Review Comment

[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

December 30, 2020

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

Joe P hasn’t gotten a review in quite some time, so allow me to keep things updated.

Sweetest professor I had during my four years. Just a really, really kind-hearted guy. And he does his job quite well. I’m scientifically illiterate (I took the class to fulfill a Core requirement) but I walked out of the class with a solid understanding of some fairly complex topics.

On the course itself: if you invest yourself in the course, you’ll come out of it with a different perspective on life, the universe (and our place in it), time/space, even spirituality. Cosmology is a trip — and Patterson is one fantastic trip leader.

Take this course, even just to fulfill a requirement. You won’t regret it.


Midterm and final, both mostly multiple choice (with a decent amount of bonus questions)
A handful of problem sets, maybe 6 or 7, I forget

December 19, 2014

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

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

The greatest thing about Patterson is that he is super enthusiastic about astronomy. You can tell he loves the subject, just from the fact that writes and performs songs about astronomy in class, or from his useful and entertaining lecture notes.

The only problem with this course is that it isn't structured too well. Patterson will claim to send out problems sets today which won't be available until a week later. Sometimes, his lectures can be confusing as he jumps from one concept to another. The class did seem quite disorganized as a whole. It would probably help to read a little ahead so you can understand what he says in lecture.

Thankfully, though, he sends out lecture notes (although they are not exhaustive - you still have to go to class!) and shares cool news and events in astronomy. Once, he had a miniature party/get-together at his house, which was nice.

As for mathematical background, you really only need to know Algebra. Be comfortable working with units and manipulating formulae (not too difficult).


Problem Sets
This semester, there were only four (last one was optional). He took the highest three scores. They require knowledge from the lectures but also some self-searching on Google and reading through the book.

Related to lecture notes. There's extra credit that's related to poetry relating to astronomy. Part multiple-choice, part short answer.

Related to lecture notes (NOT cumulative - only tests on things after the midterm!) There's extra credit, again, related to poetry. Part multiple-choice, part short answer.

April 18, 2013

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

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

I pretty much agree with the last two reviews. About the easy A matter, I wanted to add that I don't think it's hard to get a good grade in the class. Probably about the same as any other class. Even though the raw scores for the midterm seem low at the time, the raw scores don't mean anything on their own, because the final grade for the semester is curved up to a standard distribution. I think a good number of people got in the A-/A range for their final grade. Probably my favorite professor so far. Good class.


Problem sets, midterm, final.

March 14, 2013

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

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

I loved this class (I hate to begin with such a biased comment, but I guess I should show my hand). It's been several months since the class concluded, and I believe I can safely say that this course will forever remain as one of my most memorable and fulfilling classes at Columbia. Of course, no class is perfect, and I know there were moments of frustration for some students; I intend to cover both the pros and cons of the class in this review so that you know what to expect. Basically, I share the opinion of the previous reviewer (Dec 10, 2009) but I feel that a three year absence of reviews is too long and that this page probably needs something more current to attest to the brilliance of this course.

The Pros:
My high regard for this course has everything to do with Professor Patterson. He has real character and enthusiasm that infuse every class. He's a teacher who values true *teaching* above all else, as opposed to simple rote learning or pointless parroting of information. What he's interested in is encouraging creative thinking, facilitating a deep understanding of concepts that are essential to our current worldview, and making the whole class enjoyable (if that sounds intimidating I don't mean it that way! It's relaxed, fun, and goes at an easy pace). He values class discussion and participation, and his lectures lead the class through the most interesting developments in astronomy -- from Babylon and Ancient Greece, through to the Scientific Revolution, and into Twentieth Century physics. He has a great sense of humor and he values genuine learning, endeavoring to impart an appreciation and understanding of the wonders of the Universe to his students.

