This page contains information on the assessed coursework (the "News and Views"
article and the essay). If you are looking for advice on the exam, go to the
lecture notes page.
The aim of these exercises is to test your ability to use primary research sources,
assimilate information, and communicate scientific material effectively and in the
proper form. Because of this, you will be penalised for poor spelling, grammatical
mistakes, inappropriate style, inadequate referencing, etc. If you know you have problems
in this area, you should consider using the University's Writing Advisory Service,
which is intended to deal with exactly this issue.
If you are dyslexic or your first language is not English, please note this on
your submitted coursework. Dyslexic students should be provided with stickers
for this purpose; non-native speakers can simply note the fact on the cover of the work.
Dyslexia or not being a native speaker may in some cases provide a reasonable ground for
extension to the deadline for coursework. If you believe that you have good grounds for
requesting this, please see the lecturer as soon as possible: your case will be much
more convincing a month before the deadline than it is the day after the deadline!
News and Views
Nature's "News and Views" articles are intended for the interested non-specialist.
They aim to provide a summary of the paper and an assessment of how it fits into
the context of its field.
The questions that you need to ask yourself in writing a News and Views article are:
- Why is this paper important? Why has Nature's "News and Views" editor
chosen to highlight this paper as opposed to any of the others published in the week
- What are the main results presented in this paper?
- How do they fit (or not) into the understanding of the field at that time?
- What impact is the paper likely to have (again, as assessed at that time)?
You will each be assigned a specific paper. Papers are allocated at random, to ensure
fairness in allocation (I can't give particular people "easy" or "difficult" papers) and
to maintain anonymity in marking (I don't know who is doing which paper). All the papers
are fairly short, and I try to avoid very technical or mathematical work (you won't get
any of Hoyle's papers!). Obviously it is essential that you read the
paper carefully and understand it – if you have any difficulties in that respect,
come and talk to me (after having read the paper carefully – if your
question is answered on the next page of the paper, you will not look very good!).
The main errors in previous years have been
lack of context:
simply summarising the paper, without any attempt to introduce it or
place it in context
(or, occasionally, the opposite: writing a general essay on the subject of the
paper without ever referring explicitly to the content of the paper);
lack of understanding:
errors in the summary or the discussion indicating that the paper had not been
properly understood, e.g. believing that the Steady State model describes a static
misrepresenting the state of the field, e.g. claiming that Hubble's 1929 paper
on the redshift-distance relation "supports the Big Bang model of cosmology"
(which wasn't invented till 1948, and wasn't named until 1953) or
discussing Henrietta Leavitt's Cepheid period-luminosity relation (1912)
in terms of Eddington's mass-luminosity relation (1924);
assessing the paper using (explicitly or implicitly) criteria which were not
available at the time,
e.g. arguing that Vesto Slipher's redshifted nebulae (1915) imply that the universe is
expanding (recall that General Relativity itself only dates from 1915, and the earliest
expanding-universe solutions were published in 1922), or being very negative about Bondi,
Gold and Hoyle's Steady State papers (1948) because we now know that the model is
wrong (but in 1948 it would have solved the apparently intractable problem of the age of
the universe – with Hubble's value of H~500 km/s/Mpc – being less
than the geological age of the Earth!).
A good "News and Views" article would leave an interested non-astronomer of the time
with an understanding of (a) what the article actually said, (b) why it was an important
new development in its field and (c) what its likely impact on the field would be. Ideally,
it would show some evidence that its author had read some contemporary papers on related
topics (you can find these by doing a search on
ADS with appropriate
keywords and a suitable range of dates).
