Birth and Death: A Theory of Relativity

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Irving Kaufman in Truro, Massachusetts, when a still-young 89.

I hope you will indulge me in this foray into a very different look at the many worlds in which we live.

My father is being buried today.  It is no tragedy;  he lived to almost 97 and had a full life.  But still…

As all of you have no doubt experienced in one way or another, there is a huge disconnect between the emotions we feel individually about a newcomer to our world or a departing elder and the arrival and departure of those we don’t know at all.

The birth of a loved child is as glorious as most anything can be.  And yet it is, in the larger picture, totally banal.  I found this figure:  By 2011, an estimated 107,602,707,800 humans had been born since the emergence of the species.

Same with death.  The death of a loved elder is a profound event.  And yet it, too, is banal.  One hundred billion of those born have also died.

There are a handful of exceptions to this dual reality. These births and deaths (and lives) are not viewed as banal but as historically important.  You can pick your own people for that list, but I bet they will be a group of people both very good and very bad, many of them talented and all of them charismatic.

But for the rest of us,  a particular birth and death are of enormous importance to very few.  It’s a kind of background noise.

Why am I writing about this now?

Clearly because I’m grieving and trying to make sense of the suffering and passing of my father.

But also because that grief — and the absence of grief all around me in New York City where he lived — speaks to that weird relativity in the emotional universe.  When you look closely at what reality is, the picture is very different from how things may feel inside.

 

The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data.  The image looks back approximately 13 billion years (between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang) and will be used to search for galaxies that existed at that time. (NASA)

This is a dichotomy I’ve had to embrace as I learn and write about the cosmos.  Our human view of the world is, well, often quite lacking in perspective.

Our sense of time is another example.  We humans live within a story line where a life of 97 years is a very long one.  Although there are an increasing number of long-lived people — almost two million above age 90 in the United States — they remain a tiny percentage of the population.

In terms of Earth’s 4.5 million years of geological time,  my father’s 96 years is less than a blip.  And in astronomical time — the 13.7 billion years of the universe — they are completely inconsequential.

Our human lifetimes matter so much to us. But in the reality of time and space as they truly exist,  those lives mean virtually nothing.  Yet we persist in our great joys and sorrows.  “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” wrote one of those people whose name and legend does live on. “They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…” I think my father would appreciate this stepped-back approach to his passing.

My mother, Mabel Kaufman, as drawn by her young husband in the late 1930s.  She died in 2006.

He was born poor in the South Bronx and became a soldier, student, artist, professor, poet and voracious reader.  His background included virtually no science study, but as I wrote more about space and life origins, he found those subjects to be increasingly interesting.  (They were a welcome reprieve for me from the political discussions he was inclined to wage in a take-no-prisoners style.)

He was not a religious man, but he did enjoy thinking and reading about subjects ranging from the beginning of the cosmos to theories of quantum life. I don’t think he would ever use this word, but he sought a kind of cosmic transcendence.

This was especially so after the passing of his wife of 63 years.  He was nearly crushed by his grief, but he gradually put together a life that continued with stubborn and hopefully satisfying independence for 11 years.

He told me for several years that he didn’t fear death.  He didn’t want to die and went to many doctors to try to keep going.  But he said he was ready to accept the end, and in his final weeks and days I came to see that he was  — especially as he lost his treasured independence and endured a not inconsiderable amount of suffering.

He slowly left after a week of refusing almost all food and water.  I’m told it’s a kind of animal path to dying. (No disrespect here, as we are animals, of course.)  And I think such a path is no tragedy, especially given his good fortune to have had almost 97 years on Earth.

Irv Kaufman as a young art professor at the University of Michigan.

I wrote a column early in my tenure at Many Worlds about Einstein and his ideas about “cosmic religion.” In it, I wrote about that part of Einstein’s thinking that gets less attention than it seems to deserve, to me at least.  And as I was thinking about my father’s passing, Einstein’s thoughts on cosmic religion came back to me.

No god, no unresolvable mysteries, no dogma.  Instead the wonderful and punishing laws of nature and the cosmos, and our good fortune to have some time living in them as human beings.  A kind of clear-eyed transcendence without all the religious trappings.

Thoughts of clear-eyed transcendence brought back to mind the most searing and surprising death and aftermath that I’ve witnessed.  When I was a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a charming young woman and her reporter husband were finally going to have a long-desired baby.  Well into the pregnancy, as I remember it, the woman starting getting very sick and was ultimately diagnosed with a fast-spreading cancer.

It was brutal, but she hung on and gave birth.  And then a few days later she died.

The entire Inquirer staff came to her funeral, and her husband got up to speak.  None of us knew what to expect, what someone in his place could possibly say.

But speak he did, and what he had to say was powerfully moving and instructive.  Yes, he had felt despair and anger at the awful turn of events, and, yes, what faith he had was shattered.

Then he spoke as if transported about the unexpected understanding that had come to him.

The death was an absolute tragedy and hideously unfair.  But out of it had come a beautiful, healthy boy.  Despite the horrible twist of fate, something precious had arrived.  The mother’s strength and grit had allowed a longed-for baby to survive.

And the husband ended with this reality lost in the grief:  had his wife not been pregnant, she still would have died of cancer. But she would have died without a lovely child delivered to the world.

Grief and joyful transcendence. There was not a dry eye in the huge crowd and not a heart that had not been lifted.

