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Astronomy 309L(47965)--Spring 2013
The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence
Classroom and time: Welch 3.502, MWF 9-10.
Office: R.L.Moore 15.204 (R.L. Moore is at the corner of Dean Keaton and Speedway)
Phone: 478-2748 (home; best place to call me); office number is 471-6446.
Office hours: M, T 2:30-3:30 (will be shifted to W Th when exam is on Fri)
Meetings at other times can usually be easily arranged. However I urge you to feel free
to call me at my home or office, or to talk to me after class (in the foyer just outside the classroom--I
have free time after most of our classes); for short questions there is usually no need for you
to walk all the way to my office. I
welcome phone calls at home—it is an extremely efficient way for us to communicate
while a particular question or problem is on your mind. Any time before 9pm is
fine. Sending me email is ok, but I usually cannot give adequate answers to subject
matter questions by email.
Tsz Ho (Benny) Tsang
Office hours: M 5-6, Tu 2-3 & 5-6
Office: RLM 16.318
Phone: (512) 471-3466
Class Website: Materials for the course—this syllabus, some outlines of lectures,
extra readings that will be assigned, messages, etc. will be available at Blackboard,
and/or sent to you via class email. Your exam grades will also be posted at Blackboard.
Please download and read “First Day Handout for Undergraduates” from the Astronomy
Department website, or from Course Documents at Blackboard, as well as the pdf of
There is also a textbook website (see below).
Required book: Life in the Universe, 3rd edition,
by J. O. Bennett and S. Shostak (2011).
Student Companion Website:
This 3rd edition is available at local bookstores.
It is definitely the best (and nearly only) up-‐to-‐date textbook for a class at this level.
It comes with the access code (inside front cover) you need in order to register at the student
companion website, giving you access to the textbook in ebook form, quiz questions for each
chapter, self-guided tutorials, interactive figures and photos, links to astrobiology-related
web sites, a math review, and more. The textbook is expensive, but you should be able to get
the “rebate” by selling your book at the end of the semester, unless you form a deep emotional
attachment to it.
Purchasing this textbook used, online or
otherwise, may be tricky and is not recommended. If you do, be sure you are purchasing a 3rd
edition. Also, a used book will not have a valid access code to the student companion site:
You would have to purchase an access code separately, online from the publisher-I think it’s
about $30-40, which makes the total higher than a new book, as far as I can tell. At this
time the lowest used 3rd edition at amazon is $93 (new is $112). If you can find a used 3rd
edition for as little as $60 dollars, then it might be a viable option.
Do not purchase a 2nd
edition of the textbook. This subject (“astrobiology”) has developed very rapidly in the past
several years, so that edition is partly out of date, and has different page numberings.
In any case, purchase it now; you should have it in-hand by
Wednesday, Jan. 16, at latest. Note: If you purchase a 3nd edition online, you cannot afford to
wait 4-10 days for delivery, so you’ll have to specify two-day shipping.
Other required reading: Astrobiology is a rapidly
growing interdisciplinary field, so the textbook will have to be supplemented by a several
outside readings provided for you to download at Blackboard (as pdfs), or that you can read
online (through the UT electronic library, or at a url I will supply). More detailed guides
to the reading assignments for each of the five parts of the course will be handed out separately.
The textbook reading assignments corresponding to each exam is given separately below. A
day-by-day calendar of lecture topics and readings will be distributed separately.
Grading: 95% of your grade will be based on five exams, spaced
roughly equally through the semester. The other 5% of your grade will be based on attendance.
All exams will be weighted equally
except that your lowest exam score will only receive a weight of 1/2 compared to the others.
So you have to take all the exams, but if you have an off day (or week, etc.) it won’t hurt
your final grade too much. The topics and dates of the exams are listed below. There will
be no comprehensive final, and no “optional final” exam. The exams will consist entirely of
multiple choice questions, unless our class size is unusually small. I will try to prepare you
for the nature of the exam questions by occasionally giving sample questions during lectures,
by trying to point out the types of information that I expect you to understand or remember,
pointing you to the useful end-of-chapter and online review questions, and giving examples on
In case of medical or other non-academic emergencies
or situations, contact me as early as possible—it will usually be possible for you to take an
exam a day or so early or late in these cases (but not for academic reasons).
We will try to get exam grades available to you through
Blackboard within one, or at most two days of the time of the exam. Often you should be able to
get your exam grades on the same day (or evening) as you take the exam.
The remaining 5% of your grade will be based on
attendance; the manner in which attendance is monitored will depend on the size of our class
and other considerations. I will send you a separate email/document when I am certain about
the procedure. You will not be penalized if an emergency keeps you from attending a class-I’ll
explain in class.
Final grades are assigned on the basis of A=87-100,
B=77-86.9, C=67-77.9, D=55-66.9, F<55. No plus or minus grades are assigned in
Homework: There is homework in this class, but it will be ungraded
except in the sense that references to it will appear on each exam in the form of a
few exam questions. In other words, your homework will be graded as part of each exam. A.
Once every week or two I will send out class email containing one or more questions relating
to the topic we are covering. B. I will also assign and discuss homework questions as part
of the lectures. C. Finally, there are selected end-of-chapter and online review questions
that form a part of the homework; some of these questions will appear, often in modified
form, on exams.
I will insert exam questions that directly test
whether you know the answers to these questions—that is how you will be “graded” on these
Another continuing assignment will be to subscribe
to and look at the astrobiology “news” reports at
I will include 1-3 questions based on these “news stories” on each exam. Sometimes these
will be included as “extra credit” questions on exams.
