Astrochemistry: putting the astro in astrobiology


Tuesday, October 13 2015 - 12:00 pm, PDT
Alexander Tielens
University of Leiden

Astrobiology, the study of emergence of life and the its distribution in the Universe, addresses the most fundamental questions in science: "How does life begin ?" and "Are we alone ?" Over the last 20 years, we have discovered that planets are bountiful in the galaxy and that one in every five solar-type stars has a planet in the habitable zone. We have learned that extremophiles have spread to essential every niche – even the seemingly most inhospitable ones – on our planet. And we have learned that life started essentially as soon as conditions permitted, within some 200 million of the late heavy bombardment, or perhaps even earlier. This has resulted in a paradigm shift from "Life on Earth is unique" to the premise "life is widespread". As a result, searching for biosignatures in space has taken on a life by itself. In this talk, Dr. Tielens will summarize this shift in our thinking and the global processes that may have influenced the first steps towards life.

The focus in this talk will be on astrochemistry – the starting point of astrobiology – the chemical evolution that takes place in space where simple molecules are transformed into complex molecules and complex molecules are broken down to simple ones. This chemical dance of the elements produces a wide variety of organic compounds. I will review the processes that drive this chemical evolution in space, particularly in regions of star and planet formation. The focus will be on understanding the raw materials that are delivered to newly formed planets and their relationship to the building blocks from which prebiotic material was formed and biological systems evolve.

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