My father’s death will effect far fewer people than the one I just described.  The emotional punch of his passing has less force because he lived fully and because so many of his contemporaries are gone.

But the emotional dichotomy is still there and cries out for transcendence.  Each life is so important and yet so unimportant.  How do we make sense of that?

 

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How to Give Mars an Atmosphere, Maybe

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The Many Worlds site has been down for almost two weeks following the crash of the server used to publish it.  We never expected it would take quite this long to return to service, but now we are back with a column today and another one for early next week.

An artist rendering of what Mars might look like over time if efforts were made to give it an artificial magnetic field to then enrich its atmosphere and made it more hospitable to human explorers and scientists. (NASA)

Earth is most fortunate to have vast webs of magnetic fields surrounding it. Without them, much of our atmosphere would have been gradually torn away by powerful solar winds long ago, making it unlikely that anything like us would be here.

Scientists know that Mars once supported prominent magnetic fields as well, most likely in the early period of its history when the planet was consequently warmer and much wetter. Very little of them is left, and the planet is frigid and desiccated.

These understandings lead to an interesting question: if Mars had a functioning magnetosphere to protect it from those solar winds, could it once again develop a thicker atmosphere, warmer climate and liquid surface water?

James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, thinks it could. And perhaps with our help, such changes could occur within a human, rather than an astronomical, time frame.

In a talk at the NASA Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop at the agency’s headquarters, Green presented simulations, models, and early thinking about how a Martian magnetic field might be re-constituted and the how the climate on Mars could then become more friendly for human exploration and perhaps communities.

It consisted of creating a “magnetic shield” to protect the planet from those high-energy solar particles. The shield structure would consist of a large dipole—a closed electric circuit powerful enough to generate an artificial magnetic field.

Simulations showed that a shield of this sort would leave Mars in the relatively protected magnetotail of the magnetic field created by the object. A potential result: an end to largescale stripping of the Martian atmosphere by the solar wind, and a significant change in climate.

“The solar sytstem is ours, let’s take it,” Green told the workshop. “And that, of course, includes Mars. But for humans to be able to explore Mars, together with us doing science, we need a better environment.”

 

An artificial magnetosphere of sufficient size generated at L1 – a point where the gravitational pull of Mars and the sun are at a rough equilibrium — allows Mars to be well protected by what is known as the magnetotail. The L1 point for Mars is about 673,920 miles (or 320 Mars radii) away from the planet. In this image, Green’s team simulated the passage of a hypothetical extreme Interplanetary Coronal Mass Ejection at Mars. By staying inside the magnetotail of the artificial magnetosphere, the Martian atmosphere lost an order of magnitude less material than it would have otherwise. (J. Green)

Is this “terraforming,” the process by which humans make Mars more suitable for human habitation? That’s an intriguing but controversial idea that has been around for decades, and Green was wary of embracing it fully.

“My understanding of terraforming is the deliberate addition, by humans, of directly adding gases to the atmosphere on a planetary scale,” he wrote in an email.

“I may be splitting hairs here, but nothing is introduced to the atmosphere in my simulations that Mars doesn’t create itself. In effect, this concept simply accelerates a natural process that would most likely occur over a much longer period of time.”

What he is referring to here is that many experts believe Mars will be a lot warmer in the future, and will have a much thicker atmosphere, whatever humans do. On its own, however, the process will take a very long time.

To explain further, first a little Mars history.

Long ago, more than 3.5 billion years in the past, Mars had a much thicker atmosphere that kept the surface temperatures moderate enough to allow for substantial amounts of surface water to flow, pool and perhaps even form an ocean. (And who knows, maybe even for life to begin.)

But since the magnetic field of Mars fell apart after its iron inner core was somehow undone, about 90 percent of the Martian atmosphere was stripped away by charged particles in that solar wind, which can reach speeds of 250 to 750 kilometers per second.

Mars, of course, is frigid and dry now, but Green said the dynamics of the solar system point to a time when the planet will warm up again.

 

James Green, the longtime director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. (NASA)

 

He said that scientists expect the gradually increasing heat of the sun will warm the planet sufficiently to release the covering of frozen carbon dioxide at the north pole, will start water ice to flow, and will in time create something of a greenhouse atmosphere. But the process is expected to take some 700 millon years.

“The key to my idea is that we now know that Mars lost its magnetic field long ago, the solar wind has been stripping off the atmosphere (in particular the oxygen) ever since, and the solar wind is in some kind of equilibrium with the outgassing at Mars,” Green said. (Outgassing is the release of gaseous compounds from beneath the planet’s surface.)

“If we significantly reduce the stripping, a new, higher pressure atmosphere will evolve over time. The increase in pressure causes an increase in temperature. We have not calculated exactly what the new equilibrium will be and how long it will take.”

The reason why is that Green and his colleagues found that they needed to add some additional physics to the atmospheric model, dynamics that will become more important and clear over time. But he is confident those physics will be developed.

He also said that the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter now circling Mars should be able to identify molecules and compounds that could play a significant role in a changing Mars atmosphere.

So based on those new magnetic field models and projections about the future climate of Mars, when might it be sufficiently changed to become significantly more human friendly?

Well, a relatively small change in atmospheric pressure can stop an astronaut’s blood from boiling, and so protective suits and clothes would be simpler to design. But the average daily range in temperature on Mars now is 170 degrees F, and it will take some substantial atmospheric modification to make that more congenial.

