Life Beyond Earth
Honors Colloquium 200-301
230 Thompson Complex, Central Wing
Course Goals and Philosophy:
There could hardly be a more important milestone in history than contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial life form. The possibility of extraterrestrial life has fascinated human beings for all of recorded history. Yet current thought on the existence of extraterrestrial life remains mostly speculation and imagination, with a limited but growing amount of serious research interest in the field. We shall learn about the serious efforts to understand the origins of life and the prospects for detecting extraterrestrial life. In addition, we will also discuss the speculative aspects of life, intelligence, and little green men.
This course is necessarily multi disciplinary. In this seminar we will discuss
many of the widely varied aspects relating to life beyond Earth, using fields
of study including physical sciences such as biology, chemistry, geology,
astrophysics, and paleontology as well as disciplines such as philosophy,
psychology, history, politics, literature, and the fine arts.
No prior knowledge in any of these fields is assumed, but a willingness to
learn parts of all the fields is expected.
The final grades will be determined from the following formula:
20% Book/Movie Criticism
35% Final Project
This colloquium will emphasize discussion. Thus, attendance, participation, and preparation are more important in this class than in the usual lecture. I expect prompt and regular attendance and full participation in class discussions. I further expect that you will be well prepared to contribute to the discussion, having read and thought about the day's material before class.
A number of short homework assignments will be assigned. Most will be short
essay questions requiring your analysis of a particular topic. Other questions
will be quantitative problems involving simple algebra and knowledge of
material presented in the suggested readings. All work must be turned in on
or before the due date to receive a grade. Collaboration of any kind, on any
assignment in this course, is expressly forbidden.
No credit will be given for work that is not demonstrably your own.
First contact with intelligent, communicative extraterrestrials is a common plot device in many science fiction books and movies. Classic examples include War of the Worlds or The Day the Earth Stood Still. More recent examples include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Men In Black, Independence Day, or Contact. Your first assignment is to choose one book or movie and analyze the approach it takes regarding how humans react to the initial news that we are not alone in this universe. Do not summarize the plot. Your paper must go beyond a book report which simply summarizes the story. Assume I know the story by heart. Do not make the mistake of confusing a fictional character's actions or thoughts with reality. Instead, Do reflect on what was the author's intent when creating that character and that action. Do not get sidetracked into issues which are not directly related to human reaction to first contact. Do choose a clear, simple thesis and defend it with specific examples.
The paper must be at least 1200 words (4 to 6 pages) long. All papers must be
fully proofread; misspellings and unintelligible grammar will not be tolerated.
The grading will focus on the quality of the analysis. Successful submissions
will exhibit independent, creative thought. The best papers will point out an
unexpected or at least non-obvious aspect of being human.
Your final project should be a detailed presentation of some well defined topic relating to life beyond Earth. Almost any topic which has any connection at all with this course is acceptable (you should at least point out the connection). Make use of your interests, prior knowledge, and/or other courses to produce a project which is inspired and engages the audience. Acceptable projects include: a research paper on some narrow topic; a critical comparison and contrast of an issue as presented in two or more books; a piece of fiction which accurately and intelligently deals with future possibilities; an economic or political analysis of SETI or human colonization of space; an audio-visual presentation arguing for music and art as universal forms of communication, a dance presentation or play a computer program or engineering technique to maximize the possibility of communicating with an unknown party; or even the results of a biochemistry experiment in which you create life in the laboratory.
If you choose to write a paper, I expect at least 2,500 words (8 to 12 pages). Please arrange to meet with me well before the deadline if you intend to submit a non-paper project, so I can estimate the work required.
It is important that you choose a narrow topic. Go beyond introductory texts or items from the popular press. Instead of analyzing a broad subject, focus on some detailed aspect and present an in-depth discussion of that.
The primary quality I will be looking for in your project is evidence for
critical thought. I want to clearly see that you have learned something from
your project. However, realize I also have the selfish motive that I want to
learn something from your project. Be sure you do not just repeat back to me
what someone else has said. If you speculate about future possibilities, make
certain that it is reasoned and supported. Assemble multiple references,
evaluate what has been written by others about your topic, and synthesize ideas
of your own as a conclusion.
