Dr Dominic Papineau - Geochemist and Astrobiologist
2 February 2018
My research revolves around the question ‘How did complex life evolve with its environment?’
I am an adventure-seeking geochemist and astrobiologist who enjoys visiting remote places with stinking microbial mats and very old rocks. Yes, I think microbes are awesome… Just not when I get sick! And they get fossilized too, which is something I like to document using many fancy nanotech instruments that look at tiny details. So, to find the best rocks with potential signs of ancient life, I visit remote deserts, sail to uninhabited islands, climb steep mountains, explore deep mines, etc.
My research revolves around the questions ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ and ‘How did complex life evolve with its environment?’. The first question is not trivial since our technology is rather limited and we cannot currently travel to other planets to figure it out directly. It is unfortunate however because space exploration has given us so much and I think most people are interested in knowing the answer. However, we can find hints of that as well as understand our own evolution by looking at some of the oldest rocks on Earth and meteorites we have from Mars.
For the second big question, I study chemically-precipitated rocks from key time periods in the Proterozoic, when the fossil record shows us that life-forms got more complex. This is also allowing me to study fascinating rocks with various microscopes. It’s a zoo however! There are so many tiny objects in chemical sedimentary rocks that we have no idea how they formed. That has recently brought me to become interested in chemically-oscillating reactions to attempt to explain some of these patterns. Don’t know what I am talking about? Just consider these beautiful patterns we have all seen in polished slabs of agate geodes… No geochemist can explain their formation! I think that these weird and understudied reactions might be able to shed some light on these however, and they might be biosignatures...