Green’s workshop focused on what might be possible in the mid 21st century, so he hopes for some progress in this arena by then.

 

This image combines depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars, based on data collected from two instruments aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars. About 620 miles across, the white sections are primarily water ice. Frozen carbon dioxide accumulates as a comparatively thin layer about one meter thick on the north cap in the northern winter only. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

One of many intriguing aspects of the paper is its part in an NASA effort to link fundamental models together for everything from predicting global climate to space weather on Mars.

The modeling of a potential artificial magnetosphere for Mars relied, for instance, on work done by NASA heliophysics – the quite advanced study of our own sun.

Chuanfei Dong, an expert on space weather at Mars, is a co-author on the paper and did much of the modeling work. He is now a postdoc at Princeton University, where he is supported by NASA.

He used the Block-Adaptive-Tree Solar-Wind Roe-Type Upwind Scheme (BATS-R-US) model to test the potential shielding effect of an artificial magnetosphere, and found that it was substantial when the magnetic field created was sufficiently strong.  Substantial enough, in fact, to greatly limit the loss of Martian atmosphere due to the solar wind.

As he explained, the artificial dipole magnetic field has to rotate to prevent the dayside reconnection, which in turn prevents the nightside reconnection as well.

If the artificial magnetic field does not block the solar winds properly, Mars could lose more of its atmosphere. That why the planet needs to be safely within the magnetotail of the artificial magnetosphere.

In their paper, the authors acknowledge that the plan for an artificial Martian magnetosphere may sound “fanciful,” but they say that emerging research is starting to show that a miniature magnetsphere can be used to protect humans and spacecraft.

In the future, they say, it is quite possible that an inflatable structure can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (a unit that measures the strength of a magnetic field) as an active shield against the solar wind. In the simulation, the magnetic field is about 1.6 times strong than that of Earth.

 

A Mars with a magnetic field and consequently a thicker atmosphere would not likely be particularly verdant anytime soon. But it might make a human presence there possible.

 

As a summary of what Green and others are thinking, here is the “results” section of the short paper:

“It has been determined that an average change in the temperature of Mars of about 4 degrees C will provide enough temperature to melt the CO2 veneer over the northern polar cap.

“The resulting enhancement in the atmosphere of this CO2, a greenhouse gas, will begin the process of melting the water that is trapped in the northern polar cap of Mars. It has been estimated that nearly 1/7th of the ancient ocean of Mars is trapped in the frozen polar cap. Mars may once again become a more Earth-like habitable environment.

The results of these simulations will be reviewed (with) a projection of how long it may take for Mars to become an exciting new planet to study and to live on.”

 

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Messy Chemistry, Evolving Rocks, and the Origin of Life

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Ribosomes are life’s oldest and most universal assembly of molecules. Today’s ribosome converts genetic information (RNA) into proteins that carry out various functions in an organism. A growing number of scientists are exploring how earliest components of life such as the ribosome came to be. They’re making surprising progress, but the going remains tough.

 

Noted synthetic life researcher Steven Benner of Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME) is fond of pointing out that gooey tars are the end product of too many experiments in his field.  His widely-held view is that the tars, made out of chemicals known to be important in the origin of life, are nonetheless a dead end to be avoided when trying to work out how life began.

But in the changing world of origins of life research, others are asking whether those messy tars might not be a breeding ground for the origin of life, rather than an obstacle to it.

One of those is chemist and astrobiologist Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI)  in Tokyo.  As she recently explained during an institute symposium, scientists know that tar-like substances were present on early Earth, and that she and her colleagues are now aggressively studying their potential role in the prebiotic chemical transformations that ultimately allowed life to emerge out of non-life.

“We call what we do messy chemistry, and we think it can help shed light on some important processes that make life possible.”

Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo was the science lead for a just completed symposium on emerging approaches to the origin of life question. (Credit: Nerissa Escanlar)

It stands to reason that the gunky tar played a role, she said, because tars allow some essential processes to occur:  They can concentrate compounds, it can encapsulate them, and they could provide a kind of primitive (messy) scaffolding that could eventually evolve into the essential backbones of a living entity.

“Scientists in the field have tended to think of the origin of life as a process going from simple to more complex, but we think it may have gone from very complex — messy — to more structured.”

Mamajanov is part of an unusual Japanese and international group gathered at (ELSI), a relatively new site on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. It is dedicated to origin of life and origin of Earth study, with a mandate to be interdisciplinary and to think big and outside the box.

ELSI just completed its fifth annual symposium, and it brought together researchers from a wide range of fields to share their research on what might have led to the emergence of life.  And being so interdisciplinary, the ELSI gathering was anything but straight and narrow itself.

There was talk of the “evolution” of prebiotic compounds; of how the same universal 30 to 50 genes can be found in all living things from bacteria to us; of the possibility that the genomes of currently alive microbes surviving in extreme environments provide a window into the very earliest life; and even that evolutionary biology suggests that life on other Earth-like planets may well have evolved to form rather familiar creatures.

Except for that last subject, the focus was very much on ways to identify the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), and what about Earth made life possible and what about life changed Earth.

 

Artist rendering of early Earth on a calm day.  Scientists are trying to understand the many and complex geochemical processes that led to the emergence of life from non-life.

 

Scientific interest in the origin of life on Earth (and potentially elsewhere) tends to wax and wane, in large part because the problem is so endlessly complex.  It’s one of the biggest questions in science, but some say that it will never be fully answered.

