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Course Review – Life in the Universe

Having taken a break from science classes since finishing my first degree in the 1980s, I suspected I had missed something when my kids’ solar system and dinosaur books and puzzles started looking strangely unfamiliar.Life in the Universe, review of iTunes course

“So when did Saturn get all those moons,” I would ask equally bewildered parents. “And what happened to the Brontosaurus?”

As it turns out, revolutions in nearly all of the sciences that have taken place over the last 30 years are nearly on par with the “Great Revolutions” in physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and environmental sciences that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And I don’t think I could have had a better guide through all these transformations in the sciences than Ohio State’s Richard Pogge or a better framework to study them than his Astronomy 141 class Life in the Universe.

As Pogge describes, a class on this subject would have consisted of little more than speculation and science fiction just two decades ago. But given what we have recently learned about how the earth and solar system were formed (coupled with new knowledge about the evolution of stars and star systems), we are now in a position to talk concretely — not just the stars in the sky but also about how specific planets orbiting them (called exoplanets – 699 of which are currently confirmed) are candidates for new habitats for life.

But to understand what we mean by “habitat for life,” we need to understand chemistry, biology, environmental science and ecosystems (including the science of “extremophiles,” those weird life forms that can survive at very high and very low temperatures or other outrageous conditions that we would have once thought sterilized a landscape. And while Pogge declares his humility as an astronomer talking about such a wide range of sciences outside of his specialty, it is clear that he mastered these subjects enough to push ahead the project of finding out if we are the only form of intelligent life in the universe and, if we are not alone, where the heck everyone else might be.

As someone pursuing a philosophy degree, I was particularly impressed with the strategy Pogge chose to answer an obvious sub-question to the intelligent life question: “What do we mean by intelligence?” For, in order to come up with some sort of working definition, Pogge engaged with colleagues working in philosophy. And rather than allowing himself to get bogged down in dialectics that have kept philosophers grappling with such questions for generations, he simply used the philosophical wisdom he gained to come up with a practical list of qualities to look for if (and maybe when) we encounter a habitable planet that might contain not just life, but life worth having a conversation with.

One of the reasons this course is able to cover such a huge amount of material is that it consists of 44 lectures, each 45-50 minutes in length, making it the “heaviest” class I’ve taken so far in terms of material covered. And because this class is made up of recordings of live, practiced and polished classroom lectures, the material is taught extremely efficiently. Each class covers a specific scientific topic (the biological revolution, the life of a star, the Fermi Paradox, etc.), which  left me pretty caught up in far more than the latest astronomical musings.

As I mentioned in previous blog entries, complaints that iTunes classes lack the “extras” that come with MOOCs (such as homework assignments, reading lists and tests) are mitigated by the fact that Astronomy 141 is a real live class with a real live web page containing a syllabus and — yes — homework exercises. And while the homework isn’t automatically scored, it is more challenging than the type of multiple-choice questions you’d typically find in a MOOC class. Assignments often consist of open-ended questions that require online research to complete.

Which raises a question about the future development of MOOCs and other online learning: Will MOOCs catch up with their classroom equivalents in terms of the volume of material covered in a set of lectures faster than classes like Life in the Universe find a way to integrate non-lecture material so students don’t have to hunt for it themselves?


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber over at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at