Life in the Universe - ASTR 1753x

Summer A 2021

Columbia University
Barnard College
Mars panorama
Earth+Moon Prismatic DNA ATA
Europa Saturn

Syllabus - Summer A 2021

  • Basic Structure

    This interdisciplinary introductory course focuses on the subject of Life in the Universe. We will study historical astronomy, gravitation and planetary orbits, the discoveries of extrasolar planets, the origin of the chemical elements, the origin of life on Earth, the evolution and exploration of the Solar System, global climate change on Venus, Mars and Earth, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI).
  • Office Hours

    • Prof Kay: Weds 4-5 PM Altschul 530 at Barnard, 6-7 PM on Zoom.
    • TA Ryan Tues 7-8 PM on Zoom, TA Chengcheng Thurs 9-10 AM on Zoom
    • lk157@columbia.edu
  • Communications

    • Communications about the class, office hours, homeworks, quizzes etc will be by email
    • Outlines of class lectures, and Homeworks will be posted on Canvas/Courseworks.
  • Lectures

    • T TH 1-4:10 PM
    • Columbia and Barnard expect synchronous attendence (especially for quizzes and in-class activities)
  • Textbook

    • 21c Astronomy, 6e by Kay, Palen, and Blumenthal, 2019.
    • This is also available cheaper as an ebook or in looseleaf format or a rental.
    • You do not need access (a code) to Smartwork.
    • OK to use the 5th edition if necessary but I don't recommend the 4th edition.
  • Distribution Requirements

    • ASTR BC 1753x satisfies the Barnard Science SCI and Thinking Quantitatively requirements and can be used towards the Columbia College science requirement.
    • ASTR BC 1753x along with the point lab course Astr UN1903x can be applied towards the Barnard lab science LAB requirement.
  • Learning Goals - Students who successfully complete this course will:

    • understand how scientists are studying the question of Life in the Universe
    • understand how Earth is habitable in ways the rest of the Solar System is not
    • learn about the discoveries of other planets in our Galaxy
    • learn to think critically and quantitatively about some contemporary scientific problems
  • Labs

    • Students who want laboratory credit should sign up for the one point course ASTR UN1903x.
    • Labs meet 2x/week. TBD if some sections will have campus meetings.
  • Teaching Assistants

    • TBD
  • Homework:

    • Problem sets will be due in class every week.
    • Late HW will NOT be accepted after the solutions are posted.
    • Students may work with other students together on the homework, but the writeups submitted must be individual work in individual words, not duplicated/copied and pasted.
    • HW is required; you cannot pass this course by exam grades alone.
    • The lowest HW score (including one not submitted for any reason) will be dropped; the remaining scores will count for 20% of your final grade.
  • In-class projects:

    • These will be in-class collaborative exercises using computer simulations or paper exercises, and will count for 15% of the final grade.
  • Quizzes:

    • There will be 3 short quizzes.
    • The lowest score will be dropped; this includes quizzes missed for any reason. Makeup quizzes are not offered. The remaining 3 will count for 15% of your final grade.
  • Exams:

    • Midtern on June 1 and final exam on June 17
    • The midterm exam will count for 20%, and the final exam for 30%.
Students with disabilities who will be taking this course & may need disability-related accommodations are encouraged to make an appointment to see me as soon as possible. Disabled students who need test or classroom accommodations must be registered in advance with the Office of Disability Services (ODS).

Approximate Schedule Summer A 2021


Dates Topics 21st Century Astronomy
May 4 Introduction, Historical Naked-Eye Astronomy (Calendars, Lunar Motions, Eclipses) 2
May 6 Apparent Motions of Objects in the Sky (Celestial Sphere, seasons, Planetary Motions); Greeks, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler 3
May 11 Galileo, Newton 4
May 13 Brief History of the Universe, Light & Energy & Origin of the Chemical Elements, Temperature, Thermal Radiation 1.1, 5.1-5.3, 13, notes
May 18 Temperature, Thermal Radiation, Extrasolar Planets 5.4-5.5, ch 5 Origins, 7.5, pp 134-135,
May 20 Planet temperatures and Habitable Zones, Brief history of the Solar System, radioactivity 134-135, 'Origins' in Ch 7, 8.1-8,2, can skim 13, 24.3
May 25 Hadean Earth, carbon cycle, greenhouse effect, Life on Earth video, 24.1, 24.2, notes
May 27 Paleoclimate, Climate Change, Ozone 9
June 1 Midterm, Exploration of Moon, Venus & Mars, (Atmospheric retention) 216-222, 9.1-9.2, 9.4, Ch 9 Origins
June 3 Exploration of Mars 11
June 8 Moons of Jupiter & Saturn, Space Colonization l 11
June 10 Special Relativity & Interstellar Travel, SETI, UFOs 24.4, notes

Tentative Due dates

  • Homework Assignments

    Homework 1 May 13
    Homework 2 May 20
    Homework 3 May 28
    Homework 4 June 4
    Homework 5 June 11
  • Quizzes

    Quiz 1 May 18
    Quiz 2 May 25
    Midterm June 1
    Quiz 3 June 8
    Final June 17, 1:10-4 PM

Astronomy Laboratory
Summer 2021



Labs will start on May 3

Teaching Assistant



TBD