Course code: ASTR-4510
Credit hours: 3 (4 credits available)
Semester: Spring (annually)

Instructor: Professor Douglas Whittet

Important note:  This course is taught using the Learning Management System ( 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 biologically relevant 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 origin.
  • Many 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 Astrobiology:
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 at

Minor in Astronomy or Astrobiology:
This course may be used as partial fulfillment of minor degree programs in Astronomy and/or Astrobiology. See the Rensselaer Course Catalog for details.

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. Click here for a list of useful texts and articles.

Reading assignments:
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.

A short 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 mitigating circumstances.

Seminar Presentation:
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 suggested topics is provided, but this is not exclusive and you are welcome to suggest alternatives. Presentations should
typically last about 30 minutes and will be scheduled at a Monday seminar class.

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 cases.