Tag Archives: origin of life

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

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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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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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