last revised 6/27/12

Fall 2012
Course Syllabus




Thursday, Sept. 6, 8:30 PM Introductory Group Meeting in TPL 114
Week 1
Sept. 10-14
Introduction and Context

Q: Describe and defend your choice for the two most important historical events (one pre-1900, one post-1900) affecting humanity's concept of the possibility of life on other worlds.

Ch. 1, 2; History of Astrobiology graphic novel; Chyba & Hand:Astrobiology: The Study of the Living Universe

Week 2
Sept. 17-28
no tutorials Sept. 17, 18, 26
An Evolving Universe

Q: Considering the overall process of solar system formation, do you think it was likely for a planet like Earth to have formed? Could random events in the early history of the solar system have prevented our being here today? What implications do your answers have for the possibility of Earth-like planets around other stars?

Ch. 3
Week 3
Oct. 1-5
History of Life on Earth

Q: Do you think that Earth's geological features are likely to be rare or common on other worlds? Discuss your view of the relationship, if any, between Earth-like geological features and the development of life or an intelligent civilization on other worlds. In particular, address how the absence or presence of plate tectonics could affect the development of an intelligent civilization on a planet.

Ch.4; Kasting & Catling: Evolution of a Habitable Planet
Week 4
Oct. 15-19
The Nature of Life on Earth

Q: What does it mean to be "alive"? Explore the notion of how it might be that extremophiles may in fact be more common than "normophiles" in the universe of life.

Ch. 5; Definition of Life; Colors of Plants on Other Worlds; Exotic Bestiary
Week 5
Oct. 22-26
Origin & Evolution of Life on Earth; The Solar System

Q: Imagine that you are living a century in the future. Based on what is currently known and on the rate of present and reasonably-expected future exploration, speculate on how much you think we will know about life in the solar system by then and on discoveries that might be made.

Ch. 6, 7; G&S Ch. 1; Did Life Come From Another World?
Week 6
Oct. 29 - Nov. 2
Mars; The Moons of Giant Planets

Q: In coming decades, scientists hope to devote a lot of effort to searching for life on jovian moons. How important do you think it would be if we found life on any of these moons? Describe your conclusions in terms of both scientific importance and philosophical importance. Overall, do the possible benefits justify the expense required?

Ch. 8,9; G&S Ch. 3-5; On Mars

Week 7
Nov. 5-9

Q: Is there anything valuable to be learned about our potential effects on Earth's climate by studying the climate histories of Venus and Mars? One of the difficulties in deciding what to do about global warming is the fact that its precise consequences are uncertain; how do you think we should deal with this issue, whose consequences are potentially severe but highly uncertain?

Ch. 10; G&S Ch. 2; Lineweaver& Chopra: The Habitability of Our Earth and Other Earths: Astrophysical, Geochemical, Geophysical, and Biological Limits on Planet Habitability
Week 8
Nov. 12-16
Habitability Outside the Solar System

Q: Planets in the habitable zones of M stars are likely to rotate synchronously with their orbits because these habitable zones are so close in. Computer simulations suggest that on a synchronously rotating planet with a thick atmosphere, strong winds would carry heat from the side continually facing the star to the back, dark side. If so, there could be a ring-like zone around the terminator that might be habitable. What do you think such an environment would be like? What adaptations might be advantageous for life in this zone?

Ch. 11; G&S Ch. 6-8; Marcy pdfs
Week 9
Nov. 26-30
SETI and Prospects

Q: It is frequently said that the detection of a signal by SETI would revolutionize human society. The Copernican Revolution and the publishing of Darwin’s theory have been cited as examples with comparable impact. Do you agree that these are accurate comparisons? Consider and describe your view of the effect of a positive detection on human society in general. Also choose two subgroups (e.g., nationalities, professions, religions, political persuasions, or any other grouping) and compare their responses.

Ch. 12; G&S Ch. 9; Origin of the Drake Equation; Is Anyone Else Out There
Week 10
Dec. 3-7
That Day

Q: You have been appointed as the U.S. director of public information in the case of a positive SETI detection. Outline your actions in the days following the first detection of a simple, "are you there?" signal from a very distant star system. Include a list of meetings you would convene and your first press release.

Ch. 13; Semiotic Analysis

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