Here is a typical "News and Views" article from
a recent edition of Nature, based on this
paper. Note that the "News and Views" article is not simply a summary of the
- it starts by providing a brief summary of necessary background information (i.e. the
key features of the Moon's chemical composition), which a non-specialist reader would not
be likely to know;
- likewise, it provides information which is not essential to the contents of the paper,
but which help to set the results in context (i.e. how the Earth's bulk water content is
estimated, and much additional detail about the lunar volcanic glasses being analysed);
- it explains the basis for some conclusions reached by the authors of the paper (the
single sentence "These correlations
indicate that H2O in the glasses is indigenous, not a product of solar
wind implantation or laboratory contamination, and support the hypothesis that there
were significant differences in the initial volatile
content and/or the extent of degassing among the lunar glasses" is expanded to a full
- it provides an independent discussion of the questions raised by the results
and their possible implications (compare the last three paragraphs of the "News and Views"
article with the last paragraph of the original paper - clearly the author of the "News and
Views" article is drawing his own conclusions, not simply summarising those of the paper).
In fact, the proportion of the "News and Views" article that is simply a
summary of the paper is really quite small - only a couple of paragraphs. The bulk of the
article is devoted to explaining the background, the context and the importance
of the results reported. Nevertheless, the article is clearly focused on the
contents of the paper - it is not simply a general review of lunar composition. This is
the balancing act that past students have tended to get wrong, usually in the direction
of devoting far too much of their article to a detailed summary of their target paper.
This tests your ability to retrieve and assimilate information from written sources
and to communicate it effectively to a scientifically trained non-specialist reader.
It will be assessed on:
the quality of your research (20%):
the number and nature of the sources you cite, together with the internal evidence
from your essay that you have in fact read and understood those sources
(a long list of original papers will cut no ice if there is no evidence in your essay
that you have actually used them);
the content of your essay (50%):
the coverage of the subject, the selection of appropriate material,
the level of understanding, and the amount of critical thought and synthesis displayed
(in other words, you will get a higher mark if you attempt to develop a coherent
argument than you will for simply summarising information from a number of sources);
the structure and style of your essay (30%):
the overall organisation, appropriate use of subheadings, good choice and
use of illustrations (including quality of captions!), appropriate style
(professional paper, not New Scientist chatty or tabloid-journalist colloquial),
technical quality of the English (spelling, syntax, grammar).
All essays will be double marked "blind" (that is, the second assessor does not know
the mark awarded by the first assessor) by me and one other person, to minimise
the effects of individual taste. To give you a feel
for the criteria used in marking the essay, you may download
the guidelines issued to assessors.
Problems from previous years include:
uncritical use of dubious sources (especially WWW):
make sure that you use appropriately qualified sources
(for example, "historical" sections in science textbooks are often rather sloppy,
because history is not the primary focus of the book;
people with a particular axe to grind may give biased accounts;
accounts in "popular science" books may suffer from poor understanding of the science);
lack of synthesis:
many essays consist of summaries of different sources,
with little attempt to present a coherent overall view
(in some cases people even manage to contradict themselves as a result of this);
many people do not seem to plan their essays before writing them,
resulting in patchy coverage, repetition, sudden jumps in subject matter,
poor introductions and/or conclusions, and so on
(this is related to the above, but more general);
poor English: you will be penalised for errors in spelling or grammar,
so make sure you proof-read your essay carefully before handing it in,
and consider reading one of the many available books on writing essays and papers;
this will of course result in a substantial loss of marks,
down to zero if a large fraction of the essay is involved.
Recall that you must express ideas in your own words,
even if you have referenced your sources. Minor rephrasing does not count
as using your own words.
A good essay will be based on extensive reading, including primary sources
(i.e. original papers or reviews) where possible. (Obviously, it may not
be possible for earlier periods: nobody is asking you to read Kepler in the original
Latin! However, in such cases you should try to consult books by specialists, or
perhaps papers on the history of astronomy, not just general texts.)
