Monday, June 13, 2016

Astrobiology Is a Crok

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 [1]]
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.

 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?"
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.

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.


andthentheresphysics said...

I think you've written what I expected you to write. This is certainly true

And many things became astrobiology which are really astrochemistry and astronomy.

Many things were linked to astrobiology that were really still astrophysics or - as you say - astrochemistry and that real links between astrophysics/astrochemistry/astrobiology were rather tenuous and it was people just trying to take advantage of an opportunity.

I would argue, however, that this is changing. We really are detecting rocky planets around other stars. Some of these even fall within what might be a habitable zone. In many/most cases, these are stars cooler than the Sun, the planet's radius is such that it probably isn't rocky, and - even if it was - it's probably tidally-locked (like the Moon is to the Earth). So, many/most/all of these planets probably aren't habitable.

However, it won't be very long before we start finding genuine Earth analogues (rocky planets at about 1AU around a star like the Sun). Actually determining if these planets could be habitable is maybe still quite some way away (more than 10 years) but 30-metre class telescopes and next generation space telescopes may make it possible to actually start trying to determine if such planets could harbour life.

So, I think astrobiology is becoming something geniunely interesting and that there are real links now between astrochemistry, astrophysics and astrobiology, but then maybe I would say that :-)

E. Swanson said...

Allow me to comment on a subject about which I know next to nothing. Fermi's question: "where is everybody?" would appear to be a question of basic biology. If one assumes that humans are not the product of some alien intervention, then we are the result of some sequence of events over time which are called "evolution". Humans appear to be the winners of this fundamental process, which involves our procreation rates and the resulting increasing power of our brains which have resulted. Our intelligence must have evolved because it provided a set of procreation advantages over other species (and over less intelligent segments of earlier hominids). Human history before the scientific revolutions which made it much easier for humans to survive, involved ceaseless violent conflict as well as extreme changes in climate such as the Ice Ages, thus intelligence was necessary for survival against other larger, stronger, or faster species. We are the result of such violent conflicts and our genetic material would seem to include tendencies for extreme violence against both nature and ourselves. Yet, if "social Darwinism", as in survival of the most physically fit, were the governing rule, gorillas would have been the winners.

Because of a basic predisposition for violence, there is the possibility that humanity headed for self destruction as the result of our reproductive success. We are rapidly destroying the structure of the natural world upon which we (unknowingly) depend and we can not survive on a barren rocky planet without "technology". But all technologies require energy flows, and our sources of fossil energy are going to become unavailable in the relatively near future. It's just another manifestation of basic biological fact, that is, population dynamics and predator/prey relationships, which point to overpopulation leading to population crash. Whether such a collapse of civilization is inevitable can't be known until after the fossil fueled world is gone and the survivors can look back at the results.

My point is another question: "Is the appearance of intelligence part of a biological process which must inevitably end in collapse?". Or, as Craig Dilworth claimed, "Are we too smart for our own good?". If so, what are the chances that any other intelligent civilization(s) resulting from similar constraints would survive in the galaxy so that we might find them today? For us, 10 million years is about 5 times longer than the first appearance in the paleontological record of what we know as “humans”.

Susan Anderson said...


Marcel Crok, afaik, is a member of club denial. Just googled and won't mention what else I found, a bit off color, fun for the vulgar (self included).

Russell Seitz said...

Club denial has since relocated to just across K-Street from the Groucho Institute and the National Press Club

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

An interesting meditation on Eli's youth, but what, if anything, does it have to do with the crock index of astrobiology?

Russell Seitz said...

Fermi realized that any civilization with ... an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within ten million years....This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: "where is everybody?"

Given a ten million year old empire, one might ask "what dynasty is this ?"

8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

Actually, croks do have the right stuff, a couple of times already by the looks of it. The turtles look like they're on the way out though.

So your beef with the crocks is that it is not yet observational, even though it was just pointed out to you that it appears to be on the verge of becoming observational. Autobiogenesis doesn't appear to be the hangup, almost everyone agrees with that. So your point seems to be why bother, they're out there, but they aren't here. So pending arrival and contact you aren't willing to wait the decade or so for terrestrial analog verification? Don't you think that and the Mars fantasy will tie these people up long enough to sort out the problems?

My position is that the science of planetary astrophysics and astrobiology is so far ahead of Earth systems science that there really isn't any reason to study these problems anymore. It has become observational just like astronomy. It's now stamp collecting.

The astrobiocultural problems remain.

EliRabett said...

