Friday, December 31, 2010

Last entry from 2010's DPS Notebook

Well, as those of you who read this space may know, I've been promising one last post on my experiences at this year's DPS ever since the event ended way back in October. It's not that I haven't written one, on the contrary, I composed a capping piece on the red-eye back to Toronto. No, the question has been whether or not I'm comfortable with publicly posting my musings on that flight.

Knowing how much to share is a tough line to walk. On the one hand, you could take the "Dragnet" route and stick entirely to your stated subject: "Just the facts, ma'am." While they make useful references, such blogs are somewhat dry. They also ignore the fact that all of us who do science for a living are real people with hopes, dreams, desires and foibles. But you can't put so much of that on the webpage that you drown out the subject matter. So it's tough to balance the two.

What puts me over the top on this one (after much reflection) is that it does, honestly, express how I was feeling as the conference drew to a close. It was a happy time, and we all know how fleeting those can be. As such, I'd like to be able to look back, years from now and remember how it was that I felt. As such, I'm presenting this as a bit of a year-end piece:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

CATP Seminar Series, Dr. Gordon Southam

Astrobiology is a big, big field and so many of its aspects remain a bit of a learning experience for me. One of the fun parts of being a fellow of the Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP or "Cat-Pee" to us in the program, part of NSERC/NRCAN's CREATE program) is that we hold seminars every two weeks that are broadcast across the country. The seminars give those of us working in one part of the field a chance to see what is happening in other parts, and to learn about potential synergies with our own work. My area of focus is habitability and water cycles, and so last week's talk, given by Dr. Gordon Southam of the University of Western Ontario, a hard-core microbiologist, was quite a departure.

While I'll be the first to admit that some of the material was over my head, there were a number of interesting aspects which were a little surprising for me. I plan on using this space to discuss those aspects from this talk and from future talks. So hopefully the "CATP Seminar Series" will become a regular feature here. Don't think of it so much as a review, but instead look at it as an exploration or a discovery journal. The full list of upcomming talks can be found on the CREATE website, located here.

Dr. Southam's talk, delivered last Friday, was entitled "Biogeochemical Processes from the perspective of a Bacteria." His main take-home point was that conditions that are extreme (high temperature, pressure, salinity, pH) to you and me are normal to certain strains of bacteria. At first that statement seems a bit simplistic. After all, if bacteria have evolved to take advantage of so-called extreme conditions, then naturally those would be the environments under which they would be most "comfortable" (by which I mean their biological processes would be optimized). Thus even the term for these organisms, extremophiles, is a bit misleading.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

First Impressions of CPSX: A Smart and Noble Gamble


[My new home: The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario]

Before I begin, thanks to all my readers out there! It wasn't long ago that I had thought no one came by this space. But to my astonishment, sometime in the last 24 hours "HTWT" just passed a thousand page views (6-month rolling window) for the first time. I suppose I will have to write more often now - and try to encourage some dialog! I also know what you like, with my two Astrobio posts making the top 3 most viewed. Since I'm in Western partially on a CATP (Canadian Astrobiology Training Program) grant, you can look forward to more of the same in the years to come.

On to business: I want to give my first impressions of my new academic home, the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at the University of Western Ontario. To my knowledge it is the only academic organization of its kind in Canada, completely devoted to the study of other worlds and how to go about exploring them. It's a young group, only a few years old, and did not exist when I left for the US back in 2003.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An Astrobiology tempest: Arsenic Life?


Is this an SEM Image of the first known lifeform to use a different biochemistry from the rest of us?

So many interesting things to mention about the recent findings of (partially) Arsenic-based life in Mono Lake, CA. First of all there's the discovery itself, detailed in a paper by Felisa Wolfe-Simon over at Science Magazine. But there's also something to be said about the way that NASA has handled the media surrounding the discovery. Additionally, in the week since the announcement, we've had some serious backlash by bloggers, including particularly pointed remarks by fellow science blogger, and microbiologist Rosie Redfield over at RRResearch. Some seem to think that "research paper review by blog" is a good thing and a sign of the times, but is it a substitute for the peer review process? Most troubling of all are the questions being raised in some spheres about the scope of NASA's astrobiological work and the worth of the planetary sciences. After all, they argue, what's Space got to do with studying pond scum on a lake in California?

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Year at York

I've just completed my first three days at Western, and it seems like a good time to reflect back on the year of working at York. I should mention first that I will not be disappearing entirely from York. Since I will be continuing to live in Toronto, and will be periodically travelling back and forth to London, the good folks at York have been kind enough to offer me a place to hang my hat while I am in Toronto. As such, my activities with the York University Observatory will continue, though they will be scaled back compared to what they were before my move.