Geeks, Indeed
8:30 am
Fri December 20, 2013

KUOW's Word Of The Year Is Astrobiology (You Picked It, Not Us)

Credit Twitter Photo/AstrobiologyNAI

Forget selfies, geeks and science. The word of the year is astrobiology.

According to KUOW.org’s web trends, a search for the term "astrobiology" was the way many of you found your way to our website.*

Why were you searching astrobiology? Were you wondering, are we alone? Where did we come from? It’s such an expansive and lonely word. A word you pondered late at night, after everyone was tucked warmly in their beds.

Perhaps you’re longing to touch a piece of astrobiology – to hold the secret of the universe in your hand. Or perhaps you want to leave a piece of yourself in the universe, to unfold, disintegrate and reintegrate into a bright, shining black hole. Maybe you want to bounce to the next galaxy in an asteroidal projection.

Would you settle for sending a selfie into space?

The final frontier conjures up testosterone booming timpani and trumpeting glory in Stanley Kubrick’s mind. In my mind, the universe has a quiet sound that creeps, lento crescendo, to the desperation depicted in “Moon” (2009). Space haunts my mind like “Oraison” by Olivier Messiaen (1937).

The beauty of astrobiology is that scientists don’t need to be orbiting planets far, far away. Sometimes extraterrestrial life comes to us, catapulted to our crust in the form of a meteorite containing the ancient fossils of diatoms.

Alternately, scientists can huddle together on the shores of Great Salt Lake, whose water is 10 times saltier than the ocean. Its low-oxygen waters are teeming with salt-loving microbes, ancient salt crystals and hydrogen-producing algae. These are clues to life on Earth 250 million years ago and to how we could one day live on Mars.

Arthropleura is the largest known land invertebrate, growing up to 8.5 feet long. Don't worry, they roamed the Earth during the Carboniferous period. This reproduction sits placidly at Parco Natura Viva in Italy.
Credit Flickr Photo/Spencer Wright.

Astrobiology represents an obsession with oxygen. Scientists ponder dinosaur respiratory systems, which were adapted for lower oxygen levels. They study fossils of arthropods who thrive and become giants in high oxygen levels. While too much oxygen is poisonous to human, dinosaur and bug, over time, life adapts and reforms according to the precious gas levels. Human beings may just not be around to enjoy the new levels, pending rapid global warming or asteroid impact.

Peter Ward, University of Washington professor and author of "Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth's Ancient Atmosphere," talks about oxygen.

David Grinspoon, former Library of Congress astrobiology chair, studies the Anthropocene era, or the current era where humans are the catalyst behind geological and climate change.

“Astrobiology is about the relationship between life and planets,” Grinspoon said. “If you look at it that way, the Anthropocene is an interesting phase. It’s a fundamental change in the relationship between life and Earth. Life has always perturbed Earth, but are we now fundamentally transforming it?”

Lights at night seen from space.
Credit NASA/GSFC

A 20,000 foot view of our planet at night reveals a network of light clusters; nodes connected by tendrils revealing an intricate system of fuels and foods moving from one node to the other. Urban physicist Adam Frank declares the city is a force in planetary evolution.

“What astrobiology shows us is the way planets and life go together. Some researchers call this back and forth co-evolution," Frank said. "What they mean by that is that life and the planet can change the course of each other's history.”

Like ants in an ant hill, we are pushing the planet and its systems in new directions.

“The Anthropocene really is the epoch of the city. So that spider web of lights that you're seeing from 20,000 feet is a real marker. It's the physical manifestation of life, meaning us and our cities, changing the planet,” Frank said.

This is just the tip of a massive, melting iceberg. To learn more, you can take a free class on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life on Coursera or enroll in one of the University of Washington's astrobiology programs.

*Technically, it was “Nancy Pearl.” She’s our favorite too, but she’s not a word. So astrobiology it is.