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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Physics and Astronomy : Postgraduate (School of Physics and Astronomy)

Postgraduate Course: Astrobiology Theory (PGPH11108)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Physics and Astronomy CollegeCollege of Science and Engineering
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityNot available to visiting students
SCQF Credits10 ECTS Credits5
SummaryThis course aims to provide a thorough grounding in the conceptual foundations of contemporary astrobiology. The taught materials will weave together cosmology, planetary science, the origin of life, habitability, biosignatures, and evolution to provide a satisfying, coherent picture of life in the universe and the unity of the physical and life sciences.
Course description This course aims to provide strong foundations across the breadth of astrobiology, revealing the relationships between the properties and relationships of life, the structure of the physical universe, the origin of life, habitability and extreme conditions, planetary environments and processes, biosignatures and life detection across various scales and contexts, and the evolution of life over multi-billion-year timescales.

Lectures will be supplemented by tutorials and computer based practical classes, which will enable students to receive formative feedback before the summative end-of-semester exam.

The course is designed to complement and unify the other taught components of the MSc and to provide sufficient background for the MSc dissertation while also providing a satisfying overview of how the space, planetary and life sciences work together.

Syllabus/Lecture List
1. Astrobiology: Outline and History
2. Life as we know it: molecules, cells, and processes
3. Thermodynamics and energetics of life
4. Evolution, speciation, extinction, and the tree of life
5. Cosmology: galaxies, stars and planets
6. Planetary bodies: formation, evolution and diversity
7. Solar system dynamics
8. Detection of extrasolar planets
9. Early-Earth conditions and the origin of life
10. The origin of life: theories and constraints
11. Co-evolution of Earth and life through time
12. Astronomical influences on Earth's biosphere
13. Habitability and extreme conditions
14. Planetary habitability: feedbacks and habitable zones
15. Habitability of our solar system
16. Alternative biochemistries
17. Biosignatures: molecular, isotopic & geochemical
18. Biosignatures: atmospheric, exoplanetary, & agnostic
19. False positives, false negatives, and Bayes' Theorem
20. SETI and the evolution of 'intelligence'
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. relate in quantitative detail the geological and biological history of the Earth from 4.5 billion years ago to the present day, and contrast these with our best understanding of the likely history of Mars, paying due attention to the probable interactions between lithospheric, atmospheric, hydrospheric, biotic, and astronomical factors, and to the limitations of our knowledge.
  2. outline the diversity of known exoplanets and its probable causes, with reference to planet-formation processes, the dynamics of exoplanetary systems, and to the means by which exoplanets are detected and characterised; and use relevant evidence and arguments to defend a view on the likely distribution of life (if any) across these planets.
  3. compare and critically evaluate the claims made on behalf of the current schools of thought in relation to the origin of life on Earth, e.g., the possible significance of alkaline hydrothermal vents vs. cyanosulfidic surface chemistry.
  4. identify potential habitats and potential biosignatures in a range of data types, and evaluate their potential quantitatively where appropriate.
  5. comment critically on the meaning and validity of core astrobiological concepts such as "habitability", "biosignatures" and some of their proposed extensions (e.g., "antibiosignatures"; "false biosignatures") in different contexts.
Reading List
General reading:
McMahon, S. (2020) Astrobiology (Overview). Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science.
Cockell, C. S. (2020). Astrobiology: understanding life in the universe. John Wiley & Sons.
Cockell, C. S. (2001). 'Astrobiology' and the ethics of new science. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 26(2), 90-96.

More specialist reading will be provided for each session.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills [Generic cognitive skills]
- identify, conceptualise and define new and abstract problems and issues.
- develop original and creative responses to problems and issues.
- critically review, consolidate and extend knowledge, skills, practices and thinking in the natural sciences.
- deal with complex issues and make informed judgments in situations in the absence of complete or consistent data/information.

[Communication, ICT and numeracy skills]
- communicate with peers, more senior colleagues and specialists.
- use a wide range of ICT applications to support and enhance their work.
- critically evaluate a wide range of graphical and numerical data.

[Autonomy, accountability, and working with others]
- exercise substantial autonomy and initiative in professional and equivalent activities.
- take responsibility for their own work.
- manage complex ethical and professional issues and make informed judgments on issues not addressed by current professional and/or ethical practices.

KeywordsBioenergetics,habitable zones,geobiology,microbiology,geochemistry,exoplanets,planetary evolution
Course organiserDr Sean McMahon
Course secretary
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