department of astronomy - courses  
home dept of astronomy mcdonald observatory research hobby-eberly telescope directory university of texas  
department of astronomy
mcdonald observatory
hobby-eberly telescope
university of texas
AST 309L




Review Sheets



Schedule of Topics, Readings and Exam Dates

I will list topics according to the organization of the textbook (e.g. 5.2 means section 5.2 in Bennet and Shostak's book). Although I like the clarity and production of our textbook, the one poor feature, in my opinion, is the order of presentation of the topics. For that reason we are covering the material in a different order than presented in the textbook. I have gone through this before and am sure there is very little confusion caused by (say) terminology in Ch. 10 that depends on Ch. 7 (which you won't have read yet). However this re-ordering does make it very important for you to keep a copy of this reading list handy.

The course is divided into five sections, with an exam after each section. The exam dates are only a little tentative, and time constraints may cause one or more of them to shift by one class day, or force us to delay covering some of the material until the next exam. I will give you plenty of advance warning if such a change is coming, and will try to avoid it. But the plan is: An exam every three weeks, on Thursdays, beginning Sept. 18. The exception is Part III, for which we should only need two weeks.

I. Habitable planets
Overview in terms of the "Drake equation" (12.1) [Will begin lectures with this material] Don't worry about math, just try to get the main ideas. The most important concept, is the question of "contingency vs. convergence," at theme that recurs for nearly every topic in the entire course. You should understand why there can be no final answers to questions like this (related to determinism vs. randomness).
Ch. 1
Overview by topic--brief but important. Know what this subject is about, since it is a new one.
Ch. 2
Mostly history. Only read 2.2 (Copernican revolution) + 2.4 (Gravity and the nature of theories)
Ch. 3
(3.1), 3.2 (sizes, distances, elements from stars, time), 3.3 (objects in our solar system, EZ introduction to disk and planet formation theories (much more detail in class), 3.4 (review of background physics--light, phase changes,...) We won't spend much time on this review material, but you will have to read it and I will test you on it, in the context of astrobiology.
Ch. 10
Evolution of habitability. 10.1 Habitable zone, 10.2 Venus as example, 10.3 Surface habitability, 10.4 Future of life on Earth. Skip 10.5
Ch. 11
Extrasolar planets--detection and biosignatures. Much more detail in lectures.
11.1 (phases of stellar evolution, properties, spectral types, stellar masses and lifetimes. Which stars would make suitable stars for planets with life?), 11.2 Extrasolar planets, 11.3 Rare Earth? Skip 11.4.
[Depending on time available, we may have to postpone 11.2 to the 2nd exam material.]
............Our first exam will occur here (Thurs. Sept. 18) ..................

II. Origin of life by chemical evolution
Ch. 5
The nature of life on earth--characteristics of life, cells, metabolism, genomes, extremophiles.
Read 5.1 to 5.5, skip 5.6.
Topics I will cover in more depth in class are:
Elementary background on molecular bonds, chemical reactions and cell biology.
Why carbon? Why water? Alternative biochemistries.
Molecular basis of life--prebiotic organic molecules; amino acids, nucleotides, proteins, nucleic acids.
Ch. 6
Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth--We will only cover the "Origin" part of this chapter here, which means only subsections 6.1 and 6.2, especially 6.2. I will fill in more detail in class, especially concerning origin of life scenarios and problems.
Alternate biochemistries again; strange life forms, artificial (digital) life (if time permits).
Some outside reading possible.
...........Second exam here (Thurs. Oct. 9)..........................

III. Life in the Solar System?
Chapters 7 through 9. We will spend only three lecture periods on this material, but you are responsible for reading all of it.
Ch. 7
Searching for life in our solar system
Ch. 8
Ch. 9
Jovian moons (+ additional readings on Titan mission)
...........Third exam here (Thurs. Oct 23)..........................

IV. Terrestrial biological evolution and intelligence; extraterrestrial "intelligence"?
Ch. 4
Habitability of the Earth--ages from radiometric dating, formation of Earth and Moon, Hadean Earth, climate regulation, geological setting for evolutionary development. Read 4.1 to 4.6 (entire chapter)
Back to Ch. 6 (sections on evolution):
6.3 Development of life on Earth. Empirical timeline, interpretations, implications for extraterrestiral complex life. Contingency vs. convergence is a major issue here, as it is in most of the course.
Class lectures: Major developments in history of life, from molecular level to oxygenation of atmosphere.
6.4 Impacts and mass extinctions--biological development driven by catostrophic events, severe environmental changes (e.g. snowball Earth episodes, oxygen holocaust, major impacts, episodes of intense volcanism...)
6.5 Human evolution-- discussion of problematic status of human uniqueness; development of cognitive function in organisms including humans; nature of "intelligence(s)".
If time: speculations on postbiological evolution, alternatives to development of complexity with alternative biochemistries, ...
............Fourth exam here (Thurs. Nov. 13)...........................

[11/17] Revised syllabus for Part V (pdf)

V. Modes of contact
Ch. 12
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)--listening strategies
12.1 Drake equation (review). Emphasis on importance of lifetime of a technological civilization--how could L be large enough to allow contact?
12.2 Intelligence--This will be supplemented with outside readings from cognitive science, cross-cultural and animal studies, artificial intelligence research. We will discuss in detail in class lectures. This is crucially important in designing strategies for signal detection (see below).
12.3 Searching for intelligence. SETI experiments (proposed encoding and signaling techniques, "magic frequencies," ongoing SETI programs)
If time: The nature of language and its possible alternatives.
Skip 12.4 for now.
Ch. 13 Interstellar Travel and the Fermi Paradox-- limiting factors, proposed designs. Possibility of exotic physics; Galactic colonization and the "Where are they?" conundrum.
Contact--Implications of search and discovery In class lecture (time permitting): UFOs, artifacts, abduction phenomena,... (Read ch.12.4 for traditional scientist perspective).
.....Fifth (last) exam here, on last class day (Thurs. Dec. 4).....

There is no comprehensive final. You should be able to compute your final average score (we will give you a formula to help) and so you will know your letter grade in the course after receiving the results of the 5th exam. The only exceptions would be extreme borderline cases (e.g. a final average of 77. 96).

17 November 2008
Astronomy Program · The University of Texas at Austin · Austin, Texas 78712
prospective student inquiries:
site comments: