Syllabus for Roster(s):

  • 16F COLA 1500-005 (CGAS)
In the UVaCollab course site:   16F COLA 1500-005 (CGAS)

COLA 1500 Are We Alone?


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"Are We Alone?": The Fermi Paradox

COLA 1500 Section: 005 Class Number: 11520
INSTRUCTOR: Edward Murphy Tuesdays, 9:30-10:45 A.M. Dell 1 104
EMAIL: OFFICE: Room 212 Astronomy Building PHONE: (434) 924-4890
Office Hours:
Tuesdays from 2:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. or Thursdays 9:30 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. or by appointment in room 212 in the Astronomy Building.
Class Description:
Our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars. If only a small fraction of those stars have a planet that could support life, and on only a small fraction of those planets life forms, and only a fraction of those with life develop intelligent life, there still could be thousands of civilizations in the galaxy. Given that our Galaxy is 13.7 billion years old, some of these civilizations should have arisen millions or billions of years ago. Their technology should be far in advance of ours, and they should have been able to fully colonize the galaxy millions or billions of years ago. And yet, we have no evidence that they are visiting, or have ever visited, Earth. In fact, we have no evidence of any other extraterrestrial civilization. All our evidence points to the fact that we are the only, and possibly the first, intelligent civilization in the Galaxy. In this seminar we will address the Fermi Paradox: If intelligent life is common in the galaxy, then they should have colonized our solar system long ago, yet we see no evidence that they exist. Each week we will spend approximately 80% of the class discussing the Fermi Paradox, and about 20% of the class discussing life at the University of Virginia, advising issues, general advice, etc.
Lecture Notes:
A list of lecture dates and topics will be provided on this page.  PDF versions of my PowerPoint slides can be found in the Resources tab at the left.
You are required to have a copy of "If the Universe is Teeming With Aliens... Where is Everybody?" by Stephen Webb. Either the first or second edition is fine. I suggest the first edition because it is much cheaper (about $12-$20 used on Amazon).  New and used copies are available at the University Bookstore or on the internet.
A very good reference book is Life Beyond the Earth by Robert Rood, Thomas Bania, James Trefil. The book is available in the Resources tab under Readings.
None. All essential material is covered in lectures or assigned readings.
Your grade will be based on class participation, homework assignments, a capstone research paper, and class presentations. On a 1000 point scale, each is worth:
Class participation 200 points  
Homework problems 200 points  
Class presentations 300 points  
Research paper 300 points  

Grades will be posted in the Gradebook which can be accessed with the tab on the left.  Your final grade is based on 1000 points with letter grades assigned as follows:

Letter Grade
Point range
Letter Grade
Point Range
I will send official correspondence via electronic mail. Therefore, you should immediately activate your U. Va. e-mail account if you have not already done so. If you use a mail service other than the University's, be sure to have your University mail forwarded to it. You will be responsible for reading all materials sent via electronic mail.

Attendance Policy:

Given that the seminar meets only once per week, I expect you to attend each class meeting. Class participation will count for 20% of your grade. If you must miss a class meeting, you must notify me in advance. During most classes you will be given homework problems that will be due the following week. I will not allow students to make up assignments that were missed due to an unexcused absence unless prior arrangements had been made.

You must turn off your cell phone before class begins.

Honor Code:

As a graduate of the University of Virginia, I take the honor code very seriously. I assume that all exams and labs are bound by your honor to be your own work, even if you did not explicitly sign the pledge. At times, you will be asked to work in groups in class. In these cases, I expect everyone in the group to contribute to the answer. I would consider it an honor violation if you submit a groups answer but did not contribute to the discussion. If you are not sure what is allowed ask me to clarify.

Homework Problems:

My goal for this class is to exercise and improve students' higher reasoning, critical inquiry, and research skills. I feel that exams, and multiple choice tests in particular, are not good at developing these skills. Therefore, I have abandoned these metrics in favor of brief research homework assignments that will, I hope, exercise the desired skills. During most classes, you will be assigned homework which will be due at the beginning of the next class meeting. You may use your class notes and supplemental research to answer the questions. If you work in a group with other students, be sure that the answer you submit is your own work. Late homework will be assessed a late penalty of 25% per day.
Research paper:
The capstone project for our COLA 1500 course is an academic research paper due on the last class. The paper is worth 30% of your grade and should address the question "Why does it appear that we are the only intelligent civilization in the galaxy?" That is, what is your solution to the Fermi Paradox?

There is no minimum or maximum page length to the paper. Take as much space as you need to define and defend your answer, and no more. I believe it would be difficult, though not impossible, to make a well reasoned argument in 2 pages or less. If you believe it will take more than 8 pages to defend your argument, you might consider focusing on a more narrow topic (see below). You can use any standard format for the citations and bibliography.

The primary thing I will be looking for in the papers is some evidence for critical thought. I am also looking for evidence that you have done research beyond the course textbook and presentations. I invite speculation, but it should be well reasoned and supported. Examine and critique both evidence for and against your hypothesis.

I have the selfish motive that I want to learn something from the papers. You might consider your audience as you write. My background in astronomy is good, so don't spend a lot of time telling me what is in an introductory astronomy textbook. Otherwise don't assume that I know very much.

