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

Astronomy 210, fall 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.
"The idea that there could be other civilizations makes me geek out!"

"That life started in the ocean. That is the first time that I have ever heard that idea. It's very hard to imagine the rocks from Australia that are more than 3.4 billion years old!"

"I really liked the 'Here is Today' timeline because it is cool visually seeing things mapped out like that."


"I found the Lego experiment really interesting. It's amazing that it works. It makes an excellent model for the formation of complex molecules."

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
"I'm very confused by the Drake equation because the book says that some of the factors can be estimated, but the last factor cannot. If the last factor can't be certain, how does the equation solve out then?"

"I find it confusing that people believe that crop circles are from 'aliens' simply because they think they have nothing or no one else to blame it on."

"I don't really understand how the atoms turn into the chemicals that we have today."

"Deciphering the Aericibo message is really confusing."

Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Non-living things are just raw elements."

"A living thing has the ability to copy its DNA. A living thing is also able to adapt to its surrounding environment for survival."

"Life manipulates its environment to survive and replicate, non-living things do not."

"Life is something that changes its environment in some way and reproduces."

How important is it to you to know whether or not there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth?
Unimportant.  [1]
Of little importance.  ******* [7]
Somewhat important.  ******* [7]
Important.  **** [4]
Very important.  ***** [5]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"As far as I'm concerned there is absolutely life elsewhere, I'd even say there is absolutely intelligent life. The universe is a really big place, there's no we life only happened once. Actually knowing of it elsewhere would be nice though."

"Knowing whether or not there is life on another planet is only important to me because of curiosity. It doesn't change what I do on a daily basis but I think most people are intrigued by the idea that there could be intelligent life somewhere else."

"I would like to know, but even if we found life, there would be no way for us to get there."

"I am sure if this was discovered there would be many benefits and be important, but until that happens I do not find it very important because it is not affecting my everyday life, or the lives of those around me."

"Finding evidence of life elsewhere on earth will tip the Drake equation parameters more to the optimistic side and provide evidence that life can flourish given the right environment."

"It would validate our existence as well as expand it. It would mean we're not a fluke."

"In such a vast universe I think that it would be shocking if the only living things were contained on one little planet in the corner of it all. I think that there is definitely life elsewhere and I have always been fascinated by the thought of it because it puts a whole new perspective on our existence."

"To me, I believe if it was really important it would've appeared already before us and considering that nothing has become a threat to us yet I am not concerned although I do believe we should prepare for anything that happens and for all we know there could be good or bad life forms out there but considering we don't have the means right now to know what that is and no one's bothering us out there I am not concerned."

"At some point the human race may need a new home to survive, so it would be important to find planets that could support life."

"It's of little importance mainly because right now, we have too many problems here on Earth to deal with and spend money fixing. It's not important to me to know if there's life elsewhere; there's life here already and we as people aren't doing a great job of nurturing it."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  [17]
Medium-mass.  [1]
Low-mass (red dwarf).  [5]
(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 massive star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life because massive stars die the quickest out of all of them."

"If life on Earth took nearly a billion years to arise, then a short-lived massive star would die long before any of the beginnings of life could form on its planet."

"I think a red dwarf would be least likely to have a planet because it's mass is smaller so it's gravitational pull is also smaller. This means it is less likely for a planet to get caught in orbit around it."

Describe what the Drake equation is used for.
"To understand and place constraints on the possibility of life, and the general trend from less to more restrictive conditions."

"It's an equation used to estimate the number of technologically advanced civilizations there are in the Milky Way."

"It's confusing, couldn't understand its exact purpose."

In your opinion, how plausible is it that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?
Implausible.  ****** [6]
Not very plausible.  *********** [11]
Somewhat plausible.  **** [4]
Very plausible.  * [1]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  ** [2]

Ask the instructor an anonymous question, or make a comment. Selected questions/comments may be discussed in class.
"Can we take our final early if we can, like on another day before Wednesday or no?" (Let's talk.)

"Do you think there is enough evidence today to support the notion that there might be life on another planet?" (No, not yet. Maybe soon.)

"Man, if there are other living things out there I would want to know what they find cool, like if they think Crocs could ever be cool."

"Can I have a telescope for Christmas?" (That depends--have you been good this year?)

"This whole chapter was super-fascinating! Stoked to talk about it in class." (You're stoked? I'm stoked. #astronomystoke)

"I have truly learned from this class and enjoyed every minute of it, thank you for being an awesome professor, P-dog."

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