8c and ATTP, Eli has often said that the purpose of laboratory science is to restrain the imagination of astronomers and so with astrobiology.

8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

That sounds more like quantum gravity and theorists to me. That's about to change too. Nowadays it's more like the purpose of astrobiology is to restrain the actual creations of biologists.

Amateur biologists. Who work for free and enjoy their work.

Here's a little thing out of the University of Chicago.

I think it's safe to say the playing field has changed. Again.

Hank Roberts said...

Have I mentioned my notion of an explanation for the "bubble" nature of the universe?

Walls of galaxies separated by large voids. I figure it's FTL. Someplace gets smart enough to figure out how to poke holes in the continuum as shortcuts, and they spend a while rushing back and forth across their locally reachable area and eventually enough holes have been poked that the whole local group tears itself loose and falls into its own navel.

So there's your Fermi answer, an advanced self-elimination if the earlier and simpler forms of self-elimination (nuclear war, climate change, contagious inherited stupidity, etc.) happen to be avoided.

I note that we haven't been watching much of the universe very long at all, and suggest that while we're looking for threatening asteroids, we ought to also be doing blink comparison studies of as much of the universe as we can see, and going back and pulling those glass plates from the old days, and looking for any evidence of galaxy-sized engineering happening.

Chris G said...

In the late winter/early spring of 1995 I attended a Western Spectroscopy Association meeting where Prof. Zare was a featured speaker. (Coincidentally, I was just starting a project involving PAH spectroscopy.) He presented his 'martian microbe' work. Immediately upon his conclusion (ASU Prof.) Lucy Ziurys tore into him with a righteous fury the likes of which I had never observed before and have not encountered since. He didn't respond to speak of - as her criticisms weren't subject to debate. (Unfortunately, I don't recall the specifics, just that a rebuttal would have been straightforward if the data had supported it - it didn't.) That stated, Angular Momentum is a heck of book. I don't have any need to compute 9-j coefficients nowadays but I recall the text as clear and concise.

andthentheresphysics said...

8c and ATTP, Eli has often said that the purpose of laboratory science is to restrain the imagination of astronomers and so with astrobiology.
Indeed, but a lot of what people regard as astrobiology today, is lab based.

Andrew said...

Of course, it's perfectly possible that alien probes are present in the solar system and even observing us. Wouldn't exactly take massive stealth technology for a probe sitting on a KBO to observe without being seen. And if you wanted to 'observe the galaxy' then such von neuman replicating probes would seem a pretty cheap way to do it.

Sending whole organic beings across interstellar distances seems a bit inefficient unless someone invents Vacuum Energy or somesuch.

But - from the examples we have - the actual origin of life, given suitable conditions (hot silicate rocks in contact with a suitable ocean, giving a hydrothermal system) seems 'easy' - it happened essentially instantly on earth.

Going from those bacteria to anything with a backbone.. perhaps 3 to 3.5 billion years.

Going from primitive amphibians to monkeys with technology only took c. 400 million years.

I very much suspect that the real Fermi Paradox issue is getting from microbes to macroscopic organisms. It's probably not an issue of speed of evolution, given the rate at which microbes evolve when they need to.

Which means that much of this 'discovered amino acids in meteorites' stuff is probably irrelevant to the question of life outside the solar system. The real question might be of environmental stability; such that an oxygen atmosphere, ocean, and land can all coexist in relative stability for millions of years. Which is probably very rare, at least until the exoplanet guys tell us otherwise..

EliRabett said...

Chris, if you ever have to. . .

Daniel B Fox said...

One of the questions that arises in Astrobiology Research (and SETI) is what makes a livable planet. This can lead to discussions of the habitable zone and the effect of Greenhouse gases. We are apparently very close to the inner edge of the habitable zone and if enough greenhouse gases were added to the atmosphere, a runaway greenhouse effect would occur like what resulted in present day Venus.

Looking at the playbook for the Tobacco Industry, one of their tactics is to watch for and sabotage areas of research that could potentially cause them problems in the future. Astrobiology (and SETI) would be areas of research that would cause the Global Warming Deniers problems.

Years ago an attempt to organize an amateur SETI effort was very badly sabotaged by a hoax that was heavily aided by a BBC reporter. That reporter was Global Warming Denier David Whitehouse.

Ed Darrell said...

What if we're the first?

That's scary enough.

8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

What if we're the first?

We aren't. See the link in the previous post. I think rather Eli's problem is with NASA's version of astrobiology, where it is generally considered that NASA's approach to a lot of things, including astrobiology, are not up to realistic citizen, taxpayer and participant expectations, and haven't been for many decades now.

