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:
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!