Many attendees felt that astrobiology had come of age. The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) held its fourth biennial meeting at Boulder, Colorado, April 10-14.
The NAI 2005 meeting, hosted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, attracted nearly 500 attendees. The twin objectives of the meeting were to learn about the latest science being accomplished by NAI members and to encourage contacts between individuals and teams that will pay off in future collaborations. One outstanding attribute of this meeting was the large number of young scientists attending.
Since astrobiology is a highly interdisciplinary field, meetings like this provide an ideal opportunity to learn about research in multiple disciplines. Unlike most science meetings today, NAI 2005 had no multiple or parallel sessions. This structure encouraged everyone to attend every session, not just those closely related to her or his specialty.
Organizers and speakers recognized the special challenge of presenting their work in a way that would be comprehensible to scientists from other disciplines. Jargon control is one way to enhance cross-discipline communications. For example, many attendees came away conscious of the three separate meanings of the common words "radiation" and "terrestrial" - meanings that depend on the discipline under discussion.
Cross-discipline communication was also encouraged by providing "primer talks" on the day before the meeting to explain some of the basics for scientists in other fields. Nick Woolf (U Arizona) presented the primer on astronomy, Chris House (Penn State) and David Kring (U Arizona) talked about geology, and Lynn Rothschild and Max Bernstein (both NASA Ames) covered the fundamentals of biology.
The scientific meeting itself - both the 50 oral presentations and the more than 250 posters - was organized according to scientific themes, as described below. In a departure from earlier meetings, the papers on education and public outreach were not placed in a separate session but were distributed throughout the program. Abstracts of all the papers and posters were published in the journal Astrobiology (Volume 5, No. 2, April 2005), which was distributed to all attendees.
The first theme of the meeting was the formation and evolution of planetary systems, which is also the initial step in creating worlds suitable for life. The lead invited talk on the formation and evolution of habitable worlds was given in two parts, by Steve Mojzsis (Colorado U) and Michael Meyer (U Arizona). The lead talks served both to introduce the topic and to place the following shorter papers in context.
Theme 2 on extrasolar planets was introduced by Norm Sleep (Stanford) and Jim Kasting (Penn State), who asked how common are habitable planets in the Galaxy - connecting biochemistry, astrophysics, and geophysics. Many papers in this session dealt with the biosignatures that might be useful when we develop the capability to observe the spectra of rocky planets around solar type stars.
Theme 3 dealt with the origins of life (note the plural, since we assume life has begun many times). In his introduction to the topic, Norm Pace (Colorado U) discussed how genetic studies have greatly advanced our understanding of evolutionary relationships, and this theme was echoed in several other papers.
Future technologies, exploration, and societal issues associated with astrobiology were the topic of Session 4. Dan Werthimer (UC Berkeley) led off with a wide-ranging talk on SETI, the Fermi Paradox (Why aren't they here?), and the future of our civilization. This session contained the greatest variety, with topics from entropy to "astrobiology and the sacred".
Topic 5 was the evolution of life. Steve D'Hondt (U Rhode Island) spoke on how life interacts with its environment, while most of the contributed papers in this session focused on geochemical exploration of the past history of Earth, its atmosphere, and its oceans to investigate the changing interactions between microbial life and the environment.
Tracing life was the theme of Session 6. Marilyn Fogel (Carnegie Institution) began with a discussion on distinguishing true biology from non-biological look-alikes, followed by several papers on the search for microbial fossils from the early Earth. This work to identify specific fossils complements the geochemical and biochemical studies reported in the previous session.
The final theme was evolution in the solar system, introduced by Mitch Sogin (Marine Biological Lab). Papers in this session included study of analog habitats on Earth as well as discussion of the significance as a possible biosignature of the methane recently discovered in the martian atmosphere.
Other events in this fast-paced meeting included four public lectures, a banquet with talks by NASA officials, daily press briefings, a special paper by Jonathan Lunine (U Arizona) on the latest news from Titan, smaller group meetings of several NAI Focus Groups and of working groups on education and communications, and two get-togethers of the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the conference. For many attendees the scientific highlights were the poster sessions that took place every afternoon. The scientific conference was followed by a full-day meeting of the NAI Executive Council. The only blow to the meeting was a short but severe spring snowstorm, which wiped out the planned pre-meeting geology field trips and delayed the arrival of many attendees.
The primary organizers of NAI 2005 were Steve Mojzsis (Chair of the Program Organizing Committee), together with Bruce Jakosky and Emily CoBabe-Ammann of Colorado U and the staff from NAI Central under the leadership of Karen Bradford. The next biennial meeting of the NAI will be in Hawaii in 2007.