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Habitability in the Universe (IL907)


This module will draw together concepts of habitability from across the university, starting in our own Solar System and exploring how we find and understand habitable planets in the wider galaxy using modern telescopes. We will look at life at the extremes, considering extremophiles on Earth, and what they might tell us about habitable conditions elsewhere, before approaching the sustainability and long term habitability of our own planet.

From this initial exploration of the realities of habitability, we will turn to our own reactions to it. Popular culture is replete with the idea of the other, within our normal environment and outside of it. A sense of precariousness underpins literature and film, from Jules Verne to Ridley Scott’s The Martian. In cinema, the development of special effects is closely linked to the presentation of alien life and other worlds. Finally, even the ideas of politics are affected: how should we organise a growing settlement on another planet, where small mistakes can rapidly lead to failure and death?"



The overall module will consist of weekly 2 hour sessions, comprising a lecture followed by a more interactive seminar and discussion. During the lecture we will introduce new concepts from differing departmental perspectives. The seminars will allow the students the opportunity to synthesise these concepts into a complete understanding of ‘Habitability in the Universe’. These seminars will consist of guided discussions and group activities, as relevant to each topic covered. Each week will be led by academics from the appropriate departments. We will begin with a scientific conception of habitability, in the solar system and galaxy, before expanding the concept progressively to include habitability in literature and the arts. Finally we will bring together the course in the final week.

Illustrative Syllabus

Week 1: Introduction and Planetary Habitability – David Armstrong/Jonathan Heron (Physics/IATL)

Week 2: Earth-based extreme life – Hendrik Schaefer (Life Sciences)

Week 3: Habitability in Film: The Martian – Catherine Constable (Film and Television Studies)

Week 4: Galactic-scale Habitability - Elizabeth Stanway (Physics)

Week 5: Habitability in the Solar System/Examination pathways – David Brown (Physics)

Week 6: Sustainability and Habitability on Earth - John Pickering (Psychology)

Week 7: Habitability in Literature - Chris Maughan (IAS)

Week 8: Genetic and Biochemical Adaptations of Extremophiles - Jose Guttierrez-Marcos (Life Sciences)

Week 9: Political principles for space settlements - Felix Pinkert (Philosophy)

Week 10: Open-space Learning workshop and assessment pathways. - David Armstrong/Jonathan Heron (Physics/IATL).

Module convenor

Dr David Armstrong
(D dot J dot Armstrong at warwick dot ac dot uk)


Term 2 (Spring) 2018-2019
Tuesdays 10.00-12.00


Room H4.22
Humanities Building


For 10 CATS:
1000 word Essay/Report/Literature Review (60%)
15 minute student presentation
+ 5 minutes of questions (40%)

For 20 CATS:
2000 word Essay/Report/Literature Review (60%)
15 minute student presentation
+ 5 minutes of questions (40%)