Life in the Universe

Please refer to this web page for most up-to-date information on the course. Test dates, tests and quizzes in pdf form and all other information will be made available in due time.

This course satisfies one semester of the 2-semester Natural Science requirement for students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, under the provisions of the Mendel Science Experience (MSE). Students must also be enrolled in the concurrent laboratory course Astronomy Laboratory.

If you lost/misplaced your syllabus, you can download it here.


At every class session I will hand out a list of topics that we will discuss that day. These handouts do not replace notes. Please remember to take notes and consult the book regularly. The handouts in PDF form are provided below. Note also that class recordings are available from the mymediasite page.


Every week there will be a 10-minute in-class quiz that will cover last week's topics. Quizzes contribute significantly to your final grade, please study and come prepared.

Quiz: Date:
Chapters 1, 2.1, first part of 2.2, 5.1, part of 9.1 that talks about tidal friction/heating, and 13.3 Sep 6, 2023
Chapters 2.2, 2.3, first part of 2.4 Sep 11, 2023
Chapter 2.4, the principles behind Newton's law and Kepler's laws Sep 18, 2023
Chapters 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4 Sep 25, 2023
Oct 23, 2023
Oct 30, 2023
Chapters 4.5, 5.1, 10.1, 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 and 10.5 Nov 6, 2023
Chapters 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 5.4 Nov 13, 2023
Chapters 5.5, 6.1, 6.2 Nov 20, 2023
Chapters 6.3, 6.4, 6.5, 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, 11.1, 11.2 Dec 4, 2023


There will be 2 in-class tests that will cover the corresponding half of the material. Tests contribute significantly to your final grade, please study and come prepared.

Test: Topics covered: Book chapters: Date: PDF:
1 TBA TBA Oct 2, 2023 TBA
2 TBA TBA Dec 6, 2023 TBA

Course content:

Are we alone? This simple question has profound implications on our view of both ourselves and of the whole Universe. At this time, there is exactly one place in the Universe where we know biological life has developed – here on Earth. However, modern astronomy has shown that there is an uncountable number of places in the Universe where physical conditions may well be similar to our own. We will begin with a review of history of science – how the ancient Greeks made it big for everyone. Then we will review the formation of our Solar System in general and Earth in particular, from the geology point of view. We will continue with discussing life on Earth, describing the properties which distinguish the living from the non-living, the environmental requirements of life as we know it, and the evolution of terrestrial life. With this background, we will then investigate the possibilities of life in our own astronomical neighborhood − the Solar System – focusing on the most likely locations, including Mars and the moons of Jupiter. Next, we will look at the bigger picture and consider the possibilities of life among the stars. Our Milky Way galaxy contains over 200 billion stars, a large fraction of which are now believed to have planetary systems, and the observable Universe contains billions of galaxies. Could there (not) be life out there somewhere? We will examine the general stellar and galactic conditions that lead to planetary habitability and discuss the ways in which life outside the Solar System might be detected. We will also discuss the search for intelligent life and the possibilities of life migrating from one stellar system to another.

Course material:

J. Bennett and S. Shostak: Life in the Universe, 3rd Edition (Pearson/Addison-Wesley 2010)

A set of problems (pdf) to be used as a supplementary study guide for the tests/final.

A set of problems involving gravity and Kepler's 3rd law can be found here, with solutions.

Cool links:

Here's a truly awesome essay by Richard Feynman on basic chemistry, a part of his Lectures on Physics: Atoms in Motion.

A special kind of extremophiles have been discovered a mile deep under the Antarctic ice. Here is a brief report.

ALMA's latest discovery: amazing detail in a protoplanetary system hints that the nebular theory has it right!

An alternative may have been found to water being the indispensable carrier for life: super-critical carbon dioxide!

Organic molecules found on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!! This is the comet that Rosetta took us to and Philae landed on! Pure awesomeness!

Course work and grading:

Your final grade will reflect the scores you earn on quizzes, tests and the final.

  • every week on Monday there will be a quiz that you must take. Every quiz has 10 questions, with an additional two questions for extra credit. Each quiz question is worth 10 points, 100 points total + 20 points for extra credit;
  • there will be 2 45-min tests during the semester. These tests will have 5 questions, with an additional question for extra credit. Each question is worth 100 points, 500 points total + 100 points for extra credit;
  • at the end of the semester there will be a cumulative final. The final will have 5 questions, with an additional question for extra credit. Each question is 200 points, 1000 points total + 200 points for extra credit;
  • occasionally there may be other opportunities given for extra credit, such as an in-depth presentation of research topics and homeworks. Please see me to find out more about these opportunities.

If you do the math, you'll see that quizzes carry 1/3 of the grade, tests carry 1/3 of the grade, and the final carries 1/3 of the grade. To scare you right out of your pants in advance, here is the grade breakdown:

0-56% F 68-72% C- 84-88% B
56-60% D- 72-76% C 88-92% B+
60-64% D 76-80% C+ 92-96% A-
64-68% D+ 80-84% B- 96-100% A

Course objectives:

Once you have successfully completed The Birth and Death of Stars course, you will be able to:

  • understand and appreciate the process of scientific discovery, from hypothesis to theory;
  • authoritatively partake in a scientifically backed discussion on the contents of the Universe;
  • have the foundation for reading and following the news and advances in this field;
  • gain proficiency with the basic astronomical vocabulary to propel you to other related fields;
  • gain independence and critical thinking skills to recognize BS when you hear it in the news.


Regular attendance is essential for uninterrupted understanding of course material. Since this course covers a significant amount of content in a not-so-significant amount of time, each missed class will hurt. Really hurt. The topics are not trivial and continuous work is required to remain on top of things.

Please do not miss quizzes and tests. If you must miss a quiz or a test, you must inform me of that in advance, and you must have a written notice excusing your absence. Health center visits and subsequent “call us and we'll confirm that he/she was here” do not count as a valid excuse. Provided that you follow these rules, I will excuse you from a missed quiz (i.e. there are no makeups for the quizzes), and I will provide you with a makeup opportunity for the test or the final.

The etiquette for using laptops and cell phones in class:

The use of notebook computers, tablets or cell phones in class is strictly prohibited. You will be publicly flogged if caught using cell phones in class for texting, facebooking or web surfing.

How to reach me:

I am available for your questions and comments whenever you get a hold of me. I usually lurk on the 4th floor Mendel around my office M458c. The best time to catch me is every day between 10am and 4pm except around noon when I'm off to lunch. I am also known to answer e-mails on a regular basis.

Academic integrity:

Finally, here goes the standard blurb: any violation of the Code of ethics will be grounds for failing the course. Any cheating, copying, duplication of work, etc, will get you into trouble. If you have any concerns whatsoever, come talk to me and I'm sure we'll be able to sort everything out.

Special needs:

It is the policy of Villanova University to make reasonable academic accommodations for qualified individuals with special needs. If you are a person with a special need please contact me after class or during office hours and make arrangements to register with the Learning Support Services by contacting 610-519-5176 or by emailing as soon as possible. Students approved for accommodations should use ClockWork to register and book tests.