Review Comment

[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

October 21, 2004

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

People complain way too much about this class. Admitedly, first semester was pretty boring. But the second semester was absolutely fascinating...I never wanted to miss a class. His take on the history of the earth's climate, as well as the history of the universe, made the class worthwhile.
The problem sets are also challenging, but not overly so. If you work with a couple people and come to office hours, each can be done in less than 2 hours.

Workload:

Several problem sets, midterm, and final. Nothing to lose sleep about.

May 16, 2004

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Prof. Helfand is amazing. I never thought I would make it through the science requirement alive, but after a full year of Helfand I am glad to say that science-phobic students have a great option. That being said, this is NOT a class you can totally blow off. It will get hard and frustrating if you do that since there is no textbook to fall back on. But if you go to the lectures, do the problem-sets and go to Helfand during office hours - he is probably the most accessible and friendliest professor I've met at Columbia - by the time the final rolls around you'll be in good shape. one of the few science classes at Columbia where the prof. will bet with his students, perform soliloquy's from Hamlet or run into a wall at full speed, all in the interest of teaching.

Workload:

not too bad at all. midterm and final questions are very similar to problem sets and quizzes so just make sure you can do those problems and you'll do fine.

May 08, 2004

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

I think whether or not you like this course is dependent on what your expectations are coming into it. If you're a non-science major who wants as little to do with science as possible (like me), you'll hate it, everything about it. If, on the other hand, you take an open mind to the class and expect that there's going to be some interesting (some would say off-topic and inane) material covered, all at warp speed, then by golly, you might even like the class. Can't say much bad about Helfand as a person, although his teaching skills are not finely tuned to the audience - he goes way too fast and goes off into concepts that are impossible to explain in the incredibly short time he gives them. All in all, beware of this course. If you're willing to step up, by all means take it - no lab required, little work, etc. But it's not easy, and you're not necessarily going to get a good grade, so beware.

Workload:

5 problem sets/quizzes, lowest of each is dropped, ridiculous midterm and final, both including problems you've never seen and have no idea how to do.

April 29, 2004

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Yes, the problem sets and the tests are challenging. You will actually have to work, not just to figure out the answers, but to figure out how to figure out the answers. This can be intimindating and frustrating. But it also ensures that you understand what you're doing, rather than just regurgitating information or plugging numbers into information with all the comprehension of their meaning that your calculator has. And for gods' sake, there are only 5 problem sets for the entire semester, one of which is optional! In a class for which there is no reading or other homework, spending a few hours on a problem set 4 or 5 times a semester is an astonishingly small workload. The quizzes cover the exact same material as the problem sets and are open-notes, as are the midterm and final. And they're all curved. How can this be "unfair"?

Frankly, I found the work in this class to be intimidating and my grade was not as good, or as easy, as I would have liked. But not for a moment would I criticize the course or professor for that. In fact, I skirted the A-/B+ border without putting in that much time, doing problem sets in a group, attending office hours to get help, or having done virtually any math in my last four years of studying history. This is a challenging class, certainly, but its demands are neither unmanageable nor excessive.

And in fact, the class is highly enjoyable. Professor Helfand--once a theater major--is a highly entertaining speaker--vivacious, passionate, and funny. He'll do anything to draw his students in, get them interested, or flip on their mental lights. His stunts--like running a gambling scam to prove how much better statistics are than luck or superstition, or charging full-body into a locked door to show... well, something about physics--are legendary. And he does convey his subject matter. His lectures are not just entertaining; they're very well-organized and convey a lot of information very well. It's also pretty easy to tell which data he's telling us just for the sake of curiosity or enlightenment, and which are necessary for a grade. Professor Helfand is the kind of instructor who gets an ovation at the end of the semester, and deserves every bit of it.

About the material: it covers everything, or tries to. One of Helfand's main goals is to convey how relevant science and scientific thinking are to every aspect of our lives, and for me, at least, it's changed the way I look at the world and at knowledge. The beginning of the first semester is somewhat dry, because the course has no prereqs other than algebra and he has to cover, as quickly as possible, some rudiments of chemistry and physics (and later, probablility and statistics.) Then it gets interesting as he applies these concepts to questions as diverse as global warming, the authenticity of the shroud of Turin, radiation at Hiroshima, what killed the dinosaurs, supernovae, the diets of prehistoric man, and the origin of the universe. He teaches as much about how scientists know what they know as about what they know, which is really valuable, and which I didn't expect as much of in an intro class. If you get bored with any topic he addresses, or find it too confusing, never fear, because he'll be somewhere else soon.

