The energy expansions of evolution

The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

anonymous asked:

Whats the purpose of having all of these telescopes and equipment used to discover places we'll never touch? Why doesnt it make more sense to focus on the feasible productivity of what we could use from space and other planets, that we *can* get to?

After I posted the recent video simulation of the orbits of multi-planet systems as discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope, I received a pair of comments like this one from anonymous writers questioning why we should be spending resources on things like Kepler rather than here on Earth or in this Solar System.

These types of questions, while important to ask, also deserve the strongest response I can give, because I want people to understand how important this type of exploration actually is. 

The Kepler Space Telescope is a mission built to discover planetary systems outside of our solar system and it has found thousands. To me, this is an extraordinary accomplishment for many reasons. It turns out that it tells us a lot both about our own solar system and about the galaxy we live in. But before I address that, I want to address two common misconceptions in this type of reply.

First, every single cent spent on the Kepler Space Telescope was spent here on Earth.

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Greetings from the High Cascades!

My collaborator (and molecular microbiologist extraordinaire) Dr. Trinity Hamilton snapped this picture of me harvesting snow algae from the surface of Collier Glacier on the flank of the North Sister in Central Oregon. In the background (looking north, from left to right) you can see Belknap Crater, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and the very top of Mt. Adams on the hazy horizon. In the foreground are Little Brother (left) and Collier Cone (right). Not a bad way to start the morning collecting geochemical and microbiological samples!

Wish you were here (esp. to help filter water and carry out rocks)!

Jeff R. Havig, Ph.D., University of Cincinnati

Julius Caesar battlefield unearthed in southern Netherlands

Archaeologists claim to have proved that Julius Caesar set foot on what is now Dutch soil, destroying two Germanic tribes in a battle that left about 150,000 people dead.

The tribes were massacred in the fighting with the Roman general in 55BC, on a battle site now in Kessel, in the southern province of Brabant.

Skeletons, spearheads, swords and a helmet have been unearthed at the site over the past three decades. But now carbon dating as well as other historical and geochemical analysis have proved the items dated to the 1st century BC, the VU University in Amsterdam said.

“It is the first time the presence of Caesar and his troops on Dutch soil has been explicitly shown,” said Nico Roymans, an archaeologist at the institution…

Science is Spiritual.

We can state, with high confidence, that even if there are other intelligent creatures in the universe, even humanoid ones, they won’t be like us. We are the only humans in the cosmos, the product of a very particular set of cosmic, geochemical and evolutionary circumstances.  To go from nonliving to living chemistry, and then from single-celled to multicellular organisms, such as sponges, many extremely complex steps had to be undertaken. To go from multicellular organisms to dinosaurs and then to mammals and eventually to primates took more complex steps, all resulting from random mutations and selective pressure, all unique and unreproducible.

Life should exist elsewhere but, if it does, the probability is that it will be simple, some kind of alien bacteria. Intelligent aliens may be out there in Earth-like planets, or in more exotic environments, but if they are, they are very far away. This is the striking revelation from modern science, one that should grab everyone’s attention:  We matter because we are rare, and our planet matters because it is unique. At the very least, it should inspire us to re-evaluate our relationship to one another and to the planet, beyond petty ideologies and short-sighted tribal disputes that fill so much of our time.

So the next time you hear a scientist saying something like “the more we know about the universe the less important we become,” beg to differ. The reality is precisely the opposite: The more we know about the universe, the more unique we become. What we do with this knowledge is, of course, a personal choice for each of us. To have this choice is the privilege of being human.

  ~   Marcelo Gleiser, theoretical physicist and cosmologist; professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College

ExoMars’ Organic Sniffing Spectrometer

Lewis Dartnell spent the better part of two years researching and field-testing methods to reboot society in his best-selling book The Knowledge. But his day job is arguably even cooler: as an astrobiologist at the University of Leicester, he’s developing ways to look for life on Mars through the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Here, Dartnell provides an update on the frequently delayed, yet scientifically promising mission.

Wired: In The Knowledge, you incorporate ideas and methods from many different branches of science. How does this kind of interconnectedness show up in your own work?

Dartnell: Drawing from lots of different sources is what I do in my own research in astrobiology, and not just knowledge, but the methods and techniques you could use. It’s not just biology, but engineering, and robotics and instruments as well as physics and planetary science, and you’re constantly outside of your comfort zone having to learn new things. It keeps you on your toes, but that’s what I enjoy about astrobiology.

Wired: What is your role with the ExoMars mission?

Dartnell: The exciting thing about ExoMars is that, not only will it for the first time have a drill so it can get properly underground on Mars and find stuff that has been protected from the surface environment, but it’s also going to use experiments like Raman spectroscopy, which is the one that I’m directly involved in at the University of Leicester. The reason Raman’s exciting is that it’s very sensitive and very competent and capable of picking up organic molecules or bio signatures of life, and we want to try this new technique on Mars.

Wired: What are your expectations for ExoMars?

Dartnell: We don’t know, and that’s the point of exploration; you don’t always know what you’re going to try and find. You know what you’re hoping for, and what might be realistic to expect. So what we hope to find on Mars are organic molecules – the basic Lego pieces or building blocks or chemistry kit for life; amino acids and sugars that should exist on Mars but we have yet to discover. Hopefully either NASA’s Curiosity or ESA’s ExoMars will discover those, and maybe beyond that they’ll find not just the building blocks for life but signs of life itself – biosignatures.

Wired: What kinds of biosignatures would be convincing as a sign of past life?

Dartnell: A biosignature is any sign or any evidence of life, and this might be something like a fossilised shape that looks a bit like a cell, it might be things as complex as DNA. It might be more subtle things like isotopic ratios in rocks, which on Earth are used to show early cases of life. Or if we do find things like amino acids, we can tell if they are made by life or through non-living processes like pre-biotic chemistry by their molecular handedness. So there are various quirks or various signs of organic molecules we can look for that would point to biology, rather than geochemical processes.

Wired: What is the likelihood that you will find biosignatures on Mars?

Dartnell: Unfortunately, you basically can’t answer that question. It’s somewhere between 0 and 1, but we don’t know because whenever you’re trying to do something in science you’re trying to do something new that you don’t already know the answer to,

However, for all we know about life on Earth, it seems to have arisen pretty rapidly. It seems like it might be a probable thing to happen, if you’ve got the right kind of environment. So the big question is whether Mars ever have the right kind of environment, and if so, did that basic pre-biotic chemistry ever get far enough down the line to produce cells? And if that happened, what might be the best way of looking for that life and trying to detect these biosignatures? Which biosignatures would still remain after all this time? This is the kind of thing we’re trying to do with ExoMars.



SciShow Talk Show: Dr. Heiko Langner on Birds and Bioaccumulation

Crash Course Chemistry Consultant, Dr. Heiko Langner talks to Hank about lab safety, geochemical research, and cleaning up super fund sites. Afterward, Jessi Knudsen from Animal Wonders joins them with Zapper, the Alexandrian Parakeet.