Category Archives: Astrobiology

Planetfest 2012 – Curiosity Knows No Bounds

Planetfest (Photos: Tim Jones)
NASA’s Charles Bolden and Plantetary Society CEO Bill Nye at Planetfest 2012

Unless you spent last week vacationing at the bottom of a Titan methane lake, you can’t have failed to notice NASA has just placed its largest, heaviest, and most advanced rover yet – the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, on the surface of Mars.  And ‘placed’ it was  –  nice and gently – by a rocket powered crane.

Sky-crane descent of the Mars Science Laboratory ‘Curiosity’ Picture: NASA

Even though I followed the moon landings, the idea of visiting Mars, in any form, still has a ring of science fiction about it.  But last weekend at my first Planetary Society Planetfest in Pasadena, California, Mars for me and 1500 others became extra-real, as we stood enthralled and affirmed in the knowledge that, for all our faults, human beings can still pull this stuff off.

There were nail-biting moments and fascinating discussions.  What I’ve put together here is a summary from my notes, mixed in with thoughts and photos to give you a taste of what went on.

Let’s set the scene with a JPL simulation of Curiosity’s landing:

And here’s the reaction where I was sitting in the Planetfest crowd:

Now meet four of the Planetary Society team who managed the panels, reported live from JPL, introduced speakers, and generally held things together from Saturday through to Curiosity’s landing late on Sunday evening:

Bill NyeBruce Betts

Jim BellEmily Lakdawalla

Left to right from top: CEO Bill Nye; Director Projects Dr.Bruce Betts; President Jim Bell; Technology & Scientific Coordinator Emily Lakdawalla.

Emily Lakdawalla at Planetfest 2012 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Emily Lakdawalla at Planetfest 2012

Arriving early Saturday morning for a front row seat, I knew I was off to a good start when NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green sat next to me and slipped me a couple of mission pins.

Jim Green (Photo: Tim Jones)
Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green reviewed fifty years of solar system exploration at NASA: missions past, present, and possible future.

It also helped that by the time Curiosity touched down we were already Mars experts, thanks to two days of presentations from the likes of ‘Mars Czar’ Scott Hubbard.  Hubbard, now an aeronautics professor at Stanford, authored NASA’s ten-year Mars program in which each mission informs and sets direction for future missions under a guiding science strategy of ‘Follow the Water’.  That strategy has morphed to ‘Seek Signs of Life’, with the qualification that Curiosity isn’t looking for living life as such, but evidence of past life or conditions that might have supported it (incidentally, there’s an article on this aspect by Stuart Clark here in the Guardian newspaper).

'Mars Czar' Scott Hubbard, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University (Photo:Tim Jones)
Scott Hubbard “I was first Mars Czar”
Rosaly Lopes-Gautier, JPL
JPL Volcanologist Rosaly Lopes-Gautier explained some crucial differences between the geology of Earth and Mars

We can follow the sequence.  Launched in 1996, Global Surveyor spotted evidence of flash floods, old polar oceans, and water-modified rocks.  In 2001, the Odyssey probe detected possible water ice at the pole (using gamma ray spectroscopy), which in 2008 Phoenix confirmed, actually scraping some of it away.  The 2004 Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, also found evidence of historic water in the form of tell-tale hematite ‘berries’. And in 2006, the high-definition imaging ability of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor (MRO) convincingly separated out surface features caused by water from those by wind.  MRO images were also instrumental in identifying Gale Crater as Curiosity’s landing site.  It’s sitting there now, in shake-down mode.

Matt Golombek, Senior Research Scientist JPL
Matt Golombek, JPL

Choosing Gale Crater, said Senior Research Scientist Matt Golombek, as with any landing site, is all about balancing science and safety: a negotiation between scientists who want the rover to go places where it can do interesting science, and engineers who have to build something that will get it there.

Site choice is also iterative with spacecraft development during the build, consistent with a rigorous systems engineering approach that underpins Hubbard’s original strategy and integrates the science/engineering/management teams.

Gale Crater and Curiosity landing site (Photo: NASA)
Gale Crater and Curiosity landing site (Photo: NASA)

So why choose Gale Crater from what started out as fifty possible landing sites?  Firstly, it doesn’t contain many mini-craters for Curiosity to accidentally land and get stuck in; but as importantly, great science waits there in accessible layers of sedimentary rocks stacked up around its central peak – Mount Sharp: layers where we might find signs of an environment for past life.

Pasadena Convention Center (Photo:Tim Jones)
Pasadena Convention Center

“The history of Mars is in this hole”

So said Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion describing how, over the weeks and months, Curiosity will explore the 96 mile wide Gale Crater, moving in on the three-mile high central peak, analysing rocks as it goes – remotely by shooting them with a laser and looking at the emitted light, and by pulling samples into its onboard chem. lab.

Each layer of the ancient deposit at Mount Sharp represents a step back in time, and as the side of the deposit has eroded away, Curiosity doesn’t need long drills to reach them.  We may, said Chief Engineer Rob Manning, find evidence of a historic “warm wet Mars”, or even the complex carbon calling cards of past life.  Unlike the earlier Spirit and Opportunity rovers – essentially geophysics platforms – Curiosity, with its onboard chem. lab, is equipped to find them.

Curiosity’s driver, Scott Maxwell, used the analogy of backing your car out of the drive with a 15 minute throttle delay for an entertaining introduction to roadcraft on an alien world.  The key tip it seems – based on experience with the Spirit rover – is don’t drive to anywhere you can’t see!

