Campus Life class spotlight

Life, the universe, and 12.400

Take 12.400 this spring for a beginner-friendly course on astronomy’s relationship with humanity

In 135 B.C., a comet appeared in the twilit skies of Asia Minor, and in that unearthly light was born Mithridates the Great, future king of Pontus and one of Rome’s most successful opponents. A second celestial interloper adorned the skies as he took the throne in 119 B.C., and in 44 B.C., a third comet reigned over Italy, mere weeks after Julius Caesar’s death. According to legend, that is, and John T. Ramsey’s historical analysis.

Pre-Renaissance humanity interpreted these comets as fantastic omens, prophesying Mithridates’ successes and Caesar’s deification. And while modern science knows them to be mere chunks of ice and rock, insignificant in comparison to their celestial companions and their regular orbits untouched by the hand of the divine, neither our minds nor our bodies have grown immune to the mysteries that nature has lying in wait for us.

Faced with the imminent threat of climate change, lives and livelihoods are at risk of drought, famine, and rising sea levels, and deadly diseases such as COVID-19 continue to shake the foundations of societies all over the Earth.

Yet our relationship with nature’s mysteries is not entirely bleak. From the Copernican revolution to mastering travel by sea, rail, and plane, to space travel and landing on the Moon, humanity’s path to its current state has been marked by triumphs of science. Triumphs which must guide our next steps as we inevitably discover life outside Earth, set foot on Mars, and venture into the unknown.

If the history of humanity’s relationship with nature interests you, consider taking the newly designed 12.400 (Our Space Odyssey) this spring. The class is devoted to reflecting on the influence of astronomy on our species through time and cultures, our past challenges and successes, and what lies in store for us. It concludes with a final essay analyzing this topic, excerpts of which will be compiled and published professionally. Taught by Professors Julien de Wit and Richard Binzel, the class’s only prerequisite is the Physics I GIR. Guest speakers from fields including anthropology, art, astronomy, biology, history, philosophy, politics, psychology, and theology will be invited to speak.

The future can sometimes seem bleak with a pandemic raging across the globe and with many of our lives now marked with grief. But reflection on the past accomplishments and focus on the future may help to alleviate the oppression of the present. And if that doesn’t convince you, perhaps the thought of an extra twelve units will.

Thanks to Professor Julien de Wit for providing some of the language used above to describe 12.400.

This article is the first entry for a new column Class Spotlight, which will discuss and recommend interesting, yet not popularly known, classes at MIT. Students or professors who hope to submit further entries or classes for consideration to this column may email