Archives For alien life

alien bacteria

One of the topics that’s been prominently featured on Weird Things has been panspermia, the hypothesis that life can originate somewhere in the galaxy and spread though asteroid or comet impacts, or even forward contamination by alien spacecraft. We know that amino acids can form all on their own when certain molecules are irradiated, that some creatures can easily survive a trip though space, and there’s evidence that molecules crucial for life here may have a strong link with primordial impacts. Now, true, the theory has been abused by those who either do not understand what it actually entails, or by those who just refuse to keep up with the science and spend most of their time accusing some secret anti-panspermia cabal trying to keep them down, but overall, it’s quite sound which is why it’s still being kept in mind by astrobiologists. Or so you would think unless you go by a Scientific American blog post which says the following…

In some ways the motivation for proposing this kind of cosmic panspermia is a little dated. It comes from a time when we felt that the origin of life of on Earth was such a mystery, and such an unlikely event, that it was convenient to outsource it. Although this didn’t actually solve the real question of life’s origins, it meant that a specific origin ‘event’ could be extremely rare among the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way yet life would still show up in other places.

These days I think our discoveries about the remarkable abundance and diversity of so-called pre-biotic chemistry [...] in every nook and cranny of our solar system, and even in the proto-stellar nebula of other stars and the wilds of interstellar space – swings the pendulum back to Earth. Nature seems adept at making all the pieces for life, apparently raising the odds of local bio-genesis.

How are these two thoughts connected again? I’m not exactly sure how life being very adaptable would mean that it raises the odds of Earth being its origin because we’re talking about evolution rather than abiogenesis. Caleb Scharf, the scientist who wrote the post, seems to be making the same kind of mistake many creationists do when trying to ridicule evolutionary theory by asking how life would’ve come from non-life and nothing that evolution fails to answer this question. So it’s little wonder that whatever life gets here or starts here would fill every available nook, cranny, and environmental niche since natural selection would favor their reproduction. But whether the origin of these species is on Earth or in space is more or less a toss-up if we’re considering just how well they adapted to their current environments.

Yes, we could say that it’s more likely that life originated on Earth because space is vast and the odds of enough comets and asteroids hitting the planet at just the right conditions for life to take hold are astronomical, literally, so it makes sense to look for an explanation that makes life more likely to arise here. That explanation may not be right, but we don’t have a complete picture of how it came to be and so we’re still trying to find viable ideas that seem to fit the evidence we’ve observed so far. But an important part of the process is not to discard hypotheses without any evidence that they simply don’t fit with the observations, something that Scharf does with an odd certainty about the habitability of promising places in the solar system by hearty microorganisms that should dominate the universe based on the way natural selection works.

But the problem, and the potential paradox, is that if evolved galactic panspermia is real it’ll be capable of living just about everywhere. There should be [organisms] on the Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, minor planets and cometary nuclei. Every icy nook and cranny in our solar system should be a veritable paradise for these ultra-tough life forms, honed by natural selection to make the most of [the] appalling conditions. So if galactic panspermia exists why haven’t we noticed it yet?

He then goes on to answer his own question by saying that we probably haven’t looked all that hard in all these places, don’t know for what we’re really looking, or possibly both, and ponders would it would mean if we kept searching and found nothing. You can tell that he’s really pushing for the Earth-centric explanation and again, as elaborated above, I can see why, but his primary reason for pushing it seems to be based on a very strange confusion between abiogenesis and natural selection with no facts to back it up. The argument seems to be: we know more extreme organisms on Earth, natural selection seems to be doing it’s job, we haven’t explored all of the promising candidates for life in our solar system in sufficient detail and we don’t really know what we’re trying to find and how we’ll know we found it, therefore, life arose on Earth. Doesn’t seem like a scientific train of thought to me, especially with all the evidence that there was at least an important role being played by organic matter or microorganisms from space…

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Unless you’ve completely avoided the web for the last day or so, you know that SETI’s radio telescope array is mothballed for the foreseeable future and the project’s funding is drying up. Maybe we can compose some sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide style message for aliens, like "hello, thank you for calling Earth. We currently don’t have the budget to take your call, but please leave a message and the coordinates of a star system where we can contact you and we’ll return your call as soon as we raise the cash?" Would an alien be willing to leave an interstellar equivalent to voicemail? But I digress. This turn of events is a real shame and it’s unfortunate that just as we’re finding planet after planet that may be a viable habitat for something that may possibly evolve an abstract, elaborate intelligence and want to find other life like it in the galaxy, we’re shutting off the very devices we’ve created to catch their attempts. The Allen Array’s $2.5 million annual price tag isn’t even that huge of an expense if we put it in perspective, but unfortunately, the far-reaching and highly speculative nature of what it’s intended to do puts it among the first projects to be on the chopping block when finding runs a little low.