Rover Driver, Scott Maxwell (JPL)
JPL MSL Driver, Scott Maxwell
Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion (Photo:Tim Jones)
Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion
Chief Engineer MSL, Rob Manning (Photo:Tim Jones)
Chief Engineer MSL, Rob Manning

After Curiosity?

I guess next to the landing itself, the dominant buzz was around how best to counter a slowdown in the pace of planetary exploration and NASA budget cuts.   Crazy as it felt against the euphoria of Planetfest, NASA has no follow-on missions to Mars scheduled after Curiosity (although India plan an orbiter for 2014). [Update 20/08/12, InSight Mars planned for 2016].

In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to actually paying for it, space and planetary exploration simply aren’t a priority for – as one delegate described the general populace – normal people.  The Curiosity mission cost every American $7, or I guess about $1 /year.  What’s seven bucks?  One burger meal?  A movie rental?

Science fiction author David Brin echoes the common frustration that we’re not doing enough, fast enough, in space.  Where’s the desire? asks Brin, reminding us we have a strong track record of achieving challenging, unlikely, tasks if we really put our minds to it, and pointing to that fairyland in the desert we call Las Vegas.

David Brin (Photo: Tim Jones)
David Brin

Asked what it might take for a NASA budget hike to receive more popular support, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver suggested discovery of evidence for extra-terrestrial life or intelligent life might do it, or, less attractively, an asteroid threat to the planet.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (Photo:Tim Jones)
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver

It’s not that there are no ideas for a further  mission.  That would likely involve bringing material back to Earth for detailed analysis by many different laboratories and researchers: a ‘sample return’ mission.

Meantime, the Planetary Society reiterates the case for continued investment to support (America’s) national interest.  That includes Bill Nye’s argument for ‘trickle-up economics’, whereby exploration project investments in a region attract the best educators, lift regional and national education standards, motivate a new generation of technology workers – ultimately strengthening a country’s role as an innovation economy (the only sort that has much of a future in my view).  That’s before the global economic and political stability benefits to other, if not all, countries stemming from international co-operation in space.  These are the kind of messages  NASA Adminstator Charles Bolden and JPL Director Charles Elachi endorsed the Planetfest audience to get across to their elected representatives (i.e. Congressmen).

Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator (Photo: Tim Jones)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
Charles Bolden and Charles Elachi (Photo:Tim Jones)
Charles Bolden and Charles Elachi
Dr Charles Elachi, Director Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Dr Charles Elachi, Director Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I suspect it also helps to have a few star quality communicators, not to say terminal space enthusiasts, on the case – like Bill Nye, Emily Lakdawalla, and Astronomy Outreach Specialist and Planetfest cheerleader Shelley Bonus :

Shelley Bonus (Photo:Tim Jones)
Shelley Bonus “Curiosity Knows No Bounds!”

Commercial Space

Will the future of space be saved by the market?  NASA has made extensive use of commercial contractors since before the Apollo program, and now an upswell of new businesses like SpaceX, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic, bringing with them new business models and work cultures, present fresh possibilities.

The role and opportunities for private investment were explored by a panel comprising Andrew Nelson from XCOR, developer of the Lynx low earth orbit rocket plane; George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, and your best bet for an early space holiday; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, an initiative which, among other things, is in the process of spawning a host of mini-moon-landers; and David Giger of SpaceX, the group whose Dragon capsule in May 2012 hooked up with the international space station.  Lynx and Dragon were both on display.

XCOR Lynx at Planetfest Pasadena (Photo: Tim Jones)


Andrew Nelson, XCOR (Photo:Tim Jones)
Andrew Nelson, XCOR

As a trend, relatively well understood processes like taxiing to Earth orbit look likely to migrate almost 100% to commercial interests, leaving NASA and the publicly funded space efforts of other nations to push the exploratory envelope.  But it’s not clear-cut.  Peter Diamandis reckoned the first manned mission to Mars could be a private venture – and made a bet with Whitesides to that effect (freebie to orbit on Virgin Galactic if he wins).

George Whitesides (left) and Peter Diamantis (Photo: Tim Jones)
George Whitesides and Peter Diamantis

Private entities can take bigger risks where they’re justified by attractive financial returns.  Diamandis believes asteroids will be commercially mined in the next 10-15 years.  Some contain precious metals, others carbonaceous chondrites – loaded with hydrogen and oxygen (as water) that, converted to fuel could be stored in space depots; beats lifting every ounce to orbit as we do now.  These ideas could revolutionise the fuel logistics of solar system exploration.  Science might be coincident with commercial ventures – but it’s still science.

All that said, with private investments apparently self-limited to the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions, the panel believed public investment is still important.

SPACEX Dragon Capsule at Planetfest Pasadena (Photo: Tim Jones)
SPACEX Dragon Capsule at Planetfest Pasadena

One company already working with NASA is Sierra Nevada, who were involved building the sky-crane which, when this picture of Executive VP Mark Sirangelo was taken, had yet to lower Curiosity safely on to Mars; so maybe that’s a nervous smile.

Exec. VP Sierra Nevada Corp., Mark Sirangelo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Exec. VP Sierra Nevada Corp., Mark Sirangelo

But as one of three suppliers chosen to develop launch systems to reach the space station, along with Boeing and SpaceX, Sirangelo can be happy.  On a more sombre but celebratory note, Sirangelo presented a tribute to the life of astronaut Sally Ride, who died in July this year.

Manned Missions?

Mentally photoshopping human figures into Martian panoramas is irresistible.  And while the debate around the merits of manned versus unmanned exploration trundles on, some folks, like aerospace Engineer, Founder and President of the Mars Society, and author of The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin, just want to get on with it.

