From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


UK astronomers to broadcast adverts to aliens
BY Roger Highfield  /  07/03/2008

British astronomers are to broadcast the first adverts to aliens.

The cosmic stunt marks a small step for man, a giant leap for
advertising hype and underlines the desperation of British astronomers
to find new sources of funding as they struggle to cope with swingeing
cuts that now threaten institutions such as Jodrell Bank, the world
famous observatory in Cheshire.

Although each and every television advert already broadcast has leaked
into the heavens, the caper marks the first time one is to be
targetted at an other worldly market, a zone in the constellation Ursa
Major that could harbour alien worlds, the snack manufacturer Doritos
announces today.

The project, in which the public are invited to shoot a 30 second
advert, underlines the current crisis in funding astronomy, due to an
£80 million shortfall.

For broadcasting the advert into space, encoded as ones and zeros that
clever aliens should be able to figure out, Doritos will make an
undisclosed donation to astronomers and academics from Leicester
University and Eiscat (The European Incoherent SCATter Scientific

The space-bound ad will broadcast from a 500MHz Ultra High Frequency
Radar from the EISCAT Space Centre in Svalbard, Norway, used to study
the atmosphere and northern lights, which has escaped a savage round
of cuts because its five year renewal contract has been signed.

Prof Tony van Eyken, Director of Eiscat, admits he does not know what
the effects of the UK cuts will be but says he is happy to accept any
novel source of funding: “Broadcasting an advert extra terrestrially
is a big and exciting step for everyone on Earth as up until now we
have only tended to listening for incoming transmissions.”

When Nasa recently beamed a Beatles song towards the North Star, 431
light years from Earth, some experts warned that the signals could
expose us to the risk of attack from mean spirited aliens.

“In this case we are giving somebody the opportunity to create this
message as a way to say hello on behalf of mankind,” says Prof van
Eyken, who adds the prospect of the Earth being destroyed by Doritos
hating aliens is remote. “No, I am not worried.”

Humans have been announcing their presence by radio and TV broadcasts
for decades and when it comes to the Nasa broadcast, “this is a 1,000
light year round trip, it’s highly unlikely it will ever be received
by extra-terrestrials.”

However, he adds that in this case “there is a much greater chance
that the Doritos advert will potentially be seen by billions of

The transmission will be invisible to earthlings and is being directed
at a solar system 42 light years away from Earth with planets that
orbit its star ’47 Ursae Majoris’ (UMa). 47 UMa is located in the
‘Ursa Major’ Constellation, also known as the Great Bear or Plough.

He adds “we have no way to know whether there is extraterrestrial life
out there.”

As part of its new ‘You Make It, We Play It’ campaign, Doritos will
also air the advert on the more conventional medium of British
television in June. The filmmaker responsible for the winning ad will
also win £20,000.

The Royal Astronomical Society has talked about its “deep pessimism
and anger” at the cuts. Although it welcomes a consultation by the
Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC, the Society remains
“deeply concerned” about the impact on UK research in astronomy, space
science and solar-system physics.

The RAS does not, however, accept the STFC’s classification of many
projects as ‘lowest priority’, which include the £2.5 million running
costs for “e-Merlin” – an upgrade to the Multi-Element Radio Linked
Interferometer Network between the UK’s seven radio telescopes,
notably Jodrell, which would struggle if this funding were lost.

Some of these have a high profile, it says, including eMerlin, the
Gemini Observatory and UK involvement in the Hinode space observatory
currently being used to study activity on the Sun.

Alongside the risks to these and other projects is a 25 per cent cut
in the STFC research grants to universities that will see numbers of
postdoctoral researchers in space science and astronomy fall to their
lowest level for seven years.

There is also a real concern that the consultation with the science
community on the Review is too brief for responses to be heard. This
began this week and will close on 21 March – by comparison UK
Government guidelines on public consultation suggest a minimum period
of 12 weeks.

