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Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dimitar Sasselov (47 min, 21 meg)

Dimitar Sasselov is bent on expanding a public conversation between astronomy and biology. Between the infinitely vast and the infinitesimally tiny. Between “the big cold world of inanimate matter, plants, stars and galaxies — and what we call ‘life.’”

Where to look anew for extraterrestrial life is, relatively, the easy part. It’s on the earth-like planets (700-plus so far) that keep turning up on NASA’s space-based telescopes scanning the furthest stars. The hard part is just what to look for. “We don’t really know how to look for life that is anything but a carbon copy of ours,” Dimitar Sasselov is telling me.

We take it for granted that forces like gravity and the elements of our periodic table are everywhere the same, but what if life is not?

DS: Steven Jay Gould liked to say that if you rewind the reel and play the movie again — the movie, the history of life — it’s not going to be the same movie. And I believe he was right… It’s not going to be the same actors. It’s not going to be the same screenplay. But it’s going to be based on what’s near and dear to us. For life, that means there are functions which make a difference between life and non-life: the ability to self-sustain; the ability to adapt; the ability to create a system which is potentially and essentially eternal…

CL: What if the DNA and RNA decks — unlike the rules of gravity — have been re-shuffled out there?

DS: This is the big question. Not the historical origin of life, but: Is it a universal chemical law that biochemistries will be based on the same molecular rules as we are? Or are alternative biochemistries possible and, in fact, contingent on the environments that develop on those other planets? … Will we discover something we hadn’t imagined? Will we miss it altogether because we don’t know what we’re looking for?

The astronomist Dimitar Sasselov and I are picking up a conversation that began by accident late last year in the Boston Public Library. His work in the “Origins of Life” initiative at Harvard and his book on The Life of Super-Earths make a wonderful argument that science is social and that serendipity is vital. His main co-conspirator through through the last five years has been the Nobel Prize molecular biologist Jack W. Szostak, whose focus has been the lab construction of synthetic cellular life — light years, so to speak, from astronomy. Sasselov is remembering with pleasure, too, that he learned a lot about “the acoustics of stars” from horn players in the brass section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra when he arrived from Bulgaria twenty-odd years ago. He pines a bit for the cross-pollinating “intelligentsia” of Sofia in the bad old days of his growing up. And he will make you wonder what it would take to generate a public conversation across the spectrum of basic and applied sciences that are humming inside the innovative core of Boston-Cambridge today. To me Dimitar Sasselov sounds like the sort of scientist the rest of us could rally round, and of course he makes me wonder how the curious minds of Open Source could get in on his project.