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

Astronomy 210, fall semester 2016
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 idea of the thought process of the possibility of life elsewhere was interesting. The crop designs, I found they were pretty amusing. But how did people figure out how to make the crop designs back in the day? Was someone standing on top of the building in the the middle of the night, guiding the person on the bottom with the tractor?"

"I liked watching the video on crop circles because I have always wondered if it was a possibility that they were not man-made. Crop circles, who made them."

"Life in the universe is super-interesting because we can learn the process of life in which organisms extract energy from the surroundings."

"That the evolution of molecules is similar to how humans have evolved because we like to think we are so different from everything else and are so unique."

"The behavior of atoms, their tendency to form molecules in the presence of energy."

"The Drake equation, I never knew such a thing existed."

"Just going through the time periods is interesting enough. Its amazing that humans have only been here for the shortest period of time compared to how old everything else is."

"The timeline of life and everything on Earth. It's a pretty cliché thing to be taken aback by, but it's for a good reason."

"I really enjoyed the LEGOS® in the washing machine. It is a good model to show how seemly randomness can create patterns and structure. (It was overly simplified but still impressive.)"

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
"I found the Drake equation little confusing because I don't understand how they could figure a lot of those numbers out."

"Drake equation. I don't understand what it means."

"Why did Drake choose an anticoded pixel message? It that the only types of messages we blast into space?"

"I could use more explanations on the origin of life and specifically the Miller experiment."

"DNA--the code of life is super complicated. All of the processes in an organism."

Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Well the simplest of life are long molecular chains that can replicate at a fast pace making themselves larger. Thus making plants or even ourselves growing and alive, unlike non-living things."

"Life is anything organic that can grow, react to changes, have to eat food for energy and can reproduce."

"Life is when it is able to manipulate its environment and is able to make new generations of itself."

"Living things with manipulate their environment and create a future generations which will also manipulate the environment."

"Living things attempt to manipulate their environment. Non-living things may have complicated chemicals and stuff, but if they don't interact with their environment, they aren't alive."

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.  ******** [8]
Important.  *** [3]
Very important.  ***** [5]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"Not really interested and if there is life elsewhere, I will probably not be able to see it within my lifetime. I'm fine with seeing extraterrestrial life through video games, it's enough for me to satiate my desire of seeing real extraterrestrial life."

"I'm just not really convinced there is life on other planets., not that I'm against knowing if there is. It's just something that's really hard to believe. And if there is, well it also depends what kind of life. Humans, aliens, plants?"

"Knowing how big the universe is there is no way that there is only life on Earth and it freaks me out that we have not seen any other life anywhere else."

"My curiosity stems from the idea that we're the only ones at all. This is the basis to many religious beliefs and I would like to know if they're wrong and if they are, what are the other living things like?"

"I think it is very important because chances are if the life is similar to ours they are probably much smarter and they could teach us a lot."

"It stretches my faith."

"In Scripture, it does not say if there are other planets with life, but we know God is the source of life, so if we find any, He put it there."

"It will be nice to know if there is life in other planets because that would change the whole world in a positive way."

"I believe that knowing the answer o this question could change humanity."

"If there is or isn't life elsewhere I think we should know about it and try to figure it out. We don't want any surprises."

"I believe self-preservation is a trait most humans share. Other forms of life may threaten our existence, as with the native peoples and the Europeans. However, if a peaceful and healthy relationship between humanity and alien life were to exist, it would be beneficial to both cultures. If there is any other life in the universe, it must be pretty simple. If there were complex civilizations, we should have run into them by now. However, if you're into conspiracy theories, we may already have, but just haven't been told."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  ******** [8]
Medium-mass.  *** [3]
Low-mass (red dwarf).  *** [3]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  **** [4]

Briefly explain your answer to the previous question (type of star least likely to have a planet that could support life).
"It took about a billion years for life to appear in our planet, and a massive star runs out of hydrogen in just a couple million years, dying way before life can appear."

"A massive star will have a short lifetime (around a million yrs) and it takes simple life a very long time (billions) of years to develop. So a massive star will die before life on surrounding planets could develop."

"Because a massive star wouldn't have a long enough life span. Assuming life evolves. And isn't created."

"Massive stars do not have a long life span, the stars will expand its fuel rapidly, and go supernova which makes the probability of life impossible."

"Massive stars die out pretty fast, therefore exterminating any chance at life."

"I said massive because I feel like the big stars are never the ones that have habitable zones."

"Low-mass stars would be least likely because of its temperature."

"Medium-mass stars would be of the same age as a planet with life."

Describe what the Drake equation is used for.
"The Drake equation is used to estimate the number of advanced technological civilizations in the Milky Way."

"It multiplies factors of limitations set on the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing, within the Milky Way. It is used to hypothesize what the odds of intelligent life existing elsewhere in our galaxy."

"The Drake equation is used to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in the cosmos, or more simply put, the odds of finding intelligent life in the universe. N = the number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable."

"The Drake equation is used to estimate the number of advanced technological civilizations in the Milky Way. Unfortunately, it cannot be solved."

"To narrow down the search for advanced life."

"I'm not sure how Drake equation is used."

In your opinion, how plausible is it that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?
Implausible.  *** [3]
Not very plausible.  ********** [10]
Somewhat plausible.  **** [4]
Very plausible.  * [1]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  [0]

Ask the instructor an anonymous question, or make a comment. Selected questions/comments may be discussed in class.
"This is probably one of the more memorable sections, for sure one of the most interesting."  
"What is your favorite fictional alien race from movies, TV, or literature? What is your favorite movie having to do with astronomy (in any form) do to the accuracy of the movie's events?" (A recent favorite is Arrival, especially in the unexpected and inscrutable nature of communicating with an alien species.)

"The LEGO® thing blows my mind." (Try it for yourself!)

"Do you believe in aliens? Do you believe there is life on other planets? How would that affect your opinion if you found out there is life on other planets?" (Yes. I would bet maybe, like, $5 on there being life on other planets. And when we do make and confirm that discovery, then teaching astronomy will forever be even more awesome than it is already.)

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