One Class, One Day: Alien Worlds
Is anybody out there?| From BU Today | By Amy Laskowski
Watch as students explore the possibility of life on other planets in the class Alien Worlds. Slideshow by Amy Laskowski
NASA sent Andrew West the items he requested in a thick-shelled briefcase that looked like it could survive a Cylon invasion or being dropped from a tall building. West had to sign an agreement with the government to keep the silver case with him at all times or store it under lock and key.
A few days later, the animated College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of astronomy, who doesn’t look much older than his students, grinned as he turned on the classroom speakers, cued up R.E.M.’s 1992 hit “Man on the Moon,” and invited the 36 students in his Astronomy 105: Alien Worlds class to examine the briefcase’s contents under a microscope. What they saw were slivers of moon rocks, gathered during six Apollo moon missions almost 50 years ago. The astronauts brought back to Earth 840 pounds of moon rock, many of which were sliced up for loan to school science programs.
“The moon is really the only other alien world that we have stepped on,” West says, clearing his throat to begin a recent lecture in the School of Theology basement.
West’s Alien Worlds class delves into the ultimate scientific quest for life beyond Earth. NASA’s recent Kepler mission has found at least 1,200 new planet candidates, some with potentially habitable temperatures that wouldn’t freeze water. Considering that the Milky Way Galaxy, just one of the universe’s estimated 100 billion galaxies, is sprinkled with approximately 400,000 planets, West says, the chances for extraterrestrial life are promising.
“The question of whether or not there is life on other planets speaks to the very depths of human curiosity,” says West, who created the course and is teaching it for the first time this semester.
The first rocks the students examine are lunar impact breccias, which, West tells them, were formed by impact events—a meteorite slamming into a planet, for example. The rocks shatter and then compact, welding different pieces together. Students head to the table in the front to see for themselves what the slivers look like under a microscope. The slides show an amalgam of colors and pieces, almost like a section of smooth granite countertop. West helps them identify three more types of moon rocks: mare basalts, pristine highland rocks, and regolith.
This class is, in part, an attempt by the astronomy department to interact more with students outside its program. The only requirement, West says, is basic high school algebra so they can understand some of the astronomical formulas.
“We wanted to design more classes, like this one, that are topical, current, and don’t have a lab component,” he says. “This seemed like a great topic with which to teach students astronomy, but in a way that’s exciting and current.”
The course description promises a “detailed examination of our solar system, the history of NASA exploration, and the discovery of 500 planets orbiting the skies.” In addition, the class examines “alien worlds we can touch, alien worlds which we can or have landed on, and alien worlds studied from a great distance.” Students ponder the question of how common life in the universe is.
It’s clearly a popular class, although it almost didn’t come off. Just a few students signed up when the course was first posted. So West uploaded a video to BU’s video-sharing site BUniverse, teasing what the course would cover in hopes of drawing interest and increasing enrollment. It worked.
West says one of his main goals for students is for them to be able to read an astronomy article published in the Boston Globe or the New York Times and “not only look and be excited, but be able to add context to the article, to read the graphs and understand what those mean.”
“Last week, we watched clips from Contact and Independence Day and pondered whether or not we would really want to make contact with aliens and the problems we would face,” says Deena Siegel (CAS’14). “It was nice to have an intellectual conversation about something scientific.”
West makes sure his students get out of the classroom, too. The group recently went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to view its meteorite collection, and learned how to use a telescope at BU’s Judson B. Coit Observatory.
Their most scholarly visit was to the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books Collection. West says this trip was important because students could see how far astronomy has come in the last 500 years. They viewed Galileo’s 1610 Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) and Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1686, which contains his laws of motion and gravity. West had to get special permission just to turn the pages.
“These are among the most important science documents that exist,” he says, pointing to a drawing of the Copernican Solar System.
“This is a rapidly moving field, as there have been new discoveries since this class has started, and there will be more discoveries before it ends,” West says. “There are very few other classes where the subject at the beginning of the semester could be drastically different at the end. The students get to see science in real time. For me, that’s an exciting way to show how the scientific process works—it’s not static, it’s not a textbook. Science is about the quest for truth and students get to see that; that’s part of the fun.”
Jesse Potter (CAS’14) says West has opened his eyes.
“This class just taught me that there are so many options,” he says. “I no longer believe we’re alone in the universe.”