As a science-fiction writer, I try to stay current with major developments in scientific fields that touch on my work. Since my current work is a first-contact story, I’ve become particularly interested in xenobiology, exoplanets, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I can’t put myself out there as an expert, but I have a basic grounding to keep in mind while I’m writing–and when there’s big news in the scientific community, I tend to get swept up in it.
Despite the lack of evidence, I’m fairly confident that extraterrestrial life must have popped up elsewhere in creation, given the mind-boggling size and age of our universe. Imagine trying to figure out whether there are other people living in your house by taking a quick glance at a cubic inch of space under your own bed. That would be more than the human race has been able to do so far, even with all of our telescopes and instruments.
So how many advanced alien civilizations are out there? About six times more of them than we would have thought just a few weeks ago!
I’m basing this number on two major announcements from earlier this month. First, there may be three times as many stars in the universe than we previously thought, according to Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University astronomer who led a research project at the super-powerful Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The extra stars are red dwarfs with long lifetimes and stable conditions that make them especially good places for life to develop. Three times as many habitable stars means three times as many habitable planets, which is like buying three times as many lottery tickets in the sweepstakes of abiogenesis. Whatever the odds turn out to be, you will have about three times as many winners. The one caveat is that these extra stars are all in other galaxies, so this discovery changes nothing about the odds of finding aliens in our own Milky Way neighborhood where we might actually be able to meet them.
The second announcement came from NASA, where geomicrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon may have found a bacteria with arsenic in its DNA, RNA, lipids, and proteins (although there’s been some post-announcement buzz that this study may have been half-baked). You may remember arsenic as the murder weapon of choice in about a zillion murder mystery novels, or from news reports of arsenic compounds leeching into some community’s drinking water with devastating health effects. Organisms that ingest arsenic tend to become very sick or very dead.
But now there’s GFAJ-1. This little microbe seems to shift between a phosphorous metabolism, like the rest of life on Earth, and a weird alien-like arsenic metabolism. Early reports speculated that GFAJ-1 may have descended from a “second genesis” of life on Earth or a “shadow ecosystem” existing alongside our own–very cool science fictiony ideas. CNN’s Ali Velshi tried three times to put these words into the mouth of SETI researcher Jill Tarter, but she wasn’t taking the bait. These seemingly alien buggies belong to the same family tree as we do, they’ve just picked up some extra tricks that show up in the lab results and possibly out in the wild as well, in a little lake near the California-Nevada border that’s startlingly close to the hometown of my Galaxy Games protagonist.
The real significance is that we may have proven that life has at least one other major pathway it could take, and a new range of environments where it could thrive. If conditions hadn’t been as favorable for the kind of life we know and love, an alternate biome of arsenic-based plants and animals might have sprang into being instead. If you have a chance to travel to Arsenic-Earth, bring your own food supply, because every native food will be fatally poisonous. Well, poisonous to you and me, but perfectly fine for the arsenic-people who live there.
Together these two news items prove that life comes in at least two flavors, instead of one, and has three times as many places to inhabit. By my math, that means six times as many aliens in the universe!
—Greg, putting the arse in arsenic