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

Astronomy 210, fall 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 personally found that the concept of 'are we alone?' to be very interesting because there is no way that, in an expansive universe, Earth is the only planet with life on it."

"The 'Here is Today' link, because it's crazy how long earth has been around and how long it took for humans to evolve and inhabit Earth."

"The timeline which shows how long life has been on Earth and how long it took for single cell organisms to change into multi-cellular organisms was interesting. Also, how drastically change was occurring towards the end of the timeline."

"Crop circles, because I am curious of how they got there. Whether it's due to UFOs or just people doing it."

"I found interesting that old stromatolites fossils where found on western Australia. They were 3.5 billion years old."

Describe something you found confusing from the assigned textbook reading or presentation preview, and explain why this was personally confusing for you.
"Not really a confusing thought but could it be that we haven't had an visitors from another planet because when they view it, we may not even exist yet."

"The Drake equation confusing, I don't really understand how it works but I think that once you explain it in class it will be very interesting especially because I'm interesting in knowing if there's life in other planets and all of that."

"I found chemical evolution a little bit confusing. How did this first element copy itself to begin with? I don't understand how it would have that ability without conscious thought or some outside influence."

"How the crop field appeared overnight next to the Chilbolton radio observatory."

"I found the Drake equation confusing, of just how it is used."

"Nothing was really confusing except it does seem like there is a whole lot that isn't really certain."

"How do scientists know their dates are correct... It seems a bit sketchy to me."

"Why the Drake equation included parts of it that could not be scientifically proved. I mean, is it then a more theoretical equation..."

"The Drake equation and how to actually apply it to numbers."

Briefly describe a difference between life and non-living things.
"Life is the concept that molecules interact with each other in a specific environment and can perform certain actions whereas a non-living thing is an entity that simply acts through chemical processes."

"Life is being able to adapt or survive changes in the environment. Non-living things such as simple molecules can assemble naturally and in little time but it is still not life."

"Living things take energy from their environment (like food, water, sunlight) while non-living things do not."

"One difference between living and non-living things is that living things can manipulate its environment in order to survive and reproduce."

"Life is the process of evolving while non-living things do not."

"Living things adapt to, react to and change their environment. Non living things are simply part of the environment."

"Living things can breathe while non-living things do not."

"Living things adapt their environment."

"Life can manipulate its environment."

"Living things have cells, living things do not have cells."

"Life can evolve and progress and cont life. They learn survival techniques. Non-living are organisms living on earths ocean grounds rocks are not capable to reproduce quickly and evolve."

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 [25%]
Time for the first types of simple single-cell life to evolve into fishlike creatures: about 3 billion years [25%]
Time for fishlike creatures to evolve into more complex land-based animals today: about 0.5 billion years [75%]

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.  * [1]
Somewhat important.  ***** [5]
Important.  * [1]
Very important.  ***** [4]

Briefly explain your answer regarding the importance of knowing whether there may be life elsewhere other than on Earth.
"I just think that it would be very interesting to find out if life exists."

"I think it's important to know whether there's life elsewhere on other planets because if there is and there's a possibility that they may be more technologically advanced than us and have answers to certain things that we don't have answers to."

"It would be really cool to know about life on other planets. It also means that if we had to figure something out (which eventually, I think we will) post-apocalypse, we could possibly relocate over time. In the end though, it would also be really interesting to see that our planet is not necessarily special in terms of being able to support life."

"It would be interesting to know if there really is other intelligent life outside of Earth, but who knows what would occur if humans did come into contact with these creatures."

"I think if we found other life besides on Earth it could explain why we are here and how we got here which I think it probably the most important aspect of our lives here on Earth."

"We may not be able to prove it but there has to be some where out there."

"Life here has shown that where ever it CAN be, it is. From the harshest ocean depths at over 700° F at a volcanic vent, to the tops of the highest mountains, some form of life is existing and thriving. Tardigrades can survive in space! This basic principal, that where ever life can exist, it does, and with all of the potential building blocks for life tells me that in all of the universe, Earth cannot be the only life bearing rock. Knowing that leads me to some measure of acceptance that there is life out there."

"I am curious to know whether there is life elsewhere than Earth, but it's not something that I absolutely need to know."

"It would be cool if there was life elsewhere and it might answer some questions."

"I am not at all worried about whether there is life on any other planet, because it doesn't affect me at all."

"I mean, knowing that there are other civilizations out there? How cool is that?"

"It is just intresting to know if we humans, terrestrial planet creatures are unique or not. It kind of answers a lot of religion questions."

Which type of star would be least likely to have a planet that could support life?
Massive.  ****** [6]
Medium-mass.  [0]
Low-mass (red dwarf).  **** [4]
(Unsure/guessing/lost/help!)  ** [2]

Briefly explain your answer to the previous question (type of star least likely to have a planet that could support life).
"A red dwarf star is the coolest out of the three options so its ability to give off sufficient energy is limited."

"Massive stars burn fast and bright. Since it took billions of years for life on Earth to form, it's safe to assume that this is true for other planets. That means that massive stars wouldn't live long enough to sustain any evolution of complex lifeforms."

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's used to find other civilizations within our own galaxy that can communicate with humans. If technology lasts for a long time, then chances are probable."

In your opinion, how plausible is it that the Chilbolton message is a reply from extraterrestrials?
Implausible.  * [1]
Not very plausible.  **** [4]
Somewhat plausible.  ***** [5]
Very plausible.  [0]
(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 review the chemical evolution of life? And why things can't be made out of elements other than carbon?"

"Do you think that there are hostile life-forms in the universe?"

"If extraterrestrials were going to respond to a message, how likely do you think it would be that they would use a crop circle?"

"No comment."

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