I’ve had occasion in these pages before to write about searches for alien planets and alien life and for both, to register the loftiest disdain.  I mean, crissakes, the universe is jam-packed with philosophy-shattering freakshows, and we’re looking for things we already know exist?  Planets and life are not news.   I learned this outlook from astronomers: until a few years ago, this was the astronomical majority view.

Then the astronomical engineers started improving technologies and so, by various means, astronomers started finding alien planets:  as of yesterday, they’ve got 574 planets orbiting stars other than our sun.  Astronomers can tell these planets’ masses, densities and distances from their suns, so they know which planets are — in what they’re pleased to call the Goldilocks zone – at the just-right size, density, and distance to be other Earths.  So far, they’ve found lots of other Jupiters.

One point of looking for other Earths seems to be to find extraterrestrial life.  The SETI searches are mostly looking for life that’s broadcasting and presumably intelligent — for which, though a matter of taste, I stand by my lofty disdain.

Most astronomical searches, however, are looking for life that’s not intelligent, just alive — or at least organic and a side effect of life or on the evolutionary path to it.  The pickings are best nearby:  Mars apparently has methane (a by-product of  both life and non-life) and liquid water, Europa and Enceladus have liquid water underground, and Titan has a multi-molecular organic sludge.  Astronomers know these things because they send surrogates – landers, satellites – there to look.

For extrasolar extraterrestrials, however, the pickings are slim, indirect, and mostly in the near future.  Using fancy new instruments sensitive enough to detect elements in exo-planets’ atmospheres, astronomers found variously, methane, water vapor, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.  Using enormous enthusiasm and energy, they’ve planned  more campaigns to study more exo-atmospheres.  One searcher was inspired to tell his press officer, “It certainly is starting to look like there may be something alive out there somewhere.”

What’s interesting?  For one thing, though I’ve been using “astronomers,” these scientists are more like astrobiogeochemists, a species of scientist just now evolving.  They’re still learning each others’ cultures and languages; their children will be native speakers and with any luck, more inventive searchers.

For another — and coming a lot closer to philosophy-shattering news – the alien planets they’re finding aren’t obeying the rules laid down by our solar system at all.  These exo-planetary systems are making it up as they go.  They look like a four year-old put them together.   They’re highly wonkety.

And so for a third, maybe alien life could be disobeying our rules for life too, could also be making it up as it goes.   Exo-sludge.   NASA might have trouble getting Congress to fund it.  But I mean it, it’s a delight.


Acknowledgment:  The “sludge” — though she used the word, “crud” – came from Ellen Grey’s graduate thesis.  So did the astrobiogeochemists (a name I just made up), and my general understanding of and interest in alien life.  She’s about to announce a new blog:  watch for it.

Photo credits:  mantid –  Luc Viatour;  sludge - ribena

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Categorized in: Ann, Curiosities, Technology, The Cosmos

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17 thoughts on “Exo-Freakshows

  1. It’s been said before: why are they bothering? Nobody knows how many billion galaxies there are out there, never mind planets within our own; and even if we did, not a whole lot would change on this one, at least until we work out how to travel faster than light.
    But then again, maybe it’s just a characteristic of intelligent life, curiosity for its own sake, which has often paid off. After all, stretched-out nutty experimentalism gave us the solid-body electric guitar, and that worked out okay, so it can’t be entirely wasted effort.

  2. I think you’re right about the search for intelligent life. But the search for life itself, even if the life is just sludge, let alone solid-body guitars, is kind of sweet.

  3. I think we are in agreement here, Ann.
    I’ve drafted this comment four times now, because four separate thoughts sprang to mind. Keep up the stimulating posts please!

  4. “It’s been said before: why are they bothering?”

    It’s been answered many times before: because it is one of the oldest questions of mankind, “are we alone”, and because it will illuminate another age old question, “where do we come from” aka abiogenesis.

    The real question is why people insist asking the “why do people do that” question without bothering to understand the contexts in the first place (culture, science).

    “until we work out how to travel faster than light.”

    We already know it is impossible, for a great number of reasons. To return the question, why are you bothering to ponder such fantasies? The basic answer (relativity) has been out there for a century already, and in the last few decades many more reasons have been added.

