Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cosmobiology and Cosmobiota

An image from the Spitzer Space Telescope. A cloud rich with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is illuminated by starlight (the cloud is false-colored green).

When I first started writing this blog nearly five years ago, I was a bit pressed to come up with a name that fit my interests. I wanted to give it a name that reflected my career pursuits in astrobiology along with my intention of considering philosophy, culture, language, mathematics, and the human mind in my writings. The name "An Astrobiologist's Dream" came to me. That to me meant that it was a consideration of the world and our future through the eyes of an astrobiologist. 

However, the Blogger URL using "astrobiologist" was already taken. Bummer, right. That's when I had the idea of using the word "cosmobiologist" instead. There have been astronauts and cosmonauts, so why not use cosmobiologist in place of astrobiologist? The prefix "astro-" usually implies that something has to do with the stars (from Greek "aster"), while the prefix "cosmo-" implies that something is related to the cosmos (indeed, hailing from the Greek word "cosmos"). So, for me, "cosmobiologist" sounded right. 

Indeed, it even felt like maybe "cosmobiologist" meant something more than just a word that is synonymous with "astrobiologist". I decided to think a little more about it and that's when I realized that the words "cosmobiology" and even "cosmobiota" needed to become regular usage for me (and anyone else who is interested). Nothing wrong with coining new words, right? Well, in the case of cosmobiota, I haven't heard anyone else use it before so I think that one is a neologism on my part. As for cosmobiology, well, it turns out someone had already tried using that for something else. Indeed, cosmobiology as a word has been used for a certain form of astrology that's been around since the 1920s. However, I don't see anything wrong with me using the word in a different way. It will only matter if people don't understand what I'm talking about, and I haven't had that problem yet. So, let me tell you in this post what the words cosmobiology and cosmobiota mean to me and why I now call myself a cosmobiologist.

(art by Miguel-Santos at Deviant Art)


Even though the word cosmobiology has been used previously for a form of astrology, I personally use the word in a much different sense. Much as astrobiology is the scientific study of the origins, evolution, and radiation of life in the universe, cosmobiology is the philosophical side of that study of such origins, evolution, and radiation of life with a focus on the role that life plays in the cosmos. Astrobiology has become a diverse realm of study, encompassing large parts of chemistry and biology, physics and geology, oceanography and climate science, astronomy and computer science. However, when I think of the philosophical and perhaps even sociological side of astrobiology, that's when the word cosmobiology pops into my mind. That might sound trivial, but I think it feels right, and that's why I'm sticking with it.


It wasn't long after choosing the word "cosmobiologist" for myself and my blog that I thought of the word "cosmobiota". Much as the word biota is defined as the living material or organisms of a specific region or time, cosmobiota is the living material of the universe. Cosmobiota, to me, implies the life of either a certain point in space and/or time or could even imply all life in the cosmos. It's not a word that can be used often, but it has allowed me to generalize some thoughts about life in a more universal sense.

Although these words, cosmobiology and cosmobiota, are not likely to become part of modern parlance, I find them attractive and intriguing and will continue to use them in my own manner. If others wish to use them as well in the same sense, I would be quite tickled and honored by that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Worthy Reading: "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day"

My friend and prior office mate has recently made a big transition in her life. After successfully completing her Ph.D. and becoming Dr. Kelsey, she packed up her stuff in the office and said good-bye to Boulder, Colorado as she moved on to the next step in her career. After she had left, I took a look at where her desk used to be and noticed that she had left something behind. A little, well-worn book titled "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day". It was a very serendipitous moment for me, as I've been having troubles with getting myself into the mindset of writing my Ph.D. dissertation. I read the book through right away, and I have found it to be a great reassurance and a swift kick in the butt for motivating me to write my graduate dissertation.

"Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day" was published in 1998, but I found it to be as fitting to writing a graduate dissertation now as it likely was then. The author, Joan Bolker, is a long-time teacher of writing and a counselor of writers. The way that she writes in this book makes it feel like a personal coach's practical approach to writing a dissertation. 

