The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Starsby Jacob Berkowitz
Three great scientific revolutions have shaped our understanding of the cosmos and our relationship to it. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the Copernican Revolution, which bodychecked the Earth as the pivot point of creation and joined us with the rest of the cosmos as one planet among many orbiting the Sun. Three centuries later came the second… See more details below
Three great scientific revolutions have shaped our understanding of the cosmos and our relationship to it. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the Copernican Revolution, which bodychecked the Earth as the pivot point of creation and joined us with the rest of the cosmos as one planet among many orbiting the Sun. Three centuries later came the second great scientific revolution: the Darwinian Revolution. It removed us from a distinct, divine biological status to place us wholly in the ebb and flow of all terrestrial life.
This book describes how we’re in the midst of a third great scientific revolution, five centuries in the making: the Stardust Revolution. It is the merging of the once-disparate realms of astronomy and evolutionary biology, and of the Copernican and Darwinian Revolutions, placing life in a cosmic context.
The Stardust Revolution takes readers on a grand journey that begins on the summit of California’s Mount Wilson, where astronomers first realized that the universe is both expanding and evolving, to a radio telescope used to identify how organic molecules—the building blocks of life—are made by stars. It’s an epic story told through a scientific cast that includes some of the twentieth century’s greatest minds—including Nobel laureate Charles Townes, who discovered cosmic water—as well as the most ambitious scientific explorers of the twenty-first century, those racing to find another living planet.
Today, an entirely new breed of scientists—astrobiologists and astrochemists—are taking the study of life into the space age. Astrobiologists study the origins, evolution, and distribution of life, not just on Earth, but in the universe. Stardust science is filling in the missing links in our evolutionary story, ones that extend our family tree back to the stars.
From the Hardcover edition.
"An engaging, lively discussion of the astronomy and biology underpinning the new sciences of astrochemistry and astrobiology.... A pleasurable read.... Highly recommended."
"[An] intriguing look at . . . ‘stardust science,’ a surprising blend of astronomy and evolutionary biology. . . . With an engaging tone and accessible science, Berkowitz shows how the current search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars could also reveal [other life-forms] born of the same dust that made us."
"With a delightfully readable style, Berkowitz illuminates the greatest scientific story of our time: the search for humanity’s origin and place in the cosmos."
-Steven J. Dick, former NASA chief historian and author of Life on Other Worlds
"In [t]his lively and meticulous book, Berkowitz tells the incredible story of how we’re discovering our true cosmic origins—reflected in every atom, molecule, and grain of matter in the universe. Read it and you’ll never look at the night sky, or yourself, the same way again."
-Dr. Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University and author of Gravity’s Engines
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THE STARDUST REVOLUTIONTHE NEW STORY OF OUR ORIGIN IN THE STARS
By JACOB BERKOWITZ
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2012 Jacob Berkowitz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE STARDUST REVOLUTION
We live in a changing universe, and few things are changing faster than our conception of it. —Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang, 1997
MEETING LUCY ZIURYS
When I first met Lucy Ziurys in early December 2008, I was struck by the thought of what it would be like for a pre–World War II astronomer to meet her. He wouldn't believe she was of the same academic species. The time-traveling astronomer would think that he hadn't moved just through time but that he had also moved into a strange parallel universe. Ziurys's basement office in the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona would at first seem familiar enough. Every horizontal surface—her desk, the meeting desk—is covered with piles of papers, a clutter reminiscent of that of legions of scientists for centuries.
But upon closer inspection and questioning, it would be clear to the visitor that this is a very strange future. For one, Ziurys is a woman, her shoulder-length, sandy-blonde hair is held back with a simple headband revealing a strong Nordic face with deep-set blue eyes. She has the direct bearing of a woman who has made her way in a field through dint of effort and will in what has squarely been a man's domain. A female astronomer with a prominent academic post, research funding, and a coterie of graduate students was unheard of until the latter part of the twentieth century. Yet our visitor might reflect that women had indeed played a major role in the laborious work of early twentieth-century astronomy and that Ziurys's occupation was thus not that strange.