It will tell a coherent story, with an introduction and conclusion and judicious
use of subheadings. Ideally, it should show evidence of critical thinking,
analysis and synthesis - i.e., the author is not simply summarising his or her
sources, but weighing up their respective viewpoints and coming to a well argued
conclusion. It will be written in good formal English and pitched at the correct level
for a scientifically trained non-specialist. It is usually desirable to include
illustrations: these should be well chosen (useful, rather than simply decorative!),
numbered, and given an appropriate explanatory caption, including a reference to the
source. Equations can be included if appropriate - whether this is necessary depends
strongly on the topic (an essay on the development of astrophotography probably wouldn't
need any equations, whereas one on Kepler's contribution to astronomy probably would).
Your chances of writing a good essay are greatly improved if you put a considerable
amount of effort into the initial planning. The actual writing of the essay should take
up quite a small fraction of the time you devote to the assignment as a whole.
If you are not sure what planning an essay involves, take a look at
Sources should be properly referenced, and cited where appropriate in the text
(that is, wherever the information they contain is used – not just for direct quotes).
Citations in the text may use any of the standard conventions:
numerical superscript1,2, numerical reference in square brackets[1,2]
or author's name and date (Bloggs 1910, Smith et al. 1919).
For the first two methods, references should be listed at the end in order of appearance;
for citation by author's name, list the references in alphabetical order.
In some of the old papers you may consult, you will find references cited as
footnotes on the page on which they are used: this is no longer standard scientific style
and you should not do this.
The aim of a reference citation is to provide enough information to allow your reader
to locate the source of your information quickly and easily.
This means that you must provide all the necessary information to pinpoint your source,
including (for example) volume numbers of journals
(no, I am not going to hunt through all 668 volumes of the Astrophysical Journal
looking for a particular paper), page references in books (I'm also not going to
read all 1325 pages of Carroll and Ostlie looking for one quote),
and full URLs for websites (www.wikipedia.org will not do either).
You will be penalised if your reference citations are inadequate.
Note that it is entirely proper to cite the same journal article more than once,
using the same reference. Do not attempt to make your reference list look more
impressive by giving every reference to, say, Bondi and Gold (1948) a separate entry!
The case is a bit different for books, where a reference to p23 and another to p227
do need separate citations. (If you are going to be strictly accurate, you should
in that case say "op. cit." (Latin for "work already cited"), instead of giving
the title, publisher, etc., to make it clear that both references are to the same book.
But I don't really expect this level of pickiness!)
Articles in journals:
- If citing by numerical reference (1 or ):
1. Name(s), Journal Name volume (year) page
(Note italics for journal name and bold for volume number.
If there are more than three authors, quote the first author
and then "et al." (Latin for "and others").
It is not necessary to include the title of the article, but it doesn't hurt:
if you do include it, put it directly after the author's name:
1. Name, "Title", Journal volume (year) page.
Journal names may be abbreviated, e.g. ApJ for Astrophysical Journal,
MNRAS for Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.)
Example: 1. H. Bondi and T. Gold, MNRAS 108 (1948) 252.
If citing by author's name and year (Bondi and Gold 1948):
Name(s) (date), Journal Name volume, page
Example: Bondi, H. and Gold, T. (1948), MNRAS 108, 252.
(It's usual to put the surname first in this style because references are
listed in alphabetical order, but it isn't essential.)
- If citing by number,
[reference number]. Author(s), Title, Edition (if applicable),
(publisher, date), page(s)
Example: 1. Marcus Chown, The Magic Furnace (Jonathan Cape, 1999), p83
If citing by name and year (Chown 1999), put the year earlier:
Example: Chown, M. (1999), The Magic Furnace (Jonathan Cape), p83
(Strictly speaking, one is supposed to put in the place of publication as well
(Jonathan Cape, London), but it's not essential;
it can, however, be useful as US and UK editions are sometimes different sizes
and therefore have different pagination – one man's p83 may be another's p86.
If you are citing a long passage, give the page range, e.g. pp83-89;
note that the plural of "p" is "pp".)
In general, you should not be relying on websites.
Web information is not always reliable and web references are volatile:
a reference which was there when you wrote your essay may have vanished
a month later when the assessor reads it.
