NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Established at the Library of Congress Print
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Written by Donna Urschel   
Tuesday, 06 December 2011 14:39

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced today the establishment of the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, housed within the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, to focus on an important area of human inquiry—the cultural, philosophical, ethical and societal implications of astrobiology.

Astrobiology addresses three fundamental questions: “How did life begin and evolve?” “Is there life beyond Earth?” and “What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?”  Before the advent of modern science, these questions were largely in the realm of philosophy, theology and ethics.  Today, the tools of science are increasingly being brought to bear to address these questions.  The NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology represents an opportunity for high-level collaboration in understanding the interface between astrobiology and human society.

This timely and auspicious collaboration between NASA and the Library of Congress owes a great deal to the vision of the late Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, founding member of the Library’s Scholars Council, which advises the Librarian on scholarly matters.  Blumberg, known affectionately as Barry, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for discovering the hepatitis B virus and developing a powerful vaccine to fight it, saving countless lives.

Blumberg held a medical degree from Columbia University and a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Oxford.  His curiosity and interests were wide-ranging.  In 1999 he added a new dimension to his career by becoming the founding director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.  He also served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 2005 until his death earlier this year.

Billington said of Blumberg and the new chair, “For many years, Barry was a leading figure in the Scholars Council of the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress, who actively promoted research and dialogue between disciplines at a time when he was working so creatively.  This chair is a wonderful expression of his energy and vision in exploring new fields.  It will advance understanding of the implications of this intellectual frontier as well as honor Barry’s broader, enormous contributions.”

The Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology will be a distinguished senior research position in residence at the Kluge Center for a period of up to 12 months. Using research facilities and services at the Library, the holder of the chair is expected to engage in research at the intersection between the science of astrobiology and its humanistic aspects, particularly its societal implications.  Examples of research topics that might be addressed include, but are not limited to, the societal implications of discovering life beyond Earth or discovering that life is rare in the universe; the ways in which astrobiology influences and is influenced by culture; the role of astrobiology in promoting science and technological education and public literacy; ethical considerations arising from in-situ exploration for life on the planets and moons of our solar system; and the role of astrobiology in contributing to and shaping the future of life on Earth and beyond.

The Kluge Center will issue a call for nominations and applications.  Information about the NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology and an application form will be available online at www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/fellowships/NASA-astrobiology.html. The first chair holder is expected to take up residence in October of 2012.

NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl B. Pilcher said, “Public libraries have traditionally provided a public space for discourse on things that matter to a democratic society.  The Astrobiology chair will continue this great tradition, using the unparalleled stature of the Library of Congress as well as its vast resources to promote a dialogue about the significance of astrobiology to our society.”

The Astrobiology chair joins other distinguished chairs in the Kluge Center, including several chairs funded by the Kluge Endowment, the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History, and the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations.

Through a generous endowment from John W. Kluge, the Library of Congress established the Kluge Center in 2000 to bring together the world’s best thinkers to stimulate and energize one another, to distill wisdom from the Library’s rich resources, and to interact with policymakers in Washington.  For further information on the Kluge Center, visit www.loc.gov/kluge/.

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds nearly 147 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats.  The Library serves the U.S. Congress and the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its award-winning website at www.loc.gov.  Many of the Library’s rich resources and treasures may also be accessed via interactive exhibitions on a personalized website at myLOC.gov.

The NASA Astrobiology Program supports research into the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.  The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), an element of that program, is a partnership among NASA, 14 U.S. teams, and eight international consortia.  NAI’s goals are to promote, conduct, and lead interdisciplinary astrobiology research, train a new generation of astrobiology researchers, and share the excitement of astrobiology with learners of all ages.

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