LAWRENCE — Few universities can claim to offer study in extra-terrestrial life with a course taught by an astronaut. Count the University of Kansas among those that can.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy offers a rare opportunity to undergraduate students in its minor in astrobiology. There are only two other institutions in the nation that offer an astrobiology minor.
Astrobiology studies the possibility and detectability of life outside the Earth. It also studies the influence of astronomical events, such as solar flares and supernovae, on human life. It’s a cutting-edge field in an era of almost weekly discoveries that suggest potential for extra-terrestrial life.
One of the required courses is called The Quest for Extraterrestrial Life. UFOs are discussed, but students shouldn’t expect a course in “UFO-logy.”
“We’ll talk about UFOs, but within the context of what constitutes compelling evidence,” said Steve Hawley, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who is also a former NASA astronaut.
Students enrolled in the minor learn about the emerging field of astrobiology from a multi-disciplinary perspective. They can choose from courses in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics. This approach provides students a sampling of sciences and also broadens their knowledge base. That’s an attractive asset for graduate program applications and future employers.
“A lot of the opportunities are in between sciences,” said Adrian Melott, professor of cosmology, astrophysics and astrobiology. “Physics and medicine is a classic example. At least half of the big advances in medicine recently have been applied physics, like CT scans.”
Melott can list several careers that an astrobiology minor would help students pursue. Careers in various science fields are the most closely related, but science journalism, science fiction writing and even theatre are also possibilities. One of Melott’s former students wrote and starred in a play called “Burst” about survivors of a gamma-ray burst.
Hawley says the varied fields of study in the astrobiology program can also help students analyze scientific discoveries in new ways. For instance, if a Mars lander found brackish pools on the planet, someone who has studied astrobiology can compare the pools to what’s found on Earth from a geology or biology perspective to evaluate whether they could have potential to sustain life.
Students who are interested in learning more about the minor can visit http://kusmos.phsx.ku.edu/~melott/abminor.pdf for more information.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy is in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division in the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The College encompasses more than 55 departments, programs, centers and the School of the Arts and the School of Public Affairs and Administration. Nearly half of the students at KU earn their bachelor’s degrees from the College.