Hold on a second, you might say, didn’t you do a whole bunch of posts saying that it would be very hard to get anything out of signals sent by alien creatures? Didn’t you go into detail about why our first attempts at some sort of a conversation with extraterrestrials will more than likely fail, both in simple signals and mathematical codes? So why would you care about SETI getting an axe if intelligent alien life forms are rare and the odds of two intelligent alien creatures close enough to each other to truly talk are astronomically negligible? Yeah, in the grand scheme of things whether we try to get an alien signal tomorrow or next century matters very little as far as the universe is concerned, but the sooner we start searching and the more we search through the vast real estate out there, the sooner we can find something amazing or tantalizing. And while we can look for any communication directed towards us, we can also use the Allen Array to listen in on signals that aren’t meant for us either, just stray blips on the radar like the Wow! Signal which may be an indirect sign that there’s either something out there or we discovered a new cosmic phenomenon. To say that we have all the time we want, and delaying the process of actually listening and searching is inexcusable procrastination given the fact that all we really want is a sign that there’s intelligent life out there and even the most mysterious and convoluted communication we could never translate would be a life altering event just by virtue of its existence.

There are moments in human history when something so momentous happens that we can look back at all recorded time and legitimately split all of our existence into years before that moment and the years after that moment. Right now we do it with religious milestones and ancient legends, while we could really be doing it with the first city state, the first nation, the first great monument, the first ship, and of course, the first human in space and the first human to walk on another world. Finding iron-clad proof of alien life would be one of those history-splitting moments because it will mark the point in our history when we didn’t just have a good guess that we weren’t alone, but know it for a fact. And the longer we wait for it, the longer we hem and haw about an otherwise small amount of money required for it, the longer it will take to get there and the more likely it is that we may miss a once in a thousand year opportunity to catch that elusive signal. We didn’t have to build cities, learn how to fly, and go to the Moon. But we did. When those milestones happened was of little consequence to the flow of time. Another arbitrary date here or there is no big deal after all. But why do it later rather than as soon as we can? Why drag our feet and suggest we postpone every lofty goal until the world is just perfect for the accomplishment in question? We have SETI now. So let’s help them out and use its tools now rather than at some indeterminate point in the future when and if we run out of reasons to put it off!

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Last week, we covered the concept of stealthy aliens guarding their natural resources from big, bad invaders who could make mincemeat out of their defenses and pillage their holdings to fuel whatever immense horde they have to feed and supply. But even though I said that it was highly unlikely given the resource glut of the typical solar system, it’s not inconceivable, and some informed speculation from Dr. Ian O’Neill prompts me to revisit the topic of alien invasions to ask whether we should take Hawking’s words on the subject to heart and live with some fear of being invaded by armies of little green men. Maybe a little paranoia would go a long way and pay major dividends in the end. After all, our entire space program exists because two superpowers’ military resources made it possible and we don’t go around decrying the internet, microwaves, and GPS as a waste of time and cash because they were never used for their intended purpose: as tools in a war between two of the world’s largest and best funded militaries armed with nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. How much will we complain if we get space hotels and vacations on Mars by preparing for an alien invasion?

Of course this isn’t to say that we should look at our defense establishments as clairvoyant or assume that a space program is only possible with military involvement. The reason why they were and are still involved in matters concerning space has to do with the size of their budgets and their overarching mission of look for a potential threat in just about anything. Having a somewhat paranoid mindset and a large budget to tinker with some seemingly outlandish ideas does yield some interesting out-of-the-box thinking and prototypes for the kinds of things today’s risk averse and numbers-driven research institutions won’t even consider. It’s how the generals in both the USSR and the U.S. decided that launching humans in space was an interesting and viable idea, committing some of their substantial resources to human space travel, while wondering what it would take to assemble a citadel on another world just to keep an eye on their rivals. We can certainly bring up the human cost of the Cold War, but there’s no question that humans seem to be at their most ingenious when planning for conflict. With a potential alien invasion in mind, pretty much any idea may be viable and all sorts of interesting new research avenues might just be opened, yielding new technologies with a number of uses in the civilian world, from power generation, to manufacturing, to medicine.

