Alien Vs. Editor: Life As We May (or May Not) Know It

By Steve Edberg

Alien vs. Editor is a forum for questions and answers about extrasolar planets and NASA’s search for life beyond our solar system. Leave your questions for author Steve Edberg and read more on the PlanetQuest website.

Tubeworms that grow near the boundary where hot vent fluid mixes with cold seawater on the ocean floor are an example of extremophiles that broaden our perspective on where to look for life. Image credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

A reader’s question (paraphrased): Why do astronomers assume there have to be conditions similar to Earth in order for life to exist? Who are we to define what life looks like and how would we know what we’re looking at if we really don’t know what we are looking for?

This has been a recurring question over the years, and I don’t think anyone interested in finding extraterrestrial life would dispute those thoughts. The problem is that we aren’t as clever as Mother Nature, so we don’t know what else to look for. More practically, we don’t know what other conditions to look for beyond those we are familiar with.

Science fiction writers have used their imaginations to propose other forms of life. Sir Fred Hoyle (an astronomer) wrote a novel titled “The Black Cloud,” (SPOILER/GIVEAWAY ALERT!! SKIP THE REST OF THIS SENTENCE IF YOU THINK YOU WILL READ THE BOOK) about a self-propelling interstellar cloud that came to orbit the sun to acquire energy (it stopped for lunch!) before moving on.

On the TV shows “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the screenwriters came up with at least two forms of life that were completely novel. Naturally enough, the shows involving them were about recognizing that they were life and how to deal with it. The one on “Star Trek” was about rock-beings that tunneled through an asteroid or planet. The other, on “Star Trek TNG,” was about “nanites,” microscopic silicon crystals that were hive-like beings communicating among themselves electrically and with electromagnetic waves with the crew of Enterprise D.

These are three examples of potential life forms far different from what we are familiar with. But knowing what to look for and where is a long step from the presentation of these ideas in science fiction media.

Before the Viking landings on Mars in the 1970s, Carl Sagan gave talks about the life-detecting instruments aboard the landers, which were designed to detect life as we know it. He also mentioned that there was a camera aboard so that we could see any “silicon-based giraffes that might walk by,” so even then scientists were thinking about possible, unfamiliar forms of life.

The strategy being followed is to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life, as we recognize life, now, rather than wait until we figure out all the possibilities. Scientists study and search for new examples of “extremophiles” that live in extreme conditions compared to what most of life on Earth lives in, in order to broaden our perspective on where to look for life.

There are also radio and optical searches for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence living (by whatever chemical process) on planets orbiting other stars that might be announcing their presence. And I recently heard that there is a meeting planned to consider what else we might look for in this arena, considering that the era of our radio transmissions out to the galaxy (TV and radio) could be coming to an end as we use more cable and fiber communications here on Earth.

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    4 Responses to “Alien Vs. Editor: Life As We May (or May Not) Know It”

  1. Alien Vs. Editor: Life As We May (or May Not) Know It | JPL Blog | Hometown Pasadena | Says:
    April 18th, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    [...] Read on Blog’s site » [...]

  2. Franjo Schiller Says:
    May 6th, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Imagine………… our sun………….. is alive……….and we on earth don´t know it because we are not yet able to understand that the whole univers is not a physical univers but a biological and physical univers.

  3. coiln byerly Says:
    August 17th, 2011 at 4:34 am

    We on planet Earth , often have short amount of time to find or even know about many large incounters with our space enviorment man made objects or natural space matrial. One must be ready for a large inpact with life forms or not. The reason we are here on earth is due to life chemical and biolgical basic life particals from space, not from being just a lucky planet, that developed life from a planet life cycle that has man and creatures from a single bio-chem reaction from a rocky single elemental planet. It is past time for a large impact revisiting as the historical earth record shows those who record impacts. Besides haveing the elements from space inpacting earth to helping bring life to earth in the first place. life forms from earth as many have also been removed and changed . I myself would feel very shallow to think of the billions of galatic bodys that should also should include the billions more of possable planets in each, Must have many types of life forms. Some forms of life may even use space , as we use the planet earth for research ect. In 4 billion years years chances of many smart life forms may as we be passing
    life into space. However impacts with earth would be the greatest change for mankind and the effects so great , only the ability to be prepared to continue to travel from point to point untill a planet or planets could we in time keep future mandkind alive back in space were we came from untill this universe life cyle is completed or we find other universes to enter ,However that is another topic as well as topics as haveing a round universe or round blood cells or round atoms, Life and space inpacts make and take earths life , its just a matter of time. I hope we can become part of space were we come from , and continue to learn the endless information of , and how to keep our best of human life forms alive in space possably with other life forms in space longer than our planet earths life cycle, without war and anger and greed with respect for life forms, even at the end of ours.

  4. Maudie Says:
    December 13th, 2011 at 6:10 am

    We are so perfect as a planet, with the ability to support all forms of life. Not only one or two forms or species of life, but millions and millions more undiscovered. Doesn’t that make you stop to think that maybe we are a respository for life for the universe. Someone or something, perhaps is using Earth to save life that would go into extinction on some faraway dying planet. Kind of like a Noah’s Ark for the galaxy. Just that we’re always finding new species and we always hear about some alien encounters…made me think a any rate, would make a good movie.

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