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The Search for Alien Life Continues, Even on Earth

Three scientists – Lindy Elkins-Tanton, left, Michael Varnum and Paul Davies – discussed the public’s reaction to the discovery of alien life beyond Earth during a press briefing at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Professional Images Photography

The search for evidence that life evolved somewhere beyond Earth, or has evolved on Earth a second time, has led to interesting research, but has yielded no signs of any extra-terrestrials. But, if some form of life were found, people would probably react positively, research presented at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting suggests.

After analyzing past media coverage about possible findings of extraterrestrial microbial life, Michael Varnum, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University, found that most people’s reactions were positive. In two subsequent studies asking respondents what their hypothetical reaction would be if researchers did discover signs of life beyond Earth, or if researchers created a new life form in the lab, participants were still more positive than negative and were more excited about finding alien life than synthetically-created life.

“If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it,” Varnum said. About half of Americans and Western Europeans surveyed elsewhere said they already believe aliens have visited Earth, Varnum said and there does not seem to be any “chaos or disorder in the world” as a result.

But the odds of that happening are impossible to know, said Paul Davies, director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University and co-director of the ASU Cosmology Initiative. “The truth is, we have almost no idea how non-life turned into life, so we can’t estimate the odds,” Davies said. “All you can do is go look.”

Davies said that unlike others in the field, he personally does not believe the universe is “teeming with life” and expects the chances of finding intelligent life are very slim. But, it’s still worth looking for a sign of any non-human technology in any scientific database possible, he said, because it would fundamentally change the way we view ourselves.

“What we really want to know is if the laws of nature are intrinsically life-friendly. Is life built into the scheme of things?” Davies said. Finding that it is could make humans “truly feel at home in the universe.”

The very process of exploration of space is useful and inspiring, said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Elkins-Tanton is also the principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission, which is designing a spacecraft to reach an all-metal asteroid that could be similar to Earth’s core. Planning for future explorations and travel in space provides a terrific opportunity to do science in a more egalitarian way, she said, “where the very large questions are brainstormed and addressed in teams” of different interdisciplinary backgrounds.

And, “there’s an even more important reason to do robotic space exploration and that’s to inspire everyone on Earth to take a bolder step in their own lives and to appreciate the extremis of the engineering and the amazing things we can do as humans,” Elkins-Tanton said.

The search for new forms of life should continue on Earth, the researchers said. “Every place we look for life on the Earth, we find it,” Elkins-Tanton said. “The problem is how do you sensibly, scientifically, logically, extend into a kind of life that we have yet to find? That is very, very hard to do meaningfully.”

Some experiments have already been conducted to try to establish how researchers could determine if something is alive and if it is truly another form of life, but it may be tricky, Davies said, especially if the “unknown life likes the same conditions as known life.”

Since it is possible that life could have evolved more than once on Earth, “we should look for a shadow biosphere right under our noses, or even in our noses,” Davies said.

[Associated: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (Public Domain)]