President of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin. (Photo:Tim Jones)
President of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin, whose enthusiasm alone should get him to Earth orbit, favours the systematic transfer of first unmanned, then manned, modules – for fuel generation, living, etc. –  to Mars over a period of years.  At least his approach side steps the popular but contentious (and somewhat macho?) debate around who’s ready to hop on a one-way mission.  When X-Prize founder Peter Diamantis asked who would volunteer at 75% and 50% risk levels, the show of hands by my reckoning was  reserved and super-reserved (although as George Whiteside commented, enough for a crew!)  Diamantis reckoned he’d sign up at the 50% risk level.  I got the impression from NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden that he personally supports manned exploration.  Further pressure for manned missions comes from advocacy groups such as Artemis Westenberg’s Explore Mars, whose optimistic goal is to see humans on Mars by 2030.

Artemis Westenberg (Photo: Tim Jones)
Artemis Westenberg

Of course, you can go to Mars in your imagination when you like, a mission delegates at Planetfest prepped for with the help of the Space Art panel.  Led by President of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, Jon Ramer, the five space artists discussed the ins and outs of their craft applied to scientific visualisation, fine art, book, and movie work.

Space Artists (Photo:Tim Jones)
Space Artists. From left to right: Jon Ramer, Don Davis, Rick Sternbach, Don Dixon, and Aldo Spadoni.

Staying with the arts.  In tribute to science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, who died in June this year, co-founder of the Planetary Society Louis Friedman, with actor Robert Picardo and space historian Andrew Chaikin, led a poetic tribute to the visionary and sometimes controversial author of The Martian Chronicles.

Louis Friedman (Photo: Tim Jones)
Louis Friedman
Space Historian Andrew Chaikin
Space Historian Andrew Chaikin
Robert Picardo reads Ray Bradbury (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo reads poetry by Ray Bradbury

Diversions and Surprises

Bill Nye may be the CEO of the Planetary Society, but for half an hour on Saturday he donned his trademark lab coat to become 100% ‘Science Guy’ in a liquid nitrogen-fueled double act with actor/director Robert Picardo.  The session ended with Bill feeding marshmallows at -370 F to Picardo and young members of the follow-on ‘careers in space’ panel.

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (the 'Science Guy')(Photo:Tim Jones)
Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science
Bill Nye launching smoke pulse (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye launching smoke pulse
Robert Picardo (Photo:Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo
The Right Stuff (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Right Stuff

Special Guests

A host of special guests appeared on Sunday afternoon, perhaps the most diverting being writer / producer Ann Druyan, who was married to and worked with the late Carl Sagan.

Joined on stage by Family Guy producer Seth MacFarlane, Druyan shared progress on a new thirteen part re-make of Sagan’s famous Cosmos series that will be aired on Fox Network and fronted by Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Ann Druyan (Photo: Tim Jones)
Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan (Photo:Tim Jones)
Ann Druyan

It’s encouraging that Druyan is staying close to the production, and through MacFarlane aims to maintain the production values and ethos of the original show.  Asked whether climate change would be addressed in the updated version, Druyan said it would be – as it was in the original.  Also, there would be less emphasis on the nuclear threat.  Again in common with the original, efforts will be made to bridge any perceived science-religion divide, perhaps through an appeal to common goals around themes like preservation of the environment.  As one delegate put it, Carl Sagan could ‘disagree without being disagreeable’.  It will be interesting to see what Tyson does with the Cosmos mantle.

Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Photo: Tim Jones)
Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan
Seth MacFarlane (Photo:Tim Jones)
Seth MacFarlane (Photo:Tim Jones)

Until Next Year

That’s all folks.  All in all a pretty unforgettable weekend.  Anyone feeling a bit cynical about space exploration or those who support it would do well to sample one of these gigs.  Bill Nye is dead right when he says adventures like Curiosity represent mankind at its best!

 Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs by Tim Jones


Of related interest on Zoonomian

Buck Rogers – A Copper-clad Lesson from History

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory



Lawrence Krauss Sprinkles Stardust at the School of Life

I’d heard of Alain de Botton’s School of Life  and its  “good ideas for everyday living“; I just hadn’t been to one of their ‘Sunday Sermons’.

Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
Krauss 2.0 ?

So arriving at Conway Hall yesterday to hear theoretical physicist and all-round science communicator Professor Lawrence Krauss talk about Cosmic Connections, it was an unexpected but not disagreeable surprise to find David Bowie and a seven foot spandex-clad devil stirred into the mix.  I for one can’t think of a better preparation for contemplating one’s insignificance in a miserable futureless universe than a good singalong to Space Oddity.

Conway Hall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Conway Hall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
“You are stardust; it is literally the most poetic thing I know about in all of science”

On the face of it, Krauss’s ultimate message is a bit grim: that our expanding, accelerating, universe will eventually dilate into cold, empty, blackness.  But, more positively, he’s saying we should take all that as read and concentrate on our perspective: understand what we really are and how we connect with the universe.  Then the journey to oblivion doesn’t look so miserable afterall; it looks fascinating – even poetic.

Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
Stardust meets Starman

Krauss’s consciousness-raising / cheer-up therapy centred around three less than obvious connections we have with the cosmos:

First off – we are the universe.  We’re made of stars.   The heavy elements that make us up could only have been made in stars, and they could only end up as part of us if they were blasted out of exploding stars: the supernovae.

Crab Nebula
You were here…

Call me a romantic, but I like the imagery.  Bits of me: hands and feet, arms, legs, head, brain – they didn’t just pop up a few decades ago, but have been flying around for billions of years and will be around for billions more.  I’ve been inside an exploding supernova – several most likely.

