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Episode 9:

with guest Dr. David Grinspoon, Denver Museum of Nature and Science

David Grinspoon

Astrobiology concerns itself with life in the universe. Astrobiologists and planetary scientists want to know if other planets could support life -- and what the evidence for such life might be. By delving back into cosmic time they can understand how the elements for life originated and how they are distributed throughout the cosmos, creating the chemical origins for life.

Listen (mp3, 11.67 MB)

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Further Activities & Resources 


Produced by Loch Ness Productions for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Written and narrated by Carolyn Collins Petersen

Soundtrack and original music by Mark C. Petersen

Additional resource materials by Andrew Fraknoi

The interview for this episode of Astronomy Behind the Headlines was originally recorded before a live audience as part of a workshop on making podcasts, conducted at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s 2010 annual meeting in Boulder, Colorado.

Special thanks to Dr. David Grinspoon,the organizers of the meeting, and the attendees at the workshop.


Cosmo-chemistry and the Beginning of Life
A Collection of Resources to Get Behind the Headlines

Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College & ASP)
September 2010

One of the most interesting areas of astronomy these days is the study the connections between events and processes in the cosmos and the development of life.  Astronomers have understood for some time that the atoms required for life as we know it -- carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, etc. -- did not exist at the beginning of the universe, but are being made in the cores of hot stars, through the process of nuclear transformation.  When stars die, some of the newly minted atoms are recycled into the universe and become available to make new stars, new planets and perhaps new life forms.

More recently, astronomers have found that the development of molecules (combinations of atoms), which was long thought to require planets, can happen in clouds of raw material among the stars.  About 150 molecules have now been detected in the vast clouds of gas and dust that pepper the Milky Way, including such molecules as formaldehyde (embalming fluid), alcohol, water, and the two chemical building blocks of the simplest amino acid.  Molecules connected with life are also being found in comets and meteorites, which are chunks of material left over from the formation process of our solar system.  It seems that the first steps leading to biology can happen even without the sheltering environment of a planetary surface.

None of these of intriguing areas of research have yet revealed life on another world, but the fact that the chemistry leading to life is by no means unique to Earth has been a source of encouragement for those who seek to find life elsewhere.  Below we present a brief and selective series of resources to help educators and their students and audiences learn more about the connections between astronomy, chemistry, and biology.

A. Introductory Resources on Cosmo-chemistry

A1. Selected Non-technical Books

A2. Selected Non-technical Articles

A3. Selected Introductory Web Sites

B. A Few Web Resources for Formal and Informal Educators

A. Introductory Resources on Cosmo-chemistry

A1. Selected Non-technical Books

crab nebula
Complex molecules have been found in the clouds between stars (illustration by NASA/ESA/JPL/STScI)

Altschuler, Daniel Children of the Stars. 2002, Cambridge University Press. An overview of the origin of atoms, stars, planets, life; written by an astronomer.

Bennett, Jeff & Shostak, Seth Life in the Universe, 2nd ed. 2006, Addison-Wesley.  An accessible introductory textbook in this field.

Gribbin, John Stardust: Supernovae and Life -- The Cosmic Connection. 2000, Yale U. Press.  On how stars and their explosions seed the universe with atoms for life.

Impey, Chris The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe. 2007, Random House. Perhaps the best introduction to astrobiology for beginnings.

Jakosky, Bruce The Search for Life On Other Planets.  1998, Cambridge U. Press. Clear introduction by a leader in the field.

Krauss, Lawrence Atom: A Single Oxygen Atom's Journey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth...and Beyond. 2002, Back Bay Books.  Intriguing exploration of where the chemical elements come from.

Taylor, Michael Dark Life: Martian Nanobacteria, Rock Eating Cave Bugs, and Other Extreme Organisms of Inner Earth and Outer Space. 1999, Scribners. Good behind-the-scenes discussion of the controversy surrounding the now disproven claim that signs of life could be identified in meteorites from Mars.

