2023-2024: Biogeosciences: Ariel D. Anbar

Ariel Anbar
Arizona State University 


Ariel Anbar is a scientist and educator exploring Earth's past and future as an inhabited world, and the prospects for life beyond. 

In science, Anbar’s research team develops novel geochemical methods to study topics ranging from the chemical evolution of the atmosphere and oceans to human disease. He is particularly interested in understanding how the amount of O2 in Earth’s atmosphere and ocean changed with time, the consequences of these changes for the evolution of life on Earth, and application of this knowledge to the search for life on worlds beyond our own. Anbar directed ASU's Astrobiology Program from 2009 – 2016.

In education, Anbar founded and leads ASU’s Center for Education Through Exploration, which develops, distributes, and evaluates digital learning experiences that spark curiosity, nurture the skills of exploration, and motivate through discovery. The Center’s products include: interactive virtual field trips; adaptive simulation-based courseware for K12 and higher education; and open-source technologies that empower instructors to create digital learning experiences that implement evidence-based best practices.

Trained as a geologist and a chemist, Anbar is the author or co-author of nearly 200 refereed papers and has been the lead investigator of multiple major grants in science and education, totaling > $30M. He is currently a President’s Professor at Arizona State University, on the faculty of the School of Earth & Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences, and a Distinguished Global Futures Scientist in ASU’s Global Futures Laboratory.

A graduate of Harvard (A.B. 1989) and Caltech (Ph.D. 1996), Anbar was on the faculty of the University of Rochester before moving to ASU in 2004. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America, the Geochemical Society, and the European Association of Geochemistry. Anbar chaired the Science Organizing Committee of the 2008 Astrobiology Science Conference, was elected President of the Biogeosciences Section of the American Geophysical Union in 2016, and presently serves as co-editor-in-chief of the Treatise of Geochemistry. 

Anbar was named one of 10 “teaching innovators” by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2017. He received the Science Innovation Award from the European Association of Geochemistry in 2019, the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America in 2020, and gave the American Geophysical Union’s Carl Sagan Lecture in 2022.

Abstract: The Science of Living Worlds

We live in an era of jarring juxtaposition. On the one hand, humanity is increasingly looking outward, to the stars, with renewed hope and optimism. In science, this sentiment manifests in the emergence of astrobiology – the scientific exploration of life’s distribution in the Universe – as a key driver of space exploration. Among the public, we find it in a renaissance of enthusiasm for projecting humanity beyond our world. Yet, simultaneously, the advent of the Anthropocene has us looking inward, often with fear and trepidation, as we grapple with our growing impact and influence on the environment and the challenge of finding sustainable solutions. We wonder and worry about the future of our world – and of ourselves. 

This confluence of conflicting motivations gives rise to a host of questions and concerns that coalesce in a single “big question”: “How do living worlds evolve?” This over-arching question encompasses life’s origins, its growth to planetary scale, the emergence of intelligent life, and the ways in which planet-altering intelligence can shape planetary futures. Crucially, our understanding of this question informs our attitudes and actions toward the future of the planet on which we live. For science, it is a question of great interest. For society, it is existential.

Exploration of this question is necessarily rooted in the Earth and space sciences and adjacent life sciences. It also must engage and even embrace aspects of social sciences and humanities that will shape the future of a human-dominated world – and hence are essential to any “operator’s manual” for the Anthropocene. This synthesis-of-sciences begins to outline what may be an emerging new science – a “science of living worlds”. 

In this lecture, we will explore key aspects of this new science and its application. Looking to the past, we will consider new perspectives on the preciousness of our “pale blue dot” arising from recent discoveries about the evolution of Earth’s aerobic biosphere. Looking to the future, we will examine new insights from the learning sciences, especially about science education, and new capabilities arising from learning engineering, that show how we might avoid a future as a “demon haunted world”.