Bolker takes the reader through all of the stages of graduate school life and suggests a great methodology for embracing graduate work by writing on a constant basis. She admits in the book that we obviously can't just write a dissertation in 15 minutes a day (a dissertation is practically a book-length report of our studies), but she advises starting with writing a small amount of time each day and then building to longer times. I've found this to be a tremendously helpful suggestion. I've already started working my way up to writing my dissertation for an hour each day.

Graduate school can be a hellacious roller coaster of happiness, guilt, discovery, feelings of imposterism, excitement for learning new things, and depression. The good and the bad seem to balance themselves most of the time, but sometimes the emotional impacts of grad life can teeter us one way or the other in great, or sometimes not-so-great, ways. We get paid for part-time work, but are expected to be overworked. We honestly have it better than many people and usually don't have as much to complain about as it sometimes feels, but one definite thing that seems worth complaining about is the dissertation. It looms over our heads like a vast storm system that we can see rolling in from our bedroom windows and we just know is going to keep us inside all day. A lot of people will almost never again read their dissertation once it's written, while some people will take their dissertation forward and publish it as a book. Since I'm looking at my final year(s) in graduate school, now is most definitely the time to be speeding ahead on writing my dissertation.

Quite honestly, I wish I had found Joan Bolker's book years ago. It would have been very helpful to build up a writing habit for my dissertation as soon as I started grad school. Indeed, I now highly recommend just that (as well as this book) for anyone who is looking into graduate school. If I had built up a pacing of writing for a short time each day over the past few years, I might actually have most of a couple of dissertations written by now. Still, I look forward to getting deeper into my writing, to letting it guide my future work as the writing helps me discover what needs to come next, and to having some decent drafts of my dissertation for revision in the coming months. I think the serendipitous action of discovering this left-behind book, "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day", has been one of the best "kicks in the ass" that I've had in my time as a graduate student.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

NASA and University Researchers Discuss the Search for Life in the Solar System & Beyond at AbSciCon 2015

Image taken from the NASA Astrobiology Roadmap

Last week, at the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) in Chicago, NASA convened a press briefing to feature some of the lead figures within the realm of astrobiology and to promote discussion of what we're doing right now in astrobiology as well as what will be coming next. You can find the video of that briefing at the bottom of this post!

The panel for the briefing consisted of the following four people:

-John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and now Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters

-Alexis Templeton, Principal Investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Rock-Powered Life team

-Britney Schmidt, Principal Investigator for the NASA-funded project Sub-Ice Marine and Planetary Analog Ecosystems (SIM

-Vikki Meadows, Principal Investigator at the University of Washington's Virtual Planetary Laboratory

Left to right: Vikki Meeadows, Britney Scmidt, and Alexis Templeton. Image posted to Twitter by NASA NExSS

I've never met John Grunsfeld in person, but I love the energy and enthusiasm he presents when he talks. I have met Vikki Meadows, Britney Schmidt, and Alexis Templeton. They are impressive researchers and wonderful people. 

Britney and Alexis are especially kick-ass women. Britney has quickly climbed to fame within the sciences as a lead expert on the icy worlds of our solar system. She's travelled to Antarctica to study icy analog environments and a paper that she authored in the journal Nature in 2011 rocked icy-worlds research with the conclusion that the chaos regions on Europa may be caused by shallow subsurface fluids

I was abundantly overjoyed to see Alexis Templeton on the panel. She's one of the most renowned researchers in the realm of geobiology, she knows more about the connections between microorganisms and the variety of environments present on the Earth than anyone else I've ever met, and she is my graduate research advisor! Here's a picture of Alexis and I taken by John Spear while we were working at our field site, Borup Fiord Pass, in the Canadian High Arctic during the summer of 2014:

Alexis has been involved in many research projects that seek to characterize the myriad ways that microorganisms interrelate with their environments. Research that has been conducted in her lab over the years has included looking at the microbial alteration of basalt on the seafloor, characterizing metal oxidation by microbes in the depths of the Earth, and working on our NASA-funded project to understand microbial sulfur cycling and the formation of sulfur biosignatures at an Arctic analog to icy extraterrestrial environments. 

