National Collegiate Honors Council


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Copyright 2013 by the National Collegiate Honors Council


On September 21, 2012, two astronomers using a telescope in the International Scientific Observing Network near Kislovodsk, Russia, discovered a comet that came to be formally known as C/2012 S1 and was popularly called Comet ISON. Just a year later, two honors instructors in Wichita, Kansas, found themselves teaching a course on Comet ISON that came to be formally known as Fire in the Sky and was popularly referred to as “the comet course.”

The behavior of comets is notoriously difficult to predict. Nevertheless, even from its first detection Comet ISON showed signs of being an unusual and significant comet. Some commentators went so far as to predict that it would be “the comet of the century,” bright enough to be seen during daylight, with a tail extending as much as a quarter of the way across the sky. This possibility was enough to inspire us, a planetarium astronomer (Ratcliffe) and a philosopher of science with an interest in the history of astronomy (Vanderburgh), to propose a co-taught honors course that would look at scientific, historical, philosophical and other topics raised by this interloper from the edge of the solar system.

The success of new interdisciplinary courses is never guaranteed. Especially considering that we were deliberately planning to “make it up as we went along,” that is, to adapt what we were teaching to the weekly news about the performance of the comet, we did not dare to predict that ours would be the course of the century. The course turned out so well, though, that we believe other honors instructors could profitably borrow some of what we did in similarly styled courses even if they are not lucky enough to have sufficient advance notice of a potentially stunning comet.