Are there aliens? Nobody knows…

There’s an apocryphal story about the time an eminent scientist was asked to write 500 words for a leading magazine on whether alien life might exist. The resulting article consisted of the words ‘nobody knows’, repeated 250 times.

“We are from ZONTAR. Give us your women and your water!” Public domain.

That point’s still true today. There are plenty of clues that point towards the idea that life might well exist elsewhere, but absolutely no empirical proof of any outside our own planet. What’s more, it’ll be some time before any is available. It will become possible, shortly, to determine the atmospheric chemistry and other features of exoplanets – basically when the new mega-telescopes, including the Webb, come online during the 2020s. The technique is fairly cool; when an exoplanet transits the face of its star, we can pick up the way starlight is affected by the atmosphere – which tells us the chemistry of the atmosphere.

With a big enough telescope we can also directly image a planet and possibly determine other details from direct photography. Only a handful of exoplanets have been directly imaged so far – as you can imagine, picking up a planet against the glare of a parent star at the sort of distances involved is tricky.

At the distances involved all this still means picking up data from a handful of photons, which is why it needs more sensitive instruments than currently available.

But I figure that most of the time, that’ll still only provide indirect evidence – I suspect we won’t see a chlorophyll line in the spectrum and instead have to deduce the possibility from the chemistry of the atmosphere. The thing is that some of the chemistry that points to life ‘as we know it’, such as methane, could also be produced by non-life mechanisms. And so could the chemistry associated with life ‘as we don’t know it’.

Direct hard evidence, short of picking up the alien version of ‘I Love Lucy’ via such projects as ‘Breakthrough Listen’, is going to have to wait on some other developments.

By that I mean the probe being planned right now to investigate Europa – which, it turns out, doesn’t mean drilling through a kilometres-thick ice-cap to find its internal ocean. Apparently Europa has geysers, some of which spew vapour huge distances into space. All a probe need do is fly through the plume and take some measurements.

Of course, that also means having the right instruments on board. That was the problem with the Viking missions of the 1970s, which had a complex robot lab to check for microscopic life because even then nobody expected Martian life to be obvious. Unfortunately the results were ambiguous, it turns out because of the nature of Martian soils. However, nobody knew that when the experiments were being designed.

Lack of the right instruments was also the problem with the Cassini probe which was flown through geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus – Cassini hadn’t been designed for that purpose and didn’t have the instruments to do a full chemical analysis.

The problem with the planned Europa probe of the 2030s is that there will be only one of them, and it’ll be made to a budget. You get the picture.

Still, it would be very cool if something were picked up – even microscopic life – because it would mean that our sample size – currently ‘one planet only’ – would double. And that, I think, would change all sorts of things.

Though, to me, at least, it still wouldn’t mean that all the stories of ‘oofoes’ and alien abductions are true. That’s another matter altogether. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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12 thoughts on “Are there aliens? Nobody knows…

  1. Here on Earth, we’ve discovered that the “life will always find a way” statement in Jurassic Park, seems to be true, even in extreme environments.
    So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if life was found elsewhere in the Solar System, Galaxy, Universe (s?) 😎

    1. I’m fairly confident we’ll find life elsewhere. Maybe even in our own solar system – Europa and Enceladus are a couple of good bets. Maybe Mars had life too, once. I think it’s a fairly straight-forward product of chemistry and physics. I suspect, though, that it’ll consist of bacteria or slime – as life on Earth did for much of the history of life (and will again, if we keep going down the path we’re on as humans…sigh…)

  2. So there’s evidence of methane on Mars, but it may have been produced by means other than “life.” And of course “life on Earth” doesn’t necessarily equal “life everywhere in the universe.” So while there probably is life somewhere else, finding and recognizing it isn’t simple. On the other hand, giving up the search for it is unthinkable.

    1. Too true. That NASA discovery is fantastic – my guess is that there was likely life on Mars in the past, and of much the same form as it was on Earth at the same time… slime and bacteria. It would be very cool if that life were still there, maybe hiding out somewhere we haven’t looked. I have to say that I do miss the ‘classic’ Mars of Burroughs and others.

