The Nobelist, Astrobiology, and Perseverance
Baruch S. Blumberg (1925-2011, APS 1986) did much more in his life than win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the Hepatitis B virus and vaccine. He had a significant career not only as a scientist, but also as an advisor, an organizational leader, and as someone who promoted connections and inspired others to pursue knowledge.
Blumberg lent his knowledge and enthusiasm to diverse organizations, from the Explorers Club to the Philadelphia Zoological Society to the Journal of Human Virology to the biotech company United Therapeutics. He served as the first American master of Balliol College at Oxford and was president of the American Philosophical Society from 2005 to 2011.
Perhaps his most surprising affiliation was with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI). In May 1999, Blumberg was appointed the Founding Director of NAI. The announcement noted that NAI is “an institution without walls, a virtual organization comprising NASA centers, universities and others dedicated to studying the origin, evolution, distribution and destiny of life in the universe.” Blumberg would guide both “efforts to promote and conduct astrobiological research and train young researchers” and “efforts to develop modern communication tools and information technologies to link far-flung science teams and laboratories.” In other words, Blumberg was to be a promoter and coordinator, roles he had taken on numerous times throughout his career.
While Dr. Blumberg did not build the technology that would be sent to Mars and other reaches of the solar system, he did help to ensure the probes would look for the right things. This required him to think “out of the box,” and contemplate whether life might exist on Mars in odd or unusual forms.
But finding life either present or in the past is extremely challenging. The difficulty of sending a probe to another world was (yet again) demonstrated when, soon into Blumberg’s tenure at NAI began, two U.S. spacecrafts (both launched before he joined the organization) sent to Mars were lost: the Mars Climate Orbiter, lost due to software issues; and the Mars Polar Lander, lost for uncertain reasons.
The presence of water can indicate the presence of life. While water ice has been shown to be present at Mars’ poles, subsurface water ice was only definitively proven to be present in July 2008 when the U.S. 's Phoenix lander found it. No water-based life could exist on Mars’ cold surface, unprotected from radiation by the thin atmosphere. But could life have evolved on Mars when there was water present on the surface, for whose former presence abundant evidence exists? Although there were many questions to ask and research avenues to explore, perhaps the biggest decision Blumberg and NAI faced was to determine where and how to look for evidence of past life.
The U.S. has had much more success exploring Mars than any other nation. The rover Curiosity is still operational, having landed on Mars in August of 2012. The InSight lander has been on Mars since November 2018. The Perseverance rover just landed on Mars and will explore the bed of a crater that was once a lake. It is the most sophisticated rover yet to land successfully. No one can be sure what discoveries it will make, but Barry Blumberg would have been thrilled with the possibilities.