Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in
which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout
the university's eight academic divisions.
The course: The Extinction of the Dinosaurs. A study
of current and past theories concerning what caused the
giant reptiles that once stalked the Earth to vanish
— among them, the "asteroid theory," in which
scientists posit that a large asteroid slammed into the
Earth, resulting in massive fires and a sky so smoke-choked
that plants and other food sources died off. Limited to 100
students. 3 credits. Morton K. Blaustein
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
The instructor: Geobiologist A. Hope Jahren,
associate professor in the Department of Earth and
Planetary Sciences. Scott Werts, a third-year graduate
student, is the teaching assistant.
Meeting time: noon to 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and
Fridays, fall 2004.
Syllabus: Primarily a lecture course geared to
students with a strong interest but no background in
geology. Though there are no formal prerequisites, high
school math, chemistry and physics are strongly
Course work: Lectures, class participation and three
examinations. Students also can earn up to 15 percent
extra-credit points through volunteering with a local
environmental group and filling out a short questionnaire
about the experience, and/or by visiting the Smithsonian's
Museum of Natural History and examining some dinosaur
fossils and answering questions about them.
Required reading: The Dictionary of Geological
Terms, by Bates and Jackson, for reference, plus the
following articles from various issues of Scientific
American: "Dinosaurs of the Antarctic," by Patricia
Vickers-Rich and Thomas Hewitt Rich (2004); "Repeated
Blows," by Luann Becker (2002); "The Asteroid Tugboat," by
Russell L. Schweikart, Edward T. Lu, Piet Hut and Clark R.
Chapman (2003); "The Day the World Burned," by David A.
King and Daniel D. Durde, (2003); "On the Termination of
Species," by W. Wayt Gibbs (2001). Also, a January 1998
New York Times article by Malcolm W. Browne
headlined "Debate over dinosaur extinction takes an
unusually rancorous turn."
Overheard in class: "If tomorrow, several thousands
of aliens landed in a space ship and jumped out, one of the
first things that the public will want to know is, What are
they? In other words, how to describe them based on what
qualities they share. A phylogenist begins by cataloging
common morphological characteristics."
— Hope Jahren, in a lecture aimed at helping
students understand how scientists use the observation of
physical characteristics to explore the ancestor/descendant
relationships that connect all organisms, including
Students say: "I took Extinction of the Dinosaurs
because I've been interested in dinosaurs and the theories
of their extinction since I was a little kid. I thought it
would be a fun and interesting class to balance out my
schedule. So far, the class has been very informative."
— Holly Danner, a freshman applied mathematics
major from Taneytown, Md.
"I took this class because I wanted to know why the
dinosaurs became extinct because — let's face it
— nobody really knows for sure. I also wanted to be
able to give my kids an educated answer when they ask about
dinosaurs, rather than ramble on about what I learned in
Jurassic Park movies. Professor Jahren is pretty clear in
our lectures, and I like the way the teaching asistant
e-mails us all the reminders about Web site updates and
places to find more information about dinosaurs."
— Jason Chiang, a sophomore biomedical
engineering major from Torrance, Calif.