SciVoxPops: Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?

To kick off the SciVoxPop experiment, I wanted to pose a question that was close to my heart, and so I asked:

Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?.

Part of my research focuses on this subject, addressing how and where we might look to find and verify extraterrestrial life.  Overwhelmingly I find that when I tell people this, I am bombarded with questions along the lines of: So have we found life? Where is life most likely to be? What will aliens look like?  It is a great talking point and something I never get bored of talking about, so I wanted to find out what the general perception was, among those who haven’t just bought me a drink.

The response, while not overwhelming in number, was overall more positive that I would have imagined.  Out of the 19 people that sent me their responses (I’ve had a busy week and haven’t had much time to trudge the streets, but watch this space!), all but three were positive about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  I would love to get some more responses so see if this trend is maintained, so may revisit the question in the future.

Interestingly, among those who were confident that there was life out there the reasoning was pretty vague, relying mostly on optimistic logic over the cold hard facts.  I suppose as a scientist, groundless optimism is drilled out of you early, but I was delighted to see it was alive and well and still dominant among the many.  Optimistic curiosity is, after all, what drives some of our best science.  Here are the two main arguments I was presented with.

The universe is so large, we can’t possibly be alone…

This line of thinking harks back to the earliest thoughts on astrobiology – those of Frank Drake and Enrico Fermi – who tried to quantify the amount of intelligent life in the universe at any one time.  While the Drake Equation predicted any number of communicating civilisations between one (our own) and 10,000, Fermi was concerned with the overwhelming silence of the stars.  If there is life out there, then why can’t we detect it?

Many ideas have been proposed as a solution to the Fermi Paradox, including the vast distances representing an insurmountable barrier to communication, or the concept that we are being watched but that our watchers purposefully hide themselves from us.  Whichever the ultimate solution, it would seem that the cool logic of the reasoning public errs on the optimistic side and personally, I can’t say I blame them.

We’ve just found a planet just like earth…

On 5th December 2011, NASA announced that for the first time a planet had been found orbiting well within the habitable zone of a star just like our own sun.  They painted a picture of Kepler 22b as a veritable Eden, an ocean planet with an atmosphere maintaining the world at a very pleasant 22 degrees Celsius.  While considerably larger than our own Earth (suggested ot be around the size of Nepture), it is the closest analogy to Earth that we have yet found outside our solar system.  And it is this recent finding, on top of the host of other extra-solar planets that Kepler has identified this year, which seems to be spurring on the general optimism.

Of course, merely the fact that there is another Earth-ish planet doesn’t necessarily mean that we are more likely to find life.  As a conscious species we are inherently biased toward those environments that we find comfortable.  In this case it is an equable temperature range, and oxygen-rich atmosphere, and a 24-hour day.  But there are whole host of other organisms, even on Earth, for whom our heaven would be the worst kind of hell.  Extremophilic organisms have a very different idea about what is an equable climate for life, and there is just as much chance that any potential aliens will similarly find the predominant conditions on an Earth-like planet pretty unpleasant.  That we are finding other planets around other suns is exciting, but we should be a bit broader in our ideas of what is ‘habitable’.

Alien autopsies and UFOs…

I was surprised how few people claimed to be won over by the countless videos of live ‘aliens’ and ‘UFOs’ that can be found on the internet.  Only one anonymous respondent claimed their belief of extraterrestrial life came from these dubious sources.  In all, it was encouraging for the propagation of real scientific thinking on the subject.

In terms of the negative responses, the reasoning was once again varied:

It’s bleak but true…

An attitude such as this plays into one of the more troubling solutions to the Fermi Paradox – that the reason we haven’t identified life is because we are, in fact, alone. Ultimately this is based on pure, unoptimistic facts.  We have found places where there is the potential for life, but no indication of life there yet.  Time will tell, but if we remove optimism and deal only with the evidence we have, we would seem to be alone.

We haven’t managed to make it ex nihilo…

The fact that we haven’t yet found the way life got started is indeed good evidence that our understanding of the earliest biological processes is incomplete.  And surely, if we don’t understand how, when and where life started on earth, we can’t hope to know how or where it happened elsewhere.  But does this mean there is nothing else out there?  Perhaps, if you take the current holes in our knowledge to imply a force stronger and stranger than our natural laws, with the need for unique Earthly Creator.  But perhaps it just means we don’t have all the answers yet.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, and our knowledge is increasing daily.

So it would seem that optimism rules the way in my small sample. For most people, we are probably not alone, and we scientists must bear the responsibility, not only of finding the objective truth, but also to live up the hopes of thousands (represented by 20). Better get to it then…

Thanks to everyone who responded to the first SciVoxPop. Watch this space for next week’s question.  It’s a topical one!

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