2011 Annual Science Report

Montana State University Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

The ABRC Philosophy of Astrobiology and the Origin of Life Discussion Group

Project Summary

A unique feature of Montana State’s ARBC is our Philosophy of Astrobiology Focus Group. Our group consists of faculty, undergraduate, and graduate students from philosophy, history, chemistry and bio-chemistry who are interested in examining the philosophical questions that intersect with astrobiology research.

Specifically: • What are the defining characteristics of life? • What would we look for in searching for “alternative” life forms? • What is “intelligence” and how would we know when we had found it? • How do we choose between competing theories of the origins of life? • How are emerging sciences, such as astrobiology, different from mature sciences? • What are the social implications of discovering life on another planet or, alternatively, for failing to find life? • What are the ethical obligations of scientists in conducting research on other planets? • How should we assess potential environmental and health risks associated with astrobiological research?

4 Institutions
3 Teams
1 Publication
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

The focus group helps to identify and critically evaluate assumptions about what life is, what standards of evidence or criteria for theory choice are appropriate for choosing between competing theories, and how to engage in ethical decision-making throughout the research process. Astrobiology research has typically taken four different approaches: (i) the bottom-up approach (that uses inanimate elements, molecules & minerals to create a living organism), (ii) the top-down approach (that exploits information contained in the earth’s extant biology to extrapolate as far as we can go to the origin of life), (iii) the exploration approach that lies in finding alien life, if there is any, in different planets of our solar system and beyond. (iv) and finally, the synthetic biology approach that tries to understand a life form that is not just an evolutionary cousin of the life with which we are already familiar. Our team addresses each of these. Prasanta Bandyophadhyay presented a multi-authored paper at the Ab-SciCon 2010 titled “Astrobiology as an Emerging Science: What does it tell a Philosopher?” In this paper, we discussed issues confronting methodologies of astrobiology. We argued that several features of a good scientific theory like (i) the unification, (ii) the predictive power of a theory, and (iii) testability don’t seem to apply to those top-down and bottom-up theories at the present state of their development. Another paper presented at the University of Pittsburgh by Dr. Bandyophadhyay and graduate student Trevor Beard, discusses the criticism that has usually been leveled against the Metabolism First Theory (MFT) and RNA World Theory (RWT) that reactions that are done in a lab to support each origin of life theory are both too inefficient and not specific enough to explain the generation of early life. We showed that even though some reactions could be locally inefficient, they could be globally efficient implying that the emergence of life in a global scale is not improbable, but, in fact, probable. Professors Sara Waller and Kristen Intemann have given national and international presentations on the exploration approach, considering what intelligent life would look like, as well as the ethical and social implications of finding (or not finding) life on other planets. Kristen Intemann is also conducting research on how to assess the risks related to the fourth approach, synthetic biology. In these ways, our focus group helps scientists reflect critically on each of these approaches.

The focus group faculty have collaborated with graduate and undergraduate students to produce several peer-reviewed articles and conference presentations. Chemistry graduate student Trevor Beard earned the MIDAS award for this paper with Prasanta Bandyophadyay given at the University of Pittsburgh and recent graduates are continuing successful astrobiology research. Former graduate student Shawn McGlynn is now a post-doc at the California Institute of Technology, and undergraduates Nathan Haydon and Olin Robus went on to PhD programs related to astrobiology and philosophy of science. Current history of science graduate student Michael Bertasso is actively collaborating on a paper related to the Drake equation and undergraduates Cameron Bebe and Samuel Foulkes are working on issues related to space exploration. The focus group helps enhances the training of new scientists by making them aware of the philosophical and ethical dimensions of their research. The ARBC has teamed up with the new Program on Ethics in Society at MSU to offer a new course in Research Ethics and training in the responsible conduct of research. In addition philosophy faculty are working the ABRC EPO effort to produce materials that engage primary and secondary students in questions about space exploration, the nature of life, and the ethical and social issues related to space exploration.