Extrasolar Planets & Astrobiology

May 2010

Caleb is fantastic. Honestly, he is one of the best instructors that I have had. He really cares about the class and the material and incorporates recent developments in the field into his lectures. I definitely recommend this class. I definitely have a very different perspective about astrobiology and exoplanets than I had going into the course, and the science behind detecting these planets is really quite cool. You don't really need an astronomy background to take the class--everything is built from first principles. You pretty much just need calculus and freshman physics.

Apr 2006

Best. Class. Ever. This is one of the best classes I have ever taken. Not only is the subject material absolutely engaging, but Professor Scharf is a brilliant and inspired astronomer, whom other instructors should look to as an example to be followed. The course material, which is basically astrophysics applied to the rising field of astrobiology and both new and ancient questions of Life in the Universe, is incredibly unique. Only a handful of universities in the nation have classes that teach the new subject, and as far as I know, none of them teach the material with as quantitative and scientific a viewpoint as Professor Scharf. Every class usually begins with some announcements about discoveries or events from the past few days or week that dramatically shape the course material, which is changing nearly every day. It was really quite amazing to study and to examine the material that appears in the news every day. Go to and check their "Science and Space" news - much of that relates to the current quest to find ExtraSolar Planets, and that's what you'll be studying in class! I would absolutely recommend this class to anyone even remotely interested in astronomy, biology, or modern science in general. The pre-requisite of calculus-based physics is definitely very helpful, but not essential, as Scharf tends to explain everything very extensively along the way. He is always availiable to help out, he responds to every e-mail with great efficiency, and his lectures are truly fascinating. No one falls asleep, and I for one, was riveted by the second part of the class, where you begin to discuss the heart of astrobiology. The beginning of the class can maybe be a bit dull if you're not into astrophysics, as you do some quantitative mathematics on gas cloud collapse, and some orbital dynamics, but once you learn the qualitative aspects of them, it becomes much, much clearer to you, and you walk away feeling like you could teach the material to someone else, which is perhaps the epitome of good teaching... as the proverb goes... Professor Scharf is a very good lecturer, sometimes prone to some sporadic humor, which is always entertaining, he does, as the previous reviewer said, have a very intense pace, and doesn't stop the lecture usually at all during the 75 minute period. But honestly, I never noticed - the material is really that interesting if you get into it, and you will. There is no textbook, and the readings come from Scientific American, some astrophysics texts, and some journal articles. The lack of a textbook on the subject should give you an idea of how modern the subject material really is, and how subject to change it is. If you have to take a class, you're not afraid of a little physics, and you really would like to know about the issues presented to us by the discoveries of other worlds, and the possibility of life beyond the earth, I absolutely recommend this class to everyone. I'm sure you won't regret it.

May 2004

Caleb Scharf is an excellent teacher. The class is cutting edge, so there is no well-developed syllabus for him to follow. He made up his own syllabus and lectures essentially from current research papers. Caleb is a great lecturer and is extremely funny. He tries to distill only the most relevant math and physics from the material so that it is actually providing insight into the material and not complicating it. If you're a math or physics major this kind of lecture style, only putting up relevant physics without derivation, might put you off at first, but once you accept it you realize it really makes your life easier. My favorite aspect of the class was the scientific process. Because a lot of the material is new, there is not necessarily an accepted scientific doctrine, so the evidence supporting and rejecting different theories is weighed before your eyes. Compare this to your physics class where there has been a "correct" interpretation for at least 80 years. I think the process of scientific discovery is exciting and usually undergrads don't get the chance to see it unfold.