Nautilus

How the Cold War Created Astrobiology

Astronomy and biology have been circling each other with timid infatuation since the first time a human thought about the possibility of other worlds and other suns. But the melding of the two into the modern field of astrobiology really began on Oct. 4, 1957, when a 23-inch aluminum sphere called Sputnik 1 lofted into low Earth orbit from the desert steppe of the Kazakh Republic. Over the following weeks its gently beeping radio signal heralded a new and very uncertain world. Three months later it came tumbling back through the atmosphere, and humanity’s small evolutionary bump was set on a trajectory never before seen in 4 billion years of terrestrial history.

At the time of the ascent of Sputnik, a 32-year-old American called Joshua Lederberg was working in Australia as a visiting professor at the University of Melbourne. Born in 1925 to immigrant parents in New Jersey, Lederberg was a prodigy. Quick-witted, generous, and with an incredible ability to retain information, he blazed through high school and was enrolled at Columbia University by the time he was 15. Earning a degree in zoology and moving on to medical studies, his research interests

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus7 min read
Why Astrology Matters: Seeing meaning in the stars is a vital part of the scientific story.
A few years ago, I went to an astrologer as research for a radio show exploring strange beliefs. Vishal knew only my name, and date and place of birth, and didn’t tell me anything terribly profound until I asked him about the car I had just bought. H
Nautilus5 min readScience
The Brain Cells That Guide Animals
It may seem absurd to compare a tiny fruit fly’s brain to that of a majestic elephant. Yet it is the dream of many neuroscientists to find deep rules that very different brains share. As Gilles Laurent, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute fo
Nautilus10 min readPsychology
We Are All Ancient Mapmakers: Why we still see the world like the mathematician and poet who first mapped it.
In the first half of the sixth century B.C., a Greek man named Anaximander, born in Turkey, sketched the world in a way no one had previously thought to do. It featured a circle, divided into three equal parts. He labeled those parts Europe, Asia, an