Life from Mars?

Mars_atmosphereI am at Goldschmidt2013. A meeting of 4000 or so geochemists.

This Goldschmidt has been kinda crazy for me. It has been great, but almost too much. The multiple parallel sessions, the excellent science presented across the board, the opportunities to discover new things as well as discuss the latest results in the familiar. At some points I have felt delocalised across the isolated lecture rooms, which stand pod-like in a uniform landscape of a vast hall which always seems to manage to disorient me and leave me heading in the wrong direction.

As well as the science, I have been trying to report for the BBC. A sort of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde experience? There have been a couple of items out so far, one on the deep biosphere and one on whether life originated first on Mars. Also a radio piece on the biosphere story that I have edited a bit and will appear on Sunday on BBC world service radio. I’m trying to get another post up on the news site for tomorrow, but in the meantime I am blogging a bit! It’s tricky to fit it all in.

The Mars story came from Steve Benner’s talk about the role of borates and oxidised molybdates in templating and catalysing sugars to make ribose, on the way to making RNA. I managed to talk with Steve the day before his presentation, by phone, to get some quotations for the news piece. The piece went live on news online in the early hours of the morning and quickly rose to the coveted “most read” position on the main page.

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Steve Benner in conversation with John Humphreys

Steve was all set to talk at 9am, but at 8:30 I got a call from the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in London, saying that they wanted to interview him live in an hour’s time.

The Goldschmidt folk did a great job of setting up a skype connection at short notice, and I sat back to listen to Steve Benner’s talk. There were some fantastic sound bites, that I, as a mineralogist, really enjoyed. Explaining how the catalytic effects of minerals were essential in his picture, and minerals that would, he suggests, be more likely to have been present on Mars than Earth in the early Solar System, Benner put up a slide with the words “there is hope through mineralogy“. Love it!

As soon as he was finished we set off to find Goldschmidt guru Liane Benning and check that the computer was functioning. Then waited for the sports news, headlines, weather forecast, and an item about the governor of the Bank of England before John Humphrys turned his attention to the Mars question.

After that, back to the meeting to hear the latest on chondrite formation, mineral evolution, and palaeoceanographic proxies. It’s been another diverse day!

And finally, a song to sum up the experience, Bowie of course! Life on Mars?

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The Scream, Jimmy Neutron, Star Wars and Dune

Most Popular Redoubt

Reporting at the news desk this week seems to have taken a cinematographic theme. Going back (to the future?) a bit, let me start at the very beginning … Volcanic¬†Screams seemed to go down well. Amazingly, seismic noise observed just before the onset of volcanic eruptions in Alaska was more interesting to the general public that weight loss, J K Rowling, or Edward Snowden.

Dye sensitised solar cells, dinosaur teeth, neutron star collisions, iron fertilisation into the oceans and the influence of barchan dunes on Star Wars sets made up the rest of my week.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 22.11.31Of these, Star Wars vs. Dune captured attention, which is, I guess, understandable. But there is a bit of science in there too, with links to dune migration not only on Earth but also on Mars and Titan. It went out on Friday evening, and before long had been picked up by other news outlets, so that was encouraging. It managed to sit at number one for quite some while too, beating JAY Z and even the weather.

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I’m giving this a bit of a rest now, and taking off to a synchrotron to do some experiments and maybe make the science that makes the news … who knows?! The next post will likely be written from in ecstasy or despair, depending how that experiment progresses! See you soon …