Hold on a second though. How could we ever afford to prepare for an event as unlikely as a war with aliens if we live in an era of gaping budget deficits and there’s widespread poverty around the globe? And realistically, strictly speaking, we couldn’t devote a whole lot of time and effort to this, though we could also say that aliens really won’t care about our fiscal situation or vaccination and literacy rates in developing nations if they were to attack. However, we can use some cash buried in weapon development programs and used on redundant or needless projects and invest it in those which yield weapons capable of doing damage in space. As noted a while back, our conventional missiles and bombs won’t work in a vacuum, so we’d need to further develop kinetic impactors, lasers, and railguns, weaponry that is suitable for an orbital dogfight and also delivers a lot of damage down here on Earth. More complex things like armed, crewed spacecraft capable of long trips into the solar system are going to be more complex to pull off, but they are very likely to be just militarized versions of civilian space stations made by the same companies busy planning orbital hotels, and the technology they will require could then be channeled right back into the space tourism industry to build new, bigger, and more reliable space hotels and research stations. Though depending how heavily the military craft in question can be armed could be governed by the Outer Space Treaty which forbids orbital WMDs.

Now I can already hear the biggest objection of them all to this concept. Why militarize space? Why not simply explore it rather than take our wars to yet another place? One of the biggest hurdles to the idea of a peaceful, space-faring human species of the future is our nature. If we start settling space, we will declare territories or outposts as our property and there will be debates and clashes over who owns what. Treaties will have to be rewritten, new legal frameworks will have to be put into place, and all those claims will have to be enforced by something and that something is more than likely going to have to be the threat of military intervention. And as long as we have humans who think that because an unarmed territory just means that they can waltz on it and claim it as their own, we’ll have a need for militaries. But of course there’s a little more to it than that. If there’s alien life in our solar system, it’s most likely in forms that can’t harm us, trapped under the ice of moons that orbit gas giants, or very hearty, radiation-resistant bacteria on Mars. Were we to try and reach beyond, to an extrasolar world which might be habitable, our probable plan for the trip would have to involve weapons just in case there’s some sort of confrontation. Even if we go with the best intentions, we could stumble into a very paranoid and highly militarized species ready to attack anything that moves, and we need to be ready. It’s not realistic to ascribe to messianic UFOlogy when we know that space is often a very harsh place, and assume that the aliens we might encounter will be docile and ready to share their knowledge with us…

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Scientific papers and their preprints are used for many different purposes. They can be used to entertain new and strange ideas, generate feedback on a concept before the paper is ready for publication, encourage like- minded collaborators to contact you, and generally, just get your work out into the world. But one use for which they’re definitely not intended, is to serve as soapboxes for one’s whining and conspiracy theories. Chandra Wickramasinghe, who recently gained some notoriety on science blogs for his involvement with an eccentric, publicity-hungry journal which served as one man’s crusade to convince the world that we found alien life, should probably know that. Regardless, he decided to publish a recitation his woes, sprinkled liberally with several conspiracy theories in which astrobiologists are being systematically silenced, on arXiv. If you expect roughly sixteen pages of paranoia and allusions to a sinister scientific cabal censoring research that doesn’t meet some silent consensus the author fervently opposes, you’re not going to be disappointed by his essay, which also tries to to present a few vague findings as irrefutable proof for panspermia events along the way.

Over the decades, there have been a few projects trying to figure out whether life did come from space and it actually is considered to be a viable hypothesis by numerous scientists interested in its many variations. Did life form completely on Earth? Was there some interference with alien bacteria? Could alien bacteria make a trip between the stars and seed our planet? Or did we just get seeded with organic compounds during the solar system’s formation and had the elements to from into RNA and then DNA, kick-starting life? We really don’t know and in the past, the evidence for life coming from space was rather inconclusive and experiments which tried to get some answers but failed to really wow space agencies and universities were shut down so their limited funds could be used to peruse more promising lines of research. But in Wickramasinghe’s mind that’s not at all what happened. Apparently, as he and Sir Fred Hoyle, as well as some other researchers had a few fun ideas at the time, the Sinister Scientific Cabal went to work, covering up the growing proof for aliens seeding our world and rejecting papers with concrete proof that this is exactly what happened. Somehow, he must have missed the last decade of research into whether bacteria can survive atmospheric entry and if tiny organisms known as tardigrades could weather the rigors of space, as well as the search for life on Mars, life that Wickramasinghe insists is being covered up by the agency for reasons that apparently make sense only in his warped, self-focused psyche. To him, astrobiologists are a persecuted minority.

