History of Biology
By Bill O’Neill
2002 marks the bicentennial of the introduction of the word “biology.” Perhaps in another century or two scientists may commemorate the recent coining of the term astrobiology, expanding the study of life to a cosmic scale. With National Science Foundation funding, in 1998 the University of Washington initiated the world’s first interdisciplinary Astrobiology Program. This will be the first of what I propose as a periodic column on the subject in the BPAA Newsletter, since the field has become a special interest of mine. Let me make it clear at the outset that I'm no expert in astrobiology, though I have been getting to know a number of the scientists. My technical training was in organic chemistry (PhD, U. Illinois). Since I've always been drawn to explaining biologic pheno mena in molecular terms, I characterize myself as a biophile. (Biophilia, according to Edward O. Wilson, is innate fascination with life and life-like systems.) I worked many years with prominent molecular biologists and various biomedical specialists in the field of biotechnology as it emerged from academia to become an industry. I've always been a ‘jack of all trades and master of none,’ and now Iam free to follow my curiosity without concern for commercial applications or delivering products. Since we moved to Bainbridge Island in ’93, I became increasingly interested in evolution, both of life and of the only planet on which we know it to exist. This brought me in contact with scientists in disciplines of which I was totally ignorant, such as astronomy and geology, and others far advanced in fields, such as microbiology, of which my knowledge had become outdated. (My thesis research concerned the step-bystep synthesis of an antibiotic by a microbe, but that was over 35 years ago.) Thus, for example, I'm auditing a course at UW on marine microbes, taught by a leading microbiologist who is studying life more than a mile deep on the geothermal mid-ocean ridges of the seabed, known as black smokers. Through this column I'll draw attention to various developments related to the possible origin and early evolution of life as I become aware of them. In August, it was my good fortune to be among about 75 scientists who participated in a 3-day conference on Astrobiology at Crystal Mountain, near Mt. Rainier. By the end of 2002, the UW faculty who organized that conference expect to publish a textbook based on the 25 lecturers’ presentations.
Meanwhile, there are at least a couple of popular books I can recommend which provide good overviews of the topic. My favorite is Rare Earth, published in 2000 by Peter Ward and Don Brownlee - founding members of the UW Astrobiology Program faculty. A markedly contrasting point of view is presented in Life Everywhere, by David Darling (2001). Let me know if you are interested in this subject and what you'd like to know about it.
Bill O’Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org)