Further inspection of her office would shake this initial small comfort. On her desk, under a traditional ball-and-stick model of a molecule common to chemistry classes worldwide, is a copy of a test from Ziurys's course, Astronomy 522. The test's first question asks students to draw the electron configurations for a number of molecules. Our visitor, probably wearing tweed, would wonder what an astronomer was doing teaching chemistry. This thought would only be confounded by a look at Ziurys's bookshelf, filled with dozens of multicolored binders, each binder labeled with molecular nomenclature that an astronomer with even an inkling of chemistry could see were alien combinations, and one simply titled "Extragalactic Molecules."
"Incredible!" our visitor would assert as he put the pieces together. Ziurys is both a chemist and an astronomer. She's an astrochemist, an astronomer who studies the previously unimaginable—not galaxies, stars, or planets but the molecules around and between stars light- years beyond our Solar System. Our visitor wouldn't be glimpsing just the future but also a new universe. Until the late 1960s, it was generally considered that space was simply too harsh a place for any but the simplest two-atom molecules to survive. Ziurys's bookshelves, however, hold the story of an utterly different cosmos.
When our visitor would finally ask Ziurys how she can possibly study cosmic chemistry—observing molecules so small they are too tiny to view with microscopes on Earth—the full impact of this bizarre future would hit home. Ziurys doesn't peer through a telescope to look for molecules in space; she listens for them. She's a radio astronomer. Hers is a perspective of the universe wholly unknown to astronomers before the advent of the first dedicated radio telescopes in the 1950s. Yet when she turns the Steward Observatory's Kitt Peak radio telescope toward any point in the sky, the signal-display monitor sings with the molecular signatures of vast seas of molecules stretching across the Milky Way.
By now our visitor, quite perplexed, might turn away and toward the windows for some intellectual relief—at least daylight would be the same. However, there on the ribbon of wall beneath a rectangular slit of window, he would perhaps see the strangest item of all: a framed certificate of appreciation from the US Space Studies Board. This would be fitting for an astronomer. But he would be perplexed by the committee of which Ziurys was a member: the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life. This astronomer isn't just a chemist; she has something to say about biology.
In 2004, when Ziurys was on the committee and the US space program was sagging from two space-shuttle disasters, President George W. Bush announced a "reinvigorating" national program of possible American missions to the Moon and eventually Mars. What the president didn't mention, or perhaps even know about, was a far grander space race already under way: an epic quest to see our cosmic selves anew. Eight years before, in a brief address to the US Congress, NASA's top administrator, Daniel Goldin, tried to galvanize lawmakers with a new vision of the American space program, a vision that didn't involve astronauts or manned spaceflight—at least not for the foreseeable future. It wasn't even ultimately about out there. It was about us. The program was Origins. "Origins is one of the boldest challenges NASA has taken on," Goldin told Congress, "and the results could literally change the way humans think about the universe and their place in it.... It will rewrite textbooks in physics, chemistry, biology, and quite possibly, history." Though he was the head of the US space agency, Goldin believed that the opening century of the coming millennium belonged to biology—that "the right stuff" in space research was about life. Goldin, and others in NASA's Office of Space Science, was inspired by the previous year's discovery of the first planet around a distant Sun-like star, an exoplanet. For millennia, such planets had been the stuff of myth, speculation, and, most recently, science-fiction movies such as Star Wars. Now the space science and astronomy community reacted like Alice having fallen through the rabbit hole—it had discovered a whole new cosmos, in which the notion of planets didn't end at Pluto. Goldin championed the Origins program as an interconnected weave that would extend from exploring the origins of galaxies to the origins of solar systems and finally to the origins of life itself. Tying the program together was a single guiding question: "Where did we come from?" Origins, it turned out, was too bold a program. The United States was still deeply mired in the debate over terrestrial evolution, one in which Congress had banned NASA support for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) program it had pioneered, and one congressman had derided the program as "the search for little green men." Without the iconic appeal of manned exploration, Origins has yet to fully take off.
