Well, it’s time for me to get back on the book and science lecture review wagon! I’ve been working more on short stories and my interactive multimedia book series, Light 2.0, and have neglected writing about the nonfiction and real life learning going on in my world.
Over the next weeks, I’ll write about a great new book I am reading, Listen Liberal, by Thomas Frank (Of What’s Up With Kansas fame), and a fun lecture about how JPL/NASA scientists are modeling climbing robots after geckos! (who knew??), and an eye openening lecture at Caltech last week that surprisingly pulled the Wizard’s curtain on microloans. I might even make mention of some comments Kenny Loggins (of Loggins and Messina and House at Pooh Corner fame) made about the state of being a musician in the US; recently I heard him speak and perform at Pasadena’s Vromans’ Books when he came to introduce his new children’s book and song, Footloose.
Or, A Little Mars & Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today’s Space Exploration Debates, Part IV
Okay, so a couple of posts ago we left Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago, in 1952, trying to create chemical reactions that would simulate Jupiter’s atmosphere. They were doing this because it was thought that Jupiter’s current atmosphere might closely resemble the atmosphere on early Earth. And the reason they wanted to simulate Earth in its early days was so they might see what conditions were present that led to the emergence of life.
The goal here, remember, was to figure out the origin of life. What kind of environment would be required for life to begin, and what might “spark” life.
Miller and Urey took molecules known to be present in Jupiter’s 1950’s atmosphere and placed them into a closed system. The gas molecules they used were methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and water (H2O). Then they ran an electric current through the contained gases, to simulate lightning storms believed to be common in the early days of Earth’s formation. What they had accomplished was to simulate the presumed atmospheric environment of Early Earth. And, remember from our previous discussion with scientist Sherwood Chang, they were looking for some sort of chemical reaction ( a chemical reaction results from something – in this case, gas molecules – reacting with a source of energy – in this case, faked lightening).
So, qué pasó? Well, the scientific journals describe it a bit more scientifically, but I like what Sherwood Chang said to me: “At the end of one week, they fished out what was left in the pot and made the astounding discovery of the presence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and therefore of life!”
At week’s end as much as 10-15% of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids. (source duke.edu) And, also according to Chang, “Three or four of the amino acids they found – in the pot – were the very specific amino acids that all biology uses. Out of a potentially almost limitless number of amino acids that are theoretically possible. Most importantly, The Miller-Urey experiment showed that organic compounds such as amino acids could be made easily under the conditions that scientists believed to be present on Early Earth.
Today most of us don’t realize how big this was. Not just that the scientists “created” the building blocks of life but that they had been able to study something so successfully in a laboratory using a technique of simulation. We take simulations for granted today. But in the 1950s this was huge. And the Miller-Urey experiment resulted in an avalanche of such experiments by other scientists. Simulations of the Early Land, the Early Oceans, the ability of of volcanic events (stuff + energy) or sunlight (energy) and other “stuff” to create organic matter (life), on an on.
As ideas changed about what the Early Earth atmosphere actually consisted of, the simulation ingredients changed. But, eventually these Early Earth chemists managed to produce all the biological amino acids, and lots of other amino acids that are not used in biology.
Scientists at first became very optimistic that they were on the cusp of actually discovering and understanding the origin of life on Earth. In the 1950s many thought that they would have the question of life’s origins wrapped up in a couple of decades. But, in fact, their journey was just beginning.
One of the many interesting things that Sherwood Chang shared with me during our drive between Berkeley and Vallejo came in response to my questioning him about how much he follows scientific progress now that he has turned in his Ames Laboratory garb for a cowboy hat in order to roam and manage his cattle ranch in Northern California.
Sherwood patiently addressed my perhaps over the top enthusiasm about the recent Mars mission and space exploration in general. He explained that a big aha moment for him was the realization of how slow research is. How many years go by, and how little we really learn in each chunk of time. Sherwood played his role in the timeline of human exploration and discovery. Now he is doing something else, cattle ranching. The scientific exploration continues, but the pace is slow and will always be so. It took me a while to “get” what Sherwood was telling me about this.
My aha moment came when I began to read about the controversies that have followed the life creation simulation phase of those enthusiastic 1950s and 1960s scientists. For since that time, controversies have sprung up about the validity of their experiments, and many more, alternate, ideas have been proposed as to how those early amino acid building blocks of life might have “emerged” on Earth. Research takes time. Sometimes results and discoveries are validated, and sometimes they are invalidated – both the validating and the invalidating taking years and years. Sometimes results and discoveries force the asking of many more new questions, the turning in new directions, which, in turn, takes more time. What seems to us in the moment some “great” discovery is usually just a pinpoint on the continuum of exploration – a continuum that will last as long as we do!
So, hats off to Sherwood for the role he played in the search for life on Earth, and happy trails to him on his Northern California ranch.
Next we will look at some of the controversies that succeeded the 1950s and 1960s simulator explorers, and start looking about the theories and research that has followed them. . . .
Or, A Little Mars & Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today’s Space Exploration Debates, Part III
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) Continue reading How Many Times Did Life Begin? And How Many “Lives” Are There?→
Or, A Little Mars & Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today’s Space Exploration Debates, Part II
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. . . .
Or, A Little Mars & Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today’s Space Exploration Debates, Part I
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
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”
I attended a great panel discussion about the future of the space race at Caltech on January 10, 2013. This panel was assembled by students at the college as part of a Keck Foundation grant. I have complained in this blog that so many community forums really only have as their motive the PR of some writer, thinker, organization. I am not surprised that when college students organize and host an event, they do not shy away from controversy, that they saw this opportunity as one to participate in civic activism as well as to learn from some luminaries in the field. My hat goes off to these students! The panel consisted of two professors from Caltech, Fiona Harrison (Professor of Physics) and Paul Wennberg (Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering) as well as John Grunsfeld, astronaut and now at NASA, Steve Isakowitz, Exec VP at Virgin Galactic, John Logsdon, founder of GW Univeristy’s Space Policy Institute and Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. I’ll share the discussion of the evening, in context of the discussion I have been riffing on here for last bit, after I return from a trip up north (in southern California jargon, that means to San Francisco).
(Update: It made more sense for me to post about the Skeptic’s Dr. McCray lecture first, as a lead in to this panel discussion and others which I will address later. 1-21-13 – Terry)
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.” Continue reading The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate? – Part 2, Landing on Asteroids?→
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?