Summary:The contribution to astronomy from scientists of the Nordic countries is out of proportion to their populations. Some of the most basic tools of science would be lacking if it were not for the contributions from Scandinavian astronomers in fields of research that now underpin the sciences of geophysics, astrophysics and astrobiology.
Astrobiology in a Cold Climate: The Scandinavian Connection
By Martin Griffiths
The contribution to astronomy from scientists of the Nordic countries is out of proportion to their populations. Some of the most basic tools of science would be lacking if it were not for the contributions from Scandinavian astronomers in fields of research that now underpin the sciences of geophysics, astrophysics and astrobiology. Indeed, many of the fundamental ideas in these fields were furnished long before such problems became the mainstream of current studies.
One of the first astrobiological connections was made by the polymath Emanuel Swedenborg, who in 1734 made the first case for the Solar Nebulae hypothesis in the first volume of his work Prodromus principiorum rerum naturalium (Principia). This gave scientists one of the first material insights into the formation of the sun and planets and introduced a debate that is still not settled today. There are several models of planetary formation currently advocated which account for the extrasolar planetary systems discovered so far. All these models owe their origins to Swedenborg and to the subsequent work by Simon Laplace at the end of the 18th century. This work has obvious implications for the field of astrobiology; the detection and habitability of earth-like planets in the near future, our understanding of their origins, chemistries and potentials for life. Swedenborg was a scientific mystic who turned to theology in later life, this ideology having a great effect on his approach to the question of life elsewhere. Whilst undergoing a spiritual epiphany, he wrote Concerning the Earths in our Solar System in 1758, detailing his conversations with spirit beings inhabiting the planets of our solar system and demonstrating how only on Earth could the Lord create corporeal beings and prepare a fitting place for his son to be born. Not the last time such ideas would enter the burgeoning field of astrobiology and the fringe interest of UFOlogy in the last century. Despite these extra-scientific works, his endeavours as a mathematician and astronomer should not be clouded by the nature of his spiritual vocation.
Swedenborg’s influence was very far reaching and his contributions to varied scientific fields so great that it was almost impossible to ignore his work over the coming centuries. Although scientists such as the Swede Anders Angstrom, the Norwegian Christopher Hansteen (magnetic field studies) and the Finn Anders Lexell (comets) stayed within the traditions of science, they did much to underpin the study of astrobiology today. Lexell for example, indicated that comets were very light bodies that originated in the depths of the solar system. His analysis of a short period comet discovered in 1770 by Charles Messier, demonstrated the interaction of Jupiter and smaller bodies that has implications for the origin of water on earth, the frustration of life hypothesis and the potential dangers faced by life evolving in such dynamic planetary systems. This comet changed its orbit significantly and was later lost.
|Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius
The outstanding contribution to astrobiology has to be that of the Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius. In 1903, the same year he received the Nobel prize for chemistry, he expanded on an idea known as Panspermia, tying the mechanism of the spread of spores through the cosmos to radiation pressure from star light. Previously the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius had suggested a natural mechanism in 1834, imagining that life could be organized via the meeting of organic elements in space to produce proteins and by inference more complex forms. However, it was Arrhenius who further developed this idea in his book Worlds in the Making in 1908, demonstrating his ideology that all organisms in the universe are related and the processes of evolution are everywhere the same. Arrhenius thought that life could be abundant within the solar system and advocated the case for a swampy, warm and life filled Venus in his 1918 book The Destinies of Stars.
The bequest of these few scientists have resulted in a rich harvest of studies that form the field of astrobiology today. Although the question of life elsewhere is old, the legacy of these Scandinavian scientists has enabled us to get ever nearer an answer to this question.