The Origins of Life

The Origins of Life

A Cosmic Perspective

Douglas Whittet
ISBN: 9781681746777 | PDF ISBN: 9781681746760
Copyright © 2018 | 154 Pages | Publication Date: December, 2017

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The Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective presents an overview of the concepts, methods, and theories of astrobiology and origins of life research while presenting a summary of the latest findings. The book provides insight into the environments and processes that gave birth to life on our planet, which naturally informs our assessment of the probability that has arisen (or will arise) elsewhere. In addition, the book encourages readers to go beyond basic concepts, to explore topics in greater depth, and to engage in lively discussions.

The text is intended to be suitable for mid- and upper-level undergraduates and beginning graduate students and more generally as an introduction and overview for researchers and general readers seeking to follow current developments in this interdisciplinary field. Readers are assumed to have a basic grounding in the relevant sciences, but prior specialized knowledge is not required. Each chapter concludes with a list of questions and discussion topics as well as suggestions for further reading. Some questions can be answered with reference to material in the text, but others require further reading and some have no known answers. The intention is to encourage readers to go beyond basic concepts, to explore topics in greater depth, and, in a classroom setting, to engage in lively discussions with class members.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. What is life?
1.2. Could life be silicon-based?
1.3. Time constraints
1.4. Scenarios for the origin of life on Earth
1.5. Searching for life beyond Earth
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

2. Cosmic Synthesis of the Biologically Important Chemical Elements
2.1. Elements essential to life
2.2. Origin of the elements
2.3. Distributing the products of nucleosynthesis
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

3. Molecules in Space: From Interstellar Clouds to Protoplanetary Disks
3.1. Chemistry in the interstellar medium
3.2. The rise of molecular complexity
3.3. Protostars and the chemical heritage of protoplanetary disks
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

4. The Origin and Evolution of our Solar System
4.1. The Sun's birth environment
4.2. The solar nebula and the origin of the planets
4.3. Time capsules from the early Solar System
4.4. The evolution of habitability
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

5. The Early Earth: Forging an Environment for Life
5.1. The Earth-Moon system
5.2. Cosmic impacts
5.3. Emergence of the atmosphere and hydrosphere
5.4. Toward a prebiotic world
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

6. The Origin of Terrestrial Life: Converging on a Paradigm
6.1. Constructing life's framework
6.2. Tracing life's ancestry
6.3. The transition to life
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

7. The Search for Life on Mars
7.1. Evolving conditions and habitability
7.2. Searching for biosignatures
7.3. Future prospects
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

8. Icy Worlds as Potential Hosts for Life
8.1. The moons of Jupiter
8.2. Saturn and beyond
8.3. Prospects for life
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

9. The Search for Life beyond our Solar System
9.1. Exoplanetary systems: Characteristics and habitability
9.2. The search for spectroscopic biosignatures
9.3. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence
9.4. What if we succeed?
Questions and discussion topics
References and further reading

About the Author(s)

Douglas Whittet, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Doug Whittet, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He obtained his bachelor and doctoral degrees in Physics and Astronomy, respectively, from the University of St. Andrews and was Senior Lecturer and Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire prior to joining the Rensselaer faculty in 1991. He served as director of the New York Center for Astrobiology from 2009 to 2016. His research interests include the physics and chemistry of the interstellar medium, with a focus on the chemical inventories of preplanetary matter in the disks and envelopes of newly-formed stars. In the course of his research, he was a principal investigator of observing programs with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Infrared Space Observatory. He also has a strong interest in undergraduate education and curriculum development in astronomy and related fields, a product of which is the course on which this book is based. Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective has been taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute each academic year since 1995 - although it has, like the field itself, evolved dramatically over the years!

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