Feb 03

Class #4: I’m not old, I’m 4 billion years young!

In our first class, we looked at possible life-supporting exoplanets and moons.  We have numbers to hold onto when answering the question: is there life out there?  These numbers included the following: the universe is 13.82 billion years old, there are 176 billion galaxies in it, 10 billion billion stars in it, at least 10 million Earths in our Milky Way alone.  These are real numbers, based on radio and space telescope data, culled over decades of scientific inquiry.  For scientists, our frame of reference is the cosmic calendar.

The oldest Earth-sized planet, currently named Kepler-444, we know of in the Milky Way is over 11 billion years old.  Our Earth is a youthful 4 1/2 billion years old.  We know its age because the oldest rock on its surface has been found in Jack Hills, Australia. Zircon 74 is 4.37 billion years old.  Formed a mere 160 million years after the formation of the solar system, its ancient existence proves that almost as soon as the Earth formed, there were seas if not oceans of liquid water on its surface, one of the essential building blocks of life.

Geological Time

Geologists have delineated different Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs of the Earth’s life to help identify key stages in the evolution of life on this planet.

The zircon crystals mentioned above were formed in the Archean Eon (3.8 — 2.5 billion years ago).  Before the end of the Archean Eon, life had been established through the planet.  Stromatolyte fossils have been dated back to 3.5 billion years ago.

The Miller-Urey experiment is a way of showing how early life on Archean Earth may have been formed. This experiment is one of the fundamental chemical reactions included in the study of exobiology.  That is, all of the the chemical reactants used to produce amino acid products are known to exist in outer space.  An alternative hypothesis for the origin of life is that these chemical reactions occurred miles below the Earth’s surface, where thermophiles and extremozymes lurk.

The beginning of the next Eon, the Proterozoic, offered evidence of new biochemical reactions, primarily resulting in vast ranges of banded iron, the diagenesis of iron minerals throughout the Earth.  “Snowball Earth” then ensued.  And yet, 100 million years later, 635 million years ago, life not only survived, but diversified into multicellular organisms, in the Ediacaran Period.

Each of the millions of Earths in our Milky Way galaxy has its own epochal story to tell, if we ever set foot on them.  For now, we are limited to exploring the stories our own Earth has to tell.  One of the most recent, about the Titanosaurus, although very big, is very young from a geologic perspective: it lived only 100 million years ago.

Homework #2:

In groups of 3-4 (no more) choose one of the 146 known moons in our solar system (besides Io and Encedalus), and answer the following questions:

  1. What is the meaning of the name, what mythology does it come from?
  2. Find 2-3 news articles explaining what is interesting about that moon.  DO NOT print it out.  Instead, writing the title, author, and date of publications of the article, so I can find it.
  3. Pick an exoplanet, and answer questions 1 and 2 for that exoplanet.  Additionally, what constellation is it located?

We ended class in the Ediacaran Period.

  1. Working in groups, choose another, more recent period to research.
  2. Tell me who is in your group, and which geologic time period your group will research (only one group for each period, first group gets it)
  3. Begin researching the forms of life that existed on Earth during that period of time.  Post any interesting websites as additional comments.
  4. Organize your research by the 7 Properties of Life defined on page 2 of your textbook (Miller, 7th Ed.)

MOST IMPORTANT:  please post your moon and geologic period as a comment to this post.  The first group to post gets that moon/period.

Jan 27

Class #3: ¿Dónde está la vida?

Life, for scientists, must lie within our universe. The mechanical eye of Planck Space Telescope, focused on the afterglow of the Big Bang, allows us to see evidence of its age: 13.82 billion years old. Within our universe, a billion trillion stars forming hundreds of billions of galaxies fly through our night skies.  Many of these galaxies have been viewed by the Hubble, Herschel and Spitzer space telescopes.  Tens of millions of life sustaining worlds may exist in our Milky Way galaxy alone. 1,935 confirmed planets, are believed to be in the “Goldilocks” zone.  Many more are archived.  We just gave personal names to 14 stars and 31 exoplanets.

We know that all of the oxygen we breathe, all of the iron in our hemoglobin, all of the amino acids that make us who we are originally came from stars that lived and died billions of years ago.  A little more than a week ago, we witnessed the supernova of ASASSN-15lh, 600 billion times brighter than our own Sun, radiating 20 times more light than all the stars in the Milky Way combined.  There is one star we are certain is near a living planet: our Sun.  We study it a lot — we just saw a “Cinco de Mayo” flare from it a year ago. The flare was so powerful it knocked out radio stations.

What about life in our own solar system? Water even exists on Mercury, where the average temperature is over 332 degrees Fahrenheit. Methane is periodically released from Mars, and its rock strata suggests a time where water flowed freely on its surface.  We finally discovered liquid water on Mars a few weeks ago.   Of our 336 moons, IoEuropa, and Enceladus are likely to harbor life.

Homework #1

Consigue el libro!

The course text book, Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (7th Edition), is available very cheaply at the following website:

DealOz Biology I textbook

Click now!  I may make one more packet next week of excerpts of the book, but you’re on your own after that, and your grade in the class will depend on you having the book.

Where else can we find life?  Another moon or exoplanet?  Tell me something I don’t know, and post comment below with a link and your name.