Page 33 - April 2021
P. 33

           environmental protection areas. DEN- DRAL and its alter egos became vital to mass spectrometer software that flew on the VIKING, Galileo, Huygens, and sub- sequent missions searching for organic molecules on other planets.
Lederberg and Feigenbaum’s cre- ative synergies can be recreated, espe- cially today when the world is on the precipice of the fourth industrial age. The union can again engender tremendous applications for numerous domains. But spin-offs are just the tip of the iceberg.
Searching for life in the universe, finding the origins of life, and determin- ing the universe’s origins are a few of the grandest of human quests. The an- tiquity of these questions is not known. But in different epochs and eras, these questions have challenged philosophers, inventors, and discoverers to go deep in their investigations. It is possible that 100 years from now, the world may not find answers to these grand questions, but the quest will be fertile enough to spawn new technologies even then. Simply put, grand challenges are like the Holy Grail, which are too difficult to get hands on, but striving for them brings about tre- mendous but non-formulaic dividends. A country like India, which has successfully discarded the third world tag, must not get overwhelmed by the quest’s enormity
but must be excited about the recurring dividends. India must pursue astrobiol- ogy for these rewards.
China, too, has realised this neces- sity of reaping such dividends. Today, it operates the biggest SETI radio-telescope globally, known as the Five-Hundred me- ter Aperture Spherical-radio Telescope (FAST) in its Guiyang province. FAST has overtaken the US Arecibo Observa- tory as the dominant astronomy device of its kind. However, China has not been content with the scientific output. It has made sure that an ecosystem of big data innovation and technology companies integrates with the FAST facility. Astro- biology and SETI domains have spawned high-end industry in an economically backward province.
The COVID-19 global pandemic, in its early days, revealed tremendous loop-
holes in India’s ability to source analyti- cal instrumentation and medical devices. Indeed, under the Atmanirbhar Bharat programme, the Production-Linked In- centive scheme has given a stimulus to the manufacturing of such gadgetry. But for India to be an innovation-driven nation, our scientific community needs to bridge the fault-lines between natural sciences with engineering. Such bridging is pos- sible if the scientific community views a domain like astrobiology from a practical perspective.
The merger of cyber and physical sys- tems, the rise of bio-inspired robotics, and technologies like soft matter, repli- cating automation depend on a wide vari- ety of in situ, ex situ, in vitro, in vivo, and in silico studies. Let us assume a scenario where an analytical instrument analy- ses the regolith (soil) samples on Mars, searching for signatures of extinct or ex- tant life, and generates large volumes of data. Such a device will likely demand innovation in interplanetary data com- munication networks to handle big data transmission over millions of kilometers. Let’s also assume a mission is looking for life-forms in the cold and frigid lakes of methane on Saturn’s moon Titan. This mission will demand novel robotics and instruments to operate in fluidic environ- ments and temperatures as low as minus two hundred degrees Celsius.
Due to its inherent transdisciplinar- ity, astrobiology can boost innovations to many such ongoing technology pur- suits. India is an IT giant. We are aiming to become a high-technology manufac- turer and innovator. Astrobiology can help transform India from being an IT giant to a giant of the fourth industrial age. It now depends on our ability to derive short-term dividends from this Holy Grail.
* The writer is a Technology Strategy Analyst and holds a PhD in Astrochemistry from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Germany) and the University of Nice (France). He was a crew member of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
 APRIL, 2021
        Images Courtesy:

   31   32   33   34   35