On-Line Syllabus, Spring 2010

ASTR 305:
Introduction to Astrobiology

Dr. Richard Gelderman
230 Thompson Complex, Central Wing
Dept of Physics and Astronomy
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1077

 Introduction to Astrobiology

  • Goals and Philosophy 
  • Grading 
  • Policy on Collaboration 
  • Attendance Policy 
  • Office Hours 
  • Homework 
  • Exams 
  • Term Papers 
  • Students With Disabilities 
  • Course Schedule 

  • Course Description

    A 3-credit course for Honors and Honors-eligible students, ASTR 305 is an inter-disciplinary study of life on Earth and possible life beyond Earth. Topics include the environments suitable for life, evolution of life forms, and the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Integrates concepts and methods from astronomy, biology, chemistry and geology.

  • Required Text: An Introduction to Astrobiology edited by Gilmour and Sephton , Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN 0521-54621-6.

  • Course Goals and Philosophy

    Are alone in the universe? That question has inspired us from the dawn of humanity, but in this millemnium a convergence of astrophysics, biology, chemistry, geology, and other sciences has place the issue of extraterrestrial life at the forefront of research. Astrobiology is the multidisciplinary study of the origin and evolution of life throughout the universe. In this course we will start out by understanding the nature of life on Earth, then we will investigate what properties should be required for life to exist and will study examples in our solar system, we will stretch our search to see if habitable planets might exist around other stars, and finally we will discuss the nature of intelligence and the implications of sharing our Galaxy with other life forms.

    It is important that students take responsibility for their education. Ask questions, both inside and outside the classroom. Discuss the material with friends and classmates how this course relates to the real world. Manage your time and do not cram for exams. The student and professor make a team, you both want to learn the material and earn a good grade. Click here to view a brief essay on how to achieve academic success.

  • Grading

    The final grades will be determined from 500 possible points. Your grade for the course will be determined by your ultimate point total in comparison with the rest of the class.

      75    Homework
      75    Midterm Examination
      75    Comprehensive Final Examination
      75    Research Paper 1
      75    Research Paper 2
    100    Research Paper 3
      25    In-class participation

  • Policy on Collaboration

    All work turned in for a grade must be your own. No credit will be given for work that is not demonstrably your own. For further information about the definition of palgarism, visit TURNITIN.COM.

  • Attendance Policy

    I expect prompt and regular attendance. Lectures will largely follow the order of the book, though lecture content may differ somewhat from the text. Material presented in lecture takes precedence over the text. Students are advised to keep their notes up to date and to read the text as an accompaniment to their notes. Missed classes should be covered by obtaining notes from other students. In addition, there will occasionally be unscheduled activities distributed for completion during the same class period and counting toward your final grade.

    You must be sure to attend both exams at the scheduled times. If you are unable to take an exam with the rest of the class you must notify the instructor before the regularly scheduled exam time. The only makeup exams allowed after the class takes the test will be for students with a verified excuse of illness or extraordinary crisis. A missed exam will otherwise be scored as a zero.

  • Office Hours

    I consider myself to be open and accessible to my students. You are always welcome to drop by my office to seek advice, discuss your progress, or ask questions. If my door is open and I am around, then I will do my best to make time to sit down with you. Anyone who finds that my availability does not live up to my desires can catch me during my scheduled office hours or make an appointment at our mutual convenience.

  • About the Exams

    The questions will be primarily short answer, with some longer essay questions and some multiple choice questions. You are required to bring blank 8.5 x 11 notebook paper, a calculator, and either pencils or pens to each exam. No other outside material, notes, texts, etc., will be allowed.

  • Term Papers

    Three papers are required.

    The first paper (due February 19) must deal with one of the following topics from the first portion of the course material: the nature of life; artificial life; self assembly of complex, replicating molecules; natural selection and evolution; metabolic processes; or extremophile organisms. The paper is worth 60 pts, peer review is worth 15 pts.

    The second paper (due March 19) must deal with one of the following topics from the second portion of the course material: habitable environments in our Solar System or around other stars. The paper is worth 60 pts, peer review is worth 15 pts.

    The final paper (due April 30) is to be written on a topic developed by the individual students and approved by the instructor. The paper is worth 60 pts, peer review 15 pts, and oral presentation 25 pts.

    The term paper grading rubric can be downloaded.

    Examples of opening statements for a promising ASTR 305 term paper are provided below.

    The British scientist James Lovelock proposed that Earth's living organisms, in conjunction with its physical components (atmosphere, oceans, etc.), can be considered together as the equivalent of a single superorganism dubbed Gaia. In this paper I justify the conclusion that such an entity satisfies all of the definitions of life that we have discussed in this class.

    The process of science is typically taught in terms of a sequence of steps labeled the "Scientific Method". A brief summary of the steps might be: (1) choose a problem or question to investigate, (2) formulate a hypothesis, (3) make a prediction based on the hypothesis, (4) design and conduct an experiment to test the prediction, (5) evaluate and, if necessary, revise the hypothesis in light of experimental results. In this paper I discuss the extent to which the actual scientific activity that led to Darwin's The Origin of Species matches the steps of the Scientific Method.

    A scientist reporting the measurement of some quantity is expected to provide an estimate of the uncertainty in that measurement, which other scientists can use to assess the reliability of the result. Considering our previous readings and discussions in this class, identify a measurement or calculation whose uncertainty limits our ability to reach a conclusion on some question in astrobiology, and explain why this is the case.

    The current budgetary situation in the USA will mean that in the next ten years NASA will be able to fund no more than one exploratory robotic mission to search for evidence of life in our solar system. In this paper I justify why such a mission should investigate Jupiter's icy moon, Europa; versus other possible candidates such as Mars or Titan.

    The Arecibo Message, Pioneer Plaques, and Voyager Golden Recordings are three examples of deliberate efforts to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations. In this paper I assess the effectiveness of these communications and describe what information humanity's next such message to the cosmos should contain.

  • Students with Disabilities

    Students with disabilities who require accomodations (academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids or services) for this course must contact the Office for Student Disability Service, (270) 745-5004 V/TDD. Please do not request accomodations directly from the professor without a letter from the office of Student Disability Services.

    Richard Gelderman's homepage.