Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Wausau, WI 54401


Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes is a team-taught, interdisciplinary course that aims to convey the nature, excitement, and role of scientific inquiry as a means of solving real-world problems. It is organized around the exploration of past and possible future catastrophes that did and can affect our environment, including plagues, extinctions, global warming, ozone depletion, and collisions with space debris. The historical, scientific, and social aspects of each theme are examined from different perspectives, and solutions are proposed and analyzed. Because many of these issues involve unsolved questions about the natural world, the course reveals to students that science is a human endeavor inextricably linked to values, politics, and social factors and that its future course will depend on their engagement and involvement as informed citizens.

One of the main goals of the course is to help students understand how scientific knowledge is structured and how it develops, and how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. It also strives to illustrate the value and cost of the scientific enterprise and to promote rational examination of the appropriate public policy choices through the use of unsolved scientific problems and questions. The science content of the course includes the physics of meteorites, asteroids, and comets, their role in planetary formation, and impacts with the Earth, epidemiological and statistical data on HIV disease in Africa, and the chemistry of greenhouse gases. Mathematical calculations and statistical modeling techniques are used to explore various questions, such as the effectiveness of strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the rate and impact of human population growth, and the past and future effects of asteroid collisions on the Earth.

Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes involves approximately 60 students and 5 faculty across five campuses of the University of Wisconsin system. The campuses are linked by compressed video. Assignments emphasize critical thinking and writing skills, and include group projects, interpretation of data, analysis of journal articles, mathematical and statistical modeling exercises, and essay questions.


1) To understand how science is structured and develops, and to study the historical development of scientific ideas through the use of contemporary problems.

2) To learn how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science.
3) To illustrate the value and cost of the scientific enterprise and to promote rational examination of the appropriate public policy choices.
4) To examine how scientific knowledge and risk assessment can interest and impact public policy making.


We will address the following proficiencies in this course.

I. Clear and Logical Thinking

(a) Analyze, synthesize, evaluate and interpret information and ideas.
(b) Construct and support hypotheses and arguments.
(c) Distinguish knowledge, values, beliefs, and opinions.
(d) Select and apply scientific and other appropriate methodologies.
(e) Solve quantitative and mathematical problems.
(f) Interpret graphs, tables, and diagrams.
(g) Integrate knowledge and experience to arrive at creative solutions.
(h) Evaluate situations of social responsibility.
(i) Make decisions based on an informed understanding of the moral and ethical issues involved.

II. Effective Communication

(a) Read and listen with comprehension and critical perception.
(b) Recognize fallacies and inconsistencies.
(c) Respond to the media actively and analytically.
(d) Write clearly, precisely, and in a well-organized manner.
(e) Develop a large and varied vocabulary.
(f) Respond orally to questions and challenges.
(g) Work collaboratively as part of a team.
(h) Gather information from printed sources, electronic sources, and observation.
(i) Use computer technologies for communication and problem solving.

III. Aesthetic Response

(a) Employ and expand the imagination.