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How do we search for the life we ​​do not know?

How do we search for the life we ​​do not know?

In one of the lessons I gave last semester within the courses of new students at Harvard University, I mentioned that most of the radiation from the nearest star to the sun, which is called “sun.”We develop the closestProxima Centauri is infrared radiation, and this star has a satellite planet called “Proxima b”, which is located in the habitable zone surrounding this star.Proxima b“Y”, How do you imagine the look of her infrared sensitive eyes?” It didn’t take a few seconds before I got the answer from the brightest student in the group, who showed a picture Mantis shrimp, seen in infrared, this creature’s eyes look like two table tennis balls attached to its head by two ropes, and the student added, whispering, “It looks like an alien.”

When we try to imagine something we haven’t seen before, we often automatically associate it with a familiar image, which is why we usually find ourselves searching for nature. Life in outer space We search for life that we know, but is there a way to let our imaginations run wild and begin to imagine life we ​​don’t know?

Such a methodology has already been followed in physics studies a century ago, and has proven successful in many contexts. This methodology consists in conducting laboratory experiments with the intent of revealing the basic laws of physics, which in turn apply to the entire universe, for example, about the same time. in which it was discovered neutron Inside a lab James Chadwick In 1932, Presented by Lev Lindau The idea of ​​stars made up of neutrons, and indeed astronomers later discovered about 100 million neutron star In our galaxy, the Milky Way alone, and a billion times more than that in the observable universe, as I picked up The US Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) recently experimented with signals of gravitational waves from collisions between neutron stars light years away, and it is now believed that such collisions she Which produces us the precious gold from which wedding rings are crafted, the moral of this story is that physicists were able to imagine something new in the expanding universe, and search for it in the heavens using ideas they took from experiments conducted on Earth.

The search for life in outer space could take a similar approach. By using chemicals in the laboratory, we can create different forms of synthetic life, which in turn enable us to imagine new environments in which life differs from our life on Earth. A hearty biophysicist recipe book, to try many types of chemicals, and as I also noted in a paper I wrote jointly with Manasvi Lingam, those experiments might use Liquids other than water, which is essential to life as we know it.

Now one of my Harvard classmates, Jack Gustack, a Nobel laureate, is on the cusp of creating a synthetic life within his laboratoryThe success of any of these recipes may indicate other formulas that lead us to a variety of results, to be collected in our book of recipes for synthetic life, and if we succeeded through our laboratory experiments in determining the environmental conditions suitable for life in outer space, we may later be able to launch to the sky To search for real objects with these conditions, just as they did in the case of neutron stars.

But this approach necessitates that we treat the same caution as we treat the use of Nuclear EnergyThe creation of different synthetic life forms in our laboratories risks an ecological catastrophe like the one depicted in this story FrankensteinTherefore, such experiments must be conducted in isolated environments so that no mishaps that may occur in the realm of life that we do not know do not harm life as we know it.

Although scientists are able to remotely explore the surfaces of planets and asteroids in search of Biological indicatorsHowever, life forms in outer space may exist more under roofs These bodies and not on their surface, may exist conditions suitable for life in the oceans located under the thick icy surfaces, not only within moons such as Moon «Enceladus“Enceladus of Saturn, or Europa of Jupiter, but also within any of the free-floating bodies in outer space, and in other research I conducted with Lingam, we showed that the number of the bodies The number of rocky planets in the habitable zone around stars may exceed several times the number of rocky planets.

The adaptation of life forms to harsh environments can take strange forms, as manifested in organisms that live in the extreme conditions of the planet; For example, micro-frozen animals have recently been discovered that have survived for 24,000 years in the permafrost of Siberia. as discovered Microbial organisms that have survived for 100 million years under the sea floor, as they were born during Cretaceous period warm when she was dinosaurs dominate the planet.

In the solar system, it was discovered that the most neighboring planets with conditions similar to Earth are planets Venus and MarsNASA recently launched two new missions to study the planet Venus, while it investigates Planetary Rover Perseverance Perseverance any traces of life on Mars, and if life is found in outer space, the next major question is whether the life present there resembles the picture of “life as we know it”, and if not, then we will realize that life in nature can be It is achieved by multiple chemical pathways, but if we find evidence that life on Mars or Venus is similar to life on Earth, this may indicate a special preference for “life as we know it”, or another possibility may remain that life has moved between planets by rocks that roams space through a process called panspermia, and I partnered with my disciples Amir Siraj in Writing Research shows that objects bordering planets may have helped in life transmission Among them, we must also consider the low possibility that life was cultured in the inner solar system by an “extrasolar actor”, that is, through “directed panspermia”.

One of my most vivid childhood memories of dinner conversations when grown-ups pretended to know much more than they actually did, was undoubtedly a form of “cooling” they used to improve their appearance, and when I was asking a question that none of them knew the answer to. These pretenders, they dismissed him as insignificant, my experience as an experienced scholar is no different from these, especially when I ask the question:Are we the smartest kid in the cosmic neighborhood?“.

Science gives us the advantage of keeping curious children; Since the process of advancing scientific knowledge through experimentation is continuous and cannot be disrupted, let us hope, then, to find a recipe for artificial life that allows us to imagine the existence of beings whose intelligence exceeds the natural life we ​​have known so far, an experience from which we will learn that we do not know many things, but even if we do not We can detect this superintelligence from inside our laboratories, as one of its signs may appear in our sky as a message sent by a neighbor who lives in a remote neighborhood in the Milky Way, then we will search for this place using the telescopes of the recently announced Galileo Project.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American. Scientific American.