What is Space?

October 13th, 2010

It’s an interesting question. I’ve been asked for my thoughts on space by a design student, Stephen White.

What does space mean to you? Whether that means time away from education/family/work, or an area away from the world. A place that is your own. How does space make you feel and what emotion does it provoke within you?”

Here’s what I wrote for him:

Space is possibility. It is the imperative to explore and discover. Whether it is outer space or the inner space of atoms or of our brains, it leads to fundamental questions. Those questions are the beginning of a journey of understanding and enlightenment.

Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here? Why are we here? Where do “I” begin? When did this begin? When does it end?

Space means there is something rather than nothing, and that means everything.

Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour – Hacking Science

March 3rd, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Ariel Waldman of Spacehack.org on Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour.

We talked a lot about citizen science and the importance of opening up science to the public. She told me about several interesting projects, like GalaxyZoo, which relies on the public to process massive amounts of astronomical data.

Ariel also talked a bit about what got her interested in space and the realm of collaborative science.

You can listen to the interview here.

Or, watch it on ODTV – the On-Demand TWIT Video archive.

You can catch Ariel (and me) at SXSW if you are interested in hearing more. We are speaking on a panel called Open Science: Create, Collaborate, Communicate on Monday, the 15th, at 9:30am.

Finding Answers to Life’s Big Questions… In Comets

August 19th, 2009

I am fascinated by the recent news regarding comets in our solar system.

Most recently a team from NASA reported finding the simple amino acid glycine in materials returned from the Stardust mission.

The Stardust mission sent a craft from Earth on a trajectory that, like a boomerang, flew it through the tail of comet Wild 2 and then back to Earth. Comet Wild 2 originates from the outer reaches of our solar system, and as such is thought to be about as old as our solar system itself. Scientists have been analyzing the collected comet bits since Stardust’s return hoping to discover what the early solar system was made of.

And, now, it seems the early solar system contained the building blocks for life.

Sure, we’ve found glycine in bits of asteroids before, but those are from the warmer, inner parts of the solar system. Finding that an amino acid can come from the cold reaches of space indicates that these molecules don’t need a more temperate climate to form. The necessary chemical reactions can occur far from the sun.

Take that conclusion a bit further, and it means these molecules could be forming all over the universe, which makes the likelihood for carbon-based life in other stellar neighborhoods a bit more plausible. This realization makes our observations of glycine in distant nebulae substantially more interesting.

Now, consider that even though glycine doesn’t need a comfortable place to live, we do. How on Earth (pun intended) did the building blocks get here and evolve into what we know as life?

Glycine could have naturally come about as a result of chemical interactions on the early planetary surface. Or, it could have come from asteroids and comets.

Well, an insightful piece of computational research our of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark tried to answer this question by looking at iridium in 3.8 billion year old rocks from Greenland and in rocks returned from the moon during the Apollo missions.

Iridium is a metal that while naturally present on the Earth is found in much higher concentrations in asteroids and comets. Additionally, asteroids are estimated to have more iridium than comets, and leave more behind when they impact with the planet; some 18,000 parts per trillion versus 130 parts per trillion were expected in the impact sites.

The analysis found that the amount of iridium contained in the ancient rocks was more in line with comet impacts than with asteroids. They also found that their cometary calculations jived with concentrations of iridium found in the moon rocks.

The researchers, concluding that comets were the most likely culprits during the Late Heavy Bombardment (taking place after the Earth’s young molten-hot phase), estimated that the amount of water that would remain on the Earth as a result was right on par with the amount of water in all the Earth’s oceans.

So, did comets create our oceans? Maybe. The calculations are based on lots of assumptions as to the amount of iridium that should be found in rocks formed during asteroid or comet impacts. Regardless, it is still a fascinating train of thought.

I love this quote from the research paper:

“We may sip a piece of the impactors every time we drink a glass of water.”

And, the final question, is whether comets, in addition to bringing water, brought life’s building blocks as well.

It’s not too far of a reach to consider it a possibility, especially with the recent impact on Jupiter, and work that suggests comet showers make their way through the solar system every 500 million years or so.

Just like April showers bring May flowers, what do comet showers bring?