Of course this must be the case because his own astrobiology office was shut down following the disaster that was his work with Schild’s Journal of Cosmology and his publication of awful papers in which the laws of physics and basic logic were turned on their heads to make his hypothesis work. It’s not that he worked with a crank perusing woefully outdated ideas and is decades behind the field, publishing utter nonsense in eccentric vanity journals. No, it must be the machinations of the aforementioned SSC suppressing evidence for extraterrestrial microbacteria, alien viruses, and fossilized remains of creatures from other worlds found in meteorites held by NASA. Keep in mind that this is the same cabal which allowed NASA scientists to publish a highly inconclusive paper arguing for the possibility of arsenic-based life, and let researchers note that a rock impregnated with bacteria and carried by Columbia survived reentry and the craft’s disintegration, which they took as evidence for the notion of microbes arriving on other worlds intact. It’s almost as if the only kind of research that the Cabal  is censoring is Wickramasinghe’s ramblings and his pet projects, which either rush to conclusions based on lackluster evidence, or make grandiose and ridiculous claims based solely on other grandiose and ridiculous claims. Now if he were a scientist, he might start wondering if his work is lacking a little rigor and if he were to try something different, he might have a paper worth publishing in a journal which doesn’t outsource its site design to someone who’s never seen the web past the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, Wickramasinghe has turned into a crackpot, and his reaction is to cry persecution and proceed to very loudly defend himself from his perceived enemies, who are apparently just plotting to take him and his work down from the shadows, as per the textbook behavior of a crank in the final stage of his affliction. It’s ridiculous to argue that today, the topics of panspermia and alien life are somehow taboo because NASA has a whole lot invested in hunting for aliens and looking for habitable worlds. In fact, the vast majority of its space exploration budget is used for some form of alien hunting, and that’s not to mention that SETI is regarded not as a collection of random kooks who think they’re going to talk to aliens, but a perfectly respectable scientific organization which is pursuing a very difficult but scientifically justifiable goal. Just because you don’t get your day in the sun for recycling ideas you concocted with a man who had a track record of being spectacularly and demonstrably wrong about almost everything outside of astronomy to such a degree that a fallacy often cited by creationists bears his name, doesn’t mean that you’re a victim of a conspiracy. It just means that you’re an old geezer who hasn’t had an original idea since the 1980s, and you’re furious that scientists have moved on and won’t let you ride on Hoyle’s coattails anymore, much less coast on your own recycled half-guesses.

[ illustration by Aaron Sims ]

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dark planet

In the wake of the news which must have rocked the scientific world, any by extension, probably yours as well, the Journal of Cosmology, the pet project of cosmologist Rudolph Schild, is going out of business. What pray tell are eccentric scientists on a mission to prove to the world that the aliens are out there and came here on meteorites and comets in ongoing panspermia events, to do now to continue their quest? Apparently, give a little new life to their paper which tries to trace the emergence of life to within a blink of a cosmological eye, a mere several million years after the Big Bang on mysterious planets that apparently litter the universe. And in their minds, they can get more publicity for their work by asking PZ Myers for a review.

One wonders why they didn’t just dive right into a pit of starving lions and cut out the electronic middleman, but answers to questions like this are well outside my area of expertise and I’m digressing here. Suffice it to say that the paper is really not persuasive in the very least, and the authors ramble and jump around from paragraph to paragraph while throwing out random numbers and equations that supposedly prove that the universe was brimming with life which was just peacefully evolving along during an epoch of turbulent galaxy formation and hypernovae.

So where do we start with this premise? How about with the fact that a few million years after it was born, the universe should have been smaller and denser than it is now and after the first flash, entered a dark age that lasted for millions of years? Stars as we know them are thought to have been born only 150 million years after the Big Bang and those Population III stars had to synthesize all the metals and silicates needed to form any future planet which could be home to living things. What this paper basically says is that the first planets were born before the first stars and this happened at the very dawn of the universe. And not only that, but that these planets, which somehow came into existence only 300,000 years after baryogenesis, when the only elements really present in the entire universe were hydrogen, helium, and lithium, spawned living things in 2 million to approximately 20 million years after they were formed.

