I realize I’m privileged to have access to some of the world’s cutting edge science, but last week was particularly special with a visit to University College London to hear a mixture of astrophysicists and astrobiologists talk to journalists about their cutting edge work,organized by the ABSW, the Association of British Science Writers, of which I’m a member.
Now we all know scientists can sometimes waffle, but this brave half-dozen weren’t allowed that luxury. The format for the talks was a pecha kucha – born in Japan, you have 20 slides, each lasting for exactly 20 seconds, to get your point across. That’s 6 minutes, 40 seconds (and not a second more) to say who you are, what you do and pitch for a place in the science columns of Britain’s newspapers.
First up, Giovanna Tinetti asked what exoplanets are actually made of. For those out of the loop, exoplanets are those orbiting other stars, far beyond out own solar system. We weren’t sure such things even existed until the 1990s, but nowadays there are more than 700 confirmed cases, with hundreds more candidates awaiting confirmation. recently some astronomers have gone so far as to sayy that every star in our galaxy must have planets orbiting.The most productive way to search for these faraway worlds is by using the Kepler Space Telescope. Looking back along a populous spiral arm of the Milky Way, this other Hubble is a study in concentration, staring fixedly at a single window on the stars, watching for the most minute variation in their light. And by analying this light – the chemical clues hidden within the spectra, scientists like Giovanna can tell what planets hundreds of light years away are made from. She’s looking for those that are habitable. Soon, New Earth need not be a thing of science fiction stories, especially if Giovanna’s plans for ECHO, the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory, are approved by ESA (the European Space Agency).
Ofer Lahav, Professor of Astronomy at UCL, chose to talk about dark energy, the mysterious entity that apparently makes up three quarters of out universe, but which we didn’t even know was there until 1998. For me the most incredible, unexpected discovery of the last fifty years has been that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing. No one expected this. Everyone wants to know why, but Ofer was impressively agnostic in his views. Either an entity we call dark energy permeates space itself, acting as Einsteins cosmological constant, or the best theories we have are very wrong. Once upon a time our best theory was Newton’s, but it couldn’t explain why Mercury orbited the Sun the way it did. Along came Einstein, General Relativity and a revolution in science. With the dark energy anomaly, are we on the cusp of another such paradigm shift?
As a science-fiction writer, I try to stay current with major developments in scientific fields that touch on my work. Since my current work is a first-contact story, I’ve become particularly interested in xenobiology, exoplanets, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I can’t put myself out there as an expert, but I have a basic grounding to keep in mind while I’m writing–and when there’s big news in the scientific community, I tend to get swept up in it.
Six times the fun!
Despite the lack of evidence, I’m fairly confident that extraterrestrial life must have popped up elsewhere in creation, given the mind-boggling size and age of our universe. Imagine trying to figure out whether there are other people living in your house by taking a quick glance at a cubic inch of space under your own bed. That would be more than the human race has been able to do so far, even with all of our telescopes and instruments.
So how many advanced alien civilizations are out there? About six times more of them than we would have thought just a few weeks ago!
I’m basing this number on two major announcements from earlier this month. First, there may be three times as many stars in the universe than we previously thought, according to Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University astronomer who led a research project at the super-powerful Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The extra stars are red dwarfs with long lifetimes and stable conditions that make them especially good places for life to develop. Three times as many habitable stars means three times as many habitable planets, which is like buying three times as many lottery tickets in the sweepstakes of abiogenesis. Whatever the odds turn out to be, you will have about three times as many winners. The one caveat is that these extra stars are all in other galaxies, so this discovery changes nothing about the odds of finding aliens in our own Milky Way neighborhood where we might actually be able to meet them.
The second announcement came from NASA, where geomicrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon may have found a bacteria with arsenic in its DNA, RNA, lipids, and proteins (although there’s been some post-announcement buzz that this study may have been half-baked). You may remember arsenic as the murder weapon of choice in about a zillion murder mystery novels, or from news reports of arsenic compounds leeching into some community’s drinking water with devastating health effects. Organisms that ingest arsenic tend to become very sick or very dead.
But now there’s GFAJ-1. This little microbe seems to shift between a phosphorous metabolism, like the rest of life on Earth, and a weird alien-like arsenic metabolism. Early reports speculated that GFAJ-1 may have descended from a “second genesis” of life on Earth or a “shadow ecosystem” existing alongside our own–very cool science fictiony ideas. CNN’s Ali Velshi tried three times to put these words into the mouth of SETI researcher Jill Tarter, but she wasn’t taking the bait. These seemingly alien buggies belong to the same family tree as we do, they’ve just picked up some extra tricks that