Course Syllabus

We are unanimous in our conviction that the only significant test of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is an experimental one. No a priori arguments on this subject can be compelling or should be used as a substitute for an observational program. We urge the organization of a coordinated, worldwide, and systematic search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Carl Sagan and 72 others, 29 Oct 1982 Science 218, 426

Of course, the most certain sign of extraterrestrial life would be a signal indicative of intelligence…Detecting such a signal is certainly a long shot, but it may prove to be the only definitive evidence for extraterrestrial life.

 —Astro2010 Decadal Survey “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy & Astrophysics” p. 454

Course Logistics

Credit: 3 credits, open to any graduate student but especially those in fields allied with astrobiology. This course can count towards either the astrobiology seminar or “astronomy” component of the astrobiology dual-title PhD program. Students should inform the instructor and the astrobiology program head of their intention for such credit in advance.

Time and Location: 541 Davey Lab, Tuesday and Thursday 3:05-4:20.

There will be a required field trip to West Virginia over the weekend of March 24 to visit Green Bank Observatory and spelunk caves of astrobiological interest. Singing along to John Denver on the ride to West Virginia is optional.

Texts: Material will be available on Canvas and the library electronic reserves.


This course offers an overview of SETI as a subfield of astrobiology. It will include a survey of background astronomy and radio engineering concepts.

This course is intended for graduate students in STEM fields, especially fields contributing to astrobiology and radio astronomy. There are no formal prerequisites, and advanced undergraduates may benefit from the course, with permission from the instructor.

Course Goals

Successful students in the class will:

  • Have an appreciation for the origins of SETI, and its place in the scientific and funding landscapes
  • Gain an understanding of the work in SETI to date
  • Gain a deeper understanding of an aspect of SETI specific to their field of study
  • Learn what the open problems in SETI are and how to advance towards their solutions

Learning Objectives

Successful students in the class will:

  • Design and execute a radio SETI program at Green Bank Observatory
  • Read, discuss, and critique the SETI literature in both professional and popular registers
  • Make a substantial contribution to SETI through original research, service or a thorough proposal for such research or service

Course Structure

There will be a lot of reading in this class. Students will be expected to have completed reading in advance of the lecture on the date it is due. Reading will be assigned by the prior Thursday’s class at the latest.

Students will maintain a blog where they will record their reactions to the reading.  Students should keep their blog entries as drafts (so, private to the instructor) until the class they are due.  Just before class, the instructor will post the entries, and after this the students may edit and delete these entries as they like. After the end of the semester they will become part of a public record of the course.

On days when reading is due, at least one student will be randomly chosen to summarize and critique that day’s reading before opening the class discussion of it. These discussions will be supplemented by lectures by the instructor.

Each student will complete a final project which must constitute a substantial contribution to SETI. This project comprises three parts:

  1. A presentation to the class in a format of their choice (chalk talk, PowerPoint presentation, etc.)
  2. As formal a written document of professional quality (as appropriate to the project).
  3. A page on the class website describing the project to the lay public.

These projects may be undertaken individually or in teams. Team efforts will be expected to make a contribution to SETI proportional to the size of the team.

Preparation for Classes

Before each class, students need to have written two things about the assigned reading:

  1. An up-to-280 character summary or reaction to each of the papers. Bring these to class.
  2. A draft blog entry on the course website containing a more detailed reaction to one of the papers (Please don’t always choose the first or shortest one! We want all papers to get covered by at least one person).