When selecting a solution to the Fermi Paradox, I would strongly encourage you to make use of some prior knowledge or interest, or to make use of other courses. I am not very particular about format. The "paper" does not have to be a paper. It could be in the form of a play, video, Flash computer program, work of fiction, etc. Tell me a story! I will attempt to estimate the work required in arriving at a grade. In general, I expect that the "paper" will go considerably beyond the presentations and readings in class.

It is very important that the topic chosen be narrow enough. For example, you might believe that we are alone because space travel is very difficult, but that topic is much too broad to cover in a research paper (indeed, whole books have been written about it). Pick one aspect, the most important aspect, of space travel that you think makes it impossible for civilizations to travel among the stars and research and write about that one aspect.
Class presentations:
In addition to developing students' inquiry skills, I also would like to develop students' abilities to give short, focused presentations. Therefore, each student is required to give a short presentation and lead the discussion on one of the solutions to the Fermi Paradox.  Presentations should be 10-12 minutes long with 3-5 minutes for questions and discussion (15 minutes total).



Schedule & Activities

Date Course Topics Advising Topics Reading

Are We Alone? Discussion

Picking classes

  • Semester schedules
  • UVA Course Evaluations
  • Classmates suggestions
  • Questions
  • What I Wish I Knew This Time Last Year - A panel discussion with second and third year students

  • Drop deadline Wednesday Sept. 7
  • Add deadline Tuesday Sept. 6
  • Withdrawal deadline  Tuesday Oct. 18
  • Check your schedule on SIS!
  • Chapter 1


  • Introduction to the Drake Equation

 Getting to know the faculty

  • Take us out to lunch
  • Letters of recommendation

UVA Career Services

  • Pre-Law and Pre-Health mailing lists


Chapter 2

Visit to the Library - Meet in the Alderman Library room 421

Introduction to the Fermi Paradox

Solution 2: They Are Here and Meddling in Human Affairs

  Your association dean

An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth by Michael Hart

Solution 2: They are here and Meddling in Human Affairs


Solution 2 continued


Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts

Lazy Reporting of UFO Phenomena


Visit to University Career Services. Class will meet at University Career Services at Bryant Hall (next to Scott Stadium) at 9:30 a.m.

10/4 No class, Reading Days    


Creating a four year plan.



Information Session from International Studies Office (study abroad)

Picking classes for next semester. Solution 2: They are here and Meddling in Human Affairs
10/25 How to Give a Good Presentation

What is your favorite class this semester and why?



Final Exams - Schedule and Postponing a Final Exam  

Student Presentations (note that the solution numbers are different in the 1st and 2nd editions. Both are listed below, with the first edition numbers listed first).

  • Arian Azizi - Solution 5 (7) The Zoo Scenario
  • Jake Smith - Solution 37 Jupiters Are Rare
  • Julia Riedy - Solution 27 (39) A Choice of Catastrophes
  • William Li - Solution 40 (61) A Planetary System is a Dangerous Place


  • Solution 5 (7): The Zoo Scenario
  • 37 Jupiters Are Rare
  • 27 (39) A Choice of Catastrophes
  • Solution 40 (61) A Planetary System is a Dangerous Place

Student Presentations

  • Courtney Hou - Solution 13 (17): We Are Solar Chauvinists
  • Sterling Saunders - Solution 3 (5): They Were Here and Left Evidence of Their Presence
  • Max Zheng - Solution 11 (13): A Percolation Theory Approach
  • Albert Zeng - Solution 44 (67): The Prokaryote-Eukaroyte Transition is Rare
  • Solution 13 (17): We Are Solar Chauavinists
  • Solution 3 (5): They Were Here and Left Evidence of their Presence
  • 11 (13) A Percolation Theory Approach
  • 44 (67) The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition is Rare

Student Presentations

  • Yara Yousef - Solution 19 (28) The Signal is Already There in the Data
  • Landon Smith - Solution 28 (47) They Hit the Singularity
  • 19 (28) The Signal is Already There in the Data
  • 28 (47) They Hit the Singularity

Student Presentations

  • Alex Johnson - Solution 15 (20) ...and Surf the Net
  • Wyatt Miller - Solution 7 (9) The Planetarium Hypothesis
  • Andrew Walsh - Solution 16 (25) They Are Signaling But We Do Not Know How To Listen
  • Marie Pinto - Solution 9 (11) The Stars Are Far Away
  • Nathan Cho - Solution 42 The Moon is Unique
  • Solution 15(20) ...and Surf the Net
  • 7 (9) The Planetarium Hypothesis
  • Solution 16 (25) They Are Signaling But We Do Not Know How To Listen
  • Solution 9 (11) The Stars Are Far Away
  • Solution 42 The Moon is Unique

Student Presentation

  • Colton Sheehan - Solution 24 (33) They Develop a Different Mathematics 
  • Andrew Zazzera - 
  • Srikar Kosuri - Solution 21 (31) Everyone Is Listening, No One is Transmitting
  • Solution 24 (33) They Develop a Different Mathematics
  • Solution 21 (31) Everyone Is Listening, No One is Transmitting