Outside of NASA, everyone is an astrobiologist and acts like one. It is the insular nature and the funding and hiring practices of a federal scientific bureaucracy that is the basic problem here.

That recently changed in the DoD with a short meeting with some industrial scale astrobiology enthusiasts. It will change with NASA. By current events. Some yet to occur, but well predicted in advance.

John Farley said...

I recall very well when a Martian meteorite, found in Antarctica, was alleged to contain signs of early life.
A certain well known chemist was interviewed on the TeeVee by Ted Koppel, expressing his (the chemists) hope that the discovery would be confirmed by later work.

It wasn't. I was not surprised because the chemist in question had a reputation for rushing aggressively into print (and the TeeVee) to trumpet his new discovery (based on a "quick and dirty" experiment) without double checking.

At a meeting of chemists some months later, I heard comments like "I don't know anybody who believe it" and "down in flames"

This is how the scientific peer review process is supposed to work, filtering out dubious discoveries, even if the discoveries are performed in the lab of a distinguished scientist at a top university.

Russell Seitz said...

Right, John, now contrast and compare thirty years of stonewalling, sustained PR, and DIY review articles by the authors of a certain 'sophisticated one dimensional model."

Chris G said...



(With apologies to Paul Erdos, I believe my Rabett Number is 4.)

David B. Benson said...

Start with "Rare Earth" by Ward & Brownlee. They did not understand the molecular biology. So continue with the appendix of "The Logic of Chance" by Eugene Koonin.

Astrobiology is right in there with alchemy and astrology.

Russell Seitz said...

Hoo harsh , David- purely Newtonian Meteor Crater and larger-sized impacts are constantly whacking divots out of the greens in solar systems and into collisions with oadjacent planets and , on occasion , even out into interstellar space, - Hoyle had a point about life getting spread around by mere ballistics.

Andrew said...

David -

Read the appendix of 'The Logic of Chance' and all it is is a demonstration that if you choose a stupid model you get a stupid answer.

The most promising hypotheses revolve around hydrothermal vent systems - which gives us a series of reactions analogous to those happening in our cells, with increasing complexity. Nothing like a series of random combinations.

8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

David, autobiogenesis, suitably redefined, is now accepted by the vast majority of the astrobiology community. It is demanded by both stochastic energetics and the uniqueness of the coulomb interaction.

String theory and the multiverse is rejected without evidence, because there is no evidence for it besides in condensed matter physics simulations and even that is a little iffy. What is indicated by the evidence is a coupling of gravitation to the other fundamental forces through geometric and topological mechanisms yet to be determined. This is the general scenario which has emerged since the discovery of the pnictide superconductors and the topological insulators in 2008.

SUST, string theory and the multiverse aren't dead, but they appear to be so far removed from the electroweak scale as to be inaccessible. This isn't about 'chance', it's about structure formation and self organization near quantum critical points. And if anything, our universe is one big quantum critical point, or it was. Now it's a lot of small ones, widely spaced. Merging them will be fun. Don't allow yourself to be sucked into the hype machine.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Fermi obviously had never played a game similar to Tortoise and Hares. In T&H the player has to muster his resources to go around a track while avoiding or interacting with the other players. One of the strategies is to avoid confrontations completely and just accumulate carrots which are the tokens spent to move forward. There is an incremental increase in carrots for every additional space around the track one wants to move. Moving around the track in one swell foop requires an enormous pile of carrots. There aren't enough carrots on Earth (or similar planet) to move to another planet. Much less conquer and/or terraform it. Spread across the galaxy? Ludicrous. There are costs that cannot be overcome. Climate change, resource depletion, atavistic loudmouths railing against civilization, etc. Physics is not conquest.

8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

You've got it the wrong way around, Mr. Davis, you have said nothing using a lot of words. You need to express your denial clearly using as few words as possible. Around here, I get 'pshaw' from a lot of fundies.

David B. Benson said...

Andrew, did you actually read it? Koonin is a fine molecular biologist. Try tackling the main text.

8c is on ignore. Russell should read the Koonin appendix before commenting so not as to appear the fool. Get the hint, Andrew?

Russell Seitz said...

Don't cavil, David- there;s not a word on impact phenomenea in either Kunin appendix- sens me the book if you want me to read it.

Andrew said...

David -

Yes, I did read it. Assumes a RNA-world emerging by random combination of nucleotides, which is just plain daft, and then concludes that this can't have happened. He's also pushing a 'virus world' without any particular reason or evidence.

