AST 248: The Search for Life in the Universe

Spring 2020, Revised

MW 2:30 - 3:50, ECHO through Blackboard or ZOOM through Blackboard

  • TA: Changcheng Zhang changcheng.zhang @
      • Office: D-118 Physics
      • Hours: WF 10:00 - 11:30 AM

    • Course URL is

    Classes will now be live-streamed through ECHO in Blackboard or we will have ZOOM mmetings at the regular class time. If we use ZOOM, I will mute everyone but you can ask questions using the chat feature. I will try to notice this and unmute that person and accept the question. If I don't, you can send me an email with the question. During posted office hours, I will be available to answer questions by email and may initiate a ZOOM meeting allowing more interaction, depending upon interest. This webpage acts as the course syllabus, which you can print if you wish. It will be updated with announcements during the semester.

    Lecture notes are posted here.

    Grades and assignments are posted on Blackboard.

    • Required text:"Life in the Universe" 4th edition by Bennett and Shostak. You may use earlier editions, but the syllabus is keyed to pages in the fourth edition. I've also added a key to pages in the 3rd edition. Those pages differ in the first and second editions. You are also responsible for additional material found in the 4th edition.
    • Supplementary (non-required) texts: "Here Be Dragons" by Koerner and LeVay, and "The Science of Aliens" by Pickover. "Here Be Dragons" is out of print, but used copies should be available online. These books were not ordered in the bookstore.

      Considerable additional material will be presented in the lectures. Some, but not all this additional material, will be posted on this website in the class notes. In any case, you are responsible for all material presented in class, whether or not it is posted.

    • Exams: There were originally three major exams, but now just the first exam is part of the syllabus, and it will counting 25% of the total grade.

      Grade Correspondence for the Major Exams
      EXAM A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
      # 1 77 - 100 75 - 76 73 - 74 66 - 72 64 - 65 62 - 63 55 - 61 53 - 54 51 - 52 42 - 50 0 - 41

      To make up an exam requires a valid, documented excuse (doctor's/infirmary note, obituary notice, police accident report, etc.). An extra term report (see below) will be required in lieu of make-up exams if allowed.

    • Homeworks: Homeworks will be posted on Blackboard at least one week before they are due. Completed homeworks must be submitted to Blackboard by the due date and time to be counted. Late homeworks will be accepted up to one week after the due date, but they will be downgraded. There will be 11 homework assignments, one due every week on Friday, except the first week and the one week with an exam. We prefer homeworks to be submitted as pdf attachments to Blackboard. Word documents are sometimes not easily read on Blackboard. Supplementary algebra or math for the homeworks may be scanned and submitted as jpg or gif files if they contain legible handwriting. These policies are not inflexible, and lengthy absences for athletic, health or other documentable reasons will be accommodated.

      The total of your 9 highest homeworks will count for 25% (originally 20%) of your final grade. The lowest two homework grades will be dropped.

    • Term Reports: Two (originally one) term reports will each count 25% of the total grade. The due dates for these report are 27 March and 24 April and must be submitted, preferably as pdf files, to Blackboard. If the first papers is submitted between 28 March and 3 April will be assessed the equivalent of 1/2 letter grade penalty, those submitted between 4 April and 10 April have 1 letter grade penalty, those submitted between 11 April and 17 April have 1 1/2 letter grades penalty, those submitted between 18 April and 24 April have 2 letter grades penalty. The first paper will not be accepted after April 24. If the second paper is submitted between 25 April and May 1 a 1 letter grade penalty is applied, and those submitted between May 2 and May 8 will have 2 letter grade penalty applied. The second paper will not be accepted after May 8. You should check Blackboard for the status and grade of your paper.

      The length should be approximately 8 - 12 double-spaced typed pages. Make sure your document is readable as a pdf file. Some suggested topics are listed below, but you can write about any course-theme related topic from a scientific perspective. The key course themes are the origins of life, the evolution of life/intelligence, and the searches for life. You should find at least three, and preferably more, recent (i.e., within the last 3 years) sources on which to base your report. Books, magazines or newspaper articles are acceptable, as are internet web pages if you identify your sources and conclude they are providing reliable information. (For example, NASA or ESO web pages are suitable. Wikipedia may be used in a supplementary fashion only. TV documentaries and blogs are not acceptable sources of information. Unacceptable sources are articles from the Daily Mail, Buzzfeed, Fox, Natural or Breibart News. Any publication with a fringe topic (i.e., creation, alternative medicine, etc.) should be treated with caution. Your report should not use the lecture notes or the required text as primary references, and neither should it use matter copied directly. Your paper must go into more depth and detail than the textbook or the class notes on your specific topic. Footnotes and detailed referencing are not required, but your paper must include a bibliography containing the sources from which material was taken. If you use a figure or table, you must cite the source at the place where the figure or table appears. Your paper will be graded on its relevance to our course, on its originality (i.e., its synthesis of different sources and contrasting or competing ideas), on its detail and on the quality of the research you performed in its writing.