  3. One of the best conspiracy theories is NASA found aliens living on the dark side of the Moon. They’re there, man, I just know it. Actually, my ex-boss was convinced aliens are regularly visiting the planet and monitoring us – he didn’t have any proof for that, but he was the boss so we had to agree with him.

    1. I recall reading a book once whose author had a cunning theory of exactly that kind – he was convinced there was an alien construction site on the Moon, complete with bulldozers, cranes etc – inevitably, of course, suppressed by NASA. But (and this is the cunning bit) they had accidentally released a photo or two with these things in it, which he (and he alone) was able to spot. To me they looked like rocks, but hey, who am I to have an opinion – after all, if I deny it, I’m probably part of the conspiracy.

      The bit that surprised me was that this book had been actually published in hardback and everything, which says his publishers thought it would make vast piles of cash irrespective of how rubbishy the writing and theory was and… hey, wait a minute…

      1. I’m inclined to believe with this one individual and his uncanny ability to spot things everyone else can’t. Journalist Louis Theroux had an interesting documentary talking to erstwhile alien abductees and some of the people he interviewed were remarkable. One guy who can telepathically communicate with a distant planet. Handy skill.

        I think sometimes people are either bored or so desperate to believe they’ll circumvent all logic and reason to get there. Like Mulder.

  4. As far as “oofoes” go, I’ll dip my toe in that water and withdraw it very quickly: I’ve seen objects in the sky (once at night, once in the day) that I couldn’t identify. I will point out that statement means exactly what it says, nothing more or less. That’s the “U” part in UFO. Personally I doubt that we’re being visited by alien sophonts with technology advanced enough to let them travel interstellar distances, unless we’re some weird lab experiment cooked up by the Organians for ends unguessable by us lab rats. By human standards (which might mean assumptions untenable in this context) it makes no sense to come no less than 4.3 light years (and probably more!) and ride around in the sky or kidnapping random farmers for bizarre experiments.

    I’m quite certain there is life elsewhere in the Universe. Don’t your cousins in Australia have rock formations dating back 3+ billion years that have indications of fossilized life? And I understand there’s a physicist at MIT who’s come up with a most interesting hypothesis about how life originates which implies “life happens” … I hadn’t actually thought about that article in the context of “alien” life, so I might dig it out and reread it from that context, if I can just remember where I saved it…!

    Isaac Asimov wrote a most interesting book on the subject forty-odd years ago titled “Extraterrestrial Civilization.” Forty years ago is about how long I read it, so forgive me if I can’t recall specifics! Asimov arrived at the conclusion (using, if I remember this much, fairly conservative assumptions given the knowledge available at the time) that at any one time there should be a fair number of civilizations in our galaxy alone at least as advanced as humanity. Which, of course, led him dead up against the Fermi Paradox: why haven’t we detected them by now?

    One idea, unfortunately untestable at present, is that “their” technology is so different from ours that we can’t detect it. But one could take that idea into “woo” territory pretty quickly, and I bring it up only as a reminder that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” To me, good science requires an open mind as well as a skeptical approach.

    1. Yes – there are 3.5 billion year old rocks with bacteria in them from Western Australia. Astonishing discovery! I suspect life is actually a standard product of physics and chemistry – it’ll happen as surely as planetary formation and so forth. The problem is that just now we have a sample size of precisely one to prove it. The assumptions we make about what will happen with life are also built on that single experience. Who says that life will go in any direction at all, still less on that produces a single dominant intelligent species that then goes on to build technology? And if they build technology, would they behave like us and want to carry on expanding and looking for others? I suspect not, but at the moment none of these questions can yet be answered.

      My suspicion is that life might be fairly common… but it’s mostly bacteria or slime (or both). I seem to recall that Asimov wove that idea into his last robot novels. After all, life was just that on Earth for a very long time – and then something happened at the beginning of the pre-Cambrian era to change that, possibly related to a prior ‘snowball Earth’ experience. That suggests that the course of life will be unique to each place it’s emerged.

      I think a lot of this will take a while to disentangle – we need more hard data, and that’ll be slow to come. But as you say, good science requires being open to new ideas as well as suitable scepticism. Maybe we’ll be surprised by what we eventually find. I hope it’s in my lifetime!

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