Workload:

5 problem sets (1-3 hours each) and 5 quizzes; lowest grade on each is dropped. You can do the psets in goups and get copious help from the prof. 1 midterm, 1 final. All tests are open-notes, with all equations and quantities provided.

January 28, 2004

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

I don't agree with the previous few critics about the class. I though that Prof. Helfand was a GREAT teacher-- funny, interesting, AND clear. Although, I do have to admit that his problem sets were CHALLENGING, but they were definitely do-able if you were to go to his office hours. He was available before EVERY problem set was due to answer ANY questions, and he would practically DO the problems out on the board. His lectures were great, and I would recommend the class to anyone who is remotely interested in thinking, rathering than memorizing.

Workload:

problem sets, quizzes for each problem set, midterm, and final

January 10, 2004

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Obviously, Prof. Helfand is a much-loved, well-respected professor-- and for good reason. He is a funny, intelligent man who tries very hard to make his classes interesting--which is why I feel guilty admitting that I strongly disliked the class, and would certainly NOT recommend it. Initially, the lectures seemed funny and entertaining--until I tried to take my notes and complete one of his problem sets, and realized that, despite having been to every class and being a fairly good note-taker, I had no idea how to do them. From there on, things deteriorated. The class is simultaneously mind-numbingly easy and ridiculously difficult. I was bored during lectures, but found myself spending hours trying to interpret his problem sets, before giving up and going to office hours. The lack of a book makes it still more difficult to decipher the material, and pretty much impossible to study for his tests. If you have a genuine gift for science, take this class, don't show up for lectures, and get an easy A. However, if, like me, science is one of your worst subjects and you are looking for a painless way through the science requirement, look elsewhere.

Workload:

Five VERY difficult problem sets that even my engineering friends had trouble with, five quizzes (drops the lowest quiz and problem set), one VERY difficult midterm, and one hard final.

December 27, 2003

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

I thought I had brilliantly defeated Columbia's stupid science requirement by picking the jokiest joke class ever to fulfill it. I figured I would show up to class once in a while, take the tests, ace them easily, and maybe learn an interesting thing or two. Instead, the class turned out to be very hard, with tricky problem sets, and the hardest midterm I had ever taken. But really if I didn't have such unfair expectations for the class, I would have liked it much more. The topics of the class are varied and diverse. Professor Helfand covers topics from carbon dating and half-lifes to the effects of sunspots on radio waves. He is very clearly a brilliant man, and his lectures are entertaining, despite the speed with which he moves through topics and the tremendous knowledge he assumes we have (and which of course we do not). He seemed to be despondent about the class at the end, and even came out and said that he was disappointed that the class didn't seem to be having fun. But that's probably our own fault for reading the idiotic CULPA reviews that said this class was a joke. Ignore them, understand that there is work to be done in this class with no textbook to refer back to for exams, and that you will be entertained occasionally, and always challenged to think, and you will like the class just fine. If you think this class will be a joke, you will not find it so fun. Not an easy A at all.

Workload:

5 Problem Sets which can be done in groups of 3, 5 Quizzes, Midterm, Final. They're all tricky. Not a joke.

December 16, 2003

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

This class is a disaster. I'm surprised more people haven't written to complain about it. All these reviews will tell you Helfand is a funny, nice guy who genuinely seems to care what his students think - which is true. But it's not like you're going to enjoy the class material, or the ridiculously difficult (for no apparent reason) problem sets. Classes are disorganized and there seems to be no sense that we are going anywhere in this course. One week it's analyzing roof tiles from Hiroshima, the next it's determining the diet of skeletons. This sounds fun and interesting, but wait until you have to take notes and do problems on it - this is where Helfand ruins it. No textbook, so no way of getting the information except from lectures. Not that by going to lectures you would have any idea how to do the problem sets anyway. Better set your watch to go off when he has office hours every week, just so you can get a passing grade on the problem sets. Anyway, a lot of us are stuck in it for the next semester since it's part of a sequence. Trust me, if you have the choice, take another sequence. This is NOT an easy way to do the science requirement.

