• A Sample of One

    Shawn’s comment on yesterday’s word cloud posted by Betul inspired me to start thinking about a sample of one. It is remarkable that the only life in the universe we know about is here on Earth. You might expect there to be an abundance of life in the universe, or none at all, but not a sample of one. This is an interesting conversation in itself – but you may wonder why with a known sample of one, astrobiology is any different than biology for example, they both study the same sample of life. I think it breaks down to a difference in perspective. Consider, for example, the study of the workings of a pocket watch by someone who had never seen such a device before. One might first start by taking apart the watch; looking at its pieces and determining how all the intricate gears work in cooperation. They might further categorize the parts, for example separating the functions of the gears and the springs. This is the role of the biologist. What then would the astrobiologist do when they later came to inspect the very same watch? The astrobiologist might ask: What is the purpose of the watch? How was it first put together? What happens if I replace certain parts of the watch with other gadgets? Could the watch still function under extreme temperature, or magnetic fields? Or, could there be other types of watches, perhaps a watch I could wear on my wrist instead of carry in my pocket? Could a watch be made without gears, maybe digital watches might exist? The analogy is not perfect, but the important point is that the astrobiologist would ask different questions and by doing so would drive a very different understanding of the watch. It’s because we ask different questions that we can begin to address the really deep questions like “how does life begin and evolve, does life exist elsewhere in the universe, and what is the future of life on Earth and beyond?” It is the task of the astrobiologist to take our sample of one and to imagine what is possible. In so doing, we learn a lot about ourselves, our place in the cosmos, and our future here on Earth.