Thursday, April 7, 2011

Finding Life Beyond Earth

Marc Kaufman, science writer and national editor at Washington Post talks with Dave Davies of NPR's Fresh Air and quite expertly summarizes the current state of knowledge on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

From the NPR page -

Scientific interest in extraterrestrial life has grown in the past 20 years. The field of astrobiology now includes researchers from a wide variety of disciplines — microbiologists studying bacteria that survive in the most extreme conditions on Earth; astronomers who believe there may be billions of planets with conditions hospitable to life; chemists investigating how amino acids and living organisms first appeared on Earth; and scientists studying rocks from Mars are seeing convincing evidence that microbial life existed on the Red Planet.

I'm not sure I agree with the last sentence. There is convincing evidence of past water on Mars and perhaps water or ice beneath the surface today, and of sedimentary deposits and of methane being let off in Martian soil due to some type of chemical reaction.

There are strong opinions on what all these could mean but no convincing evidence either in the form of physical fossils or biochemical markers of microbes past or present.

Still we have come a long way from the times when SETI and the Drake equation and Jodie Foster listening for the telltale transmission from intelligent beings fired our imagination about life somewhere far away in the cosmos.

Nowadays scientists working on extraterrestrial life get excited about things closer to home like extremophiles a kilometer down in an acid mine, wormy micro structures in a Martian meteorite and methane emissions from Martian soils.

That counts as progress in one of the most important fields of human enquiry.

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