But there has been a relatively recent upsurge in attention being paid and in funding for origin of life researchers.

The Japanese government gave $100 million to build a home for ELSI and support it for ten years, the Simons Foundation has donated another $100 million for an origins of life institute at Harvard, the Templeton Foundation has made numerous origin of life grants and, as it has for years, the NASA Astrobiology Institute has funded researchers.  Some of the findings and theories are most intriguing and represent a break of sorts from the past.

For some decades now, the origins of life field has been pretty sharply divided.  One group holds that life began when metabolism (a small set of reactions able to harness and transform energy ) arose spontaneously; others maintain that it was the ability of a chemical system to replicate itself (the RNA world) that was the turning point.  Metabolism First versus the RNA First, plus some lower-profile theories.

In keeping with its goal of bringing scientists and disciplines together and to avoid as much origin-of-life dogma as possible, Mamajanov sees their “messy chemistry” approach as a third way and a more non-confrontational approach.  It’s not a model for how life began per se, but one of many new approaches designed to shed light and collect data about those myriad processes.

“This division in the field is hurting science because people are not talking to each other ,” she said.  “By design we’re not in one camp or another.”

Loren Williams of Georgia tech

Another speaker who exemplified that approach was Loren Williams of Georgia Tech, a biochemist whose lab studies the genetic makeup of those universal 30 to 50 ribosomes (a complex molecule made of RNA molecules and proteins that form a factory for protein synthesis in cells.)  He was principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Georgia Tech Center for Ribosome Adaptation and Evolution from 2009-2014.

His goal is to collect hard data on these most common genes, with the inference that they are the oldest and closest to LUCA.

“What becomes quickly clear is that the models of the origin of life don’t fit the data,” he said. “What the RNA model predicts, for instance, is totally disconnected from this data.  So what happens with this disconnect?  The modelers throw away the data.  They say it doesn’t relate.  Instead, I ignore the models.”

A primary conclusion of his work is that early molecules — rather like many symbiotic relationships in nature today — need each other to survive.  He gave the current day example of the fig wasp, which spends its larval stage in a fig, then serves as a pollinator for the tree, and then survives on the fruit that appears.

He sees a parallel “mutualism” in the ribosomes he studies.  “RNA is made by protein; all protein is made by RNA,” he said.  It’s such a powerful concept for him that he wonders if  “mutualism” doesn’t define a living system from the non-living.

 

These stromatolites, wavelike patterns created by bacteria embedded in sediment, are 3.7 billion years old and may represent the oldest life on the planet. Photo by Allen Nutman

 

Stromatolites, sedimentary structures produced by microorganisms,  today at Shark Bay, Australia. Remarkably, the life form has survived through billions of years of radical transformation on Earth, catastrophes and ever-changing ecological dynamics.

 

A consistent theme of the conference was that life emerged from the geochemistry present in early Earth.  It’s an unavoidable truth that leads down some intriguing pathways.

As planetary scientist Marc Hirschmann of the University of Minnesota reported at the gathering, the Earth actually has far less carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements essential for life than the sun, than most asteroids, than even interstellar space.

Since Earth was initially formed with the same galactic chemistry as those other bodies and arenas, Hirschmann said, the story of how the Earth was formed is one of losing substantial amounts of those elements rather than, as is commonly thought, by gaining them.

The logic of this dynamic raises the question of how much of those elements does a planet have to lose, or can lose, to be considered habitable.  And that in turn requires examination of how the Earth lost so much of its primordial inheritance — most likely from the impact that formed the moon,  the resulting destruction of the early Earth atmosphere, and the later movement of the elements into the depths of the planet via plate tectonics. It’s all now considered part of the origins story.

And as argued by Charley Lineweaver, a cosmologist with the Planetary Science Institute and the Australian National University, it has become increasingly difficult to contend that life on other planets is anything but abundant, especially now that we know that virtually all stars have planets orbiting them and that many billions of those planets will be the size of Earth.

Other planets will have similar geochemical regimes and some will have undergone events that make their distribution of elements favorable for life.  And as described by Eric Smith, an expert in complex systems at ELSI and the Santa Fe Institute, the logic of physics says that if life can emerge then it will.

Any particular planetary life may not evolve beyond single cell lifeforms for a variety of reasons, but it will have emerged.  The concept of the “origin of life” has taken on some very new meanings.

 

ELSI was created in 2012 after its founders won a World Premier International Research Center Initiative grant from the Japanese government. The WPI grant is awarded to institutes with a research vision to become globally competitive centers that can attract the best scientists from around the world to come work in Japan.

The nature and aims of ELSI and its companion group the ELSI Origins Network (EON) strike me as part of the story.  They break many molds.

The creators of ELSI, both Japanese and from elsewhere, say that the institute is highly unusual for its welcome of non-Japanese faculty and students.  They stay for years or months or even weeks as visitors.

While ELSI is an government-funded institute with buildings, professors, researchers and a mission (to greatly enhance origin of life study in Japan), EON is a far-flung collection of top international origins scientists of many disciplines.  Their home bases are places like Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Caltech and the University of Minnesota, among others in the U.S., Europe and Asia.  NASA officials also play a supporting, but not financial, role.

ELSI postdocs and other students live in Tokyo, while the EON fellows spend six months at ELSI and six months at home institutions.  All of this is in the pursuit of scientific collaboration, exposing young scientists in one field related to origins to those in another, and generally adding to global knowledge  about the sprawling subject of origins of life.

