By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., Jan. 20, 2009 – New Mexico Tech professor Dr. Penelope Boston hypothesizes that life on Mars – albeit microbial – is a distinct possibility.
An 18-minute Internet video features Boston talking about her career in geomicrobiology, caves, microbial life and the study of possible life on Mars. The video was posted on the TED website in December 2008.
Boston’s video is available at www.ted.com/index.php/talks/penelope_boston.html
She presented her talk at the 2006 TED Conference. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.
The annual conference brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes.
Boston shared the bill in 2006 with Al Gore, Peter Gabriel, Tony Robbins and 34 other scientists, artists and visionaries.
“I had met Al Gore when I was a grad student at the National Center for Atmospheric Research on an Advanced Studies Fellowship,” she said. “I knew of his long interest in climate issues even then. It was nice to see him again and chat about Earth's possible futures including moving out into the rest of the Solar System.”
Boston’s talk hardly seems like lecture. She touched on a variety of subjects – from the personal to professional, including a variety of topics and background vignettes. She said she spent a day preparing her presentation, which was rather easy because she’s familiar and comfortable with the material.
“Speaking at TED was an interesting and rather bizarre experience,” Boston said. “I followed Einstein, the amazingly cognitively aware and highly talkative African Grey Parrot from the Knoxville Zoo. I was followed by an African children’s dance group and then Al Gore talking about global climate change.”
She said she received a great deal of feedback, largely due to the event’s design as a dialog about cerebral topics. She said she had a great conversation with comedienne Julia Sweeney, a Saturday Night Live alum, who turns out to be a big space exploration fan.
“The TED Conference was really a delightful experience,” Boston said. “At a typical scientific meeting, one doesn't usually have much opportunity to interact with artists, musicians, poets, graphics gurus and the like. At this meeting, movie stars and experimental string quartets were mingling over the hors d'ouevres with performing artists from around the world, neo-beat poets, actors, and comedians, CEOS of corporations, theramin players (yes!), sculptors, and philanthropists working on starvation and AIDS issues.”
Now in its 25th year, TED Conferences organizers invite the brightest, cutting edge minds. Each year, hundreds of the world’s leading thinkers converge on Long Beach, Calif., for four days of riveting, mind-expanding presentations and discussions about the future, science, art, technology and philosophy.
Boston began her power-point lecture with a brief explanation of how she became interested in space, science and exploration.
“I blame the Soviet Union,” she said. “They had the audacity to launch a primitive satellite named Sputnick. … as a result, a tremendous amount of money funded math and science and I’m a product of that.”
She said she is motivated by a child-like curiosity and a value judgment that all life is valuable. As an undergraduate, she became interested in Mars exploration and life elsewhere in the universe. Later, she focused on geomicrobiology – the study of microbial life forms, especially in extreme environments.
“Finding life on another planet is a non-trivial occupation,” she said on the video. “My first bold prediction is that life will be everywhere in the universe – on planets that can support it and these planets will be very common.”
At the time of the Big Bang, the Universe consisted almost exclusively of hydrogen, followed later by more complicated elements as the first generation of stars was born and then died. Then, planets formed from the increasingly complex elemental palette available.
“Life is a natural outgrowth of the increasing complexification of matter over time,” she said. “I believe that life will prove to be a common planetary-based phenomenon.”
Prior to expeditions to Mars, Boston said she considered the existence of life on Mars a 1-in-25 chance. With several major expeditions to Mars completed or under way – and the discovery of subsurface ice and recent confirmation of atmospheric methane, she now considers it a 50-50 proposition that life exists on Mars or did at some time in the past.
“On Earth, where there’s water, there’s life,” she said. “It’s probably microscopic and it’s never easy to study microscopic things. … It’s probably hiding. … The game is afoot.”
The extreme conditions found in some terrestrial caves serve as an analog for conditions found on Mars, she said. Boston talked about several of the caves she has explored – hazardous, extreme environments saturated with lethal levels of toxic chemicals.
“Extreme parameters make biology found there very special,” she said. “These environments are not devoid of life. They are bursting with it. Extremes on Earth are interesting because they may represent the average conditions on other planets. We have to stretch our imagination for what we might find in the future.”
Microbial life – bacteria – survive and even thrive in many extreme environments. Of particular note are lava tubes, which are created by slow volcanic activity on the ocean floor, and some sulfur rich limestone caves which can be highly acidic and extremely hot. In these extreme conditions, some bacteria flourish.
“These organisms make a vast array of novel compounds,” she said. “The potential for exploitation is completely untapped – and probably exceeds the entire biodiversity of the planet’s surface.”
Boston explained a project on which she has been collaborating to design a robotic missions to Mars. She and her colleagues are designing micro-bots that can behave like a swarm, literally hopping across inhospitable terrain, gathering information.
One of Boston’s goals is to find more links between life on Earth to life on Mars. Meteorite evidence points to material that has been exchanged between both planets.
She closed her talk with the question: “Where did life start? Earth or Mars? Or somewhere else? This will be a fascinating puzzle as we head into the next half century.”
– NMT –