Each student is required to give a 12 minute oral presentation of their final
project during the final classes of the biterm. The grade will be based on
your overall ability to communicate the substance of your project.
Mon, 8/24 Introduction - What does Extraterrestrial Life mean to you?
Wed, 8/26 Define the problem - previous thought about Extraterrestrial Life.
Davies, P., Are We Alone?, Basic Books, 1995. (Chapters 1-3)
Mon, 8/31 First Impressions and Initial Impact, guest lecturer, Dr. T. Hovet, WKU English Dept.
Wed, 9/2 Start at the beginning - Creation and Cosmogony.
Goldsmith D. & Owen, T., The Search for Life in the Universe, Addison Wesley, 1993. (Chapters 2-6)
Kutter, G.S., The Universe and Life, Jones and Bartlett, 1987. (Chapters 1-3)
Jastrow, R., Red Giants and White Dwarfs, 3rd edition, Warner, 1990.
Kirshner, R., 'The Earth's Elements' in Scientific American, October 1994 issue
Silk, J., The Big Bang, Freeman, 1989.
Weinberg, S., 'Life in the Universe' in Scientific American, October 1994 issue
Mon, 9/7 Labor Day, no class
Wed, 9/9 A place to settle down - Formation of Planetary Systems.
*** Critical Writing Assignment due ***
Allegre, C. & Schneider, S., 'Evolution of the Earth' in Scientific American, October 1994
Kutter, G.S., The Universe and Life, Jones and Bartlett, 1987. (Chapters 4&5)
Hartmann, W.K., Moons & Planets, 3rd edition, Wadsworth, 1993. (Chapters 1&5)
Mon, 9/14 Biochemistry - The Importance of Carbon and Water.
Goldsmith D. & Owen, T., The Search for Life in the Universe, Addison Wesley, 1993. (Chapters 7-9)
Kutter, G.S., The Universe and Life, Jones and Bartlett, 1987. (Chapters 6&7)
Wed, 9/16 Primordial Soup - The Early Earth and the Origins of Life.
Cone, J., Fire Under the Sea, Morrow, 1991 (Chapter 9)
Orgel, L., 'Origin of Life on Earth' in Scientific American, October 1994 issue
Mon, 9/21 Stretching the limits - How strange can life be?
Davies, P., Are We Alone?, Basic Books, 1995. (Chapter 4)
Goldsmith D. & Owen, T., The Search for Life in the Universe, Addison Wesley, 1993. (Chapter 10)
Rood, R.T. and Trefil, J.S., Are We Alone?, Scribner, 1981. (Chapter 7)
Wed, 9/23 Intelligence and Consciousness - I Think, Therefore I am?
Davies, P., Are We Alone?, Basic Books, 1995. (Chapter 5)
Rood, R.T. and Trefil, J.S., Are We Alone?, Scribner, 1981. (Chapter 6)
Mon, 9/28 War of the worlds - Life Elsewhere in our Solar System.
Goldsmith D. & Owen, T., The Search for Life in the Universe, Addison Wesley, 1993. (Chapters 12-15)
Hartmann, W.K., Moons & Planets, 3rd edition, Wadsworth, 1993. (Chapters 11&12)
Dole, S.H., Habitable Planets for Man, Elsevier, 1970.
Wed, 9/30 Life Beyond Earth - Colonization and Interstellar Travel.
O'Neill, G.K., The High Frontier, Space Studies Institute, 1989
Rood, R.T. and Trefil, J.S., Are We Alone?, Scribner, 1981. (Chapters 12-14)
Mon, 10/5 ET phone home - SETI and the Drake Equation.
Harrison, A.A., After Contact, Plenum Trade, 1997. (Chapters 1,2)
Rood, R.T. and Trefil, J.S., Are We Alone?, Scribner, 1981. (Chapters 8-11)
Shklovskii, I.S. and Sagan, C., Intelligent Life in the Universe, Holden-Day, 1966
Wed, 10/7 Ethical Considerations - Predicting our Relationship with ET.
Harrison, A.A., After Contact, Plenum Trade, 1997. (Chapters 8-10)
Wed, 10/14 Student Presentations. *** Final Projects due at beginning of class ***
Fri, 10/16 Student Presentations.