President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Prof Michael Rowan-
Robinson says: “I welcome the commitment by STFC to consult with the
wider community on what remains a severe package of cuts. It is vital
that the consultation is as fair and transparent as possible so that
the eventual decisions are seen to be made on an objective basis.

“Closing down UK involvement in a swathe of projects will harm our
ability to carry out cutting-edge research, our international
reputation and our ability to attract young people into science and
physics in particular.”

posted by snarfies  /   March 07, 2008

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“Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Maybe extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up.”

ET too bored by Earth transmissions to respond
by Tom Simonite  /  18 December 2007

Messages sent into space directed at extraterrestrials may have been too boring to earn a reply, say two astrophysicists trying to improve on their previous alien chat lines. Humans have so far sent four messages into space intended for alien listeners. But they have largely been made up of mathematically coded descriptions of some physics and chemistry, with some basic biology and descriptions of humans thrown in. Those topics will not prove gripping reading to other civilisations, says Canadian astrophysicist Yvan Dutil. If a civilisation is advanced enough to understand the message, they will already know most of its contents, he says: “After reading it, they will be none the wiser about us humans and our achievements. In some ways, we may have been wasting our telescope time.” In 1999 and 2003, Dutil and fellow researcher Stephane Dumas beamed messages in a language of their own design into space. Now, they are working to compose more interesting messages. “The question is, what is interesting to an extraterrestrial?” Dutil told New Scientist. “We think the answer is using some common ground to communicate things about humanity that will be new or different to them – like social features of our society.” Fortunately those subjects are already being described mathematically by economists, physicists and sociologists, he adds.

Vexing problems
One topic the two researchers are already composing messages about is the so-called ‘cake cutting problem’. “How do you share out resources is a classical problem for all civilisations,” he says. Democracy is also a potentially eye- or antenna- catching subject. “The maths shows that with more than two choices, there is no perfect electoral procedure,” says Dutil. He has started work on encoding this into a message in which “we can explain our methods and ask, ‘What do you use on your planet?'”

Social physics – the application of mathematical techniques to societies – also provides good material potentially interesting to the alien. “We know that every human social network behaves as a gas, what we don’t know is how universal that is beyond Earth.” Aliens may be asking themselves similar questions, he adds. Another fundamental challenge for very old civilisations is using resources sustainably to avoid dying out, says Dutil. “Any good examples out there could help a lot on Earth.”
Human nature Dumas has designed software that is like a word processor for composing messages in the pair’s symbolic language. There is also a separate automatic decoder, which should help avoid slip-ups like the missing factor of 10 in the duo’s 1999 message.

Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, US, agrees that we humans need to make our interstellar chat more compelling. “If we only communicate something the receiver already knows, it is not going to be very interesting.” Vakoch has recently been holding workshops at sociology and anthropology conferences to try and widen participation in messaging extraterrestrials beyond astrophysicists. “I think perhaps the most important question is: how do we represent what being a human is? And those disciplines can really help,” says Vakoch.

‘We’ll get back to you’
But Vakoch points out that email-like messages may not be the best approach. One alternative is to send software code for an avatar that could answer basic alien questions. That would get around the problem of the delays produced by large distances across space. “If someone replies to your message saying, ‘I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?’ it will take decades, centuries or millennia to know,” says Vakoch. “Another approach is to send a lot of stuff and hope there is enough redundancy for them to spot patterns,” he adds. “We could just send the encyclopaedia.” Dutil agrees other options are worth exploring, but points out that sometimes only a message will do. “It would make sense to have an ‘answer phone’ message ready in case we are contacted,” he explains, “just to say, ‘we’ll get back to you,’ while we figure out what to do.” Tell us who you think should be in charge of composing messages to ET in our blog.




