Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey

10Mar/13

How Many Times Did Life Begin? And How Many “Lives” Are There?

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part III

Terry Collage Animation of NASA photos of Stefanie Milam, Michel Nuevo and Scott Sandford by Dominic Hart. These NASA scientists studying the origin of life reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory.

Terry Collage Animation of NASA photos of Stefanie Milam, Michel Nuevo and Scott Sandford by Dominic Hart. These NASA scientists studying the origin of life reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory.

A while back a college student mentee of mine asked me to join her for coffee. The moment I sat down, it was clear from the sadness in her eyes and the uncharacteristic squirming in her seat, that she wanted to talk with me about something important to her, not simply to share a cappuccino moment and discuss the WEB.

This brilliant but hardly world-wizened young woman began talking as soon as we sat down, and told me that she had recently made the very difficult decision to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. What had prompted her to consult with me was not the need for advice about this decision, as it was after the fact; she needed to talk about  a group of people who had confronted her as she left the medical clinic. With tears in her eyes now, she shared with me how the group had called her "a sinner" and told her that she had "killed the life that had been created in her womb."

As I sat there with my afternoon decaf latte wishing that she had come to me with a design problem or a missing closing bracket in a line of code, rather than this, something Carl Sagan once said popped into my mind. I don't remember when or where he said it, but it was one of those sentences that burns into your brain for some reason, as if a part of you knows you may need it some day.

"Mary (not her real name) I said to her, Life began only once. And it was billions and billions of years ago."

Mary looked at me unsure at first about what I was saying.

"I once heard a famous scientist, Carl Sagan, say that. About when life began. Mary, life did not begin in your womb. Life was not created in your womb. Anything happening in your womb is just a part of the continuum of something, life, that began so long ago we can't even conceive of it. Billions of years ago," I told her, hoping to reassure. Thank you Carl Sagan.

"I'm not a sinner?" she asked. To a young woman who had been accused of something so terrible, that is what this was really about.

"No, you are not a sinner. You are a young woman who had to make a really difficult decision, and I am sorry you had to make it alone."

I could not help but think back about that afternoon with my student, and the words of Carl Sagan, as I have been writing about my origins of life interview with scientist Sherwood Chang and conducting the accompanying research. Carl Sagan's remark, that Life began billions of years ago, may come in handy upon occasion, but it does not actually paint the truest or most clear picture, either. (continues, see button below-right)

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27Feb/13

Writing Out Loud About The Search for Life in Space Exploration

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part II

Books recommended by interviewee scientist Sherwood Chang: Life's Origin and Planets and Life

Books recommended by interviewee scientist Sherwood Chang

One of the exciting things about blogs is the fact that we can update them with new information, make corrections, add comments. They are not static in time and space like traditional journalism or nonfiction writing.

Yesterday I had an email response from my new scientist friend turned organic cattle rancher, Sherwood Chang, whom I quoted in my previous post (and will be quoting in the next couple of posts). He made a few corrections and additions, which I have added right into the text of the post itself (see below).

I have a Master's degree in creative nonfiction. Why I chose "creative" nonfiction rather than traditional nonfiction has to do with my respect for creativity itself. One of the reasons that creative nonfiction was established as a genre was in consideration of the need to make the reading of "facts" enjoyable, rather than a dry boring academic, experience. Creative nonfiction allows an author to experiment with style, presentation and content in ways that make the information it contains interesting. Being a new media / multimedia artist as well as author, I also believe that a creative approach to writing about information and facts also allows us writers to present our content more successfully - using new methods to convey information, rather than sticking with traditional dry, emotionless and style-less words and diagrams.

I could have taken the suggestions of Sherwood and simply changed and updated my previous post, but, instead, I went to the text and crossed out the text I was eliminating and typed the new text in bold, so that readers could actually see my process, my interaction with the scientist. To me what is exciting about this is that it brings the words and process itself to life. It makes writing a public process, a shared process. As someone I quoted in an earlier post said, "Blogging is writing out loud." (I will look up my source later and update this sentence)

Oh, and thank you Sherwood for also recommending two relevant books for us, which I will post on the book page soon, too: "For an historical review and summary of recent (up to 2002) work on the origin of life, I suggest the book, Life's Origin (2002), ed. J. William Schopf, U. of Ca. Press.  A more recent and broader based book is by W. Sullivan and J. Baross, eds.(2007) Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology."

