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life on other planets

Rating the Claims of Alien Life Detection

It has happened so many times, it’s become a cliché: NASA schedules a press conference to reveal “an important discovery”, but no matter what it is announced it never is what everybody wants to hear –the discovery of alien life.

Image by SMBC Comics.

And the few times when scientists –either associated to NASA or not– do announce a possible discovery of fossilized Martian microbes, probable signs of organic activity on other parts of our solar system, or even speculating about actual technological artifacts of extraterrestrial origin (e.g. Oumuamua) such claims are almost immediately poo-poohed or dismissed by their colleagues.

It is something of a modern scientific paradox, that astronomers keep assuring us life should be omnipresent throughout the Cosmos, and yet almost all of them seem extremely antagonistic to the idea that such a portentous discovery could actually happen within our lifetimes.

But what if they are wrong?

The detection of a biosignature outside of our planet, while not as dramatic as Hollywood envisions our first real confirmation that we are not alone in the Universe, would still have the potential to forever change our civilization in profound ways. NASA seems to be very preoccupied with how such news would be handled by the press and governments, and in order to counter any detrimental controversies generated by non-conclusive results, last June they organized a workshop with hundreds of scientists from a variety of disciplines in order to come up with some sort of community protocols, to assess and evaluate future biosignature reports, that every scientist involved with Exobiology would be willing to follow.

“The discovery of a potential biosignature in [a planet’s] atmosphere is important, but it’s just the start,” said Green in an interview. “You have to examine potential false positives, whether there are [non-biological] ways to form the chemical, whether the measurement is an artifact of your instrument, whether the environment on the planet is conducive or hostile to life, whether water is present.”

A direct result of this past exercise is an article recently published in Nature titled “Call for a framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth.” According to Science Alert, the team of researchers behind the paper are proposing the adoption of a “confidence of life detection” (CoLD) measuring scale system to measure and chart detections, akin to Torino scale used to assess the likelihood that an asteroid might hit Earth.

“Establishing best practices for communicating about life detection can serve to set reasonable expectations on the early stages of a hugely challenging endeavor, attach value to incremental steps along the path, and build public trust by making clear that false starts and dead ends are an expected and potentially productive part of the scientific process,” the researchers write.

“Whatever the outcome of the dialogue, what matters is that it occurs… In doing so, we can only become more effective at communicating the results of our work, and the wonder associated with it.”

It’s an interesting idea, but one who seems to naively rely on the premise that NASA will still be on top of any important space-related news. As you’re reading this, China is building the largest radio-telescope in the world, which will be capable of detecting thousands of fast radio burst signals (FRB’s) that some scientists still consider to be prime candidates for an artificial origin. China also landed a robotic probe on Mars this year and they are aggressively expanding their space program –do you think they will ask NASA permission if they end up detecting signs of life out there? Of course not.

The current controversy regarding the origins of the SARS COV-2 virus is a good example of how messy things could get if someone ends up declaring they have finally found ET without a global consensus. Then again, the aliens themselves might end up ensuring evidence of their existence turns out quite… unequivocal.

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