Every now and then, there is an extra benefit to being on every space related mailing list on the planet 🙂 On October 10th, I was extremely fortunate to be able to participate in a webinar from NASEM in Washington which was a public briefing and compelling update on the strategy for the search for life elsewhere in the Universe. ( truthfully, the invitation may have come as a result of my decades long membership in the Planetary Society ) And the short version is–things are heating up and moving forward at what definitely feels like an accelerated pace.
The webinar consisted of a well organized and delivered presentation by a panel of very knowledgeable and capable scientists who are part of the multidisciplinary team currently working in the field of Astrobiology. https://vimeo.com/295890366
I’ve performed a death defying feat and inserted the link above. With some luck, it will work and you can watch a “vimeo” of the presentation. Well worth a look 🙂
The panel members and authors of the report that can be downloaded at the site were Barbara Sherwood Lollar, Professor and Research Chair at University of Toronto and Allan Boss, Astronomer at the Carnegie Institute of Science.
Because the field of Astrobiology is so multidisciplinary in nature, were are told in the introduction that there were 55 white papers submitted from a variety of scientists, all of which contributed to the recommendations presented. That is a lot of brain power and collaboration! The presentation is one hour and well worth the investment of your time if this is an area that you are interested in . Of course, this is not just an interest for me- it’s a passion and I think that everyone should watch it. But recognizing that not everyone will, here are some highlights that really stood out for me:
Aside from the very impressive, broad degree of consultation that went into this, I was pleased to see that one of the first things that Dr. Sherwood Loller acknowledged was the timeliness of the report. We are in a very accelerated period of discovery and with the continued improvement and sophistication of the technology that scientists are working with, it is critical to have a strategy in place. She didn’t say this but it seems reasonable to expect that the accelerated rate of discovery will continue and that first discovery of “life” may well happen sooner rather than later.
There were 3 key messages that emerged from the study on how the search for life should be conducted. The third one deals with the technology and I will leave that for people with more expertise in that area to discuss. But the first 2 themes particularly resonated with me on a couple of levels.
#1: “ Go broad” : I am particularly excited to see the broadening of the approach on what exactly constitutes life and the encouragement to , as Dr. Sherwood Lollar describes it ” think outside of the box” . One of the most important messages that came out of the report, in my opinion, is the recognition that no one biomarker is infallible and that is time to let go of our earth-centric thinking as to what constitutes life and what it needs to exist. As she stated, quite simply but powerfully, “ it is time to look for not only life as we know it- but life as we don’t know it”
Hooray—I might have stood up and cheered if I was there 🙂 This is long overdue and as difficult as it is to accept, there may be forms of life out there that don’t need oxygen, water, light etc. to survive. We are already seeing this on our own planet with the recent discovery of “extremeophiles” – microbial life forms that exist in deep, dark hostile environments where we previously didn’t think that anything could exist. As the popular saying goes- we don’t know what we don’t know!
Dr. Sherwood Lollar refers to the possibility of capturing biosignatures from life as we don’t know it as “agnostic biosignatures”–which I thought was a particularly interesting term. Popular usage of the term “agnostic” generally refers to people who believe that nothing is or can be known of the existence of God or anything beyond material phenomenon. In other words, it usually reserved for discussions of religion or faith–or, more accurately, the absence thereof. And perhaps that is why it is an especially ironic term as just the mere exercise of opening up our minds to entertain the concept of life that doesn’t fit into our understanding of life is in itself a leap of faith 🙂
Another dramatic term that was recently introduced by NASA scientists and briefly mentioned in this presentation is the search for techno signatures. This is a quantum leap for NASA and the world of space science, and when I first learned of the introduction of this term into the space and SETI ( search for extra terrestrial intelligence ) lexicon, I was so excited that I devoted my October column to the topic, which with some luck, will be attached here and will provide some background information.
Essentially, a techno signature is something that could only be produced by an intelligent civilization which is generally understood to be a civilization that has developed technology. This could be something like a radio transmission that we pick up on or if could be a deliberately directed signal. Something like a cosmic wave telling us that someone else it out there and they are saying hello.
The introduction of this initiative, rolled out at a NASA sponsored workshop at the end of the September , flew very much under the radar and received very little coverage in the mainstream media. As I mentioned in my column, the search for techno signatures won’t and shouldn’t replace the search for biosignatures ( now including agnostic biosignatures) but it certainly gets one to thinking about the reasons that scientific interest in this kind of search ( which will be expensive but will be partially supported by private donation- see column ) has ramped up, seemingly overnight. A conspiracy theorist might be tempted to say–what do they know that we don’t? However, I suspect that the increased interest has more to do with the accelerated discovery of exo planets, many of which are in the habitable zone of their star and could therefore support life- either as we know it or we don’t know it. Either way, it is an enlightening and exciting development and I will be watching for further developments in the future.
Of course, there are those who might argue , from a purely philosophical point of view, with the definition of “intelligent life” being the ability to develop technology. Given our own challenges with technology, and how it can be used either for the light or the dark side or our society, ( and not to mention that it doesn’t always work ) , many may tempted to say that the definition of an intelligent civilization is one that has moved beyond a reliance on technology. Ahh–the infinite possibilities of our unfathomably vast Universe. 🙂