Credit hours: 3 (4 credits available)
Semester: Spring (annually)
Professor Douglas Whittet
Important note: This
course is taught using the Learning Management System (rpilms.rpi.edu).
All lecture slides and other course materials will be made available to
students enrolled in the course at the LMS site.
Aims and Objectives:
One of the fundamental goals in all science is to understand the origin
of life. This course reviews relevant concepts and discusses
current issues from a "cosmic" perspective. The importance
of this approach is demonstrated by recent research:
- Astronomical observations
show that organic molecules are synthesized in the interstellar
clouds from which new planetary systems are born.
- Analyses of meteorites
falling to Earth show that they contain amino acids and other
molecules of extraterrestrial origin.
- Experiments in prebiotic
chemistry show that important prebiotic molecules may not have been
produced in sufficient quantities here on Earth at the time of life's
other stars in our Galaxy are now known to have planetary systems, and we
are developing the
technology to test whether they support life.
The course is interdisciplinary,
covering topics in physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth sciences and
biology. No specialized prior knowledge of these topics is assumed (relevant background material will be introduced via reading assignments).
The course is suitable for interested junior or senior undergraduates
majoring in any science or engineering discipline. It may also be taken
by graduate students as a broadening course or as a primer for research
in a related field.
The New York Center for
This course is part of the education program of the New York Center
for Astrobiology. This NASA-sponsored center of education, training and
research represents a multidisciplinary collaboration between
Rensselaer, the University at Albany, Syracuse University, and several
other universities nationwide. For further information visit our website
Minor in Astronomy or
This course may be used as partial fulfillment of minor degree programs
in Astronomy and/or Astrobiology. See the Rensselaer Course Catalog
Class Schedule: Mondays
and Thursdays, 4:00 - 5:50 pm, in Low 3051.
Emphasis is placed on class discussions and interactive learning.
Regular attendance and participation is a requirement of the course.
No single text is available that meets all the needs of the course.
here for a list of useful texts and articles.
You will be given a weekly reading assignment, such as a short article
or a section from a book. We will designate time in class each
week for discussion of the reading topic: it will obviously be important
to get the reading done before the class. Students will be asked to
take turns leading the discussion of the reading topics.
homework assignment will be set each week
and will be due one week later. All homework will be submitted online
via the LMS. Students may consult
each other on the homework problems, on the understanding that work
turned in by each student is their own work. Homework may be turned
in 48 hours after the due date with a 10% penalty. Homework that is more
than 48 hours late will not be accepted unless there are genuine
A requirement of the course is that you prepare a seminar talk or
poster presentation on a related
topic of your choice. This provides the opportunity to research your chosen
topic in some depth and report your findings to the rest of the class. A list of
is provided, but this is not exclusive and you are welcome to suggest alternatives.
typically last about 30 minutes and will be scheduled at a Monday
There will be two exams (one midterm, one end of term).
Final grades will be based approximately on the following weighting scheme:
- Homework: 35%
- Seminar presentation: 25%
- Exams: 40% (2 x 20%)
Attendance will be recorded
and will be used as a discriminator between letter grades in borderline