My next episode on the search for life in space exploration next week. . . .

 

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21Feb/13

How Sixto Rodriguez’s Searching for Sugarman Led Me To an Amazing Personal Lecture by a Space Scientist About the Search for Life

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part I

picture of Stanley Miller, Harold Urey and Sixto Rodriguez

Stanley Miller, Harold Urey and Sixto Rodriguez

In my post before last I mentioned I'd share some Mars exploration history before moving on to Mars in current events.

In the midst of my interest in the current state of space exploration I coincidentally was offered a ride by a space scientist between my friend Karen's apartment in Berkeley and my friend Joe's house in Vallejo last October. I was visiting the Bay Area in order to see and hear the amazing Sixto Rodriguez, who was appearing at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.

I'd discovered Sixto was soon to play in San Francisco (my home town) after I saw the documentary about his remarkable life, Searching for Sugarman, in Pasadena. I went home, jumped online, and, in a happy spontaneous act, bought several tickets for his performance. I then called a few friends in the Bay Area to tell them I was coming up for a week visit, and asked them all to join me for the concert. Karen had insisted that I not bother renting a car as I could take BART or hitch rides any where I wanted to go. I saw this as a real adventure, and was later glad I took her advice. One experiences a whole new social world without the "protection and safety" of one's own vehicle.

Sherwood Chang, the scientist who gave me the lift to Vallejo,  is a retired space scientist now living in Northern California and running the largest organic cattle ranch in the state. He spent his previous career as a scientist with NASA 's Ames Laboratory in Northern California. I know that scientists David Peat and David Bohm would not have been surprised by what I considered a very happy coincidence (to meet a space scientist on vacation when I am blogging about space), because Peat and Bohm noted that it is of greater interest that we all do not notice more life coincidences given the mathematical likelihood of their abundance.

I hopped into Sherwood's SUV, buckled up, turned on my GPS as neither of us knew how to get to Joe's from Karen's, and asked him, "So. Tell me about your career as a scientist." He questioned what I wanted to know, and I told him, "Everything." I also told him that I have read lots of science since I was a very young kid, even though I am professionally a writer and artist, so that he did not have to talk down to me. Sherwood took me at my word, and proceeded to thoroughly entertain me with the most elaborate and compact one hour lecture (about the history of the search for life in space exploration ) I have ever experienced.

This is what I learned:

One way we can begin to understand the history of our universe biosphere is by studying molecular biology. Because the history of living things is stored in the genetic code of all organisms. But if we want a full understanding, we must also glean information from a bunch of other scientific disciplines. Astrophysicists look deep into space, and back in time, and try to figure out how planets formed around stars. Geochemists and Geophysicists help us to understand how planets formed  and what the environment is/was like in each of the star systems planets they study. They are all wondering if and when any planets or planetary systems are/were receptive to life or not.

While these scientists are doing their research, mathematicians and computer scientists are busy analyzing the data these  scientists come up with, and developing theories based on that data. One can certainly imagine that we are able to understand a great deal more today with the powerful computers at everyone's disposal for modeling, calculating and analyzing, than we were able to understand when all we had was a roomful of mathematicians sitting around calculating on their own (as recently as WWII to my knowledge) or working with a room-sized computer that had about 100K of memory!

Sherwood began his career in the 1950s as a chemist. Chemists study reactions. And the reactions Sherwood and his buddies were interested in were those that occurred in ancient, primordial, environments on Earth and on other planets in our solar system. If we are going to understand the beginning(s) of life, a great place to start is on the young Earth at the time our planets formed. And the first thing we would need to know, is what was the environment like then, before life appeared. Of course the goal then was to understand when and why life appeared here on Earth, and if it did on other planets as well.

Back in the day (as my college design students are fond of saying) not much was known about primordial (earliest stage of development) environments. Many scientists thought that the early atmosphere of Earth was similar to that of Jupiter. That belief was based on actual science according to my space history travel guide, Sherwood; it was just that Jupiter's was the only atmosphere they thought relevant to early Earth's.