Jim Cleaves, of ELSI and the Institute for Advanced Study,  is the director of EON and an ambassador of sorts for its unusual mission.  He, and others at the ELSI symposium, are eager to share their science and want young scientists interested in the origins of life to know there are many opportunities with ELSI and EON for research, study and visitorships on the Tokyo campus.

 

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The Search for Organic Compounds On Mars Is Getting Results

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This photograph, taken by NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity in 2015, shows sedimentary rocks of the Kimberley Formation in Gale Crater. The crater contains thick deposits of finely-laminated mudstone that represent fine-grained sediments deposited in a standing body of water that persisted for a long period of time - long enough to allow sediments to accumulate to significant thickness. Image by NASA. Enlarge image. [8]
Sedimentary rocks of the Kimberley Formation in Gale Crater, as photographed in 2015. The crater contains thick deposits of finely-laminated mudstone from fine-grained sediments deposited in a standing body of water that persisted for a long period of time.  Scientists have now reported several detections of organic compounds — the building blocks of life in Gale Crater samples. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

One of the primary goals of the Curiosity mission to Mars has been to search for and hopefully identify organic compounds — the carbon-based molecules that on Earth are the building blocks of life.

No previous mission had quite the instruments and capacity needed to detect the precious organics, nor did they have the knowledge about Martian chemistry that the Curiosity team had at launch.

Nonetheless, finding organics with Curiosity was no sure things.  Not only is the Martian surface bombarded with ultraviolet radiation that breaks molecules apart and destroys organics, but also a particular compound now known to be common in the soil will interfere with the essential oven-heating process used by NASA to detect organics.

So when Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist and geologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the Curiosity organics-searching team,  asked her colleagues gathered for Curiosity’s 2012 touch-down whether they thought organics would be found, the answer was not pretty.

“I did a quick survey across the the team and I was convinced that a majority in the room were very doubtful that we would ever detect organics on Mars, and certainly not in the top five centimeters or the surface.”

Yet at a recent National Academies of Sciences workshop on “Searching for Life Across Space and Time,” Eigenbrode gave this quite striking update:

“At this point, I can clearly say that I am convinced, and I hope you will be too, that organics are all over Mars, all over the surface, and probably through the rock record.  What does that mean? We’ll have to talk about it.”

 The hole drilled into this rock target, called "Cumberland," was made by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on May 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The hole drilled into this rock target, called “Cumberland,” was made by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on May 19, 2013.  One of the samples found to have organics was from the Cumberland hole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

This is not, it should be said, the first time that a member of the Curiosity “Sample Analysis on Mars”  (SAM) team has reported the discovery of organic material.   The simple, but very important organic gas methane was detected in Gale Crater,  as were chlorinated hydrocarbons. Papers by Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan and  Daniel Glavin and Caroline Freissinet from Goddard, along with other team members from the SAM team, have been published on all these finds.

But Eigenbrode’s work and her comments at the workshop– which acknowledged the essential work of SAM colleagues — move the organics story substantially further.

That’s because her detections involve larger organic compounds, or rather pieces of what were once larger organics.  What’s more, these organics were found only when the Mars samples were cooked at over over 800 degrees centigrade in the SAM oven, while the earlier ones came off as detectable gases at significantly lower temperatures.

Goddard biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode, who is an expert at detecting organic compounds in rocks, is using R&D funds to develop a simplified sample-processing method that could be applied to a robotic chemistry lab. Photo Credit: Chris Gunn Summer 2008
Goddard biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode, an expert at detecting organic compounds in rocks, has found them in Martian samples collected by the Curiosity rover.
(Chris Gunn)

These latest carbon-based organics were most likely bound up inside minerals, Eigenbrode said. Their discovery now is a function of having an oven on Mars that, for the first time, can get hot enough to break them apart.

The larger molecules bring with them additional importance because, as Eigenbrode explained it, 75 to 90 percent of organic compounds are of this more complex variety.  What’s more, she said that the levels at which the compounds are present, as well as where they were found, suggests a pretty radical conclusion:  that they are a global phenomenon, most likely found around the planet.

Her logic is that the overall geochemistry of soil at Gale Crater as read by Curiosity instruments is quite similar to the chemistry of samples tested by earlier rovers at two other sites on Mars, Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum.

Many Mars scientists are comfortable with taking these parallel bulk chemistry readouts — the sum total of all the chemicals found in the samples — and inferring that much of the planet has a similar chemical makeup.

Taking the logic a step further, Eigenbrode proposed to the assembled scientists that the signatures of carbon-based organics are also a global phenomenon.

“I think it just might be,” she told the NAS workshop, which was organized by the Space Studies Board. “We’ll have to find out more, but I think there’s a good possibility.”

That’s quite a jump — from a situation not long ago when no organics had been knowingly  detected on Mars, to one where there’s a possibility they are everywhere.

The Sample Analysis on Mars instrument has the job of searching for, among other xxx, organics on Mars. And it seems to have succeeded, despite some major obstacles. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)
The Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument has the job of searching for, among other targets, organics on Mars.  It heats the scooped or drilled samples to as much as 860 degrees C, cooking them until compounds come off in a gas form.  Then it sniffs the gases and identifies them.  It is the most complex instrument on Curiosity and has come up with important results, despite some major obstacles. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

And actually, they should be found everywhere.  Not only do organic molecules rain down from the sky embedded in asteroids and interstellar dust, but they can also be formed abiotically out of chemicals on Mars and, just possibly, can be the products of biological activity.

