July 5, 2011 | 2
On December 24th, 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to bear direct witness to our planet, the Earth, rising above the horizon of another world. As Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders skated in orbit across the pockmarked lunar landscape they captured the iconic images that suddenly brought our place in the universe into stark, crystalline, relief.
There we were. There was Borman’s birthplace in Indiana, Lovell’s in Ohio, and Anders’ in Hong Kong. There were all our homes, our lives, our brief sojourns into consciousness. This brilliantly shining marble, sitting amidst the poring blackness of space, held them all. It was beautiful, fragile, and frightening.
Humans have long wondered about their place in the universe, and whether it is a lonely and empty place or whether there are other beings and other worlds like ours. Perhaps like no other moment, that instant in 1968 has compelled us to ask these questions with renewed urgency. And, remarkably, we can now hope to begin to answer them. Science and technology has finally reached a point where we can investigate with some confidence not only the multi-layered history and nature of our homeworld, but that of our solar system, and now hundreds, thousands of planets around other stars. There are myriad new puzzles, some of which can only be answered by finding the proper context for our planet and its life. That context can only come from gathering new worlds into our atlas of the universe. And we’re doing it. We really are, finally.
Life, Unbounded is all about this effort. For a year now it has covered news and presented discussion about our modern quest to understand the nature of life on Earth, find planets around other stars, and search for life elsewhere in the universe. I’m privileged to try to serve as a guide and provocateur through this incredible blossoming of information about our place in the cosmos. My research career has taken me from studying the largest-scales of the cosmos to chasing clusters of galaxies from here to the edge of the observable universe. And now I find myself focusing on those tiniest of scraps of matter; stars, planets, moons, and the possibility of life somewhere else. It’s my favorite stuff, the things that sometimes puzzle, sometimes frustrate, but always fascinate. At Columbia University in New York I poke, prod, and cajole fellow scientists into applying themselves to some of these fascinating questions – from the nature of planet formation, orbital mechanics, alien climates, the ancient Earth, detecting exoplanets, and even the chemistry of life itself. This multidisciplinary science is generally labeled as astrobiology. You can find out more at my official page there.
Now Life, Unbounded has a brand spanking new home with Scientific American, where it will continue to do exactly what it’s been doing, but with the tremendous benefit of family membership amongst many fabulous blogs and writers. Comments and ideas are welcome on the blog pages, I will only moderate what I consider to be inappropriate (rude, offensive, completely irrelevant or indecipherably alien).
From time to time I will pull out some of the best posts from the archive, dust them off and present them in a fresh light. In fact I’m going to cheekily stuff a few of my favorites down below here as a taster.
Watching the science evolve is a great thing; it informs and delights to see the story unfold. I also keep my ear to the ground. There are new discoveries every day. Part of the pleasure in astrobiology is in seeing how so many pieces fit together from different disciplines. Inspiration in the search for life in the universe can come from the most unexpected places. Indeed, who would have guessed that the simple images taken by Borman, Lovell and Anders could have changed us so irrevocably?
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