Lawrence Krauss and the Devil. Photo by Tim Jones
Straight on at purgatory, then right at the second circle….

devil photo Tim Jones
What the….

Next came the connectedness of life, with a nice story of Krauss sitting to write a physics paper, aware  he’s breathing the very atoms breathed by Einstein as he formulated his own theories (inspired inhalation?).  We’ve all got a bit of Julius Caesar in us it seems – literally.  And on the larger scale of the solar system, the exchange of possible life-bearing rocks between the Earth and other planets, including Mars, could mean we’re all extra-terrestrials without even knowing it.

Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
“The future is miserable”

Krauss’s final illustration challenges our perception that aspects of reality we normally consider outlandish and irrelevant to our day-to-day life do indeed have a direct influence on us.  The mundane activity in question is navigation by Global Positioning System (GPS), where the consquences of not correcting for satellite speed (Special Relativity), and height above the Earth (gravity effect/General Relativity), on measurement of the requisite nano-second scale signal transit times, would in only a day be sufficient to put ground track navigation out by several kilometres.

“Ground control to Major Tom”
Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
“Bits of Mars are falling on Earth all the time”

I really like this GPS example and the way Krauss presented it.  There was no such thing as GPS when I was at school, so all we got were stories of atomic clocks losing time when they were shot round the world on fast planes, or hypothetical astronauts of the future going on fictional journeys.  To be able to relate relativistic effects to a very real navigational error that normal folk can recognise and care about is brilliant.

Who’d have thought Sunday sermons could be such fun?

Lawrence Krauss and Tim Jones Photo Sven Klinge
It’s important to help struggling authors….

Photographs copyright Tim Jones.

Final photo: Thanks Sven Klinge.

Update 4th Dec. 2011 Video of the event:

Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections from The School of Life on Vimeo.

Also of interest? – Lawrence Krauss recently on Materials World with Quentin Cooper (about 15 mins in)



Book review: The Eerie Silence – Are we Alone in the Universe

eerie silence jacket image

Book review: The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?

Author: Paul Davies

Hardcover: 260 pages
Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Mar 2010)
ISBN-10: 1846141427
ISBN-13: 978-1846141423

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is in a rut.  That is Paul Davies’s message in ‘The Eerie Silence – Are we alone in the Universe’ – a thorough taking stock of the programme started by Frank Drake in 1959 to search for alien radio messages from outer space.

Davies wants a rethink from scratch, where we shake off the blinkers of anthropocentric thinking and question exactly what we should be looking for.  Listening out for a direct radio message is fine, but lets extend the search to include more subtle evidence of alien legacy and the very origin of life.

ET has indeed been strangely quiet, and for Davies two rather extreme explanations for that are providing signposts to a ‘New SETI’.

Under the first option, we have to accept that life on Earth was born of a series of events so incredibly flukey they will never be repeated.  Under the second, we face the chilling prospect that intelligent life pops up quite frequently, only to develop a propensity for technology fueled self-destruction.

Holding out hope for a middle way, and putting speculation over self-destructing aliens aside, Davies argues there is a raft of solid science we could be getting on with to better understand the scarcity of life.  Those up for the task (and skilled enough to secure funding) will enter a field of polarised opinions and a paucity of hard evidence.  The prize? – possibly the final word on the question of whether life is ubiquitous in the universe – a ‘cosmic imperative’ –  or that you and I here on Earth are a one-off, somewhat lonesome, rarity.

We should still listen for radio messages, says Davies, enthusing over SETI’s groundbreaking Allen Telescope Array (ATA) of radio telescopes; but the emphasis  should be on searching for new types of evidence of intelligence, both in space and closer to home – on Earth in fact.

If we can show life on Earth started independently more than once – a second genesis if you like –  the fluke theory is destroyed and the prospect of life existing on the billion or so Earth-like planets in our galaxy increases immensely.  Once life has started, there is pretty much universal agreement among scientists that Darwinian style evolution will, environmental factors willing, take over to produce complex life forms and probably intelligence and consciousness.  Second (and third and fourth..) genesis life forms could be living alongside us today, unrecognised as a microbial  ‘shadow biosphere’ – the holy grail for researchers now culturing candidate samples from Mono Lake in California.  Or we might find tell-tale markers of an extinct second genesis in geological records that we have seen but incorrectly interpreted.  With so many work areas highlighted as candidates for inclusion in New SETI, a problem for potential researchers could be deciding where to focus their application.  Presumably Davies is taking calls.

Moving from Petri dish to telescope dish, Davies believes our pre-conceptions of ET in space are causing us to define too narrow a target there also.  Any intelligent biological life, he says, will quickly transition to an intellectually superior machine form having nothing in common with Homo sapiens and little to gain from interstellar chit-chat.

Or the aliens may have launched beacons that ping data packets only once a year.  Or they may have sent probes – monolith fashion – to lurk around our solar system, programmed to spring to life when we learn to think up to their level.  The point is we will only detect this kind of activity if we specifically look for it.

In his most futuristic speculation, Davies envisions life evolving into a quantum computer – an extended network of energy floating through space, amusing itself solving complex mathematical doodles.  The implication of course, if such ‘beings’ exist, is that we are headed in the exact same direction.  How do you fancy being a node in a pan-galactic thought matrix?

Among other thought-provoking revelations, we learn the Earth has for billions of years been happily swapping rocks, possibly with primitive life aboard, with other planets in the solar system – including Mars. That makes the potential discovery of life on that planet important, but not necessarily a game-changer for SETI, as Martian and Earth life could share the same unique origin.

Davies puts SETI into historical context on a quirkier note, recounting how the mathematician Karl Gauss, as early as the turn of the 19th century, planned to signal the Martians using huge shapes cut out of trees in the Siberian forest.