Most recently, Alexis has become the Principle Investigator of a team that goes by the handle Rock-Powered Life (RPL). This team, funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, seeks to characterize the pathways through which water and rock can react to form the simplest ingredients for living processes on Earth. They're also considering what these reactions mean for the habitability of extraterrestrial environments, such as those in the subsurface oceans of Europa and Enceladus. 

The NASA press briefing last week went very well. All of the members of the panel gave fantastic introductions to what we're doing right now in astrobiology to better understand life on Earth and the potential for life in our solar system and beyond! I highly recommend checking out the briefing video below:

Monday, June 22, 2015

The ISS Symphony

The ISS, photographed by crew members of STS-119 in 2009

The international space station (ISS) is one of the greatest endeavors of modern human engineering. This 450,000 kg artificial habitable satellite is argued to be the most expensive single item ever built. It has served as home to a number of astronauts, who've used the station to perform a staggering amount of experiments in the realms of biology and chemistry, physics and materials science, and space physiology. 

Moreover, the ISS is our home-away-from-home for the time being. Until we send humans back to the moon, on to near Earth asteroids, and even onward to Venus and Mars, the ISS will serve as our furthest perch, a vantage point from which we can look back at our world and onward to the cosmos beyond. The cameras onboard the ISS are constantly filming the planet below. 

Sometimes, I like to play the livestream from the ISS while doing my work. It reminds me that even though in my tiny little corner of this world I am going about my day and focusing on my tasks at hand there is a global community around me who are all doing their own things as well. We are all working and struggling, thinking and feeling, and living as individuals, yet we are all connected through our biosphere and through our common heritage on this little rock in space.

If you feel like you could use a little perspective, then check out the ISS Symphony, a video of timelapse footage edited by Dmitry Pisanko and set to music by Ludovico Einaudi. In the video you can watch lightning, aurorae, and the lights from modern cities as they light up the globe. You can see the myriad local stars, still so distant from us in the cosmic ocean. You can see various parts of the space station as they are viewed with the globe as their backdrop. If, like me, you are inspired by our work on the ISS and the scientific and cultural relevance of this feat of modern engineering, then you most certainly will enjoy this ISS Symphony:

Science is a way of thinking: The Inspiration Journey's video of Carl Sagan's last interview

The late scientist Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

I came across a video today produced by The Inspiration Journey, which sets inspirational music and video to a portion of the audio from Carl Sagan's last interview with Charlie Rose in 1996, the year of Sagan's death. This interview featured some of Sagan's most poignant as well as inspirational words about the way that science has functioned in human history and about the current issues we face in improving science literacy and understanding. 

During this interview, Sagan said, "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking." Indeed. We've developed a continually evolving understanding of our place in the cosmos through our scientific pursuits. Science is a way of thinking that has helped us to question our predispositions about ourselves and our universe. There's a special magic to science, not a magic of the supernatural kind, but rather of the awe inspiring kind. We've found that we can revel in the grandeur of the universe by better knowing the universe. 

If you take stake in the idea of a better future for everyone, then I highly recommend the following video. Turn the lights down and the volume up, and enjoy:

Saturday, June 13, 2015

My research talk for AbSciCon 2015

I'm traveling off to Chicago tomorrow morning to attend the 2015 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon). AbSciCon is a scientific meeting for researchers, educators, and science communicators who work in the diverse realm of astrobiology, the scientific pursuit to understand the origins, evolution, and radiation of life in the universe. This is my first big science conference, so I'm pretty excited. I'll be giving a research talk this coming Tuesday, the 16th of June, to share a little bit of my graduate research. My talk will be part of a conference session titled "Habitability of Extraterrestrial Analog Environments" and it will allow me to talk about my current work on samples that I collected last summer at Borup Fiord Pass in the Canadian High Arctic. If you're interested, here's a little introduction to what I'll be talking about on Tuesday:

My field site, Borup Fiord Pass, is a valley in the Canadian High Arctic where there resides a very special glacier. Near the toe of this glacier (the glacier's edge) you can find large accumulations of yellow elemental sulfur on top of the ice. These deposits of sulfur form from sulfide-rich springs that emerge on the glacier or just at its edge. The sulfide carried by the springs is derived from the reduction (electronation) of sulfate by microorganisms that thrive in the subsurface. The yellow sulfur that appears at the surface may be partly formed through the activity of microbial life and also may feed microorganisms that are capable of oxidizing (de-electronating) elemental sulfur. This unique sulfur-dominated system may serve as an ideal analogue for icy environments in our solar system and beyond, especially those where subsurface fluids may emerge at the surface of an icy system (like maybe on Jupiter's moon Europa!).

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit this remarkable site for two weeks during the summer of 2014. Here is an image taken by John Spear, of the Colorado School of Mines, while flying over the glacier in a helicopter:

The image shows the region at the toe of the glacier where yellow sulfur staining was visible. The large sulfur covered area in this shot is about 100x100 square meters (about the size of a couple of American football fields). Interestingly, during our time at the site, we did not observe an active spring. Instead, what we found was that a very thick structure of ice had formed at the edge of the glacier. This icing is not only covered in sulfur, but is loaded with sulfur in various states (sulfide, elemental sulfur, and sulfate). We took samples from various regions on the sulfur icing, on the glacier, and in the melt water streams that ran down the valley. Below is a ternary diagram showing some of the data I've now analyzed for major cations in the samples as compared to some samples from previous years:

What this figure is showing is that there is a range of cation chemistry that can be observed in samples collected at the site. There are data here for active springs from previous years, sulfur deposits from 2009 and 2014, as well as melt water and stream water from around the site from 2000 and 2014. Most importantly, these data show that the sulfur icing is really similar to the sulfide-rich springs, which is part of why we reason that the spring was flowing and then that fluid was frozen in place to make the sulfur icing.

Sulfur bubbles on a melt pool on a sulfur icing
One of the coolest things about the sulfur icing during our time at Borup Fiord Pass was the active thawing and refreezing of the ice each day within melt pools on top of the icing. Hydrogen sulfide gas that had been locked within the sulfur icing would gurgle its way up through these melt pools, forming bubbles on the surface of the fluid. In several places these bubbles became encrusted in yellow sulfur and formed sulfur bubbles, like those shown to the left here.

I was so intrigued by these sulfur bubbles that I had to know more about them. I took some of the material and ran x-ray diffraction (XRD) on it. XRD allows us to determine what minerals or other crystallized material is present within a sample. The XRD data revealed something very interesting. The data show elemental sulfur present in three different forms, known as allotropes. Usually, in nature, sulfur is most stable as eight-membered rings of sulfur atoms that are packed in a certain arrangement that is known as α-S8. (a.k.a. alpha-cyclooctasulfur). However, there are two other mineral forms of cyclooctasulfur that can also form in nature. These are known as the beta and gamma forms. β-S8 is a form of cyclooctasulfur that
forms when α-S8 is heated above ~96 C. It's extremely bizarre to find this form of sulfur in a sample from Borup Fiord Pass, where the fluid forming the sulfur icing likely never reached a temperature that high. Likewise, the gamma form of cyclooctasulfur, γ-S8 (which is also known as the mineral Rosickyite), usually only forms in high temperature environments. That said, Susanne Douglas and Heixong Yang published an article in the journal Geology in 2002 where they reported finding Rosickyite within an endoevaporitic microbial film. They hypothesized that processes of microbial sulfur metabolism that formed elemental sulfur favored the formation of γ-S8 over α-S8. If that's not exciting enough, Damnhait Gleeson, who was once a member of our lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, also previously reported finding rosickyite in a microbial sample, this time it was within a sample of sulfur collected at Borup Fiord Pass in 2009 by Katherine Wright (also a former member of our lab). Since rosickyite was previously detected at our site, it wasn't a huge surprise, but it's definitely exciting. 

