Astrobiology – A Universe Wired for Life

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Curricular options for me in college didn’t include subjects pertaining to astrobiology. In my day, most budding biologists were encouraged to focus on earth-bound developmental sciences, provided you could get through university weeding courses in organic biology and biochemistry. Life sciences were about life on earth. Even hinting of life in the cosmos got you the evil eye, a lower grade for being stupid, or a semester of janitorial service cleaning up after freshman lab orientation. Times have changed.

First, a definition. Astrobiology is a branch of biology concerned with the study of life on earth and in space. The earth part of it focuses on finding answers to how life began on earth. As for space, the research has to go beyond the study of fossils and other earthly evidence. Astrobiologists must look for the presence of organic materials outside our solar system, and hypothesize how these materials become the molecules of life.

Jeffery Kluger of Time Magazine wrote an article last February, The Perfectly Sane Case For Life in Space. Kluger tagged along with astrobiologist, Scott Sanford at the NASA Ames Research Center, who demonstrated an updated cosmic primordial soup device that would make Dr. Frankenstein very proud. Sanford filled a chamber with elements you’d find in space (stellar dust, gas), duplicated the chill of space, and instead of lightning, used the same kind of radiation expected in the cosmos. The result yielded thousands upon thousands of chemical products, many of which included molecules needed to spark life. What Sanford stated in Kluger’s article caught my attention.

The universe is hardwired to be an organic chemist. It’s not a very clean or tidy one, but it has really big beakers and plenty of time.”

Add a little water to the mix, and stuff starts jiggling.

Wait a minute. Water? Where’s that coming from? Most people aren’t aware that water is very abundant in the universe. Our own solar system is awash in water (NASA JPL), trapped in neighboring planets and moons, and cosmic Gunga Dins in the form of comets composed of rock, water ice, and other frozen gases.

Okay Mr. Science Fiction, if the building blocks of life are so common, how come ET hasn’t dropped in for a visit? I mean, jeez, with anywhere from 100 – 400 billion solar masses in the galaxy, not to mention maybe a 100 billion galaxies outside our borders, what’s taking so long?

Astrobiologists aren’t necessarily looking for ET – yet. Biology is about everything living, from bacteria to mammals. But if there’s cellular life, it could lead to the evolution of sentient beings. It’s a big if. The presence of single cell eukaryotes doesn’t guarantee development to – more scientists.

A key factor in cosmic organic roulette is time. Scientists in this field work in cosmic time. I sort of touched on this in a previous article, Message in a Bottle. We conceptualize life on earth in human time. How does the average person grasp that human existence on earth, is less than a nanosecond in the scheme of cosmic time. Or as Carl Sagan conceptualized in his famous cosmic timeline in a year, organic life took hold on earth sometime in September, and humans in the last 60 seconds of the year. Astrobiologists have to work with a magnitude in the billions-of-years.

Cosmic_Calendar

Source: Efbrazil via Wikipedia Commons

 

Kluger quoted an astronomer who stated, “Life on Earth got started very quickly – like walking into a casino in Vegas, pulling the handle, and winning the jackpot. Is it luck, or not a difficult bet?”

Pull the handle enough in cosmic time, eventually you get a winner. Unfortunately, we puny humans may be caught in an unobservable, otherworldly dead zone. With our youngish 4 billion year-old birth certificate in a universe that is well past puberty at fourteen billion, civilizations may have gone extinct before earth was born.

Astrobiologists only have what we know here on earth, and what we can observe in the cosmos. According to Kluger, they’ve only had access to a tiny fraction of what’s out there. It’ll take many years to document it. But if organic construction materials are as common as believed, I’m willing to bet life is abundant as well, and at least one them is the ace of sentient beings.

Simplicity Survives

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Amish World

When out-of-town friends come to visit, sightseeing Amish country outside Lancaster, PA, is on our top list of excursions not to be missed.  Each visit, I learn a little bit more of the simple life that survived inside our 21st century, helter-skelter world, and it re-stokes the scenic muse in my writing. We recently revisited our favorite back roads to observe the Amish farmers prepare for another growing season. The following article is something I wrote three years ago, and worth a revisit.