A2. Selected Non-technical Articles

Achenbach, J. "Life Beyond Earth" in National Geographic, Jan. 2000, p. 24. Discussion of many themes, from science to science fiction, but with good information.

Beers, T. "Origin of the Elements of Life" in Sky & Telescope, Mar. 2008, p. 26.  On where the elements are created in the universe (continues in the next article by C.R. James.)

Bernstein, M., et al. "Life’s Far-flung Raw Materials" in Scientific American, July 1999, p. 42. On the discovery of organic materials in the gas and dust among the stars, and in comets.

Chyba, C. "The New Search for Life in the Universe" in Astronomy, May 2010, p. 34. Nice review of astrobiology, the study of how life might arise elsewhere besides the Earth.

Dorminey, B. "Did Molecules from Space Seed Life in the Cosmos?" in Astronomy, Apr. 2008, p. 50. On astrochemistry, the study of molecules in clouds of gas and dust in space, and their possible connection to the development of life on planets.

Impey, C. "How Life Could Thrive on Hostile Worlds" in Astronomy, Dec. 2008, p. 54. Using life in extreme Earth environments as guide.

Impey, C. "The New Habitable Zones" in Sky & Telescope, Oct. 2009, p. 20. New ideas about sites in the universe life could be found.

crab nebula
Artist’s Impression of Stardust Mission Encountering Comet Wild 2

Longstaff, A. "Quest for a Living Universe" in Astronomy, Apr. 2005, p. 28. On where we might find life elsewhere and what forms it might take.

Nadis, S. "Does Life Really Need Water?" in Astronomy, Nov. 2006, p. 38. On other possible liquids.

Shapiro, R. "A Simpler Origin of Life" in Scientific American, June 2007, p. 46. New ideas about what kind of molecules formed first so life could begin.

Tarter, J. & Chyba, C. "Is There Life Elsewhere in the Universe?" in Scientific American, Dec. 1999, p. 118.  The searches for life in our solar system and beyond.

Trefil, J. & O’Brien-Trefil, W. "The Day the Earth Came to Life" in Astronomy, Sep. 2009, p. 24. On the latest ideas about the origin of life on our planet.

Treiman, A. "Microbes in a Martian Meteorite?" in Sky & Telescope, Apr. 1999, p. 52. An update on the rock from Mars.

Warmflash, D. & Weiss, B. "Did Life Come From Another World?" in Scientific American, Nov. 2005, p. 64. Microorganisms may be able to survive a trip through space inside a rock.

A3. Selected Introductory Web Sites

Very Concise Introduction to Astrobiology from New Scientist Magazine:
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9941-instant-expert-astrobiology.html (see same site for other articles on related topics)

The Astrochymist (A site by chemist D.E. Woon; technical in places, but with lots of information on astrochemistry): http://www.astrochymist.org/

Ehrenberg, Rachel "The Final Chemistry Frontier" (Jan. 2010 article from Science News): http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/54213/
title/ The_final_chemistry_frontier

A remarkable list of all the molecules found in the clouds between the stars is kept at:

Stardust Mission (bringing a sample back from a comet): http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html

Lovgren, Stefan "Did Comets Make Life on Earth Possible?" (from National Geographic News 2003):

NY Times article on the discovery of an amino acid in cometary material: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/19/science/space/19comet.html

B. A Few Web Resources for Formal and Informal Educators

Astrobiology Educator Guide: A 60-page NASA booklet, available in PDF format, with 5 activities for classrooms and museum workshops, at about middle-school level. Several of the activities involve cards and games:

crab nebula
Dennis Schatz "Cooks Up" a Comet During an ASP Meeting

Astrobiology: An Integrated Curriculum (a high-school guide, developed by TERC; a number of sample activities are available free): http://astrobio.terc.edu/index.html

Activities on Astrobiology from Science Scope Magazine (National Association of Science Teachers): http://www.pacsci.org/origins/assessment.html

Making A Comet Activity by Dennis Schatz (go to the activities section, and click on "Make Your Own Comet": http://www.dennisschatz.org/