Various Habitats Suitable for Life?
CHAPTER 78 Life Here and There?
A few weeks ago, thinking about topics for this month's column, I was not in a very happy mood. At that time I saw a news item about an overweight man in Mississippi who suddenly learned the reason for his obesity - a tumor in his abdomen weighing 130 pounds! When I got married, I weighed in the neighborhood of 130 pounds. I can't imagine how a tumor the size of me could have been missed by doctors and allowed to grow so large. Fortunately, the man found a surgeon in California who removed the growth and, hopefully, the man can get back to a normal life. After reading about this fellow, I also came across something on the Discover Web site about a 7-foot long flatworm being extracted from some poor fellow. After reading these reports, I thought I would devote this column to expanding on these and other gross subjects, given my downbeat mood.
Then I received an email from a woman named Christine in California. She said she was the daughter of Harry White and attached a great photo of Harry, who is living with her in California. Christine had apparently found one of my columns on my work on light-emitting diodes at Bell Labs and had called it to the attention of her father, who had also worked on LEDs at Bell Labs. Well, I was delighted to hear that Harry is still alive and his daughter had included his phone number. I called him as Allen F. Bortrum but quickly told him I was Forrest Allen Trumbore (my real name, as noted only once or twice before in these columns). Harry said his first response when his daughter showed him the column was to say that he didn't know any Allen Bortrum.
We had a great chat about the good old days at Bell Labs and how lucky we were to have worked there in such exciting times. We had both joined Bell Labs at about the same time in the early 1950s and both of us retired in 1989. I was glad to be able to tell Harry that my happiest time at Bell Labs were the years I spent working with him and Ralph Logan on LEDs. My colleague, Mike Kowalchik and I were responsible for growing gallium phosphide crystals with p-n junctions that we would supply to Ralph and Harry and they would fabricate LEDs from our crystals. Within hours or a day, we would know whether our crystals gave bright diodes, in marked contrast to my later work on rechargeable lithium batteries, where it would be weeks or months before I knew if my electrode materials were capable of extensive cycling. A highlight of our LED work was when Harry and Ralph actually incorporated some of our LEDs into a telephone in the Bell System, may it rest in peace. Harry and I recalled those days when we had the brightest LEDs in the world and laughed at suggestions that they could someday be used in auto stoplights or traffic lights. How wrong we were!
After talking to Harry, I was in a much brighter mood, which was lightened even more when I found in the February 23 issue of The Star Ledger newspaper an account of the finding of seven Earth-size planets orbiting a star 40 light-years away from Earth. The finding made the headlines in the media and deservedly so. Three of the planets are in habitable zones and apparently the possibility of life isn't ruled out on some or all of the others. The planets are orbiting TRAPPIST-1, a so-called "M-dwarf" or red dwarf star. These M-dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than our yellow Sun and it seems that 75 percent of all the stars in our galaxy are M-dwarfs! The M-dwarf stars are not only smaller and cooler than our Sun but last longer than Sun-like stars.
In recent years, most of the planets outside our solar system have been found by the Kepler space mission but not these seven. Three of the planets were detected over a year ago by workers using the European Southern Observatory's Transiting Planets and Planetesmals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. The planets were detected by noting dips in brightness of the star when a planet transits between the star and Earth. The detection of these three planets was published last year in May. But about that time lead author of the study, Michael Gillon, noticed something strange about one of the transits and took a look at TRAPPIST-1 through ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile and, lo and behold, found not one, but three planets transiting at the same time! At this point the Spitzer Space Telescope was brought into the study and seven planets emerged from all the various observations. During the 20 days spent on the Spitzer telescope, the researchers observed 34 transits. Needless to say, this planetary system will be the subject of study for years to come and the quest to fond signs of chemistry compatible with life will be a major objective.
Could there be life much closer to us? While Mars gets the most attention, NASA is finally scheduling a more expansive visit to Europa, with its geysers and underlying ocean. With this mission slated for sometime in the 2020s, I'm not hopeful that I will be here to learn what the mission finds. What about Ceres in the asteroid belt? Now a dwarf planet, so designated after Pluto lost its planetary status, Ceres, with a diameter of a bit less than 600 miles, has been the object of study by the Dawn spacecraft. In the February17 issue of Science, researchers report that Dawn has found evidence for some sort of organic material on Ceres. The identity of the compound or compounds is not known but the presence of organic material, water ice, ammonia-bearing minerals, carbonates and salts suggest the possibility of a "prebiotic" chemistry. There seems to be a possibility that Ceres might even have an ocean under its surface, depending on whether it still maintains enough heat from the time it was formed.
But what about Mars? Curiosity, the rover, beaten and battered after five years on the red planet, still has a chance to find some evidence of past life. In a report by Paul Voosen in the February 3 issue of Science, he writes about nine steel thimbles in the rover's belly. These precious thimbles each contain a solvent that, when reacted with a sample could possibly detect signs of ancient life on Mars. To carry out the experiments requires the adding of freshly drilled Martian dirt to the capsules. Just one problem, the rover has not been able to drill since December. Something is stuck However, the drill does respond intermittently, so it's touch and go. The decision has been made to start driving again and, hopefully, find another place where the chances of drilling dirt with signs of past life are optimal. Let's hope the drill can be activated or the ingenious guys and gals at NASA/JPL can devise some way of getting fresh dirt into that solvent.
Finally, another item on the subject of life. I just saw in the March 2 Star Ledger a report by Sarah Kaplan of the Washington Post on a paper in the journal Nature that may or may not upend the history of life on Earth. The paper reports what are claimed to be microfossils of ancient microbes dating back to possibly 3.77 billion years ago. The fossils, if they are that, are straw-shaped, narrower than a human hair and invisible to the naked eye. The finding is being greeted with skepticism, to put it mildly. However, the authors of the paper say that chemical compounds associated with the claimed fossils are compatible with life processes. If the age and identity of these items are confirmed this would be the oldest life discovered here on our planet. Stay tuned.
Oh, I meant to mention that the probable cause of that 130 pound tumor was postulated to be an infected ingrown hair that developed its own blood supply! If you see a hair trying to grow back into your body, nip that sucker in the bud right away!
Next column on or about April 1, hopefully. I haven't been good about meeting my first-of-the-month deadlines. Witness the fact that I quote a March 2 news item in this column. Hey, things slow down at 89.
Allen F. Bortrum