With the coronavirus pandemic spreading and most of the United States under some kind of shelter-in-place order, a lot of us are feeling pretty alone right now.
So it’s the perfect time for science writer Wade Roush to remind us that, in the cosmic sense, we might have a lot of company. On other planets and their moons. On asteroids hurtling through space. On meteorites that occasionally plummet to Earth’s surface.
“The more places we look, the more evidence we find that Earth doesn’t have a unique claim on the building blocks for life or the conditions needed to support life,” Roush told The Daily Beast. His new book Extraterrestrials, out now from MIT Press, is a handy, easy-to-read guide to what E.T. might look like, and how we’re going about finding him.
Roush, a longtime science journalist and space lecturer who grew up watching science fiction movies and listening to famed astronomer Carl Sagan before become a “full-fledged Sagan-wannabe,” frames humanity’s search for alien life, and his book, in the context of the so-called “Fermi paradox.”
The paradox is named for physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, who in 1947 reacted to a bunch of recent UFO sightings by asking his fellow scientists, “Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?”
What Fermi meant, Roush explains, is that the universe is vast and the human species and its animal kin should not be the only the life there is. It’s mathematically unlikely. But for all our radio receivers, telescopes, deep-space probes and planetary rovers, we haven’t found definitive proof that anyone else is out there.
What we have found, however, is lots of hints. And we’re finding them faster and faster as our technology improves and our willingness to believe in alien life deepens.
A team of researchers from Harvard University, superconductor firm Plex Corporation, and science-supplier Bruker Scientific announced in February that they’d found evidence of a protein inside of a meteorite that plummeted to Earth in what is now Algeria.
Proteins are the “workhorse molecules of life,” to borrow NASA’s phrasing. They form the structure of organic tissue and make up the enzymes that regulate chemical reactions in living bodies.
Meanwhile, astrobiologists Dirk Schulze‑Makuch and Jacob Heinz revealed in a March paper that they’d found, on Mars, oil-like compounds called thiopenes. And where there’s oil, there’s usually life.
Oh—and NASA’s InSight probe found evidence of seismic activity under Mars’ surface, which could point to ongoing volcanism on the Red Planet. Volcanoes can kick-start the evolutionary process.
These are encouraging signs for the growing number of scientists who are comfortable saying that finding alien life isn’t a matter of if, but when. But Roush, in writing his book and in an interview with The Daily Beast, was more cautious.
“Schulze-Makuch and Heinze say they think the Curiosity rover found thiophenes in mud dug up on Mars,” Roush said. “Thiophenes are ring-like carbon compounds that here on Earth can be a component of fossil fuels like oil. And the Harvard-Plex-Bruker team says they found a molecule inside an Algerian meteorite that consisted of a chain of amino acids. In the context of Earth life we call those proteins.”
“These kinds of complex molecules can be components for life, or markers of past life. But you can’t jump from there to the conclusion that there is or was life on Mars, or that the Algerian meteorite came from a place where there were protein-producing organisms,” Roush added.
“All the studies really show is that there are probably lots of ways for these complex molecules to form, and lots of places where conditions are right for their formation. Life is a complex chemical dance, and you need the right dance partners to get it going and keep it going.”
The good news, Roush said, is that those dance partners “seem to be pretty common out in space and on other worlds.”
If that’s the case, we just have to keep looking, following the biological bread crumbs from potential microbial life on Mars or some other nearby planet or moon all the way to the possibility of thinking beings like us. Or unlike us.
There’s more good news. We are looking. Wider and farther than ever before.
In 2022, the European Space Agency plans to launch its Rosalind Franklin probe. Named for an English chemist who helped define the molecular structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin is a decade newer than the current Curiosity rover and boasts better instruments.
NASA’s also sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which might contain a subsurface ocean capable of supporting life. The agency’s even eyeing Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that has its own saltwater ocean.
“And there are a lot more other exciting missions in the planning,” Schulze‑Makuch told The Daily Beast.
How soon those or future missions might gather data that we can look at and then say, with conviction, that we’re not alone in the universe… well, no one knows. Certainly not Roush.
But he posits another possibility, one that perhaps only a lifelong writer could put into words. Maybe, just maybe, other life is out there. And it’s watching us as we look for it. Maybe our increasingly sophisticated and earnest search will eventually qualify us for admission into the universe’s community of intelligent species.
Maybe, in other words, aliens will some day contact us instead of waiting for us to contact them.
“Ah, there you are,” Roush, in his book, imagines extraterrestrials saying as we finally break through. “We wondered when you’d come along.”