Astronomy Week 12

Just realized I’m behind schedule! Week 12 was all about how we’re looking for aliens!

Learning outcomes for week 12:

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to discuss the following with a general audience:​
  • What’s the deal with alien visitations and UFOs?
  • The Drake Equation
  • Is intelligence a common outcome of evolution?
  • How are we searching for life in the universe?

We started by doing a review Kahoot of the worst 5 questions on the quiz for week 11, and then I did a brief review of what we covered in that lecture.

I began with a discussion of the difference between aliens (pseudoscience) and extra-terrestrials (science). We talked about all the ways in which the “evidence” for  alien visits and UFOs are NOT science – shady reports, faked reports, Area 51, conspiracy theories, crop circles, ancient alien races, etc..

The take-home point here is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (a quote often credited to Carl Sagan, but originally by Marcello Truzzi).

We then talked about how scientists are looking for evidence of advanced civilizations through the Drake Equation and SETI. A big idea here is the Drake Equation is NOT meant to give us a exact number, but is really to show us what we need to learn about and know in order to get a good estimate.

The in-class participation activity was to do a Drake Equation mini-lab. I’m becoming quite partial to these exercises and I think the students get more out of them than other activities I’ve tried.

We also talked about whether intelligence is rare or if there is a trend toward it in evolution as this could help us pin down some of the factors in the Drake Equation.

We ended with a discussion about whether or not it’s a good idea to be broadcasting our own signals, as was done in 1974 to M13.

I felt this lecture fell a bit flat, and it probably had to do with my low energy levels that day. If I teach this class again, I’d like to make this one much more interesting.

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