Report on Interdisciplinarity and the Future of Life

By Anisha Joshi

Class of 2022

In the fourth installment in the Interdisciplinarity series, Professor Ed Turner from Princeton University discussed astrobiology and interdisciplinarity in science. As an astrophysicist who has published a plethora of papers that also discuss astrobiology, in this conversation Professor Turner discussed the implications the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology has on life on earth, as well as what it means for society and culture.

From Galileo theorizing that the moon might have life on it to the boom of science fiction in the 50s that aroused public interest in astrobiology, Professor Turner stated it has had a long and interesting history. With his sustained interest in big questions, some of which gain their impetus from the more fundamental questions of humanity and existence, Professor Turner was lured into the area of astrobiology after participating in a 2000 NASA study of exoplanets. Finding himself with an increasing interest in exoplanets rather than just cosmology, he ventured into the highly interdisciplinary area of astrobiology.

“Astrobiology really is the poster child for interdisciplinary work in sciences,” Professor Turner stated. It brings together different but overlapping interests from the areas of astronomy and biology to answer questions that would be difficult for each field to study on its own.

Professor Turner explained that it is a field that forces one to think very creatively- life outside of earth can be such that we are not even capable of considering- while we have gotten accustomed to thinking of carbon-carbon bonds and nucleic acids as the basis of much life on earth, using the same measure or perspective in the far corners of the universe might not bear us any results. “It may well be that life in different parts of the universe is nothing like life on earth,” he argued. But we are so ignorant as to what these possibilities maybe that we may not even know what to look for.

Moving further into the different interdisciplinary questions that astrobiology can answer, Professor Turner described how life on exoplanets can give us important cues as to what might happen to life on earth as climate change progresses. Life on earth has had to exist in a diversity of conditions, and the need to understand these possibilities has driven the study of extremophiles- organisms that persist in the most extreme of conditions. As such we can contemplate how fragile life is. “It also shows how robust life is, how once it gets a foothold it cannot disappear.” Climate change might get rid of us, but it might not get rid of all life on earth.

“Are we just one of the universe’s special parts or do we occupy a special place in the world?” Professor Turner asked. If we were to find out for sure that we are the only life in the vast expanse of the universe, how would that change how we live our lives, and how would that change the goals and aspirations humanity holds in common? Professor Turner described the interdisciplinary nature of the subject of astrobiology by explicating the different kinds of questions such study may help us answer. Astrobiology is not just an attempt to answer merely scientific questions, such as whether there is life beyond earth and if so, what kind of life it may be. It brings to the forefront questions of the value of human culture and the existence of our species- how would these values change if we were to find out that we are the sole node of life in the universe, or if we were to find out that the cosmos is brimming with life?  In answering fundamental questions of existence, questions of who we are, astrobiology can help us confront questions philosophers have grappled with for thousands of years.

Of course, there are challenges when people focused in different areas come together to contemplate common questions- there is the question of differing vocabulary and so on.  However, the process is still an important one that highlights the importance of approaching problems from many perspectives. Yet in science, there is still a broader culture of consensus in what kinds of questions to ask, what kinds of evidence to accept and what makes a compelling argument. Although the disciplines may be different, the culture surrounding studying through observation and experimentation remains the same across different fields, demonstrating how different approached can come together to answer a common question. “It brings together people with the same background culture but different foreground cultures,” as Professor Turner enthusiastically stated.

The rewards of such an approach are manifold, as Professor Turner described in response to Professor Miller’s question about the difference in approaching the different strands of science separately as opposed to approaching them as (a question much of the audience had an interest in given DKU’s heavy focus on interdisciplinarity in academics). Students who went through a competitive integrated science program taught by different faculty in the natural sciences has resulted in some of the university’s most extraordinary student work, even after they have to select a particular discipline after the course of the program. ‘It seems to produce some of our most ambitious and enthusiastic and creative science majors,’ Professor Turner stated, “It produces a breadth that is more common in senior scientists than in students because of the exposure,” he added.

Professor Turner’s description of the importance of studying astrobiology reflected why this interdisciplinary area can be crucial in answering questions that humans have considered for millennia, while also providing clues as to what might become of humans and life on earth in the future. Through its fascinating explorations, astrobiology represents how interdisciplinarity can help us answer broader questions that affect humanity.