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At the World Economic Forum: A session about "Life on Other Planets?" That's surprising.

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Better Believe It Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Jan-28-10 04:27 PM
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At the World Economic Forum: A session about "Life on Other Planets?" That's surprising.
Edited on Thu Jan-28-10 04:32 PM by Better Believe It

Life on Other Planets?
Date: 27.01.2010
Time: 13:30-14:15

Scientists confirmed the discovery of the first earth-like planet outside the boundaries of our solar system in 2009.

How will space research redefine life as it is known?

Key Points
Life is defined as the existence of biochemistry is our biochemistry unique in the universe, or does the tree of life have many roots?
Finding planets with similar characteristics to Earth will indicate where a biochemical system may exist
If other biochemical systems are possible, then life on other planets is possible
Life forms on other planets may be asking the same questions as we are; searching for signs of advanced technologies is a means of locating them
We may have to redefine what we understand as life; what we find may not be what we expect

The search for life is based on the existence of biochemical systems. What we do not know is whether the tree of life on Earth is unique to this planet, whether it is the only system that can create life, or whether there are different trees with different roots capable of creating different biochemistries.

One way to answer these questions is to search for planets with similar characteristics to Earth. Some 100 million planets are estimated to have habitable potential: 420 planets have been discovered in our galaxy so far, and it is believed that we should be able to discover 60 habitable planets by 2012. The Kepler mission space observatory launched in 2009 looks for Earth-like planets and is able to analyse their composition.

Another approach is to use synthetic chemistry to create new biochemical systems. Life on Earth is a mystery in that its diversity has its origins in a small biochemical set. We know that clay in water helps make RNA. Cell-like bubbles form, enclose RNA and then divide. By using these steps we may be able to create an alien biochemistry (Mars has clay, and it has water as ice). Creating mirror images of life on Earth mirror proteins made of right-handed amino acids (all life on Earth is built using left-handed forms) would tell us that there are at least two possible biochemistries. Such synthetic biochemistry will be as transformational as synthetic chemistry, and will probably cause us to redefine what we know as life, something for which we may not be prepared. Life may be more diverse than we imagine.

A third approach is to make the assumption that someone elsewhere in the universe is asking the same questions as we are. We know that our technology is visible over interstellar distances; other technologies may be visible to us. Finding signs of their technological activity is a shortcut to finding life beyond Earth. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) first set out to do this 50 years ago.

The SETI search is in its infancy, equivalent to taking just one glass of water from the Earths oceans in a search for fish. SETI looks for radio and optical signals that are not manufactured by nature. The capacity of the search tools is increasing exponentially, with increasing number of antennas linked to more powerful computers giving ever-greater sensitivity and processing power. We are now capable of searching for signals no brighter or stronger than we ourselves can generate over a volume of space that contains 1 million Sun-like stars.

Finding life on another planet would trivialize the differences among the people on Earth. Discovery would force us to rethink our relationship to the cosmos and one another, redesign the tools we use to answer the fundamental questions about life in the universe, and rebuild the bonds between all people on Earth.

Session Panellists

Dimitar Sasselov

Professor of Astronomy and Director of Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, Harvard University, USA

Studies at Sofia University, Bulgaria; 1988, PhD in Physics, Sofia; 1990, PhD in Astronomy, University of Toronto; 1999, Alfred P Sloan Fellow. Currently, also Senior Adviser, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard; research explores modes of interaction between light and matter; recently discovered several planets orbiting other stars with novel techniques he hopes to use to find planets like Earth.

Jill Tarter

Bernard M. Oliver Chair, SETI Institute, USA

1975, PhD in Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley. Since 1984, with SETI Institute; 1989-93, Project Scientist, NASA SETI Microwave Observing Project and High Resolution Microwave Survey; currently also, Director, Center for SETI Research. Member: American Astronomical Society; International Astronomical Union; URSI - Commission J, International Radio Science Union; International Academy of Astronautics; International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life; Women in Aerospace. Fellow: American Association for Advancement of Sciences; California Academy of Science. Expertise: radio astronomy, search for extraterrestrial intelligence, search for extrasolar planets, brown dwarfs. Interests: creation of Voyages Through Time, an integrated high school curriculum; sewing, handcrafts, small-scale construction projects, dancing and flying small planes. Named one of 100 Most Influential People in the World, Time magazine (2004). Recipient of awards including, TED Prize (2009).

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