Astrobiology Lecture Series Coming, Oct. 12, 2006

by Kathy Hedges

SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 12, 2006 – A series of free public lectures related to astrobiology is set for coming weeks on the New Mexico Tech campus, hosted by the class Astrobiology 489/589. Guest lecturers will present a series of talks on the search for life beyond the Earth.

Astrobiology is the study of how life might arise in settings other than on Earth, how and where to look for it, and how to recognize it. Astrobiology 489/589 is an innovative, interdisciplinary course sponsored by Tech’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL). It is taught by professors from the Departments of Biology, Physics, and Earth and Environmental Science: Dr. Tom Kieft, Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman, and Dr. Penelope Boston.

Thanks to the CITL, the professors were able to bring in outside speakers, both for the class and for the general public. In addition, the Hydrology Program sponsored one of the speakers, who was speaking on a related topic.

According to Penny Boston, “We chose these particular lecturers because they represent a range of topics within the field of astrobiology, and because each of them was known to one of us personally, as a colleague or collaborator. We were especially lucky to get Seth Shostak, director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. Not only is he a leader in this field, but also his lecture is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society under the Harlow Shapley Lectureship. This is a well-known series and it’s a feather in Tech’s cap to have a Harlow Shapley lecturer come to campus.”

The lecture schedule is:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 17 – Dr. Ariel Anbar of Arizona State University speaks on “Alternative Earths.” 7 p.m., Workman 101.
  • Monday, Nov. 6 – Dr. Chris McKay of NASA/Ames Research Center speaks on "A Search for a Second Genesis of Life in Our Solar System" 7 p.m., Workman 101.
  • Monday, Nov. 13 – Dr. Dirk Schultze-Makuch of Washington State University at Pullman speaks on "Extraterrestrial Life in the Solar System and Beyond: Follow the Water?" This is part of the hydrology seminar series, held in MSEC 101 at 3:30 p.m.
  • Monday, Nov. 20 - Dr. Seth Shostak speaks on “When Will We Discover the Extraterrestrials?" 7 p.m., Macey Center.

Dr. Anbar plans to discuss the “fingerprints” that life leaves on the biosphere, which may give us clues what to look for in “alternative Earths” beyond the solar system. Through study of geological, chemical and biological processes that shape the Earth’s surface environment, he hopes to increase understanding about the habitability of the Earth, the history of the environment and life, the effects of human activities on the environment, and the prospects for life beyond Earth.

Dr. McKay discusses several places within our Solar System where we might find a second example of the genesis of life. He says, “The most promising prospect is Mars because of evidence that it had liquid water in the past. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, may also contain liquid water and life.”

Dr. Schultze-Makuch also discusses the relationship between water and life. He suggests, “Titan [a moon of Saturn] is of special interest because its environment resembles early Earth conditions in many ways, and because the presence of liquid hydrocarbons on its surface opens up the possibility for the existence of organisms that are based on a biochemistry that is very different from the one case of life with which we are familiar with.”

The crowning lecture of the series is the Harlow Shapley Lecture by Seth Shostak. According to Dr. Shostak, “The scientific hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence is now into its fifth decade, and we still haven't uncovered a confirmed peep from any cosmic company. Could this mean that finding aliens, even if they exist, is a project for the ages – one that might take centuries or longer?”

He plans to discuss new technologies being used in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He maintains that there is good reason to expect that success might not be far off – that we might find evidence of sophisticated civilizations within a few decades.