Essay

The search for ET

New life, new perspectives

OUR WORLD WAS made by a million geniuses. Just switching on a light invokes a chain of historical brilliance going back centuries: from the LEDs developed by semiconductor engineers in 1990s Japan, to the power grid imagined by Nikola Tesla in New York a century before that, to Michael Faraday’s spinning magnets that are still at the heart of every power station today. My phone is a sleek slab of metal with a brain of five billion switches squeezed onto a fingernail of silicon, and those transistors only work because of some quantum physics worked out by Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrödinger in the 1920s. Tapping the maps app, I convene with GPS satellites which, thanks to Albert Einstein, can correct for how speed and gravity change the flow of time. In my palm, a screen made of seven million lights shows a map with me, a small blue dot, in the centre. Now I know my place in the universe.

Technologies transform our world – that’s obvious. But sometimes, perhaps once in a few centuries, a discovery comes along that changes things in a different way; not just the pace of life and how we live, not just how we get from place to place, or how we communicate, but how we perceive ourselves, the universe and our place in it. Such a transformation kicked off in the early seventeenth century, when one winter’s night Galileo Galilei used the newly invented telescope to see, for the first time, moons around Jupiter. This proved that celestial objects could orbit a planet other than the Earth, and marked the end of Aristotle’s Earth-centred picture of the universe. We adjusted to a new perspective, one that recognised a universe beyond our cosmic horizon, one where the human species were no longer the focus of creation, but rather on the periphery. The legacies of past discoveries live on in our minds.

Our modern worldview is built on the expectation of profound technological change. For a new perspective, a truly fresh way of seeing, we may need another jolt of the unexpected beyond. In the annals of future history, the discovery that defines our age could be something quite out of this world.

 

EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE, THAT familiar science-fiction trope, that kitschy fantasy, that CGI nightmare, has become a matter of serious discussion, a ‘risk factor’, a ‘scenario’. In 2013, the World Economic Forum described the discovery of alien life as one of five ‘X factors’ with unknown consequences for global stability. ‘Over the long term, the psychological and philosophical implications of the discovery could be profound,’ said the report by the Forum’s Risk Response Network. ‘The discovery of even simple life would fuel speculation about the existence of other intelligent beings and challenge many assumptions that underpin human philosophy and religion.’[i] This past August, Senator Ted Cruz chaired a US Senate subcommittee hearing focused on the search for alien life. ‘Since the dawn of time,’ he began, ‘man has often looked up into the night sky and wondered what’s out there? Are we alone?’ He went on to exalt in the new fundamental objective charged to NASA by the Republican-led US Congress: to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.’[ii] Perhaps not to be caught with its pants down, as it had been with Copernicus and Darwin, the Vatican has held several conferences to discuss extraterrestrial life.[iii][iv] Its chief astronomer has admitted, ‘It is probable there [is] life and perhaps a form of intelligent life.’

How has ET gone from sci-fi fairytale to a serious scientific endeavour modelled by macroeconomists, funded by fiscal conservatives and discussed by theologians? Because, following a string of remarkable discoveries over the past two decades, the idea of alien life is not as far-fetched as it used to seem. Discovery now seems inevitable and, possibly, imminent. As Professor Sara Seager, an astrobiologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in that same Senate hearing: ‘We are the first humans in history that have a chance to answer the compelling questions about whether there is life beyond Earth.’[v]

While life is a special kind of complex chemistry, the elements involved are nothing special: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on are among the most abundant elements in the universe. Complex organic chemistry is surprisingly common. Amino acids, just like those that make up every protein in our bodies, have been found in the tails of comets.[vi] There are other organic compounds in Martian soil.[vii] And 6,500 light years away a giant cloud of space alcohol floats among the stars.[viii] Habitable planets seem to be common too. The first planet beyond our solar system was discovered in 1995, and since then astronomers have catalogued thousands. Based on this catalogue, astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley worked out there could be as many as forty billion Earth-sized exoplanets in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ around their star, where temperatures are mild enough for liquid water to exist on the surface.[ix] There’s even a potentially Earth-like world orbiting our nearest neighbouring star, Proxima Centauri. At just four light-years away, that solar system might be close enough for us to reach it using current technology, and with the Breakthrough Starshot project launched by Stephen Hawking in 2016, plans for this are already afoot.[x]

