Teaching about SETI at the University Level


John W. Traphagan, Ph.D.

University of Texas at Austin

During the spring 2018 term at the University of Texas at Austin, I am teaching a course called Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Culture, Religion, and Imagination. The aim of the class is to explore how humans have addressed questions about whether or not we are alone in the universe and to consider recent developments in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  Focusing primarily on the 20th and 21st Centuries, the course considers how ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence have intersected with other aspects of society, such as religious ideas, and approaches SETI as a cultural phenomenon related to how scientists and others imagine the nature of intelligence, both human and non-human. 

This is a big topic and is difficult to cover in the period of one semester, but students usually find the class stimulating not only as a way to think about ET, but also as a way to think about the ways humans imagine and represent themselves as intelligent beings.  The search for intelligent extraterrestrial life really tells us far more about ourselves than anything else, since we don’t as of yet have any good evidence for the presence of other intelligent species in the universe (assuming that we ourselves, even count as intelligent). 

College students often bring fresh and interesting ideas to the topics they study and SETI is no different.  Over the years of teaching classes on SETI, I have encountered some fascinating papers that address questions related to SETI in new and novel ways.  For example, in the first exam from this course, which requires students to respond to the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man and discuss whether the scenario presented is likely or unlikely, one student argued that aliens wouldn’t want to eat humans because we represent a poor meat source in terms of quality—our diet is so filled with chemicals that no intelligent being from another world would want to ingest us.  She’s got a point.

Over the semester, the class will form a context for developing ideas related to SETI and Active SETI and we will report on this in this blog space.  This will include both my own musings on SETI, Active SETI and the class, as well as contributions from my students. 

As astrobiology becomes an increasingly common topic in academic circles, it seems likely that there will be more classes that explore the human dimensions of SETI and Active SETI, as well as the potential implications contact with an extraterrestrial intelligent being might have for our world.  Stay tuned for what should be some interesting blog entries from young minds encountering and creating new ways of thinking about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.