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

Astronomy 210, spring semester 2015
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 found the origin of life on Earth to be interesting, especially the Miller Experiment. Its amazing to me that organic molecules could be formed from electricity, Lava, and even UV radiation."

"I have always believed in other life forms but the Drake Equation freaked me out for some reason. There are all of these factors that have to be just so in order for intelligent life forms to exist. It's crazy that Earth even exists! But the fact that Earth fits all of the Drake criteria must mean that there's at least a few other planets similar to ours."

"I found it interesting to read about the crop message that was purported back by aliens. It is hard to say whether it was real or not. I think they should send out another message without telling anyone and wait to see if something comes back."

"I liked the primordial soup video. Also I really enjoyed realizing how small today is in the grand scheme of time."

"I found it interesting that although eat was formed 4+ billion years ago, life didn't start until much later. I found this interesting because I didn't know this until this class."

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
"I found it confusing how we have attempted radio communication to other planets, yet we have radio signals which leak into the atmosphere everyday. Why would it not be lost among the thousands of other signals?"

"I didn't really understand how someone came up with numbers to fill into the Drake equation to come up with 10 million advanced civilizations, especially if a majority of the factors are based on SWAG [Scientific Wild-A__ Guessing]."

"I didn't totally understand how the radio messages are sent out into space, out to nothing essentially? If the message does not have an actual destination, how far out does the radio signals actually go and how can we know that?"

"Nothing was very confusing."

"SETI/BETI--I do understand this concept of messages directly to other civilizations, but I do not really find it all that interesting. Especially the Chilbolton 'reply,' I more or less just find it disturbing."

"The Drake equation confused me because of all the elements that go into it."

"I found it confusing how just complex molecules can be the building blocks of life alone. This was confusing to me because I didn't know that just complex molecules alone don't always end up building life."

Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Living things are capable of manipulating their environment and producing generations that can also manipulate the environment."

"Non-living things are composed of chemical compounds, the same as living things are, but living are specifically carbon based compounds that chain together in a sequence that they are able to begin to change within their environment, as well as the environment itself over time."

"Living things are full of cells. Non-living things are not."

"Life consists of organisms that interact together in a cycle and either benefit or are harmful to one another. Non-living things require their environment changes to depict how they change."

"Living things typically have DNA, while non-living things do not."

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.  ** [2]
Somewhat important.  *********** [11]
Important.  ******* [7]
Very important.  ***** [5]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"It would be interesting to know exactly where extraterrestrial life is, but it would be so far away that exploring the planet would be well beyond my lifetime."

"I think it would be awesome if we knew, for a fact, there is other life than Earth, but it's not really necessary."

"I think it would be somewhat important because if there was that would expand our understanding of our own universe. But not so important that masses of money be poured into these researches because we are also not taking very good care of our own planet or the inhabitants living on it here. I think that is far more important."

"It would be cool to see if there is life somewhere else but I don't live my life around wondering about it"

"If there is other life besides what we have on Earth then would could expand our knowledge and they could be more advanced than us, we could use their resources if we could transport it."

"I think that since our universe is so huge and there are so many parts of it we haven't explored yet, there could definitely be a possibility of life elsewhere. However, I don't necessarily think we need to know if there is."

"I just need to confirm how arrogant man is."

"If we could communicate, other life might be able to help us out with problems we are having on earth and vice versa."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  ************* [13]
Medium-mass.  *** [3]
Low-mass (red dwarf).  ******** [8]
(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).
"Massive stars do not live long enough to allow life to develop, burning out well before developed life forms."

"Low mass red dwarfs would not produce enough heat and energy for nearby planets to be at a reasonable distance away from it."

"Because the only evidence we have of a star sustaining life is the sun, which is medium-mass."

"These stars cannot hold liquid."

Describe what the Drake equation is used for.
"The Drake equation may be used to identify the number of technological civilizations in the Milky Way with which you might be able to communicate with."

In your opinion, how plausible is it that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?
Implausible.  **** [4]
Not very plausible.  ******* [7]
Somewhat plausible.  *********** [11]
Very plausible.  *** [3]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  [0]

Ask the instructor an anonymous question, or make a comment. Selected questions/comments may be discussed in class.
"I hope we find evidence of extraterrestrial life in my lifetime!"

"Do you believe in other life outside of Earth? (Yes. I would totally bet on it. Like, a dollar.)

"What are your and Mrs. P-dog's plans for the summer?" (Road trip. But that's the plan every summer.)

"So I have a 100 points on my homework, I am not sure what to do after that?" (Then you no longer need to do the online reading assignment homework. Even if there is one more assignment left in the semester.)

"Seven days without a pun makes one weak."

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