The fact that Mars surely has had organics on its surface and elsewhere has made the non-detection of organics a puzzle.  In fact, that conclusion of “no organics present” following the Viking landings in the mid 1970s set the Mars program back several decades.  If there weren’t even organic compounds to be found, the thinking went, then a search for actual living creatures was pointless.

As is now apparent, the Viking instrument used to detect organics didn’t have the necessary diagnostic power that SAM has. What’s more, the scientists working with it did not know about a particular chemical on the Martian surface that was skewing the results.  Plus the scientists may well have misunderstood their own findings.

First with the question of technological muscle.  The oven associated with the search for organics is part of a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), and it heats and breaks apart dirt and rock samples for analysis of their chemical makeup. The oven on the Viking landers only went up to 500 degrees C.  But the SAM oven on Curiosity goes hotter. It detected signs of organics between 500 and 850 degrees C.

In addition, NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered in 2008 that the Martian soil contained the salt perchlorate, which when burned in a GCMS oven can mask the presence of organics.  And finally, the Viking landers actually did detect organics in the form of simple chlorinated hydrocarbons.  They were determined at the time to be contamination from Earth, but the same compounds have been detected by Curiosity, suggesting that Viking might actually have found Martian, rather than Earthly, organics.

Image taken by Viking 2 on Mars in 1976. Results from both Viking landers reported no organic material in their samples, strongly suggesting there was no chance of current or past life. Recent readings by the SAM instrument on the Curiosity rover suggest the Viking conclusions were not correct, and that the instruments then did not have the capacity to detect Martian organics. NASA
Image taken by Viking 2 on Mars in 1976. Results from both Viking landers reported no organic material in their samples, strongly suggesting there was no chance of current or past life. Recent readings by the SAM instrument on the Curiosity rover suggest the Viking conclusions were not correct, and that the instruments then did not have the capacity to detect Martian organics. (NASA)

What makes carbon-based organic compounds especially interesting to scientists is that life is made of them and produces them.  So one source of the organics in Martian samples could be biology, Eigenbrode said.  But she said there were other potential sources that might be more plausible.

Organics, for instance, can be formed through non-biological geothermal and hydrothermal processes on Earth, and presumably on Mars too.  In addition, both meteorites and interstellar dust are known to contain organic compounds, and they rain down on Mars as they do on Earth.

Eigenbrode said the organics being detected could be coming from any one source, or from all of them.

Asked at the workshop what concentrations of organics were found, she replied with a grin that more light will be shed on the question at next week’s American Geophysical Union meeting.

The detection of a growing variety of organics on Mars adds to the conclusion already reached by the Curiosity team — that Mars was once much wetter, warmer and by traditional definitions “habitable.”  That doesn’t mean that life ever existed there, but rather that what are considered basic basic conditions for life were present for many millions of years.

Eigenbrode said that the detection of these carbon-based compounds is important in terms of both the distant past and the perhaps mid-term future.

For the past, it means that organics in a substantial reservoir of water like the one at Gale Crater some 3.6 billion years ago could have been a ready source of energy for microbial life.  The microbes would then have been heterotrophs, which get their nutrition from organic material.    Autotrophs, simpler organisms, are  capable of synthesizing their own food from inorganic substances using light or chemical energy.

But Eigenbrode also sees the organics as potentially good news for the future — for possibly still living microbes on Mars and also for humans who might be trying to survive there one day.

“Thinking forward, the organic matter could be really important for farming — a ready energy source provided by the carbon,”  she said.

Just what a human colony on Mars some day might need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SETI Reconceived and Broadened; A Call for Community Proposals

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A screenshot from a time lapse video of radio telescopes by Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures was shot at several different radio astronomy facilities—the Very Large Array (VLA) Observatory in New Mexico, Owens Valley Observatory in Owens Valley California, and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. All three of these facilities have been or are still being partly used by the SETI (Search for the Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. You can watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrxpgUJoHRc
A screenshot from a time lapse video of radio telescopes by Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures that was shot at several different radio astronomy facilities—the Very Large Array (VLA) Observatory in New Mexico, Owens Valley Observatory in Owens Valley California, and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. All three of these facilities have been or are still being partly used by the SETI (Search for the Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program.

Earlier this summer, Natalie Cabrol, the director of the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, described a new direction for her organization in Astrobiology Magazine, and I wrote a Many World column about the changes to come.

Cabrol’s Alien Mindscapes – Perspective on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” laid out a plan for the new approach to SETI that would take advantage of the goldmine of new exoplanet discoveries in the past decade, as well as the data from fast-advancing technologies.  These fresh angles and masses of information come, she wrote,  from the worlds of astronomy and astrophysics, as well as astrobiology and the biological, geological, environmental, cognitive, mathematical, social, and computational sciences.

In her article,  Cabrol said that a call would be coming for community input on how to develop of a Virtual Institute for SETI Research. Its primary goal, she said, would be to “understand how intelligent life interacts with its environment and communicates.”

That call for white papers has now gone out in a release from SETI, which laid out the questions the organization is looking to address:

Question 1: How abundant and diverse is intelligent life in the Universe?