However, the new astrophysical discoveries that were driving Goldin's vision kept coming, fueling science at the intersection of astronomy and biology. At the same time that President Bush was announcing the Moon and Mars missions, the seventeen members of the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life were writing a landmark report joining astronomy and biology. Their report, The Astrophysical Context of Life, released in 2005, was routine in format and pedigree. But the question it asked and the conclusions it drew were historic. The authors reflected on one key question: What can astronomy tell us about biology and life? While the Bush administration was fighting the Culture Wars—tacitly, when not actively, opposing the teaching of terrestrial evolution in US schools—only several blocks away from the White House, at the offices of the National Academies, the members of the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life had come to the conclusion that the question of evolution on Earth was a twentieth-century issue. The twenty-first-century question was a cosmic one. Their report opened with the view that "there are compelling reasons to argue that a full and complete picture of the origin and evolution of life must take into account its astrophysical context."
The mix of biologists and astronomers who made up the committee were far from unanimous in their view of the scope or depth of this astrophysical impact. "I think everyone on that committee felt there was life elsewhere," says Ziurys the astrochemist in her basement office at the University of Arizona. "But there are people who felt that all life on Earth ... evolved here in a soup on the Earth, with no connection out to space. And there are those of us that [ran] that committee who felt that there was a connection between what is occurring out in interstellar space and ... how life evolved on Earth—or any planet." The sticking point for the committee wasn't evolution; it was the broader notion of origins. "You would be surprised how people think in silos, even in the scientific world," says Ziurys. "If they are biologists, working with Petri dishes in a laboratory, [they think the early] Earth was one big Petri dish."
For Ziurys, however, the ultimate key to understanding the origins and evolution of life on Earth isn't on Earth. To understand why all terrestrial life is carbon-based, why life uses only twenty of the possible dozens of potential amino acids, why iron is the metal atom around which the hemoglobin in our blood binds—to understand any of these life mysteries—we must look to the stars. For Ziurys, and a new era of scientists, our story doesn't begin on Earth; it begins with stardust.
THE THIRD GREAT REVOLUTION
Pick up a dictionary and look up stardust, or Google the word, and you'll see that it is culturally defined primarily as fantasy rather than as fact. Stardust is the title of novels, science-fiction movies, and Hoagy Carmichael's 1927 hit song—one of the most popular American tunes of all time. Most dictionaries' definitions of stardust are similar to this one from Merriam-Webster: "a feeling or impression of romance, magic, or ethereality." Stardust is the equivalent of fairy dust—the stuff of fantasy, intangible and elusive.
But we're in the midst of a cultural and scientific shift, and at its heart is the new science of stardust. It's captured evocatively in NASA's Stardust mission, which in 2006 became the first mission to bring back samples from a comet: 242 million miles from Earth, the Stardust robotic probe intercepted comet 81P/Wild 2, swept through the plume of dust and water that make up the comet's translucent tail, and made it back to Earth with an invaluable cache of microscopic grains. Some of these tiny grains are literally stardust. Wild 2 was formed from a birth cloud of dust and gas that gravitationally collapsed to form the Sun, the Earth, and other planets, as well as the countless asteroids and comets that compose our Solar System—and, ultimately, you and me. The tiny grains of sand collected from comet Wild 2 have been largely unchanged for 4.5 billion years, from the time when the Earth was forming. Stardust is now the stuff not only of fantasy but of fact and science.
