This curriculum unit presents an interdisciplinary approach to the study of science, bringing together information from astronomy, earth science and ecology. The unit, written as part of the seminar “Outstanding Problems in Contemporary Astronomy and Cosmology,” addresses the question, “how is and how has life on Earth been influenced by events occurring in our Solar System?” More specifically, I present information on the relation between asteroids, comets and meteorites and life on Earth. I review current scientific thinking about how our Solar System’s asteroids and comets interacted with a young Earth to create the necessary conditions for the origin of life, and how meteoritic impacts have altered the evolution of life through Earth history. Sample teaching strategies are presented to suggest ways of presenting the subject matter to students.
In developing this topic, I have drawn on my deep interest in ecology and an interest in earth science, including the fields of paleontology and mass extinction theory. The Teachers Institute seminar has been an excellent vehicle for learning more about astronomy and cosmology, especially solar system astronomy and planetary science. It has given me an opportunity to read and talk about issues in astronomy and to combine pertinent information from the fields of astronomy, earth science, and ecology.
The underlying theme of the unit is that we now known enough about the origin, evolution, and dynamics of our Solar System to establish a new branch of ecology called astroecology, or perhaps more aptly called biogeoplanetology by ecologist Stephen Collins. Biogeoplanetology is a logical extension of the hierarchy of study used in ecology, which pursues an understanding of life at organismal and population, community, ecosystem, and landscape and global levels. Each of these branches of ecology asks its own set of questions about the nature of life, based on the selected scale of study and appropriate temporal and spatial considerations. Populations are groups of organisms of the same species. Communities are collections of different species living in the same area. Ecosystems are made up of communities of organisms and their non-living environments. Landscapes typically are broad regions (e.g., Yellowstone National Park) which serve as management units but cross recognized ecosystem boundaries. The Earth’s biosphere in its entirety is the largest landscape considered by ecologists.
Recent developments in science beg for a broadening of our study of the world of life. One can point to at least four key advances in our understanding of life made in the last two decades: (1) microbial life, which has had four billion years to evolve on Earth, is vastly more diverse and more widely distributed than previously comprehended; (2) the Earth’s biosphere is far more expansive than we have recognized; only recently have we discovered communities of organisms in moist subterranean rocks deep in the Earth’s crust and in the darkest depths of the sea at hydrothermal vents; (3) the space program has revealed secrets of our Solar System through space probe exploration of the planets and their satellites; technological advances in how we handle scientific data obtained from these missions have given us a new picture of our Solar System as a complex system characterized by the regular exchange of material among major and minor planets; (4) persuasive evidence for life on Mars has just been found, and we’re on the verge of exploring other candidate Solar System bodies for life.
As a consequence of the scientific developments listed above, we need a more coherent blending of astronomy, earth science, and ecology in order to obtain a more complete picture of life. We have known for a long time that life on Earth is influenced profoundly both by the Sun and our Moon. Climate and weather, (precipitation, temperature, wind, storms), amount of solar radiation reaching Earth and length of the growing season, the tides, seasonal change, and long-term variation in solar luminosity are some of the ways that life on Earth is affected by the Sun and the Moon. Animal behavior, life history strategies, adaptation, and evolution all are influenced by factors of extraterrestrial origin. For example, the Milankovitch theory of climate change holds that the shape of Earth’s orbit around the Sun (its eccentricity), the wobble of Earth on its axis of rotation (precession), the changing tilt of Earth’s axis (obliquity) combine to cause periodic global alterations of climate. As another example, current research is aimed at tracing and understanding a recently recognized long-term phenomenon linked with varying solar radiation, the periodic flow of ice sheets and surges of icebergs which transport debris from continents to ocean basins.
UNIT SCOPE AND OBJECTIVES:
A thorough consideration of the relation between Solar System events and life on Earth would include those topics listed above. For the purposes of this unit, however, I concentrate on questions of the origin of life and the disruption of life caused by the regular collisions over geological time between Earth and asteroids and comets. I first present information on the early Solar System and the Solar System of today, then look at what we know about asteroids, comets, and meteorites. I then consider impact theory and extinction and the fossil record. I complete the unit by discussing the latest information on possible life on Mars and the theory of panspermia (the natural insemination of life through the Solar System).
The unit is intended for use in high school 9-12 chemistry, biology, and environmental science classes at general, college, and honors levels. Much of the subject matter and lesson plans are adaptable to middle school and elementary school instruction. The questions asked by high school science students often are the same questions as those asked by younger students: what is life? where is life found? where does life come from? why is life so diverse? how does life change? why do some living things become extinct?
The objectives of this unit are to:
(1) identify some of the common subject matter of the three scientific disciplines of astronomy, earth science, and ecology, and look for new ways to integrate these topics;
(2) describe the dynamic nature of our Solar System, particularly its minor planets (asteroids and comets) and the likelihood of their colliding with Earth over long periods of time;
(3) distinguish among the different types of meteorites found on Earth by their physical appearance and chemical makeup;
(4) invoke asteroid extinction theory as a way of further extending the interdisciplinary nature of ecological study;
(5) develop strategies for using the resources of a university natural history museum in precollege science instruction;
(6) introduce use of computer technology in science instruction, particularly the many World Wide Web addresses available on the Internet which relate to space science and solar system astronomy.
(7) promote use of current events in science instruction.
(8) give students and teachers direction in using the popular and professional scientific literature in astronomy and ecology.