“Our Alien-Haunted World” — The Science and Saga of ‘Oumuamua’

Alien Life

 

On September 6th 2017 astronomers at Hawaii’s PanStarr Observatory detected an object hurtling in from deep space, from the direction of Vega, a star 25 light-years away. The mystery object crossed the orbital plane of the solar system, within which the Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun where it was captured by our star’s gravitation. The elongated object accelerated to around 200,000 mph as it made its closest approach to the Sun on September 9th, launching the story and plot of Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s book, Extraterrestrial, and the spell-binding saga of “Oumuamua” in which he attempts to make a case that the interstellar object passing through our solar system could have been a piece of alien technology.

“No More Speculative than Dark matter or Extra Dimensions”

A month after the object had arrived, it was well on its way back to interstellar space, moving towards the constellation of Pegasus. The alien origin hypothesis of Oumuamua cannot yet be scientifically confirmed.

“The existence of advanced extraterrestrial life is no more speculative than dark matter or extra dimensions,” says Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb about speculating about the possible origin of the first interstellar object to be detected in our Solar System. In fact, he says, “I think it’s the other way around.”

Scharf challenges Loeb’s contention that ” science can be overly conservative at times—aiming his complaints in particular on the reticence to elevate the question of alien life to a more prominent place in our hypotheses about what we see in the universe around us.”

“There are devoted and talented scientists who pursue the exquisite possibility that somewhere there are alien minds sending out structured, information-rich signals, or repurposing their environments in ways that we—other scraps of thinking life—might just be able to spot across the gaping void of interstellar space,” observes Columbia University astrophysicist, Caleb Scharf in The Alien-Haunted World about our searing, all too human desire to prove that we are not alone, adrift in a vast cosmos. “But so too is a clear memory of the many times where enthusiasm for a provocative idea about alien life has given way to disappointment,” he adds—”from fossils in Martian meteorites to arsenic-laced microbes. Fingers have been burnt before in the quest to find clues to life in the universe.”

“Aliens May Be Out There, and We Are Searching for Them”

“Did you know,” Scharf asks, “that there are many scientists who devote their working lives to skillfully charting out the most unassuming chunks of our solar system—chunks that none of our species will likely never see up close? Chunks that, individually, are mere specks in the cloud of millions of such primordial planetary leftovers circling our sun. Or, are you aware that there are those who spend day after day wrestling with how to measure and decode the extraordinary orbital dances of unreachable exoplanets, or to detect and interpret the delicate spectra revealing the composition of alien atmospheres tens of trillions of miles away?

“If not them,” Scharf observes, “then what about those who have, for decades, tackled some of the most daunting questions about the phenomenon we call life itself, including how it began here on Earth billions of years ago, and how it might have begun anywhere else in the cosmos?”

NASA’s Mono-Lake Conjecture

Mirroring Scharf’s plea for rigorous due diligence in our search for alien life, on Dec. 2, 2010, NASA-supported researchers announced that they had discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism, which lives in 740,000 year old California’s Mono Lake, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in the backbone of its DNA and other cellular components.

“We have cracked open the door to what is possible for life elsewhere in the universe,” Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and U.S. Geological Survey, who led a headline-grabbing 2010 NASA study about arsenic-based life discovery at Mono Lake that was subsequently severely challenged by the world’s scientific community..

The blowback from the scientific community came fast and furious: “I was outraged at how bad the science was,” said Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia who replicated the NASA initial findings, getting the original bacteria and seeing whether they can build DNA from arsenic when deprived of phosphorus.

Redfield and other scientists point out that when NASA scientists removed the DNA from the bacteria for examination, they didn’t take the steps necessary to wash away other types of molecules, which means, that the arsenic may have merely piggybacked onto the bacteria’s DNA without becoming truly absorbed into it.

Such as the rigors (and pitfalls of ignoring) of the scientific method. “In reality there are people who do think about all of these scientific questions, week after week,” concludes Scharf. “They dig through mountains of data, and sweat blood over understanding the delicate nature of astronomical measurements and instrumentation. They build spacecraft to go to other worlds, as well as asteroids and comets, funded by national agencies like NASA, ESA, JAXA, CNSA, and more. These people are eager and driven, motivated by precisely these same extraterrestrial conundrums: Are we alone? Where do we, or any other life, come from?”

Maxwell Moe, NASA Einstein Fellow, University of Arizona via University of Hawaii/Institute for Astronomy, Nautil.us and Caltech

 

 

 

 

 

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