Unmasking Europa

Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter’s Ocean Moon by Richard Greenberg is the exploration of one of the more interesting planetary bodies of our solar system … Europa, a moon of Jupiter, as well as one of the more interesting episodes in the politics of science.
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Europa is the sixth moon of Jupiter, and is almost the size of our Moon. But get this: Europa has a thin Oxygen atmosphere, and is covered with water. This makes it a very likely place for life to evolve.


Being so far from the sun, and having a very thin atmosphere (and some other considerations) means that Europa does not receive enough solar energy to be wrmed like the earth is. But, being so close to massive Jupiter, tidal energy does in fact heat the planet up, and the thermodynamics of this tide-powered planet are complex and fascinating. In short, Europa’s ocean is probably often liquid but usually covered with ice, but the ice breaks up, water comes flying out, all sorts of complex interesting things happen depending on conditions.

Greenberg’s book represents a detailed chronicle of the exploration of Europa by Voyager and Galileo, and provides convincing evidence that his particular model (the semi-liquid, as opposed to the it’s always frozen, model) of Eruopa’s surface structure is probably right.

The book is well written, in fact, I found it riveting.

Greenberg, however, did not come to the conclusions he came to, or carry out the research he did with NASA without significant cost. He makes the point in Unmasking… that “Big Science” is a very flawed enterprise, and he provides quite a bit of discussion of conflict surrounding the research program.

Frankly, I think this could have been two books: One just on Europa, which would have been quite interesting, and one on the politics of big science. But this is how the author chose to do it, and he was the guy in the trenches…

I also have the sense that the writing of this book may have been a necessary cathartic experience for Geenberg. This sense, assuming that this is not just something I was imagining, makes the book a little more interesting. There are points where you can smell the politics. Also, I’ve noticed that many non-scientist readers of science books enjoy the personal side of the story, so I suspect this book will be widely enjoyed.

To give you a flavor, here is an excerpt from the publisher’s overview of the book:

The book also provides unique insights into how “big science” gets done today, and it is not always a pretty picture. From his perspective as a Professor of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, and a quarter-century-long membership on the Imaging Team for the Galileo space mission, Greenberg describes how personal agendas (including his own) and political maneuvering (in which he received an education by fire) determined a lot about the funding, staffing, and even the direction of research about Europa.

While he is satisfied that his team’s work is now, finally, receiving fair consideration and even respect, Greenberg comes away from his decades-long experience feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with the scientific enterprise as a whole because it routinely punishes innovation, risk-taking thought, and a willingness to simply let the evidence lead where it may. In today’s scientific culture, with its careerist pressures and peer-reviewed propriety, Greenberg believes, astute scientists (and sadly many of our youngest and brightest scientists) quickly realize that the most rewarding research strategy is to stay within the mainstream–a tendency that by its very nature is at odds with the ideals of scientific investigation and thought.

Comments

  1. #1 Jackal
    November 18, 2008

    Of all people, I would have thought scientists would be above letting ego and greed trump their profession’s objective, in this case, the expansion of human knowledge. There’s reality for you – natural selection has no ideology.

    I can’t wait until we get a probe on Europa. The possibility of finding nonRNA-based life makes the trip well worth it. Or perhaps Earth and Europa were both fertilized by RNA-carrying fragments from the same comet, or maybe life developed on one and somehow made it to the other. I wanna know!

  2. #2 EricJuve
    November 18, 2008

    I had always thought that an oxygen atmosphere was indicative of life. Shouldn’t all the oxygen be bound up?

  3. #3 andy
    November 18, 2008

    The oxygen is mainly bound up in nice stable water molecules. However Europa orbits through Jupiter’s main radiation belts, which means the surface is constantly being bombarded by charged particles. This breaks up the water molecules, the hydrogen rapidly escapes to space. Hey presto, abiotic oxygen atmosphere.

  4. #4 Eric Juve
    November 18, 2008

    That makes sense, thanks for the post.

  5. #5 Matt Springer
    November 19, 2008

    Psht. Scientists haven’t been paying attention. All these worlds are yours except Europa!

    (Well somebody had to make the Clarke joke…)

  6. #6 Franz
    February 14, 2010

    “his particular model (the semi-liquid, as opposed to the it’s always frozen, model) of Europa’s surface structure is probably right.”

    Both the “dogmatic” interpretation supported by the Papalardo crowd and the Greenberg et al. model assume the existance of a liquid ocean of 100-150km deep. The difference is in the thickness of the ice sheet on top of it.

    The dogmatic conception believe the ice sheet is about 20km thick and sealed while The Greenberg model support an ice sheet thickness of probably no more than few kilometers and permeable.

    For many reasons(1) I strongly think that the Greenberg model is the most correct. Thus this is the one I retained for my personal education for now.

    I discarted the thick ice model embraced by Papalardo since it obviously does not make any sense giving the surface features (1) and the absence of any believable evidence of ice convection. This is well explained in this fascinating and very convincing book.

    As far as I am concerned this is game over concerning the thick vs thin model. the thick ice model is no tenable for Europa.

    It seem to me that people such as Papalardo who excel in politic but not in science are very detrimental to the research enterprise in particular and the human society in general by wasting careers and resources. One think that particularly irritate me with this type of person is their constant habit of presenting the results of others as their.

    This being said I agree with Greg and I really recommend anyone interested in space exploration to read this fascinated and well written book!

    1)The double ridge formations, the chaotic terrain with floating looking ice rafts, the cycloid cracks, the aspect of the craters few kilometers in diameter and above, the strike-slips, the convergence and the divergence zones.

  7. #7 Franz
    February 14, 2010

    “Of all people, I would have thought scientists would be above letting ego and greed trump their profession’s objective. . .”

    Well, when you have scientists to compete for grants and job this is what you got. There is something wrong with the grant system.

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