Challenges2014, 5(2), 296-323; doi:10.3390/challe5020296 - published 19 September 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: We have now confirmed the existence of > 1800 planets orbiting stars other thanthe Sun; known as extrasolar planets or exoplanets. The different methods for detectingsuch planets are sensitive to different regions of parameter space, and so, we are discoveringa wide diversity of exoplanets and exoplanetary systems. Characterizing such planets isdifficult, but we are starting to be able to determine something of their internal compositionand are beginning to be able to probe their atmospheres, the first step towards the detectionof bio-signatures and, hence, determining if a planet could be habitable or not. Here, Iwill review how we detect exoplanets, how we characterize exoplanetary systems and theexoplanets themselves, where we stand with respect to potentially habitable planets and howwe are progressing towards being able to actually determine if a planet could host life or not.
Challenges2014, 5(2), 294-295; doi:10.3390/challe5020294 - published 18 September 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: An Aquatic Habitability Index is proposed, based on Quantitative Habitability Theory, and considering a very general model for life. It is a primary habitability index, measuring habitability for phytoplankton in the first place. The index is applied to some case studies, such as the habitability changes in Earth due to environmental perturbations caused by asteroid impacts.
Abstract: The past decade has seen an explosion of new technologies for assessment of biogenicity and syngeneity of carbonaceous material within sedimentary rocks. Advances have been made in techniques for analysis of in situ organic matter as well as for extracted bulk samples of soluble and insoluble (kerogen) organic fractions. The in situ techniques allow analysis of micrometer-to-sub-micrometer-scale organic residues within their host rocks and include Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy/imagery, confocal laser scanning microscopy, and forms of secondary ion/laser-based mass spectrometry, analytical transmission electron microscopy, and X-ray absorption microscopy/spectroscopy. Analyses can be made for chemical, molecular, and isotopic composition coupled with assessment of spatial relationships to surrounding minerals, veins, and fractures. The bulk analyses include improved methods for minimizing contamination and recognizing syngenetic constituents of soluble organic fractions as well as enhanced spectroscopic and pyrolytic techniques for unlocking syngenetic molecular signatures in kerogen. Together, these technologies provide vital tools for the study of some of the oldest and problematic carbonaceous residues and for advancing our understanding of the earliest stages of biological evolution on Earth and the search for evidence of life beyond Earth. We discuss each of these new technologies, emphasizing their advantages and disadvantages, applications, and likely future directions.
Abstract: Despite many efforts to deal with the various complex issues facing our societies, plans and problem solutions are seldom long lasting, because we, as individuals, and our leaders are most likely to fall into the trap of using traditional linear thinking. It is natural and easy, but does not usually deliver long-term solutions in the context of highly complex modern communities. There is an urgent need for innovative ways of thinking and a fresh approach to dealing with the unprecedented and complex challenges facing our world. It is essential for future leaders and citizens to be prepared for “interconnected” thinking to deal with complex problems in a systemic, integrated and collaborative fashion; working together to deal with issues holistically, rather than simplistically focusing on isolated features. An educational tool (Ecopolicy) is used as the main mechanism to achieve this aim. The Ecopolicy cybernetic simulation “game” is a challenging, but playful, method by which students are introduced to the idea of thinking in terms of relations, in feedback cycles, in networks and in systems. Participation in this stimulating simulation enhances the capacity of young people to change their way of thinking. This would be expected to prepare them to develop into leaders or citizens who can effectively deal with a complex and challenging future.
Abstract: If we find life on another world, it will be an extremely important discovery and we will have to take great care not to do anything that might endanger that life. If the life we find is sentient we will have moral obligations to that life. Whether it is sentient or not, we have a duty to ourselves to preserve it as a study object, and also because it would be commonly seen as valuable in its own right. In addition to this we would also have a duty to our fellow humans and other earthly life forms not to expose them to danger by advertently or inadvertently exposing them to potentially harmful space organisms. When space exploration turns into exploitation it will therefore be important to be able to show that a world that is up for exploitation is uninhabited before the exploitation starts. Showing that a world is uninhabited is, however, a different kind of task than showing that it is inhabited. The latter task can be accomplished through one positive finding but it is not clear how to go about the former task. In this paper I suggest that it is a gradual process asymptotically approaching certainty rather than a discovery in the traditional sense of the word. It has to be handled in two steps. The first is to connect degree of certainty with research setup. The second is to decide how certain we need to be. The first step is about the number, diversity and quality of observations. The second step is a decision we have to make based on the purpose of the investigation. The purpose and therefore the degree of certainty needed to establish that a world is uninhabited will be different for a world that is up for exploitation than for a world that is not. In the latter case it is only a matter of epistemic values. In the former case also ethical values have to be considered.