SAS Honors Seminar 256: Extraterrestrial Life
Fall 2011

Left (October 13, 2011): triumphant theorist surrounded by experimentalists
Right (December 13, 2011): twelve students and a hat

Andrew Baker
Serin W309
Phone: 732-445-5500 x2544
Email: ajbaker[at]
Office hours: Monday 2:00-3:30pm (or by appointment)

T6TH6 (4:30-5:50pm) in Brett Hall Seminar Room, except where boldfaced below

The only required course textbook is Bennett & Shostak, Life in the Universe (Third Edition). Students with strong science backgrounds and strong interest in this subject may also wish to consider Sullivan & Baross (eds.), Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology, although this is not required.

Here's the official description from the SAS Honors Program website:
"For centuries, humans have looked at the night sky and wondered whether we are alone or whether we share the universe with advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. In recent years, this question has begun to move from the realm of speculation to the arena of scientific inquiry, thanks to new discoveries about planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, about potential habitats for life in our solar system, and about the possible development of life in extreme environments on Earth. This seminar, intended for students from all academic majors, will examine the prospects for the emergence of extraterrestrial life (intelligent or otherwise) and our detection of it from a scientific perspective. A familiarity with basic mathematical and scientific concepts will be assumed; moderately sophisticated mathematics (e.g., calculus and Fourier analysis) will be discussed but not required for homework. Course meetings will be principally devoted to discussions -- led by students (selected at random at the beginning of each class) and guided by the instructor -- of weekly reading assignments. Background material from a single textbook will be supplemented by popular books and articles, as well as selected papers from the research literature. Grades will be based on leadership of and participation in discussions, short weekly writing assignments, a mid-term research mini-project, and an end-of-term paper."

Both the sequence of topics and the assignment due dates are preliminary at this point; I will update them as needed. Two course meetings near the end of the semester are tentatively reserved for relevant topics to be chosen shortly before Thanksgiving by the students enrolled in the course.

