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Man or Asteroidman?

Scientist, Foothill prof and asteroid namesake Andrew Fraknoi speaks the truth about what's out there

By Loren Stein

YOU MAY KNOW local treasure Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College, from radio or TV. He's graced such shows as KQED's Forum, National Public Radio's Science Friday, Weekend All Things Considered, The Today Show, CBS Morning News and Larry King Live.

This Harvard and UC-Berkeley-educated professor and scientist has a rare talent for translating complex astronomical ideas and discoveries into clear, compelling language for the non-ivy-league-educated. His gift for popularizing astronomy has been recognized with a bevy of awards, including the 2002 Carl Sagan Prize and the 1994 Annenberg Foundation Prize (only the highest honor in the field of astronomy education). He's also served on the board of several prestigious astronomical societies, including as board trustee of Mountain View's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute. But of all his accolades, the most enviable is that the man's got an asteroid, number 4859, named after him.

On space violence:

"Asteroids and comets hitting the Earth could have a real effect on humanity. For the longest time, we thought that the way the planets, including the Earth, evolved was very gradual, very slow, billions of years of continents moving and great forces shaping these planets. Just recently it's become clear that some of the changes on Earth and other planets are sudden and violent, that when the universe formed, nobody cleaned up and a lot of garbage got left over. And this leftover garbage in the form of chunks of rock and chunks of ice--asteroids and comets--was hitting everything in the beginning when there was a lot of it. In fact, we think some planets actually tipped over from being hit too much: Uranus is orbiting on its side, [and] Venus is orbiting backwards because we think something big hit it in the early days.

"Even today, great violence happens. A swarm of comets hit Jupiter a few years ago--we could watch enormous explosions as this material vaporized in Jupiter's atmosphere. The dinosaurs and half the living species on Earth died out 65 million years ago because a large asteroid, 10 to 12 miles across, hit off the coast of Mexico in Yucatan. The crater, called Chicxulub, is 100 to 120 miles across. The debris darkened the skies for months and made conditions on Earth intolerable. And the heat started wildfires all over the American continent.

"An asteroid hit Siberia in 1908 that wiped out animals and vegetation for several miles. So things are still hitting, and luckily nothing has hit populated areas in recorded history. There's an ongoing international effort to catalog all the large chunks that orbit near the Earth that might someday hit us. There's actually a section of the Air Force that's now making plans to try to deflect asteroids (you can't shoot them directly because you'd only break it into many pieces that would still hit the Earth). This is a very serious area. A crater half a mile across in downtown San Jose could ruin your whole day, and there are many chunks out there that could make a crater half a mile across. We really want to be more alert to this."

On alien planets:

"What's most exciting to me is the discovery of planets around other stars. For all of human history, the only planets we knew about were the planets around our sun, of which the Earth is one. We speculated, we dreamed, we wrote science fiction stories, we had superserious scientific theories that there must be planets around other stars, but we had no proof at all. And in the last eight or nine years, proof has come: as of last week, we now know more than 100 planets around other stars.

"For the first time in human history, we know of more stars outside our own solar system than inside. And not just odd stars or weird planets, but a whole assortment of stars and planets, many of the stars very much like the sun, in the same state of their lives, with similar properties, with planets. Some stars have more than one planet--that to me was really the Star Trek moment.

"So this changes in a very positive way what we know about the universe: planets are clearly common just the way we all hoped they would be. And if there are planets, then it's more likely that there are small planets like the Earth. And if there are planets like the Earth, then the conditions that happen on Earth may duplicate elsewhere, and we may even have Metro readers on other worlds; creatures who are intelligent enough to pick up an alternative newspaper and want to know more about the universe.

"There are wonderful plans afoot to build even more sensitive and dedicated space telescopes, all for the purpose of finding planets elsewhere--to find, as Carl Sagan calls the Earth from space, other pale blue dots."

The question of Martians:

"My hope is that in the next century we'll find some signal that indicates that there is intelligent life on another planet; we'll be able to eavesdrop on another civilization. My personal hope is that I'll still be alive when this happens. I'd like to be there when we make first contact. That would be the greatest moment in the history of the human species, to find other intelligent life, our cousins if you will.

"Nobody knows whether intelligent life requires an Earth. All we have is one example, our own example. So far humanity knows of only one origin to life, and that's on Earth. It would be amazing if we could find what scientists are now calling a second genesis, another place where life began.

"And there are some hints that it may have happened on Mars--we know that early Mars had a lot of flowing water and was much more warm and like the earlier Earth. Or it may have happened under the protective ice of a moon around Jupiter called Europa. If the origins of life are discovered in the next few years on Mars or Europa, I think it would have big repercussions philosophically, because some people still believe that life is a miracle, that it took divine intervention, that it only happened once, that it only happened on Earth. So to find that life actually began independent of the Earth and never developed into praying human beings, that would be a big shock to some people. I think that would be very exciting.

"NASA has a big program, called the Astrobiology Program, to figure out if there actually is a second genesis and bring evidence back of life on some other world. The hope is bolstered by the observations that there are all these planets, and that we're finding the building blocks of life everywhere--in Halley's comet, in meteorites, in chunks of rock that fall to Earth--extraterrestrial amino acids, which is unbelievable. We're finding some of the primitive building blocks of life in clouds of gas and dust between the stars, not even on the planets. If even under those hostile conditions the steps to life can already begin, it makes us more optimistic that life can start in more favorable environments like planets.

"So there's planets out there, there's the building blocks of life out there. The elements that we need for life on Earth are now clearly known to be present among other stars. So, unless life is something truly unusual and difficult, we're reasonably optimistic."

On human colonization:

"In the short run, I'm pretty pessimistic. I think we're screwing up the world in so dramatic a way and we are going to be so bedeviled by problems of our own creation--whether it's political problems, resource-availability problems, issues of human disagreement having to do with fixing the mistakes we made in stewarding of the Earth--I think our energies will be very much distracted by needing to take care of the planet and make peace among ourselves.

"So in the short run I'm not at all optimistic that there'll be a major effort to move into space. And in the long run, of course, we may destroy each other, and then that's the end of that story. But if by some miracle, we survive, I think there are many astronomical reasons to move out into space, plus human curiosity and the desire to explore."

The Future, Conan?

More glimpses into the future from Metro writers

Bring on the Robots: Some experts predict that we're entering the Robotic Age. Does that mean we don't have to pick out our own socks anymore? Not quite. (Traci Vogel)

Full Circle: When you graduate in 1984, the future is yesterday's news. (Todd Inoue)

Kill Your Computer: High-tech detectives can now find evidence you thought you deleted. (Najeeb Hasan)

Implanted for Life: Help! There's a chip in my body and I can't get it out. (Corinne Asturias)

At the Movies--2053!: Metro film critic Richard von Busack travels 50 years into the future to review the kind of cinema we were supposed to be watching by now.

The Original Frontier: Humankind's confusing relationship with the time machine. (Michael S. Gant)

When Cars Fly: No, really. Your Skycar is just around the corner, if one visionary Davis company has its say. (Allie Gottlieb)

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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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