All right, sure, there’s a good model suggesting that a planet could host life even if it wasn’t orbiting a star, so if they can somehow explain how a planet without a surface or an ocean can spawn living things from the three elements mentioned above, they have an idea we could actually consider. But the authors manage to severely mangle their timeline so we somehow have vast clusters of white dwarfs seeding these mysterious and ill-defined planets with organic compounds at some point in time, and what’s even more bizarre, stars suddenly forming from planetary collisions, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t sound even remotely plausible. Did those planets just slam into each other and start fusion? It’s pretty hard to tell because no mechanism for this alternative hypothesis of star birth is given.

If by now you’re feeling lost and confused, don’t worry. That’s normal because the paper in question is wildly disorienting and spends its bulk looking for traces of planets in nebulae, ancient galactic clusters, and filling various globular clusters throughout space. Every particle that looks spherical is interpreted as being one of these mysterious planets and then further classified as being the culprit behind dark matter. By the end of the paper, you’ve been told that not only were there magical planets at the dawn of the cosmos, but that they’re an incubator for life, that they seeded the universe with primordial bacteria, that they were the progenitors of early stars, and finally, that they’re also dark matter. Ow. My brain. It hurts. After finally reaching the conclusion, I was wondering why I subject myself to this kind of stuff and whether there’s some from of nerdy sadomasochism I might unwittingly be into.

But believe it or not, I’m still not done listing this paper’s doozies. You see, all those amazing planets, which seem to be the answer to every cosmological question asked today, and a complete reversal of solar system formation were invented for a simple reason. One of the co-authors, who worked on the mechanics of panspermia with Hoyle, used his old assertion that life is way too complex to have started in just a billion years or so on Earth, and thus must’ve come from space. We’re now returning to the days of Lord Kelvin, when panspermia offered to explain how a "young" planet like ours had enough time to develop its biosphere since back then, Earth was thought to be 400 million years old at most.

But hold on though, something seems off. Did you catch it yet? Let me give you a hint. According to the author whose convictions underpin this paper, Chandra Wickramasinghe, a billion years or so is just not enough to develop the first life forms, and living things are too complex to arise by abiogenesis. Yet on his planets which populate the universe at its inception, life arises by abiogenesis in two to 20 million years. Huh? What? How can a billion years be too little for life to evolve when the universe is 9 billion years old but when it just begins, a few million years is plenty? But then again, Wickramasinghe is not known for being entirely reasonable and his quest to prove that life got here by extraterrestrial seeding his taken on bizarre forms, like accusing NASA of hiding evidence of life on Mars and claiming that SARS was an alien virus.

Insisting that life is just far too complex to evolve on its own, he’s been trying to grasp at any straw to prove that somehow, in the vacuum of space, or on a world at the dawn of the universe, all the same problems he assigns to life on Earth arising on its own suddenly vanish, then parades this assertion as if he’s solved the problem of abiogenesis. He hasn’t done that at all. All he really did was push it back. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve written about some of the neat science regarding panspermia and research into organic compounds in space quite a bit on this blog. It’s not impossible that some vital ingredients for life came from space. But what’s being offered in this paper simply falls flat on its face, argues absurd things using incredibly unscientific double standards, and shows why few scientists took Schild and his friends’ ramblings seriously enough to contribute to their journals.

See: Carl H. Gibson, Rudolph E. Schild, and N. C. Wickramasinghe (2010). The Origin of Life from Primordial Planets Int. J. of Astrobiology arXiv: 1004.0504v4

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Oxygen is a gas we generally take for granted here on Earth thanks to the abundant flora that keeps its levels in our atmosphere nice and high. Not only it is vital for our bodies to power themselves, but it’s essential for quite a bit of our technology. Metallic alloys and plastics on which we rely to build everything from buildings to spacecraft, require fire to smelt, mix, and mold. Even something as basic as pottery and bricks still require an oven with a steady flame, and cooking food to kill bacteria and parasites, would be impossible without a nice, roaring fire. And if you want fire and heat without having to deal with a violent volcano belching noxious fumes, you need to have oxygen. I learned this as a kid in science class, giving it little thought until recently, when my girlfriend asked me if aliens living on a planet which didn’t have oxygen could ever develop a civilization as we know it since they’d never be able to start a fire to cook their food, much less build advanced technology.

