Wednesday, 19 August 2009

LIFE OFF EARTH


“Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange! Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, - William Shakespeare

I read in the newspaper a couple of days ago that scientists have uncovered new evidence that life may be widespread in the cosmos. It relates to the finding of a fundamental amino acid, glycine (which is a component of proteins in all forms of life), in comet dust. The material was collected in 2004 by NASA’s spacecraft “Stardust” that sampled comet dust when it passed through the tail of the comet Wild 2. Comets have long been suspected of being “buses” that contain a variety of organic compounds, which may be transported for immense distances and seeded throughout the universe on suitable host worlds.

Carl Pilcher was one of the astrobiologists who was involved in the study and he purports that the presence of glycine in comets strengthens the argument that life throughout the universe may be common rather than rare. James Elsila was the lead author in an article in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science that reported on the results of the study, and in his article he maintains that the finding of glycine in comet dust also supports the idea that perhaps life on earth was initially seeded by material carried here from deep space by a rogue comet…

For the skeptics, and in the interest of good science, experiments were carried out on the carbon isotopic composition of the glycine sampled by “Stardust”. This confirmed the extraterrestrial origin of the glycine molecules and effectively discounted the argument that the amino acid was of terrestrial origin and contaminated the sample after it arrived on earth.

Which brings to mind a Greek song sung by Manolis Lidakis and Eleni Tsaligopoulou “Υλικό Ονείρων” (Yliko Oneiron - Stuff of Dreams):

“Είμαστε πλασμένοι από υλικό
Που γίνονται τα όνειρα.
Είμαστε πλασμένοι από υλικό
Που γίνονται τα αστέρια…”

Είμαστε πλασμένοι εσύ κι εγώ απ’ το υλικό
Που κρύβεται στα όνειρα.
Είμαστε πλασμένοι εσύ κι εγώ απ’ το υλικό
Που καίγεται στα αστέρια…”

(We are made of the stuff
That dreams are made of.
We are made of the stuff
That stars are made of…

(We are made, you and I, of the stuff
That hides in dreams.
We are made, you and I, of the stuff
That burns in the stars…)

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a project that has been on-going for several decades now. It concerns itself with questions like: “How many planets exists which might support life? What is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life?” Such questions are the domain of astrobiology and SETI has long tried to answer them.

A famous astrobiologist, Dr Frank Drake, has tried to answer these questions by mathematical means and his equation attempts to quantify the number of planets in the universe that harbour intelligent life. Although this equation has no generally accepted “solution”, many people have tried to “solve” it and in the great majority of cases, even with the most conservative numbers, it becomes obvious that the presence of intelligent life in our galaxy is inevitable. All it remains for us to do now is to conclusively demonstrate its existence…

And the word of the day, aptly, is:
Astrobiology |ˌastrōbīˈäləjē| noun
(Also known as exobiology, exopalaeontology, and bioastronomy) is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This interdisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry, life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in outer space.
ORIGIN: from Greek astron ‘star’ and bios ‘life’ + -logia ‘denoting a subject of study or interest’.

Jacqui BB hosts Word Thursday

3 comments:

  1. What? You mean that "Star Trek" is all true after all!
    :-)
    Nice blog, Nicholas.

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  2. And why not? I long ago both read and enjoyed the CS Lewis 'Out of the Silent Planet' series, where he too pondered such questions. Cheers

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  3. How interesting. I think it would be very exciting to find out that there is someone out there for sure.

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