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Life in the Universe, Life in Small Places

August 26, 2013

I have the great fortune of being a professional scientist, where I can research, contemplate, and discuss the frontiers of exploring the early solar system. As Director of the Astronomy and Space Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, I am now one of two astronomers at this growing institution of multiple disciplines. Much of my research involves analyzing spectral data from forming stars near to our own, that I collected in the recent past at Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

I am also an Assistant Professor at Appalachian State University, and I am currently in the first weeks of teaching a new crop of undergraduates about the science behind the search for life in the Universe, or astrobiology. The new semester marks the resurrection of an inevitable intellectual exercise into some of the fundamental questions that swirl about the search for life in space: What can the evolution of life on Earth tell us about life beyond? How do we search for this life? Could there be intelligent alien life, perhaps watching us right now? And, looming over all of this, why should we care? These are the questions that frame my class, and ones which I think touch the heart of what it means to be the only technological species on the only living planet of which we can be certain, rocketing around our star at nearly 70,000 miles per hour. Our Sun is one of billions in our galaxy, which is but one of billions of galaxies in the Universe.

And yet, we have no present knowledge of any life beyond our planet.

An artist's rendering of what the Milky Way Galaxy might look as viewed from outside the Galaxy. Our Sun is about 25,000 light years from the Galactic Center. The cone illustrates the neighborhood of our galaxy that the Kepler Mission will search to find habitable planets. (Credit: NASA/Jon Lomberg).

An artist’s rendering of what the Milky Way Galaxy might look like as viewed from outside the Galaxy. Our Sun is about 25,000 light years from the Galactic Center. The cone illustrates the neighborhood of our galaxy that the Kepler Mission will search to find habitable planets. (Credit: NASA/Jon Lomberg).

The small steps we are taking toward understanding life on Earth, beyond, and our place in the Universe, comprise a great ride for a scientist, and, I have noticed, for many students and much of the public as well. They are also a continual reminder that the research we lead as astronomers and astrophysicists is but a tiny dot in the grand scheme of finding big answers to the questions surrounding our existence in the great galactic mix.

Could extraterrestrial life turn out to be, as most scientists expect, single-celled and microbial in nature, similar to the extremophiles happily boiling away in Yellowstone mud pots, for instance, or thriving entombed in rock walls miles below Earth’s surface? Or could it be (much more unlikely) complex, such as an exotic aquatic organism in the subterranean oceans of Europa (microbes would be more likely), or maybe a bloated species that could survive floating in the clouds of Jupiter? Further, we have to resign ourselves to the possibility that any life beyond Earth could remain tucked away, forever beyond our grasp, in a small pocket of water, rock, ice or air, far from the reaches of our technological capabilities to reveal them.

Some or all of these questions may never have answers, but what is certain is that we will continue to contemplate and search for life beyond our planet, as the quest itself  is part of what makes us distinctly human.

Fountain Paint Pot; Mud Pots, Midway & Lower Geyser Basin (Photo: National Park Service, Jim Peaco; April 2001).

Fountain Paint Pot; Mud Pots, Midway & Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park (Credit: National Park Service, Jim Peaco; April 2001).

An artist's rendering of a possible under-ice ocean on Europa (Credit: NASA).

An artist’s rendering of a possible under-ice ocean on Europa (Credit: NASA).

I was recently at a conference with other scientists in my field. I had an enlightening time discussing solar system science with colleagues, while simultaneously  ramping up my astrobiology course, a combination of tasks that, at the start of each semester, inevitably brings to mind attempts to connect research in the field with larger questions of solar system evolution in the Galaxy, and beyond.

On one particular evening, an unlikely goldfish expanded my thinking even further.

I was informed that, upon request, the hotel would loan guests a goldfish for their rooms. As odd as this service sounds, which was not mentioned on check-in, or anywhere on their website, it turned out to be very real indeed. Needless to say, this bunch of eager scientists jumped at such an odd opportunity, leading to the sudden appearance of goldfish in small bowls in meeting and guest rooms across the hotel. A lover of all animals, and always more happy in their company, I was intrigued. First, I wanted to know, what other loaner animals this odd hotel stashed away for guests to borrow. Could I get a kitten for the night, perhaps?

Alas, the fish was all they had, and I ordered one for my room. When I returned the day of the request, however, no fish had yet arrived, and I found myself deeper in the rabbit hole of oddities when hearing myself ask Guest Services, “My fish has not arrived. Will it be coming to my room this evening?” Without hesitation I was assured that Yes!, It most certainly will! … and upon my return after dinner there was on the desk a lovely golden fish swimming in a bowl with a large handful of colored stones.

I worked late into that night preparing for my class, periodically looking up at the bowl to find my fish-for-the-evening swimming around and around. After a short while, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry that I had participated in what was, I realized, an apparent one-way benefit; me feeling pleased and relaxed at the site of a small aquatic creature on my desk (probably the goal of the hotel service), against the harsher reality of the fish spending the night in a bowl.

Nevertheless, the fish appeared in glowing golden health, and, I also learned that off-duty fish returned to a large aquarium with others of their kind, hidden somewhere behind the curtain of front desk administration. But my moral dilemma continued, driving me into deeper thought on life in the Universe, and the kinds of evolutionary relationships that could exist within and between whatever species lay beyond our current knowledge.

I wondered, in the end, how life could evolve to this unlikely place, organisms originally from a likely aquatic common ancestor, now as different as human and goldfish, locked in a cosmic time-step for a brief moment, in a room strange to both, encased in their respective watery and airy landscapes. Given this, what could I really say about what the fish gained, or not, from my presence? I wondered what he or she saw through the glass bowl, and if there was any connection at all.

What I could say for certain was that I, the fish, all organisms on Earth, are life on but a single planet in a single solar system around one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies. This is the only life we know to exist: life in a small place, in a vast Universe of unknowns.

The goldfish (Photo: Rachel L. Smith).

The goldfish (Photo: Rachel L. Smith).


5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2013 3:51 am

    A very stimulating blog. Am intrigued to know whether your colleagues were similarly inspired by their goldfish? 🙂

  2. August 26, 2013 3:52 am

    Reblogged this on Hazystargazy and commented:
    A great piece, encompassing the contribution of goldfish to the human condition!

  3. Rachel L. Smith permalink
    August 26, 2013 11:56 am

    Hi Jenny,
    Thanks! I didn’t hear of any other commentary regarding the fish, except they were appreciated :).

  4. August 27, 2013 2:02 pm

    nicely stated and thought provoking

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