Now, I really didn’t know how to answer her question, but after giving it some thought, I think she might have a very interesting point. After stone tools, the first major leap forward for humans was fire. With food that was far safer to eat and much easier to chew and digest, we could get more from our nutrition. On cold nights, a good fire would warm our caves and huts. And fire allowed for the next leap forward, the invention of metal tools and the ability to create lighter and more durable weapons to defend our farms and hunting grounds. And you may even say that fire was one of the technological catalysts for the emergence of human civilization as we know it today. For fire, though, we needed to have oxygen in our atmosphere. So what would’ve happened if the Earth produced macro life that didn’t need oxygen and the reactive gas was present only in very trace amounts? Say goodbye to caves that could be warmed on demand, creating custom tools from metal, or even making basic pottery wherever you want. And even if you could just walk up to a superheated volcanic vent, you would have a lot of trouble making tools that wouldn’t burn up or melt from the magma’s radiant heat.

Even if you’re extremely creative and manage to tap into a geothermal source, you can forget about controlling the temperature to create exactly what you need because it really isn’t as simple as moving what you need to heat to the right distance from the magma. All sorts of environmental factors would affect the heat that’s being put out of the vent and the exposure to noxious gases would be a major problem for any macro life. Basically, you really need to get heat on demand if you want to build cities close to easily traversable terrain, rivers, and seas, and if you want to make materials that require a very precise recipe, materials you can use in everything that’s needed to build computers, radios, TVs, lenses, and mirrors, you’re out of luck. Does that mean that we have to look for a world with oxygen in its atmosphere if we ever want to find alien cities, and not because we want to find high levels of atmospheric oxygen as a requirement for life, but because we’re looking for species that can discover fire? Maybe there’s a chemist in the house who could set us straight and let us know if there may be another way of creating a controllable heat source in an atmosphere without oxygen? And what do you think? Can one have a technological society without having to discover how to handle fire first?

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Bacteria are the most adaptable forms of life we know of, able to survive and thrive in everything from a boiling hot geyser, to a dark, subterranean chamber, and even in radioactive waters of nuclear reactors, though there is a limit on how much radiation they can absorb before their bodies break down. This radical diversity often means that wherever biologists look for traces of life in exotic environments on our world, they almost always find at least one strain of bacteria that happily lived there for tens of millions of years, and apparently, the vast real estate under the ocean floor is no exception. According to a story flying around major media outlets last week, as much as half of the planet’s entire biosphere might consist of various microorganisms buried under the ocean floor and feeding on such things as gases from thermal vents and minerals from the sediment.

Referred to as intra-terrestrial life, this biomass is particularly interesting to a number of researchers because it can shed light on how to find living things on Mars or Europa where any aliens would most likely thrive deep under the surface, in warmer environments close to geological hotspots. This is why the JOIDES Resolution, a scientific drill ship, will spend a year sailing across the Pacific and to the mid-Atlantic ridge, on a search for new microbes and tracking how they move through mazes of sub-oceanic aquifers by staining local colonies with dyes along the way. And there’s another notable point of interest for biologists here. On the one hand, life on our world could’ve started in remote, subterranean chambers and eventually moved upwards, closer to the shallow seas, hot springs, and other habitats, evolving photosynthesis while it migrated. Conversely, we can also propose that life began in the shallow seas and eventually finding its way down as new bacterial strains evolved to use the nutrients in volcanic vents, soils, and rocks to fuel its metabolism.

Studying microorganisms which may be ancestors of the hypothesized universal common ancestors in many evolutionary charts could give important clues to the validity of this theory and help us narrow down where life began. If half of all living things really make their home under oceans, continents and mountains, we need to find out why this is the case and apply what we can learn to the question of abiogenesis. After all, if we’re able to come up with a theoretically sound, evidence-backed model of how living things get their start in he kind of environments one would expect to find a newly formed planet, we’d be better equipped to either look for aliens on other promising worlds in our solar system, or construct models of how life may emerge in a very different set of conditions we could find on icy planets, moons and in other solar systems…

[ illustration by Hau Si Yuan Julian ]

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Sometimes, when you look at what’s buzzing in the science headlines of major publications around the world, you come across articles that make you bolt upright in your chair and groan “oh come on, that’s just a recap of the same old stuff we’ve all heard before re-packaged as news!” And this is especially true when it comes to constant ruminations on the search for alien life across the universe, citing the same research and the same cautiously optimistic quotes from astrobiologists and astronomers. From the last find of water molecules in a distant nebula, to another recounting of how comets and asteroids are filled with organic matter, any news of potential for otherworldly life in some shape or form becomes fodder for another rehash of everything told us the last time a telescope saw a trace of water or a microscope found an amino acid in an ancient meteorite.