Stardust science isn't a term you'll find in scientific journals. I've coined it for two reasons. First, it captures a profound shift in our understanding of the world and the cosmos. Second, it envelops the scope, majesty, and essence of a diverse range of research, all linked by literal stardust. Stardust science has developed gradually and spasmodically at the peripheries of the established departmental sciences of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and now biology. Many scientists engaged in this work don't attend the same scientific conferences. In the increasingly fragmented, niche-specific realms in which they work, they often can't understand the details, or the importance, of each other's scientific papers. They lack a common language. For example, when biologists talk about extinction, they mean the elimination of a species. When astronomers use the term extinction, they're referring to the degree to which matter between the stars blocks their view of light from a distant star or galaxy. But indicative of the emergence of a new science, other scientists are bridging these linguistic gaps and creating interdisciplinary understanding. In the process, they're reversing a two-hundred-year trend toward increasing scientific fragmentation.
At its core, stardust science is perhaps science's greatest exercise ever in integration, extending the notion of ecology into the cosmos. German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology in 1873 to refer to the new science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environments. He developed the word from the Greek oikos, for "house," and logia, "study of." Thus, stardust science seeks to find our home in the greatest environment of all, the universe. As the Astrophysical Context of Life report contends, for example, the study of the molecules of life on Earth "should be connected to topics of star formation and cosmochemistry and the origin of life." At the heart of this integration is the new field of astrobiology, the great unifying science. It draws not just on astronomy and physics but also on chemistry, biology, and planetary geology, extending all these disciplines to the stars in the search for life's cosmic origins and connections. Astrobiologists aren't probing the universe's physical structure but rather its biological nature.
Historically, astronomy and biology are the strangest bedfellows. Those who studied cells didn't study stars, and vice versa. One group looked down through microscopes into the essence of our beings; the other looked up and away through telescopes into the depths of the cosmos. But through this searching of inner and outer worlds, some biologists and astronomers have sensed a common goal and a single connected story. The old, seemingly impenetrable wall between our evolutionary nature on Earth and the cosmic story we see around us is crumbling. Evolutionary theory is entering the space age. For stardust scientists, the focus isn't on elucidating an expanding universe but rather on an evolving one. This is not the view of a scientific fringe. It is captured in the words of another landmark document, the 2008 NASA Astrobiology Roadmap: "We must move beyond the circumstances of our own particular origins in order to develop a broader discipline, 'Universal Biology.' ... We need to exploit universal laws of physics and chemistry to understand polymer formation, self-organization processes, energy utilization, information transfer, and Darwinian evolution that might lead to the emergence of life in planetary environments other than Earth."
Through the research of scientists like Lucy Ziurys, we are in the midst of the third in a series of scientific revolutions that have shaped our understanding of our origins and place in the cosmos. The first revolution was the Copernican Revolution, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries removed the Earth from its divine locus as the center of creation and joined our planet with the other planets orbiting the Sun. Three centuries later, the Darwinian Revolution removed humanity's distinct, divine biological status to place this species in the ebb and flow of all life on Earth. We are now in the midst of a third seismic shift in our understanding of our place in the living cosmos—the Stardust Revolution. It is merging the Copernican and Darwinian Revolutions, placing life on Earth in a cosmic context.
THE ORIGINS OF THE STARDUST REVOLUTION
Stardust science emerged as the unsuspected offspring of twentieth-century astrophysics, the marriage of astronomy and physics. Astronomy in the twentieth century was dominated by the question of the physical origins of the universe. Nineteenth-century astronomers had looked up at a heavens that had no known age, size, shape, or origin. The night sky was a dark well of the unknown. Twentieth- century astrophysicists, with new telescopes and the tools of physics, have performed the greatest pull-away dolly shot in history. They've moved the camera back to reveal Earth not just as the third planet from our Sun but also as a planet nestled among billions of stars in the spiral arm of a galaxy, the Milky Way. Then, in epic fashion, the astrophysics camera pulled back even farther to give us a divine perspective of a cosmos that evokes gasps as we see billions of galaxies in an infinite universe. Today you can download to your computer monitor the latest deep-space image from the Hubble camera, confident that the universe is 13.7 billion years old (give or take 0.13 billion years) and that it will continue to expand forever.
Excerpted from THE STARDUST REVOLUTION by JACOB BERKOWITZ Copyright © 2012 by Jacob Berkowitz. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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