 

IT SEEMS INEVITABLE there’s other life out there, especially considering that life appeared on Earth so soon after the planet was formed. The oldest fossils ever found here are 3.5 billion years old, while clues in our DNA suggest life could have started as far back as four billion years ago,[xi] just when giant asteroids stopped crashing into the surface. Our planet was inhabited as soon as it was habitable – and the definition of ‘habitable’ has proven to be a rather flexible concept too. Life survives in all manner of environments that seem hellish to us: floating on a lake of sulphuric acid;[xii] inside barrels of nuclear waste;[xiii] in water superheated to 122-degrees;[xiv] in the wastelands of Antarctica;[xv] and in rocks five kilometres below ground.[xvi] Tantalisingly, some of these conditions seem to be duplicated elsewhere in the solar system.

Mars was once warm and wet, and was probably a fertile ground for life before the Earth. Today, Mars still has liquid water underground and levels of methane that mysteriously rise and fall with the seasons, which may be produced by underground microbes.[xvii] These Martian bugs might turn up as soon as 2021 when the ExoMars rover will hunt for them with a two-metre drill. And besides Earth and Mars, at least two other places in our solar system might be inhabited. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are both frozen ice worlds, but the gravity of their colossal planets is enough to churn up their insides, melting water to create vast subglacial seas.[xviii] In 2017, specialists in sea ice from the University of Tasmania concluded that some Antarctic microbes could feasibly survive on these worlds. Both Europa and Enceladus have undersea hydrothermal vents, just like those on Earth where life may have originated.[xix] And when a NASA probe tasted the material geysered into space out of Enceladus last June, it found large organic molecules.[xx] Possibly there was something living among the spray; the probe just didn’t have the right tools to detect it. But Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has been so enthused by this prospect, he wants to help fund a return mission.[xxi]

A discovery, if it came, could turn the world of biology upside down. All life on Earth is related, descended ultimately from the first living cell to emerge around four billion years ago. Bacteria, fungus, cacti and cockroaches are all our cousins, and we all share the same basic molecular machinery: DNA that makes RNA, and RNA that makes protein. A second sample of life, though, might represent a ‘second genesis’ – totally unrelated to us. Perhaps it would use a different coding system in its DNA. Or it might not have DNA at all, but some other method of passing on genetic information. By studying a second example of life, we could begin to figure out which parts of the machinery of life are universal, and which are just the particular accidents of our primordial soup. Perhaps amino acids are always used as essential building blocks, perhaps not. We might even be able to work out some universal laws of biology, the same way we have for physics – not to mention new angles on the question of the origin of life itself. A second independent ‘tree of life’ would mean that the rapid appearance of life on Earth was no fluke; life must abound in the universe. And it would greatly increase the chances that, somewhere among those billions of habitable planets in our galaxy, there could be something we could talk to.

If, on the other hand, the discovered microbes were indeed related to us that would be a bombshell of a different kind: it would mean life is infectious. When a large meteorite hits a planet, the impact can splash pulverised rock right out into space, and this rock can then fall onto other planets as meteorites. Life from Earth has probably already been taken to other planets – perhaps even to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.[xxii] Microbes might well survive the trip. In 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts retrieved an old probe that had sat on the Moon for three years in extreme cold and vacuum – there were viable bacteria still inside. As Mars was probably habitable before Earth, it’s possible life originated there before hitchhiking on a space rock to here.[xxiii] Perhaps we’re all Martians.

Even if we never find other life in our solar system, we might still detect it on any one of thousands of known exoplanets. It is already possible to look at starlight filtered through an exoplanet and tell something about the composition of its atmosphere; an abundance of oxygen could be a telltale sign of life. The James Webb Space Telescope, planned for a 2021 launch, will be able to take these measurements for some of the Earth-like worlds already discovered. And just a few years later still will come space-based telescopes that will take pictures of these planets directly. Using a trick a bit like the sun visor in your car, planet-snapping telescopes will be paired with giant parasols called starshades that will fly in tandem 50,000 kilometres away, in just the right spot to block the blinding light of the star, allowing the faint speck of a planet to be captured. The colour and the variability of that point of light could tell us the length of the planet’s day, whether it has seasons, whether it has clouds, whether it has oceans, possibly even the colour of its plants.[xxiv]

The ancient question ‘Are we alone?’ has graduated from being a philosophical musing to a testable hypothesis. We should be prepared for an answer.

