Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life on Coursera

By now everyone has read or heard about the new buzz hitting higher education. MOCC’s. Massive Open Online Courses. All the cool kids are doing it. My friend Phil took a class on Artificial Intelligence. My friend Elliot took a class on poetry. So I thought I’d check and see if there was any course for me. And then I saw it. Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

It was being presented as a five-week class by Dr. Charles Cockell through the University of Edinburgh. This particular class piqued my interest because A) I’m a space nut. B) I’m curious about the subject and C) now that I’m writing more and more science fiction, I want to learn more about what’s going on out there in the universe and how it works. Why are we alone (so far)? Where is everybody? What would life look like on other planets? How did we start off here? As an author I am always taking workshops (mostly weird acting ones) to improve my story telling skills, but just the title of this class captured my imagination.

Before this class I had been a participant at the LauchPad Workshop by Dr. Mike Brotherton through the University of Wyoming and if you are a science fiction author interested in a crash course on space science, I highly recommend applying to that workshop as well as taking this class. But that class was all about space, this class was about life.

A little something about MOOCC’s. They are free. You read that right. Free. Courses run differently (I’m currently taking a World History class that is incredible as well.) But basically all you had to do with Astrobiology was watch some videos and take some quizzes. There is also a textbook if you want to read it. The class was taken by 35,000+ people from all over the world. For the record, I did not log on once to the forums. I did not interact with anyone. Except for my mom. Yes. My Mom. I thought it would be a fun thing for us to do together since she’s in Montreal and I’m in LA and she’s just retired. It was totally fun. We’d call each other and talk about the week’s lesson. We’d compare our quiz results. And we’d share articles that we saw that pertained to what we’d learned. My mom is a scientist herself, a molecular biologist, and when we learned about the building blocks of life and molecules and all of that stuff I thought she was going to be bored. But she wasn’t. She thought that it was so interesting to see how Dr. Cockell presented the information in a clear and simple way. She also thought it was great fun to look at this stuff and apply it to the possibility of life on other planets. “I never once thought of it that way,” she said.

I have no formal science training and I would wager that most of the students didn’t either but Cockell did not shy away from the hard stuff. He dug right in explaining molecules, single cell organisms, chemical reactions, DNA, geological eras, important experiments, space missions, and even discussing how it relates to the human condition. He presented everything in such a simple to understand format that it was fairly easy to follow the hard science. He began with the question What is life and what are the definitions of life? And what are the hypothesis for how it originated on Earth? And then once we had this basic understanding of life on Earth, he gently moved us into what we might look for on other planets. The course was well thought out and gave just enough information to be able to simply understand all the concepts being thrown at us. It’s heady stuff. I had my mind blown every week.

There were things that were easier for me to understand and things that were harder. For me the nitty gritty biology stuff was hard, but I kind of get it now. Mostly I retained the need for chemical reactions, why we are looking where we’re looking for life and the cool places that we’re looking. I also discovered that my favorite new moon is Encaleus. That I love the fact that the UN has protocols for alien contact and a department called the Office of Outer Space Affairs. I love these new words: furry bacteria, faint young sun paradox, great oxidation event.

For my mom, remembering which human mission to where that learned what was hard. “I always got those wrong,” she said. But when she recently came to visit me, it didn’t stop her from dorking out over the model of the Viking Space lander where the first science that inconclusively proved that there were the building blocks of life on Mars was conducted in 1977. It made me incredibly excited about the fact that Curiosity actually confirmed finding the building blocks for life on Ancient Mars just a few weeks ago.

I love that I can understand this now in a much deeper way than I did before the course. Or how I can understand that the water on Europa oceans seems to be coming through the surface and generating enough energy to allow for the essential chemical reactions needed for life to exist.

I understand the questions that astrobiologists are asking and why they are asking them. I understand where we are looking for life and why we are looking there. As a science fiction writer, I found the course to be enormously helpful for world building. alien building, story building. Basically, I was not only scientifically inspired but creatively inspired. Not only do I know what those building blocks of life are, but I have building blocks for story ideas.

To say that this class was great would be putting it too mildly. It surpassed my expectations and sparked my imagination. The videos are still up for people to watch so you can go and take the class right now if you want. And I noticed that they are going to be offering a fresh version of the course in the future which is great because I’m sure that with all the discoveries about the planetary objects in our own solar system and the continued discovery about extra solar planets the stuff to learn and for Dr. Cockell to talk about will only grow. Should you take this course? YES.

Cecil Castellucci’s books include the just-out graphic novel Odd Duck (with Sara Varon), which features two ducks who love the stars as much as she does; and Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005), The Plain Janes (Minx/DC Comics, 2007), and The Year of the Beasts (Roaring Brook, 2012). She is the YA editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and a two time Macdowell Fellow. She lives in Los Angeles.


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