Online reading assignment: origin of life, are we alone? (NC 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.
"Life on other planets--interesting, but irrelevant."

"The nature of how metals form, and the lifetime of stars."

"How LEGO® pieces will bond themselves together after a few times of washing them.""

"Well, the whole concept defining life is really complicated, it really leads to a lot of speculation. I really enjoy learning the more abstract ideas. ^_^"

"I found the Julia Child part of the presentation personally interesting because it gave a simplistic look into the science of how living things are made."

"I thought the timeline was really interesting because it puts you into perspective."

"That human beings have only existed for a short time in astronomical terms."

"I thought the crop circles in Chilbolton were interesting because it's cool to think that aliens exist even though it's probably a hoax."

"I found interesting that it took about 3+ billion years for life to appear on Earth, because it starts to show how much Earth has been changing as a planet and perhaps there will come a time where it will hold even more complex organisms than us."

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
"All of it."

"How is there a correspondence between LEGO® bricks and molecular structures?"

"The LEGO® example seemed like an oversimplified demonstration/explanation as to how life can randomly appear out of nowhere. Those LEGO® pieces are created to easily fit together and form basic structures. I think the example of taking a watch apart, putting all the pieces into a shoe box, and shaking it for a billion years better fits the probability of life spontaneously arising out of random chemicals. And even after a billion years of shaking that shoe box, I seriously doubt you'd ever open it up and find a ticking watch. LEGO® is a children's toy. A watch is a complex yet simple machine. Life is something humans have still failed to duplicate."

"The Drake equation--how can it be used with so many unknowns in it?"

"Why out of so many different places in this universe have we found Earth to be the only place to suit life as well as it does?"

Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Living things grow, develop and evolve. Non-living things don't."

"Life breathes, feeds, and multiplies. The non-living tends to sit in place, and do nothing."

"Life needs oxygen."

"A living thing can manipulate its environment. Non-living things just go with the flow."

"You breathe and eat and grow. /
And that is how you know. /
Ah, ah, ah... /
You're alive. Yes, you're alive..." //
--Chrissy and the Alphabeats (Sesame Street).

How important is it to you to know whether or not there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth?
Unimportant.  ** [2]
Of little importance.  ****** [6]
Somewhat important.  **** [4]
Important.  **** [4]
Very important.  ** [2]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"Life here is hard and complicated enough without having to worry about life elsewhere."

"Life goes on as it does, it doesn't matter where."

"I am curious, but it won't destroy my life if I never find out in my time here whether or not there is life elsewhere other than on Earth."

"If somehow people do find aliens, hey, cool. But I personally do not believe in evolution so I find it extremely unlikely that life would 'evolve' on another planet."

"I am too curious about life other than on Earth. I believe we could learn a lot from other life forms in space."

"Personally I'm interested in the possibility of there being life elsewhere because if there is that means Jedi Knights might be out there and I want to be a Jedi (or a Sith)."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  ********** [10]
Medium-mass.  * [1]
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).
"Well, assuming life on other planets follows the same laws as life on earth, they would need water. A planet would be less likely to be in the habitable zone of a smaller star, and if its too cold, all the water on the planet would freeze."

"Well, according to the info we've been given, its takes at least a billion years or so for life to develop. A massive star wouldn't live that long."

"I think a massive star would be less likely because the temperature and luminosity would be to great for a life force to handle unless they're some blind lava creatures."

"It took Earth between 0.5 and 1 billion years to produce life. So a massive star that only lives for a few million years is not around long enough to produce its own life."

"Honestly, I just guessed."

Describe what the Drake equation is used for.
"Determining the number of technological civilizations in our galaxy."

"It is used to determine how many communicating civilizations there are in the Milky Way galaxy."

"The Drake equation is an equation to organize our guesses about the potential number of extraterrestrial life in the Milky Way."

In your opinion, how plausible is it that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?
Implausible.  ****** [6]
Not very plausible.  ******** [8]
Somewhat plausible.  **** [4]
Very plausible.  ** [2]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  [0]

Ask the instructor an anonymous question, or make a comment. Selected questions/comments may be discussed in class.
"What is your opinion on how plausible it is that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?" (We'll talk about the plausibility of an extraterrestrial cause for the Chilbolton message in class this week. Keep in mind that it was ranked the most creative out of 184 selected crop circles worldwide in 2001, 104 of which were just in England.)

"Do you personally believe in evolution? Or did you just accept it because you became a scientist?" (Well, Pope Francis says it's okay to consider the occurrence of evolution and the big bang.)

"What has been your most memorable moment with this class?" (This question. I will never ever forget answering this question.)

"Do you believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life? (Yes. I would totally bet on it. Like, a dollar.)

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