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SciTech Expo

The Astronomical Society participated in the SciTech Expo held from March 11 to 14 at the Sir Garfield Sobers Gynasium in Wildey, St. Michael, and won two prizes for its booth.

SciTech Expo 2010

2010 SciTech Fair - Photo1
2010 SciTech Fair - Photo 2
2010 SciTech Fair - Photo 3

Memorial Lecture

At the SciTech Expo, the second Dr. Harry Bayley Memorial Lecture was given on Saturday 13 March by Dr. Shirin Haque, head of the Physics Dept. of the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, and co-founder of CARINA, the Caribbean Instituteof Astronomy.

Dr. Haque's address was entitled, Pitch, Mud and Amerindians - Astrobiology In The Caribbean. In her introduction, Dr. Haque remarked that the Caribbean is an excellent location for astronomy, since 90% of the night sky can be viewed from the region.

However, it is not this fact alone that is currently making the Caribbean an important centre for astronomical research. Another factor is the region's role in the advances being made in the field of Astrobiology, that branch of biology investigating the existence of living organisms on planets other than Earth.

Dr. Haque explained that, given the varied and very harsh environments exisiting on other planets within, and beyond, the Solar System, astronomers do not expect that life on other worlds will necessarily be in the form of humans or animals. Instead it is more realistic to suppose that life elsewhere would be on the level of micro-organisms, uniquely evolved to live in their particular environment.

Consequently, researchers are engaged in studying those extreme environments on Earth where the presence of the elements associated with life, such as oxygen and water, are either scarce or entirely absent, to see if archaea, or unicellular organisms, exist there. By identifying which environments support these extremophiles, astronomers will be able to focus their search for life on similar environments elsewhere.

Dr. Haque said that Mars is one of the planets that astronomers and astrobiologists are interested in. Probes sent to the Red Planet in recent years have discovered not only the presence of water ice, but also one of the byproducts of life, methane. In fact, the volume of methane present in the planet's atmosphere is more than can have been generated by asteroid impacts alone. Therefore, scientists are investigating the possibility that the higher than expected concentration of methane is being, or was, produced by living organisms.

One theory is that the methane-producing organisms could have evolved when Mars was volcanically active. Volcanoes similar to those on Mars exist on Earth, examples of which can be seen in the form of Trinidad's mud volcanoes. Studies have shown that the anaerobic environment of these mud volcanoes does support specially-adapted micro-organisms. Based on this evidence, Dr. Haque said that the search for life on Mars is continuing.

Dr. Shirin Haque

Dr. Shirin Haque fielding questions from the audience

Mud volcano in Trinidad; photo from the archives of the Geological Society of Trinidad & Tobago
Mud volcano - photo from the archives of the
Geological Society of Trinidad & Tobago

At the same time astronomers and astrobiologists are looking with great interest at Titan, Saturn's largest moon. After the Cassini space probe confirmed the existence of lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan's surface, astrobiologists began to study Trinidad's famous Pitch Lake, one of only three such lakes in the world. Once again studies have shown that various micro-organisms are living in that extreme environment, and consequently life on Titan is theoretically possible.

In winding up her lecture, Dr. Haque moved from the present to the past to illustrate the point that astronomy was as much a part of ancient societies as of modern ones. In the context of the Caribbean, astronomy is not unique to the ancient cultures of Central America, for example the Maya, but seems to have been practised also by the peoples living on the islands of the Lesser Antilles in pre-Columbian times. Evidence of this is to be found on Green Castle Hill, in Antigua, where groups of megaliths were erected. Placement of some of the stones suggest that perhaps they may have been oriented to certain astronomical events.