Origin of Life: A Cosmic Perspective

Spring 1998
Meeting times: M W F, 1:00 - 1:50pm + 1 hour TBA
Course code: 79.4961
Credit hours: 4
Instructor: Doug Whittet (Room: 1C34; phone: 8413)
Email: doug@whittet.phys.rpi.edu

Aims and Objectives General Information Suggested Reading
Seminar Presentations Course Outline and Schedule Center for Origin of Life

Aims and objectives:

One of the fundamental goals in all science is to understand the origin of life. The aim of this course is to review relevant concepts and discuss current issues. In recent years, several distinct lines of research have emphasized the importance of a ``cosmic perspective'':

The course will also discuss the influence of cosmic impacts on the subsequent evolution of life on Earth, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe.

The course is multidisciplinary, covering topics in physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth sciences and biology. No specialized prior knowledge of these topics is assumed. Relevant background material will be introduced via reading assignments.

The course may be used as partial fulfilment of minor degree programs in Astronomy or Astrobiology/Origins of Life. See the Rensselaer Course Catalog for further information.

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General Information

Text: No single text is available that meets all the needs of the course. A list of suggested reading material appears below.

Participation: Emphasis will be placed on class discussions and interactive learning. Attendence will be recorded. Regular attendance and participation is strongly encouraged!

Homework: Assignments will be set at intervals of approximately 2 weeks. Students may consult each other on the homework problems, on the understanding that the final solutions handed in by each student are their own work. Homework may be handed in 24 hours late with a 10% penalty. Homework that is more than 24 hours late will not be accepted unless there are genuine mitigating circumstances.

Term Paper / Seminar: A requirement of the course is that you prepare a report on a related topic of your choice. This provides the opportunity to review your chosen topic in some depth and report your findings. A list of proposed topics appears below (you are welcome to suggest alternatives). The report may be presented either as a written term paper or as a short seminar presentation to the class. Your selected topic and method of delivery should be approved by the third week of the semester. Papers are due by the end of week 14.

Examination: There will be a take-home final exam at the end of the course.

Grading: The final grade will be based approximately on the following scheme:

Participation 10%
Homework 50% (5 x 10%)
Seminar 20%
Examination 20%

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Suggested Reading

Books & Articles:

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Term Paper / Seminar Topics

A list of suggested topics appears below. The list is by no means exclusive, and you are welcome to suggest alternatives. Your selected topics and method of delivery should be approved by the third week of the semester. Papers are due by the end of week 14.

Suggested topics:

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General Course Outline and Schedule

Week Begin date Topic
1 1/12 Introduction and overview; Molecular basis for life
Life in extreme environments
2 1/19 Timescales and scenarios for the origin of life
(No class Monday 1/19)
3 1/26 Origin of the elements I -- the Big Bang
Origin of the elements II -- stellar nucleosynthesis
4 2/2 From stars to the interstellar medium -- stellar ejecta
Interstellar matter and environments
5 2/9 Interstellar synthesis of prebiotic molecules
6 2/16 Star formation and protoplanetary disks
(No class Monday 2/16)
7 2/23 Origin and early history of the Solar System
The zone of habitability
8 3/2 An environment for life: The origin of the Earth and its biosphere
9 3/9 Spring recess -- no classes
10 3/16 Early evolution of the Earth -- crust and atmosphere
Hydrothermal systems; Impact frustration of early life
11 3/23 Origin of prebiotics; the Miller-Urey experiment;
Endogenous production vs. exogenous delivery
12 3/30 Origin and early evolution of life on Earth
RNA or proteins as the first biopolymers
13 4/6 Important events in the history of life on Earth
Cosmic impacts and the extinction of the dinosaurs
14 4/13 Life beyond Earth I -- The Solar System
15 4/20 Life beyond Earth II -- SETI ; the Drake equation
16 4/27 Review and Exam

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This page last modified: August 17, 1999