Monday, 27 February 2017

The Joy of Astrobiology


Above: the Kepler Orrery of Exoplanets, NASA.
Currently, I'm immersing myself in astrobiology. This is partly for practical reasons; SETI, the Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, has become a research interest, and after a recent meeting with some scarily bright academics, I realised that I needed to beef up my knowledge somewhat.

The second reason is, simply, the joy of learning. Ever since I was a child, I've always had a burning curiosity about the Universe in which I live. The science of astronomy attracted me early on, partly because I grew up in the country, under dark skies. At school, I even ran an astronomy club for a couple of years.

The question of alien life was an integral part of that obsession. I learned early on about the radio Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, and project Ozma. Even though I was fully aware of the disappointing results from the Viking Mars lander, I still enjoyed H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and Arthur Clarke's The Sands of Mars, both featuring 'martians.'

(These and other SF novels with aliens were powerful triggers to my imagination. I still love the 'first contact' genre, where humans meet aliens for the first time, and would love to write one, one day).

However, by the early nineties, the prospect of finding complex life elsewhere had faded. The 'Rare Earth' theories were being formulated,  which suggest that human existence is the result of a combination of unusual astrophysical and evolutionary circumstances that seem unlikely to be common in the galaxy. It seemed likely, in other words, that we were alone.

This development, along with the usual disillusions associated with growing up, dulled my interest, somewhat. By my late teens and early twenties, my value system was also changing. I was becoming appalled by the cavalier way in which human beings were exploiting the planet, and so protecting life on this world seemed more important than searching for life elsewhere.

However, in 1998, I met Jack Cohen, a reproductive biologist and SF fan, who had many interesting things to say about the forms that ET Life was likely to take. His enthusiasm for biology, and Science Fiction, helped to renew my enthusiasm about the question of life elsewhere. You can read about his ideas in What Does a Martian Look Like.

I also saw that being concerned about life on Earth, and wondering about extraterrestrial life, where by no means mutually exclusive. 'Nature' is not confined to the surface of the Earth. Some authors, like Charles Cockell, even suggest that environmentalism and space exploration have one and the same objective, which is making sure that humanity has a home.

By the early 2000s, too, astrobiology was growing up as a discipline. This has been partly triggered by the ongoing discovery of planets that orbit other stars; as of 1 February 2017, there have been 3,572 of these exoplanets confirmed. And quite a few astrobiologists suspect that Rare Earth theories are probably wrong. Couple this with the discovery of sites within the Solar system that seem good candidates for harbouring life, and the prospects for ETL seem much healthier than they did 30 years ago.

So it's been very funny reading up on recent discoveries, because I get the sense that to some degree, the subject has grown up with me....

Wednesday, 15 February 2017