      Some Possible Topics for Term Papers:

      0Recent Discoveries Concerning Extrasolar Planets
      1The Fermi Paradox and Its Resolution
      2Recent Discoveries Concerning Extremophiles
      3Recent Discoveries Concerning Terrestrial Mass Extinctions (don't describe all of them, focus on discoveries relevant to one or two.
      4Global Warming and the Practicality of Its Mitigation
      0Recent Discoveries Concerning Kuiper-Belt Objects, Asteroids or Comets
      5Can Interstellar Travel Be Made Practical in Terms of Realistic Physical and Financial Limits?
      6Recent Discoveries About the Possibility of Life on Mars, Europa or Titan (don't write about all 3)
      7Recent Discoveries About How the Brain Evolved
      8Recent Discoveries Conerning the Earliest Appearance of Life on the Earth
      9Recent Discoveries Concerning the Origin of Humanoids
      10Ice Cores and What They Tell Us About the History of the Earth and Life
      11Asteroid and Comet Impacts: What is the Risk and What Should We Do?
      12Oxygenation of the Earth's Atmosphere and/or Snowball Earth and Their Roles in Evolution
      13What Role Do Supernovae or Mergers of Neutron Stars Play in the Extinction of Life?

    • Extra Credit: A third term report may be written for extra credit. The topic can be any topic you haven't already written about for the first two papers. This paper should follow the same guidelines and submission procedure as the first two term reports. The optional report may only be submitted after the first two reports are submitted and will not be accepted beyond May 8. The amount of extra credit will be determined by the grade you receive: An A will raise any the exam or one term paper grade (whichever gives the maximum increase in your overall course grade) by 2 letter grades. A B will raise the exam or one term paper grade by 1 letter grade, and so on. For example, an A on the extra-credit report could raise the exam grade from a C to an A; an B+- on the extra-credit report could raise the exam grade from a C to an B+; a C or lower grade will not raise a grade at all, but will not penalize you either unless plagiarism applies.

      Plagiarism - Copying from currently or previously submitted papers or homeworks, copying directly from the WWW without attribution, or copying part of an article or book without reference will result in an "F" for the report or homework and a complaint will be filed with the student judiciary. Since I cannot determine who copied from who in the case of plagiarism of another student's work, both students will suffer the penalty. The tools on Blackboard allow you to see how much of your report has been copied from an internet source.

    • Hints on how to succeed: 1, 2.

    • Overall Grade: The first exam and the two term papers will count 25% each, and the homework counts 25%. The only opportunity for extra credit is to do the extra-credit term report.

      ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: Each student must pursue his or her academic goals honestly and be personally accountable for all submitted work. Representing another person's work as your own is always wrong. Any suspected instance of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Academic Judiciary. For more comprehensive information on academic integrity, including categories of academic dishonesty, please refer to the academic judiciary website.

      ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION: Email to your University email account is an important way of communicating with you for this course. For most students the email address is '', and the account can be accessed here. It is your responsibility to read your email received at this account, which is the only account to which you will receive communications about this course.

      For instructions about how to verify your University email address see this. You can set up email forwarding using instructions here. If you choose to forward your University email to another account, we are not responsible for any undeliverable messages.

      RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES: See the policy statement regarding religious holidays. Students are expected to notify the course professors by email of their intention to take time out for religious observance. This should be done as soon as possible but definitely before the end of the 'add/drop' period. They are expected to discuss with the instructor(s) how they will be able to make up the work covered. Students must submit homeworks and term papers by the due date and late penalties will apply. Late penalties can be avoided by submitting papers and assignments in advance or by obtaining advance permission from the instructor.

      DISABILITIES: If you have a physical, psychiatric/emotional, medical or learning disability that may impact on your ability to carry out assigned course work, you should contact the staff in the Disabled Student Services office (DSS), 632-6748/9. DSS will review your concerns and determine, with you, what accommodations are necessary and appropriate. All information and documentation of disability is confidential. I am not responsible for delivering an exam to the DSS office unless I am notified by YOU at least one day BEFORE the exam is scheduled. Do not assume the DSS office will be competent in informing me: you must do so yourself.

      Students who require assistance during emergency evacuation are encouraged to discuss their needs with their professors and Disability Support Services. For procedures and information go to this website.

      CRITICAL INCIDENT MANAGEMENT: Stony Brook University expects students to respect the rights, privileges, and property of other people. Faculty are required to report to the University Police and the Office of University Community Standards any serious disruptive behavior that interrupts teaching, compromises the safety of the learning environment, and/or inhibits students' ability to learn. See more here.




      Red = no class; Black = an exam

      Red superscript = homework # due

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