Workload:

5 problem sets (drop lowest grade), midterm, final. Problem sets take a few hours apiece, though, since the problems are so ridiculous and out of left field.

November 18, 2003

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

This class is terrible! You think you're signing up for one of those joke classes, but there's one problem: there's no textbook! So if you miss a class, there's no way for you to find out what you missed. Some aspects of this course are interesting, but I'm still not really sure what it's main goal is. It's a bunch of physics, chemistry, statistics and probably all thrown together. Some stuff is very basic and very boring. Ironically, I have yet to see why this class is in the Astronomy department.... I signed up for it thinking it would be an easy, fairly interesting astronomy course, and it turned out to be a boring, hard course with no ultimate aim. Helfand is a great guy and very funny, but don't be fooled by the first class where you go in and listen to him talk and make jokes the whole time. The next class and many more to come are just boring stuff, like basic probability and basic aspects of chemistry, which are never really applied to anything useful. If you go to every class I'm sure you'll do well, but any time I went to class I would have to fight to stay awake and to stop thinking about what a waste of time this class was. I say avoid it at all costs.

Workload:

biweekly problem sets which take a surprisingly long time to do, but you can work in groups of 3 [which doesn't help much], 1 midterm 1 final

September 09, 2001

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Whether it's his calculation of the number of dump trucks needed to cart away the global weekly toenail-clipping waste, or his demonstration of centrifugal force by standing on a spinning platform and whirling about much faster than you think a grown man would be comfortable with, or his betting real money -- at 20-to-1 odds -- that at least two people in the class have the same birthday, Helfand is a delight. No wonder he did segments on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" last year. He's witty and engaging and makes astronomy, physics, chemistry, and everything else he covers in this class fascinating--even to a history major. Hands down, the best science professor I have ever encountered.

Workload:

Five quizzes and problem sets per semester, which aren't simple but aren't impossible, plus a midterm and a final, both of which are graded on a generous curve. No reading.

April 09, 2001

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

I've seen these three titles (The Universal Timekeeper, An Introduction to Scientific Habits of the Mind, Astronomy-Physics-Geology) associated with the course in various places, but I can assure you of practically zero geology. Helfand is great! I took this year-long course as a science requirement filler (ugh) and have been rewarded beyond all expectation. Helfand is an excellent lecturer, well-prepared, organized, and on top of the material. He throws in well-placed humor and the occasional anecdote to spice up his for-the-most-part-entertaining lectures. I never expected to get so much out of a science class. Universal Timekeeper is a broad, important introduction to lots of science. Helfand makes everything extremely relevant, and often succeeds in turning the lecture into a big discussion section. Despite his extremely busy schedule, he always makes time to meet with students and is more than willing to hold review sessions. The focus is not at all on memorization or even on doing the problems, but on learning the overall concepts and developing "scientific habits of mind."

Workload:

5 Problem Sets (drop the lowest); 5 quizzes (drop the lowest); midterm and a final, both very similar to the problem sets. The grading is pretty lenient. The problem sets are challenging (in a good way), yet not too hard, and it turns out to be a few hours of work once every two or three weeks.

April 08, 2001

Helfand, David Silver_nugget
[ASTR 1234] The Universal Timekeeper

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Helfand is brilliant and charismatic, but unmotivated and uninterested students pull this class down. Progresses from obscenely basic to somewhat challenging as the term goes on. I could have taught the first half of the course in greater detail, based on what i remember from 10th grade chemistry. It really does get better with time though. With no reading, this is a thinking class--take it if you find science intellectually stimulating but don't have the math for real courses... and make sure you have a high tolerance for slow classmates.

Workload:

Pretty light--problem sets/quizzes every week, a midterm and a final, but no reading whatsoever.

Directory Data

Dept/Subj Directory Course Professor Year Semester Time Section
ASTR / ASTR ASTR ASTR C1234: Universal Timekeeper David Helfand 2010 Fall MW / 9:30-10:45 AM 1
ASTR / ASTR ASTR ASTR C1234: Universal Timekeeper David Helfand 2003 Fall TR / 2:40- 3:55 PM 1