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University Bulletin
Undergraduate Degree Programs

These course descriptions are not being updated as of August 1, 2016. Current course descriptions are maintained in LionPATH.

Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO)

ASTRO 140 (GN) Life in the Universe (3) The problem of the existence of life beyond Earth is investigated, drawing from recent research in astronomy and other fields. For non-science majors.

ASTRO 140 Life in the Universe (3)

(BA) This course meets the Bachelor of Arts degree requirements.

The possibility of life beyond Earth is one of the great unsolved puzzles of human thought and has been debated for millenia. An answer would fundamentally change the relationship between the human race to the rest of the Universe. Advances in modern physics and astrophysics have dramatically changed and enriched the understanding of our cosmic surroundings, but have not yet produced an unambiguous evidence concerning the extraterrestrial life. Yet, significant progress has been made on certain aspects of the problem. Recent observations of protoplanetary disks around young stars, planets around solar-type stars and a rapidly spinning pulsar (a Penn State discovery), and pervasive organic molecules throughout the Galaxy give tantalizing albeit indirect, hints in favor of the existence of nonterrestrial life.

"Life in the Universe" is envisioned to be an attractive choice for students who are interested in enriching and broadening their understanding of modern science. The course is highly interdisciplinary, combining evidence from several fields of science to describe our chances to encounter life beyond Earth and the Solar System. Selecting this course would be a logical choice for students who completed and enjoyed ASTRO 001 (GN), 005 (GN), 010 (GN). The students are expected to reach the following goals from this course:
- learn to appreciate limitations of human experience and a role of the interdisciplinary approach in solving scientific problems
- gain understanding of a relationship between the physical Earth, its biosphere, and the rest of the observable Universe
- examine in some detail a contemporary problem of scientific investigation: the astrophysical evidence for planets around stars other than the Sun
- assess the scientific significance of searches for extraterrestrial life including technological civilizations

The course material is conveyed, analyzed and discussed through lectures, invited talks, reading, essay writing, homework assignments and oral presentations. Lectures systematically cover the topics listed in the course outline at a level appropriate for non-science students, although Science and Engineering majors do take the course and perform at a higher technical level. While general understanding of astronomy from the prerequisite course is expected, the necessary physical and astrophysical concepts are reintroduced to assure a logical and coherent flow of information throughout the course. Videos are used to illustrate a number of topics, such as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, physical conditions on planets of the Solar System, the detection of planets around a neutron star, and to evaluate the scientific content of science fiction movies. Invited talks by faculty from other departments enrich the course material with in-depth presentations of subjects such as habitable zones around stars, the basics and perspectives of space flight and the foundations of biological evolution.

There has been some experimentation with activity and assessment strategies for the course. Some of the work involves quantitative analysis while other work requires qualitative synthesis of classroom experience with readings. Group presentations give students a chance to study selected, often controversial topics and present them to the class in a disciplined, scientific manner.

General Education: GN
Diversity: None
Bachelor of Arts: Natural Sciences
Effective: Fall 2012
Prerequisite: ASTRO 001, ASTRO 005 orASTRO 010

Note : Class size, frequency of offering, and evaluation methods will vary by location and instructor. For these details check the specific course syllabus.


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Course descriptions are stored in LionPATH, the University-wide student information system. Please visit the LionPATH Course Catalog to access current course descriptions. At that point, you will be leaving the University Bulletin website.

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