1 Sep 1 astrobiology; the Drake Equation none  
2 Sep 6 definitions of life B&S 5.1-5.2, 5.6
pp 215-222 only of Chyba & McDonald (1995, AREPS, 23, 215): "The Origin of Life in the Solar System: Current Issues"
Koshland (2002, Science, 295, 2215): "The Seven Pillars of Life"
Cleland & Chyba (2002, Orig. Life Evol. Biosph., 32, 387): "Defining 'Life'"
Popa (2010, Orig. Life Evol. Biosph., 40, 183): "Necessity, Futility and the Possibility of Defining Life are all Embedded in its Origin as a Punctuated-gradualism"
cheat sheet
3 Sep 13 terran and alternate biochemistries B&S 5.3-5.4
Benner et al. (2004, Curr. Opin. Chem. Biol., 8, 672): "Is there a common chemical model for life in the universe?"
key sections (see cheat sheet) of Schulze-Makuch & Irwin (2005, Naturwissenschaften, 93:4, 155): "The prospect of alien life in exotic forms on other worlds"
cheat sheet
response paper #1
4 Sep 15 evolution of terran life B&S 4.2, 6.1, 6.3
key sections (see cheat sheet) of Sagan (1967, J. Theoret. Biol., 14, 225): "On the Origin of Mitosing Cells"
cheat sheet
5 Sep 20 origin of terran life B&S 4.3, 6.2
Chyba & Sagan (1992, Nature, 355, 125): "Endogenous production, exogenous delivery, and impact-shock synthesis of organic molecules: an inventory for the origins of life"
Miller (1953, Science, 117, 528): "A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions"
Westheimer (1986, Nature, 319, 534): "Polyribonucleic acids as enzymes"
Gilbert (1986, Nature, 319, 618): "The RNA world"
cheat sheet
response paper #2
6 Sep 22 terran extremophiles; field trip to deep sea microbiology lab B&S 5.5, 9.4
online background material on Prof. Vetriani and his lab
7 Sep 27 formation and evolution of stars B&S 3.1-3.2, 11.1, 11.4
Nelson (2008, Nature, 455, 36): "The Harvard computers"
response paper #3
8 Sep 29 formation of planets B&S 3.3, 3.5, 4.6
Stevenson (2001, Science, 294, 71): "Jupiter and Its Moons"
key sections (see cheat sheet) of Canup & Ward (2002, AJ, 124, 3404): "Formation of the Galilean Satellite System"
key sections (see cheat sheet) of Canup & Ward (2006, Nature, 441, 834): "A common mass scaling for satellite systems of gaseous planets"
cheat sheet
9 Oct 4 extrasolar planetary systems
[Saurabh Jha]
B&S 11.2
Noyes et al. (1997, ApJ, 483, L111): "A Planet Orbiting the Star Rho Coronae Borealis"
Noyes et al. (1997, ApJ, 487, L195): "A Planet Orbiting the Star Rho Coronae Borealis: Erratum"
Charbonneau et al. (2000, ApJ, 529, L45): "Detection of Planetary Transits Across a Sun-Like Star"
cheat sheet
response paper #4
10 Oct 6 Kepler
[Saurabh Jha]
key sections (see cheat sheet) of Koch et al. (2010, ApJ, 713, L79): "Kepler Mission Design, Realized Photometric Performance, and Early Science"
key sections (see cheat sheet) of Borucki et al. (2011, ApJ, 736, 19): "Characteristics of Planetary Candidates Observed by Kepler. II. Analysis of the First Four Months of Data"
Latham et al. (2011, ApJ, 732, L24): "A First Comparison of Kepler Planet Candidates in Single and Multiple Systems"
cheat sheet
11 Oct 11 planetary atmospheres B&S 4.4-4.5
Kasting et al. (1988, Scientific American, 258:2, 90): "How Climate Evolved on the Terrestrial Planets"
response paper #5
12 Oct 13 habitable zones B&S 7.1, 10.1-10.5, 11.3
Endl & Kürster (2008, A&A, 488, 1149): "Toward detection of terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of our closest neighbor: proxima Centauri"
Lineweaver et al. (2004, Science, 303, 59): "The Galactic Habitable Zone and the Age Distribution of Complex Life in the Milky Way"
cheat sheet
13 Oct 18 life on Mars? B&S 7.2, 7.4, 8.1-8.4
Sheehan (2003, Sky and Telescope website): "Venus Spokes: An Explanation at Last?"
response paper #6
14 Oct 20 life on meteorites? B&S 8.5
McKay et al. (1996, Science, 273, 924): "Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001"
Kerr (1996, Science, 273, 864): "Ancient Life on Mars?"
McDonald (1998, The Planetary Report, XVIII:3, 9): "The Mars Rock: Some of Its Chemistry Is From Earth"
McKay et al. (1998, The Planetary Report, XVIII:3, 10): "Earthly Contaminants Don't Rule Out Martian Life"
Greenberg (2006, American Scientist website): "Rock Star"
Hoover (2011, Journal of Cosmology website): "Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites"
Plait (2011, Discover Magazine/Bad Astronomy blog): "Followup thoughts on the meteorite fossils claim"
cheat sheet (for McKay et al. 1996 only)
15 Oct 25 life on Europa? B&S 7.3, 9.1-9.2
Stevenson (1999, The Planetary Report, XIX:3, 7): "An Ocean in Callisto?"
Pappalardo (2007, The Planetary Report, XXVII:4, 12): "Oceans in the Outer Solar System-- And Not a Drop to Drink!"
Pappalardo (2011, NASA Outer Planets Assessment Group meeting): "NASA Europa Mission Study Update" (don't print this if you don't want to; we will display it during class as we discuss it)

not required, but if you are curious to see more details about a possible future NASA mission: presentations from last week's meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group

16 Oct 27 life on Titan and Enceladus? B&S 9.3
Lebreton (2005, The Planetary Report, XXV:1, 6): "Exploring the Unknown: Huygens's Plunge Through Titan's Atmosphere"
Asmar (2005, The Planetary Report, XXV:2, 8): "Eavesdropping on Huygens"
Owen (2005, The Planetary Report, XXV:4, 8): "Approaching Xanadu: Cassini-Huygens Examines Titan"
Lakdawalla (2008, The Planetary Report, XXVIII:1, 9): "Titan's North Pole Seas"
Schneider et al. (2009, Nature, 459, 1102): "No sodium in the vapour plumes of Enceladus"
Klotz (2011, Discovery News website): "Extreme Ballooning -- on Titan"
skim Lorenz (2008, JBIS, 61, 2): "A Review of Balloon Concepts for Titan"
17 Nov 1 life on extrasolar planets? reread pp 374-382 only of B&S 11.2
Sagan et al. (1993, Nature, 365, 715): "A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft"
Arnold (2008, Space Science Reviews, 135, 323): "Earthshine Observation of Vegetation and Implication for Life Detection on Other Planets: A Review of 2001-2006 Works"
cheat sheet
18 Nov 3 impacts and mass extinctions Alvarez et al. (1980, Science, 208, 1095): "Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction"
cheat sheet
B&S 6.4  
  Nov 4     mid-term project (by email)
19 Nov 8 evolution of intelligence B&S 6.5, 12.2
Krützen et al. (2005, PNAS, 102, 8939): "Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins"
Prior et al. (2008, PLoS Biology, 6:8, e202): "Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition"
cheat sheet

