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For further information about the Frontiers of Science course, please contact David Helfand, Chair, Department of Astronomy, at

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Frontiers of Science: A Science Course for the Core Curriculum at Columbia University

Human Views of the Universe
Ted Harrison, in his elegant book Cosmology: The Science of the Universe, divides the history of human models for the Universe (the UNIty of the diVERSE) into three stages: Anthropomorphic, Anthropocentric, and Anthropometric.

The Anthropomorphic Universe is an Age of Magic, characterized by the mode of thought we attribute to prehistoric peoples. Natural phenomena, such as the winds, the sun, and the rain, are invested with human forms and emotions—a projection onto incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of what the human observer feels. A legacy of this world view remains in our language today: we speak of "angry," "raging" storms, of "gentle" breezes "caressing" us on sunny summer days. The anthropomorphic observer shapes the natural world in his own image, seeing no boundary between the self and an external reality. This outlook is not unknown today.

In the Anthropocentric Universe, the forces of nature are attributed to the whims of a pantheon of powerful gods replete with human characteristics and emotions, and remarkably obsessed with human problems. This Age of Myth is, in a very general sense, an Earth-centered cosmology in which human concerns are central. It represents what most of our current Core Curriculum is all about: human creativity, human social interactions, human feelings.

The Anthropometric Universe is the Age of Science, in which, to paraphrase Protagoras, "Man TAKES the measure of all things." It began with the Copernican Revolution, which removed the Earth from the cosmic center, and it continues today as more and more of the physical and biological universe becomes comprehensible within the context of our scientific models.

This new perspective on the Universe can be discomforting. It has not been sufficient, for example, to simply replace the Earth with OUR Sun as the center of the Universe as Copernicus did. Galileo speculated that the tens of thousands of stars his new telescope revealed were also suns observed from great distances. By the beginning of this century, it became clear that our Sun lay not at the center of this vast swarm of other stars, but in the outer reaches of the gargantuan spiral system of stars we call the Milky Way. By 1930, our significance shrank again, as Edwin Hubble demonstrated that the Milky Way was but one of billions of galactic systems in a Universe with no center at all. It now appears that we, our Earth, our Sun, our Galaxy, and all the other galaxies are made of stuff which constitutes but a trace constituent of the Universe.

That one kilogram of this trace constituent, appropriately arranged in the human brain, can apprehend its own insignificance in such quantitative detail is a matter of considerable moment. This world view was largely unknown when the Core Curriculum was founded. It has existed for less than a hundred of the Earth's 4.5 billion years—less than a minute out of a human lifetime. Yet without studying it, our students will be ill-equipped to understand many of the crucial issues facing our citizenry and our planet. Along with developing critical skills for viewing art and hearing music, we must develop the skills necessary to read a graph and assess a quantitative argument. Along with reading the great works of literature, we must provide an introduction to the great ideas in science. The Science Core is designed to complete for our students an introduction to the intellectual achievements of our age.