So in 1952 at the University of Chicago, two scientists, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, decided to create chemical reactions that would simulate Jupiter's atmosphere . . . to be continued

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16Feb/13

Earth Protection P.S.

Title slide for lecture by Riley Duren at JPL, with annotation by Terry, Feb 14, 2013

Title slide for lecture by Riley Duren at JPL, with annotation by Terry, Feb 14, 2013

 

Coincidentally, immediately after my last post - making reference to the importance of Earth protection and our meager atmospheric protective shield, I learned that a Riley Duren would be speaking at JPL on Feb 14 about that very subject. Specifically on global warming and the geoengineering research being conducted to save our planet from it. I am happy to report that Dr. Duren is more supportive of the idea of mitigation than geoengineering (i.e. let's try to do everything we can to stop, or lighten, this global warming we have started before we resort to the extravagant, and expensive, engineering methods to stop it). Dr. Duren's lecture would probably win a riffingonbooks award if I were handing them out (maybe I will start!), for he was not afraid to tackle the tough, controversial questions, and he spent considerable time addressing the need for cross-discipline and public participation in the challenges we all face due to global warming. The scientists cannot solve this problem alone, he told us. We need the public, leaders, legislators, physical and social scientists, etc. involved because the work and decisions are so complex as to need the input of everyone. I will write a full post about this lecture and subject after I complete the next few posts on Mars and space exploration.

Will post my next piece about Mars in a day or two. I am just waiting for the scientist I interviewed in northern California to get back to me with the answers to a couple of follow-up questions.

 

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6Feb/13

Why the future of space exploration requires that we make Earth protection our first priority.

that thin layer of blue is the atmosphere that protects us here on Earth

That thin layer of blue is the atmosphere
that protects us here on Earth

The news media is rife with stories about missions to Mars and to asteroids lately. A great deal of the interest has been spawned by the fact that we have a mission on Mars currently, Curiosity. My guess is that there are also many stories being placed and encouraged by the public relations arms of our various space agencies and by some of the new private space tourist and exploration firms - to drum up more public and political interest.

There are huge questions looming: should we be sending personned explorations to Mars, Jupiter's moons, asteroids? What do we want to learn about Deep Space? How should the private sector be involved in space missions, and if they are, what kind of oversight should the public and leaders require? Can we learn as much from Earth as we can from traveling in space? What does space travel teach us that simulations cannot? Should we try to establish human colonies on Mars, and if so, why? How much money should we be spending on space exploration? Is space travel for humans really a possibility? What are we actually looking for, trying to accomplish?

Before the public can be expected to participate intelligently in any discussion or debate about where we are headed as Space Explorers, some history is certainly in order. I know it was for me. So I began some rudimentary research in order to make myself a more educated participant in the discussion. One of the greatest disservices that scientists have done to the public, and ultimately to themselves, over the last decades is to have constructed messages telling the public that science is too complicated for their feeble brains. Nonsense.

For as long as I can remember, space travel enthusiasts have compared our need to explore space with the early European exploration of the Americas. With their discovery of new worlds and the fact that the earth was not flat. But, as I have studied space exploration the last months, interviewing scientists, reading up on its history, attending lectures, etc., I have come to believe that this is actually an unworkable analogy. Yes, we have a human need to explore, to understand our world, our universe, our reality. Yes, we have a relentless need to know if we are alone in the universe, or if there are some others like us.

But it may be that humans simply cannot bodily explore the universe because our bodies cannot survive such an exploration. It may be that we can explore our universe more effectively by staying put here on Earth and developing exploration tools and simulations.This may not be as glamorous or exciting as the Space Cowboy scenarios so many have been weaving over the last decades, but that is even more reason why the public needs to be let in on realistic lessons about science if we are going to encourage their continued support of a space exploration something more akin to seated in an armchair and watching on the TV screen.

Thus far my research has taught me that the most important thing we need to do right now is to protect our Earth and the human/animal/life protective atmosphere it houses because we may very well be stuck here! Of course I will keep myself open to alternative ideas as I continue my exploration, but so far everything points in that direction. If we lose the protection of our planet, we won't be available to explore the universe in the future.

