Learn astrobiology at Goa University

Nandkumar Kamat

My generation grew up with NASA (National Aeronautics And Space Administration) which is celebrating 60 years of its foundation and witnessed revolutionary discoveries. One question which fascinated my generation was whether we are the only intelligent civilisation in this whole universe or there could be several? Is organic life an unique phenomena on Earth? Noted astronomer Carl Sagan was hopeful to get an answer soon but he succumbed to cancer.

IUCAA director astrophysicist Jayant Naralikar gave a talk in Panaji twice on this subject. Hundreds of science fiction movies kept the popular interest alive in this area. But it was only during past 30 years that the science of studying life outside Earth really began to advance. Today this field is known as astrobiology.

NASA’s astrobiology institute defines astrobiology as “the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This interdisciplinary field requires a comprehensive, integrated understanding of biological, geological, planetary, and cosmic phenomena. Astrobiology encompasses the search for habitable environments in our solar system and on planets around other stars; the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry or life on solar system bodies such as Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Titan; and research into the origin, early evolution, and diversity of life on Earth. Astrobiologists address three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?”.

Unfortunately not much attention has been paid by the Indian universities to this subject despite lot of curiosity about it among the students. Therefore by looking at the future requirements and consistent with demands of the time under the Directorate of Extra-mural Studies and Extension Services (DEMSES), Goa University, I designed a 16 weeks non credit course ‘Astrobiology: Our Quest For Signs Of Life Outside Earth’ which is now open to any graduate with interest in this area. The objective of the course is to impart in as simple medium and language as possible knowledge on life in the universe, uniqueness of Earth and the human scientific quest to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life and intelligent civilisations if they exist. The medium of instruction will be mainly English but explanation willl be given in Konkani, Marathi and Hindi if required and participants can interact in any of these four languages throughout this course. The details of the course are given in the brochure available on Goa University website /www.unigoa.ac.in under DEMSES.

The course will be held from September 21 onwards till December 22, 2018 only on Fridays, 3 p.m. onwards, at the Senate hall, Goa University. Film screening/extra lectures may be organised on some Saturdays. Interactions will involve Moodle course pages, screening of scientific documentaries, discussion of SF films, online/written or oral quizzes, assignments, visits to geological museum, Amateur Astronomical Observatory (AFA). The course will be initially restricted to 30 participants. Any curious graduate with interest in the subject can apply but preference will be given to graduates in science, engineering, medicine and pharmacy.

This course is not meant for those who mistake astronomy with astrology or have some weird or pseudoscientific beliefs/ideas. The applicants need to fulfil the following conditions. They need to submit information on educational qualifications. They must have good knowledge of computers and Internet and general knowledge about Earth and solar system. They need to carry a wifi enabled laptop or netbook to class every week. They need to provide full name, address, professional details, contact numbers, email id. The proforma given in the online brochure needs to be filled and sent to GUASTROBIOLOGY2018@gmail.com before September 10, 2018.

The course is free for PG students of Goa University. For the rest a token fee after admission would be charged. More information can be obtained from Director, The Board of Extramural Studies and Extension Services, professor Anthony Viegas, 9850926003. The topics to be covered over 16 weeks include: the magnitude of the known universe, “where are they”, search for intelligent life in the universe, latest developments in astrobiology, origin and distribution of the biologically important chemical elements, what we know about early solar system, evidence of Earth’s bygone biospheres and history of life on Earth, the chemistry of organic life, biochemical and biological evolution, requirements for life, quest for search for life on Mars, search for life in other parts of our Solar system, is there hope to detect life from extrasolar planets?, prospects for intelligent life in the Universe, and will be concluded with a presentation on astrobiology in 21st century – the road ahead.

A course end quiz will be conducted and course completion certificates will be awarded to all those who have satisfactory attendance and participation. This course is essential for any serious science graduate and especially all those who possess degrees in life science subjects.

The coming decade is likely to witness a revolution in astrobiology. NASA has predicted that life outside Earth could be detected within 20 years and even some sign of extraterrestrial civilisation may be found in hitherto undeciphered messages or new messages. We need to be prepared for that future shock. Therefore, here is an invitation to curious graduates to join this course. Graduate readers of this column are most welcome to join.

Categories: Panorama
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