All first year undergraduates at Cornell are required to take 2 writing seminars to prepare them for the rest of their college careers. The Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines coordinates over 100 of these seminars of which roughly 2/3 are taught by graduate students. Although these courses are offered on a wide range of subjects, very few are taught on scientific topics and none exist in the physical sciences.
In my still very young career as a scientist, I have already spent many evenings attempting to fend off the powers of sleep as I struggle through a scattered and confusing scientific paper. Writing skills are seldom a significant part of a scientific education, and poorly written papers are not only inconvenient for students like myself but also harmful to the progress of science. No matter how high the quality of an individual's research, if that person cannot communicate her or his ideas to others, the contribution will be lost. So out of a desire for clearer, more interesting papers to read and a concern for the vulnerable art of science writing, I decided to teach a writing seminar on the topic of cosmology out of Cornell's Astronomy department. I chose the texts, designed the curriculum, and formulated the essay assignments. Based on my course design, I was awarded the Buttrick-Crippen Fellowship to teach the seminar.
The texts used were Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, Michael Rowan-Robinson's Nine Numbers of the Cosmos, and Carl Sagan's Billions & Billions. The description I wrote for the university's course catalog is below. For more information, lectures, or assignments, please contact me.
Course Description: Our knowledge of the universe has been revolutionized by discoveries in the past century and is very much a work in progress. The history of the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the entire universe (collectively known as cosmology) is full of instances where a widely accepted belief was shown to be most likely false. Our current cosmological theories are also riddled with many issues that are not yet fully understood. We will read popular texts by such authors as Carl Sagan and Alan Lightman to learn what we know about some recent burning cosmological questions: What happened after the Big Bang? What exactly are dark matter and dark energy? How do we know that the universe is expanding? What does the future hold for our universe? Students will have an opportunity to participate in some of the many currently heated debates in cosmology through writing and in-class discussions.