Q. So how many star systems has I Love Lucy already reached?
A. I Love Lucy was popular in the fifties, so the earliest shows have travelled 40 light-years into space. There are about 100 stars within that distance, and if there are any inhabited planets encircling these nearby stellar sites, they might be watching Lucy and Desi if they’ve bothered to build a very large antenna capable of
working at the relatively low broadcast frequencies of television (about 100 MHz).


“We’ve already violated the prime directive by sending porn and rock music into space with the Voyager and Pioneer messages respectively. Should an advanced alien civilization find and decode the Pioneer golden record, their biggest worry would be to be sued by the RIAA for illegally downloading Johnny B. Goode.”





This message was sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to the M13 star cluster, 25,000 light years away (150,000 million million miles). Consisting of 1,679 binary digits, the bits can be arranged into a rectangle of 73 rows and 23 columns (two prime numbers) to reveal a message.

Encoded are: the numbers one through to 10; atomic numbers of key elements such as hydrogen, carbon and oxygen; a graphic of DNA, along with an estimate of its complexity; a graphic figure of a man and the human population of Earth; a graphic of our solar system; and a graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope. The signal took 169 seconds to send and was not repeated.


TOO NOISY—-we-mead-you-know-harm.html
“Alien” message tests human decoders
by Will Knight  /  08 January 2002

A message that will be broadcast into space later in 2002 has been released to scientists worldwide, to test that it can be decoded easily. The researchers who devised the message eventually hope to design a system that could automatically decode an alien reply. Unlike previous interstellar broadcasts, the new message is designed to withstand significant interference and interruption during transmission. “People have tried sending messages in the past, but have not accounted for noise,” says Yvan Dutil, who currently works for a Canadian telecommunications company, but developed the message as a private project with Stephane Dumas, who works at the Defence Research Establishment Atlantic in Canada.

If new message had been based on language, it would be impossible for an alien intelligence to decode it. So, instead, a two-dimensional image was converted into a binary string of ones and zeros. These can then easily be transmitted as a radio or laser signal. “Currently, most resources are focused on signal detection, and not
message composition or decoding,” says Brian McConnel, author of Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilisations. “I think it is important to research the latter because the worst-case scenario would be positive confirmation of an ET signal that nobody can comprehend.”

Alien code
The image has not been revealed to those playing the role of alien decoders and about 10 per cent meaningless noise has been added to the data. Some parts have even been deleted. This degradation of the message is intended to simulate the interference that might be experienced during transmission to distant planets. Dutil says that the binary string is designed to provide clues that should make it decipherable even with such significant disruption. The sensitivity of interplanetary communications was demonstrated in 1999 when a previous message written by Dutil and Dumas was found to contain an error that could have seriously confused an alien recipient if it had not been corrected in the nick of time.

Automatic decoding
The pair have an even grander plan for the future – to develop a software system that can automatically decode alien messages, regardless of excess noise. A number of telescopes around the world are used to search for patterns in the radio waves that reach Earth. Dutil says that if a message were identified, it might be possible to decode it using an automated system based on well-developed techniques used in cryptanalysis, as well as principles of linguistic and statistical analysis. However, Douglas Vakoch, head of the Interstellar Message Group at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, says that deciphering a reply may prove very tricky. “Our biggest challenge will be to keep open to new types of messages that we had not previously considered,” he says. “That’s why the SETI Institute is sponsoring a series of workshops on interstellar message composition, aimed at identifying radically new ways of constructing messages.” The new message can be downloaded from the project homepage. Dutil and Dumas hope that it will be transmitted by laser as early as February 2002, by Celestis, a US company specialising in space projects.


The TAM was created by Russian teens in Moscow Center of Teen Activity and was transmitted at 18:00 UT on August 29, 2001 from the 70-m dish of Evpatoria Deep Space Center to the Sun-like star HD 197076 in the Dolphin Constellation. The total duration of the transmission was 2 hours 12 minutes. The message consists of three distinct parts:

1. Sounding Section — coherent signal with slow Doppler wavelength tuning to imitate the transmission from Sun’s center (10 min)
2. Analog Section — Theremin concert to Aliens (15 min)
3. Digital Section — Message: Logo of TAM, Greeting to Aliens both in Russian and English, Image Glossary (70 min).

