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Way Cool Scientist!

At the age of seven, Tom Wdowiak stumbled across a stack of science books and magazines. In the pile, he found a publication entitled "Air Trails" featuring paintings by Chesley Bonestell, an artist who inspired an entire generation of astronomers, artists, writers, and engineers with his remarkable paintings. One painting in particular captured Tom's fascination; it was a depiction of the artist's vision of the Martian landscape. "My journey," Tom exclaims, "began that moment in 1947 in the basement library of Woodrow Wilson School in Binghamton, New York!"

"I also read quite a lot of science fiction," Tom reveals. "That was in the 1950's and my mother, like everyone else at that time, couldn't understand my fascination. Looking back, it's clear to see how a life-long passion was sent into orbit."

Tom's research has, of course, changed over the last 35 years, but his interests remain broad. "Today my energies are directed toward understanding the relationship between the universe and life - I've decided that this is the most compelling issue in science and for humans in general."

Now a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tom once studied chemistry and worked as a civil servant for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Eventually he earned his Bachelor's degree and Ph.D., both in astronomy. Putting his training to good use, Tom is now taking part in the Athena Mars Exploration Rover missions, scheduled to land in 2004. With a little help from the Mössbauer Spectrometer, Tom hopes to find evidence regarding the question of life on Mars.

"To consider searching for signs of life on Mars," Tom says, "We must first explore and understand the origin of life itself. To do this, we'll start up in the stars, and then come down to earth."

Stars are made up of hydrogen and helium. A star is born when clouds of gas contract and begin a fusion reaction, burning the hydrogen at its core. When the star begins to fizzle out and exhaust its supply of hydrogen, something very interesting happens. The helium turns into carbon and the carbon turns into oxygen, until finally the star explodes and the atoms release into the universe. Our solar system was made from such material, so the carbon created in the last years of a star's life is the very same carbon found in the human body.

"The study of how life comes into existence in the universe informs us about what to look for when looking for signs of life on other planets. Those first molecules leave the trail that leads to life," Tom insists. This is just one step on the journey to envisioning the possibility that life once existed on Mars.

"Now we'll shake off the stardust and touch our feet to the ground. Most of the research prior to the Mission to Mars happens right here on earth. We must conceive of an environment that would produce and sustain life." Tom studies hot springs, which are good habitats for simple forms of life. "When you go to Yellow Stone National Park," he says, "look at the steaming hot pools and geysers - you'll see shades of yellow, green, and blue. The colors are actually from microbes, like bacteria." The hot springs, bubbling up from a sizzling column of melted rock, makes it possible for the bacterial life to come into existence. Emerging from volcanic activity, the geysers gather heat from a source independent of the sun. Once the right environment exists, all it takes is organic matter, like the materials that come from comets, to create life.

Mars has experienced volcanic activity, giving Tom and the rest of us reason to hope for discovering evidence of hot springs on Mars. "The study of hot springs here on earth," Tom explains, "gives us important information about what kinds of environments to look for on Mars."

With his focus on the Athena Mars Exploration Rover missions, Tom spends most of his time working with the Mössbauer Spectrometer. "This technology will contribute to our understanding of the iron minerals of that world and offer insight into early Martian environmental conditions," he says. It can be used to search for hydrothermal minerals formed in ancient hot springs environments.

"Finding hydrothermal minerals on Mars would be thrilling," Tom says, "but even if we don't find evidence of life, the iron minerals will tell an important story about the planet. For this reason, I view my assignment as a significant responsibility!"

When Tom isn't teaching in Alabama or training at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, he writes for the local newspaper in his hometown in the "Just for Kids" section. He shows kids how to do science experiments using easy-to-find items from around the house. He goes by "Tommy Test Tubes," a nickname given to him when he was a kid. One Saturday a month Tom shares experiments and research ideas that originated in his childhood, "but now they're a bit more 'foolproof,'" he says, "thanks to a lifetime of accumulated experience."

Having been teased as a child for pursuing scientific experiments in his home laboratory, Tom was undaunted. Now driven by that very same curiosity and love for the unknown, "Tommy Test Tubes" draws upon a wealth of research, knowledge, and imagination to push the boundaries of science, and further our experience and understanding of the universe.