Four billion years of life on Earth, briefly

In a magazine article of just 2,000 words, astrobiologist Andy Knoll engagingly tells the story of the history of life on Earth.

In the February issue of Microbe (the monthly magazine of the American Society of Microbiology and one of my favorite reads), Knoll, a professor of natural history ay Harvard University, explains 4 billion years of terrestrial evolution. In telling this story he shows how planet Earth and life on Earth have been co-evolving all this time.

Knoll is a fine writer (see his most recent book, for example, Life on a Young Planet) as well as an accomplished scientist. One point he makes clear, if you haven’t already realized it, is that the dominant form of life on Earth is, and always has been, and likely always be, microbes.

You can read Knoll’s article, “The Deep History of Life,” at:

PS – If you have the stomach for this sort of science, Microbe is a good source of information on the latest studies of the human microbiota. Microbes R Us!


NASA budget buzzword: “flat”

It’s no big surprise: the President’s budget request for NASA in Fiscal Year 2012, unveiled today, is $18.7 billion – no more and no less than NASA’s budget for the current fiscal year.

Advocates will complain, and lobbyists are already at work asking for more. Nonetheless, $18.7 billion is a lot of money, especially in these tough times, and the aerospace community could stop whining and start adjusting.

NASA Chief Financial officer Beth Robinson reported today that NASA’s “outyear” budget projections assume no growth – a reasonable assumption. Nevertheless, advocates for various favorite programs will blitz Capitol Hill demanding more….

Today NASA also made public its new strategic plan, driven by this “vision”: “To reach new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” Not bad, especially compared to the air-puffed visions generated by some previous agency administrations.

NASA’s FY 2012 request includes about $1.8 billion for Earth science – including climate change research, no doubt of benefit to all humankind.

It also includes $1.8 billion for work on a new heavy-lift launch vehicle – needed only for still-unaffordable human missions beyond Earth orbit – of debatable benefit to all humankind. I’d like to note that this amount is just for the coming fiscal year. Who knows how long it will take and how much it will cost and how many redesigns it will take to produce such a vehicle, while the White House, Congress, NASA, and would-be heavy-lift builders argue and haggle? (If one looks to the history of the Space Shuttle or International Space Station program for insight, the outlook is disturbing.)

Given the brief outburst of public discourse, following the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), over the need for civility in political wheeling and dealing, I’d like to think that this year’s haggling over NASA’s human space flight plans will be more more reasonable and productive than last year’s ugly and prolonged food fight.  While some of those involved in private negotiations last year have claimed their exchanges were civil, the public discourse that I observed was nasty.

I’m more realist than romantic, though, and I’m afraid we’ll be watching reruns this spring.



Hello world!

Welcome to Doctor Linda’s Blog! This site will be under construction for awhile, as I populate its pages and transfer my archive of posts from another site.

What am I doing right now?

Watching Al Jazeera English for latest news from Egypt…

Writing proposals for workshops on ‘Net-based science peer review and science fiction visions of robotic and human futures in space…

Reading Steven Shapin’s latest book, Never Pure

Musing about 25 years of Women in Aerospace (subject of a future blog post or two)…

Sorting out The Case of the Arsenic Life Story…

Waiting to see how much money astrobiology and other space scientists will get in the current fiscal year and in the President’s budget request for the coming fiscal year…

Considering prospects for a new job (see above).


Interesting Webcasts…

Do check out the archived webcast of a meeting of minds last week to consider governance options for synthetic biology and information technology:

This meeting paired policy wonks with science fiction writers – an interesting experiment. For expansive thinking, SF writers beat policy wonks, hands down. My favorites: Rob Sawyer and Neil Stephenson.

See my tweets @lbillin (Feb. 3-4).


Also online – archived Webcast of a symposium I organized for NASA to mark the 50th anniversary of its exobiology/astrobiology program:

Since I invited all of the speakers, I can’t say I have any favorites, but do check out James Lovelock’s opening talk (he’s 91!), and, former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s sometimes-hilarious lunchtime address. And don’t miss the thought-provoking Panel 3 (moderated by moi), “Who are we? Where are we going? Are we alone? Astrobiology in culture.”


Aaannd…there’s the video record of the Space Studies Board’s November 2010 workshop, “Sharing the Adventure with the Public: The Value and Excitement of ‘Grand Questions’ of Space Science and Exploration”:

For Doctor Linda’s five cents worth on the topic, see Session 7.

Other highlights:

Exoplanet researcher Sara Seager’s fascinating talk in Session 3, Berrien Moore’s impassioned plea for understanding about climate change (Session 5), SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s musings about human futures in space (Session 6), and my friend Andrew Lawler’s journalism tutorial for scientists.


More later!