They delved into the variety of life forms in space in their first book and speculated on Earth as simply a minuscule component of that space in their second.
Now, with the help of a $5.3 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Professors Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee are leading a University of Washington research team into discovering what inhabits the universe.
Ward, who traveled to Cambridge, England, in the spring to report on his group's progress, says that NASA raised the original $4.9 million stipend in March. "The grant is renewable for another five-year term," he says, "if we can continue to do good science."
The funds allow UW researchers to investigate a series of critical factors, from the earliest life form in our world to the potential for planetary life outside the solar system. It also includes membership in NASA's Astrobiology Institute.
"Astrobiology activities have been going on here at Washington since back in the late 1960s when (Microbiology Professor) Milton Gordon lectured on the universe and the origin of life," says Brownlee. The unearthing of deep ecosystems living below Richland, Wash., along with the discovery of extra-solar planets, led NASA to initiate the grants program.
Ward says part of the grant money also goes to scientists from the University of Arizona and California Institute of Technology. Their investigations include the formation of habitable planets, mass extinctions due to comets or asteroids, and the evolution of single-cell life forms to more complex forms.
Brownlee believes the program will provide a remarkable bridge among various UW departments, serving as an umbrella to encourage people to think on larger, planetary scales and ponder the role of life in the cosmos.
"Even if extraterrestrial life is never found, astrobiology will have been a great success," he says. "It works to stimulate us to think beyond our own fields. And it makes us consider all aspects of science that relate to the origin, evolution and fate of life on our planet and elsewhere." Scott Holter
Sidebar: Seeking Life on Other Worlds