Is Anybody Out There?

By SpaceRef Editor
April 30, 2001
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it was asked in whispers, or with winks. The timid among us, though
undeniably curious, feared raised eyebrows. Jokes about little green
men. Who could take such a question seriously, yank it from the
misty realms of science fiction and drop it under the searchlight
of science? Well, our national space agency, for one. What’s more,
NASA seems pretty confident these days about the answer: Astrobiology,
as defined on an official agency website, is “the study of the living

James Kasting is a bit more guarded. Astrobiology
is the search for life in the universe, the Penn State professor
of geosciences and meteorology told a keen audience at the first
talk in last January’s Frontiers of Science lecture series. Although
the term itself may be recent, “This is not a new field,” Kasting
said. He got his first taste of it as an undergraduate, reading
Intelligent Life in the Universe
, a 1966 book by Russian astronomer
I.S. Shklovskii and a young American named Carl Sagan, who later
wrote, “We have every reason to believe that there are many water-rich
worlds something like our own.” Kasting was hooked.

In recent decades, Kasting acknowledged, the field
has known a bit of a slump. It fell out of favor after the 1976
Viking mission to Mars. “Viking was very successful,” he explained.
“We learned a lot – but we didn’t find life. The perception was
that all that money was wasted.”

Today, astrobiology is back. The reports, over the
last five years, of some 30 planets spotted outside our Solar System
– the first of these by Penn State astronomer Alexander Wolszczan
– have made all those potential watery Earths that Sagan speculated
about less hypothetical.A great stir, too,
has been caused by the discovery, in a melon-sized meteorite plucked
from the ice of Antarctica, of a fossil-like remnant that, according
to Kasting, looks a lot like Earthly bacteria – “except smaller
by a factor of ten.” Martian microbes? Opinions vary. The possibility
was strong enough, however, to warrant a press conference at which
President Clinton said, “If this discovery is confirmed, it will
surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that
science has ever uncovered.”

There have been other, quieter, advances. We know
now, for instance, that organic, i.e., carbon-based, molecules –
crucial to any sort of life we can imagine – are virtually everywhere
in the universe. And that, here on Earth, living organisms thrive
in what once seemed the unlikeliest of places, from hot springs
to frozen lakes – even far below the planet’s crust.

In 1998, NASA announced formation of an Astrobiology
Institute, a partnership formed for study of “the origin, distribution,
evolution, and future of life in the universe.” Penn State is one
of 11 lead members. No surprise, then, that last winter’s annual
Frontiers of Science series, organized by the Eberly College of
Science and sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Inc.,
took astrobiology as its topic. On six straight Saturday mornings,
the large lecture hall in the Thomas Building at University Park
was filled to overflowing with people eager to hear talks by three
planetary scientists, two molecular biologists, and a geologist.
Astrobiology, these listeners learned, is no loopy fringe pursuit;
it is coordinated, systematic, and broadly interdisciplinary. And
it involves a lot more than just outer space.


“Astrobiology: Looking for Life in the Universe,” the 2000 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, was organized by the Eberly College of Science and sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. The series of six lectures took place on consecutive Saturday mornings from January 22 through February 26, 2000, on the Penn State University Park Campus. This special report was funded by the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center, the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, the Education office of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Pfizer Inc., and the Eberly College of Science. It was written and produced by Research Publications in the Office of the Vice President for Research, Penn State University, 320 Kern Graduate Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3477; editor@research.psu.edu.

The Penn State Astrobiology Research Center, directed by Hiroshi Ohmoto, Ph.D., professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is one of 11 lead members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. PSARC is affiliated with Penn State’s Life Sciences Consortium, the Environment Institute, and the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. For more information, contact PSARC at 814-863-8761, or lxd1@psu.edu, or see http://psarc.geosc.psu.edu.

SpaceRef staff editor.