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SUGGESTED ESSAY TOPICS

Students are free to choose the topic of their essays. Below is a list of suggested essay topics that you may choose from. However, we encourage students not to restrict themselves to this list and to come up with their own topics. There is a list of reading material and a hoard of links which may also be helpful in the search of a topic. In any case, since a given topic should only be covered at most twice per tutorial group you must have your choice of topic approved by your tutor. Make sure you have your choice approved well in advance of the essay deadline.

A number of sample essays by former students are available on the Sample Essays Page as a guide to the format and level of essay writing required.


  1. The Origin of Life on Earth.
    • "What is Life", E. Schrödinger, 1956, Doubleday.
      This article can be downloaded for free from http://home.att.net/~p.caimi/schrodinger.html.
    • "Origins of Life", F. Dyson, Cambridge Univ. Press.
      It is reviewed by Danny Yee's Book Reviews here and by Complete-Review here.
    • "Steps Towards Life", M. Eigen, 1992, Oxford Univ. Press.
      "Steps Towards Life" is reviewed by Piero Scaruffi here.

  2. Does Evolution Have a Direction?
    • "Life's Solution", S. C. Morris, 2003, Cambridge Univ. Press.
      There is a review by Book Finder here and more information about the book from the Cambridge site here.
    • "Wonderful Life", S. J. Gould, 1991, Penguin.
      There is a review by Danny Yee's Book Reviews here.
    • Read about the E. Mayr / C. Sagan debate. The debate questions whether or not evolution, in general, leads towards intelligence. It is constituted of a total of four articles written in 95 and 96. The four articles are made available by SETI starting here.

  3. Read P. Davies' "The Fifth Miracle: the search for the origin of life" (1998, Penguin). Discuss the possible connections between the origin of life on Earth and on Mars 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. "The Fifth Miracle" is reviewed by Anthony Campbell here.

  4. The evolution of the Earth's atmosphere.

  5. Review and contrast the various definitions of life.

  6. The oldest fossils on Earth: Where were they found? How are they dated? What kind of fossils are they?

  7. Review the latest progress on planet detections.


  8. How will we find Earth-like planets? Explain the proposed space-based interferometers to detect Earth-like planets (cf. NASA's Planet Quest (the SIM project and the TPF project) and ESA's Darwin project).

  9. Panspermia: Discuss the various theories of panspermia; that life originated elsewhere in the Universe and the seeds of life on Earth came from outer space. Compare the ideas of F. Hoyle and S.A. Arrhenius. Hoyle's most famous books include "Evolution from Space" (F. Hoyle, C. Wickramasinghe, 1981, Simon Schuster) and "The Intelligent Universe" (F. Hoyle, 1983, Michael Joseph).

  10. Discuss the "RNA World" hypothesis for the origin of life on Earth.

  11. Discuss the scientific justification for the "wildest" ideas about ETs.
    • Have a look at work by R. Shapiro and Gerald Fienberg. They coauthored a book called "Life beyond Earth: the intelligent earthling's guide to life in the universe."

  12. Discuss "endosymbiosis" (click here for a brief description) and how Lynn Margulis' ideas have contributed to our understanding of the origin of life.
    • "Microcosmos" by Lynn Margulis. Look at a review by Danny Yee.
    • "What is Life", L. Margulis and D. Sagan (published by Simon and Schuster, 1995). Click here for a descriptive review by Piero Scaruffi.

  13. Discuss the estimations of the various terms in the Drake equation.

  14. Discuss the elemental abundances found in life on Earth and their origin in the Big Bang and supernovae.
    • Look in "The Search for Life in the Universe", D. Goldsmith and T. Owen, 1992, Addison Wesley, 2nd edition.
      There is sample text from, and a review of, this book at http://www.uscibooks.com/gold.htm.

  15. Read one or more of J. Lovelock's books on Gaia and discuss the pro's and con's of the idea that the Earth as a whole is alive.
    • For a good introduction to the Gaia Hypothesis and the main characters that were involved in its development, click here.
    • You may find http://www.lancs.ac.uk/users/philosophy/mave/guide/gaiath~1.htm to be a useful introductory site. It contains a discussion of the Gaia concept (with examples). It also mentions some of the many critics (you may want to look up their work to see what argument there are against Lovelock's ideas).
    • Lovelock's most relevant books are "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth", "The Ages of Gaia" and "Gaia, the practical science of planetary medicine".

