A new MPhil programme at the University of Cambridge will deliver postgraduate training in the search for life’s origins on Earth and its discovery on planets beyond Earth.
The course will explore the requirements for life’s beginnings: from its astrophysical origins to the emergence of biospheres, providing the essential knowledge for research in planetary science and life in the Universe.
"This is a unique course delivered at a unique time," says course Director Professor Oliver Shorttle. "It will train a new generation of scientists who think across disciplines and drive a new period of discovery in the search for knowledge of life’s origins and presence in the Universe."
The new MPhil has been designed by leading scientists from the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe, which brings together researchers from across the University of Cambridge to enable cross-disciplinary research on the origin, nature and distribution of life in the Universe.
Almost 30 years ago, Cambridge's Didier Queloz, who leads the Centre, discovered a planet orbiting another sun (an exoplanet) while he was a PhD student in Geneva. The Nobel-prize-winning discovery raised the possibility of Earth-like twins that are warmed by their Sun and where life could exist.
"Today, the search for the origins of life have taken us to reconstructing Earth’s earliest moments where chemistry became life, to probing the atmospheres of distant exoplanets for evidence of living organisms, to investigating ancient lake sediments on our neighbouring Mars, to seeking answers in philosophy to our most profound questions," says Shorttle, who is jointly based at Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences and Institute of Astronomy.
Recently an international team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge published the first evidence of carbon-based molecules in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, raising the possibility of potentially habitable worlds elsewhere in the Universe.
Film: Carbon-based molecules found on 'water world' exoplanet
"Astronomers have given us the 'black dot' of known exoplanets, and we are now edging towards more complete, colourful pictures of their pasts and their possible futures," adds Shorttle.
"This requires the help of chemists, zoologists, plant biologists, earth scientists, physicists and philosophers. This MPhil programme is exciting because it's the first time that researchers from so many disciplines are tackling the question of life in the Universe."
We meet some of the community engaged in this research here.