 

ON THE EVENING of 30 July 1996, Dick Morris, senior advisor to President Clinton, met Sherry Rowlands, his regular $200-an-hour blonde, in a suite at The Jefferson Hotel in Washington DC.[xxv] Middle-aged and overweight, Morris was a self-described ‘sex-addict’ who’d often brag to Rowlands about his access to the President – sometimes calling Clinton from their hotel room so she could listen in. On this night, Morris boasted about being one of a handful of people on the planet who knew about a secret NASA discovery concerning life on other worlds. Later that night Rowlands made notes as she did after every encounter. Then she picked up the phone and called the London tabloids.[xxvi]

The leak set in motion a sequence of events that scuppered NASA’s original plan for how to release the news. Reporters started calling NASA on 1 August 1996. On 3 August, a short item appeared in the Washington-based trade magazine SpaceNews mentioning NASA’s possible discovery of extraterrestrial life. Now the national networks were requesting confirmation, with CBS threatening to report the story without official confirmation. In damage-control mode, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin decided to bring forward the announcement. To quash the wildest speculations, he released a statement saying something had been found, but ‘I want everybody to know that we are not talking about “little green men”.’[xxvii]

Pictures taken at the hastily arranged press conference on 7 August say it all: the scientists were swarmed by cameras, but most of the lenses pointed at the table in front of them where, displayed in a plastic box like a priceless jewel, sat the grey, melon-sized rock with the ‘Martians’ inside. Goldin introduced David McKay, the NASA geologist who’d spent the previous two years analysing the rock designated ALH84001. It had been collected in Antarctica in 1984 and later determined to have been blasted off the red planet by a massive impact some seventeen million years ago.

McKay was an old hand who’d trained both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in field geology, and he’d led the team who studied the moon rocks they brought back. He took to the podium and laid out their four main findings, each of which could potentially be a sign of life. Three of these concerned traces of organic (carbon-based) materials, or else minerals in a particular form that, on Earth, are only produced by special kinds of bacteria. Finally, and most strikingly, he presented pictures of what he called ‘biomorphs’, tiny wormlike features that might be fossilised microbes. Each of these pieces of evidence was circumstantial, McKay admitted. But taken together he and his co-authors believed this was evidence of past life on Mars.

After McKay, another geologist who was sceptical about the result described his interpretation, a testimony that, tellingly, was all but ignored in the breathless news reports that followed. The NASA administrator too was caught up in the excitement; as he closed the proceedings, Goldin said, ‘We’re now on a doorstep to the heavens. What a time to be alive.’

Even while the press conference was going on, President Clinton was standing on the South Lawn of the White House giving a statement: ‘If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as ­far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental.’[xxviii]

The story was covered by major news channels around world. As can happen when a science story crosses the news desk rather than that of a science journalist, the details of the discovery itself were distorted, with major publications reporting the story as if it was a confirmed discovery of life rather than a tentative hint. The scientists interviewed were far more circumspect, but cautious voices were drowned out in the fanfare. Newspapers described the discovery as ‘one of the most sensational in history’.[xxix] The Daily Mail trumpeted the result as the answer to the age-old question, ‘Are we alone?’[xxx] Others focused on a more thought-provoking angle: the idea that life on Earth may have come from Mars, transported here billions of years ago on just such a rock. ‘Suddenly, we are not what we thought we were’ declared The Guardian,[xxxi] and in a separate piece mused ‘Maybe we’re all Martians, now.’[xxxii] So began an interesting period in the history of our search for alien life. From early August 1996 until McKay’s conclusions began to be seriously questioned about a year later, most of the people on the planet (or at least those who had access to a TV or newspaper) thought we’d discovered life from Mars.