During my talk at AbSciCon, I'll be showing some images of the sulfur bubble material that I recently collected using an electron microscope. There's some really interesting structures to be found within these samples. I'm now hot on the trail of figuring out if I'm seeing the representation of gamma and beta cyclooctasulfur or perhaps something else all together. I don't know yet if these unique forms of sulfur and strange things that I'm seeing under the electron microscope are indicative of the biological processing of sulfur or if they've formed through an abiotic process at Borup Fiord Pass (which would also be very interesting), but it's nice to find new and exciting things when doing research.

There's a bit more that I'll be presenting at my talk at AbSciCon, however the talk is only supposed to be 10 minutes in length (which is a very short time for a talk). Fortunately, for the stuff that I don't get to cover in my talk, my colleague Chris Trivedi of the Colorado School of Mines will be presenting a poster with information about his work on our samples from Borup Fiord Pass. Hopefully, if people find our work interesting and want to know more following my talk, they'll then have a chance to check out Chris' poster as well.

This is me saluting the sulfur stained glacier and the valley that holds it

I'm definitely looking forward to the experiences I'll be having in the coming week at AbSciCon 2015. There's going to be a lot of great science to hear about and to talk about. I'm going to serve as a judge for student posters at the conference and I'll also be serving as a Meeting Mentor, spending half of one conference day with a high school student shadowing me at the conference. On top of all of this great stuff, on Monday evening there will be the final preliminary heat of the 3rd season of the NASA Famelab science communication competition. In case you don't know, I won the first preliminary heat of the competition in August of 2014, when I shared a story about my first day in the field at Borup Fiord Pass. I'm looking forward to watching a new line-up of scientists and science communicators as they compete in this final heat for Famelab. I have a feeling there are going to be some awesome talks and a lot of great stories.

I'll be adding more posts in the coming weeks that detail my experiences at AbSciCon, so look forward to those. I think I'll wrap this post up right now by sharing the video of the talk I gave when I competed in NASA Famelab in 2014. Here's looking forward to great science and good times at AbSciCon 2015!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Blue Marble: The importance of seeing our world in its entirety

This image of the Earth was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on their trip to the Moon on the 7th of December, 1972. It is one of the most famous images in recorded history and has come to be known as The Blue Marble

Not only is the image significant as it was taken by the last human beings to travel to the Moon (something that will hopefully soon change), but The Blue Marble is one of the first images that captured our world as a whole, without any of the borders we've been told to imagine between nations and cultures. The image shows the place of birth of every human being who has ever lived. The Blue Marble shows land, sea, clouds, vegetation, and ice. Just like the Earthrise and Pale Blue Dot images, The Blue Marble gives us pause to reflect upon our connections to one another and to the rest of our biosphere. Seeing our world as a whole set amongst the background black of space should remind us that we're all in this crazy thing called life together and that our world is only one amongst what we now know to be a very great many.

Seeing the World We've Made

All is Fair in Love and War, by Bugspray609
Any thoughtful person who takes the time to regard the known history of our species must assuredly, at least sometimes, take some pause when considering the dichotomy of how well and how bad we have treated each other. For all of the beauty we have created in our music and art and literature and architecture, we have have created just as much destruction and pain through our acts of selfishness and fear. I think any person who seeks a better life in this world for everyone has to admit to and understand the atrocities that have occurred in human history while working to stop such atrocities from occurring again (whether through direct or indirect means).

In the 1937 preface to his science-fiction story, "Star Maker", Olaf Stapledon wrote of the direct and indirect approaches to overcoming the crises of human suffering while commenting on the foreseen terror of the rise of fascism in Europe. He pointed out the importance developing the "self-critical self-consciousness of the human species" (something I see as the capability for us to review our actions and work to improve the world for future generations by improving our actions). Although written over three decades before The Blue Marble image was produced, Stapledon had the foresight to point out the potential importance of seeing our world as a whole:

"...Perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity to one another."

