Field of Science

Howard Gest says that 'astrobiology' is an oxymoron

Howard Gest, Emeritus Professor at Indiana, has posted an article about astrobiology on his university's document server.

The title says it all:
On the Origin, Evolution, and Demise of an Oxymoron: “astrobiology.” 
A Select Time Line, from Elephants on the Moon to Phantom Microbes on Mars, onto Earth’s Bacteria in the Guise of Extraterrestrial Life and the Arsenic Monster of Mono Lake. 
Touching on: astrobiology follies, bacteria, chicken pie, exobiology, extremophiles, fossil microbes, Mars, media mayhem, meteorites, moon dust, NASA, phantom microbes, War of the Worlds, and sundry other topics.
I especially like his dig at those physicists who assume that all the major problems in biology can be solved by the application of a little physics-derived common sense:

Why is it that biologists never advance hypotheses on problems of physics relating to quarks, gluons, black holes etc., whereas many physical scientists (physicists, astronomers, geologists etc.) have attempted to explain major complex unsolved problems of biology? 


  1. If Gest had said "exobiology is an oxymoron," I would have to agree, since we know of no extraterrestrial life. The NASA definition of astrobiology depicts the study of "the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe." Last I checked, Earth was indeed part of the universe, and not separate. It could well be that Earth is the only home for life, but that null hypothesis should be tested alongside other possibilities. Of course extremophiles should not be accepted as evidence of extraterrestrials, but they do suggest the potential for life outside common expectation.

    I understand the frustration surrounding the hype. As a recent biochemistry graduate with a strong interest in astrobiology, I too get frustrated by grandstanding announcements like F. Wolfe-Simon's. Even more so by Richard Hoover and the Journal of Cosmology. I couldn't agree more with the sentiment: "Clearly, the Internet and the blogosphere have created new problems in communication of scientific advances to the public."

    At this stage, astrobiology is a science a bit ahead of it's time. The tools don't yet exist to adequately test many of ideas, but they will soon. I've read that within 20-30 years, we could have telescopes capable of spectroscopically sniffing the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets. It would be nice to have testable predictions ready when the technology comes available.

    I am reminded that as recently as the 1960s, many geology professors refused to teach plate tectonics, because they could not conceive of forces capable of moving such immense masses. Now, it is accepted as common knowledge. Time will tell with the seemingly far out notion of astrobiology as well.

  2. Whenever I read an astrobiology paper, I'm reminded of Feynman's essay on "Cargo Cult Science." As with the pseudoscientists in Feynman's essay, astrobiologists walk around in lab coats and play with test tubes, they drive Jeeps and swing rock hammers; they take on the appearances of traditional and productive scientists. But most seem to be going through the motions, focusing on the known or mundane rather than the pursuit of genuinely new and meaningful knowledge. They do love press conferences and panel discussions, though.

    The supposedly revolutionary findings of astrobiologists have always ultimately been exposed as hype (or worse). In the end, I suspect that future discoveries related to exobiology will be made by astronomers and by traditional biologists.

  3. Until there is real eviddence of life outside of this planet Earth and its atmosphere there is no biology. All this effort is part of research on the limited area of space that our Sun hold together and we have a hope of interactions.. RGEM


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