The Virtual Institute will use data synergistically from astrobiology, biological sciences, space and planetary exploration, and geosciences to quantitatively characterize the potential abundance and diversity of intelligent life in the Universe. The spatiotemporal distribution of potential intelligent life will be considered using models of the physicochemical evolution of the Universe.

Question 2: How does intelligent life communicate?

By drawing from a combination of cognitive sciences, neuroscience, communication and information theory, mathematical sciences, bio-neural computing, data mining, and machine learning (among others), we will proactively explore and analyze communication in intelligent terrestrial species. Building upon these analyses, we will consider the physiochemical and biochemical models of newly discovered exoplanet environments to generate and map probabilistic neural and homolog systems, and infer the resulting range of viable alien sensing systems.

Question 3: How can we detect intelligent life?

Using the results (data and databases) of research conducted under Questions 1 and 2, we will consider the design and promising exploration strategies, instruments, exploration strategies, instruments, experimental protocols, technologies, and messaging (content and support) that may optimize the probabilities of detecting intelligent life beyond Earth.

And here is what SETI hopes interested scientists will do:

To support the goals and address the questions outlined above, we seek white papers that will serve as a foundation for the intellectual framework of the Virtual Institute’s roadmap – and that specifically describe: (a) scientific rationales (theories, hypotheses) as foundations for investigations; (b) concepts of experimental designs (methods, protocols, and metrics); (c) universal markers, signals, instruments, systems, technologies for communication; (d) target identification; and (e) ground- and space-based instrumentation, observing scenarios, instrument requirements, and exploration strategies.

To better understand the possible existence of intelligence and technology in the universe, and to learn how to detect it, we expect that proposals may draw from diverse scientific fields. These include astrobiology, astronomy/astrophysics, cognitive sciences, epistemology, geo- and environmental sciences, biosciences, mathematical sciences, social sciences, space sciences, communication theory, bioneural computing, machine learning, big data analytics, technology, instrument and software development, and other relevant fields.

White papers should be submitted in electronic form as PDF files to Dr. Nathalie Cabrol at ncabrol@seti.org. They should be no more than three pages in length, with a minimum 10-point font size. A figure can be included if of critical importance. It is anticipated that there will be an opportunity for interested respondents to present their contribution in person during a planned workshop in the summer of 2017.

Notification of opportunities to present will be made after the white paper deadline of February 17, 2017, and those most responsive to this call will be published in the Astrobiology Journal. Questions related to this call should be addressed to SETI Institute President and CEO Bill Diamond at bdiamond@seti.org

Here is the column I wrote when the Astrobiology Magazine paper came out in August:

Allen Telescope Array
SETI’s partially-built Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, the focus of the organization’s effort to collect signals from distant planets, and especially signals that just might have been created by intelligent beings.  (SETI)

For decades, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)  and its SETI Institute home base have been synonymous with the search for intelligent, technologically advanced life beyond Earth.  The pathway to some day finding that potentially sophisticated life has been radio astronomy and the parsing of any seemingly unnatural signals arriving from faraway star system — signals that just might be the product of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

It has been a lonely five decade search by now, with some tantalizing anomalies to decipher but no “eurekas.”  After Congress defunded SETI in the early 1990s — a Nevada senator led the charge against spending taxpayer money to look for “little green men” — the program has also been chronically in need of, and looking for, private supporters and benefactors.

But to those who know it better, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California has long been more than that well-known listening program.  The Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for Research is home to scores of respected space, communication, and astrobiology scientists, and most have little or nothing to do with the specific message-analyzing arm of the organization.

And now, the new head of the Carl Sagan Center has proposed an ambitious effort to further re-define and re-position SETI and the Institute.  In a recent paper in the Astrobiology Journal, Nathalie Cabrol has proposed a much broader approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, incorporating disciplines including psychology, social sciences, communication theory and even neuroscience to the traditional astronomical approach.

“To find ET, we must open our minds beyond a deeply-rooted, Earth-centric perspective, expand our research methods and deploy new tools,” she wrote. “Never before has so much data been available in so many scientific disciplines to help us grasp the role of probabilistic events in the development of extraterrestrial intelligence.

“These data tell us that each world is a unique planetary experiment. Advanced intelligent life is likely plentiful in the universe, but may be very different from us, based on what we now know of the coevolution of life and environment.”

The galaxay as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope
With billions upon billions of galaxies, stars and exoplanets out there, some wonder if the absence of a SETI signal means none are populated by intelligent being.  Others say the search remains in its infancy, and needs new approaches.  The galaxy as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA/STScI)

She also wants to approach SETI with the highly interdisciplinary manner found in the burgeoning field of astrobiology — the search for signs of any kind of life beyond Earth. And in a nod to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which has funded most of her work, Cabrol went on to call for the establishment of a SETI Virtual Institute with participation from the global scientific community.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with Cabrol, who is a French-American astrobiologist with many years of research experience working with the NASA Mars rover program and with extremophile research as a senior SETI scientist.  She sees the SETI search for technologically advanced life as very much connected with the broader goals of the astrobiology field, which are focused generally on signs of potential microbial extraterrestrial life.  Yes, she said, SETI has thus far a distinctive and largely separate role in the overall astrobiology effort, but now she wants that role to be significantly updated and broadened.

“The time is right for a new chapter for us,” she said. “The origins of SETI were visionary — using the hot technology of the day {radio astronomy} to listen for signals.  But we don’t exactly know what to look and listen for.  We don’t know the ways that ET might interact with its own environment, and that’s a drawback when looking for potential communications we might detect.”