I think the perspective of the class -- charting the development of our worldview from the beginning of history until the present day -- is invaluable. Such an important perspective to be aware of, in my opinion. To learn how our understanding of the Universe has evolved is fascinating and provides valuable context for understanding our current views of the cosmos and of science. This isn't just a class about the planets and stars etc. It's not that at all. It's about seeing the Universe, first, from the perspective of the Ancient Greeks: how they learned that the Earth was round, why they rejected the idea of a heliocentric solar system (they had compelling scientific reasons), how Plato and Ptolemy and everyone in between contributed to the solar system model that endured all the way through to the 16th Century. You learn to observe the constellations and the movements of the planets, Sun, and Moon with a real understanding of the patterns. But this is only the tip of the iceberg: very quickly in the semester you move onto the Scientific Revolution. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo are all brought to life through Professor Patterson's accounts and stories of the personalities, exchanges, and conundrums that shaped the revolution in our understanding of the Universe. It's awesome. Then it's Newton and learning how his understanding of gravity developed and how that further revolutionized science. And it continues in this vein right up until the present-day mysteries we are dealing with right now. I could go on but I've probably already said too much.

The point is, you get both a fascinating tour of the history of human understanding of the Universe, and fascinating insights into applying the science that was learned and developed along the way. It's a great balance between the history of science and the application of science. And the professor loves teaching, he loves learning, and he's relaxed, cool, and funny.

By the way, I should mention that I'm in no way a "science" person. Although I've always had a fascination with the night sky and some interest in the movements up there, and although I'm somewhat comfortable with math, I'm not someone who gets into science for the sake of science. I had zero knowledge of Physics before taking this course. I took this course to fulfill one of the science requirements after its title caught my attention; I was hesitant after reading some of the earlier reviews on this page which made it sound very difficult, but, as you can tell, I'm grateful and counting myself lucky that I went ahead and took the course.

The Cons:
As I said, the professor cares about teaching and learning. He's not that much of a "rules" guy. Of course, this would typically be considered a good thing -- and, indeed, I consider it so. But I think some people were a little frustrated at times by the occasionally casual approach to returning assignments and providing answers for those assignments -- things like that. It's nothing serious, I think it's just that it's not the most rigidly organized course: assignment hand-in dates are sometimes pushed back later, he doesn't make a huge deal out of preparation for the mid-term and final (they count for a large proportion of the grade, and he'll do a review of the material in the class beforehand, but he's just not that into obsessing over work and grades and all that—he doesn’t expect students to start studying for the midterm until it’s a couple of days away, so he waits to do the review until that time), and things are run with a slightly more relaxed feeling than some of the other classes at Columbia. The organization of my particular semester was also somewhat hindered by the TA, who wasn’t that reliable. But, again, once you just relax into the flow of the class, that stuff is all great and I believe the emphasis is where it should be. I'm just mentioning it because I think it's at the root of some of the complaints in other reviews, i.e., that we Columbia students get into a habit of wanting everything mapped out for us ("can you give me some study questions?", "can you give us a past exam so we know how to study?", "can you tell me everything you want me to write so that I can just repeat it back to you and get an A?") but he's simply not like that. He's interested in genuine understanding and in encouraging that. His exams and coursework are a mixture of interesting and slightly challenging questions; easy questions that you already know; and, literally, poetry and humor (the last part is not part of your grade). Having said that, the midterm and exam don’t really contain any surprises in terms of content—he only tests on material you’ve been taught.

It seems the biggest reservation other reviewers have about the class is the place of mathematics in the course. It's hard to define exactly what is meant by needing to understand high school algebra for this course, but it IS basically just that: If you are comfortable with standard algebra and formulae (and nothing particularly difficult) you'll be fine with the math. You'll have to use some intimidating-looking formulas, but there's a very limited number of formulas used. You'll have to occasionally move around some numbers with exponents, but you'll get used to it. It's a great way to build intuitive understanding of mathematics. It really is just algebra: you have some formulae, and you'll have to insert some numbers and work out an answer. The part of your thinking that will be utilized most in this process is the intuitive aspect, but even that's not as intimidating as it sounds, because even if you don't understand what you're doing, you'll still know which formula to use and you'll just plug in the numbers. It teaches you a lot, and it's not particularly difficult.

