Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Extra-terrestrial life – the next 10 years

5 years ago if you had told me I would be travelling to astronomy clubs to give lectures I would have laughed at you. But last Monday I was in Galway to talk to the astronomy club there about whether the universe is a machine for creating life.

Though when I give the talk again, which I may do next week in Cork, the title ought to be “Extra-terrestrial life – the next 10 years”. I started by saying that I didn’t intend to talk about extra-terrestrial intelligence, despite knowing from audience questions on previous occasions that this is what tends to arouse most interest. I quoted Paul Davies as saying that he wouldn't be surprised if there is no life of any description in the universe except here on Earth. Despite holding that view, Davies is head of the SETI post-detection committee (*). He will be the first to be informed if (despite his doubts) ET does actually call.

Interrogating the Martian microbe
Are you related to LUCA?
I strongly recommended his book The Eerie Silence.

I used a tree of life diagramme to show that all Earth life is related, and ultimately descended from a single-cell organism which lived 3.8 billion years ago. The cell rejoices in the name LUCA – the last universal common ancestor. I then suggested that number 1 on the list of developments to look out for, is this: if a microbe should be discovered on Mars, will it turn out to be related to LUCA? I  showed the interrogation room where an answer to this question will be demanded of the Martian microbe.

If the answer is yes, Paul Davies may be right. Life may consist of just us and a few stray cousin microbes in the solar system. If not (something which Paul Davies admits he secretly hopes for) then we can conclude that life will be abundant in the universe.

Other forthcoming developments that I suggested the audience keep en eye on were

1 – Mars exploration : NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission which should arrive 2012, and a decision on whether to fund a Mars sample return mission.

2 - Synthetic biology – will it provide insights on life: what life is, where to look for it?

3 – Lake Vostok (Antarctica) – scientists are drilling through 4km of ice to test the cold dark waters beneath. Next year may see the success of this project – will Lake Vostok provide insights into possibilities for life on icy moons such as Europa?

4 – Decisions on solar system moon missions, eg a Jupiter Europa orbiter.

5 - Cambrian Explosion – this was the event 543 million years ago where evolution invented the idea of body parts – heads, guts etc. A fluke occurrence, or inevitable? This ongoing debate has something to say about the prospects for complex life elsewhere (always supposing that there’s any life at all elsewhere).

* He is chair of the Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup of the International Academy of Astronautics.

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