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

Astronomy 210, spring semester 2017
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 really liked the timeline website you showed us. It was really cool to keep hitting okay and have it go further and further, making you're personal lifetime seem really small. Also made me realize next week is just one week out of the hundred of thousands I will have in my lifetime."

"The amount of time Earth has had to evolve and develop; I came to the conclusion that we will never see something completely extraordinary in our lifetime. But that amount of time itself is something amazing and interesting to think about how things looked and different experiences we could have if we traveled back in time for one day."

"The timeline diagram that moved and continued to squish today into nothingness really put things into perspective for me."

"How heat sources can create complex organic molecules, and that this may be the source of the first life on Earth. I knew scientists had an idea of how life had began, but I never knew the specifics and how simple (at least in concept) it could be."

"Life beyond Earth is a very intriguing subject. The fact that there could be other life that we don't even know of yet, is fascinating. The amount of universe that we still have yet to discover is mind boggling. To think that we are the only life form is not only ignorant but kinda scary. With all the planets out there, there has to be life beyond humans."

"The Miller experiment. I, amongst most people, always found it peculiar how elements that developed from explosions in the universe came together to form such infinitely specific and complex creatures such as human beings. The Miller experiment was interesting to read about because it gave a little insight into how things like electricity and other materials can actually produce organic life."

"The definition of life--it had never occurred to me how vague the term can be perceived. I could see how one could argue for various interpretations."

"The concept of life on other planets and being able to one day discover that life."

"I found it interesting that there have been crop circles in the field next to that radio telescope in England for three years in a row in 2001."

"I did not know what crop circles were, and was most fascinated by the video. Very intriguing, regardless of their validity to extraterrastrial connection."

"Obviously the most interesting thing I saw in the presentation previews was the video of crop circles popping up next to a radio tower sending out signals to space. It was interesting because that image of the face was crazy. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE!"

"The Drake equation to estimate how many planets in the galaxy have technological civilizations was really interesting. Someone had to determine the equation but so much is unknown that it still doesn't really tell us anything."

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
" The timeline is hardest for me to grasp. The idea that mammalian evolution occupies such a small space in this process but can conceive it in its entirety. I guess it suggests that human evolution is just a manifestation of a much more comprehensive evolution."

"Since Earth is approximately 4.543 billion years old. How much time does Earth have left before it disappears? is there a way to calculate its lifespan? or compare it to other planets to get an idea of how long earth will be here along side with the possibility that the human race will be too maybe a million years from now."

"The relevance and process of developing DNA. I get that it was supposed to relate to the creation of life, but the whole idea is somewhat confusing in relation to astronomy."

"How did someone, whether it be from our planet or another make these crop circles?"

"The Drake equation. I found all of the different components confusing and it was not adding up for me on the presentation previews, but I did not look up more information in the textbook on account of lack of time. Oh, and what the heck was that LEGO® page about?"

"The Drake equation is confusing to me. Its confusing to me because its something that we use to compare and find life in other places in the galaxy and things like that, but we don't have half the information to actually follow through with the equation to figure it all out. I'm wondering what its actually used for/the point because we can't actually finish it."

"I didn't find anything confusing, everything was straightforward for me."


Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Something alive should manipulate its environment in order to grow and make a new generation of things that can manipulate its environment, it should be able to adapt."

"Simple molecules assemble in a naturally short time, but this is not life, it is the start of life. With chemical evolution simple molecules assemble and get more complex. The longer and longer the molecular chains grow the more complex and the chain now contains enough information to manipulate its environment, this is the start of living things."

"Living things assimilate other (non-living and living) things. Non-living things do not."

"Living things thrive, adapt, reproduce where as there is no observable energy of any process for the non-living."

"My dog, and a rock."

"All living things contain carbon?"

"Non-living things aren't living."

Rank the time it takes for each of the following to have occurred on Earth.
(Only correct responses shown.)
Time after the formation of Earth for single-cell life to arise: about 1 billion years [19%]
Time for the first types of simple single-cell life to evolve into fishlike creatures: about 3 billion years [14%]
Time for fishlike creatures to evolve into more complex land-based animals today: about 0.5 billion years [52%]

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.  *** [3]
Somewhat important.  ***** [5]
Important.  **** [4]
Very important.  ********* [9]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"Any kind of discovery of life would be important information. I am very curious to see if Earth is the only planet that harbors life, it wold be interesting to learn more about our universe."

"It would be very interesting to see how life on other planets evolved compared to ours."

"Knowledge of extraterrestrial life is very different from contact with extraterrestrial life. Even if tomorrow, we found evidence of life outside of Earth, it likely wouldn't affect the average person alive today, at least not significantly."

"We need to stop being so arrogant and start understanding that life is eternal and infinite. I kinda believe everyone values themselves and their life in a way that doesn't necessarily even correlate with their time in existence on this planet, let alone the entire universe. If people were open to the idea of aliens than we could probably not ourselves so seriously and it may actually help us develop as a peaceful world."

"If there is life other than on Earth out there it would be an extraordinary find. I'm a strong believer that we cannot be the only ones in the universe, it is too ignorant to think so. the find of life on another planet can either be the end of us as a human race or a blessing to further our species and adapt to live in a space age futuristic era."

"It would be incredibly interesting to see how life evolved differently on another planet, but it isn't necessary to know for sure."

"It doesn't necessarily make a difference to me, but it would be interesting to find out."

"As long as they don't want to eat us, I don't think we should bother them. Humans don't have a very good track record of discovering new creatures/populations and treating them well."

"It is important for me to know how much truth there is to the X-Files."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  ************** [14]
Medium-mass.  * [1]
Low-mass (red dwarf).  *** [3]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  *** [3]

Briefly explain your answer to the previous question (type of star least likely to have a planet that could support life).
"A massive star--the shorter a star's lifetime, the less likely that life would have the time to evolve into complex forms."

"Massive stars don't have a long enough life span for intelligent life, let alone single cellular organisms to emerge."

"Massive stars have a much higher fusion rate therefore they die exponentially faster and have much hotter surface temperatures, less than ideal to sustain life."

"Massive stars have the shortest lifetimes, therefore it would be very difficult for life to form since it takes so much time to develop."

"I'm going to say least likely would be a red dwarf as it is the coolest... the sun is a medium mass in the main sequence stars, a red dwarf is even less bright, not making it optimum for having a planet with complex forms of life."

"I am unsure what the answer is."

Describe what the Drake equation is used for.
"The Drake equation is supposed to determine the number of technological civilizations in the Milky way."

"A equation that describes factors that are essential for life and a technological society to occur."

"To calculate the number of stars in the Milky Way?"

"I'm still a bit lost on this portion."

In your opinion, how plausible is it that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?
Implausible.  *** [3]
Not very plausible.  ****** [6]
Somewhat plausible.  ********* [9]
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.
"If the reply in Chilbolton is written in some type of code, what is the best possible way to decode it?"

"How long would it take you to make your own crop circles?"

"Do you believe that there is intelligent life in the galaxy besides on Earth?"

"Do you think finding alien life would go down Star Trek or War of the Worlds style?" (I'm thinking more like StarCraft. #justsaying #thoughtsinchaos)

"Are you going camping this summer and if so where?" (Nothing definite so far, but maybe here, here, or maybe here, but I really want to go back to here. But definitely doing one of these.)

"I will miss my reading assignments and surveys. Thank you P-dog for your creativity in presenting astronomy."

"Q: What is the biggest lie in the entire universe? A: 'I have read and agreed to the Terms of Service.'"

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