Next post I will begin with a bit of history about space exploration: "A Little Mars and Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Controversies, Part I"

 

 

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21Jan/13

Innovation vs Status Quo in Science, the Arts and Business

The Visioneers: Skeptics Society Lecture at Caltech, Pasadena - Jan. 20, 2013

Jan. 20, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena -
The Visioneers, with author Dr. W. Patrick McCray, streamed online as shown here

First is the good news that the Skeptics Society at Caltech is now streaming their lectures live online. Usually I would prefer to be there in person, but in a pinch streaming is a great option for those who are not in Pasadena, or those who are, like me, but have not enough time to get over there early enough to get a seat, park, wait, etc.

Yesterdays lecture by Dr. W. Patrick McCray was derived from his research and book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. If you are interested in the entire lecture, keep an eye on their website for when they make the DVD available - usually a collection of lectures.

I talk a great deal in this blog about the importance of having creative people join any discussion about science, ethical science, the future of science, etc. Dr. McCray made it clear why we also need the overview reflections of historians as we think about science and plan for the future of science. Those doing science are primarily, of necessity, bound up in the now of what they are doing; an historian is able to take the time and look from the vantage point of someone analyzing science with a perspective broad enough (history) to grasp implications of importance regarding what has gone before, what is happening now, and what might be in the future.

Dr. McCray's Visioneers are scientists who "blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future… (from the Facebook page for event)." He discusses Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill and MIT-trained engineer Eric Drexler. O'Neill explored the idea of space colonies, when that was all the rage in the 1970s as we began to realize that we were running out of earth (population explosion) and possibly destroying it (environmental damage by humans*1). Drexler came along in the 80s and pursued the idea of staying here on earth and fixing things via nanotechnology (the advent of computers and molecular biology allowed him to envision building little machines from atoms up that would do good things).

The support and controversy these men stimulated in our society, our government and in the scientific community itself make the lecture well worth watching and the book well worth reading. What I want to address here are the book-end observations made by Dr. McCray in his lecture, for I think they address the crux of what all of us need to be deliberating about.

The lecture opened with the statement: " The challenge is how to differentiate between radical new ideas that are great, true and worth pursuing and those that are quackery."

Dr. McCray cited what I consider a tired cliche: "We need to keep an open mind."

I have spoken here before about the problem with new ideas in the Arts. How they are often (usually?) met with scorn and ridicule. Audiences fled the concert hall in reaction to the new sounds of Debussy.  Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, today regarded as the pinnacle of ballet greats, was considered undanceable when it was written. The Impressionists, Cubists, and today many modern painters were/are scorned by the public and critics initially.

Seeing the parallels between reactions to new Arts and reactions to new Science is important. And it is not just "open-mindedness" that allows a few to appreciate new things, to grasp the difference between new that is valid and important, and new that is quackery.

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12Jan/13

The world loses a young prodigy who fought for equal access to knowledge

Aaron Swartz - a prodigy who devoted much of his life to freeing up scholarly research and information for the masses, has taken his own life - a victim of depression. My heart and admiration go out to him today. I have often spoken about the need to keep scholarly information free to anyone who needs it for research - in order to have a democracy that is actually democratic, that gives every human being an equal opportunity to do whatever she or he wants to do by having access to the same knowledge base.

Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and online activist: “The world was a better place with him in it . . . . The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”

see article I recommend for above quotation and full details about this remarkable young man's life and accomplishments - and the trouble he ran into fighting his ethical war against those who would own information - can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html?_r=0

(this photo is derivative of and uncredited photo on Mashable.com)

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3Jan/13

The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate? – Part 2, Landing on Asteroids?

In 2010 President Obama promised that we will land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025:

. . .  we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.

Yet, the National Academy of Sciences (in a report filed Nov/Dec 2012) thinks that is a dumb idea. And apparently NASA isn’t behind it either, as it has not allocated resources for this proposed mission, nor has it picked an asteroid on which to land (see AP report 12/5/2012).

Even worse, the Science Academy reports that NASA is adrift with little to no future plans, and blames the public and our elected leaders for this problem given the fact that we have given NASA no guidance.