There is an implicit appeal in The Eerie Silence for scientists from different disciplines to work together on SETI and astrobiology – maybe a guiding principle for New SETI?  Astronomers, biologists, geologists, engineers, astro-physicists and cosmologists all have a role in the search – as do non-scientists.

That also holds true for the post-detection task-group Davies leads, set up to advise an appropriate response in the event ET finally calls.  In a chapter devoted to the implications of ‘first contact’, he asks how various groups: from the media, through politicians, the military, and religious believers might react.   If we receive a targeted message, we should certainly think carefully about the reply.   But that we already send the occasional burst of blindly targeted radio messages into space is a positive in Davies’s book; at least it makes people think about science, humanity, and what in our culture we value.   Religion, and particularly Christianity, Davies believes, will struggle to reconcile dogma with the existence of intelligent aliens.

In his wind-up, Davies keeps all options open as to the chances of a positive outcome for SETI. But on balance, hardcore enthusiasts of radio SETI in particular may well find the The Eerie Silence a bit of a downer.  Likewise, those looking for evidence to support more philosophical ideas around nature favouring life, or the existence of a life principle buried in the physics and chemistry of the universe – themes Davies has arguably been more sympathetic to in previous works – will be disappointed as he rejects each in turn.

To its credit, The Eerie Silence is as much about human motivations and psychology as it is about research and radio antennae.  A chatty narrative with frequent episodes of self-examination strikes chords with thoughts and feelings most of us will have had: like the need for a sense of self, and a yearning for meaning.   The search for ET is very much the search for what we are, what we may become, and what ‘it’ all means.  A cliched theme maybe, but well supported here with relevant facts and reasoned speculation.  Davies’s talent for projecting  rock-solid scientific rationalism while not (entirely) closing the door on other perspectives has produced an absorbing read.

Other posts related to astrobiology and SETI on Zoonmian

How would you break the eerie silence – competition winners

Royal Society’s meeting on astrobiology and the search for extra-terrestrial life (SETI)

Rapping ET-style

Interview with an astrobiologist (Lewis Dartnell) and Life, Talk to me about Life

How would you ‘Break the Eerie Silence’ ?

Update 15th March – I’ve posted the top 50 winning messages HERE.

Update 13th March – Competition results. For those of you checking back for the 12th March winning messages, they don’t seem to have appeared yet.  Another eerie silence if you like. Watch this space.

It’s been a spacey couple of weeks here at Zoonomian.   What with the Royal Society’s meeting on astrobiology and the search for extra-terrestrial life (SETI), rapping ET-style, and a return to the Buck Rogers era.   And we’re not finished yet.

eerie silence jacket image

You might remember one of the speakers at the Royal Society event was physicist Paul Davies, who also has a new book coming out, The Eerie Silence: Are we alone in the Universe?.

I’ll be writing a full review of Eerie Silence in due course, but meantime you might want to take part in what looks like a fun competition, launched today by publishers Penguin UK together with National Science and Engineering Week.

They’re asking the question:

Is there anybody out there? What would you say if you could send a message into space?

Would you say hello, ask the meaning of life, share an insight or just complain about the weather?

As the organisers say, this is a rare opportunity to beam up to  5000 messages into space to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, which is the subject of Davies’s book.

Paul Davies
Paul Davies

So get your thinking cap on, make your message funny, thoughtful or wise and do something extraordinary.

The best 50 messages, as chosen by a judging committee, will be posted at the Penguin website and also here on Zoonomian on 12 March, the first day of National Science and Engineering Week 2010 and in the national media. Winning entrants’ names and home location, only, may be credited at the foot of each message. In addition, the 50 winning entrants will each receive a copy of “The Eerie Silence: Are we Alone in the Universe?” by Paul Davies.

To send a message of no more than 40 words, simply go to and enter your message.

Entries  will be accepted between 8th – 28th February 2010.

Winners notified on 3 March and the 50 winning entries will go public on 12 March 2010. For full details and Terms and Conditions, see the website.

Astrobiology Rap

As promised, here is science communicator Jonathan Chase’s impromptu Astrobiology Rap performed at last week’s Royal Society discussion meeting on ‘The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society‘.  (Write-up of the event is here).


johnathan chase (photo:Tim Jones)

Photos: Tim Jones


Also of interest:

jonathan chase rap science BA Science Communication Jonathan Chase’s presentation on Rap Science from the British Science Association Science Communication Conference 2009 (pdf file, so click and ‘save as’)

Extra-terrestrials Invade Royal Society

(graphic: Tim Jones)

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

Those words were spoken by a fictitious news reporter in Orsen Welles’s 1938 radio play ‘The War of the Worlds’ –  a broadcast that probably did more than any other event in the 20th century to embed the prospect of extra-terrestrial life in the popular imagination.

I was inspired to replay this old favourite after joining last week’s Royal Society discussion meeting on ‘The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society‘. 

orson welles
Orson Welles presents 'War of the Worlds' on October 30th 1938

Listeners to Welles’s play are said to have run screaming into the streets, taking the Martian invasion for real. Yet that reaction, said Professor Albert Harrison from the University of California, Davis, has been overplayed and, in fact, many listeners followed much more rational courses of action.  Harrison’s comments are consistent with the Royal Society’s intent that this meeting explore beyond the bounds of natural science – to consider the social, cultural, and political impacts of the search and possible discovery of extra-terrestrial life.

The Royal Society
The Royal Society (Photo: Tim Jones)

It’s tricky to focus down 16 speakers and 14 hours of discussions, but for me everything feeds into three questions:

  • Is there life beyond the earth?

