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Science without boundaries

Life on Mars? Microbes could be common elsewhere in the universe, and complex life could be unusually familiar.

Life on Mars? Microbes could be common elsewhere in the universe, and complex life could be unusually familiar. NASA

10 January 2007

A series of interdepartmental geobiology seminars encourages collaboration across the sciences in order to throw light on questions surrounding the inter-relationships of life and the environment.

Too often we divide scientific disciplines by walls into university departments. But many important scientific questions can only be answered by combining expertise from different branches of science that cut straight through the bricks and mortar. How dangerous is global warming? How has the environment and life co-evolved over Earth history? Is there life elsewhere?

Geobiology is an emerging branch of science that seeks to understand the inter-relationships of life and environment on Earth and their significance for life elsewhere. In autumn, experts were invited from around the UK and overseas for a highly successful geobiology seminar series in the Faculty of Science, with lectures ranging from the Earth’s climate to extrasolar planets.

A seminar on global warming by Dr James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, garnered a turnout of 300 students and staff. Dr Hansen argued that we must make changes to our energy use within the next 10 years or the global climate will reach a tipping point where dangerous consequences are unavoidable. Other seminar speakers in the series chose environmental themes: the carbon cycle, the history of the Earth’s atmosphere, the effect that life has on weathering land surfaces, and how remnant organic molecules in sediments can tell us about Earth’s climate going back millions of years.

Professor Simon Conway-Morris from Cambridge gave a spirited seminar entitled ‘What evolution tells us about extraterrestrials’. Many anatomical features in biology, such as the eye, have evolved many times independently, a phenomenon called ‘convergence’. Professor Conway-Morris argued that convergence means that we should expect complex life elsewhere to be unusually familiar.

Professor Andrew Watson from the University of East Anglia gave a lecture where he argued that the tempo of the evolution of life over the whole of Earth history was controlled by a small number of improbable steps. Generalising his theory, he argued that microbes could be common elsewhere in the universe but complex life very rare.

Finally, Professor Hugh Jones, an astronomer from the University of Hertfortshire, spoke on potential planetary habitats. He gave a fascinating account of the discovery of new planets around other stars, noting how the discovery of Earth-sized planets will soon be upon us.

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