"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." ~Albert Einstein

In 2007, a few graduate students at the National University of Colombia grew interested in astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life. Their professors dismissed the field, telling the students it was not a serious science, but the young researchers could not be dissuaded. They formed their own interdisciplinary group, Instituto de Astrobiologia Colombia (IAC), without any faculty support, and dove in to both research and educational endeavours.

"The work was very difficult in the beginning," said Jorge Bueno, the director of IAC. "Many people believe astrobiology is science fiction." At speaking engagements, scientists and the general public alike ask questions about Martian invasions and flying saucers, unable to believe that astrobiology is a serious subject, based on hard science.

But researchers involved in astrobiology are not hacks or fanatics searching the universe for the likes of Yoda and ET. Usually, they are physicists or biologists, though an increasing number of chemists, geologists, oceanographers, and engineers are joining astrobiologists' ranks. Yes, their ambitions are lofty: to examine the origin, nature, evolution, and future of life in the universe, including life on Earth.

"Astrobiology addresses questions that are as old as human civilization," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). "How did life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere? What is life's future on Earth and beyond? Astrobiology brings the tools of modern science to bear on these profound questions."

Astrobiologists study living organisms to determine what makes them more than a sack of proteins, lipids, and sugars. They study extreme conditions in order to determine what makes Earth's environment unique. Advances in science and technology are making it possible to perform rigorous, quantitative studies regarding topics that were once firmly the domain of philosophy, religion and, yes, science fiction.

Left: IAC directors Andres Moreno (left) and Jorge Bueno (right) with Venezuelan astrobiologist Julain Chela-Flores (center). Photo by Jordan Calmes.

As it turns out, the traits that made astrobiology an object of skepticism among some scientists are the same ones that make it such a strong teaching tool. The subject of extraterrestrial life is an excellent way to get students excited about science, because it appeals to their imagination and sense of wonder as it challenges their intellect. The IAC calls astrobiology "the scientific outcome of the imagination," and it has developed science lessons based around astrobiology for schoolchildren ages 5 to 18, which are currently being implemented in classrooms across the country.

In the traditional Colombian school system, Bueno said, students are taught that research and investigation are privileges reserved for those who reach the highest levels of education, and younger students' natural curiosity is discouraged. Bueno hopes that the IAC's programs will encourage a new model in education, where younger students are allowed to think of themselves as primary investigators, and as minds capable of asking questions worth answering.

With this new curriculum, students are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild, brainstorming questions about what extraterrestrial life might look like, where it might live, and how it might be detected, but then they are also asked to assess their own ideas critically, apply scientific knowledge to their questions, and transform their musings into testable hypotheses based on what they have learned about physics and biology.

Right: The IAC works with school groups throughout Colombia. Photo courtesy of the Instituto Astrobiologia Colombia.

Bueno pointed out that astrobiology is a great way to get children and teenagers interested in all related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Students who cultivate an interest in extraterrestrial life at a young age could put their quantitative skills to use by studying the microbes responsible for infectious diseases or building skyscrapers just as easily as they could study microbes living in extreme conditions or build robots for planetary exploration.

Eventually, the IAC found support for its activities. Last November, it became an NAI affiliated institution. The NAI is the international body responsible for promoting, conducting and leading research in astrobiology, and though it has many partnerships with groups in Europe and Australia, the IAC is the first such affiliate in Latin America. "We are very happy, but it's a big responsibility," said Bueno. He hopes that the programs the IAC is developing will eventually reach students far beyond his own country's borders.

Bueno believes that the Colombian institute's strong commitment to public outreach and education is the factor that sets it apart from other astrobiology organizations in the region. NASA plans to distribute the IAC's Spanish-language materials throughout Latin America and among Spanish-speaking communities in the United States to educate and encourage the next generation of astrobiologists.

"The IAC had already accomplished a great deal in bringing astrobiology into high school level education in Colombia before they applied to become an affiliate partner of the NAI," Pilcher said. "They also showed a great deal of enthusiasm for broadening their activities."

Science communication at all levels has been a huge focus for the IAC, which is working to make astrobiology-related materials available to all Spanish-speakers. In addition to translating scientific papers for other specialists, Bueno and IAC's assistant director, Andres Moreno, have authored Astrobiología: un Universo de Vida (Astrobiology: a Universe of Life), which is the first astrobiology book for a general readership that has ever been published in Latin America.

Left: Bueno and Moreno hope to capture the public’s imagination with their book, Astrobiología: un Universo de Vida. Photo by Jordan Calmes.

Since both Bueno and Moreno are trained as biologists, their book covers the concepts from life sciences most thoroughly, but the authors have integrated physical and planetary sciences into their discussion as well, giving their readers a taste of everything from the origin of the universe to evolution to extra solar planets in 212 pages. The text is peppered with quotes from Richard Feynman and Charles Darwin, but also from the ancient philosopher Epicurus and science fiction writer Aldous Huxley.

Even as they reach out toward young people and the public, the IAC has not forgotten that it still has outreach to do within the scientific community. Research in astrobiology, they hope, will prove an excellent method for breaking established scientists out of their comfort zones and might could lead to fruitful collaborations between experts in different fields.

Right: the volcanoes in southern Colombia are an excellent place to study life in extreme conditions. Photo courtesy of the Instituto Astrobiologia Colombia.

Primary research conducted by members of the IAC includes studies of extremophiles living in volcanoes, the enzymatic activity of soil, and the roles of lipids and prions in the development of life. There are currently very few interdisciplinary research programs in Colombia, but Bueno hopes the efforts of the IAC will help change that. "Our work in astrobiology is a first step toward more collaboration," Bueno said. If not in this generation of scientists, then in the next.

Above: The IAC hopes to train the next generation of astrobiologists. Photo courtesy of the Instituto Astrobiologia Colombia.

About the Author: Jordan Calmes is a chemist, writer, and adventure-seeker. She is currently a student at the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and a communications intern at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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