Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Public Input To Science Funding

Currently, NASA is asking for public assistance for their astrobiology program, or they were up until the current government shutdown, and in particular, asking for suggestions as to where their program should be going. I think this is an extremely enlightened view, and I hope they receive plenty of good suggestions and take some of them up. This is a little different from the average way science gets funded, in which academic scientists put in applications for funds to pursue what they think is original. This is supposed to permit the uncovering of "great new advances", and in some areas, perhaps it does, but I rather suspect the most common outcome is to support what Rutherford dismissively called, "stamp collecting". You get a lot of publications, a lot of data, but there is no coherent approach towards answering "big questions". That, I think, is a strength of the NASA approach, and I hope other organizations take this up. For example, if we wish to address climate change, what questions do we really want to have answered? What we tend to get is, "Fund me to set up more data gathering," from those too uninspired to come up with something more incisive. We do not need more data to set the parameters so that current models better represent what we see; we need better models that will represent what will happen if we do or do not do X.
 
So what are the good questions for NASA to address? Obviously there are a very large number of them, but in my view, regarding biogenesis, I think there are some very important ones. Perhaps one of the most important one that has been pursued so far is how do the planets get their water, because if we want life on other planets, they have to have water. The water on the rocky planets is often thought to come from chondrites, as a "late veneer" on the planet. Now, one of the peculiarities of this explanation is that, as I argued in my ebook, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, this explanation has serious problems. The first is, only a special class of chondrites contains volatiles; the bulk of the bodies from the asteroid belt do not. Further, the isotopes of the heavier elements are different from Earth, the ratios of different volatiles do not correspond to anything we see here or on the other planets, so why is such an explanation persisted with? The short answer is, for most there is no alternative.
 
My alternative is simple: the planets started accreting through chemical processes. Only solids could be accreted in reasonable amounts this close to the star, unless the body got big enough to hold gravitationally gases from the accretion disk. Water can be held as metal and silicon hydroxyl compound, the water subsequently being liberated. This, as far as I know, is the only mechanism by which the various planets can have different atmospheric compositions: different amounts of the various components were formed at different temperatures in the disk.
 
If that is correct, we would have a means of predicting whether alien planets could conceivably contain life. Accordingly, one way to pursue this would be to try to understand the high temperature chemistry of the dusts and volatiles expected to be in the accretion disk. That would involve a lot of work for which chemists alone would be suitable. Now, my question is, how many chemists have shown any interest in this NASA program? Do we always want to complain about insufficient research funds, or are we prepared to go out and do something to collect more?
Posted by Ian Miller on Oct 7, 2013 1:10 AM Europe/London

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