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New Advances in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life --"Will It Be Inconceivable to Us?"

 

 

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A thin layer near the surface of Earth is teeming with life of huge diversity: from micro-organisms to plants and animals, and even intelligent species. Up to now, this forms the only known sample of life in the Universe. We now readily accept that the laws and concepts of physics and chemistry apply throughout the cosmos. Is there a general biology as well: is there life beyond Earth?

With the Sun just about half-way through its life-time, humankind as we know it is likely to constitute a rather short transient episode, and advanced extra-terrestrial life might be inconceivable to us in its complexity, just as human life is to amoebae.

Pinpoints of light in the night sky have probably always made humankind speculate about the existence of other worlds, but the presence of planets orbiting stars other than the Sun has become a proven reality only within the last 15 years. While the vast majority of the more than 450 extra-solar planets that are known to date are gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, some spectacular discoveries of about 20 planets of less than 10 Earth masses have already indicated that rocky planets with conditions suitable to harbour life are probably rather common.

One of the big unknowns is how likely it is for life to emerge once all conditions are right. There is no lack of its building blocks; the number of molecules fundamental to Earth's biochemistry that have already been found in the interstellar medium, planetary atmospheres and on the surfaces of comets, asteroids, meteorites and interplanetary dust particles is surprisingly large. Giant "factories", where complex molecules are being synthesised, appear to make carbonaceous compounds ubiquitous in the Universe.

If the genesis of life arises from chemistry with a high probability, one might speculate whether this process occurred more than once on Earth itself, leading to the existence of a terrestrial "shadow biosphere" with a distinct Tree of Life. Moreover, there are several other promising targets within the Solar System, namely Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and, for biochemistry based on a liquid other than water, Titan. Evidence for life is not easy to gather; any chemical footprint needs to be unambiguously characteristic, and to exclude an abiogenic origin. The most powerful probe would result from returning a sample to a laboratory on Earth.

The year 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the first search for radio signals originating from other civilizations and up to now all "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence" (SETI) experiments have provided a negative result. However these have probed only up to about 200 light-years distant, whereas the center of the Milky Way is 25,000 light-years away from us. And, even if there is no other intelligent life in the Milky Way, it could still be hosted in another of the remaining hundreds of billions of other galaxies.

Advanced efforts are now on the drawing board or already underway for the further exploration of the Solar System and the detection of biomarkers in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, while searches for signals of extra-terrestrial intelligence are entering a new era with the deployment of the next generation of radio telescopes.

With the detection of extra-terrestrial life being technically feasible, one needs to address whether perceived societal benefits create an imperative to search for it, or whether such an endeavour may rather turn out to be a threat to our own existence.

Evolutionary convergence, as seen in the biological history on Earth, suggests that the limited number of solutions to sensory and social organizational problems will make alien civilizations at a comparable stage of evolution not look too different from our own. As historical examples indicate, meeting a civilization similar to ours might actually turn into a disaster.

Rather than aliens invading Earth, realistically expected detection scenarios will involve microbial organisms and/or extra-terrestrial life at a safe distance that prevents physical contact. As far as exploring other lifeforms is concerned, any applied strategy must exclude biological contamination - not only to protect ourselves, but also to support cosmic biodiversity. No legally enforceable procedures are in place yet, and a broad dialogue on the development of a societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life is required.

The search for life elsewhere is nothing but a search for ourselves, where we came from, why we are here, and where we will be going. It encompasses many, if not all, of the fundamental questions in biology, physics, and chemistry, but also in philosophy, psychology, religion and the way in which humans interact with their environment and each other. The question of whether we are alone in the Universe still remains unanswered, with no scientific evidence yet supporting one possible outcome or the other. If, however, extra-terrestrial life does exist, an emerging new age of exploration may well allow living generations to witness its detection.

The Daily Galaxy via Royal Society/Martin Dominik and John Zarnecki

Comments

Due to the vastness of the universe, and the possibility of a multi-verse, the probability of there NOT being life, and intelligent tool using life elsewhere is a close to zero as possible. That being said, unless a method of transport that is not speed of light limited is developed, it would appear that direct contact is also as close to zero as possible.

@oldfart There is one possibility of using a known phenomenon which might be used for "contact". That would be vis-a-vis quantum entanglement. Thus far the experiments both proving and measuring Einstein's "spooky behavior" have proven that even over vast distance the effects are instantaneous. The codicil in this scenario of contact would be both the alien technology and our own would have to be similarly advanced to communicate in this fashion.

@oldfart There is one possibility of using a known phenomenon which might be used for "contact". That would be vis-a-vis quantum entanglement. Thus far the experiments both proving and measuring Einstein's "spooky behavior" have proven that even over vast distance the effects are instantaneous. The codicil in this scenario of contact would be both the alien technology and our own would have to be similarly advanced to communicate in this fashion.

