Guidelines for homework assignments

Worth emphasizing: Remember to cite all information/ ideas gathered from elsewhere. We are not very concerned with your style/ method, as long as we can find the spot in the source should we need to.

Aim to include an introductory paragraph that includes your thesis and a sketch of your argument for it. It is much easier to understand a paper that announces where it is heading at the start. Do not digress from the topic. Each body paragraph should make a distinct point (normally, defend a premise) and, if possible, should build on the previous ones. In a paper of this length, 2-4 body paragraphs is typical. Your concluding paragraph, if there is space for one, should summarize your arguments and show how they support your conclusion. However, priority should be given to considering objections to your argument.

The assignments typically do not have a unique right answer. We look instead for an effective marshalling of relevant evidence, logical connections among parts of an argument, responses to counterarguments, appropriate recognition of limitations on the evidence, anticipation of possible future evidence, absence of irrelevancies, and general coherence. Of course, it is entirely possible to come up with a wrong answer, i.e., one for which it is impossible to meet the criteria above. Please use plain language whenever possible. The famous book Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, may help guide you.

Most of us will agree on something like this ranking of argument types, from most to least desirable:

  1. Common experience and simple logic, including easy mathematics.
  2. Easily-accessible observation and mathematics.
  3. Harder mathematical reasoning and observation, directly available only to specialists.
  4. Intuition.
  5. Authority.

Grading: All homework assignments are graded on a 20-point scale. Both 'argumentation' and 'organization writing' will be assessed; please see the rubric. Please also consult A Brief Handbook of English Grammar on Compass when writing your papers and when questions arise regarding proper usage.


Submissions should generally be 500-750 words long (about 2 pages, but go by word count). Please double-space and submit your papers (on Compass) as Word documents; we will then comment on them and return the commented papers as PDFs on Compass.

Finally, consider consulting the Writers Workshop, an invaluable resource for writing help, with a draft of your assignment.

Late submissions are accepted (until no credit remains), but will be penalized 5% per day (with the first day beginning right after the due time). Please submit late assignments as normal on Compass.

Homework assignment 1: due by Friday, 19 January, at 5p (submit on Compass).

(Apologies for the very short notice. The idea is to get you thinking before we feed you our line.)

Does the Earth go around the Sun or does the Sun go around the Earth? How do you know? Support your argument with evidence.

Homework assignment 2: due by Tuesday, 30 January, at 5p (submit on Compass).

Prior to Newton, but after Galileo and Kepler, the question of whether Copernicus' system was right, or about right, was still debated. Present an argument for the preferability of the system of Copernicus, Tycho, or Ptolemy (with modifications, if need be) at that time, making comparisons among all three systems as you argue.

NB: Beginning with homework 2 (and for all future homework assignments): If you wish, you may pair up with someone else in the class to submit a debate-style dialogue as a tandem assignment. Each of you should submit the complete dialogue, including the name of your partner. If you wish to pursue this option, both of you will receive the same grade. Tandem assignments can be quite fruitful in developing your arguments and practicing responding to counterarguments; however, please do make sure to present at least an argument or two (and not merely to 'discuss' the topic).

Homework assignment 3: due by Thursday, 8 February, at 5p (submit on Compass).

You presumably believe that future events can be predicted from past events; this belief is one way of expressing the "principle of induction". Try to present an argument either justifying the principle or advocating that we abandon it. If you attempt to justify it, you should also detail its problems; if you argue against the principle, you should consider the disadvantages (to put it lightly!) of abandoning it.

Recall that beginning with the previous homework assignment, you are allowed to submit a tandem assignment (see above).

Homework assignment 4: due by Thursday, 22 February, at 5p (submit on Compass).

According to Einstein, many of the world's fundamental features that we are accustomed to viewing as absolute facts (e.g., the size of an object or the simultaneity of two events) cannot be determined without specifying a reference frame for the measurement. In other words, equally good observers will give different accounts of such features. This result is often summarized by saying, "Einstein showed that everything is relative." Is that an accurate summary? Citing specific features of the theory of relativity, write a persuasive evaluation of that summary for a non-specialist reader.

Homework assignment 5: due by Thursday, 8 March Thursday, 15 March, at 5p (submit on Compass).

According to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the outcomes of many physical processes cannot be predicted with certainty regardless of our state of knowledge of the circumstances. This result is often summarized by saying, "Heisenberg showed that everything is uncertain." Is that an accurate summary? Citing specific features of quantum mechanics, write a persuasive evaluation of that summary for a non-specialist reader.

Homework assignment 6: due by Tuesday, 10 April, at 5p (submit on Compass).

Is the quantum-mechanical wave function an objective property of the physical world or a measure of our state of knowledge? Present an argument in response, in your own words, and include the obvious difficulties with each view. (You are not required to decide between these two extremes, but should present an argument, whatever your view.)