Fun at the Center for Astrophysics

January 15th, 2007

One of the major objectives of Harvard’s new Origins-of-Life Initiative is to build a community of scientists who can draw on each other’s expertise to figure out how life started. This approach makes a lot of sense when you consider the interdisciplinary nature of the problem. I really enjoy the collegiality that the new program has offered; it’s quite refreshing. In our department (chemistry and chemical biology), each research group essentially exists on its own island. The chemistry professors at Harvard seldom collaborate with each other on research projects, and inter-group interaction is uncommon. We don’t have departmental problem sessions, organized chats about science, or student colloquia.

In contrast, the Origins program not only offers a full schedule of seminars, but also a number of informal “chalk talks” where incomplete research is presented and discussed among the students and professors who show up. The newest feature of the program is a series of “lab visits,” where everyone tours the laboratory of one of the other researchers in the program. Last month, we took a walk up Garden Street to Observatory Hill and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Most of the origin-of-life projects in astrophysics concern hunting for planets around distant stars. About 200 exoplanets have been discovered, and there’s a good possibility that their composition can be studied spectroscopically. The researchers are especially interested in finding Earth-like planets and signs of distant life. Right now, the limitations of their techniques make it very difficult to find any planets other than large ones that are close to their stars (so-called “Hot Jupiters”). It’s interesting stuff.

What amazed me about the visit was how astrophysicists have a completely different culture from chemists. The first thing that struck me was that although grad students had advisors, the student offices were located in a central building instead of in the research labs. I got the sense that the students had their own vibrant community in addition to their individual labs, which has definite advantages. It is always nice to have a diverse set of acquaintances who are willing to engage you in scientific discussions. When you spend all day in one research lab, you are often surrounded by people who are experts in the same area and think alike.

Much like chemists get classified into organic and physical, the astrophysicists divide themselves into observers, theoreticians, and instrumentalists. The observers’ research is mostly limited by the time they can reserve on the best telescopes. Getting telescope time is a highly-competitive process: only 1-in-4 proposals are allocated time on NASA’s land telescopes. That number shrinks to 1-in-7 for the telescopes in space. Some schools even sponsor telescopes so that their faculty will have priority on them.

Because resources are tight and government instrumentation is used to collect the data, NASA lights a fire under the butts of the observers by opening the data they requested to the general public a year after it is collected. That means you have a limited period of time to find something interesting before any nerd with an Internet connection can scoop you.

I love the openness of their system. There is no comparison in organic chemistry, where despite the fact that most of our research is funded with taxpayer money, we generally resist sharing our data with anyone until it is published. And once published, some people are still unwilling to grant outsiders’ requests for help or data. Would you be willing to scan your lab notebooks and post them online?

Finally, I thought I’d share one interesting piece of scuttlebutt from the astronomical community. The word on the street is that the slated “Return to the Moon” is not very popular among scientists and stands a reasonable chance of getting scrubbed if the Dems take back the White House in 2008. So if you we’re looking for one, that’s another reason to vote donkey in the next election.

Previous Comments

  1. eugene Says:
    January 15th, 2007 at 11:16 am My notebook may be very unhelpful. Half the time, instead of writing down what happened, I write down the name of the NMR file. You’d need access to the NMR file to find out what really happened.
  2. Uncle Al Says:
    January 15th, 2007 at 12:17 pm…..amp;tab=wi

    Set up a bunch of 5-liter flasks. Do abiogenesis starting with atmospheric HCN chemistries. Have varied simulated environments like deep sea vents. Have modest variations on chemistry like clays, basalt, granite, pegmatites; calcite, illmenite, quartz (not fused silica) sands; deep sea vents and their sulfur plus transition metal enrichments. Remember the phosphate. Take a hint from common metabolic paths. Let cook for a few years instead of a few days.

    Glasssblow it as a single piece, load it, and fuse shut the entry port. Deinococcus radiodurans laughs at a 5 MRad medical sterilizing dose of Co-60. It happily lives in nuclear reactor primary coolant loops and spent fuel pools. The world is rich with hyperbaric, hyperthermal, hypersaline, hyperacidic… tolerent organisms. Do a deep sterilization before starting – and have two controls: one merely assembled/loaded and one deep sterilized but not further reacted.

    Remember the virgin married to a Democrat for 10 years. All he did was sit at the edge of the bed and tell her how great it would be.

  3. Wolfie Says:
    January 16th, 2007 at 11:38 pm Great Eugene, only You know what really happened. We don’t and that’s why we are discussing.
  4. eugene Says:
    January 17th, 2007 at 12:33 am The thing about the ‘Origin of Life’ science that strikes me as very different from, let’s say… organometallics, is that it is very open ended. That’s why there are astrophysicists looking for earth-sized planets, biologists trying to grow simple organisms that pass on information and chemists studying amino acid breakdown pathways in hydrothermal vent conditions. In organometallics you might set a goal that you tell a committee. Such as, ‘this research may ultimately lead to the better understanding of nitrogen fixation catalysis and towards a homogeneous catalyst’, and quietly go on working on high oxidation molybdenum chemistry because interesting enough things happen that you publish in Andjewandte every once in a while.

    What do you say on a grant proposal for an ‘Origin of Life’ project? ‘We’ll try to see if hydrothermal vent conditions on the early earth could mimic important primitive metabolic pathways’? But if it doesn’t work, then you just keep on trying or find a better hydrothermal vent condition because if you don’t prove the idea, then the creationists win.

    Do they win?

    And if you don’t find any earth-like planets beyond the solar system then you keep on looking for the same reason.

    So, there is only one good answer to what the ‘Origin of Life’ is, but a lot of effort has to be put into proving that answer. That’s not good ’scientific’ methodology, but science never works that way anyways. Maybe fixing nitrogen is the same. We all know it can be done at room temperature and 1atm because we see it. Unless those shifty bacteria are lying to us; I wouldn’t put it past those unicellular sobs. Sometimes a system has to be abandoned because it’s a dead end though, even if you did learn a lot of interesting and unexpected things along the way. Actually now that I think about it, Origin of Life and organometallics are the same. And I was wrong in my first sentence.

    So we already know the answer then: there should be a homogeneous system that fixes nitrogen and life should have originated on earth. Now you have to find the catalytic system or prove the statement.

    Maybe the only difference is that ‘Origin of Life’ undertakings, unlike fixation of nitrogen in the lab, require a cornucopia of disciplines to prove beyond all doubt to the participants that life originated on earth. Because the creationists are not going to believe you anyways, no matter what you do. And everyone else won’t care all that much.

    But we won’t mention that things can’t be proven beyond all doubt as well. That dirty secret will ensure a tie. It’s easier to win court cases that way.

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