*****

 It’s a great time of year to observe a friendly, humble people who resist the temptations of a modern life. They bear it well, but living in a fishbowl where the English “observe them” as anomalies of society, has to be somewhat nerve wracking. Shunning electricity and other modern conveniences, the Amish have carved a unique niche in a country gone amok with technological advances. Where most of us gather food from sterilized packages in gleaming stores, ride around in motor vehicles, wear clothes made in a third-world sweatshop, and entertain ourselves with endless media options, our modern selves are anything but simple. Turn off the switch, and most of us are likely to fumble in the darkness.

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Genders Behaving Badly

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Serious young Woman

From: Forgiss – DepositPhotos.com

The phrase, Men Behaving Badly, is rather gender specific.  Fair to say, it is a well-earned aphorism. History is rife with examples of male instigated-warfare, greed, corruption, and scandal.  Let’s give ourselves a big ole testosterone-infused high-five.

In the current sci-fi world I’m crafting, I want to explore a ravaged earth saved by benevolent aliens, with one nonnegotiable premise in exchange for helping to clean up our planetary playpen. Cede earth to the females, serve, nurture, and respect them without fail. Not the first time writers have played with dominate female societies, but while researching popular titles of the genre in fiction, my spam folder got a serious workout.  Movies were fifties-era bombs like Cat Women of Mars and too many book-covers with copycat characters right out of Legend of the Cryptids (see The Good, the Bad, and the Scantily Clad).

The challenge? Can I construct a quasi-utopian, matriarchal society that may over time, deteriorate into suspiciously male-like irrationality, and not have it become a comic book Wonder Woman society of Amazons that reads like a guy wrote it?

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Wrecking Balls of Extinction

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Meteorite shower on a planet

From: GL0CK – Depositphotos.com

 

Extinction is a fascinating subject to me as a writer, especially if it has a dystopian plot line around a group of humans barely surviving a decimated landscape from any one of natural or manmade calamities. It’s all about the human equation, but what makes it really compelling, is a natural disaster by which we have no control. I’m obsessed with The Apocalypse Waiting Beneath Our Feet, and other earth-based, regularly-scheduled natural disasters mentioned in an article I wrote a couple years ago. Not to say meteor impacts are passé, it’s been a hotly debated subject for decades, but I viewed heavenly body impacts as random events, like chances of winning the lottery (or in this case … losing).

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Longest Night of the Year

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Winter Light – Nelly Volkovich

They say that spring will come again

No one knows exactly when

Still the suns a long lost friend

on the longest night of the year

You might recognize the opening lyrics from the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, “The Longest Night of the Year”, from her holiday album, Come Darkness, Come Light.

For those of us who sprouted roots above 40°N latitude, daylight works part-time during the winter solstice, and night becomes the primary custodian of our diurnal rhythm. The official longest night of the year occurs on December 22, a few days shy of Christmas day. It’s a harbinger of the season, like evergreen trees, cozy fires, and that Jack Frost nipping at your nose. After January 1, we shovel the light of holiday cheer back in the attic and have to contend with long dark nights on our own. About the time February arrives, many of us grow frustrated with winter, wondering if spring is ever going to return. The calendar says spring equinox officially begins March 20, yet we had snowfall well into April last year.

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Quantum Field of Dreams

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From: DepositPhotos.com

From: Veneratio – DepositPhotos.com

When I read articles and references about the universe and quantum theory, I have to tread lightly (loosely interpreted as, I’m way out of my league). My degree is in biological sciences. Physics and advanced mathematics had me shaking during exam time, but that was a hundred years ago. Reading Brian Greene’s, “The Elegant Universe”, and Richard Panek’s, “The 4% Universe”, took more than one sitting per chapter. Stephen Hawking’s, “Briefer History of Time”, a rewritten version of his earlier publication so nimrods like me might understand it, still sits partially read on my nightstand, mocking me for being a wuss.

So why do I torture myself? Because writing with science fiction elements today, one must be familiar with terms used in quantum theory 101 (or in my case, just “one”). What makes current quantum theory so much different, are recent discoveries that theoretically explain things we once made-up for fun. Fermions, bosons, black holes, wormholes, dark matter, dark energy, multiverses … neat stuff … though I’m sure astrophysicists have better descriptors than neat. And holy solar flare, Einstein’s theories are actually in question with discovery of particles traveling faster than light.

