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.
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.