HPS 0410 Einstein for Everyone Spring 2015

Term Paper

An Amazing Scientific Discovery

Due by final lecture: Wednesday April 15
Submit in electronic form to recitation instructor
1000 words

Topic selection
Due in recitation: Mon., Mar. 23/ Tues., Mar.24


This course is a parade of amazing scientific discoveries. They are things that would never occur to us ordinarily: that there may be no fact as to whether two events are simultaneous; that energy and matter are the same thing; that gravity is just funny geometry; that time had a beginning; and more. What makes these all the more amazing is that they are not conjurings of fiction. They are our best attempts to describe how our world really is; and science can tell us a cogent and compelling story as to why we should believe them.

For your term paper, you are to identify and describe an amazing idea. Your text should contain:
1. A clear explanation of the amazing scientific discovery.
2. An account of how the discovery was made.

Your amazing idea must be drawn from standard science. The goal is not to report on wild speculation that someone, someday thinks might become regular science. You are to seek an amazing discovery that has already become regular science. If you are unsure whether an amazing idea is drawn from standard science, ask if it has experimental or observational evidence in its favor. If it doesn't, it is speculation!

[Note added April 8.] Beware of breathless announcements of exciting new discoveries in today's media, blogs and elsewhere on the internet. We live in an era in which science is under severe stress. To maintain funding, it is no longer sufficient to deliver solid, worthwhile results. To get noticed and keep the funds coming, you now have to announce an absolutely extraordinary discovery that is going to overturn everything, even if the discovery is merely good and competent. As a result, research organizations have become adept at churning out artfully written press releases that seem to say vastly more than they really do or really should. They are abetted by a press and an internet that is no longer satisfied merely to report good, solid, worthwhile work. They are thirsty for wild and extraordinary claims. By the time the artfully written press release has passed through their editing, all the artfulness is gone and you simply have a misleading report. Unless you have specialist knowledge, you should treat all such announcements with the same reserve you should have for announcements of miracle diet pills and wrinkle creams. Perhaps they are what they say, but we will have to wait and see.

So how can you know that a topic is solid? The simplest way is to stay away from the very latest excitements. Most of them will evaporate. Only a few will remain. Look for those few that have survived by looking at the discoveries of past decades and even older. If the result survives after 30 years of scrutiny, it is likely solid. If the result has become the subject of textbooks, it is likely solid.

Your paper must present material not already covered in lectures and recitations. For this reason you are best advised to write about an amazing idea not already covered in the class. If you do choose one we have covered in class, note that your grade will depend entirely on the extent to which you go beyond class material.

Your paper must present novel text written specifically for this class. Because of the breadth of the assignment, you may find you already have something written for another class that suits the assignment. You may not "recycle" text written for another class. The point of this assignment is for you to do new research and write new text.

Focus on the rational basis of the discovery. Your account of how the discovery was made should focus on what led the scientist or scientists to the discovery and the reasons that they found to believe in its correctness. You need not distract yourself with incidental biographical or other background facts unless they are important to understanding the grounding of the discovery.

Keep the discovery narrow. It is easy to tackle too big a topic. Modern cosmology as a theory is far too big for this project. One discovery in it--such as the presence of dark matter in galaxies--is already quite a big enough topic for this paper. If in doubt, narrow the topic.

The discovery must be in science and not technology. While the achievements of modern technology are amazing, they are not our concern in this paper. You should be looking at things we know, not things we make. Sometimes the latest technology has an amazing scientific discovery behind it; that discovery could be the focus of a paper. If you do decide to pursue a scientific discovery that lies behind some new advance in technology, be careful; very often those discoveries are complicated and can make the paper hard to write.

Selection of Topic

A brief statement of the amazing idea selected is due in the recitation, Monday, March 25/ Tuesday, March 26. Submit it as one paragraph, on paper. 1/10th of the term paper grade is assigned for submitting a suitable statement on time. (These are easy points earned just for being on time!)

Consult with your recitation instructor if you are uncertain over the idea or need assistance in locating a suitable one.


The paper should be headed with your name, the title of the paper and the course to which it is being submitted. The paper should have an introduction and conclusion and be divided into appropriately headed sections. A standard system for footnoting and for referencing your sources must be adopted and used consistently throughout. Consult a guide on writing term papers if you are unsure of such systems.

We expect your writing to be clear and simple. That applies both to the thoughts expressed and the words used. The thoughts should develop naturally in small, clear steps. The wording should be plain and direct and the sentences short. There is no gain in a big word, when a little one will do. We expect proper grammar and correct spelling and will penalize major excursions.


Your paper is to be submitted to us in electronic form via Blackboard. We will be using the "SafeAssign" feature of Blackboard, a plagiarism prevention tool. So be sure you understand the appropriate use of sources (see below). Here are the instructions for submitting your paper:

1. Log into Courseweb.

2. Click on your recitation link.

3. Click on the link to the Assignments folder.

4. You will be taken to a page containing the term paper instructions. Scroll to the bottom and click on the View/Complete link.

5. A dialogue box will open. Please upload your term paper. You may add comments if you wish.

6. There is a box you can click to agree to submit your paper to the Global Reference Database. Doing so is entirely optional, as it is intended only to protect the originality of your own work.

7. Click on "Submit." You will see information confirming that you have submitted the paper. You're done!

As is standard in all academic writing, the wording of your paper should be your own; it should not be copied or paraphrased even loosely from another source. If you are uncertain over the correct use of sources, see this Guide.