Cabrol foresees future SETI Institute research into neural systems and how they interact with the environment (“bioneural computing,”) much more on the theory and mechanisms of communication, as well as on big data analysis and machine learning.  And, of course, into how potential biosignatures might be detected on distant planets.

The ultimate goal, however, remains the same:  detecting intelligent life (if it’s out there.)

Nathalie Cabrol, director of SETI's Carl Sagan Institute, wants to expand and update SETI's approach to searching for intelligent life beyond our solar system. (NASA)
Nathalie Cabrol, director of SETI’s Carl Sagan Center, wants to expand and update SETI’s approach to searching for intelligent life beyond our solar system. (NASA)

But with so much progress in the sciences that could help improve the chances of finding evolved extraterrestrial life, she said, it’s time for SETI to focus on them as a way to expand the SETI vision and its strategies.

“The purpose is to expand the vision and strategies for SETI research and to break through the constraints imposed by imagining ET to be similar to ourselves,” she wrote. The new approach will “probe the alien landscapes and mindscapes, and generally further understanding of life in the universe.”

The Institute will soon put out a call for white papers on how to expand the SETI search beyond radio astronomy, with an emphasis on “life as we don’t know it.”  After getting those white papers — hopefully from scientists ranging from astronomers to evolutionary biologists — the Sagan Center  plans a workshop to create a roadmap.

Cabrol was emphatic in saying that the SETI search is not turning away from the original vision of its founders — especially astrophysicists Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan — who were looking for a way to quantify the likelihood of intelligent and technologically-proficient life on distant planets.  Rather, it’s an effort to return to and update the initial SETI formulation, especially as expressed in the famed Drake Equation.

Drake Equation
The Drake Equatio,, as first presented in 1961 to a gathering of scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W. Va.

“What Frank proposed was actually a roadmap itself,” Cabrol said.  “The equation takes into account how suitable stars are formed, how many planets they might have, how many might be Earth-like planets, and how many are habitable or inhabited.”

Drake’s equation was formulated for the pioneering Green Bank Conference more than 50 years ago, when basically none of the components of his formula had a number or range that could be associated with it.  That has changed for many of those components, but the answer to the original question — Are We Alone? — remains little closer to being answered.

“I’ve talked a great deal with my colleagues about what type of life can be out there,” she said.  “How different from Earth can it be?”

“Now we’re looking for habitable environments with life as we know it. But it’s time to add life as we don”t know it, too.  And that can help augment our targeting, help pinpoint better what we’re looking for.”

“We think one of the key issues is how ET communicates with its environment, and the great advances in neuroscience can help inform what we do.  The same with evolutionary biology.  Given an environment with life, we want to know, what kind of evolution might be anticipated.”

Connectivity network between disciplines showing the bridges and research avenues that link together space, planetary, and life sciences, geosciences, astrobiology, and cognitive and mathematical sciences. This representation is an expanded version of the Drake equation. It integrates all the historical factors now broken down in measurable terms and expanded to include the search for life we do not know using universal markers, and the disciplines, fields, and methods that will allow us to quantify them.
A diagram of the proposed SETI  “connectivity network” between disciplines showing the bridges and research avenues that link together space, planetary, and life sciences, geosciences, astrobiology, and cognitive and mathematical sciences. Cabrol describes it as  an expanded version of the Drake equation.  (Astrobiology Journal/SETI Institute.)

These are, of course, very long-term goals.  No extraterrestrial life has been detected, and researchers are just now beginning to debate and formulate what might constitute a biosignature on a faraway exoplanet or, what has more recently been coined, a “bio-hint.”

In her paper, Cabrol is also frank about the entirely practical, real-world reasons what SETI needs to change.

“Decades of perspective on both astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) show how the former has blossomed into a dynamic and self-regenerating field that continues to create new research areas with time, whereas funding struggles  have left the latter starved of young researchers and in search of both a long-term vision and a development program.

“A more foundational reason may be that, from the outset, SETI is an all-or-nothing venture where finding a signal would be a world-changing discovery, while astrobiology is associated with related fields of inquiry in which incremental progress is always being made.”

Whatever changes arrive at the SETI Institute, it will continue with its trademark efforts — most importantly operating the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California and collaborations with numerous other SETI groups.  The array began its work in 2007 with 42 interconnected small radio telescopes, and  continues its constant search for incoming signals.  The SETI Institute had hoped to build the array up to 350 telescopes, but the funding has not been forthcoming.

Cabrol is clearly a scientific adventurer and risk taker.  During her extremophile research in Chile, she went scuba diving and free diving — that is, diving without scuba equipment — in the Licancabur Lake, some 20,000 feet above sea level.  It is believed to be an unofficial altitude record high-altitude for both kinds of diving.

With this kind of view of life, she is a logical candidate to bring substantial change to SETI.  The new primary questions for SETI and the institute to probe are: How abundant is intelligent life in the universe?  How does it communicate? How can we detect intelligent life?

As she concluded in her Astrobiology Journal article:

‘Ultimately, SETI’s vision should no longer be constrained by whether ET has technology, resembles us, or thinks like us. The approach presented here will make these attributes less relevant, which will vastly expand the potential sampling pool and search methods, ultimately increasing the odds of detection.

“Advanced, intelligent life beyond Earth is most likely plentiful, but we have not yet opened ourselves to the full potential of its diversity.”

 

 

 

 

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