Chemists boldly go in search of 'little green molecules'

By Carol Clark | April 18, 2012

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Extrasolar planet Upsilon Andromedae d, which lies in the habital zone of the Sun-like star Upsilon Andromedae A. The star, about 40 light years from Earth, is known to host three planets. Artist's hypothetical rendering by Lucianomendez, via Wikipedia Commons.

Jay Goodwin recalls the late-night 1969 moon landing vividly. His mother woke him up so he could watch Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface.

“It was a big deal. I still remember every detail on TV, and going outside to look up at the moon,” Goodwin says. He is now a chemist at Emory, working in the lab of David Lynn, a lead researcher for the NASA-NSF Center for Chemical Evolution.

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the heyday of the space race, Goodwin once dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Little did he know that as a chemist, he would be helping in the search for life beyond Earth.

At the request of NASA and the NSF, Goodwin and Lynn pulled together an international group of scientists in Washington this month to give their input during a workshop called “Alternative Chemistries of Life: Empirical Approaches.” They are now drafting suggestions to the government agencies for how to hone in on the search for other “Earths,” in light of the extraordinary number of exoplanets that powerful telescopes have unveiled.

“The discovery of exoplanets boosts the fascination of what may be out there,” says Goodwin, who prefers not to use the word “extraterrestrial.”

“We’re not looking for ‘little green men,’” Lynn explains. “We’re looking for ‘little green molecules.’”

In addition to synthesizing the input from the 40 scientists who participated in the workshop to draft the advisory report, Goodwin and Lynn will be among those presenting research at the NASA Astrobiology Conference 2012. Hundreds of scientists are gathering April 16-20 at Georgia Tech under the banner “Exploring Life: Past and Present, Near and Far.”

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