  • Is there intelligent life beyond the earth?

  • How might human beings react to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life?

(o.k., there’s also a significant ‘sub-plot’ around the possibility that life evolved on earth in several independent forms – more of which later.)

Echoing an early speaker, I’ll say up front that there is presently no evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.  Sorry if that ruined the sense of chair-gripping suspense I’ve been building.

Lord Martin Rees
Lord Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society (photo:Sven Klinge)

Is there life beyond the earth?

Where life?

Strangely perhaps, the search for ET begins on Earth, in so far as understanding how terrestrial life came to exist and evolve tells us what to expect elsewhere.

But beyond the Earth, researchers are looking in two places :

(a) planets in our own solar system

(b) planets in orbit around other stars in our galaxy

Why life?

With evidence that physics and chemistry are uniform across the universe, the argument is that if we find life in one location, then why not in another.  It’s quite convincing if said quickly.

But conscious human life appears only at the end of a road full of hurdles, and we really need to understand how challenging each stage of the process is before raising expectations of a repeat performance.  When Pascale Ehrenfreund described the ubiquity of carbonaceous compounds in the universe, she did so against a history starting at the big bang, moving through the formation of chemical compounds, then on to  DNA, and  finally to life.  The sequence goes something like:

1. The universe came into existence at the Big Bang (including time and space, energy and matter)

2. Matter condensed into galaxies of gas and stars, and elements and chemicals were produced

3. Chemicals became arranged so they were able to self-replicate and behave as ‘life’ (RNA>DNA>cell formation, or alternative chemical arrangements that fulfill the same function)

4. Simple life evolved into more complex forms through Darwinian natural selection

5. Complex life forms evolved intelligence

6. Intelligent life forms became self-aware (consciousness)

My critique of these is that (2) and (4) are uncontroversial: we directly observe elements and chemicals, including organic molecules in deep space; and stage (4) is  simply the fact of Darwinian evolution.  (5) – intelligence – could be considered an extension of evolution; but, for me, (6) – consciousness – is a  separate deal.  That’s not because I think consciousness requires supernatural intervention to make it happen, but more to highlight how little understood is the process by which matter gets to understand and act upon itself.  If we’re so smart, where’s the AI – right?

Jumping back to (1) – the big bang – as the mechanism for the formation of our universe in isolation, that too is uncontroversial for many scientists.  Yet, speculative concepts like the multiverse have bearing on discussions about the probability of life forming.   This meeting avoided getting too far side-tracked into cosmological fundamentals and the more adventurous areas of scientific speculation.  Indeed, I thought Paul Davies, author of the The Mind of God and The Goldilocks Enigma – works that major in this territory – showed great restraint.

On what life actually is, I found it hard to pin down a universally shared definition, but most include the ability to self-replicate and to behave autonomously.  Other qualifying features might include complexity, the ability to grow and develop, and the presence of a nutrient-fed metabolism.  I also liked Baruch Blumberg’s reference to a test that involves comparing  the behaviour of live and dead chickens thrown into the air.

Astrobiology in a new Age of Wonder

Professor Steven Rose
Professor Steven Rose (photo:Sven Klinge)

For Blumberg, astrobiology and the search for ET represents a new Age of Wonder – driven by the Joseph Banks spirit found in Richard Holmes’s book of the same name, but enhanced through startling advances in technology.  Astrobiologists are asking themselves if the commonality of biologies discovered across the globe in Banks’s time will now be reproduced at the universal scale.

The planets in  our own solar system can be reached by physical probes,  but so-called exoplanets orbiting distant stars (but still in our galaxy) must be detected and analysed remotely with instruments like the Kepler space telescope.   This is an area where progress

Professor Charles Cockell
Professor Charles Cockell "Biofilms not biospheres" (photo:Sven Klinge)

has been extremely rapid and rewarding since the first Jupiter type gas giant planets were discovered 15 years ago. Researchers already analysing ‘super earths’ (x10 earth mass), said Michel Mayor, were on the brink of accessing planets equivalent in size and position to Earth.  Still unresolvable as discs, exoplanets are detected from the way they change the apparent brightness and quality of light from the star-planet system.  When a planet passes in front, it blocks out some light, and the reduction is measured by what is effectively a giant light-meter – like Kepler.  Some new instruments in  the pipeline, such as Plato scheduled for 2018, will open up more than half the sky for exoplanet analysis, further increasing the chances of discovering life.

But the little things can impress most, and one of the highlights for me was Malcolm Fridlund’s slide showing a very subtle dip in a star’s brightness curve, corresponding not to a reduction due to shadowing, but to the loss of reflected light from the planet itself as it passed behind the star.  That somehow brought home the sensitivity of the technique.

Dr Malcolm Fridlund
Dr Malcolm Fridlund (photo:Sven Klinge)
Professor Baruch Blumberg
Professor Baruch Blumberg (photo:Sven Klinge)

Analysing the wavelength of light from these systems reveals chemicals in the exoplanet’s atmosphere that  we can compare with chemicals that are associated with life in our own biosphere (or biofilm as Cockell would have it).  For example, ozone, oxygen, methane, and water may indicate plant life.  And as Pascale Ehrenfreund explained, the starting materials for carbon based life are common throughout the universe: including long carbon chains, fullerenes and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

While there’s been a push to see earth sized planets – because we know they work I guess – larger planets are not ruled out, although it was suggested plate tectonics might limit development on larger rocky worlds.  We know life can be surprisingly tough though, like the Earth-bound extremophile group chemolithotrophs, described by Charles Cockell, that can survive high temperatures, pressures, and strong saline solutions – extracting energy directly from rocks by oxidising iron.

