Edinburgh University is to offer a new course exploring how to detect alien life on Earth-like planets, and the implications if contact is made.
An Introduction to Astrobiology and the Search for Extra-terrestrial Life will begin this autumn and is expected to be widely subscribed to.
The lectures, part of a major new drive in online teaching, will be free and run for five weeks with students from across the globe expected to be attracted to the subject.
Today, Edinburgh was announced as the first university in the UK to join the Coursera consortium, an organisation set up by senior academics at Stanford University to provide free online undergraduate level courses to anyone who wants to access them.
The institution will use the network to deliver its own tailored Massive Open Online Courses, with the five-week courses starting this autumn.
The Search for Extra- terrestrial Life – which is “fully academic” with students being awarded a certificate for passing – is among six courses initially being offered.
The first two weeks of the course explore the origins of life and how beings survive in extreme environments, with the focus in the third week moving to the possibility of life being discovered on other planets.
The final week includes asking how contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence would be dealt with and what would be the impact on society. It concludes with the question “who would represent Earth?” in the event of first contact.
The six courses, which also include Artificial Intelligence Planning and another titled Equine Nutrition, have no entry requirements or fees but university dons said students will have to work hard to complete the assessments and receive a pass certificate.
Professor Jeff Haywood, vice principal of University of Edinburgh, told the Evening News: “This course is based on Professor Charles Cockell’s research with NASA and covers what is a seriously interesting and important area of study.
“While you might have 100 students on campus, or 1000 on a distance learning course, here we’re talking about potentially 100,000 students.”
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The course will discuss such questions as: what are the possibilities for intelligent life elsewhere? How would society deal with contact with aliens, and who would represent Earth? Hopefully the course may also teach the basics of photography so that future tales of close encounters are not accompanied by blurry, out-of-focus shots of dots in the…