I must state here that AP says a NASA spokesperson, David Weaver, told them that NASA in fact does have clear and challenging goals. Of course, we wonder, given the report, what those clear goals are.

So, what’s the deal? Who is telling NASA what to do? Who is telling President Obama and other leaders what NASA should be doing? What is NASA doing? Are we headed to an asteroid and Mars? Should we be?

I've also gotta state here that, you know, I am a member of the "public," and nobody asked me what I think NASA should be doing. I mean the news media and political leaders are so easy with their "the public is not providing guidance," but what does that mean, really? They haven't asked us for our guidance as far as I know. Or, by "public" they mean some select group that someone hand picked to represent the public, rather than what most of us citizens think of when we hear that word "public,"  namely, "us."

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21Nov/12

The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate?

Mars Rock Et-Then taken October 29, 2012 by NASA's Curiosity Rover

Mars Rock Et-Then, Oct. 29, 2012 by NASA's Curiosity Rover

I wish organizations that provide public lectures had the courage to venture into more controversial realms. Too often they provide public education, which is great, but stick to the vanilla topics that will inspire interest, not dissension. They claim "new ideas," but insure that the ideas are either topics that will not weave any discord, or are presented in such a way to insure minimal disagreement or contention. What can we do  to evolve these public learning and sharing events to include more critical questioning and debate? - processes that move us forward as individuals and communities.

One of my friends posted on Facebook recently: "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows - Sydney J. Harris"

Would that were true! Frequently education is no more than mirrors.  And distorted ones at that.

I am a huge fan of public lectures. It is a great way to remain socially engaged and to participate in continued education / lifelong learning. Some of the lectures I attend regularly are the science ones at Pasadena's Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, the Skeptics Society (hosted at Caltech) and Zocola Public Square. These lectures are sometimes fascinating, but often leave me with an unsatisfied sense. Because while they are informative they seldom raise the questions that need to be raised, seldom demand that the public think and debate and get involved with our path forward.

I think of Susan B. Anthony traveling our early nation in most uncomfortable ways, sans first class airplane seats or "comfort" inns. I think of her throwing out the heretical idea that women should have the vote - and equality. I think of the people who came out to support her and to learn the arguments they could later use in their own community debates on the topic. I think of the people who came out to jeer her; to prevent her ideas from getting any traction. Susan B. Anthony presented public debates on the topic she was most passionate about for the duration of her life. And died eleven years before women did get the vote. Her lectures were controversial. Her lectures served to stir the public and move them forward.

Yes, the Skeptics Society does have their  'God v. Science' lecture / debate each year. But that topic is so tired. What if we were to approach all lectures as debates?

Recently I attended a Zocola lecture at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles about the future of space exploration. Talk about a topic ripe for debate, for public input and deliberation. But, for the most part, we simply heard life-story tidbits, and traditional "what we learned in space that we are now using on earth" tales from three panelists as they were questioned by a moderator who had given each of their bios a cursory study.

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19May/12

Why Information Must Be Free: The Factory Girl

I must admit, I like the idea of having information implanted in me for immediate access to it all. A personal database. Or a link to a complete information database in the Cloud. The Internet is a start to this, but it must be better organized. And the information must be free. Not owned by anyone. That is crucial. But it may not be where we are headed.  And we must deliberate and take action about this before it is too late. For the thrust of the day is in the direction of companies finding ways to profit from the storage of and subsequent sharing (and/or licensing) of hoarded information.

Our  founders had it right when they determined that all literature should be housed in a public and free system: libraries. If democracy is the goal, if equal opportunity is the goal, if righteous progress is the goal: information must be available to all and it must be free.

What if Einstein, Marie Curie or Thomas Edison had not had access to the crucial learning and information they personally read, stored and pondered to come up with their critical-to-history discoveries? Had Beethoven, Debussy or Amy Beach not had access to the scores of composers who came before, on what would they have founded their own knowledge and growth? (actually, Amy Beach did not have all the information access she needed, since she was not allowed to study in Europe "with the men," and that did have a detrimental impact on her work as a composer - something I am exploring in my biography-memoir, Amy Beach and Me, amybeachandme.com)

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