A recent review by WSJ’s John Gribbin, “The Loose Ends of the Universe“, summarized a book by Scientific American’s George Musser, with a title coined by Einstein to describe entangled particles, “Spooky Action at a Distance.” I like Gribbin’s reviews. He cliff-notes in simpler language complicated theories to spare me a WTF glaze-over in chapter one. And who can resist the use of Spooky in science literature?

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Passionate Curmudgeon

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From: Lightsource - DepositPhotos.com

From: Lightsource – DepositPhotos.com

One of the more difficult tasks for me as a new writer, besides crafting a query letter, or synopsis (which I irreverently call suck-nopsis), was to create an author bio. Who wants to know anything about me?

Apparently everybody, according to experts who eat and breathe social media every day.

I did all the how-to research, perused examples of like-minded writers. I came up with the usual anecdote, you can read it here on my “About” page. Short, concise, move on.

At last year’s Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (GLVWG) conference, The Write Stuff, we had the privilege of booking social media maven, Kristen Lamb, author of Rise of the Machines – Human Authors in a Digital World, and lead honcho of WANA International (We Are Not Alone). Most of what I learned about an author’s process for blogging and establishing a social media presence, came from Kristen’s earlier book, “We Are Not Alone –The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.” That’s me, towering over the writer/blogger who’s larger than life.

DT and Kristen

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Absence Makes A Story Sound Better

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From: Marsan - Depositphotos.com

From: Marsan – Depositphotos.com

Bless me readers, it’s been four weeks since my last post. The Pope’s in town. I’m feeling a little confessional.

Yeah, dude, what’s up with that?  You drop a thousand words in a day, but can’t kick out blog articles in a timely fashion?

Well … I don’t want to just blog about anything. I take this stuff seriously, like all my writing.

Nice try, dude. A gazillion bloggers out there, and you think you’re special.

Not the first time I’ve gone Off the Grid, this year. I usually take an annual hiatus, like last year’s need to feel The Human Touch. Guess I double-dipped , but I’ve got a good reason.

Busier than a chipmunk before hibernation, I was on the tail end of a new sci-fi story when a message came through from my agent. Small publisher likes a dystopian story I wrote couple years ago. Said it wasn’t ready for publication.

But …

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Peers

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From: Prill - DepositPhotos.com

From: Prill – DepositPhotos.com

This past week, I was impaneled with 11 other individuals to render an impartial verdict in a criminal homicide case.

Like most folks, a summons for jury duty is akin to a traffic violation; getting out of it requires an act of God, or proof of death. Endless humor with clever repertoire on the internet will keep you laughing for hours about people who try to get out of it. I joined fifty other people in a cramped room, wearing the equivalent of “I’m a Juror” button so courthouse security can ensure you find your way to the right place and keep you from slipping out the back door. We waited the requisite hours for the usual legal wrangling of compiling juror lists, asking questions like are you generally inclined to believe testimony of authorities or civilians, calls to the bench … crossing legs because bladders had objections overruled. I became juror number six.

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Message in a Bottle

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From: DepositPhotos.com

From: DepositPhotos.com

It’s been an interesting year for SETI and enthusiasts of the famous Wow Signal, which to this day, remains an unresolved enigma. For those unfamiliar with it, a SETI researcher monitoring signals from the cosmos, picked-up a massive radio spike in 1977 that lasted 70 seconds, then never repeated. It became a seed for Carl Sagan’s tale, Contact. Updated technology detecting similar RFBs (rapidly fired bursts) in recent months, along with the Kepler Telescopic discovery of earth-like exoplanets, has rekindled an interest of our place in the universe.

We go through sinusoidal periods of interest, maxing with news of unique cosmic events, bottoming when reality pundits fire-hose SETI as fanatics wasting money and time. The latest Pluto flyby spiked a minor media frenzy (I use that word lightly). Announced on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, a Russian billionaire is now trying to breathe life into the search with a new cosmic dragnet, called Breakthrough Listen, which attracted even Stephen Hawking’s interest.

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