Mathematician Uses Art to Form Plausible Theory of Extraterrestrial Origins of Life

Friday, 27 February 2015 - 1:05PM
Astrobiology
Science Art
Friday, 27 February 2015 - 1:05PM
Mathematician Uses Art to Form Plausible Theory of Extraterrestrial Origins of Life

With the panspermia hypothesis of the origin of life on Earth gaining more and more traction recently, Princeton mathematician Edward Belbruno shed light on his groundbreaking research into the subject, as well as the beautiful art that helped inspire his theories.

 

"Bifurcating Patterns"

Panspermia

[Credit: Edward Belbruno]

 

According to the panspermia hypothesis, or the specific version of the hypothesis that Belbruno was investigating, an extraterrestrial body "seeded" life on Earth. In individual solar systems, planetesimals can be dislodged from their original planet and drift into another solar system, ultimately drawn into another star in the star cluster. Then, eventually, the same rock is ejected from the star and crashes into a planet in its new solar system, releasing any biogenic material it may contain. The two major problems inherent to the panspermia hypothesis, according to Belbruno, are the emergence of life from the biogenic molecules, which is outside of his expertise, and the transport of those molecules to Earth. 

 

In order to solve the "transport problem," it was necessary to map out a plausible trajectory from the Sun to Earth, taking into account the distance, both bodies' gravitational pulls, etc. As problem-solving is a creative process, Belbruno found it helpful to visualize the concept using art.

 

"I paint in the abstract expressionist style, where the brush strokes are not consciously applied, but rather done in an unconscious fashion," Belbruno wrote. "The unconscious mind has access to much more information than the conscious mind: If you can access it, then you can draw insights not otherwise possible."

 

"Electric Ergodic Motions"

Panspermia

[Credit: Edward Belbruno]

 

He had previously solved a similar scientific problem using art when he was mapping trajectories of a spacecraft to the Moon: "In my lunar spacecraft work on ballistic capture, my unconscious mind actually found, within brush strokes, the needed trajectory to the moon. In the lithopanspermia problem, routes are sought between stars. So in 2010, I did a series of paintings on that problem.

 

"They weren't meant to find a particular route, but rather to help me visualize and organize my thoughts. This gave me a more intuitive feeling about the problem I could not have obtained in any other way. The paintings all showed connections between star-like objects, as ballistic capture trajectories might appear if envisioned physically in an abstract manner."

 

"Diophantine Flow"

Panspermia

[Credit: Edward Belbruno]

 

Although the paintings were primarily for visualization purposes, he also claims that they gave him very specific scientific insights into the problem: "From the paintings, I realized that ballistic capture trajectories between the stars were fairly direct and did not perform unusual dynamics. Also, the paintings showed that they occurred between stars fairly close to each other. This told me that it was quite likely, giving hope of finding them."

 

Of course, once he had those insights, more traditional scientific legwork needed to be done as well. Previous research had indicated that the planetesimals, traveling at extremely high velocity, would have a near-zero chance of colliding with another planet. Belbruno and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the assumption of an extremely high velocity was erroneous, as certain plausible scenarios would lead to speeds up to five times slower than the original calculation. As a result, they found that the probability of the planetesimals colliding with an Earth-like planet had increased by many orders of magnitude.

After calculating that approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000 bodies would be drawn into a solar system such as ours, they calculated that about 10,000,000,000 of those would come into contact with an Earth-like planet. As many of those would be expected to contain biogenic material, these calculations make the panspermia hypothesis at the very least plausible.

 

Their findings, which were published in the journal Astrobiology in 2012 and featured in Time Magazine, were further boosted by the geological evidence surrounding the origins of life: "Those same time scales fit into the hypothesis for when water formed on Earth, so it is likely the planet's surface hosted a good environment for any biogenic material to form more complex molecules. And geological evidence shows that bacterial life emerged not too long after that period: about 3.85 billion years ago."

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