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Origins of Life

The stars and planets move at a dizzying pace, changing position across huge expanses of time. Within just a few minutes, it’s possible to view the sky of the 7th century, or perhaps the 18th, or even the 23rd. Consider it a new form of stargazing, courtesy of Starry Night, a form of virtual planetarium software that can show what the sky would look like at any time in the present, past, or future.

Starry Night allows Stephen Tufte, associate professor of physics, to help illuminate why people once viewed the world as either earth-centered (geocentric) or sun-centered (heliocentric). It’s just one of the topics covered in the new interdisciplinary course Origins of Life in the Universe.

The course is the collaborative effort of four departments: physics (Tufte), biology (Associate Professor Ken Clifton), chemistry (Associate Professor Nikolaus Loening), and geological science (Associate Professor Elizabeth Safran). It’s intended to show the unity of scientific thought across disciplines while sparking an interest in further science study. Many of the course participants are first- or second-year students who are still pondering majors.

“The trend in science is to blur the boundaries,” says Tufte. “It’s important to remind students that the distinctions between scientific disciplines were made by humans; nature doesn’t know the boundaries. We divided things up in order to specialize.”

The course, which includes a lab component, focuses on big-picture issues and questions, such as the origins of the universe, the processes of stellar evolution and planet formation, the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Origins of Life is supported in part by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Since the course is in its first year, it’s a bit of an experiment. As Tufte says, “We’re all learning together.”

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