12.400 -  Our Space Odyssey Spring 2021 Lecture Series

Hosted by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and taught by Professors Julien de Wit and Richard P. Binzal. 

Upcoming Lectures which are open to MIT alumni will take place 2/25/21 to 5/6/21 from 3-4 pm EST, with exception of April 1st which will be from 7-8 pm EST. Please note the same zoom link will be used for each lecture.  


Contact Information: Professor Julien de Wit, jdewit@mit.edu 

*Registration is required

This lecture series is by invitation only for MIT Alumni. The links, materials, and presentations associated with the series must not be shared, copied, recorded, or posted online. The views and opinions expressed in the presentations are solely those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, its faculty, or MIT.

Thursday, February 25th

The Concept of Life, 1 (Fundamentals)

Prof. William Bains (EAPS) and Dr. Janusz Petkowski (EAPS) provide their perspectives on the concept of Life as biochemists and share the outcomes of their reflections over the years. Both are engaged in the study of potential life on Venus and elsewhere.

William Bains: http://www.williambains.co.uk/index.html

Janusz Petkowsi: https://www.januszpetkowski.com/

Tuesday, March 2nd

The Concept of Life, 2 (Fundamentals)

Prof. Stefan Helmreich (Anthropology, MIT)  - an anthropologist of science - guides us through a historical and anthropological reflection on the concept of Life.

Stefan Helmreich: https://anthropology.mit.edu/people/faculty/stefan-helmreich

Thursday, March 4th

The Concept of Intelligence

Prof. Danilo Bzdok (Biomedical Engineering, McGill University) builds upon the previous session regarding the concept of Life to discuss the concept of Intelligence from a neuroscience and AI perspective.

 Danilo Bzdok: https://www.mcgill.ca/bbme/danilo-bzdok

Thursday, March 11th

Intelligence & Meaning (Fundamentals) *5-6:30pm EST

Prof. Edward Hall (Chair of Philosophy Dept, Harvard) concludes our discussion on the concept of Intelligence by examining the processes behind making meaning, building knowledge, and transferring it. Be ready to discuss meaning, knowledge, truth, and worldview.

Edward Hall: https://philosophy.fas.harvard.edu/people/edward-j-hall

Tuesday, March 16th

Our Environment (Challenges) 

Brandon Leschinskiy (Graduate Student, Aero-Astro, MIT) introduces the first main challenge we will consider, our environment --> via “Climate 101”. This presentation was developed by Brandon Leshchinskiy in collaboration with Professor Dava Newman, MIT, and EarthDNA in an effort to mobilize young people as educators on the issue of climate change. The presentation addresses not only the science but also the economics and civics of climate change, incorporating a negotiation activity that brings key concepts to life.


Thursday, March 18th

Our Environment, 2 (Case Study)

Prof. Susan Solomon (EAPS, MIT) introduces two of the key environmental success stories providing a socio-culturo-politico perspective on how to seed change. Such case studies will help students substantiate reflections in their essay.

Susan Solomon: https://eapsweb.mit.edu/people/solos

Thursday, March 25th

Our Environment 3 (Case Study)

Profs. Dava Newman (Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics, MIT) and Gui Trotti (Space Architect, Media Lab and AgeLab, MIT) introduce their perspective on environmental challenges together with their AI platform EarthDNA.org (environment, public engagement, meaning-making, and intelligence). They will also share stories about their personal journeys from leading NASA (Newman) to designing the International Space Station (Trotti).

Dava Newman:  https://davanewman.com

Gui Trotti: https://trottistudio.com/profile/

Tuesday, March 30th

Racing into the Future, 1 (Challenges)

Prof. Alan Lightman (Humanities, MIT) – astrophysicist, writer and social entrepreneur, introduces us to another challenge with a talk entitled "Racing into the Future: the impact of accelerating advances in science and technology". In this talk, he will reflect on the continuous increase in the pace of our exploration, its connection to the increasing pace of our technological development, and the social, philosophical, theological, and psychological impacts of modern discoveries. 

 Alan Lightman: https://cmsw.mit.edu/alan-lightman/

Thursday, April 1st

Racing into the Future, 2 (Challenges) *7-8 pm EST

Professor Rev. Ted Peters follows Prof. Lightman’s discussion regarding “Racing into the Future” with a historical and theologian perspective towards “Entering the Third Axial Age.”

Ted Peters: https://tedstimelytake.com/

Tuesday, April 6th

Born in a Cloud (Fundamentals)

Prof. de Wit brings us back to the primordial soup and teaches us how it all turns into a planetary system in “Born in a Cloud”.

