Sunday, April 5, 2009

Paleontology in Space (or Dinosaur Bones on the Moon)

Ira Flatow moderated an interesting discussion on Science Friday this past Friday (second hour of the show broadcast on National Public Radio on April 3, 2009). The subject was the prospect of, and search for, life elsewhere in the universe. His guests included some of the leading lights in the world of astrobiology: Peter Ward (paleontologist, University of Washington); Paul Davies (cosmologist, physicist, and astrobiologist, and director of Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University); Baruch (“Barry”) Blumberg (medical doctor, biochemist, anthropologist . . . so hard to know how to characterize this polymath, a 1976 Nobel Prize winner in the field of medicine or physiology – to give one affiliation, he’s distinguished scientist in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute), and Ariel Anbar (biogeochemist – yes, that’s the label he applies to himself, Arizona State University and principal investigator at the NASA Astrobiology Institute).

Paleontology had a small role in the discussion, much smaller than I would have liked. Still, there were tantalizing glimpses of its role in astrobiology. Peter Ward, the paleontologist in the group and someone who has been studying mass extinctions on Earth, observed that geology and paleontology offer us the opportunity to recognize the forces that threatened life in the past and that could do so once again in the future. Offering a more positive spin on this look into the past, Ariel Anbar, the biogeochemist, asserted that the geological record provides “alternative versions of Earth” in which life existed under very different conditions from today, one avenue for important insights into the prospect of life existing elsewhere in the universe under extreme conditions.

There was some discussion of the discovery of methane in the present day Martian atmosphere which suggested the possibility of microbes at work. Ward commented that this was good news because it might encourage more exploration, though it wasn’t quite along the lines that he’d been advocating because, as he put it, “I always thought that the best shot for Mars would be a paleontologist first on the surface looking for fossil life.” Yes.

As the group considered the ways in which life could be spread within planetary systems and possibly further afield in the universe, there was discussion of the ejection of matter from Earth into space during the heavy bombardment of the Earth by cometary and asteroidal material early in its existence, and through the more infrequent impacts later. Ward (I'm nearly positive he was one speaking at the time) observed that the asteroid that crashed into the Earth 65 million years ago threw up lots of material from Earth. He noted, perhaps with a smile on his face (hard to tell on the radio), that it’s “not inconceivable we have dinosaur bones on the Moon.”

Coda – A Few Random Notes

I don’t know if Science Friday is an acquired taste. On occasion it’s a frustrating experience for me, particularly when the topics seem to have little connection to science. This time, the topics were wonderful. Of course, Ira Flatow was his usual self – sometimes asking interesting questions, sometimes not, sometimes fumbling with the ones he asked, sometimes letting a discussion run its appropriate distance, sometimes cutting it short too soon. As an aside, in the mental image I create when I listen to him on the radio, I invariable picture Alan Alda (their voices are nearly identical).

I cannot end without returning to the Brooklyn-born Barry Blumberg. His brief autobiography, prepared for the Nobel Prize Committee (updated through 2006), chronicles an inspiring life, one marked by a dedication to science, education, and service. All of it apparently underlain by a wonderful sense of humor. Among other surprising aspects of that life is that for a time he was the Master of Balliol College, Oxford University. Finally, I cannot resist – at some unknown date (the webpage isn’t helpful on this), he was a guest on the BBC program entitled Desert Island Discs. His choice of music to have on a desert island? Blew me away.

1. ‘Space Oddity’ performed by David Bowie
2. ‘California Dreamin’ performed by the Mamas and Papas
3. ‘City of New Orleans’ performed by Willie Nelson
4. ‘Take the A Train’ performed by Duke Ellington and Orchestra
5. ‘Nimrod’ from Enigma Variations composed by Elgar and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis
6. ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra & the Great Mormon Tabernacle Choir
7. ‘Flowers of the Forest’ performed by The Celtic Tradition
8. ‘The Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations’ performed by Charles Rosen

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