    One physicist recently claimed roughly on the possibility of this, effectively, time travel: ‘if we succeed the universe will implode’. It hasn’t, hence light speed is a safe limit. =D

  5. Stimulating thoughts, Torbjörn. But I think I’m still with Ann in thinking that there are enough micro-questions (by which I mean within the fine detail of our planet, or even our solar system), before we need to expend vast resources on macro-questions which, by definition, can never be answered.

  6. tim, with due respect, astronomers and other have either answered these questions (ftl not possible) or expect answers for good reason (are we alone, what conditions are needed for abiogenesis).

    Claiming that they “can never be answered” when scientists expect them to be and can tell you why (observability) doesn’t fly.

  7. Why do we bother??? The day we stop having curiosity about our universe is the day humans start reverting back into cavemen.
    I watched a show this week about New Horizons – the piano size spaceship we’ve sent to Pluto. That we can imagine and do things like that gives me hope that humans can be creative enough to solve our problems on earth.

  8. Ashleigh and Torbjorn, I would never want you to feel less adventuresome on behalf of humanity. Nor do I think our country should focus only on the extremely real and terrible problems in our society.

    I’m only out of patience with the History channel rhetoric of the SETI guys, and with the search for intelligence with which we can’t possibly, physically, given the speed of light, communicate.

  9. “are we alone?” — that’s easy to answer: no, we’re not alone — there are billions of us. how many more do you want to find? yes, in theory we can both look for new forms of life and try to solve our earth problems. but in practice i fear that this business about looking for life in space is a distraction. star trek was entertaining, but its basic premise was wrong — outer space is not the final frontier; inner space — our minds — is the final frontier.

    intellectual curiosity — great stuff. i find scientists’ insights into the origin of the universe mindboggling. inferring the lumpy structure of the early universe from anisotropy in the cosmic background radiation is nothing short of genius. inferring the existence of dark matter and energy is an amazing achievement. plowing through sky maps to find possible exoplanets strikes me as more like cranking a program through a computer to find the 1,017th decimal of pi.

    when i was much younger i read a ton of science fiction. i remember one trope was that highly evolved civilizations declined to make their existence known to earth creatures until we evolved higher state of consciousness and conscience. that makes sense to me.

    ann — thanks for another well-written and stimulating essay. how do you do it so consistently?

  10. All this talk about how impossible space travel is, is silly. That is the exact same kind of thinking that said flight was impossible.

    Just because we don’t know how to do something today, does not mean that we won’t figure out how to do it tomorrow. All it takes is some new insight, some different way of looking at things. It is the rigid mindset that is the obstacle to progress.

    Did you know that sending a rocket to the moon was ~proved~ mathematically to be impossible as recently as the 1930′s? That’s because they hadn’t thought of the multistage rocket yet, they only looked at the fact that a rocket has to lift all of it’s own fuel, they did not consider that a rocket could lighten it’s load by jettisoning empty fuel tanks as it went.

    If people had accepted limitations and stopped trying to find ways to overcome them, we would all still be riding horses.

    It is NOT impossible to “travel faster than light”, we just haven’t understood enough about how to do it yet.

    When Einstein explained the photoelectric effect in the early 1900′s, it took several years for anyone to even understand the implications of it, and another 40 years of effort to turn it into a practical product (the transistor), but in the end, it revolutionized the world.

    Humans went for thousands of years without knowing how to make a transistor, but now, 60 years later, we take it for granted that we can hold a terabyte disk drive in our hands and that a typical laptop has as much computing power as yesteryear’s super computers.

    Cell phones were impossible too… But the guy who figured out how to make it work — in an interview said that he had been inspired by watching Star Trek as a child.

    Who can say what other principles are waiting to be discovered? For instance, we barely know anything about gravity and there is still a huge amount to be learned about magnetism.

    Space Warps?? Why Not?

    The only thing that is certain is that we are not going to get there with chemical/inertial rockets, Mars is about as far as that technology will take us, it’s time to climb out of that rut.

  11. Manyshoes: To the best of my limited knowledge, everything you say is true. I do suspect, though, that engineering impossibilities are easier to get past than physics impossibilities — of which speeds faster than light is one.

  12. Hi Ann,
    thanks for the response. By the way, I love the photo of the mantis.

    With regard to Physics Impossibilities… I have two suggestions.

    This video on Hyperbolic Geometry

    and a book by Arthur C Clarke
    “Profiles of the Future”

    originally published in 1962, get the 2nd edition in which he updates it with new predictions while reviewing his track record of the previous predictions.

