Astrobiology and the Search for Meaning: An African boy’s perspective

in The Astrobiology Newsletter [January 2006]

A Moral Dilemma

I spent most of my life in Southern Africa. Like a grain of Kalahari sand carried in the Okavango River that suddenly finds itself – quite unexpectedly – in the fertile Okavango Delta, the river of life somehow carried me to UW’s Astrobiology Program where I found myself surrounded not by Gemsbok and Fish Eagles but rather by some of the best astrobiological thinkers (and, after three years of national conferences, I confidently count our graduate students amongst these) on the planet.

Memories of my Third World childhood frequently stir me to justify my luxurious existence as a researcher into Earth’s deep past. It is my contention that, within an age that has been aptly coined the ‘anthropocene’, the allocation of resources towards the pursuit of NASA-scale scientific goals requires critical evaluation. The resource-base with which our planet is endowed is limited, a fact that should now be becoming increasingly clear to even the most ardent of industrialists. Indeed, it is arguably exactly the scientists -even more than many of their planetary co-inhabitants- who should be expected to be particularly self-critical in this context, working as they commonly do at the interface between humanity and the natural world. Do we go to Mars, or heed the near-apocalyptical outcries of many environmentalists and invest instead in monitoring our planet’s bio-, geo- and atmosphere through Earth-observation satellite technology?

And then there’s the fact that someone needs to feed scientists such as myself. In return, we can rarely offer more than a vague commitment to the taxpaying public to increase the information content of the universe, largely through the publication of increasingly specialized articles in increasingly unreadable scientific journals.

In Defense of Astrobiology

Peoples of all cultures and times have derived Meaning from pondering the questions that we astrobiologists get paid to answer. Meaning, I contend, is largely a matter of timescale selection. We humans are evolutionarily conditioned to contextualize our experiences within the meagre timescale of a couple of generations at most. In much of the Western world, the dominant trend towards forever increasing individualism further shrinks this ‘window of reality’ to the pitiful lifespan of our own consciousness. Astrobiology certainly provides some refreshing temporal and spatial distance from this.

What is to become of Meaning in the face of an expanding infernal Sun overrunning Earth’s orbit about 4 billion years from now? And is Meaning itself somehow slated to escape the ultimate universe-scale heat-death necessitated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics? With these upcoming events in mind, can a human-catalysed mass-extinction objectively be regarded as A Big Deal? With these thoughts in mind, I return to the microscope on my desk. Looking through the eyepieces, the dark mass of 3.8-billion year old graphitized organic matter still sits quietly, unmoved, waiting.

To find our more about our research into the oldest life on Earth, visit our website.

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