Monday, May 08, 2006

Congress & Intelligent Life in the Universe

Knock SETI all you want, but how many times in the past, oh, three decades, have UFOs been discussed in a Congressional subcommittee?

Life in the Universe hearing before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Committee on Science, House of Represenatives, 107th Congress, First Session, 12 July 2001.

Here's the opening statement from Representative Dana Rohrbacher:

"I have always enjoyed Hollywood movies like War of the Worlds, Independence Day, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Unfortunately, the popularity of such movies changed our expectations regarding the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe.

I don't know if little green men exist. I do know that the science community is attempting to determine the existence of basic life on planets neighboring Earth, as well as planets beyond our solar system. With the help of scientific methods, we are just now beginning to answer a question that has existed since the dawn of humankind: are we alone?

Today's hearing will review real efforts concerning the search for life elsewhere in the universe. I want to thank the distinguished member from Texas, Lamar Smith, for suggesting that the Subcommittee review this topic.

Unlike Hollywood movies, Viking and Mars Pathfinder space probes allowed us to actually view the real Martian landscape, consider the possibility of water for supporting basic life forms on Mars, and search for intelligent life across the universe. Indeed, Earth itself has provided us with valuable insight as to the possible nature of extraterrestrial life. Today we look to our panel of experts to explain how science will help us sort fact from fiction."

Now, this might all seem amusing, with the references to movies and little green men, but note that all of this is just a preface - it is clear that the committee is open to the possibility of alien life "out there". Given that, how hard would it really be to get Congress to discuss UFOs if it were people like Dr. Peter Sturrock approaching them, as opposed to "Disclosure Project" true-believers?

How hard? Not very, I think, especially if presented properly, by the right people.

Which is why Dr. Steven Greer et al have been such a disaster, and why the press conference here in Canada on Tuesday is a huge mistake.

Of course, some of the exchanges are unintentionally hilarious. Having cross-examined a few witnesses in my younger days as a budding lawyer, I know how hard it can be to pin someone down. Here is my favourite, with the scientists dodging faster than kids playing four-square on the schoolyard playground. All that poor Representative Gordon wants is a simple answer as to the odds - a personal opinion. The scientists, like eels, keep slipping and sliding.

Finally, Dr. Chyba gives an answer... and you just have to laugh! Good old SETI.

Paul Kimball

Dramatis personnae:

Rep. Bart Gordon, Tennessee

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director, Department of Astrophysics and Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Jack D. Farmer, Representative, Arizona State University, NASA Astrobiology Institute

Edward J. Weiler, Associate Administrator, Office of Space Science, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Christopher F. Chyba, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, and Associate Professor, Department of Geological and Environmental Science, Stanford University

"Mr. GORDON. All right. Well, why don't we just start with Dr. Tyson. Again, I don't mean to be abrupt. We just have a short period of time here. This is hard, hard, I know, to—you want to put premises. But just give me your own gut feeling as to odds that there is extraterrestrial life and then that there is extraterrestrial intelligent life.

Dr. TYSON. Yeah.

Mr. GORDON. What odds? Just give me some odds.

Dr. TYSON. I would say it is near certainty that there is life elsewhere in the universe of any form.

Mr. GORDON. Okay.

Dr. TYSON. And I am somewhat more skeptical about the likelihood of intelligent life as we have defined it to be technologically capable, just given how rare that has exhibited itself in our own——

Mr. GORDON. Dr. Farmer, do you want to give a—give some odds here?

Dr. FARMER. Well, I would agree. I mean, I think that the kind of technical intelligence that we are talking about is probably rare.

Mr. GORDON. Well, just give me some odds. That is all I am really asking for right now.

Dr. FARMER. Well, I—you know, I think it is very hard to do. But I would—you know, these estimates that people have made are all over the map.

Mr. GORDON. Yeah. But I am just saying, you know, just——

Dr. FARMER. But within our own backyard, I would think that——

Mr. GORDON. I am just—well, you know——

Dr. FARMER. I would think on the order of hundreds of potential civilizations within our galaxy. I would feel comfortable with that.

Mr. GORDON. So do you think there is a 90 percent chance that there is life? At 80 percent? A 12——

Dr. FARMER. In our solar system, I have always said about 50/50 and that is—again, that is just—that is not——

Mr. GORDON. Okay.

Dr. FARMER [continuing]. Science. That is a personal opinion.

Mr. GORDON. Oh. No. No. That is what I am asking for. That is all I am asking for.

Dr. FARMER. And, you know, if you——

Mr. GORDON. And what about intelligent life? What kind of odds?

Dr. FARMER. In—beyond the earth and our own——

Mr. GORDON. Yeah.

Dr. FARMER [continuing]. Solar system, I would put at essentially probably nonexistent because I am——

Mr. GORDON. Okay. Dr. Weiler, how about you?

Dr. WEILER. I have learned never underestimate the ability of humans to make themselves special, number one. I believe the possibility of life, of any kind of life, including a bacterium in the solar system, is maybe 50/50; intelligent life, zero, other than the earth. In the universe, I think the probability of intelligent life is 1.0, 100 percent. To not believe in a universe with 1—to 10 stars that intelligent life only sprung up on our little special place in the universe.

Mr. GORDON. Okay. How about you? Do you want to give some odds?

Dr. CHYBA. I think that it is almost certain that life exists elsewhere, although we don't know. And I think that it is quite possible that intelligent life exists elsewhere, but the only way to find out is to search.

Mr. GORDON. So what odds—how do you define quite—50? 40? 30? 20?

