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Friday, October 20, 2017

Is there anybody out there?

Astrobiologist Paul Davies to speak Oct. 24 at URI
Olivia Ross

Image result for life on other planetsThe next speaker in the University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium will deliver a lecture that prompts a thought-provoking question: “Are We Alone in the Universe?” Paul Davies will explore this daunting question in depth during his lecture Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. in Edwards Auditorium, 64 Upper College Road.

Davies is Regents’ professor and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, where he also runs a cancer research program.

Astrobiology is a relatively new field of study established by NASA. Its focus is to determine where and when life on Earth began, and whether there is life beyond Earth. Davies, who helped create the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, said that prior to 3.8 billion years ago, the record of life on Earth was obliterated due to our planet being bombarded by comets and asteroids.


“Astrobiologists are interested in life on other planets or moons in our Solar System,” Davies said. 

“Plenty of effort within the NASA astrobiology program has been designated to plan missions.  A few years ago it was discovered that Enceladus, a moon of Saturn covered with icy crust, has a fractured surface and gas is streaming out. The recently ended Cassini Mission detected organic molecules in the gas stream, not life but carbon molecules that life likes to use.”

Beyond our Solar System, there are two great branches of astrobiology that look for organic molecules in gas and dust clouds. The question Davies asks is how complex can chemistry be in outer space? 

“In recent years, people have become fired up about the detection of extrasolar planets or planets that orbit around other stars,” Davies said. “We have a list of these planets, some of which are earth-like in a sense, and we need to determine whether they have life on them or not.”

Davies has also become heavily involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including the search for radio signals. The challenging question posed by such an inquiry causes researchers like himself to agonize over how life began and how non-life turned into life.

“There is a major branch of synthetic biology, both experimental and theoretical, on Earth. I wonder what sparked a mix of chemicals into life and how likely is it that it would happen again,” Davies explained. “Was the formation of life a bizarre chemical fluke of stupendous proportions? Are we alone? There is plenty of real estate to explore where life could emerge but we have no idea how likely that it is that it will. Sure, we could be alone or, in the other extreme, the universe could be teeming with life.”

In terms of solar system exploration, Davies explained that one of the most notorious misconceptions is that the objective of NASA’s missions to Mars is to search for life. 

“The one thing NASA is not looking for on its missions to Mars is life. They tried in 1976 with the Viking 1 and 2 missions and turned up mixed results. Instead of life, they are examining the geology and asking whether or not Mars could have supported life in the past and could do so again in the future,” said Davies. “Solar System exploration is about looking for life but not looking for life. NASA is searching for habitability.

“The idea that there has to be other life in the universe is nonsense,” Davies said. “We do not know how Earth started, so we cannot assign probability to how likely it would be to happen again. It is impossible to estimate the odds of an unknown process.”

Davies expressed that the only way to settle this is to go look. “We don’t need to look beyond Earth because if it is the case that life pops ups regularly, then it should have popped up more than once on Earth. How do we know there isn’t another form of life on Earth? Or ten forms? If they’re microbial, we’d never notice.

“We only need to find one microbe that is life, but not as we know it, to declare that life has started twice. If it can start twice, then it can start many times over. We should start looking at our home planet and take seriously the idea of having truly alien microbes in labs, under our microscopes, or even in our noses!”

Titled, “Origins: Life, the Universe and Everything,” this fall’s colloquium addresses such questions as “Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? How did intelligent, rational beings arise? And from such humble beginnings, how did we develop a mind that can ask these big questions? Now in its 54th year, the colloquium is the University’s premier public lecture series, offering lectures on most Tuesday evenings through Dec. 5. Davies’ lecture will be shown on the web at stream.uri.edu