Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology

By David Darling | Go to book overview

1
The Intimate Mystery

Nothing could be more familiar than life. But what exactly is it? On a practical level, how can we tell life from nonlife wherever it occurs in the universe?

Defining life hasn't traditionally been the biologist's favorite pursuit. The English geneticist J. B. S. Haldane began his 1947 essay "What is Life?" with the statement: "I am not going to answer this question." Scientists don't need a dictionary to tell them that a field of daffodils or a colony of bacteria is alive and a tailor's dummy isn't. Biology has gotten along quite nicely without specifically saying what it's studying. But astrobiology doesn't have that luxury. How can we hope to find life on other worlds if we don't know what we're looking for?

Maybe we'll be lucky. When future probes melt their way through the icy coating of Jupiter's moon Europa, they may send back glimpses of giant luminous creatures patrolling a Stygian sea. When the first manned expedition to Mars samples the bed of the ancient ocean that once sprawled across the northern hemisphere, it may unearth the perfectly preserved fossil of a Martian trilobite. The late Carl Sagan was among those who suggested that something big might lumber before the watching cameras of Viking on Mars or float visibly in the cloud-tops of Jupiter as the Voyager probes flew by.

Recognizing such large and obvious extraterrestrial life (or its remains) would be child's play. But the universe isn't likely to be so accommodating. Life may only rarely crop up on a grand scale. It could also be utterly bizarre, unlike anything we've previously met or imagined. And even if it follows a more familiar pattern, confirming its presence from far away will hinge on our ability to distinguish, clearly and unambiguously, the true signatures of biological activity.

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Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Life Everywhere - The Maverick Science of Astrobiology *
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Preface xi
  • 1 - The Intimate Mystery 1
  • 2 - Original Thoughts 15
  • 3 - Star Seed 33
  • 4 - Havens, Hells, and H2O 53
  • 5 - Strange New Worlds 73
  • 6 - Rare Earths and Hidden Agendas 91
  • 7 - Theme and Variation 117
  • 8 - Life Signs 145
  • 9 - The Cosmic Community 169
  • Notes 181
  • Index 201
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