Charles Simonyi and his wife, Lisa Persdotter Simonyi, have funded a new instrument that will illuminate the origins of life in new ways.
A generous gift from technology pioneer, philanthropist, and space traveler Charles Simonyi and his wife, Lisa Persdotter Simonyi, supports the development of a first-of-its-kind scientific instrument to help answer some of humankind's most existential questions: Are we alone? Has life ever existed beyond Earth?
The instrument, a redesigned orbitrap mass spectrometer, is already performing test measurements in the lab of John Eiler, Caltech's Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and Geochemistry. Its primary use is to prepare for the Mars Sample Return mission, one of the most ambitious endeavors undertaken by JPL (which Caltech manages), NASA, and the European Space Agency. The mission will bring rocks from the red planet's valleys, ridges, and dry riverbeds to Earth.
"Most likely, we'll get back a chemical compound, not DNA, a cell wall, or a protein," Eiler says. "It won't be totally obvious that it's life." This uncertainty, he adds, could spark conversations about the definition of microbial life. "My lab's goal is to provide a new kind of observation that will discriminate between molecules that originated in living systems and those that did not."
The instrument, which Eiler designed in partnership with Thermo Fisher Scientific, uses harmonic signals to rapidly identify hundreds of isotopic forms of a single molecule. Isotopes, Eiler explains, offer a look into a molecule's distant past, from the temperature at which it was formed to the chemical transformations it has undergone. Using this detailed record, Eiler can search for patterns that suggest metabolism, a key process for life.
Insights into the Birth and Evolution of Planetary Systems
Eiler's research is part of a larger Institute effort to understand what different worlds can tell us about the evolution of our planetary system and those around other stars. Geochemists like Eiler meet regularly with astronomers, biologists, and planetary scientists through the Caltech Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution (3CPE). Together, they build a common language to exchange ideas, share concerns, and initiate pathbreaking research, says 3CPE director Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy and holder of the Terence D. Barr Leadership Chair for 3CPE.
"Much government-driven science works on a one- to two-year timescale," Brown says. "It's fantastic that Charles and Lisa believe in John's long-term vision. With this new tool, I suspect he will transform the field of geochemistry."
Eiler's instrument and methods have applications beyond interplanetary sample retrieval, too. They are also being deployed in service of earthly challenges such as better understanding lung infections and detecting doping among athletes.
To date, some 600 humans have traveled to space. Simonyi has been there twice. The Hungarian-born computer scientist traveled to the International Space Station in 2007 and again in 2009.
Here on Earth, Simonyi is well known for developing some of the world's most-used software. He pioneered the what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) word processing editor and was the architect behind Microsoft Word and Excel. In 2017, Microsoft purchased his startup, Intentional Software, a company focused on group productivity and collaboration.
Simonyi first met Eiler during an event at Palomar Observatory in 2022. A few months later he learned about Eiler's ambitions, and the Simonyis made their gift.
When a Decade is Just a Brief Moment in Time
During the three years Eiler searched for a way to fund his one-of-a-kind spectrometer, he never considered scaling down the instrument's capabilities to attract government funders. Putting science first was a risk he was willing to take, and it paid off.
"Laboratory science is expensive, but I never let costs control my decision-making," Eiler says. "I keep working and hope for a miracle. I'm very grateful the Simonyis offered their support when they did, because I could not have postponed this project much longer."
Mars samples are expected to arrive on Earth in 2033, and Eiler says he needs several years to demonstrate his novel methods to the scientific community.
"Mars Sample Return may turn out to be one of the most important experiments anybody will ever do," Eiler adds. "A decade may sound far away, but it's not."