Seminars and Resources
By Bill O’Neill
In the previous issue of the Newsletter I referred to the new Astrobiology Program at the UW, an extraordinary effort to bring together and cross-train scientists from many different disciplines to seek information about the origin, early development and distribution of life in the universe. The Program currently involves about two dozen UW faculty members and 15-20 graduate students in at least ten different departments: astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biochemistry, chemistry, genetics, geology, microbiology, oceanography, paleontology and space engineering. It’s a novel scientific community with a focus of attention and a variety of perspectives, all concerned with life, whatever that means!
The more that is learned about the diversity and antiquity of life, especially microscopic life forms on this planet, the greater the possibilities seem for life developing anywhere liquid water may be found. Recent discoveries of complex ecosystems in the deep sea, more than a mile underground, and in frozen “deserts” have opened our eyes to previously unimagined habitats.
This term there is a seminar series at 2:30 on Tuesdays, entitled “Signs of Life”, in which students and faculty members from the various disciplines are presenting some information and methods related to identifying and characterizing life on earth, and their relevance to the detection of life on “heavenly bodies.” It’s a privilege to witness how everyone, faculty and students, is learning from one another. Though there are really only two full-time faculty members thus far (David Catling, a British expert in atmospheric physics, and Roger Buick, an extraordinary paleontologist from Australia), the interactions among all the participants appear to be stimulating and productive. It was actually such a seminar series, entitled “Planets and Life”, in 1996, that gave rise to the interdisciplinary collaborations which provided the nucleus for initiating the Astrobiology Program. A public series of guest speakers will be hosted in the large Astro/Physics
Auditorium at 2:30 on Tuesdays during the term beginning in March.
The UW is also one of the sites of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI), an international research consortium for astrobiology studies on Earth, as well as missions to search for evidence of life elsewhere, such as Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. The NAI is what’s known as a virtual institute--that is, there is little staff or intramural research--which organizes and funds efforts in institutions, such as UW, and in environments such as the poles and deserts. Don Brownlee’s ‘Stardust’ project, underway to harvest pristine material from the ‘tail’ of a comet, is one of its best known efforts. A renowned academic scientist, Baruch Blumberg, was recruited as NAI’s director and he described its many-faceted research program at a UW seminar last fall. Periodically, NAI invites scientists from several institutions to work together for a few weeks at one of its sites to foster the sort of interdisciplinary appreciation and collaboration thought essential for obtaining results and avoiding damage in this field. Many of UW’s Astrobiology participants have taken part in such field trips. In case anyone in BPAA is sufficiently interested, NAI will be sponsoring an Astrobiology Science conference at Ames Research Center (near San Jose, California) this April - you can get information through a link on the NAI homepage at http://nai.arc.nasa.gov/. Wish I could go, but we have other travel plans.
Bill O’Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org)