28 April, 2008. University of Colorado at Boulder.  Dr. Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute gave a public lecture at CU Boulder on the highlights of the Cassini Mission to Saturn. Porco gives a lively presentation and- dare I say it?-  may even be mildly charismatic. The website of the imaging group, ciclops.org, is quite well done and even includes downloads of many of the papers from the team. The paper on Enceladus is particularly interesting.

As a chemist sitting anonymously in a crowd of space science enthusiasts and professionals, I cannot help but compare the tenor of the experience to my own field of chemistry.

Space science people are funded in proportion to the general public enthusiasm for space.  The universe is big. Really, really big. And it is full of breathtaking scenery and wondrous objects. Space science almost always causes people to experience a deeply emotional sense of awe and wonder. This has not been lost on the space science community. The display of majestic photos with a bit of space music in the background goes a long way to rally public support. 

Chemistry on the other hand, rarely induces this kind of raw response from the limbic system.  Whereas chemistry induces shock, astronomy induces awe.

The most common exhortation made on exposure to the chemical sciences is “How in the hell am I going to pass this course?” 

Students take intro to astronomy classes as an enjoyable way to get their science credits. Students take chemistry because they have to. We all know this. Science aversion is even more extreme for the poor sots in physics. 

The SI unit for humility is the “sagan”.  Public astronomy talks usually have a high sagan factor. I would estimate last nights talk was 8.5 out of 10 sagans.

Of particular interest to Porco was the Saturnian moon Enceladus. This moon has substantial water on it with evidence of “tectonic” activity on the uncratered surface. On closer inspection, it is apparent that this body is spewing water into space with fair vigor. Indeed, a vapor torus of water tracing the orbit can be seen on some of the images. The suggestion is that there may be liquid water under a water ice crust. IR images show hot spots that coincide with surface fissures on Enceladus.  This moon would be a good place to land some drilling equipment.

Porco spoke of the hope of eventually finding life on Enceladus or on Jupiter’s Europa. She suggested that this would finally “break the spell” and allow the assumption that life may be relatively common on worlds with liquid water.

What this kind of planetary exploration affords are insights into the evolution of planets and ultimately, what circumstances are likely and necessary for the ignition of life.  But the circumstances that promote life formation are chemical in nature. The origin of life is not an astronomical problem. It is a chemical network problem and for that we need the involvement of chemists.