If the magic of life is dazzling here, it is out there too. Among the stars, the search may be difficult, but what about within the catacombs of our mind? If, ‘seeing is believing’, then thinking and understanding is certainly philosophy. Let’s take a fresher look in all that we know of, polish a little, and start a fresh chain of thought. Why not shed the boundaries of scientific disciplines, start at the very beginning, and think, as we walk the walk of life.

Who says the answers are impossible?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

What if they never talk back?

A question has been bothering me for quite some time now and is recently compounded with the discovery of Kepler-22b. As you all may by this time know that Kepler-22b is a planet discovered in the habitable zone of a sun-like star by NASA, as reported on 5th December 2011 through update on their website and press conferences. The discovery got worldwide media attention and excitement in soon to melt down. Watching the news on TV, I was wondering, what to make out of it! Should I rejoice this spectacular find or cry out in utter despise, cursing our own technological infancy?
It may sound crazy, but the fact of the matter is, our hands are tied. God only knows, for how many ages, before definite signs of the presence or sere absence of life comes from the surface of Kepler-22b. It may as well never come, and we might lose interest before it ever decides to reveal to us. The cosmos is too big of a party to date a single planet out there, right?  
However, we may be sure of certain facts that, in future, missions like Kepler will discover more planets in other solar system’s habitable zones. NASA, on its part, has already announced that along with Kepler-22b, Kepler mission has also discovered more than 1,000 planet candidates, some probably in the habitable zone, and need further studies and observations to affirm their actual planet-hood, if you may it say so.
These are short of thrilling news, which comes with the ‘what next’ tag, and unfortunately, that ‘What next’ is centuries of wait from an astrobiological or biochemical perspective!