I'm giving up on this site. It takes forever to load just one article and then it gets slower. Bye-bye dg.com

I'd like to point out that we've only been sending out signals that can be detected by our neighboring solar systems for 110 years. The Milky Way, where we recide on one of its outer edges is 100 thousand light years across. If you lived a mere 76.3 light years away you'd just now be hearing broadcasts which originated in 1939. How about "Stairway to the Stars" with Glenn Miller.

Those weak, primitive little radio signals have only covered a tiny fraction of our own little galaxy, which is one of billions. So if you're wondering why those alien invaders haven't shown up yet.... well.... in an infinite universe why would they bother with such a primitive planet. Better yet, how could they possibly know we exist. Our signal is about
impressive as a fart in a hurricane.

@Pickard James, quantum entanglement has yet to show any ability to transfer information. Information is limited in speed by the light limit and quantum entanglement does result in effects from one particle to another being instantaneous,(rather than innate and then measured)there is no information that can be sent. You measure a particle and you then know information about its entangled particle but this information can't be controlled resulting in no application for communication.

Unrelated to this article but I have also found this site to be too slow to be useable recently. The first article loads, but its like the server has undergone a serious downgrade.

The odds of us finding so called "intelligent life" elsewhere is about 1 in a trillion, trillion, and our primitive ways of trying to make contact are like a turtle trying to walk with no legs...

@mica trieu The use of quantum entanglement can be visualized on both large and small scales as an infinite variability f the binary, i.e. not just on or off (as in position rotated left/right on observation) but any position within the respective rotation at time of observance. This permits the transmission, or computation would be a better modeling comparison, of data. You could also view the quantum interaction as the "wave" as in AM/FM and the data as the signal impressed upon the wave in cruse terms of radio. The quanta can feasibly be manipulated in the strict sense of binary, giving both endpoints a datum to be processed as a pure signal just as a "0" or "1" is interpreted by a computer program language. Since the entanglement is instantaneous, the data, or impressed data on the quantum observed fluctuation (wave) is observed simultaneously at both endpoints regardless of distance. This is the exact concept that is ently being pursued beyond the theoretical understanding of the basic nature of Q.E.. Think a little d into the useage, not just the abstract properties.

@mica trieu Here's a simpler way to visualize the model. You have two particles seperated by any distance that are spinning in total unison at any distance, but in opposite directions. Think of them as wheels with one degree increments around the circumference. If one wheel is stopped (observed) at right spin 10 degrees, the twin is observed (translated) as left spin 10 degrees. The trick then is to use another Q.E. to time the observation from one end or the other, much as the frequency of a cpu chip times the processing cycle. You can now assign the programming language to "observe" the spin at either end in the same fashion as 360 individual on-off positions, thereby transmitting a data stream of "observations". Or, more simply, half rotation = "0", full rotation = "1" as simple binary.

Now all that is necessary is for there to be a "universal" usage of the Q.E., just as we brashly assume there is a universal usage of the theory of radio communication, and the presumption that an advanced civilization utilizes a binary format for computational technology, and has the same concepts of language and meanings that are no more different than humans speaking to dolphins.

So we're right back at point A with no more real ability to communicate over vast distances unless we are attempting to do so with an advanced clone of ourselves! The hubris of such thinking is no less enormous than the sheer size of the universe itself. We will either detect some form of life we consider to be no greater than a goldfish, or something so far advanced that we can't perceive that the goldfish is ourselves.

As the article points out, the wide range of biodiversity here on earth that produces new species 'discoveries' every year suggests we should be prepared to be surprised when we find ET. But there is the contra-diversity theory of "convergent evolution" that posits ET will probably look like us at least in basic morphology (number of limbs, eyes, etc).

To help us prepare to meet diversity in ET life, we must adapt our understanding of what is the definition of life. This definition has to be 'Reductional' in identifying the most simple, basic features that might describe what 'life' is. I posit that first, there should be 'containment' then 'form' then energy uptake mechanisms (bio-ingestion, radiation use, temperature gradient, etc) and a charge transfer-based sensory network serving to optimize survival.


One hypothetical example of ET "life" might lead from the recently announced Metallic dendritic reversibility on nanoscale that looks to be a solid state analogy to bio-neuronic network components (axions). This suggests the possibility of low temperature, quasi-solid ET life - , metallic-based 'life' with cognitive reflexes thousands of times faster than the human brain. [http://nextbigfuture.com/2015/08/new-nanoscale-programmable-memristive.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2Fadvancednano+%28nextbigfuture%29]

Personally, I believe in a theory (mine) of evolution that is driven to minimize entropy, i.e., to "simplify" morphology to the most streamlined form (least entropy), shapelessness. The highest evolved morphology will appear to be a 'blob' or spherical.

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