Usually, the best use of websites is as "suggestions for further reading" for yourself:
most reputable websites (e.g. most scientific Wikipedia articles)
provide references to published work.
If you must cite a website (e.g. as the source of a figure –
this is a legitimate use of the web),
or if you acquired a journal article from online sources (which is perfectly OK):
If you are using the electronic version of a published paper,
e.g. from adsabs.harvard.edu,
cite the original published version.
If you are using an electronic preprint,
e.g. from uk.arXiv.org (unlikely for PHY324!),
first check whether it has been published (this should be obvious from the entry in arXiv).
If it hasn't, cite it by author's name(s), date and arXiv reference number,
e.g. E. Moulin (2007), arXiv:astro-ph/0710.2493v1.
If you are using real web content, cite the author's name
(in some cases, e.g. when referring to space missions, this may be a group name),
date if available, and full URL, e.g. Chandra X-ray Observatory (2007)
Do not cite only the head page of the website:
it is not reasonable to expect your reader to trawl through the whole of,
say, www.nature.com looking for the page you used!
Some general guidelines:
Don't cite references you haven't read:
in particular, don't cite references cited as references by a paper you have read,
unless you have looked them up yourself.
If you can't find the original paper,
make it clear that you are using second-hand information,
e.g. "Huggins, 1864, as quoted in A.M. Clerke,
A Popular History of Astronomy during the 19th Century,
2nd Edition (1899), p178."
Where possible, find and cite original sources
(if a figure in a textbook is credited as "redrawn from So-and-so",
try to find So-and-so's original version).
This may not always be possible; if it isn't, use the reproduced figure,
but (as above), make clear in the reference that the information is second-hand.
Don't use standard phrases that you don't understand, or which do not in fact apply:
illustrations in books often say something like "reprinted with permission from
Smith and Jones (1963)", which means that the publisher of the book wrote to
Smith and Jones, or to the publisher of Smith and Jones,
and got permission to use their figure (possibly paying for the privilege).
If you did not do this – and I don't expect you to – then don't claim that you did.
Likewise, only use op. cit. or ibid. if you know what they mean
and they do apply.
Remember in all cases that citing a reference entitles you to use the
information contained in that reference:
it does not entitle you to use the same words, either exactly or with minor changes.
In rare cases (when quoting a definition, when the exact wording is important to the point
you are making, when you are quoting an opinion with which you do not necessarily agree,
or when you are quoting the words of someone who was present at the event in question)
it is legitimate to use a direct quote, properly signalled as such by quotation marks.
Direct quotes should account for a very small proportion of your work (<5%),
and should never be used as a substitute for understanding:
if you don't understand something, don't use it.
(If it's obviously crucial to your argument, look for an explanation elsewhere,
or ask someone.)
The main errors that students make in references are:
under-referencing in text: whenever you have obtained information from some
source other than your own head, it should have a reference to the source.
Many students only provide references when they are using direct quotes or nearly
direct quotes (e.g. specific numerical information) – this is not enough.
inadequate information in reference citation: as explained above, you must provide
all the information needed to find the source material easily. Too many
people provide too little information – for example, one essay that I marked for PHY315
gave only the author's name and the title, with no indication as to whether the source
in question was a book, a paper or a website, much less which journal it was in or
where to find it!
use of non-standard style: there is no sensible reason to use anything other
than the three styles listed above: number as superscript, number in square brackets, or
name and date. Some people invent their own style (e.g. superscripted roman numerals),
which is a pointless loss of marks. The standard styles have developed because they do
the job well – it is unlikely that anything you invent is going to be an improvement!
In general, if you are not sure whether or not you need to reference something, then
do reference it: since most students under-reference, the chances are that if you
think you might need to cite it, you definitely do need to! With URLs, remember
to check that your reference will do what you want it to – in some frame-based sites,
the URL points to the head page and not to the page you need to reference (there should
be a "View frame" command in your browser to let you single out the frame you want).