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History of Science Week 1: Stonehenge and the shape of the Earth

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 1: Exploring the Past

Interpretation essay

Every week in this course you will write an essay giving your own interpretation of some aspect of the background and primary source assignments. Click the link below to learn more about this weekly Interpretation essay:
# Due Date Pts Activity Time
4 Friday
11:59 p.m.
20 Interpretation Essay
Unless it explains, history is trivial.
Write a short persuasive essay agreeing or disagreeing with a common interpretation about the topic and expressing your own view
60 min.

Before reading further, make sure you are familiar with the general description of the Interpretation assignments and with the description of the various suggested writing styles. Information on these pages will not be repeated here.

Sic et Non

Write your interpretation in a 1200-1800 word essay.

It’s time to put on our thinking caps and interpret the significance of what we’ve been exploring! Unless it explains, history is trivial. Did you discover anything unexpected this week that needs to be explained? What surprised you this week? Did you make any unexpected discoveries? What was the most meaningful part of your explorations this week?

Note: Consider giving your essay an interesting title at Confluence. More people will reply to an essay on "News Flash: Nobel Astrophysicist gets an F in science!" than "Week 1 Interpretation essay." Also be sure to indicate which question you are addressing, so that those who are writing on the same question can choose to reply to your essay.

In your explorations of Stonehenge, you encountered many different explanations of how Stonehenge was used. Interpretations of Stonehenge have varied immensely over time, and continue to be disputed even today.

Without written texts from its makers to guide us, how can we take steps to ensure that our interpretations are warranted and not merely subjective speculations? How might we minimize our inherent human tendencies toward presentism and rational reconstruction?

Did it surprise you to discover that people in the Middle Ages knew the Earth was round? Was their evidence for the spherical Earth convincing? Had you thought of those arguments before?
If not, why not? How would you define the Flat Earth Myth now? When you watched the flat Earth video, were you surprised by the narrator’s contention that students in medieval universities understood more about observational astronomy than university students do today? Granted that it was intended to be provocative, do you think he went too far? What was the point he was driving at?

Remember George Gamow, the eminent 20th-century astrophysicist? Just try to count the errors in this brief opening paragraph from his article on gravity in Scientific American, in March 1961:
“In the days when civilized men believed that the world was flat they had no reason to think about gravity. There was ‘up’ and ‘down.’ All material things tended naturally to move downward, or to fall,
and no one thought to ask why. The notion of absolute up and down directions persisted into the Middle Ages, when it was still invoked to prove that the Earth could not be round.”
(George Gamow, “Gravity,” Scientific American, March, 1961.)

Where does one even begin to clear up the confusion in cases like this? First of all, we’ve seen that ever since Aristotle, people have had a lot of reasons to think about gravity. Aristotle’s theory of natural place explained why earthy things naturally move downward. When Gamow describes Aristotle’s theory, he fails to grasp that this very theory of natural place requires the Earth to be round! According to Aristotle, the Earth could not possibly be any other shape. Aristotle’s notions of up and down directions persisted into the Middle Ages, along with the understanding that the Earth must be a globe. The round shape of the Earth could not be doubted wherever Aristotle was accepted. So all this leads us to a puzzle: Can you explain how an eminent modern scientist like Gamow could be so wrong about the history of science?

If the Flat Earth Myth is not a medieval belief in a flat Earth, but the mistaken modern notion that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat, when they actually knew the Earth was round, then what are the implications?Are you puzzled by why the Flat Earth Myth is so durable?

Are you disturbed by what the Flat Earth Myth suggests about our understanding of the history of science? If so many people get the story of the shape of the Earth wrong, and if so many people hold unwarranted beliefs about Stonehenge, then what else in the history of science might we be mistaken about?

In his book Inventing the Flat Earth, medieval historian Jeffrey Burton Russell concluded with a poignant observation. I can do no better than to quote his words:

“The search for truth is long and laborious and easily set aside. And since the present is transformed day by day, minute by minute, second by second, into the past, while the future is unknown and unknowable, we are left on the dark sea without stars, without compass or astrolabe, more unsure of our position and our goal than any of Columbus’s sailors. The terror of meaninglessness, of falling off the edge of knowledge, is greater than the imagined fear of falling off the edge of the earth. And so we prefer to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

How can we be more like the figure in the woodcut, and push through the darkness to see new worlds beyond?

 

Instructions for Interpretation assignments:

  1. Go to Janux and watch the Interpretations video prompt.
  2. Comment on your initial reaction to the video prompt in the discussion stream at Janux.
  3. Take one of the questions or points of view listed here and consider how it relates to the assigned readings for this week. Consider both Context and Evidence assignments, whenever applicable.
  4. Write a short essay defending your thesis and/or refuting competing interpretations. An Interpretation essay must express a point of view, supporting that argument with specific evidence gathered from the assigned readings.
  5. Your Interpretation essay should be at least 1200 words long, and not more than 1800 words (you can do a word count at Motionnet.com). This word count does NOT include the original question you are responding to, any quotations from assigned readings, or the two notes at the end of the essay.
  6. Spellcheck, word count, and proofread your essay. Since this is a longer writing assignment, you will probably want to use the spellcheck and word-count features in your word processor.
  7. In a one or two sentence note at the end of your essay (not part of the word-count), indicate why you chose to respond to that issue and how you came up with the interpretation.
  8. In a one-sentence note after your essay (not part of the word-count), identify which style or genre you selected (analytical, narrative, dialogue, etc.) and explain why you thought that would be the most effective way to convey your interpretation.
  9. Include reference citations or links to any textbook, website, course page, or Exhibits Online that are closely related to your Interpretation (e.g., "For Redondi's view, go here: insert link"). Additional reading beyond course assignments is not required, but you must include at least two citations or links to assigned readings that provide evidence and relevant historical context. These two sources must be either primary sources that pertain to the topic and come from the period being discussed or secondary sources (e.g., one of our textbooks or assigned web pages) written with demonstrable knowledge of the relevant primary sources (for example, in addition to the assigned background readings, professional historians of science may be assumed to be familiar with the sources they write about; see guidelines for evaluating sources). An argument that is not supported with documented evidence does not meet the minimum requirements for an Interpretation essay. For citations and links, use the forms described in the bibliographical guidelines. (For example, a citation to our text could be "Lindberg, Beginnings, p. #." )
  10. Cut-and-paste your completed essay, with notes and links, and post it in the Interpretation forum for this week at the Confluence discussion board.
  11. After you have posted your Interpretation, complete the Gradebook Declaration in Desire2Learn. (Your Gradebook Declaration is subject to the Honor Code.)

Here is the text of the Desire2Learn Gradebook Declaration:

(7 points) I have posted my Interpretation at Confluence. My Interpretation shows that I have thought about BOTH Context and Evidence assignments for this week. I have done a word count, and my Interpretation is at least 600 words min. My word count does NOT include the original question I am responding to, any quotations from assigned readings, or the two notes at the end of the essay.

(7 points) I have posted an Interpretation at Confluence that is at least 1200 words min. and no more than 1800 words max.

(1 point) My Interpretation contains an explanation of how I came up with my point of view (not part of the word count)..

(1 point) My Interpretation contains a sentence explaining the genre or style of writing I adopted (not part of the word count).

(2 points) My Interpretation contains a citation or link to at least one relevant source (such as the assigned readings) including either a primary source or a secondary source written by an author with demonstrable knowledge of the primary sources.

(2 points) My Interpretation contains a citation or link to at least two relevant sources (such as the assigned readings) including either a primary source or a secondary source written by an author with demonstrable knowledge of the primary sources.

"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
-14
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux