The Biology of Astronomy

By Phil Plait | January 15, 2007 11:21 am

Once upon a time, I lost a race for Best Science Blog of 2006. It was a glorious race, and one that was extremely close. But in the end, PZ Myers of Pharyngula became the winner by a little over 1% of the vote. A mandate!

I had promised that, if I were to lose, I would do a couple of things. One was praise PZ at The Amaz!ng Meeting. That will come this Saturday, when I give my talk. I have plenty of time to take antacids before then.

The second was to write a post praising biology. I am a man of my word (even if it takes me a few weeks), so here you go. Now, I could talk about pure biology, but really, that would be incredibly dull and pointless. The only way to possibly make it interesting would be to mix in some astronomy… so how about astrobiology?

[Okay, I’ll stop being sarcastic now.]

Astrobiology used to be a discipline without any data– how do you study alien life without any actual, y’know, aliens?

In fact, there is a huge amount to learn. As far as we know, life needs air, warmth to some degree, a planet, a star to give it energy (or maybe energy from internal sources like radioactive decay, leftover heat from its formation, or tidal energy from nearby big moons), complex chemistry, and much more. All of these are well within our abilities to study, and in many of these fields there is a fair amount we can say with some certainty. So far from being pie in the sky, this is a very down-to-earth field of study.

But there’s so much to know! How do you keep up?

I can think of two ways. One is Astrobiology Magazine. This NASA-run site has tons of information on all the sciences involved with astrobiology, including the ones I mentioned above, and far more. It’s updated daily and it has an RSS feed as well (if you don’t know about RSS feeds, then read this first. I use it here on the BAblog, and I use it to read blogs all the time).

Still, maybe you don’t want to just jump in; you’d rather have a warmup first, something to walk you through the basics. Happily, Mary Ann Liebert publishers have put online a free PDF version of The Astrobiology Primer. This is a pretty amazing collection of what astrobiology is and what it’s based on. As they say on Page 1:

The Astrobiology Primer has been created as a reference tool for those who are interested in the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology. The field incorporates many diverse research endeavors, but it is our hope that this slim volume will present the reader with all he or she needs to know to become involved and to understand, at least at a fundamental level, the state of the art.

I am going to sit and read this marvelous work when I have an hour or two to snuggle up in the warm sunlight of our nearest star. Unfortunately, Mike Griffin, the current Administrator of NASA, has made it pretty clear he doesn’t think astrobiology is all that important (there are devastating cuts to the field planned for the next two years). However, he has also said, "I did think astrobiology was less important than traditional space science. It had less intrinsic subject matter to it, and was less advanced. If the community rises up and says it should be funded, we’ll rethink it.".

I am rising up. Astrobiology is an incredible field with as much or more to offer than many other areas of research NASA is doing, and in my opinion is critical to our effort to go back to the Moon and on, eventually, to Mars.

After all, when we get to these other worlds, the aliens will be us.


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