alien life

There was a bit of (unwarranted) hubbub last weekend about an article proclaiming evidence of extraterrestrial life.  I’d like to make a few observations regarding this.

  1. According to the article in Yahoo! news, the paper was published in the Journal of Cosmology.  If and when extraterrestrial life is discovered, the scientific article about it will not appear in the Journal of Cosmology.  It will appear in Nature, or Science, or possibly both.  There is a pecking order among scientific journals.  The Journal of Cosmology is not at the top of this order.
  2. The “science” in this article basically amounts to “Hey, look at these neat photos we took of the inside of a meteorite; don’t they look like things that were once alive?”  This is weak evidence at best.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Maybe the researchers are correct, but the point here is that they have certainly not proven that they are correct.
  3. It wouldn’t shock me to learn that microbial life exists elsewhere in the universe; even the galaxy; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if existed in this solar system (below ground on Mars, perhaps, or in Europa’s seas).  As exciting as it would be to have this suspicion confirmed, that’s not really the dream, is it?  Intelligent life is what we’d really like to find; someone else with whom we could have a conversation.  Well… there’s intelligent life right here on earth with whom we can’t communicate (whales are my favourite example – they clearly communicate with each other, but we can’t understand any of it).  What makes us think that we’d have better chances with an extraterrestrial species with whom we don’t even share a common biology?  That’s dumb.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to get in some practice communicating with other species here at home before looking elsewhere?
  4. SETI’s strategy is basically “Well, if we were going to broadcast signals to other civilizations, this is how we’d do it; let’s see if we can find any evidence of anyone else doing that.”  So far, this has not produced results; but this lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.  It just means that anything out there doesn’t think the same way that we think.  No surprise.
  5. I make it sound like there’s an order in which big scientific expeditions should proceed, but really, all the steps pretty much proceed in parallel.  (Technology improves, we search for signals, we study communication with other species here on Earth all at the same time.)  And this is as it should be – messy, and constantly evolving.  The point I’m trying to make is that we are not ready to actually meet with success in this endeavour.  Far from.  We’re just not smart enough to find other civilizations, recognize them if we did find them, or communicate with them if we found and recognized them.
  6. BUT – we still need to keep looking.  Because eventually we will be smart enough, and we’re not going to know when we get to that point unless we keep looking.

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