Maybe the media outlet had a massive surge of traffic after it ran its first story about the search for otherworldly life, maybe the number of comments on its subsequent stories in the same vein went off the charts, or maybe it’s just a slow news day, but quite a few of the biggest newspapers and blogs around the world just keep on repackaging the same ten articles about the day we may find an alien world scurrying with living things. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very important studies that certainly deserve extensive coverage in the world of popular science, like the finding that water in meteorites can affect the chirality of amino acids, or that after exposure to typical cosmic radiation, certain chemicals in space debris become nucleobases in RNA, and a few curious ideas about finding traces of forests and vast biospheres just by looking at the light they reflect. However, articles like the Telegraph’s newsflash recounting that meteorites might have helped spark life on Earth simply fail to add anything even remotely new to an extremely popular and oft repeated theory.

I know, exciting research regarding potential aliens doesn’t happen every day. Trying to find something which may be radically different from life as we know it in almost every imaginable way without knowing what it is we’re actually trying to track down is very difficult. Even if we were to stick to searching for clear markers of life we could readily identify, these efforts require a major investment in an entire fleet of orbital telescopes and years of searching to find another terrestrial planet we could photograph with a high enough resolution to get some concrete data, something that’s simply not going to happen overnight or any time soon for that matter. Profound science like this takes time, effort and a commitment to press onward with space exploration efforts for decades to come, something sorely lacking in today’s political climate. Maybe the very real potential for the developed world to throttle back its scientific and technical leadership thanks to today’s short sighted politicians could be the pop sci subject of choice on a slow news day since this problem hasn’t been getting through to the public nearly as well as another rehash of basic astrobiology primers…

[ illustration by Frieso J. Hoevelkamp ]

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The outer solar system is a strange place. It’s a realm of frozen gas giants surrounded by icy moons and yet, it’s actually home to one of the most promising destinations for alien hunters in the solar system, offering an even more convincing argument for an alien biosphere than Mars to some. We’re talking about Europa, which is currently covered by a thick, icy shell with a myriad of cracks along its surface which bring what looks like a liquid to the surface. As our Sun dies and expands, it should eventually turn into a water world where clusters of what should be small islands could be home to alien amphibians which split their time between patrolling the beaches for washed up food, and the warm waves. Of course this scenario is still a billion years away and borrows heavily from our own evolutionary past but it is somewhat scientifically plausible over the eons…

However, just because Europa is still in its icy shell doesn’t mean that it can’t host life. In fact, a study looking at the tidal kneading the moon experiences, points to a warm ocean underneath all those glaciers and even a bit of energetic stirring under the surface, all promising indications for potential alien faunas. Oceanographer Robert Tyler ran a few simulations to account not just for the tidal forces acting on Europa as it orbits Jupiter and gravitationally interacts with the other large moons, but also its tilt. The idea is that the tidal kneading of a moon tilted on its axis will send a slow moving but very energetic waves across is surface. The waves would be variants of Rossby waves which are triggered by the stress on rotating fluids. A tilt of just one degree with such waves slowly propagating across the ocean under Europa’s ice should create some 7.3 exajoules, the energy equivalent of 1.74 billion tons of TNT. In addition, the propagation of these waves would help Europa’s ocean churn, stirring up potential nutrients for living things.

Now, all those strong indirect hints that something very interesting and potentially living could be going on just a few miles under Europa’s ice should be taken with caution. We would only know if the moon can support an entire biosphere when we land on its surface and probe into its seas. Hopefully, something will swim up and wave its fin/tentacle/spine/antennae at the cameras, but we probably shouldn’t bet on it. Without seeing aliens outside movies and TV shows, we could easily miss something we didn’t even know was alive. There’s also a very real possibility of forward contamination, that is sending our bacteria to other worlds on equipment which we want to use to find alien microbes. In the worst case scenario, these bacteria will taint the samples, trigger false positives on lab tests, and be a real pain for the researchers trying to separate terrestrial microbes from extraterrestrial ones. Hopefully, life on Europa has more of a similarity to jellyfish and sea anemones so we’d be able to rule out contamination thanks to the sheer size of the life forms we discover.

