final papers for Freshman Seminar
Many of these are topics we will already discuss in the course; you
would be expected to expand on our classroom discussions considerably.
Many of the items on this list overlap; this is intentional. You
should not feel restricted to the items on this list, but of course
discuss with me any topic you would like to choose (and let me know if
you see major items missing!). Students are required to do a 15
minute classroom presentation on one of the two papers they will
Each student should come to talk to me at least two weeks before each
paper is due, to discuss their chosen subject, possible sources for
readings, and their classroom presentation. A proposed outline of
each paper must be turned in on the schedule shown in the course
This list roughly follows the outline of the course. The first
paper should probably be chosen from the first half of the list, and
the second from the second half.
for a list of books in which you can start exploring these topics.
Again, each student should discuss reading materials with me.
The historical origins of the Copernican Principle; how it
shapes our view of the universe, and its relevance to the search for
The definition of life: how can one define life in a way that is
not Earth-chauvanistic? This topic of course has philosophical as
well as scientific overtones.
Scientific Theories for the Origin of Life and Religious Beliefs;
can they be reconciled? The Fry book covers this topic quite
Formation of heavy elements in supernovae.
Interstellar chemistry. The presence of organic molecules in the
Interstellar Medium, in comets, and in meteors.
Modern Theories of star formation.
The search for disks around other stars.
Modern Theories of planet formation
Historical Theories of planet formation
Mankind and Comets
The history of Earth's atmosphere
The global carbon cycles, and the Greenhouse effect on Earth
Snowball Earth: Extreme ice ages in the early Earth.
Plate Tectonics and Life on Earth
How we know how old the solar system is
Using comets and asteroids to probe the origins of the solar
system. Evidence for asteroid belts around other stars.
Searches for the most distant comets of the Solar System
The Voyager Grand Tour of the Outer Planets
Past and Present Missions to Mars
Past and Present Missions to Venus
Geologic History of the Inner Planets
Could life exist on Jovian and Saturnian Moons?
The Galileo mission to Jupiter
The Cassini mission to Saturn
Comets as a source of the Earth's Oceans
Was life on Earth Seeded by Comets or Meteors?
Organic Compounds in Meteorites and Comets
Modern models for planet formation: can they explain the
observations of planets around other stars?
Discovery of planets around pulsars.
The history of water on Mars
Evidence for water on the Moon?
"Terraforming" Mars; could we make it habitable? Should we?
The push to send a manned mission to Mars. Manned versus unmanned
The Human Contribution to the Greenhouse Effect on Earth
The Chemistry of Earth's Atmosphere and its interaction with Life
Historical Theories of Life's Origins on Earth
Modern Theories of the Chemical Origins of Life
The oldest fossils on Earth
The evolution of modern cellular life; Prokaryotes vs. Eukaryotes.
Did life come from Clay? Cairns-Smith's novel ideas.
The Miller-Urey experiment and modern analogues.
The development of multi-cellular life
The biological origins of Sex; why it is important for evolution
Would life on other planets also be sexual?
The Cambrian explosion
The Evolution of Intelligence: Is Human-level Intelligence
inevitable? Is it unique on Earth? Is it the Epitome of
The Rare Earth Hypothesis: is complex life on Earth a fluke?
The Gaia Hypothesis: is the Earth as a whole an organism?
Extremophiles: Life in Extreme Environments on Earth
Life near Deep Sea Vents
The Lifetime of Civilizations on Earth: Will the Modern
Technological Society always be here?
Great Impact Craters on Earth
The effect of astronomical impacts on the evolution of life
The Tunguska Impact
The Impact History of the Inner Solar System
The Search for Near-Earth Asteroids
The Geological Evidence for an Extinction-Causing Impact
Comet Shoemaker-Levy and what it says about the history of Earth Impacts
The Goldilocks effect ("not too hot, not too cold, just right"):
what makes a planet suitable for life to form?
The Search for Brown Dwarfs
The Search for Extrasolar Planets
Gravitational Lensing and extrasolar planets
Occultation searches and extrasolar planets.
New Space Missions to Search for Extrasolar Planets. What
signatures are we looking for?
Gathering around the Water Hole
Modern SETI searches: the technical challenges.
If an extraterrestrial civilization listened to our broadcasts,
what would they think of us?
The Attitude of Society to SETI
Religious faith and SETI; is there room in the great religions to
accomodate life on other planets? Intelligent life? Should
they/would they believe in the same God?
The history of SETI
Why do so many people believe in UFO's?
"Where are they?" and other arguments against the presence of
Why are Extraterrestrials so popular in Hollywood today?
Pseudoscience and the belief in UFO's
The Anthropic Principle; can we argue that we are unique in the