Astrobiology: Much Ado About Nothing So Far
The mood at a NASA Astrobiology Institute conference is very upbeat, according to Leonard David at Space.com, reporting from the meetings in Boulder, Colorado. The participants have set their goals high:
Consider it nothing short of the cosmic quest for all time: Understanding the origin, evolution, distribution, and fate of life on Earth and in the Universe.
That’s a tall order . . . but within the sights of experts gathering here this week to take part in the 2005 Biennial Meeting of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
Much of the excitement comes from a flood of data about Mars, Titan and extrasolar planets. But these objects provide only information about solid, liquid and gas – no biology yet. That’s enough, though, to get Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute promoting astrobiology like a high-energy TV commercial:
What a fabulous opportunity to think about the boundaries of what that life might be like,” Tarter said. “The planets are there. We can’t deny that anymore. It’s really setting the backdrop and driving forward everybody’s thinking. So it just gets more exciting to think about how nature might have generalized biology and geology,” she said.
Much of the excitement also stems from prospects for discovery in the future, from the Kepler, Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) and Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) projects, and NASA’s “Moon, Mars and Beyond” initiative.
One participant seemed like a wet blanket in the party. Nick Woolf (U of Arizona) echoed the feelings of Fritz Benedict earlier this month (see 04/04/2005 entry): “I started off expecting Earth-like planets to be very common . . . and have become steadily more cautious. That does not mean that my change of opinion is correct. I believe that the attitude we should adopt at the present is agnostic.”
Astrobiology is like futureware on back order. None of the actual data returned by MER or Cassini, and none of the exoplanets so far detected, provide any hint that life exists, or has existed, or is even possible at any of these places. Remember the realistic lab tests of amino acid survival in a Martian environment? (See 01/28/2005 entry.) The poor molecules were destroyed within hours. We have seen nothing but rocks, ice and gas so far, but these scientific charlatans are already claiming to be experts about the origin, evolution, distribution and fate of the universe.
Learn the lesson of Greenwater, a ghost town in Death Valley. In 1904, this desert hideout mushroomed into a boom town with nearly two thousand people, a bank, post office, saloon (but no church), a lively newspaper (the Death Valley Chuck-Walla), and exuberant enthusiasm – all fueled by rumors that there wuz oodles o’ copper in them thar hills. Famous investment advisors like Charles Schwab promoted the site as one of the richest digs on the globe, and speculators jumped on the bandwagon, spending fortunes on stock with nothing behind it except promises. The boom began to go bust when miners actually began digging in the hills and came back with only pitiful amounts of low-grade ore. Most townspeople had left by 1908; the last mine gave up hope in 1911. Today, literally nothing remains of the town: only the rocks, sand, lizards and desert bushes that endured the harsh environment before a lot of foolish people arrived with dollar signs in their eyes, eyes that soon got blasted with the hot winds of reality. Must have been quite a counseling job for the last barkeep.
There’s nothing wrong with looking. It’s good to have prospectors out there with their burros and pickaxes. Maybe one will find that rare rich vein of ore. In the meantime, though, better watch where you invest your philosophical assets when the salespeople come to town selling stock in eternal wisdom with nothing in hand but irrelevant details and empty promises. Isn’t it ironic that creationists tend to be the agnostics, and the emotional evangelists are the scientists – or, more precisely, the evolutionists wearing science costumes.