Professor Pascale Ehrenfreund
Professor Pascale Ehrenfreund (photo:Sven Klinge)

So it was a little disappointing after all that to learn from Simon Conway Morris that conditions on Jupiter’s moon Europa may be too saline for life.  Maybe I’ve watched the movie 2010 too often, but I had Europa pegged as a top contender (according to Chris McKay, Saturn’s largest moon Enceladus is now a more likely prospect).

But Morris’s main aim was to demonstrate the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, with reference to basic life forms that had shown a tendency to independently converge on improved or even optimal designs through natural selection.   This begs the question why, if life once started has little problem developing and converging across a  range of environments, is the universe not teaming with life and its tell-tale transmissions (an example of the Fermi Paradox discussed later).  Simon Conway Morris’s explanation is that basic life is indeed a (one off?) fluke.

Dr Catherine Cesarsky and Prof. Colin Pillinger
Dr Catherine Cesarsky and Prof. Colin Pillinger (photo: Sven Klinge)

Chris McKay’s ‘Second Genesis’ went some way to soften the prospect of life as a total fluke, his thesis being that we might find an independently developed tree of life in our own solar system.  Just finding life or its artifacts in the rocks of, say, Mars won’t do though, as we know there’s been a historic transfer of rocks (below sterilisation temperatures) between the Earth and Mars caused by ejection of material by asteroid strikes.

Professor Simon Conway Morris
Professor Simon Conway Morris (photo:Sven Klinge)
Dr Christopher McKay
Dr Christopher McKay (photo:Sven Klinge)

Indeed – we may ourselves be Martians !  (A number of Martian meteorites have been found on earth, identified by analysing the composition of trapped gas bubbles and comparing  it to samples analysed on Mars.  A meteorite was found on Mars by Viking, but not from Earth –  although such material is almost certainly there.)

Rather, life derived from a true second genesis would have to demonstrate features in its underlying structure, or building blocks, that must have arisen independently from our own tree of life, and will certainly not be part of it.

Is there intelligent life beyond the earth?

The second day’s discussions, chaired by Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Martin Rees, focused on the search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life, or SETI, and how human beings might react to its discovery.

Maybe it’s a little unfair to suggest anyone working in this field is an inherent optimist, but I suspect such a condition is helpful.

At the start of this post, I listed the various stages or hurdles that must be jumped on the way to life.  But for Christian de Duve, opening the session, the appearance of life on Earth is simply the inevitable outcome of a chemical process; such that if the same chemistry occurs elsewhere – the same sort of life will appear.

Professor Christian de Duve
Professor Christian de Duve (photo: Sven Klinge)

De Duve’s thesis of life as a cosmic imperative does rely on the same physical as well as chemical conditions being reproduced, but for me he didn’t adequately address the qualitative difference between the reaction of a homogenous mix of chemicals, and more complex processes such as the formation of self-reproducing entities like cells (via RNA and DNA).  Assumptions around the inevitability of the switch from chemistry to ‘life chemistry’ are troubling.  But maybe I  just need to read De Duve’s book.

The Shadow Biosphere

Dr Paul Davies
Dr Paul Davies. "Eerie Silence" (photo: Tim Jones,

Following Chris McKay’s discussion around a ‘Second Genesis’ in our solar system, Paul Davies followed similar motives with his concept of a more Earthbound ‘Shadow Biosphere’.  Davies’s research, described in his forthcoming book, The Eerie Silence, may be terrestrial, but can inform the off-world search.  The Shadow Biosphere, if it exists says Davies, will comprise unconventional (and unrecognised) life forms that have appeared and developed independently.

The lifeforms may have died out and be detectable only via ancient biomarkers, or they could be “under our noses” in the form of the largely overlooked extremophiles – those bugs that thrive variously in hot, high-pressure, salty and radiated environments.  Davies described ongoing research at the hot pools of Mono Lake, California, where the search is on for arsensic-based micro-organisms, where arsenic may have replaced the phosphorous found in the tree of life we already know.   Shadow organisms can thus look quite ordinary (whatever that means for an extremophile) but betray themselves by subtle but fundamental differences in their basic composition – such as inclusion of arsenic, or structure – such as the ‘handedness’ of their DNA.  As with Second Genesis, the work has obvious implications for  our view on the specialness of life-forming processes.

And while fishing around in hot pools might lack the superficial glamour of exoplanet and space research, the results could be of equal or greater significance.  Also, with potential Martian finds arguably compromised by the possibility of inter-planetary material exchanges, the discovery of alternative trees of life on Earth might provide a more robust argument for the prevalence of life in the greater universe.

Is there anybody…..out there!


Frank Drake with Arecibo dish
Dr Frank Drake with the Arecibo antenna (photo: Tim Jones,


The attraction of SETI, officially celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, speaks for itself.   Discovering the extra-terrestrial lettuce would be nice, but we’d all rather have the salad recipe beamed in from Vega.

Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, Frank Drake, has been on the case from the start, and with Director of the Center for SETI Research, Jill Tarter, has been listening for radio, and more recently laser, broadcasts since the 1960s.

To help understand what he was up against odds-wise in the search, Drake proposed his now famous equation to calculate the number of civilisations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible:

The Drake Equation
The Drake Equation (source: Wikipedia)

Scaled up calculations suggest there are likely to be ten to the power 20 Earth-like planets in the observable universe, suggesting that if the road to intelligent life is ubiquitous and mechanical (which is not a given), the outlook for detection looks positive.