I remember a complete trivial and non-scientific predicament, quite similar to this one, of my own life, if I try to explain this situation on a lighter note. A year back, when I was still a graduate student in India, I happened to watch an international food show on lobster culinary. The presenter glorified a lobster dish, one of my few favourites, from a downtown Boston eatery. It was so tempting then, that I was feeling the pain of not being there in Boston to enjoy the dish. The anguish of suppressed temptation is always overpowering, for me, it was hell then! Not only, at that time, my savoury foot long lobster was being cooked to perfection at the other side of the world, a mere 8120 miles walk, but also I didn’t have the proper official paper works to come to United States too! I had realised then, that it is far better not to know, than knowing but not having it.
However, my dream came true within one year. I had my lobster in that very same eatery in due course and regretted my year old devilish temptation over the first few bites. Well, it truly didn’t take me long for fulfilment, if you consider one year is just a joy ride around the sun, but what about an astrobiologist’s eagerness with Kepler-22b? Aren’t we at the very brink of similar excitement, in just thinking, that there could be intelligent life, out there, in this particular planet or others, which Kepler mission is discovering? The very thought of a galactic long distance call and a sweet replay of an encouraging hallo is enough to die for from that maverick planet, isn’t it?
However, the basic facts are too discouraging, not from an astronomical, but astrobiological angle! Just consider these preliminary NASA observations. Kepler-22b’s orbital period is 290 days around its host sun-like star, which is slightly smaller and cooler than our own Sun. The planet is 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and whether it is predominantly rocky, gaseous or of liquid composition is yet to be determined and will probably take a few decades to find out. You can find more details on NASA web page (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepscicon-briefing.html). These facts, for sure, should make us speculate that probably Kepler-22b is the one we have been looking for. Now, if you are an Astrobiologist and want to look deeper with your magnifying glasses, then you are asking for trouble. Your lobster hunt for intelligent life on this planet, if there is any, will take a ride of 600 years, if you are cruising at the speed of light!
Far discouraging than anticipated!
 However, on a brighter note, these Kepler mission discoveries are giving fantastic proof that planets are probably more numerous in the universe than previously thought. As more and more of them will be fished out from the habitable zone of stars, we can safely imagine that they will have liquid water on their surface for carbon or silicon based biochemistry to take shape, and their surface temperature would be cordial to sustain these reactions. Indirectly, it does give a significant push to speculative astrobiology, and some centuries henceforth, probably, we could declare that Solar system was not, after all, a mere cosmic accident. Now, if we are not in a mood to wait a millennia for answers and are adamant about a quick reply in our own lifetime, the best which can be done, and I am quite sure of it, is SETI will be locking its big gun Allen Telescope Array (ATA) on these new found planets for any sign of artificial radio activity (More details on SETI Institute’s initiative at their website -http://www.seti.org/node/905).
Still, there are problems, as I have mentioned at the beginning of this article. What if the civilizations out there are in no mood to explore? What if there are mostly hermit kingdoms out there in the universe?  
Let’s take an example. Why not go back in space and time (again!) and try to understand what I am trying to imply.
Consider that you are in a planet X, in some different solar system, light years away, five thousand years behind present time. Now, with your own Kepler mission, you have discovered the Planet Earth in the habitable zone of a star, which apparently will be our good old Sun. Your computers and algorithms will undoubtedly tell you that this planet is most likely habitable; biochemistry will be possible and probably is teeming with life, after it has analysed all your astronomical data. Excited, your next move, will be to look for radio activity of artificial or intelligent origin in this particular astronomical coordinates. With all your advance telescopes, siting, say some 300 light-years away from earth, soon you will be an extremely disappointed scientist! There won’t be anything to listen to!
Instead of five thousand years, if you crank up your clock ahead by four thousand eight hundred years and again try to listen, still you will have nothing to report to your own world. Disheartened, you may conclude that probably earth could be habitable with lots of scepticism in your mind based on your astronomical data, but you can never envisage an intelligent species on this third planet from the Sun. However, down here, at the very time of your observation, pyramids were being built; the human civilization was discovering the fun of creativity through the renaissance, and minds like Newton, and Galileo were establishing the foundation of modern physics for a future space faring race. Of course if you live two hundred years more, your experiment will be successful. Still believe me, if I were in your boots, I wouldn’t have wasted 600 years of my scientific life on a single planet, as there are 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe and probably a few zeros less are the number of planets in their respective habitable zones to look for my prized results!
There is also a discouraging possibility of speciation in a planet never crossing into the complexity of multicellular life. It may have been the case with Mars. In such a scenario, it is well possible that the universe is actually timing with life but is mostly confined in the microbial forms. The other fascinating possibility is that there could be intelligent multicellular life out there somewhere, but they are not interested in exploring the universe, rather still, are unaware, in every sense, that there could be other celestial bodies out there like their own in the universe! Their home planet could have a perpetual cloud cover; or life could be of permanently living in an icy world.
Consider the case of Europa. Europa is thought to have an outer layer of water, some 100 km thick, with a frozen-icy upper crust. The liquid water beneath could well be a salty liquid ocean, as shown by recent magnetic field data from Galileo orbiter. Ambient temperature maintained by under water volcanoes, saline water, abundance of organic molecules from bombarding comets could easily jump start a biosphere in Europa’s oceans. You can even consider extremely complex intelligent life out there if evolution happens to play the predator and prey game, in the same fashion, as it has played on earth. Yes, it is a fact that the evolution of complex intelligence is related to the predatory game. I am planning to write about it in my next post. Coming back to the topic of discussion, such a hypothetical intelligent life in Europa will hardly ever need to feel the pain of celestial isolation as their life will be confided in the boundaries of a saline ocean with an icy canopy. For them, probably, there are no stars out there to look for beyond the ice and no Kepler-22b to write on. It’s even worrisome to imagine, that if intelligent life on earth were also ocean dwellers could we ever have envisioned a space programme?
Therefore, the point is quite straightforward. We look for because we were mesmerised by the stars for ages. Firstly, they were a subject of curiosity, secondly they became a matter of study, and finally, they became a destination for exploration. We simply explored to start with, because we had a clear sky to look up to. Believe me; others in this universe may not be so damn lucky! 
So, what do we do? Wait for someone to contact us first? Well, that certainly is not what astrobiology is all about. Obviously, discovery of an intelligent counterpart of ours in the cosmos will be a holy grail, but that sounds more as a prologue to sleazy intergalactic politics, funky trade and travel than pure astrobiology.  Astrobiology, in a nut shell, stands for defining a living universe. Its main goal is not finding intelligent life in the universe, but if I may say so, is to delineate the rightful place of life in context to the evolution of the universe. It final accomplishment will be framing a theory of life, which; I think can be integrated within the framework of physics and can trace the root of life from the inception of the big bang.
Than what is for us, poor biochemist, to do? Well, the answer is easy, let’s explore in, not out, for the time being. If we think that we could wait for NASA to build us a spacecraft to take us to Kepler-22b for real field job, then we are asking for too much, and too soon. Let our grandchildren or their grandchildren fight for that.
For us, let’s look down and ask, ‘Do we know our own icy world any better than the universe out there?’ A planet, with a third of its surface covered with water has enough places for field experiment to determine ancient panspermia. The water world of the earth is still a mostly uncharted territory. Not all the niches are well understood, particularly the deep pockets within the ocean beds. If panspermia ever happened in this planet, in all possibilities, it happened in our oceans. The stakes are quite high. Not only will the comets carrying, organic precursors, have more probabilities of landing in the oceans than on earth, more so, water with its ambient temperature and solvation will be more cordial in sustaining biochemistry of an alien origin. So, if you think it is out there, it is unquestionably out here, somewhere, waiting to be found.
Now it is for us to decide whether we will leave the glories of astrobiological discoveries to our future generations and enjoy the sun, with a glass of bear, on the beaches of Atlantic or take a deep drive in the Atlantic ourselves.
What do you say?

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