APL Colloquium

April 26, 2013

Colloquium Topic: Prospects for Life and Human Habitability Around Nearby Stars: Many Possible Homes for Our Elder (?) Race, But the Neighbors Are Likely Bacteria

In this talk I will present the current big picture for the formation and evolution of life on Earth, with special attention given to the necessary astronomical, geological, and chemical requirements. Astronomically, there are 1011 stars in our galaxy, each according to the latest Kepler results likely to have formed its own Earth-sized planet. The Universe is 13.8 Gyr old, the Galaxy is about 12 Gyr old, our Sun is ~4.6 Gyr old, and high-Z chemical elements took a few generations of stars to form. Sol and our solar system are ~2/3 of the way out from our spiral galaxy’s relatively weak central black hole, in the suburbs. The Earth itself is a 4.56 Gyr old, highly differentiated, very unique object with all its water on the surface, a giant moon stabilizing its spin, and plate tectonics keeping it warm and shielded by a magnetic field. We live, work, & die on the thinnest wet rind of the orange: life is found on the Earth in an incredibly narrow spatial range, -20 to +100 km from the surface of a body of diameter ~104 km, and is found only where liquid water is available. Failed terrestrial planet harbors for life exist next-door in Venus and Mars.

 Historically, the first forms of life appear to have formed in high temperature environments. Earth-life was mainly blue-green and single-celled for the first 3.5 Gyr of the planet’s existence. By ~2 Gyr, in the first massive life-based pollution event in the planet’s timeline, phototrophic plant life had driven the atmosphere out of equilibrium, removing almost all CO2 converting it into O2, without which there would likely be few animals and no land dwelling creatures. Complex multi-cellular life only arrived after ~3.5 Gyr. This multi-cellular life has gone through  at least 4 huge upheavals and changes due to giant impacts: Bug Eyed Monsters, Trilobites, or Giant Lizards would be ruling the Earth without them. Creatures even remotely resembling Homo Sapiens have only been on the Earth for ~4 Myr out of 4.56 Gyr, an ~10-3 duty cycle. Bacteria, even today, are the most successful forms of life reckoned by total biomass, and we each carry some of this biomass on our skin, in our gut, and in our mitochondria.

Colloquium Speaker: Carey M. Lisse

Carey Lisse has over 33 years of experience in experimental and observational research that includes astrophysics, detector physics, optics, electronics, and remote sensing data analysis. Currently, he is involved with studying the physical properties of primitive solar system objects; the rock-forming dust contained in comets, the IPD cloud, the Proto-Solar Nebula, and YSOs; x-ray emission from solar system bodies and the heliosphere; and designing, building, and operating Solar System spacecraft missions.

Previous to APL, Carey had been at NASA/Goddard Spaceflight Center, the University of Maryland, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). He was a member of the NASA/IRTF D/Shoemaker-Levy 9 Observing Team, the NASA/IRTF C/Hyakutake Science Team, and the Constellation-X Facility Science Team. Asteroid 12226 Careylisse was named in his honor in 2001.

Carey holds a B.A. in Chemistry from Princeton University, an M.S. in Chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Maryland.