Online reading assignment: origin of life, are we alone? (SLO campus)

Astronomy 210, spring semester 2014
Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, CA

Students have a weekly online reading assignment (hosted by SurveyMonkey.com), where they answer questions based on reading their textbook, material covered in previous lectures, opinion questions, and/or asking (anonymous) questions or making (anonymous) comments. Full credit is given for completing the online reading assignment before next week's lecture, regardless if whether their answers are correct/incorrect. Selected results/questions/comments are addressed by the instructor at the start of the following lecture.

The following questions were asked on reading textbook chapters and previewing presentations on the origin of life, a "Here Is Today" timeline, LEGO® washing tips and the extraterrestrial hypothesis.

Selected/edited responses are given below.

Describe something you found interesting from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally interesting for you.
"I just like Julia Child. She has a really stupendous name if you were to ask me. She is my idol."

"Could use some more talk on the Drake equation. Just all the scientific jargon could use some clarification."

"The possibility of life on Jovian satellites!"

"I found it very interesting learning about that the sea has the oldest fossils in life, and that life began in the sea, how they found some rocks from western Australia that are more then 3.4 billion years old. That truly amazed me because I don't always think about how long are Earth has actually been around."

"I find the amount of time it took for life to form and the idea of life on another planet very interesting."

"It's interesting to me that radio signals are being sent 50 light years away from earth. What if aliens are being entertained by our b.s."

"The 'Here Is Today' was interesting and made me feel insignificant."
Here Is Today' website was crazy! I liked that it visualized time and made it easier to understand. But still it's amazing to see the timeline."

"It's super interesting learning about specific things scientists are doing to further our knowledge of what exists outside of Earth. I've always wondered what exactly was being done to discover other earth-like planets and it's interesting learning about the Drake equation and the idea of a 'Goldilocks planet.'"

"I think it is amazing of how planets can stay around for so long, because even though humans themselves have not been on this planet for that long it seems like it has been forever."

"TIL: How to wash my Lego® pieces."

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
"The part about what is and isn't life was a little confusing to me."

"I don't understand how a mathematical equation can tell us if other life exists, or that another planet similar to Earth does. I know that the Drake equation involves many factors but I still can't believe that a simple (very complex) math equation can tell us if other planets like Earth exist. Who even came up with the idea for the equation?"

"The Drake equation. YOLO."

"I don't understand how or why the Drake equation is used."

"The Drake equation is really confusing for me. It seems like a such a shot in the dark using estimates with pessimistic and optimistic views."

"I found the article about washing Legos® to be confusing. I didn't really see the point."

Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Living things are carbon-based and grow. Non-living things are silicon-based and do not experience growth."

"The difference between living and non-living things is life is reproducing molecules while some organic molecules are not living things because they do not reproduce, but rather link and break apart at random."

"A living thing manipulates its environment in order to grow. A non-living thing does not do this."

"Life is something that needs a sort of nutrient to survive while non-living things are inanimate objects and exist without sustenance."

How important is it to you to know whether or not there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth?
Unimportant.  [0]
Of little importance.  **** [4]
Somewhat important.  *** [3]
Important.  ******** [8]
Very important.  ******* [7]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"Extraterrestrial life would answer so many questions that I personally have and much of big questions humanity has as a whole."

"This might give us (the human race) an opportunity to expand or even make contact with another species and learn from them."

"Possibly if our Earth were to die off from a natural disaster. It could be reassuring to know there are other planets that humans could live on?"

"If there is life elsewhere, it is of little consequence to me since I'm largely unaffected by it."

"I said somewhat important because it would be amazing to find other life especially if they were as advanced as us or even more advanced. It could change our existence for the better. And maybe finding more life out there would make us feel more connected and less alone as a species. So in that aspect it's very important, but on a personal level for me it is not of extreme importance because it's not something I deal with every day, and it might not even happen in my life time so I don't really need to waste time thinking about it. So in that aspect it is not very important."

"I think that being able to know that life exists means that me might make contact one day and their life could be way cooler than ours."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  **************** [16]
Medium-mass.  ** [2]
Low-mass (red dwarf).  *** [3]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  * [1]

Briefly explain your answer to the previous question (type of star least likely to have a planet that could support life).
"A low-mass star would not be able to support life due to its temperature and luminosity. The temperature would not be able to provide a moderate climate and would be extremely cold. Low luminosity would not provide enough light to carry out photosynthesis."

"Massive stars are the least likely because they only live for a few million years, and are too short lived for complex life to develop."

"Massive stars only live a few million years and it took Earth over a billion years to produce the first cells (and three billion more years for intelligence to emerge), so massive stars don't have a long enough lifetime to originate life."

Describe what the Drake equation is used for.
"The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy."

"The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument to whether there are extraterrestrial life forms other than us in the universe."

Ask the instructor an anonymous question, or make a comment. Selected questions/comments may be discussed in class.
"I think if life were found outside of Earth, it would pose some major questions for modern day religion and Christianity." (Pope Francis seems to think so, too--he discusses being open to baptizing aliens seeking to convert to Christianity.)

"When you have kids, are you going to teach them more astronomy, or more physics?" (I would teach them astronomy. I would leave physics to some poor, thankless school teacher later on.)

"Do you believe in aliens?" (They're out there. Somewhere. I'd bet on it. Like, maybe a dollar.)

"My mom threw out my Lego® pieces :("

"Would you rather fight a duck-sized horse, or a horse-sized duck?" (I don't think you're asking that question the right way. Also, did you know that there are fossils of duck-sized horses? Like a 'My Little Pony™.' Bronies rule.)

"Thank you for being a great instructor and being so helpful this semester. This class was great (:"

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