The best blog posts will answer some or all of the following questions about the paper (not all questions will be appropriate for all papers):

  • What kind of paper is this? Some common categories:
    • suggestions for new search methods
    • suggestions for “magic frequencies”, when or where to look, or other “Schelling points”
    • results or description of an actual, data-driven search
    • a Drake Equation calculation, or explaining/dissolving/sharpening the Fermi Paradox
    • a “meta” paper (i.e. about SETI as a subject)
    • a non-SETI paper important to SETI because of a passing reference or becaues it is foundational science
  • What problem is the paper addressing?
  • What methods are the paper using to address the problem?
  • What parts of the paper are novel or striking or important (i.e. why was the paper assigned?)
  • What are the limitations of this paper? Are there any any big problems?
  • Has anything changed since the paper was written that invalidates or compromises its analysis or conclusions?
  • What (if any) are some next steps for this line of research / thought? How can it be extended / rebutted? What could you, the student, do to extend or rebut it?

When answering the first question, be sure to use the corresponding tag feature on the blog entry. You may suggest new tags to the instructor if none apply.

Exceptions to Course Requirements

Reasonable accommodations or alternative instruction will be provided for students that cannot participate in the field trip (because of, e.g. important prior commitments, weekend personal obligations, or medical restrictions) or with a persistent reason to decline discussions (anxiety, hearing impairment, speech impediment, etc.) provided they contact the instructor as early as possible.

Students who were unable to complete the required reading prior to lecture should say “pass” if called upon to contribute (rather than waste time awkwardly muddling through an unread paper), and later discuss any extenuating circumstances with the instructor (who understands that “life happens”).

Public Record of Blog Posts

Just before the class they are due, the instructor will post the blog entries, making them “public”. Note that while the blog will be public during the semester, students may set the visibility of their posts to be public, private (visible only to the class), or password protected (visible only to the instructor (who should be told the password)).

Over the course of the semester, each student’s set of posts will form a corpus of reactions to the papers they have read, and be graded at the end of the course. Students may edit or delete their posts all semester long, and only posted entries will contribute to the student’s grade.

By the end of the semester, the posts must show serious engagement with the material, including critique and analysis. Students may write in any appropriate register, and the intended audience is their classmates.

After the end of the semester, after grading, selected public posts from will be highlighted in a summary of the course.


Assessment will be in five categories:

  1. Attendance and participation (15%)
    Students will attend every class having read the material and will lead discussion when called upon.
  2. Keeping up with the reading (15%)
    Students will produce on-time draft blog entries on the reading that reflect a genuine engagement with the material
  3. Reflections on reading (15%)
    The final versions of the blog posts on the reading will be graded for the quality of their analysis and critique.
  4. Field Trip (15%)
    Students will plan and execute their component of the field trip
  5. Final project (40%)
    20% for the degree of the project’s contribution to SETI
    7% for the quality of each of the 3 components

“Degree of contribution to SETI” is deliberately vague so that students can make a contribution well aligned with their academic background and talents. The contribution might take a form such as:

  • the development of an original observational or theoretical approach to SETI
  • the development and refinement of existing ideas into a submittable proposal to a hypothetical funding agency
  • the execution of a SETI program using data from an existing archive
  • the novel organization or connection of ideas within or across SETI subdisciplines
  • the curation of a resource of use to SETI practitioners (for instance, a useful bibliography of SETI)
  • the curation of a resource of use to the public (for instance, a tutorial on how to reduce and analyze Breakthrough Listen data here or at UC Berkeley, or a portal to access such data)
  • the development of this course’s materials, including its website, student contributions, and readings, into a persistent public resource for similar courses in the future or at other institutions

Students who produce a published, peer-reviewed paper that is submitted within 6 months of the course’s end and including a significant work done in the class will receive an automatic, retroactive A regardless of their performance on the other course components.

Academic Integrity

All Penn State Policies regarding ethics and honorable behavior apply to this course: In light of the fact that group work is highly encouraged, and to fully facilitate best ethical practices and academic integrity, the following rules apply:

  • All ideas and work derived from resources beyond class notes must properly acknowledge or reference sources including:
    • textbooks, including required texts papers
    • websites
    • classmates
    • other students
    • solution sets from other or prior courses etc.
  • All submitted work must be entirely one’s own or fully and obviously cited.

This means you should work together, but write it up independently, and make liberal use of acknowledgements.