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Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe. It broadly encompasses many fields but purely for its own purposes. Early astrobiology (not that long ago) was, “a jumble of names with a variety of backgrounds and motivations and no central brain”. Its principal goal, to understand the inception of life, gave rise to many fundamental questions. What is life? How can or will we detect life on other worlds? How did life arise on Earth? What does life need to sustain itself? The questions were many and most still have no clear answer. As we read in this book, NASA had a strong influence in astrobiology in its early days and almost single handedly is keeping it going today.
Not all of the investigations related to astrobiology focussed directly on these lofty queries. For instance, space travel began and gave rise to the possibility of cross-planet contamination. Earth probes landing on foreign bodies (i.e. Viking) or especially when returning from foreign bodies (i.e. Apollo), shouldn’t transfer any harmful life forms. Other foretelling work included Stanley Miler’s experiment that simulated early Earth conditions and resulted in the formation of amino acids. Sidney Fox and his spherical proteinoids or Tom Cech and his RNA World thought they had tagged the beginnings of life in their own way though, not all agree. James Lovelock’s proposal, called Gaia, credited living things with having a dramatic effect on the atmospheric conditions on our planet. The early days were indeed a jumble, often supported by short term NASA contracts and almost always directed to space concepts. Nevertheless, a certain cohesion sprang up, together with the first moniker, exobiology.
Today’s investigations, well documented in the book, identify researchers and provide details relevant to the context of the day. The spectre of a hunt for little green men shadowed the creation of the SETI program and forced its evolution to an independent organization. The asteroid found in the Antarctic was blasted off from Mars billions of years ago and may have traces of life, but shapes tens of nanometres across leave a lot to the imagination. Nevertheless this finding may have assured the Viking and follow on programs that headed to Mars. The hunt for planets, difficult and error prone in the beginning, is now progressing rapidly, with indications that planets frequently occur. Again, throughout, NASA is shown to have a significant presence in these investigations, often supporting the inception stage and sponsoring many workshops and principal investigators. Also a name change happened as exobiology became astrobiology.
The destination of astrobiology is perhaps the most telling. A simple equation says it all. This equation known as the Drake equation, estimates the number of other technological civilizations in the galaxy. As long as this equation results with a value of one or greater, then there is at least one other life form to whom we can communicate. Obviously, if true, this could require a big change in some religions as well as some serious societal circumspections. But until we have the evidence, first contact will remain in the realm of science fiction. Reading between the lines, it appears that NASA is contemplating this question and considering options!
Our living universe is a fascinating subject with lofty goals. Dick and Strick do the history of the field justice by accumulating a description of so many of the activities, projects and workshops that relate to this topic. Sometimes the reading gets a bit dry. Typical passage are, ‘person x of department y at site z on date t did something’. Hundreds of names flow by, as well as contract descriptions, amounts, budgetary issues, personalities and the like. The style is more reminiscent of a memorial tomb than a Carl Sagan novel. Don’t be surprised by this as the funding for the book came from NASA. This does result in an apparent biassed result. For example, the first section of the book includes efforts from around the globe, while the remainder centres almost exclusively on NASA funded activities. Sometimes I got the feeling that this book was just a tool to justify NASA expenditures, which is a shame, as the subject is so interesting, and NASA has made a tremendous contribution. On the whole though, the book is well laid out, has only a few references to techno-speak and successfully covers a lot of information.
Hundreds of great scientists have contributed to astrobiology. This hunt for the understanding of life might be rationalized as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, or as a good preparation for contacting other worldly life. Either way, Steven Dick and James Strick in their book, The Living Universe – NASA and the development of Astrobiology, show the progress of these scientists and researchers and give credit to NASA’s support during the build up and implementation of this new research field.
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Review by Mark Mortimer