    Hyperbolic Geometry looks to me, suspiciously like the beginnings of an understanding that may lead to Space Warp technology.

    My favorite quote from Arthur C Clarke is when he says “When a scientist says something is possible they are almost certainly right, but when a scientist says that something is impossible they are almost certainly wrong”. (from memory may not be word for word accurate).

    Clarke goes into a long history of predictions by scientists about that which is impossible and how such blanket assumptions keep getting proved wrong.

    Do you remember when it was proven with total mathematical certainty that Bumble Bees could not fly? Seems that somebody forget to tell that to the Bees. Turns out to have been a lack of understanding, nobody realized until later that there was another principle at work, it took a lot of research to finally realize that although the prediction was indeed valid it failed to take into account the previously unrecognized fact that Bumble Bees rotate their wings.

    And that is how it is with ~science~ everybody was certain that airplanes could not fly and they were right as long as the power to weight ratio remained the same, but they didn’t recon on lighter materials and more powerful engines. Scientists proved that maned rockets could not reach the moon, etc. etc. Read Clarke’s book it’s a fascinating tour of the impossible…

    The more we know, the more we realize how little we know…

    On a separate note, I do agree that we need to be spending a lot more time and effort on solving the worlds problems such as politicians desire for “Endless War” and people’s willingness to go along with it. But as the movie 2010 so poetically pointed out, the problems can’t necessarily be solved from within the problem space, sometimes what you need is to rise above it and get a broader view.

  13. er argh, two typos in the above and no provision for being able to edit. forget = forgot, recon = reckon.


    Back to the subject of overcoming the laws of physics…

    Well for example, Relativity overcame Newtonian Mechanics. So why do we assume that there isn’t something lurking in the wings which will supplant Relativity?? From what I’ve read elsewhere, a lot of very bright people are hard at work trying to do exactly that.

    For a more concrete example of overcoming the limitations of Physics. Mobile phones could not possibly work because being a radio, they are up against the inverse square law of radial transmission. They are also up against the problem of limited bandwidth. The breakthrough came when the problem was approached from a different direction and instead of making the radios ever more powerful — which couldn’t work, the solution was to actually make them less powerful… by reducing the power and instead creating “cells”, more bandwidth was made available and the inverse square law was neatly side-stepped.

    The speed of light is only a limit as long as we try to travel through space in a linear fashion. But we already have laboratory experiments that demonstrate quantum tunneling of electrons, and now we also have the beginnings of Hyperbolic Geometry.

  14. I can tell you’ve thought about it, manyshoes. I do think a lot of your examples are solutions to engineering “impossibilities,” and from what I know, I would never bet against an engineer. I’m not going to argue relativity and quantum tunneling with you because I don’t understand their implications. Nor am I going to say that people who want to find and communicate with exo-intelligences should stop trying. But I think it’s silly to put too many resources into something requiring so many miracles. I do, however, find exo-sludge kind of sweet.

  15. I get in a lot of spats with my exoplanet hunting friends. A cosmologist and an exoplanet hunter are at opposite ends of the Universe. To me, exoplanets are as exciting as studing binary stars, which is not a fashionable field these days (although there are lots of cool results, but fashionable is not the same as interesting). I am sure if exoplanets did not have the chance for life, we would not spend so much money on the searches. What bothers me are the constant hyperbolic comments from astronomers when some new exoplanet is discovered. One I remember well was that when the first exoplanet was discovered that was smaller than Neptune, one famous planet hunter stated that this day would be remembered as a turning point in human history.


    The discovery of so many weird planets is fascinating, partly because it shows how truly bad the theory of planetary formation was understood. But their discovery and the discovery of exoplanets in habitable zones is not helping us much with the understanding the probability of life elsewhere. The number of such planets is well within the number we guessed at many years ago for the Drake equation. Each new discovery tells us little. What will tell us a hell of a lot is if we somehow can get a spectrograph on the planet and see signs of O3, O2, or NH3. The discoveries give us something to point a telescope at finally. Their numbers, however, tell us little about the probability of life, since that probability is uncertain due to the chances of formation of life, not the chances of planets in habitable zones which we could already guess at.

  16. Thank you, Nick, for putting it so clearly and so well. Somehow it sounds more convincing coming from an astronomer than from a science writer.

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