Now some, not Eli to be sure, want to know why Eli thinks astrobiology is a crok. Ever helpful, allow the Bunny to explain. There are many reasons but it starts with Enrico Fermi.
Lots of things do. Fermi was the type of thinker Eli has always aspires to and hopefully on occasion is. As Philip Morrison wrote, a Fermi question allows
... the estimation of rough but quantitative answers to unexpected questions about many aspects of the natural world. The method was the common and frequently amusing practice of Enrico Fermi, perhaps the most widely creative physicist of our times. Fermi delighted to think up and at once to discuss and to answer questions which drew upon deep understanding of the world, upon everyday experience, and upon the ability to make rough approximations, inspired guesses, and statistical estimates from very little data." [Philip Morrison ]The story goes that one day Fermi was munching at lunch with colleagues when the question of extraterrestrial civilizations came up. They went through the exercise of thinking about how much time and resources it would take to spread through the galaxy and
Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within ten million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. Ten million years may sound long, but in fact it's quite short compared with the age of the Galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.Now this is not quite astrobiology which in its weak form merely asks if there is any biology out there, but at this point it would be well to look at Brian's most recent post, where he discusses the morality of research on better ways of extracting fossil fuels. There is, sad to say, a strain of people who want to escape to space, terraform Mars, visit the stars, so that we can escape responsibility for dealing with the problems we are creating for ourselves on Earth. Even sadder and more common is the fixation of many more on an afterlife, the belief in which is coupled to escaping not only the responsibilities for this Earth but also the trials and tribulations of the same. Decoupling of this sort is not a good thing. Before flaming, allow Eli to point out that this is not an attack on the religious or the space mad, but rather on those who use either to ignore responsibility.
So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn't see any clear indication that they're out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: "where is everybody?"
The last part is from personal experience. The NASA Astrobiology Program was started as a consequence of a claimed finding of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH in the business) in a meteorite that was expelled from Mars, landed in the Antarctic and was discovered.
This was amazing. To Eli what was amazing was the study that showed the rock came from Mars. He was rather more skeptical of the analytical chemistry and the possibility that the rocks had been contaminated over many thousands of years on Earth, but that is not the story. What the story really is, is how the news was received at NASA.
NASA is chronically underfunded and survives only because of public support driven in large part by the public's interest in space. To the NASA administration the Public Affairs Office is the key part of the agency. Evidence of "life" (OK of PAHs, but they didn't sell it that way) was immediately seen as a great way to sell both space science and the manned space program, two of the main parts of the Agency.
At the time Eli was running a summer program at Goddard working with the University Affairs Office there. The Director of the Office, Gerry Soffen was an amazing guy (you can read about him here and here). He also was one of the most important people in the agency who was a biologist, having been the Project Scientist for the Viking landers on Mars which search for life there and did not find it. True believers still believe Gerry lied.
In any case Gerry was tasked by Headquarters with putting together a much larger program than the small one that existed called exobiology. The idea was to not anchor the program in a single location but rather creating a distributed institute which had obvious political advantages and off they went.
The meteorite discovery was an important impetus for Mars exploration missions, even though doubt has been cast on how pristine the rock was and how the issue was handled since then. When Gerry asked Eli what he thought, the Rabett replied that although that he was amazed by the rock solid evidence that the meteorite came from Mars, he was less impressed by the chemistry knowing something about the technique used and the focus of research in the lab where the chemical characterization was done. In short they were not geochemists.
The doubts about the meteorite results arose very quickly, within two years, but by that point NASA had already decided to emphasize astrobiology. And many things became astrobiology which are really astrochemistry and astronomy.
All of which is why Eli believes astrobiology is a crok.