Dr. CHYBA. Mr. Gordon, I wish I knew. I just don't know.

Mr. GORDON. Yeah. But—well, I know you don't know, but what is your—if you—you know, what is your feeling? Nobody knows. Okay.

Dr. CHYBA. I would flip a coin."

1 comment:

John Umana said...

I thought I'd share my current thinking on the deep questions of astrobiology and the emergence of life:

(1) There is no other life in this sun system. Mars contains no life and never did -- notwithstanding that 70% of scientists polled believe that there is or was life on Mars at one time. Saturn's moon Titan contains no life and never did. No other planet or object, no comet, no asteroid in this sun system contains any form of life. Europa does not contain liquid seas under the ice. When NASA gets there after 2010 or so, we’ll see that there are no fishes swimming around. Only Earth in this sun system contains seas of liquid water at this time, though Mars once did have shallow seas as the rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the orbiters have established. Where did/does the water come from on Earth and (billions of years ago) on Mars? Volcanoes produce large amounts of water steam, and they are largely responsible for Earth's waters. Other released gases from volcanoes included carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrochloric acid (HCl), hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), carbon monoxide (CO), molecular hydrogen gas (H2), NH3, methane (CH4), silicon tetrafluoride (SiF4), and minor amounts of nitrogen (N2) and argon (Ar). But no oxygen. … And no life. Plenty of hydrogen, however, is a great start. The name is derived from the Greek ‘hydro genes,’ meaning water forming. Though most of our planet's water came from steam emitted by volcanoes (ditto Mars when it had seas a few billion years ago), carbonaceous chondrites, among the most primitive objects in our sun system, contributed, as they contain water locked up in phyllosilicate minerals with the water content making up about 10% by weight of the meteorites. (2) In my opinion, the Universe including our galaxy is teeming with life. All life throughout the vast cosmos is nucleotide, DNA-based. This is the structure of life throughout the universe.(3) In my opinion, the Universe including our galaxy is teeming with intelligent life. The reason that SETI is not picking them up is that they are unlikely to be communicating by radio or any type of electromagnetic communication -- far too slow for the distances involved. There's got to be another way to communicate over interstellar distances. (4) Extraterrestrial astronauts did not “seed” mankind or life on Earth. The theory of panspermia is way off the mark. No need to keep worrying about whether comets could have carried spores of life here; that's not what happened and the distances are too vast for a living spore to hitch a ride on a comet in any event. There is no life beyond Earth for a long, long ways. (5) Darwin's/Wallace's theory of the evolutionary theory of common ancestry is proved conclusively by the convergence of the entire scientific and fossil record, including paleontology, molecular biology, genetics, mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome DNA, comparative anatomy and physiology, biogeography, geology and archaeology. Yet, I do not believe there was a single common ancestor RNA strand. Rather; there was differentiation right from the first period of emergence 3.9 Ga into what would become the plant and animal kingdoms (eukaryota), bacteria and archaea. Life on Earth does not share a common ancestor with life on other habitable worlds. Life emerged separately and independently on Earth.(6) The Darwinian theory of "natural selection" as the mechanism for origin of the species is unsubstantiated, overly simplistic, and runs contrary to what is observed in modern microbiology. It is bad science as theory of emergence or origin of species, though natural selection is a true force of nature and accounts for microevolution, such phenomena as pesticide resistance of insects (e.g., the mosquitos that survive an application of a given pesticide eventually develop an immunity to it over time) or the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. Natural selection (NS) is not the causative mechanism for the evolution of a single species on Earth or anywhere else, in my view. Rather, natural selection (a.k.a. CHANCE) leads to greater disorganization, entropy, not to more advanced structures. The neo-Darwinists are way, way off the mark as to the specific mechanism of evolution as microbiology is beginning to demonstrate. NS was Dr. Darwin's Wild Guess back in the 1800’s. But it is less interesting today with microbiology. Whatever the right answer is as to emergence and origin of species, it isn't NS. (7) Life emerged on Earth independently of other habitable worlds – 3.9 billion years ago at the tail end of the Heavy Bombardment. In my view: At dawn one day 3.9 billion years ago, the sun rose, and there was no life. At dusk that day, Earth was life-bearing in several locations under the seas. (8) Where/how first life emerged on Earth? Pick an area where the critical amino acids are found. Prep needed. Areas under the shallow seas at that time and areas where seas met rocky shore, protected from UV rays. (Black smokers come much later; emergence of life there was much more difficult.) Still massive comet strikes every few days, equivalent to thermonuclear blasts, sending massive seismic shock waves throughout mantle and core. Temperature out a balmy 200-300 degrees; more inhospitable as approach live volcanos. Pre-biotic Earth temperature range roughly -288 F to +260 F. At night, temperatures dropped sharply as on our moon. No free oxygen to speak of on Earth. No ozone screen 10-15 miles up in atmosphere to protect emergence of first life from lethal UV. Earth highly radioactive as remnant of solar nebula, creating enormous challenge to emergence of first RNA strand that emerged under the seas; no membrane at first; highly unstable molecule. Thin atmosphere of H2O, CO2, SO2, N2. Stark sunlight. Pristine earth. No blue sky. Orangy, whispy clouds occasionally high up. More like sunlight falling across face of moon or Mars. Because of gamma radiation, UV and wide temperature swings, only rapidly reproducing self-replicating helix strand possible, containing backup files for self-repair when damaged by radiation or UV -- until Earth cools off radioactively within the next few billion years (as of 4 Ga). That's the reason why there was no evolution beyond single cells until 1.2 Ga or so.

[John Umana All rights reserved.]