New Course To Focus on The Search for Other Planetary Life, March 8, 2006

by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO, N.M., March 8, 2006 – Imagine yourself an explorer in deep space, looking at the Earth. What questions would you ask yourself in analyzing our planet from the perspective of a biologist, a physicist and a geologist?

This scenario reflects the basis of a new, interdisciplinary course in astrobiology to be taught at New Mexico Tech by faculty from three departments – Biology, Physics, and Earth and Environmental Science.

Tom Kieft, Michelle Creech-Eakman and Penelope Boston, respectively, will team-teach the course this fall as the result of a proposal submitted to the university’s new Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL).

Last month, the CITL chose the trio’s proposal from nine submitted for the first-ever CITL teaching grant. They will use the $4,000 award for course materials and to bring in guest speakers.

Astrobiology, said the professors, is a field that may shed light on the nature of life in general, instead of just life as we know it on Earth, and may give clues as to how life originates.

“We’ll be looking at Earth from the outside, looking at how we study our own planet,” said Boston, also director of the university’s Cave and Karst Studies program.

The course, said Kieft, will explore the limits of life according to factors such as temperature and chemical properties; in other words, “What are the characteristics of a planet that would make it a good candidate to support life?” he said.

Astrobiology has come into its own relatively recently, so far as understanding how many planets are out there, said Creech-Eakman.

“We knew we couldn’t be the only solar system, and of course we aren’t,” she said, adding that, to date, scientists have discovered the existence of 176 planets in extra-solar systems.

“We’re getting to the point where we’re learning to understand how planets form,” Creech-Eakman said. “Is it the way Earth did, as an agglomeration of rocky bodies, or was it something else, perhaps a giant cloud of gas close to central stars?”

The course also will consider the likelihood of being able to communicate with intelligent life on other planets within a reasonable lifetime, given the physical constraints of time and space.

“The scope of the course is really enormously broad, from the earliest conditions that can lead to life, to higher-level questions about finding intelligent life,” Boston said.
In essence, the course will explore factors that will determine “our fate as a species in the solar system,” she said.

The course focus is not entirely on the search for intelligent life; microbial life is a more likely possibility, said Kieft.

“I look at the energetics of other environments,” he said. “There are lots of ways microbes can make a living.”

On the other hand, said Creech-Eakman, “We’ve got to be intelligent enough to recognize signs of life outside our own solar system.”

All three said there still is much work to be done in organizing the class, and expressed gratitude to the CITL both for the opportunity, and for the vote of confidence for the concept of interdisciplinary team-teaching.

The course will take a sophisticated approach to the study, requiring some understanding of basic scientific theories, thus reflecting its status as an upper-division 400-level class.

“There are different schemes to look for life,” said Boston. “NASA has one, and there’s a European Space Agency version.” Both, she said, address the question, what does life do to a planet?

“The course will go beyond the gee-whiz, magazine analysis,” Boston said, although course requirements will be minimal. Potential students should be conversant in two of the three disciplines and should understand how science is approached.

Creech-Eakman said the upper-division course is unique in that it will bring students from different disciplines together.

“That’s our real goal,” said Kieft, adding that the team wants students to learn to be comfortable working in an interdisciplinary environment.

Because the study of astrobiology involves so many scientific disciplines -- physics, chemistry, mathematics, to name just a few – “It captures the imagination of a lot of people,” Kieft said.

Boston agreed. “Astrobiology is a cool, sexy topic,” she said. “The subject is so provocative, it won’t be difficult to get people’s opinions – we want the course to be interactive.”

Students are wide open to everything that comes at them, Creech-Eakman said. “We want our students to ask, ‘what if?’ and to apply science to their scenarios.”