  16. Discuss the major transitions of evolution on earth
    • "The major transitions in Evolution" by J.M. Smith and E. Szathmary. Danny Yee describes the book here.
    • "Shaking the Tree: Readings from Nature in the History of Life", editor: Henry Gee. Read a review.

  17. Terraforming Mars: discuss how one could turn Mars into a planet like the Earth.

  18. What messages have we sent to the stars? How will we identify/decode artificial signals?

  19. Discuss and contrast A.C. Clarke's and Stanislap Lem's ideas about ETs.

  20. Discuss the science in F. Hoyle's novel "Black Cloud".

  21. Find out about the Tree of Life (DNA classification scheme for all life) and explain what it can tell us about the origin and diversity of life on Earth.

  22. Read M. Eigen's "Steps towards Life" and discuss how he uses DNA to date the orgin of life.

  23. Report on the history and strategies of SETI radio searches.

  24. Explain the science behind the "discovery of life" on the Martian meteorite ALH 84001. What are the latest results?
    • "The Search for Life on Mars" by Maclolm Walters.
    • Papers by Everett Gibson.
    • Papers in 'Science' by David Mckay.
    • Web-Search for "M. Ray. Friedman" associated with "Magnetite Crystals"

  25. Explain the categories: "Close encounters of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th kind" and give examples.

  26. Extrapolate the current rates of computer improvement and discuss the evolution of computer-based life forms.

  27. Read "Contact" by C. Sagan. See the movie. Discuss the science and Sagan's vision of ETs.

  28. Discuss the various forms of the anthropic principle.

  29. Discuss the various classification schemes for "advanced civilizations": e.g. Dyson spheres, Kardashev civilizations.

  30. Universal Language: If we are going to "talk" to ETs we will need a language. What will it be? Mathematics? Music? Or what?
  31. You are an exobiologist. Use your knowledge of biology here on Earth to classify ETs from at least 5 different movies, i.e. vertebrate, primates, multicellular/unicellular, reptile, humanoid,...
    • Any Biology Textbook!

  32. Read "2001: A Space Odyssey" and another book by A.C. Clarke ("2010: Odyssey 2", "2061: Odyssey 3", "3001: The final Odyssey", "Profiles of the Future",...) and discuss his vision of ETs.

  33. Hook your home computer up to the Seti Search and explain how you did it and what the strategy is.
  34. Review the history of planet detection and the techniques used to find the ones we know about.

  35. If the Planetary Society gave you a billion dollars to find ETs how would you organize the project?

  36. Investigate the history of thought about ETs (e.g. "Life on Other Worlds", S.J. Dick, 1998, Camb. Univ. Press) (history and sociology of the ET debates from the Western European and American point of view).

  37. Discuss "Chariots of the Gods" by E. Von Daniken and discuss the evidence that we have that ET's have already visited Earth.

  38. Read and report on Tommy Gold's ideas about life beneath the Earth and his 1992 report on the Hot Biosphere.

  39. In the movie "Men in Black", disreputable supermarket tabloids were used to locate ETs. See if you can find at least 30 back issues of the "Weekly World News" or something similar, photo-copy the articles about ETs, classify the stories, and biologically classify the ETs.

  40. Read about the instruments used on the NASA Viking spacecraft and discuss why their results were ambiguous.

  41. Read "What is Life" by E. Schrodinger and discuss. This article can be found (and downloaded for free) from http://home.att.net/~p.caimi/schrodinger.html.

  42. Read "Solaris" by S. Lem and discuss his vision of ETs.

  43. Read L. Smolin's "The Life of the Cosmos" and report on his hypothesis that the Universe is evolving. There is a book report on "The Life of the Cosmos" here.

  44. Explain the 3 most common false UFO sightings and how to avoid them.

  45. Read G.G. Simpson's article, "The Non-Prevalence of Humanoids" (Science 143, 769-775) and discuss the dichotomy between biologists' and physicists' ideas on the prevalence of humanoid-like ETs. You can also find the article ("The non-prevalence humanoids") either in D. Goldsmith's "The Quest for Extraterrestrail Life" a book of readings (University Science Books, 1980), or in "This View of Life", Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

  46. Attempts to communicate with other intelligent beings on Earth. See works by Sue Savage (Yerkes primate center, Atlanta, Georgia, working with bonobos) and John Lilly (attempts to communicate with dolphins).
    • Laurence Doyle of the Seti Institute and Brenda McGowan are deeply involved with this subject.

  47. 'Does Life evolve towards intelligence?' Discuss.
    • Web search on Lori Marino (dolphin brain-cases) and Harry Jerrison.