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Possibilities Of Life Out There

Author: Tim Boyle, Issue: November 2005, Topics: Science

As editor of the Alien Times, I have particularly appreciated Stephen Marshall's "Alien Scientist" series over the years. The one included in this issue is number 27 in the series! Quite an accomplishment indeed - especially when you consider that Stephen has continued his contributions to the Alien Times for several years since returning to the UK. We wish to salute him for his efforts to continue to contribute even though he is no longer in Tsukuba. (By the way, the same goes to Nicolas Delerue, who continues to write the "Science News" and "Events" sections for the AT even though he has left Japan as well!)

Stephen's imaginative speculations on what "aliens" might be like (very appropriate for the "Alien Times") stimulate us to think outside the box as to what might be possible. And so I don't mean to throw cold water on that by the comments I'm going to make, but I think engendering a healthy dialog about the realities of the space environment and the likelihood of extraterrestrial life would be a stimulating exercise - especially in a community with many scientists and non-scientist "science buffs" like me.

Among the many books I have read on the subject, two I'd like to recommend are "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" by Peter Ward, Donald Brownlee, and "The Privileged Planet", by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards. Both look at the huge number of factors that must be "fine-tuned" for life-support to be possible on a planet - particularly for complex life like "alien scientists"! Of course, there are a huge number of stars out there (something like a hundred billion in our galaxy and a hundred billion to a trillion times that for the universe!), and so on the surface that would seem to make other earth-like planets inevitable. However, the more we learn about the various parameters that must be met to make a planet capable of life support, the less likely it appears.

Earthrise photo taken from Apollo 8 in 1968

Stephen's statement concerning the probability of extraterrestrial life being "a probability that has surely increased with the discovery of extra solar planets," would be true if the more than 100 planets scientists have detected so far resided in systems that look similar to our own. However, from what we've been able to detect so far, it appears that our solar system is not at all typical. All of the extra-solar planet systems we've detected to date have "gas giants" (similar to Jupiter) that orbit close to their stars or that are in highly elliptical orbits, either of which would make the existence of an earth-like planet at an appropriate distance from its star impossible. Of course, only further investigation using the new instruments being developed to search for other "earths" will give us any confidence in our answers. Likewise, since life as we know it depends on a very complex carbon-based chemistry requiring liquid water as a solvent, and since the laws of chemistry and physics that rule the entire universe show carbon to be the only element and water the only solvent that allow such complex chemistry, it would appear that they are the only game in town. Thus, any conceivable life must be at least similar to what we know here on earth. It would appear that no other combination would allow for the complex information storage and other such capabilities any kind of life would surely need.

Some 500 years ago, the "Copernican Revolution" demoted earth from its perceived place at the center of the universe and revealed it to be nothing "special". Today, a new "revolution" of sorts has been occurring - not to restore earth to its "former place of glory", of course, but to show that in a different way, it really is special. (By the way, to the medieval mind, earth wasn't "demoted" by Copernicus. It was actually the other way around. To their way of thinking, the heavens were the highest (perfect) existence and the earth was the lowest. So in that sense, Copernicus was "elevating" the earth's position and not "demoting" it.)

For those who would like to review a paper I wrote on this subject, see my website at:

I hope some of you will write your own opinion on this subject for the Alien Times. I can just see the headlines: "Aliens comment in the Alien Times on the prospects of alien life." (Of course, you don't have to have an alien registration card to be eligible to contribute your thoughts.)

<< Tsukuba Style Festival | Master Index | Science News: November 2005 >>

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