Thursday, June 7, 2012

Prometheus: Seeding wonder and science

Michael Fassbinder plays a robot attendant on the spaceship Prometheus.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus paid a heavy price for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to mortals. The story is a powerful cautionary tale about the rewards and risks of striving for scientific knowledge.

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” opening June 8, ratchets up the theme by adding space travel and all the special effects of Hollywood. The movie’s premise, that extraterrestrial engineers seeded Earth with their molecular basis, is a fitting story for our times, says David Lynn, chair of chemistry at Emory.

Lynn, an expert in chemical evolution, is studying how life evolved from the “warm pond” of early Earth, some 3.5 billion years ago. “All the life that we understand now depends on liquid water,” Lynn says. “Ironically enough, the liquid water on earth probably came from extrasolar sources and accumulated on earth after the planet was forming. So this notion of having our planet seeded by water and by other nutrients or even building blocks of life is something that we’ve known about for a long time.”

In addition to studying how life evolved on Earth, Lynn heads a scientific team that is developing parameters for NASA to search for extraterrestrial life. Powerful telescopes have revealed an extraordinary number of exoplanets in our galaxy. But where should we start looking for life beyond Earth, and how would we know it if we saw it?

The crew in the movie “Prometheus” is also seeking extraterrestrial life, but they have the benefit of a star map discovered among the ruins of an ancient Earth civilization.

Our species has a history of imaging alien life forms, Lynn says, pieced together from dreams and whatever data is available at the time.

These stories often have value beyond entertainment. “They can be motivators for our imaginations, and for more science to try to understand our place in this universe that we inhabit,” Lynn says. "That's what makes the stories we have so important."

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