THE SEARCH FOR LIFE ON OTHER WORLDS (2014/2015, Semester 1) 

 MODULE OUTLINE Created: 28-Jun-2005, Updated: 01-Jul-2014
Module Code GEK1537
Semester Semester 1, 2014/2015
Modular Credits 4
Faculty Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine
Department Biochemistry
Timetable Timetable/Teaching Staff
Module Facilitators
ASSOC PROF Tang Bor Luen Lecturer
Tags --

Learning Outcomes | Synopsis | Prerequisites | Teaching Modes | Schedule | Syllabus | Practical Work | Assessment | Relevant Websites | References


The module shall examine the scientific definition for life, its origins on this planet, and the possibility of finding it elsewhere in our solar system and beyond. It will develop fundamental concepts by drawing non-vigorous, elementary knowledge from diverse fields of science such as Biology and Astronomy. It would give students an idea of how scientist work and think, both in isolation and in teams. The contents shall be speckled with historical, social and philosophical ponderings to enhance the interest of students majoring in the humanities. The module shall put forward the message that there exist some profoundly important pursuits for us humans, both as a species and a civilization.





The module is entitled "The search for life on other worlds", by which we shall introduce the science of Astrobiology. The universe as we know it is about 13.7 billion years old. Is this old enough for life to populate the galaxies? We only know of one example of life - those that exist on our own planet. In order to study life that might exist elsewhere, it would make sense to first look at our own kind, to understand its chemistry, various aspects of its natural history, and its interaction with the geological planet. It would be interesting to try and answer questions such as how life first emerged, and how it eventually evolved an intelligent species capable of space travel and questions its own existence and destiny. We then proceed to examine if our planetary neighbors within the solar system might harbor life forms, and how we might find and identify these. The vastness of space is the biggest obstacle for us to detect life forms beyond our solar system. However, modern astronomy are beginning to show us some ways out of this limitation. As we go along, we shall look back in human history and appreciate attempts of mankind over the years to anticipate the existence of life elsewhere. We shall ponder philosophically on whether finding intelligent life elsewhere is at all possible, and how we might interact with them when we find them. The underlying theme of this module is, however, the science. We would see how scientists work, how ideas in science change with time and discoveries, and how it might shape the future of our species.

High school education, interest in Science, inquisitive and open mind.


Lectures, discussions, project


Please see "Timetable" in "Lecture Slides" workbin.


Lecture outline


Weeks 1 and 2

Lectures 1-2: Module overview; The beginning of time

(Introduction and overview, primers in basic physics and chemistry. The beginning of time (Big Bang hypothesis, star birth and star death, nucleosynthesis in stars and supernovae, birth of the solar system, birth of planet Earth and its moon)

Discussion 1: Fermi’s paradox

(A discussion of how long has it been since the beginning of time, and the prospect of alien visitation)


Weeks 3 and 4

Lectures 3-4: An introduction to life on Earth

(Definitions for life, the physics and chemistry of life, concepts of metabolism and evolution, the diversity of life)


Weeks 5 and 6

Lectures 5-6: The origin(s) and beginnings of life; History of life on Earth

(Theories of life’s origins, geological history of Earth, , early life on Earth, plate tectonics, life through geological eras)


Discussion 2: The antiquity of life

(How old is life? Geological and radiometric dating, rise of atmospheric oxygen, snowball Earth, Cambrian explosion, demise of the dinosaurs)


Weeks 7 and 8

Lectures 7-9: The search for life in our planetary neighborhood

(Comparative planetology, Venusian exobiology, Martian exobiology (Martian geology, water on Mars etc.), Viking and other robotic survey and landing missions)

Discussion 3: Was/Is there life on Mars?

(The face on Mars, ALH84001 and other stories)


Weeks 9 and 10

Lectures 10-11: The search for life in the Jovian and Saturnian systems

(Voyager and Galileo missions, the clouds of Jupiter and the Galilean moons, possibility of life on Europa, Titan and the Cassini mission)



Weeks 11 and 12

Lectures 12-13: The search for life beyond the solar system

(Habitable zones, panspermia theories, extrasolar planets, Rare Earth theories, SETI, extraterrestrial civilizations, interstellar travels)


Discussion 4: The future of life on Earth

(The demise of our sun, the fate of our galaxy, Dark energy and the accelerating expansion, Ekpyrotic Universe)


Weeks 13 and 14

Project presentations





Mid-term test (MCQs + SAQs) – 25%
Project – 25%
Final exam (MCQs + SAQs) – 50%




Solar system links:

Astrobiology information sources:

1. David Darling's encyclopedia of astrobiology -

2. NASA astrobiology magazine -

3. Marsbugs - a digest of astrobiological happenings


Total 1 items
Title and AuthorEdition / Year /
Introduction to Astrobiology
Author:Iain Gilmour, Mark A. Sephton (Ed)
1st / 2004
Cambridge University PressSupplementary

Entry level textbook in Astrobiology. A wealth of basic and useful information for those who wish to explore the subject further

Learning Outcomes | Synopsis | Prerequisites | Teaching Modes | Schedule | Syllabus | Practical Work | Assessment | Relevant Websites | References