Thursday, April 8th

Astronomy and our Prehistory

Profs. Clive Ruggles (Emeritus Professor of Archeoastronomy, University of Leicester, UK) and Michael Rappenglück (Gliching Observatory, Germany)—archeoastronomers authors of UNESCO and IAU’s report on the Heritages of Astronomy—take us back 30,000 years and teach us about the very first artifacts connecting our species to astronomy. Through this case study, we will learn about two processes of meaning-making and knowledge transfer that are connected and yet happening tens if not hundreds of years apart: “What were they thinking?” and “How do we know?”.

Clive Ruggles: https://www3.cliveruggles.com/



Tuesday, April 13th

Early Cultures and Geocentrism

Profs. Liba Taub (University of Cambridge, UK) and John Steele (Brown University) bring us further in time to consider later impacts of astronomy focusing on early cultures, from the eastern Mesopotamia to Europe’s medieval ages.

Liba Taub: https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/person/professor-liba-taub/

John Steele: https://www.brown.edu/academics/early-cultures/people/affiliated-faculty/john-steele


Tuesday, April 15th

The Emerging Field of Astrosociology

Professor Gerhart Sonnert (Harvard) will introduce us to the new and growing field of astrosociology, which studies the social, cultural, and behavioral patterns related to Space with a particular regain of focus on SETI/CETI. Astrosociology is also the title of an engaging and popular course Gerhart teaches at Harvard since 2017.

Gerhart Sonnert: https://astronomy.fas.harvard.edu/people/gerhard-sonnert 


Thursday, April 22nd

Planetary Atmospheres (Fundamentals)

Profs. de Wit and Binzel introduce the basic properties and physical observables of planetary atmospheres.

Tuesday, April 27th

Leaving Earth, Looking Back

Astronaut Jeff Hoffman and Frank White will lead this session. Frank is the author and space philosopher who coined the term “Overview Effect” to describe the cognitive shift in awareness that results from the experience of viewing Earth from orbit or the moon. He will discuss the global impact that our race to the Moon has had over the last 60 years. Jeff--MIT Professor, 5-times Space Shuttle Astronaut, rescuer of the Hubble Space Telescope, and Deputy PI of MOXIE--will introduce his personal experience leaving Spaceship Earth.

Frank White: http://frankwhiteauthor.com/

Jeff Hoffman:  https://aeroastro.mit.edu/faculty-research/faculty-list/jeffrey-hoffman

Thursday, April 29th

Integrating Finiteness

Dr. Ariel Elkbaw (Founder and Director of the Space Exploration Initiative, Media Lab, MIT) and Dr. Valentini Sumini (Space Architect, Media Lab, MIT) will discuss the practicalities of developing human space exploration programs. Doing so, we will reflect on Space Exploration as a means to learn more about various types of finiteness (from resources to sensory stimulus) and consider if/how this learning could help us integrate the finiteness of our current spaceship (Earth), which notably underlies current environmental problems. 

Valentina Sumini: https://www.valentinasumini.com/

Ariel Elkbaw: Ariel Elkbaw: https://www.media.mit.edu/people/aekblaw/overview/ 

Tuesday, May 4th 

Exploring Other Worlds, 1

Prof. Richard and fellow EAPS Faculty Prof. Tanja Bosak, Prof. Taylor Perron, and Prof. Benjamin Weiss will discuss our recent and ongoing exploration of the Solar System owing to their direct engagement in numerous current and future missions.

Tanja Bosaki: http://bosaklab.scripts.mit.edu/

Benjamin Weiss: http://www.benweiss.mit.edu/

Taylor Perronhttp://mit.edu/perron/www/

Thursday, May 6th

Exploring Other Worlds, 2

Prof.  Avi Loeb (Chair, Harvard University Department of Astronomy; Advisory Committee Chair, Breakthrough Starshot Initiative) and Prof. de Wit discuss the principles behind searching for biosignatures around exoplanets, the search for techno signatures (SETI), and the possible origins of interstellar objects.

Avi Loeb: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~loeb/

Prereq: Physics I (GIR), Units: 3-0-9, Lecture: TR3-4:30 (Virtual), J. de Wit, R.Binzel

"We are about to stumble upon Life elsewhere in the Universe. How do we prepare ourselves and the future generations? At a time where our species and our ecosystem face profound challenges, it seems essential to seize any opportunity to reflect on where we are at and guide our next steps. This class will provide such an opportunity while studying the influence of astronomy on our species through time and cultures. Guest speakers will share insights from fields spanning anthropology, art, astronomy, biology, history, philosophy, politics, psychology, and theology.

The first part of the class will cover fundamentals of our current worldview through an introduction to planetary sciences, the concepts of Life and Intelligence, and the processes of meaning-making. The second part will introduce some of our current challenges and the third part, case studies to gain insights into how change can be seeded. The semester will close with students integrating their reflections into a comprehensive essay, some of which will become part of a publication on space exploration as a mean for both outer and inner growth.