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University College for Interdisciplinary Learning

Are We Alone? The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Course Unit Code


Course Unit Details

This unit has been designed specifically for online learning and offers a unique interactive experience.


  • Level 2
  • 10 Credits
  • Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Biological Sciences, and Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine


"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." - Arthur C. Clarke

The question of whether we are alone in the universe is one of the most fundamental that humankind can ask. If we are truly alone, does this mean that we are in some way special? If there are other civilisations out there, do they look and think like us? Would we be able to recognise their signatures from space and communicate with them?

This unit introduces the astrophysical, biological and social factors that influence the probability of the emergence of long-lived, intelligent, technical civilisations. It explores the biological and technological signatures that might reveal advanced civilisations and the new instruments currently under development that will enable future searches.

If we are not alone, we consider dissemination strategies, legal issues associated with first 'contact', the construction of interstellar messages, and the implications for society and culture in terms of global politics, the world economy, theology, art, literature and science. The unit provides a comprehensive overview of the most recent developments on the search for life and intelligent civilisations, elsewhere in the Universe. It also discusses issues such as the sustainability of humankind and our own possible futures. Are the challenges we face the same that all long-lived technical civilisations must also face and overcome?


This unit considers one of the most fundamental questions humankind can ask - are we alone?

The scope of the unit is very broad, addressing all aspects of the topic, including the social impact that discovery of extraterrestrial life might have. The unit will also enable you to make well-informed contributions to the field from your own area of expertise.

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of the unit you will be able to:

  • Describe and explain the contributions of scientific, historical, social and cultural perspectives to current understanding of the topic and its impact
  • Defend well-argued contributions to interdisciplinary group discussions
  • Collaborate within a team to exchange and analyse different viewpoints
  • Generate innovative ideas about potential future directions for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), drawing from your own disciplinary perspective
  • Write well-structured summaries, using evidence-based examples to support your case


  • The history of the SETI
  • Detecting the 'signatures' of advanced technical civilisations
  • The future of humankind and the challenges we face
  • How long is a technical civilisation sustainable?
  • Our own origins, including the creation of the Universe, galaxies, stars and planets
  • The nature of life and how it may have first arisen on Earth
  • How does complex life arise and how rare is it likely to be?
  • Life elsewhere in the Universe where and how to search
  • SETI - how it has shaped our social and cultural heritage
  • First contact and how we might communicate with other civilisations
  • The potential impact of detection of extraterrestrial life on society and culture and on how we understand ourselves and our role in the Universe


  1. Ongoing, end of module assessments - mix of online discussions and short online tests (20%)
  2. 2 x written assignments - choice of tasks; 1500 words (40% each)


UCIL units are designed to be accessible to undergraduate students from all disciplines.

UCIL units are credit-bearing and it is not possible to audit UCIL units or take them for additional/extra credits. You must enrol following the standard procedure for your School when adding units outside of your home School.

If you are not sure if you are able to enrol on UCIL units you should contact your School Undergraduate office. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a UCIL unit.

You can also contact the UCIL office if you have any questions.

Teaching Staff

Michael Garrett, Tim O'Brien, Matthew Cobb and Ray Macauley

Teaching and Learning Methods

The unit includes contributions from leading researchers located in Manchester and around the world.

The unit is delivered entirely via Blackboard. The unit is made up of 10 x online modules, which are released at intervals.

The unit is highly interactive and adopts a blend of approaches including video inputs and case studies.


I thought that online learning would be limited to a series of lecture slides in Blackboard. It was so much more than that. The content and learning experience was much better than I had expected! It was interactive and engaging with the added bonus that I could study at my own pace in bite-sized chunks. There was also lots of support from online tutors. I would recommend online learning to anyone.Callum Mogridge, Undergraduate Student

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