SAS Honors Seminar 259: Extraterrestrial Life
Fall 2008

December 10, 2008, Brett Hall Seminar Room:
thirteen students (one present in spirit) and a hat.
The quintet on the couch never passed.

Andrew Baker
Serin W309
Phone: 732-445-5500 x2544
Email: ajbaker[at]
Office hours: Friday 1:00-2:30pm (or by appointment)

MW6 (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 (Second 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 assigned 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 dues dates are preliminary at this point; I will update them as needed during the course of the semester. The last two course meetings are tentatively reserved for relevant topics to be chosen shortly before Thanksgiving by the students.

1 Sep 3 astrobiology; the Drake Equation none  
2 Sep 8 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'"
response paper #1
3 Sep 10 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 Sismour & Benner (2005, Nucl. Acids Res., 33, 5640): "The use of thymidine analogs to improve the replication of an extra DNA base pair: a synthetic biological system"
cheat sheet
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
response paper #2
5 Sep 17 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
6 Sep 22 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
7 Sep 24 terran extremophiles; field trip to deep sea microbiology lab B&S 5.5, 9.4
Vetriani et al. (2005, Appl. Env. Microbio., 71, 220): "Mercury Adaptation among Bacteria from a Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent"
cheat sheet
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
response paper #4
9 Oct 1 extrasolar planetary systems B&S 11.2
Marcy & Butler (1996, ApJ, 464, L147): "A Planetary Companion to 70 Virginis"
Charbonneau et al. (2000, ApJ, 529, L45): "Detection of Planetary Transits Across a Sun-Like Star"
cheat sheet
10 Oct 6 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
11 Oct 8 habitable zones B&S 7.1, 10.1-10.5
Endl & Kürster (2008, A&A, 488, 1149): "Toward detection of terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of our closest neighbor: proxima Centauri"
cheat sheet
12 Oct 13
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
13 Oct 15 ALH84001 B&S 8.5
Kerr (1996, Science, 273, 864): "Ancient Life on Mars?"
McKay et al. (1996, Science, 273, 924): "Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001"
Jakosky (1997, The Planetary Report, XVII:6, 10): "Mars Life? One Year Later"
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"
cheat sheet
14 Oct 20 galactic habitable zones
[Ross Fadely]
B&S 11.3
Lineweaver et al. (2004, Science, 303, 59): "The Galactic Habitable Zone and the Age Distribution of Complex Life in the Milky Way"
Leitch & Vasisht (1998, New Astronomy, 3, 51): "Mass extinctions and the sun's encounters with spiral arms"
cheat sheet
15 Oct 22 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!"
skim Clark (2007, IEEE Aerospace Conference Proceedings): "Europa Explorer: An Exceptional Mission Using Existing Technology"

not required, but if you are very curious about possible future NASA missions: reports from a May 2007 meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group

16 Oct 27 life on Titan? 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"
skim Lorenz (2008, JBIS, 61, 2): "A Review of Balloon Concepts for Titan"

not required, but if you are very curious about possible future NASA missions: reports from a May 2007 meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group

17 Oct 29 impacts and mass extinctions B&S 6.4
Alvarez et al. (1980, Science, 208, 1095): "Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction"
cheat sheet
mid-term project
18 Nov 3 life on extrasolar planets? reread pp 379-384 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
response paper #7
19 Nov 5 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

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"
Ravilious (2005, The Guardian): "What a way to go"
response paper #8
21 Nov 12 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."
22 Nov 17 interstellar travel B&S 13.1-13.4
Friedman (2005): "The End of Cosmos 1, the Beginning of the Next Chapter"
Friedman (2008): "New Developments on the Road to Cosmos 2"
response paper #9
23 Nov 19 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"
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

24 Nov 24 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"
Fogg (2000, Space Policy, 16, 205): "The ethical dimensions of space settlement"
CNN (1999): "Nuclear-powered NASA craft to zoom by Earth on Tuesday"
response paper #10
25 Dec 1 the anthropic principle pp 1-7, 11-18, 43-51, 57-58 (12-18, 22-29, 53-61, 67-68 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"
26 Dec 3 student choice: human evolution Carroll (2003, Nature, 422, 849): "Genetics and the making of Homo sapiens"
Kaas & Collins (2001, Nature, 411, 141): "Evolving ideas of brain evolution"
all but "Methods" of Barton & Harvey (2000, Nature, 405, 1055): "Mosaic evolution of brain structure in mammals"
Molnar (1990, Irish Journal of Earth Sciences, 10, 199): "The Rise of Mountain Ranges and the Evolution of Humans: A Causal Relation?"
cheat sheet

all of the above shamelessly stolen from Paul Falkowski's course on "History of the Earth Systems"

topic, scope, and draft reference list for term paper
27 Dec 8 student choice: new planets and bad astronomy Marley (2008, Science, 322, 1335): "Exoplanets -- Seeing is Believing"
Kalas et al. (2008, Science, 322, 1345): "Optical Images of an Extrasolar Planet 25 Light-Years from Earth"
Marois et al. (2008, Science, 322, 1348): "Direct Imaging of Multiple Planets Orbiting the Star HR8799"
Plait (2005, Bad Astronomy): "Astrology"
Plait (2008, Bad Astronomy): "Fox TV and the Apollo Moon Hoax"
cheat sheet
28 Dec 10 four views of the Drake Equation    
  Dec 22     term paper

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

Other items

Last updated December 10, 2008.