see also videos of Gerti and Harvey the magpies; more videos are available at the bottom of this page

response paper #7
20 Nov 10 development of civilization B&S 12.1
Diamond (1987, Discover): "The worst mistake in the history of the human race - adoption of agriculture"
Diamond (1997, Edge online): "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?"
Gladwell (2005, New Yorker): "The Vanishing"
Diamond (2011, online blog post): "The myths of Easter Island - Jared Diamond responds"
Hunt & Lipo (2011, online blog post): "'The Easter Island ecocide never happened' - response to Jared Diamond"
Ravilious (2005, The Guardian): "What a way to go"
21 Nov 15 interstellar communication B&S 12.3
Alexander & Anderson (2007, SETI@home Update): "Searching for E.T. and the Cure for Cancer: The Planetary Society Helps Trigger a Computing Revolution"
Alexander (2008, SETI@home Update): "Astropulse: A Fresh Look at the Skies in Search of E.T."
Alexander (2009, SETI@home Update): "SERENDIP Takes a Great Leap Forward"
Blair (2009, AAS conference poster): "Results from the Allen Telescope Array: SETI Survey of the Galactic Center Region"
Pierson (2011, ATA status report)
not required, but if you are interested in the SERENDIP project: a report from the project team about the 2009 installation of SERENDIP V
response paper #8
22 Nov 17 interstellar travel B&S 13.1-13.4
Friedman (2010, Solar Sailing Update): "LightSail-1 Passes Critical Design Review"
Phillips (2011, NASA Science News): "Solar Sail Stunner"
23 Nov 22 UFOs and alien abductions B&S 12.4
Thomas (1995, Skeptical Inquirer): "The Roswell Incident and Project Mogul"
Sheaffer (2004, Skeptical Inquirer): "The Campeche, Mexico 'Infrared UFO' Video"
Sheaffer (2010, Skeptical Inquirer): "Hovering UFO Closes Chinese Airport"
Mooney (2005, Doubt and About): "Waking Up to Sleep Paralysis"
McNally & Clancy (2005, Transcultural Psychiatry, 42, 113): "Sleep Paralysis, Sexual Abuse, and Space Alien Abduction"

see also video of the Campeche incident

response paper #9
24 Nov 29 ethical concerns in astrobiology "Preamble" and "Policy" sections only of COSPAR (2002, 2005): "Planetary Protection Policy"
pp 1-10 (2-11 in PDF) only of National Academy of Sciences (2006): "Preventing the Forward Contamination of Mars: Executive Summary"
Race & Randolph (2002, Adv. Space Res., 30, 1583): "The need for operating guidelines and a decision making framework applicable to the discovery of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life"
McKay (2009, in Exploring the Origin, Extent, and Future of Life: Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Perspectives): "Planetary ecosynthesis on Mars: restoration ecology and environmental ethics"
Bailey (2011, Reason): "Does Mars Have Rights?"
25 Dec 1 the anthropic principle reread B&S 11.3
pp 1-7, 11-18, 43-51, 57-58 (17-23, 27-34, 59-67, 73-74 in PDF) only of Bostrom (2002): "Anthropic Bias"
Gonzalez & Richards (2003): "The Privileged Planet" online presentation
Vakoch (2004, Nature, 429, 808): "Bright blue dot"
Brumfiel (2007, Nature, 447, 364): "Darwin skeptic says views cost tenure"
response paper #10
26 Dec 6 student choice: implications of first contact Cushman (2007, Environmental History, 12, 304): "The Last First Contact"
Dick (2000, in A New Era in Bioastronomy): "Cultural Aspects of Astrobiology"
Harrison (2011, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 369, 656): "Fear, pandemonium, equanimity and delight: human responses to extra-terrestrial life"
Assigned audio recordings from the "Societal questions raised by the detection of extraterrestrial life" panel discussion of the 2010 Royal Society conference: "Towards a scientific and societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life"
topic, scope, and draft reference list for term paper
27 Dec 8 student choice: astrobiology in popular culture Lockett (2007, Science Fiction Studies, 34:1, 42): "Domesticity as Redemption in The Puppet Masters: Robert Heinlein's Model for Consensus"
Bartholomew (2006, Skeptical Inquirer): "The Martian Panic Sixty Years Later: What Have We Learned?"
Review/summary of the 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la lune
Munkittrick (2011, Discover Magazine blog): "The Only Sci-Fi Explanation of Hominid Aliens that Makes Scientific Sense"
Bohannon (2008, Science, 322, 531): "Flunking Spore" (if you are interested, a full scientific report card is also available)
28 Dec 13 four views of the Drake Equation    
  Dec 23     term paper

Your course grade will be based on a combination of five elements:

A few general comments on grading of your written work:

Other items

Last updated December 17, 2011.