Having said that, if you really dislike mathematics and/or do not feel comfortable with algebra, then this probably isn't the course for you. It’s important to be aware of this and not take the course because it would be frustrating if you were just NOT comfortable with standard algebra. It doesn't dominate the course, but it is there as a constant thread. You don’t need to know any physics for this course. You’ll learn some basic physics, which I found really valuable, but all you need to take this course is a degree of comfort with basic algebra (there’s certainly no calculus or statistics or anything like that).

Finally, I've seen complaints in the earlier reviews about the problem sets. Admittedly, I found the first one a little heavy -- I enjoyed it, but found that it ended up taking some time. However, it's not INTENDED to be this way. I came to see that the problem sets are meant to be somewhat relaxed: you don't need to be that precise or thorough in your answers -- just get the main point across and that's all that’s required really. I wrote way too much and was way too thorough. He says himself that the problem sets aren't meant to be too much work and, of course, he's always available and happy to talk to you one-on-one in his office (not just in office hours, but any time -- he just values teaching and connecting with the students). The problem sets will challenge you to think and apply concepts in novel ways, which is great, but they’re not meant to be a burden; so as long you bear this in mind in your approach, they won’t be a burden. I ended up doing a lot of reading of the textbook (which was pretty helpful) and asking the professor a number of questions, too, simply because I found the material so interesting. But that's probably not necessary to do well in the course. In the end, it's really not a heavy workload at all -- there's not that much to do (4 or 5 problem sets, midterm, exam) and it's pretty relaxed and enjoyable during class. As a friend put it, the class was the least work of his courses that semester in terms of workload, but the most work in terms of thinking, i.e., you end up spending some time getting your head around the concepts and really expanding the way you think about it all. It's not really an easy A (he grades to a curve, but if you really want to get a good grade, then you will), and it's probably not the easiest way to fulfill a science requirement. But it is awesome. All in all, probably an average amount of work required for this course.

A valuable and unique course. Very cool professor. Fascinating content. Loved it. It made the crappy, soulless classes that I was taking that semester much more bearable.


4 or 5 problem sets (he takes your top 4 grades) ~ 20%; midterm ~ 25%; final ~ 35%; class participation ~ 15%.

December 10, 2009

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

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

***In the interest of presenting an un-biased review, this review was written before the final grade received***

Quick-Statement: Extremely interesting material presented by a truly engaged, if not a bit quirky (but what Astronomer isn't) professor...assuming you are reasonably proficient in high school math and basic physics.

The GOOD: This is the first science course I've taken at Columbia, and I took it because the subject matter was very interesting to me. He made it abundantly clear on the first day of class that the course would ultimately be far more quantitative than qualitative, which was fine. The implementation of quantitative methods actually ENABLES you to understand the abstractions he makes - which can be very convenient in the highly-likely event that most of this material seems foreign.
The lectures are actually pretty interesting - and he has myriad handouts which explain everything you will need to know for the EXAMS (and most things you'll need for the problem sets). He actively engages the students, and even gives out fun trinkets such as meteorites & Kit Kats for good questions/answers.
The workload is extremely manageable, and he is a very fair grader. Supposedly, he has a generous curve - I won't know until I get my final grade back.
Finally, he is almost ALWAYS in his office, and is unbelievably helpful with problem sets and lingering questions. He holds observing sessions and the like - and going to them can help you put into practice some of the things you learn.

The BAD: Not a whole heck of a lot. The readings are not particularly necessary - I could have saved a lot of money if I didn't buy the books. But I bought 'em and read 'em anyway, and found that while not at all NECESSARY, the material accents what we learn in class.

Affirmations: As previous reviews have stated, this is probably NOT the best way to fulfill an "easy" science requirement. There is a great deal of math, and some pretty intense implementations of both theories of relativity, Newtonian mechanics, and very large numbers.

Final words: If you have even a passing interest in astronomy, or you have ever looked up in the sky and wondered why things are the way they are, and you are relatively comfortable with math, this course is for you. Plus, there's truly great material: I'm a film major, and I am chock-full of screenplay ideas after taking this course.

