MSE 2103: How Old is 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 prefer an old-fashioned syllabus (i.e. the one that can be printed out and made into an airplane), please download it here.

Course content:

Today we know, rather than guess, that the age of the Universe is 13.7 billion years. The uncertainty in this number is remarkably small, smaller than 1%. It is of course natural to ask ourselves: how do we know? What observations, what reasoning and what inevitable conclusions shaped this bold statement and shrunk the corresponding uncertainties? Join me for a ride of epic proportions, where we will jointly endeavor to understand the steady advancement of comprehending our Universe, starting from our home turf, the Earth, then shooting for the stars, and finally discussing the mind-boggling concepts of dark matter and dark energy! We will leave the comfort of this world and strive to understand the physical laws that govern the largest scale dynamics – galaxies and clusters of galaxies – and tie it all to form a consistent picture that answers our question: how old is the Universe? Since the path to get there is much more rewarding than the answer itself, brace yourselves for a thought-provoking semester filled with unexpected twists, turns and new information that will enrich and empower you in the modern world today where science shapes the advancement of our civilization.

Course material:

D. Weintraub, How Old is the Universe, 3rd print (Princeton UP, 2013)

Here is a pdf of the spectra and the H-R diagram I showed in class.

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.


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 1-3 Jan 21, 2015
Chapters 3-4 Jan 26, 2015
Chapters 4-7 Feb 2, 2015
Chapters 7-10 Feb 9, 2015
Numerical exercises Feb 16, 2015
Chapters 11, 12, 14 Feb 25, 2015


There will be 3 in-class tests that will cover the corresponding third of the material. Tests contribute significantly to your final grade, please study and come prepared.

Test: Topics covered: Book chapters: Date: PDF:
1 1/12--2/16 1+ Feb 18 pdf
2 to be announced to be announced to be announced to be announced
3 to be announced to be announced to be announced to be announced

Course work and grading:

Your final grade will reflect your effort, quizzes and tests. The grading is based on the following:

  • 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 5 points, 50 points total + 10 points for extra credit;
  • there will be 3 45-min tests during the semester. These tests will have 5 questions, with an additional question for extra credit. Each question is worth 50 points, 250 points total + 50 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 100 points, 500 points total + 100 points for extra credit. If you get 85% or more on all three tests, you may opt out from the final. In that case, your final grade will be computed from the point average of the tests and quizzes;
  • occasionally there will be other opportunities given for extra credit, such as an in-depth presentation of research topics related to Life in the Universe. Please see me to find out more about these opportunities.

If you do the math, you'll see that quizzes carry 32% of the grade, tests carry 41% of the grade, and the final carries 27% 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

Yes, looks scary. But remember: work hard, work constantly, and seize all the extra credit opportunities, and there should be no reason for alarm. Ultimately, the grade you earn is yours alone, I am just a scribe.


Regular attendance is essential for uninterrupted understanding of the 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 topic is 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. 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. As for the final: whatever you do, do not miss it. Verbal excuses and call-the-health-center-and-you'll-see-I-was-sick-on-the-day-of-the-quiz/test are not admissible. There will be no exceptions.

The etiquette for using laptops and cell phones in class:

The use of notebook computers, palm-tops 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 M358c. The best time to catch me is every day between 9am and 5pm 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 Office by contacting 610-519-5636 or Nancy Mott as soon as possible. Services for students with physical disabilities are provided by the Division of Student Life.