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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 15, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 12
JHU Course Catalog: The Extinction of the Dinosaurs

Geobiologist Hope Jahren in the glow of a projector.

By Lisa De Nike

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 recommended.

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 dinosaurs.

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.


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