However, the Fermi Paradox, based on an observation by Enrico Fermi that we don’t see any evidence of life, because it either isn’t there or habitually destroys itself, runs counter to this enthusiasm.  And as Paul Davies commented, the odds represented in the Drake equation terms (for and against life) stack up exponentially.   Bottom line, I think these sorts of consideration should cause us to revisit any intuitive sense we might have for the inevitability of life – especially those of us from the Sagan “billions” generation.

Dr Frank Drake
Dr Frank Drake (photo: Tim Jones)
Dr Jill Tarter
Dr Jill Tarter (photo:Sven Klinge)

Apart from radio waves and laser beams, aliens might give themselves away in other ways associated with their use of advanced technologies.  One such technology is the Dyson Sphere.  Proposed by Freeman Dyson, the sphere would be built by advanced civilisations to completely encapsulate their star, and thereby capture or control its energy more efficiently.  Such spheres would glow in the infra-red, and serious Earth-based studies have been made to look for them.  I’ve previously referenced science fiction author Stephen Baxter’s use of the Dyson Sphere in his novel Time Ships (in this blog post).

Understandably perhaps, the SETI camp don’t appear to dwell on factors that might dampen enthusiasm for the cause.  For example, it was pointed out that the intensity of our own incidental and accidental radio emissions into space has decreased over the years with improved efficiency and new modes of non-radiative information transfer – like fibre optics.  So maybe the aliens don’t glow as brightly as we’d like.   Also, any laser communications we might detect would necessarily have to be altruistically targeted by the senders with the specific purpose of communicating with alien life.  Maybe they’re doing that.    It’s not that I’m being negative on any of this, but rather that, all in all, I walked away from this session as unsure as I was when when it started as to how much of a long shot SETI really is.

How might human beings react to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life?

References to the likely social, cultural and political impacts of the discovery of, or contact with, extra-terrestrial life were variously touched upon by earlier speakers.  In this session, I hoped we’d come to some sort of focus, and discuss scenario-based questions such as: “What would happen if Hitler’s 1936 Olympics speech was broadcast back at us?” –  as happened in the film Contact.   That didn’t happen, with anthropologist Kathryn Denning seeming to actively discourage the consideration of specific scenarios.  I took the point that we can’t fully prepare, but still found the approach over-conservative.  Anyhow, we were told there are several groups now looking into ‘post-detection issues’, and I look forward to seeing their findings.

Dr Kathryn Denning
Dr Kathryn Denning (photo:Sven Klinge)
Professor Albert Harrison
Professor Albert Harrison (photo:Sven Klinge)

Albert Harrison’s aforementioned analysis of Orson Welles’s War of The Worlds broadcast was entertaining, and made me realise the importance of that event as a social experiment – however unintended (how many points do we have on this particular graph?).  On a related topic, I was surprised at the level of disagreement amongst the academics on the question of whether aliens would be benevolent or malevolent.

Professor Ted Peters
Professor Ted Peters (photo:Sven Klinge)

Ted Peters presented research results on how various religious groups and atheists thought a discovery of ET would impact them personally and their ( if appropriate) religious creed.

I’m oversimplifying, but in summary: theists generally felt  they could individually accommodate ET, but their orthodoxy less so; those from more deist or spiritual religions – like Buddism (which I hardly consider a religion in the same vein as the others) had few if any problems – personally or as a group.  In general, it  seemed to be ‘the other guy’ and his religion that would have the problem, not the  person asked.  Ho hum…

Interestingly, the atheists felt religious people would have more of a problem than the religious themselves reported, and related to that in questions, Paul Davies suggested the results were more suggestive of religious people not knowing enough about their own religion.

Professor Ivan Almar
Professor Ivan Almar (photo:Sven Klinge)

The event wound up with presentations from Hungarian Academy of Science speaker Ivan Almar, and Marian Othman from the  UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.  Almar’s subject matter – scales – was for me a little dry and mechanical for a closing session, but prompted a lively Q&A around issues such as the representation of high-impact/low-probability events, and the use and mis-use of scale data by different groups (e.g. experts, the media).

Othman’s presentation was more of an insight into the workings of the UN committee structure, illustrated through its handling of the topic of Near Earth Objects.  Her sharing of the various procedures,  political considerations, and protocols provided something of a pro-forma for dealing with issues of extra-terrestrial life.

Dr Mazlan Othman
Dr Mazlan Othman (photo:Sven Klinge)

All in all, the session was notable for the way audience delegates, the critical mass of which I suspect hailed from the more natural scientist end of the spectrum (physicists, astrobiologists), engaged in discussions that necessarily fringed on speculation.   Scientists rightly don’t like to speak on topics where they lack either expertise, complete data, or both of those; but the judicial placement of appropriate disclaimers led to a lively debate.

I’d like to end this post with a noble  declaration to the effect that the real take-away from the meeting was that the search for ET is as much about the search for an understanding of ourselves as anything else.  And while I think that’s probably true, the real thrill for me was to spend two days mixing it with a bunch of bright folk who, in these days of market focused short-termism, are still able to pursue  such a worthy vision.  I had great fun.

little green men


1. Click through to the follow-on post HERE, to hear what this guy had to say…..

Rapper It’s a rap…………

2. Hear the Mercury Theatres’s War of the Worlds radio play here.

3. Hear my interview with astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell here (in spite of the background noise, I think this is a great interview):

Press the arrow key to stream live, or use the ‘download’ button to save the file.


4. Video of the separate presentation Paul Davies made after the meeting is here at the Royal Society’s website

5. 4th March 2010 Article in the Times re Monolake shadow biosphere

Update 2 Dec 2010: NASA report Mono Lake bacteria incorporating arsenic into their DNA (Alok Jha in The Guardian)