A Very Short Reading Group discussion

Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction
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Nigel Bamber | 31 comments Astrobiology is a very complex subject and calls upon a wide range of disciplines: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Particle Physics, Geology. It's difficult in a VSI to bring the reader up from an unknown initial knowledge in each of these areas, to a point where the arguments relating to the main topic can be explained. The book biased it's style towards that of a science reference book and so was not a casual read, but served it's purpose well.

For me, this is one of the biggest questions facing humanity. My own view is that it is inevitable that there is other life in the universe. Given a big enough data domain, the extremely unlikely becomes the inevitable.
Even taking the origin of life as a given, I often think how incredibly tiny the chances of my existence are. How many hominid and non-hominid creatures in my ancestry had to avoid predators, diseases, accidents and other near-misses, meet particular mates and have offspring, to eventually arrive at the being that is me. But, like the national lottery, you have to “be in it, to win it”. All those things happened, and here I am.

Then, leading up to the origins of life on Earth, are a chain of other coincidences. The impact of Theia resulting in the Moon, which stabilises Earth's polar axis, aluminium 26 levels melting water, Jupiter acting as an Asteroid catcher. It is tempting to think “is this all planned”.
Douglas Adams deals with this temptation rather well. “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'

The Drake Equation merely tries to estimate the number of transmitting civilisations in our galaxy. There are hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the observable universe, and it is not clear how much more universe may lie beyond the observable horizon, which is limited by the speed of light since the Big Bang. So intelligent life, let alone life of any sort, does feel to me to be inevitable. Whether we could ever communicate with it or even detect it is entirely a different matter. If we don't find simple life within our Solar System, it is very unlikely that we will ever make direct with contact with even microbial life around the very closest stars because of the sheer distances involved. Once again, Douglas Adams nails the point. “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”

The next issue is the length of time that civilisations may exist on life bearing planets, that are capable of sending or receiving messages. Based on our own miserable example, by the time anyone receives anything from the huge amount of data that we send out everyday, we're probably going to be long gone. That doesn't stop me, of course, from running SETI data through my home computer, whenever I have a moment. As pointed out previously, “You've got to be in it, to win it”.

So we're probably not alone, but we'll also probably never know for sure. All starting to sound a bit Kantian.

The biggest message in the book is the “Pale Blue Dot” pixel in the picture from Voyager 1.

Please listen to Carl Sagan...


The Pale Blue Dot is all we've got. Don't mess it up!

lisa_emily | 14 comments Thanks Nigel!

I'm only half way through this myself. It is very dense and I can only really read a chapter at a time- it doesn't help that my knowledge of chemistry is poor.

I'm surprised how new Astrobiology is as a science- being more in the general dialogue in the '90s!

message 3: by Stockton (new)

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments Fascinating comments and thank you for the puddle analogy - very useful! The group meets on the 31st so we'll see what thoughts people have about the book and the online discussion.

Nigel Bamber | 31 comments Hi lisa_emily, It is strange how new the acceptance of astrobiology is. For a long time it suffered the stigma of being "the search for little green men". Also, as is often the case in science, the development of more sophisticated detection equipment was required, before the jump to discovering a significant amount of information about exoplanets could be made. With respect to separation between advanced civilisations, I always find the introduction to the original Star Wars movie really elegant. Not only did everything happen in a galaxy "far far away", but also " a long time ago". There's no reason why advanced civilisations should overlap temporally. Finally, I'm grateful to the author for teaching me how to pronounce "Chicxulub".

lisa_emily | 14 comments Phew- I finally finished. It was not one the easier reads of the three VSI books I've so far. But I'm glad I read it if only to know about the Drake Equation. I guess the search is less about the "little green men" but the little weird extremophile! Also, I now appreciate this kind of article- which showed up first on one of me news feeds:

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Stockton Libraries | 87 comments Group consensus on Tuesday was that this was one of the better VSIs we’ve read so far. The science seemed to be well presented – perhaps a little heavy in places – getting the themes across to the layperson. It was probably outside of the scope of the book but a chapter on the more philosophical implications of alien life would have been welcomed. This was where discussion was most fruitful, with the big hypothetical questions generating plenty of discussion. If life was discovered elsewhere in the universe, would it alter what it means to be alive – the effect it would have on identity, religion, human psychology. Would there be a tremendous shift in how we see the world and operate in it knowing there is other life “out there”? Or would we just carry on as normal? Also, would anyone actually want alien life to exist? All dependent on whether a few bacterial blobs are discovered or an advanced interstellar civilisation, of course.

lisa_emily | 14 comments Stockton wrote: "If life was discovered elsewhere in the universe, would it alter what it means to be alive – the effect it would have on identity, religion, human psychology. Would there be a tremendous shift in how we see the world and operate in it knowing there is other life “out there”?"

Hi Stockton,

I am surprised that people are that concerned about the existential issue of life out there. I guess I have always assumed there was life out there somewhere. Perhaps considering that possibility when you have never considered may make one more conscious of one's own life? I'm not sure, still trying to puzzle out how it might be a mind-shift. It would be cool to find life in another planet, but honestly, there's so many weird & strange lifeforms on this planets and many we have yet to discover!

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