And interestingly enough, liquid water oceans swimming with life aren’t the only kind of fluid that’s possible in the outer solar system. Deep in the innards of Uranus and Neptune, temperatures could soar above 50,000 K and pressures could reach between 6 and 10 Mbar, or in the range of 87 to 145 million psi. Under the extreme heat and stress, the carbon layers inside the gas giants would turn into diamonds, and not just any diamonds but a dense, metallic graphite fluid with chunks of solid diamond-like material. A thick enough layer of molten diamonds behaving like an ocean could also explain the bizarre tilts of the magnetic poles of the two planets since it would interact with the magnetic fields emanating from the core and deflect the lines that feed into the poles. Oh and just in case you might be wondering what it would be like to swim in a diamond ocean, don’t. At up to 40 million atmospheres and with temperatures about nine times hotter than the surface of the Sun, this ocean would crush your body into a tiny little clump as it vaporizes you with blistering heat…

See: Tyler, R. (2008). Strong ocean tidal flow and heating on moons of the outer planets Nature, 456 (7223), 770-772 DOI: 10.1038/nature07571

Eggert, J., et. al, (2009). Melting temperature of diamond at ultrahigh pressure Nature Physics, 6 (1), 40-43 DOI: 10.1038/nphys1438

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Considering that The Daily Galaxy’s record on topics like aging, evolution and futurism are not exactly stellar, if you pardon the pun, we might expect their feature article on the Fermi Paradox to be rather lacking in both detail and science. But instead, it’s actually fairly decent overview of a big question posed to all SETI efforts; if the universe is crawling with life, why aren’t we being constantly bombarded with signals from alien species? Explanations so far have ranged from the practical challenges of delivering a powerful enough signal across light years, to limits of our detection technology, to theories of an evolutionary roadblock that limits how long a nascent civilization has to live before it’s wiped out by either its own efforts or a planetary cataclysm which are duly noted by the Galaxy’s writers. However, there are two more ideas that seem to get little consideration…

alien contact

We’ve brought up the topic of evolution and its role in astrobiology before when discussing how many aliens could evolve some sort of intelligence and how intelligent they could be, as well as what they might choose to do with their brainpower. Given the right environment and the potential for complex life, the ability to evolve what we would consider societies isn’t at all far fetched. Since there are so many worlds that aren’t hospitable to life in general, civilizations may be separated by vast distances and time scales. As one society is rising to power, the other may be in its decline and death, or vice versa. But even when we consider that, there should still be countless alien species out there, just itching to contact us in the dream scenario of alien hunters. To find out why scientists can’t seem to find them, we need to consider what exactly we mean by intelligent aliens since many of us like to use this phrase so casually, it’s become a very nebulous construct.

Many humans tend to forget that we’re not the only intelligent creatures on our own planet and may theologian navel-gazers use our lack of humility in this regard as proof of some sort of divine design. Why would there be only one creature endowed with the brainpower to understand its existence by random chance, they ask. If we consider that argument outside of a theistic framework, it sounds something like one of the comments in the aforementioned Daily Galaxy article…

There are about 1.5 million known animals, plants and algae on earth. Never mind bacteria and [any] as yet unknown species. How many of these have developed “intelligence”? Just one. I think life is rampant, but “intelligent” life is not.

I wonder why we’re forgetting about dolphins, apes, elephants, parrots, whales, squid and octopi? They’re all endowed with some sort of intellect and many scientists tend to hold dolphins as the second smartest living things on the planet in a very close tie with whales. If we go by what the theory of evolution predicts, there has to be a spectrum of intelligence in a wide number of species and depending on whether natural selection and key mutations have enabled a small number of species to capitalize on brainpower as a means of survival. By letting go of our egotistical notions of our superiority over the planet, we’ll notice that we’re not the only ones on planet Earth with some wits. How far ahead we are, we don’t know because there’s a still a lot to find out how smart some of the other species around us really are. And when we’re looking to other planets, their situation should be roughly similar. Maybe, there really are countless intelligent species out there, but they could never build spaceships or cities because they don’t have the right limbs or don’t have the conceptual skills because natural selection on their world limited the reach of their mental abilities?

Continuing to stray from the beaten path, let’s also think about what we would say to an alien creature. Some of us are desperate to talk to one while many are content to find them at our own pace rather than spend time, money and effort on the task. Do we really want to tell them our secrets? Do we want to send them everything we know in digital form? Would what we consider our great works of art and science impress, infuriate or just bore an alien society? Our cultural differences might be so vast as to be irreconcilable. We can’t even talk with each other most of the time, much less other intelligent creatures on our own world. Chatting with aliens who live quadrillions of miles away isn’t exactly going to be any easier and this may be why there are a whole lot of very smart and advanced civilizations who make it a choice to shun games of interstellar message tag.

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