Carnegie Mellon University

Grand Challenge Freshman Seminar: Beyond Earth

Course Number: 66-122

Beyond Earth, co-taught by an astrostatistician and a linguist, revolves around the idea of extending human civilization into space and dealing with whatever it might encounter there. The primary obstacle we face is the sheer immensity of space: the distances involved are huge and the number of planets, stars and galaxies is nearly inconceivable. And what lies out there? Are all the rocky planets and moons just inert and ready to be colonized…or do some host life, intelligent or otherwise? In this course, we lay out all the important details that we should consider before leaping into the unknown.

Why should one consider leaving the Earth? And if one does, where would he or she go? How long would it take to get there? Inter-generational space travel might be the only way to get to an inhabitable planetary system. But who would be willing to leave Earth forever and spend the rest of his or her life aboard a spaceship? Given the limitations of available technology and the distances involved, only one’s descendants, generations later, might ever arrive at a suitable destination. And when they arrive, would these descendants find intelligent life? If so, what should they do about it – communicate with it, control it, or run away from it? One can ask if humans even have the right to occupy other planets. (On the other hand, given continuing ecological crises on this planet, there might not be a choice.) But even if we choose not to leave the Earth, there is still the issue of communication: from radio signals to satellites leaving the Solar System to proposed light sails that will be pushed to the nearest stars, we are making ourselves known. Should we do this? And if we send signals into space, how should we design them to make ourselves understood? What should we talk about? How should we engage with the rest of our galaxy?

By the end of the course, every student will be able to make an informed and dispassionate decision: stay on Earth and improve what we all have, or strike out into the great Beyond?

Academic Year: 2019-2020
Semester(s): Spring