Refutations: A common complaint I have read is that the problem sets are unnecessarily challenging and that the lectures do not provide all the answers. This is ***kind of*** true. That said, the handouts provide formulae for basically ALL of the answers. Granted, you have to search for a while, but they're usually there. FURTHERMORE, Dr. Patterson makes it clear that he condones using Google and other online sources to arrive at your answers. You can't ask for much more than that...c'mon guys. This is Columbia.


Problem Sets: Four of them. The fourth was handed out on the last day of class and is optional, depending on how you performed on the prior three. They are challenging and require quite a bit of work, but are rewarding and teach you concepts for the exams...

Midterm: Not like the problem sets, but the concepts taught in P.sets pop up here. This is easier than the problem sets, and a lot of the questions are qualitative.

Final: No comment. However, word on campus is that it is easier than the Mid Term.

Participation: Really counts. However, with such an interesting professor, you'd be foolish not to exploit his resources.

Optional Paper: In case you didn't do so well OR want a generous grade bump OR don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend and have nothing better to do on a Saturday night. He counts this as either extra points or as a formula adjustment...whichever helps you more.

December 09, 2009

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

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

This was really not a pleasant class. I fell asleep in lectures multiple times, even though Professor Patterson is clearly knowledgeable. I took this course for the science credit, and I feel like I could've chosen a different way to get the science requirement that would've been more enjoyable.

Patterson's lectures, problem sets, and exams all cover different material. This is really problematic. The problem sets in particular are extremely difficult and take a long time to do, mostly because I didn't have any of the information I needed to answer the questions even though I went to every lecture. I have taken some physics, and I still didn't know how to start the problem sets. They are very heavy on the math. Patterson is always willing to help with these problem sets, but it's frustrating to need every one explained.

He hands out notes most classes, which do sometimes relate to the questions on the exam.

All in all, I would not whole-heartedly recommend this course. The material is interesting, but Patterson does not communicate it effectively. If you have a strong physics background, this is a good class for you, but otherwise, be prepared to work your butt off.


4 difficult problem sets, the lowest one is dropped.
one midterm
one final

August 23, 2009

Patterson, Joseph Silver_nugget
[ASTR C1610] Origins of the Universe: From Babylon to the Big Bang

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

The worst professor I have ever had in my life. He doesn't lecture well, he doesn't give appropriate assignments, he doesn't tell you how to go about passing the course unless people badger him multiple times, he doesn't even give a clear statement of what is required for the class. His syllabus is fluid, meaning if he doesn't have time to cover something, he'll cut assignments at the end or change the final. He never really talks about the textbook, so you have to figure out where you are regarding that on your own. He gives out a huge pad of notes, often in his own handwriting and with little context (just a bunch of drawings and equations), so you have to attend lecture or you won't even know how to use what equation when. He gives incredibly difficult problems sets, which are almost like brain-teasers because they don't relate strictly to the lecture, and you have to fuss with them a lot to figure out how to complete them (unless you have a very strong physics/science background).

Not a good course to take your first semester of first year, because not only is a lecture class weird to deal with after high school, but his unorthodox methods are incredibly confusing and leave you wondering if you missed something.

All that said, it's hard to say if he's an easy or hard grader, because I ended up with a B+, but had gotten a C on the midterm, and B's on the problem sets. The percentage of the final exam on the final grade determines your grade more than anything. The exams don't relate to the problem sets at all, as the problem sets are designed to show how well you do math, and the tests are designed to show how much you payed attention, read the book, and/or took notes.


4 problem sets, 1 midterm, 1 final.

Directory Data

Dept/Subj Directory Course Professor Year Semester Time Section
ASTR / ASTR ASTR ASTR C1610: Theor-Univers: Babylon-Big Bang Joseph Patterson 2012 Fall MW / 1:10- 2:25 PM 1
ASTR / ASTR ASTR ASTR C1610: Theor-Univers: Babylon-Big Bang Joseph Patterson 2009 Fall TR / 2:40- 3:55 PM 1
ASTR / ASTR ASTR ASTR C1610: Theor-Univers: Babylon-Big Bang Joseph Patterson 2008 Fall TR / 2:40- 3:55 PM 1