The more I learn about astrobiology…

I am quite aware of the fact that bashing other academic fields is quite unpopular to some people – and you probably can make a lot of enemies that way, or at least lose friends. But I dont care, I must give my two cents on this debacle that Pharyngula has written more about. I hope that more sensitive ppl can take it. And if not… then fine.. see you later.

I am also quite aware of the fact that one scientific magazines dubious behaviour is not the same as the behavoiur of an entire academic discipline – so dont give too much remark to that connection – it was simply the inspiration for this post. I know for a fact that there are a lot of astrobiologist out there who are just as good scientists as anyone else. But still, it doesnt surprise me that the connection between astrobiology and a poor peer-review is on the table.

Anyway – I have noticed that it seems like astrobiologist in general try to form their own discipline, despite being a multidisciplinary field of geology, biology and astronomy from the beginning.

I have no problem with the notion of a new perspective on lets say the geology of Mars. They could very well find new things in the geology pointing to life that traditional geologists would have missed. But at the same time, there is a huge potential problem in this.

Astrobiologist very often interpet geological material on other planets as far as I have seen when looking at their papers – despite often not being schooled in geology beyond basic levels. Most astrobiologists are astronomers or astrophysicists as I have understood it all. Sure, they can bring fresh new ideas from their backgrounds, but they will miss out on a lot of geological facts.

I have a friend, and perhaps he reads this post now and no longer considers me a friend 😛 , but from the beginning I have been very sceptical of the thesis he wrote (not seeing it in full! I could be totaly wrong now) – for the simple reason that it discuss satelite photos of Mars surface, and features on the surface, without consulting proper geologists. I mean, we are talking about sand dunes and the black spots that sometimes are visible on these on Mars.

Fig. Black spots on dunes on Mars. DDS also called. Many theories exist on their origin. But as I see it, nomatter what theory you prefer, you must consult a sedimentologist or at least their knowledge when discussin sedimentology, right?

So the very first person I would have asked for an opinion on what this could have been is a geologist, a sedimentologist preferably since they are the experts on dunes and sediments. But no, they skipped that part for reasons I didnt understand. His call of course, but I dont like it in a strict scientific approach. They made a separate theory instead, based on Co2-movement in the sand I believe. Certainly plausible and possible – but without the insights from the real experts on sand dunes, on Mars or Earth, I wouldnt have approved it – no matter how good it was.

What do you guys think. Is it ok to approve and/or accept papers/thesis on topics without consulting experts of that field? Is that really good science to just ignore the existing fields on the matter? Too me it sounds that at best, the only thing you will produce is a contextual proof/theory of something, not a real proof/theory.

I asked him if he had talked with any sedimentologists on the dunes of Mars, but it seemed like he didnt at that time. I think its because he perhaps didnt know that he had stepped in to the world of geology when discussing dunes. For me that is obvious, but for many ppl its is so that geologists deal with rocks, and nothing but rocks with the pick-axe and such… Sand and how that behave is something else. 😛

And no, this is not the only reason that I have difficulties accepting astrobiology – I have also learned that they actually also discuss the formation and construction of planets – without geologists. They say: “We look at the dynamics when a planet is formed and how it wors from a strict physics point of view” (since they are astrophysicists in general). They actually dont understand that geologists work with large scale functions of planets as well and that not understanding petrology will make any theory on the large scale of planet dynamics as useless as not understanding thermodynamics.You cannot explain how a planet works with magnetic fields and not understanding how and why we have hot spots, subduction zones and so on. Planets are geology.

It might seem like I place geologists on a ivory throne now, that only we must be asked on matters of sediments and stone and noone else, but Im not, I AM open to alternative points of view. I would like to see much more multidisciplinary science. But with one condition: That they always make sure that the leading experts of every sub field is consulted.

I could do other comparisons as well. Such as when archaeologists and historians dont consult each others theories on the same topic – that is just sad. But this is perhaps even more sad in my opinion since astrobiologists seem to not even know or care that they often work with geological questions where there are geological material and experts available.

The more I learn about astrobiology… the less I wish I knew about it… I hope that this changes for the better.

About Daniel

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2 Responses to The more I learn about astrobiology…

  1. Pingback: Has to be a hoax… « My days in Uppsala:

  2. sean says:

    don’t worry, astrobiology is still a pretty new field. there will be more and more people trained not just in biology but geology and astrophysics in the future imo since there aren’t too many people who have a ph.d in astrobiology as of now but they will give a better insight than those only trained in a single field and of course they will be smart enough to consult experts as well 😛

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