Stapledon even attempted a guess in Star Maker at what the Earth may look like from space:

"...The sheer beauty of our planet surprised me. It was a huge pearl, set in spangled ebony. It was nacrous, it was an opal. No, it was far more lovely than any jewel. Its patterned colouring was more subtle, more ethereal. It displayed the delicacy and brilliance, the intricacy and harmony of a live thing. Strange that in my remoteness I seemed to feel, as never before, the vital presence of Earth as of a creature alive but tranced and obscurely yearning to wake."

Olaf Stapledon couldn't have known it at the time of that writing, but the first official image taken of the Earth from space would be collected from a weapon of war, a V-2 rocket, less than a decade after the writing of Star Maker.

Earth from Space 
Taken from a V-2 Rocket in 1946, this is the first picture of Earth from space

Since the atmosphere of the Earth doesn't actually have a perfectly defined edge or separation that can tell you when you're still on Earth or when you're in space, a border called the Kármán Line was agreed upon for this purpose at 100 km above the surface of the planet. Theodore von Kármán, the namesake for the Kármán Line, was the first person to realize that it is around this altitude that the gases of the atmosphere become too rarified for aeronautical flight. As such, it's also this altitude that separates the study of aeronautics from the study of astronautics.

The first image of Earth taken by a camera that had passed the Kármán Line was taken on the 24th of October in 1946. This camera was riding along with a V-2 rocket, a weapon of war that was the progenitor of the rockets that took the first American astronauts into space and which took the first people to the Moon. It's somewhat ironic that one of the arguably most important pictures in history, one which has the power to captivate our wonder and to show us that we really are all in this together, was captured from an implement of death and destruction.

You can find more information about the first picture of Earth from space in this article from Air & Space Magazine.

Capturing the Blue Marble

There have been lots of pictures taken of the entirety of the Earth from spacecraft since that first one in 1946, but The Blue Marble remains as the first full shot of our world fully lit by the sun. 

Still, there are a lot of other great images from spacecraft of the Earth that have been released. Here, for example, are satellite composite images of Earth released by NASA in 2001 and 2002:

Composite images of the Earth from space, developed by NASA

Another fantastic image of our world is one known as The Blue Marble 2012. In the first week after its release, the Flickr page for the image garnered over 3 million views and now stands at almost 6 million views total. It's a fantastic composite image of our world that was taken from the Suomi NPP satellite:

The Blue Marble and similar images are testaments to our technological and scientific progress as a species. I think everyone should take a moment, at least once in their goings about in their daily lives, to consider the importance of seeing our world as a whole. 

Capturing images and videos of our Earth gives us a chance to look at our entire biosphere as though it is one living entity. Just as all humans are composed of human cells and cells of microorganisms that work together in one large system, our world can be viewed as one entity with one biosphere composed of many trillions of trillions of organisms that all function together as one whole (think: Gaia Hypothesis). It's especially intriguing to watch video, like the ISS Ustream Live Feed, that shows some of the dynamic processes on Earth that can be seen from space.

There's no knowing yet if biology is itself a cosmological imperative or if maybe life as we know it on our little Blue Marble is just the happenstance of chemistry and physics in one place and in one time. Many of us think the former is more likely, especially given the vastness of our universe and the myriad worlds we now know to exist outside of our own, yet we won't know more without further exploration. 

When I see The Blue Marble, it reminds me that all of our technological and cultural advancement over the last two hundred thousand years may just be the beginning of our advancement as a cosmologically conscious species. The Blue Marble, as an image, couldn't have been taken without our first taking those minuscule steps into space. If we continue working together to advance ourselves, technologically and philosophically, then maybe one day The Blue Marble will be an icon for how we first took to the heavens to know more about our world and its place in the cosmos.

Update (10 June 2015):

For more information about the importance of seeing our world from space, check out this article published in Space Policy in 2010 by my friend, Sanjoy Som. He discusses the importance of The Blue Marble and has proposed that we create a world flag with The Blue Marble at its center to support future exploration for all of our species and all of our biosphere. If you're interested in getting involved in spreading the word about The Blue Marble, check out One Flag in Space as well.