Saturday, August 16, 2008

Astrobiology: the Game?

In any discussion of space exploration with someone who is not already a space geek, the subject of life beyond Earth will usually come up. Whether it's the possibility of simple life on Mars, or speculation about possible intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (and whether "they" have visited here), this is one part of space exploration and astronomy that many people can connect with.

Back in the sixties, Carl Sagan co-authored a book with I.S. Shlovskii called Intelligent Life in the Universe. I remember reading this in college (around 1973) and being impressed and fascinated with the interdisciplinary combination of astronomy, physics, geology, and biology. In fact this was an early work on what is now called astrobiology, a subject that was not all that respectable at the time.

Nowadays astrobiology is relatively mainstream and is a field where a lot of the really big questions can be explored. As the Wikipedia article notes, these include:
What is life? How did life arise on Earth? What do astrophysical observations tell us about the present and future of life on Earth? What kind of environments can life tolerate? How can we determine if life exists on other planets? How often can we expect to find complex life? What will life consist of on other planets? Will it be DNA/carbon based or based on something else? What will it look like?
In a couple of weeks, Will Wright's long awaited "video game" Spore will be released, and as this article points out, it is very much astrobiology turned into entertainment. I'm really intrigued by this and will probably buy it, but as with other electronic diversions other than Orbiter (and flight simulators some years ago), I probably won't have time to explore it much. Even though it appears to play a bit loosely with some of the ideas of evolution and natural selection (it is a game, after all), I hope that it encourages interest in science, and better yet, helps to portray science as a creative and exploratory activity, which of course it is.

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