I’m doing this post in two parts (but in one post). The first part will be a pre-announcement summary of my thoughts on the significance of astrobiology and stuff. Part Two will be a post-announcement review.
There has been a lot of unnecessary hype and speculation over this announcement, raising people’s expectations over what it will be about. Many will be disappointed. I, however, am very excited about whatever they are going to announce. As any loyal readers know (do we actually have any loyal readers?) I post a lot about astrobiology. Any small discovery, be it terrestrial or from space, is important for advancing this field. The more we learn about life on Earth, the better prepared we will be for understanding how life can form on other worlds.
I guess it works the other way too.
Even if this announcement is about a new biological process discovered here on Earth, it will help us in our search for life on other worlds, perhaps expanding the number of places that can sustain life, be it simple bacteria or large ecosystems. Did you know there is more water on Europa than there is on Earth? Look at the biodiversity our oceans harbor. I’m not saying Europa’s oceans have that level of biodiversity, or any life at all, but the possibility exists for a complex ecosystem.
I honestly have no idea where I’m going with any of this. Let’s just wait for the announcement.
I’m only going to say this about the release, then talk about other stuff. Scientists found bacteria that can live without phosphorous, using arsenic instead. This is cool. Since everyone else is covering the science behind the news, I’m going to scratch out some thoughts about what happen over the last few days, and why I’m actually happy about it.
On Monday the news broke: NASA has an announcement about astrobiology. First thought from everyone: Aliens. Second though: that would be announced differently, probably not aliens. That didn’t stop the hype though. Gizmodo did a really good job at making this seem like a huge earth shattering thing. It wasn’t. But everyone knew about the announcement. People were actually interested in something NASA had to say.
The content of the announcement was under a press embargo, meaning that the paper had been distributed to the press, but they couldn’t say anything about it until it was officially published by the journal (in this case, the journal was Science). This is a very common practice. It allows the journal to publish its content first. I don’t think many people outside the science world know about this practice. It is done with quite mundane things all the time, but in this case, people took it as some kind if major secret that was to be revealed to us.
For me, the exciting part is the follow up. Since everyone made a big deal about the announcement, it was covered by many major news outlets. I’m not going to bother to link to them, just do a Google search. It made people interested in science, which happens about once a year. NASA didn’t do anything to trick people into being interested in this. Their press release said nothing about life on other worlds. It said they will tell us about a finding that will impact the search for life.
The funny thing is that this has nothing to do with aliens. It was a terrestrial discovery. It does have some implications for life elsewhere though, but according to Caleb Scharf’s blog Life, Unbounded:
Now, if we wanted to postulate planets of arsenic-based life the problem is even more acute since arsenic is 1000 times less abundant than phosphorus – it’s really a trace by comparison. Despite some of the breathless discussions already going on; the chances of arsenic-based planet-wide biospheres….slim to nonexistent.
So there you go. Interesting, but not Earth shattering.
Here is a link to my Big Important Post on life in the universe. Well, I think it’s important.