The book is available as a pdf at:

for the enthusiastic. The idle will skip to page 434.

Did you read my link?

iceBunny said...

"Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly [within ten million years] colonize the entire Galaxy."

I wonder what answer Fermi would have given himself if he had asked the question: "What's the likelihood of a civilisation having a sufficiently immodest amount of imperial incentive to last a 10-million-year colonisation?". If low enough, it would have a bearing on where everyone is.

Russell Seitz said...

Full disclosure:

Once upon a time in a Gutenburg galaxy far far away, the WSJ ran an essay on this subject by a student of Phil Morrison.

David B. Benson said...

I read Herschy et al., 2014. The comparison of bacteria with archaea was useful. That they could synthesize some formaldehyde was not at all surprising.

I note they referenced Koonin and Martin, 2005. This was an attempt at
which may have helped lead
to writing the appendix to his book.

EV Koonin surely was aware of the hydrothermal vent hypothesis as Martin & Russel wrote about it in 2005 and that was surely not the first paper as I recall a lunch time conversation about the idea in the 1990s.

I'll have to have another look at Koonin's argument, but I doubt it is other than seriously motivated.

Russell Seitz said...

The hydrothermal vent , or at least the warm saline pool hypothesis is old as Erasmus Darwin.

David B. Benson said...

The Koonin threshold for the origin of life on Earth
A 'review' of The Logic of Chance
by Gert Korthof
Was Darwin Wrong blog
2013 Jan 03
covers Koonin's origin argument quite nicely and also lists several other serious reviews of the book.

This is much clearer than Chapter 12 and Appendix B in The Logic of Chance.

8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

Koonin is WIDELY seen as a crackpot in the world of astrobiology, that is by active participants in the field. Invoking the multiverse as the anthropic principle is equivalent to saying 'god did it'. That's not the way science works, sorry. Koonin is a complete dead end in this.

E. Swanson said...

All the discussion of the evolution of life on Earth from a primordial soup if chemicals in the oceans thru germ cells to discrete life forms leading to us humans wandering around on dry land while contemplating a race to the colonization of the stars still leaves me wondering exactly how we made it this far. Given the influence of random chance, is our DNA based life form an expected result of some 4 Billion years of evolution, or are we unique? In other words, would other life forms have similarly evolved to a level of intelligence which we claim to be superior?

But, life has a way of slapping you upside the head every once and a while. The sad story of the murder of a British politician by a white supremacist reminds us of earlier thinking about racial superiority in the first half of the 20th century. It turns out that the perp was connected to a group in the US called the National Alliance. Reading their long winded web page sort of sounds like what I wrote about the Darwinian based rise of human intelligence, that is, until they go off track and start dividing people into racial divisions. Any bunny who is interested in the study of their mind set can read all about it HERE.

What I find really strange about this situation is that the connection between the perp and the NA was revealed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a US based organization which tracks exstremist groups. So, to me, it appears truly strange that this US organization just happened to "know" that the perp bought several books from the NA. Wait a minute, exactly how did they come up with that information? Not being a conspiracy nut, I leave it to the reader to construct his/her own theory as to how this was done. Even more interesting is the fact that the NA now uses an address about 30 miles from where I sit. I think I'm surrounded by like minded RedNeckastanians.

Pardon (or delete) my rant...

Russell Seitz said...

David, no one gets excited by the accidental formation and crystalization of most of the inorganic compounds that exist in in the form of minerals, including sheet silicates capable of reproducing latice defects that arise in their formation.

The challenges of climate modeling rival the difficulty of modeling the combinatorially and thermodynamically more complex case of reflux reactions among carbon compounds , nor our ignorance of the variety and speed of fluctuation of the reaction conditions that allow them to grow in number and molecular weight.

But that does not mean that this hard problem has only one solution- while some millions of human organic chemists have only been at work for a few billion man-years, teramoles of organic molecules have been interacting and undergoing catalysis for teraseconds in a terrestrial phase space of unknowable complexity .How the hell can anyone assert they know what this plenum of processes has not produced withing the thermal range of life as we thus far know it ?

I vivdy recall a mineralogist who, though he began each year's course in silicate phase equilibria by remarking :

"Rocas are just ceramics that happen to have been made by God," never let it stop him from discovering new ones.

Spaceman Spiff said...

It is better stated that evidence from Viking was inconclusive. Also, here's a great run down on the Fermi Paradox...