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Questions about whether there's life beyond our own universe has filled millions of pages of speculative fiction, taken up years of time on movie and TV screens, and consumed billions of hours of kids' and astrophysicists' daydreams. Now, a new free online course offered by Harvard can arm you with facts you need to learn more about "alien life, how we search for it, and what this teaches us about our place in the universe."
The course is called "Super-Earths And Life" and it's being offered on the edX platform, a website created by Harvard and MIT that provides free online courses from the world's top universities.
It will be taught by Dimitar Sasselov, a professor of astronomy at Harvard. "He is the director of the Origins of Life Initiative, a new interdisciplinary institute that joins biologists, chemists, planetary scientists and astronomers in searching for the starting points of life on Earth (and possibly elsewhere)," says his bio on the course sign-up page. "He is also a co-investigator on NASA's Kepler mission, searching for exoplanets the size of Earth."
The course will combine the latest findings in evolutionary biology with with advances that have helped us discover more and more planets outside our own solar system. It starts on February 10, lasts for six weeks and requires a commitment of about five hours per week.
Although the course is completely free, you have the option to donate to keep edX going (as little as $5 is acceptable) and you can choose to receive a "verified certificate" for your completed coursework for a minimum of $50, something that might help if you are planning to use the class in your career as Scully's new partner. Also, according to the research statement attached to the course, Harvard will use student participation to help improve its educational offerings. In addition to this course, edX offers over 250 other classes in everything from ethics to medicine -- all free.
I remember battling sleepiness as I slouched in a large lecture hall, squinting to make out the writing on the blackboard during my freshman introductory physics course in college. My difficulty staying alert in class was not the fault of the subject—I went on to major in physics—or even the teacher. Instead, I think it had to do with the passive format of the class and the “boring basics first” approach that introductory science courses often take.
Arizona State University (ASU) astrobiologist Ariel Anbar shares my frustrations. “I started thinking there’s got to be a better way to do this,” he says. “I envision a future where the basic intro courses are not lectures, but interactive online courses.”
Anbar and ASU staff member Lev Horodyskyj designed a course along these lines called “Habitable Worlds.” The class is an introductory science course for non-majors that covers basic biology, chemistry and physics by way of the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe. Students are introduced to the topic by looking at a star field. Their task, over the course of the semester, is to determine how many planets within that field might host intelligent life with which we could communicate. To figure this out, the students use the Drake equation—a formula designed in 1961 by early SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) proponent Frank Drake that calculates a number by multiplying many factors, such as the average rate of star formation in the galaxy, the percentage of stars with planets, the percentage of these that are habitable, and so on.
The course is primarily taught online through a video game-like interface with rich graphics and narrated video explanations. Professors interact with students often via discussion boards, and sometimes face-to-face question sessions as well. The students can even take “virtual field trips” to sites around the world through websites that offer interactive panoramic views.