Over the following months, as the news media moved on to other things, the scientific criticism of McKay’s analysis began. Other scientists found non-biological explanations for each of McKay’s four pieces of evidence. But McKay soldiered on, rebutting all criticism and arguing until his death in 2013 that his original conjecture was valid.[xxxiii] Other scientists continue to analyse ALH84001 and other Martian meteorites, sometimes reporting evidence of biological activity,[xxxiv] but mostly using them to figure out what the ancient Martian climate would have been like. Whether the microfossils are Martian microbes or not, McKay’s work helped create the field of astrobiology, particularly as NASA recognised the impact that even this putative discovery had had around the world. Congress increased the NASA budget and poured funds into new missions to Mars. Somebody at NASA coined the word ‘astrobiology’ itself at around this time as part of a rebranding manoeuvre.

Recalling this period in his book Lonely Planets (HarperCollins, 2009) the planetary scientist David Grinspoon writes, ‘We all want our planetary missions to be as sexy as possible, and “to seek new life” has an enticing ring, whereas simply “boldly going where no one has gone before” sounds like a rerun.’

 

‘IN EVERY AGE the human mind is deeply influenced by the accepted model of the universe,’ wrote CS Lewis in The Discarded Image (Cambridge University Press, 1964), which describes how the Copernican revolution reverberated through the art and literature of the Renaissance. That revolution was ostensibly about replacing one particular abstract celestial diagram (Ptolemy’s conception of the Earth surrounded by celestial spheres) with another (the Earth and other planets going around the sun). But that change contributed to a broader movement away from the uncritical acceptance of received knowledge, leading to massive technological and social change. It also knocked us off our pedestal, thereby forever shifting our worldview, our fundamental cognitive orientation. Natural selection similarly gave us a more humble picture of ourselves, since Homo sapiens could no longer be seen as something apart from the natural world but just another animal, different ‘only in degree, not in kind’. These transitions culminate in the current picture where, as Stephen Hawking put it, ‘The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.’ The discovery of extraterrestrial life would be another step down in prominence since we would no longer be the only living world in the universe. Yet we want this to be the case. Why?

It may be because, in tandem with demoting us as a species, this new perspective could help us develop a stronger connection to the cosmos itself. NASA historian Steven Dick describes how the Apollo program influenced the environmental movement, fostering the idea of the Earth as a living organism. This began with the classic ‘Earthrise’ image seen from Apollo 8 as the American astronauts circled the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. This photograph showed the planet without borders: small, vulnerable and alive. ‘It is no accident,’ writes Dick in Astrobiology, Discovery and Societal Impact (Cambridge University Press, 2018), ‘that the first Earth Day was held in 1970 in the midst of the Apollo flights to the moon.’[xxxv] In a way, this is a global expression of something David Grinspoon calls the ‘overview effect’, where astronauts who have seen the Earth from space are instilled with ‘a feeling of oneness with humanity and life, and reverence for our planetary home’.[xxxvi]

Astrobiologists often describe, with hope, how the discovery of extraterrestrial life might provide yet another level of perspective: perhaps triggering us to start taking care of our planet and to start getting along. If one of the great clichés about the universe is that it is ‘cold, dark and sterile’, what might happen if we could look up at a particular point of light in the sky and know it as a habitat? As a home for something strange, something microscopic, but nevertheless something striving to survive, just like us? The discovery of microbial life may not destabilise society, or religion. But it may, in the longer term, help to instil a deeper, more subtle change. It may help invoke what Carl Sagan, the prophet and poet of extraterrestrial life, called the ‘cosmic connection’: a sense of ourselves as a part of the universe, a connection with something bigger than ourselves.

As an empirically minded scientist, I almost baulk at this language for its unearthly idealism, for its near ‘spirituality’. But when I recently dug out my old copy of Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World (Ballantine Books, 1996), I found a particular passage, underlined from my first reading years ago, that still gives me shivers: ‘Science is not only compatible with spirituality: it is a profound source of spirituality,’ Sagan writes. ‘When we recognise our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.’

That old question, ‘Are we alone?’, is a spiritual one. It expresses our desire for connection, and even purpose – secular purpose. If people derive meaning from their relationships with one another, perhaps our species will find meaning in relationships with other intelligent species. ‘The real story of our time, in an evolutionary sense, may not be who started or lost this or that sorry war,’ writes Grinspoon. Instead he looks to the story of when we take ‘our first steps off Earth and gain the ability to seek out cosmic companionship’.

