Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, A is for:

ASTROBIOLOGY

If you’ve ever looked up at the night sky and asked yourself if someone or something might be out there gazing back at you, you’re not alone.  Lot’s of people wonder about that.  Some of those people are scientists—a very special kind of scientist called an astrobiologist.  And those astrobiologists are busily working to find an answer.

In my previous A to Z Challenge, we looked at a lot of scientific terms that don’t quite make sense, like this one or this one. Scientists aren’t always the best at naming things.  Astrobiology is yet another term that people sometimes complain about, because based on a strict translation of the Greek root words, astrobiology should mean the study of life on stars.

And that’s absurd.  Nobody expects to find life on or inside of a star.  Rather, astrobiologists are looking for life on planets and moons, and perhaps also asteroids and comets.  And maybe interstellar dust particles.  But not stars.  Definitely not stars!

To quote from All There Worlds are Yours by Canadian astronomer Jon Willis:

The science of astrobiology has three main goals: to understand the conditions necessary for life on Earth (and perhaps the conditions required by life in general), to look for locations in the universe which supply these conditions, and, finally, to detect life in these locations.

The word astrobiology was coined in 1953 by Russian astronomer Gavriil Adrianovich Tikhov, who’s described in this paper from Interdisciplinary Science Reviews as “an unusual beacon of scientific individualism in a sea of Soviet imposed conformity.”

According to that same paper, the term didn’t really catch on in the West until the 1990’s.  The establishment of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in 1998 seems to have been a key turning point in the history of this word (prior to that, the scientific search for alien life was generally known as exobiology).

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, we’ll find out what happened in the 1990’s that made NASA so keen to set up its own Astrobiology Institute.  Until then, keep looking up, and keep wondering!

20 responses »

  1. Melfka says:

    Nice hook at the end of the post!
    As a SFF fan, I’m familiar with the word, but it was nice to learn its actual meaning. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Liam says:

    So, David Bowie sang about astrobiology, then?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting insight into the absurdity of naming it Astrobiology. Enjoyed reading your post. Will be back for more

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Thanks! I kind of wonder if the word makes more sense to Russian speakers than it does in English. I don’t know. Either way, once NASA adopted the term, we kind of got stuck with it.

      Like

  4. Steve Morris says:

    Life on stars? I once went to a lecture by the astronomer Fred Hoyle. A member of the audience asked him if he thought that life may exist on neutron stars. Hoyle replied deadpan that he thought that was the single most unlikely place that life could possibly exist.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jazzfeathers says:

    It is indeed a strange definition if you think at what it means and what it actually is. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. zuludelta45 says:

    Well….. I can’t wait to hear what happens next!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Awesome! I took a course during my undergrad on Astrobiology. Easily one of my favorite courses.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I can tell this will be a fun AtoZ. Love those sciency words!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. it is interesting that the term didn’t catch most traction in the US for almost 40 years after it was coined in the USSR.

    Joy at http://www.thejoyousliving.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, it is kind of interesting. I’ve been wondering if the exobiology vs astrobiology thing was a little bit like the astronaut vs cosmonaut distinction. But if that’s the case, I really can’t explain why NASA would suddenly switch to the other term.

      Like

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