Extra Credit: Besides the possible “extra credit exam questions”
mentioned above, a short “research paper” may be used to increase your final percentage
grade by up to 5%. These papers should reflect intense and independent outside research
on a particular topic, and will require significant reading and time; more details and a
list of possible topics will be provided separately.
Just under the cutoff? If at the end of the semester you are just
under the cutoff for a grade (by, say, one, or two, or 0.3, percentage points), whether you
are just under a D, say, or an A, do not call or write asking me to lower the cutoff-this
is unfair to all concerned. Cutoffs will not be lowered to accommodate your individual
score. Scores at the end of the semester are not rounded up, so, for example, a
76.7 will get you a C.
Special requests: If you have any special request of any sort
(excluding those not allowed, like lowering the grade cutoff), please put the request in
writing, preferably by email, or call me on the phone. Please state clearly and explicitly your
request and why it is reasonable. Include a phone number so that I can contact you about
Obviously (I hope) this procedure does not apply to
minor requests such as “Could you write a little larger on the board?” etc. A short
email or just telling me before or after class will do.
Any suggestions for improvement of the class as we
proceed will be greatly appreciated, either in person, by phone, or by email. I think
there is not much purpose, and certainly no benefit to you, when I receive your comments
on the Course-Evaluation Survey after the class has ended. Instead, I hope we can both
“self-correct” if there are particular problems.
Attendance: The biggest single danger in this course is that you
fall far enough behind, either through lack of reading or spotty attendance, that you cannot
really understand the material being covered. Even the simple forced repetition of having to
encounter the material in class three times a week is an important way to enhance your
familiarity with the material, and your grade. Another, important, reason why attendance
is important in this particular class is that a significant part of my lectures will
not be a simple overlap with the textbook. Finally, at least initially, I will not put
lecture slides online, or only do so selectively, perhaps as an outline. I therefore
urge you to attend all classes, and ask questions if you don’t understand something.
Over the years, I have finally come to see that,
especially for a MWF9am class, attendance needs to be enforced in some way—the correlation
of low grades with lack of attendance (and participation) has become very clear in the past
several years, so I will monitor attendance and accordingly assign 5% of your final
percentage average on this basis.
Dropping the course: See General Information, Registrar’s web site,
for details of required approvals. Brief list of dates are at the online academic calendar.
The College of Natural Sciences adheres strictly to the published deadlines. Please notice
the 12th class day (last day to drop a class with possible refund), the deadline for
dropping a course without possible academic penalty, and the last day to drop a course,
except for urgent and nonacademic reasons, with Dean’s approval.
Incompletes: An incomplete (X) will only be considered for
students who cannot complete the required course work for reasons other than lack
of diligence (illness or other imperative nonacademic reasons), but only if the student
has a passing grade on the work completed.
Cheating: Academic dishonesty will result in failure of the
course and a report to the Dean of Students, who will decide on further action. If our
enrollment is small enough, students will be required to sit one seat apart during exams.
Because of the increasing frequency of clear infractions, please protect your work, even
Student observing opportunities: (call 471-5007 or see
for Monday updates; information below is tentative)
Students interested in observing the night sky
through small telescopes have several opportunities. 1. The Painter
Hall Observatory has UT Student/Staff Night on Fridays and Public Night is on Saturdays.
These sessions are free and open to all ages; no reservations are required. 2.
The Astronomy Department sponsors weekly “Star Parties” on the 18th floor observing deck
of R. L. Moore Hall on Wednesdays. This is free and open to the public. Call phone number
or see url listed above for current times.
This course is concerned with the possibilities
and implications of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. The major issues include whether
habitable planets around other stars are commonplace, how likely or unlikely life is elsewhere
(based on theories and evidence about the origin of life on Earth), how we might detect such
life remotely, the possibilities of life within our own solar system, whether we should expect
that complex organisms, especially creatures possessing "intelligence," language, technology,
etc. are common, strategies for communication with extraterrestrials, the possibilities for
interstellar travel, and (if time permits) the question of whether we have been visited by
extraterrestrials. Please note from the outset that the course is highly interdisciplinary by
nature, and that only a fraction of the material (maybe a quarter) is directly astronomical.
The material will be almost entirely non-mathematical,
concentrating on a number of key ideas that can be understood without math, although they do
require a solid conceptual grasp of the subjects, and a degree of comfort using graphs as an
important quantitative tool. If you are at all uncomfortable with elementary mathematics
(or even if you're not), take a look at the "Math Review" at the textbook web site; the most
important are "Powers of Ten," "Scientific Notation," and "Working with Units."
You will be required to become familiar with a lot of elementary but diverse material from
astronomy, planetary science, chemistry, and molecular biology. This material requires no
background, nor gives any advantage to those who do have some background—it is really at
an elementary level. If you are not willing to study interdisciplinary material,
please drop the course now, but don’t complain in the end that this wasn’t a straight
I suggest you immediately look through your
textbook to get a feel for the nature of the topics we will be covering. Also, look
through the list of topics and readings beginning on the next page for an outline.
is a fairly large vocabulary of terminology with which you must become comfortable—I cannot
overstress the importance of being able to speak about the topics covered in this class
coherently and comfortably. It is my repeated observation that students who have trouble
on exams, even though they think they studied diligently, are not comfortable with the
terminology, and so are not really making sense of the exam questions; conversely, the students
who do well in this class are usually able to explain the material in words to someone unfamiliar
with the subject matter.
Schedule of readings, topics, and exam dates at Schedule.