The far-out daydreams of a sci-fi geek, perhaps. Still, discovering life, even microbial life, beyond Earth could help nudge these ideas closer to the mainstream. Perhaps bugs on Mars might lead to the next ramping up of programs for finding extraterrestrial intelligence, either through detecting signals or finding evidence for their constructions in deep space. Perhaps discovering an inhabited world around a nearby star might inspire us to undertake projects on an interstellar scale, to send probes to visit and study that new life. Such a project would be a ‘cathedral class’ mission, running for a hundred years or more, developed by thousands of people working in the knowledge that they would not live to see it completed. This sort of noble vision drives today’s search for life beyond Earth. And to return again to Sagan: ‘If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.’

 

 

References

[i] http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/section-five/x-factors/

[ii] https://www.aip.org/fyi/2017/congress-passes-bipartisan-nasa-authorization-legislation

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/nov/11/vatican-extra-terrestrials-catholic

[iv] https://www.archbalt.org/vatican-sponsored-meeting-discusses-chances-of-extra-terrestrial-life/

[v] https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/e9590270-181b-48e5-9f27-6b0cdc729e39/8E2B96B9527745F3111FFAB5C788EB4E.dr.-sara-seager-testimony.pdf

[vi] https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stardust/news/stardust_amino_acid.html

[vii] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/nasa-rover-hits-organic-pay-dirt-mars

[viii] https://phys.org/news/2014-09-alcohol-clouds-space.html

[ix] https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/10/31/1319909110/tab-article-info

[x] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/28/breakthrough-starshot-successfully-launch-worlds-smallest-spacecraft

[xi] Integrated genomic and fossil evidence illuminates life’s early evolution and eukaryote origin, Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 2, pages1556–1562 (2018)

[xii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/top-ten-places-where-life-shouldnt-exist-but-does-144112310/

[xiii] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23431211-300-radiationeating-bacteria-could-make-nuclear-waste-safer/

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanopyrus

[xv] Ji, M. et al. Atmospheric trace gases support primary production in Antarctic desert surface soil. Nature 552, 400–403 (2017).

[xvi] Watts, J. Scientists identify vast underground ecosystem containing billions of micro-organisms | Science | The Guardian. 10–12 (2018).

[xvii] https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-finds-ancient-organic-material-mysterious-methane-on-mars

[xviii] https://theconversation.com/the-search-for-extraterrestrial-life-in-the-water-worlds-close-to-home-73508

[xix] https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110531/full/news.2011.337.html

[xx] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0246-4

[xxi] https://earthsky.org/space/billionaire-yuri-milner-nasa-plan-life-search-enceladus

[xxii] https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/ast.2013.1028

[xxiii] https://academic.oup.com/astrogeo/article-pdf/38/1/26/602712/38-1-26.pdf

[xxiv] http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2041-8205/721/1/L67/meta

[xxv] https://www.google.com/maps/dir/The+Jefferson,+16th+Street+Northwest,+Washington,+DC,+USA/The+White+House,+1600+Pennsylvania+Ave+NW,+Washington,+DC+20500,+USA/@38.9043874,-77.0409739,16z/data=!4m14!4m13!1m5!1m1!1s0x89b7b7bf7b488739:0xa304b5c330e99a12!2m2!1d-77.036856!2d38.9059316!1m5!1m1!1s0x89b7b7bcdecbb1df:0x715969d86d0b76bf!2m2!1d-77.0365298!2d38.8976763!3e2

[xxvi] Swartz, M. It Came From Outer Space. Texas Monthly (1996). Available at: https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/it-came-from-outer-space

[xxvii] Meteorite fossil holds clue to life on Mars, Varley, Nick, The Guardian (1959-2003); Aug 7, 1996; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 3

[xxviii] https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/snc/clinton.html

[xxix] London (UK) [London (UK)]07 Aug 1996: 3

[xxx] Daily Mail UK 07 Aug 1996: 6.

[xxxi] The Guardian (UK) 8 Aug 1996: 14

[xxxii] The Guardian (UK) 08 Aug 1996: 001

[xxxiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_x60v3E-yZ8

[xxxiv] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-96175-0_8

[xxxv] Steven J. Dick, Astrobiology, Discovery and Societal Impact, (Cambridge University Press)

[xxxvi] Grinspoon, David. Lonely Planets (p. 411). HarperCollins e-books.

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