The Coherent Sounding Signal was transmitted in order to help Aliens detect the message and to investigate some radio propagation effects in the interstellar medium. The Analog Information represents music, performed on the Theremin. This musical instrument produces quasi sinusoidal signal, which is easily detectable across interstellar distances. There were 7 musical compositions in the 1st Theremin Concert for Aliens:

1. Melody of Russian romance “Egress alone I to the ride”
2. Beethoven. Finale of the 9th Symphony.
3. Vivaldi. Seasons. March. Allegro.
4. Saen-Saens. Swan.
5. Rakhmaninov. Vokalise.
6. Gershwin. Summertime
7. Melody of Russian folk-song “Kalinka-Malinka”

The Concert program was composed by Russian teens. The Theremin performers were Lidia Kavina, Yana Aksenova and Anton Kerchenko from the Moscow Theremin Center. The Digital Information includes the Logo of TAM, Greetings from teens to Aliens, written both in Russian and English, and an Image Glossary. The total size of the digital information is 648,220 bits and was transmitted at a rate 100 bits per second. This section was composed by teens from different sites of Russia – Moscow. Kaluga, Zelenogorsk, Voronezh. The 28 images follow in the menu to the left.


Yvan Dutil
Yvan [dot] Dutil [at] sympatico [dot] ca

Stephane Dumas
stephane_dumas [at] sympatico [dot] ca

Alexander L. Zaitsev
alzaitsev [at] ms [dot] ire [dot] rssi [dot] ru




Who Speaks for Earth?
After decades of searching, scientists have found no trace of extraterrestrial intelligence. Now, some of them hope to make contact by broadcasting messages to the stars. Are we prepared for an answer?
by David Grinspoon  /  December 12, 2007

Alexander Zaitsev, Chief Scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, has access to one of the most powerful radio transmitters on Earth. Though he officially uses it to conduct the Institute’s planetary radar studies, Zaitsev is also trying to contact other civilizations in nearby star systems. He believes extraterrestrial intelligence exists, and that we as a species have a moral obligation to announce our presence to our sentient neighbors in the Milky Way–to let them know they are not alone. If everyone in the galaxy only listens, he reasons, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is doomed to failure. Zaitsev has already sent several powerful messages to nearby, sun-like stars–a practice called “Active SETI.” But some scientists feel that he’s not only acting out of turn, but also independently speaking for everyone on the entire planet. Moreover, they believe there are possible dangers we may unleash by announcing ourselves to the unknown darkness, and if anyone plans to transmit messages from Earth, they want the rest of the world to be involved. For years the debate over Active SETI versus passive “listening” has mostly been confined to SETI insiders. But late last year the controversy boiled over into public view after the journal Nature published an editorial scolding the SETI community for failing to conduct an open discussion on the remote, but real, risks of unregulated signals to the stars. And in September, two major figures resigned from an elite SETI study group in protest. All this despite the fact that SETI’s ongoing quest has so far been largely fruitless. For Active SETI’s critics, the potential for alerting dangerous or malevolent entities to our presence is enough to justify their concern.

“We’re talking about initiating communication with other civilizations, but we know nothing of their goals, capabilities, or intent,” reasons John Billingham, a senior scientist at the private SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Billingham studied medicine at Oxford and headed NASA’s first extraterrestrial search effort in 1976. He believes we should apply the Hippocratic Oath’s primary tenet to our galactic behavior: “First, do no harm.” For years Billingham served as the chairman of the Permanent Study Group (PSG) of the SETI subcommittee of the International Academy of Astronautics, a widely accepted forum for devising international SETI agreements.
But despite his deep involvement with the group, Billingham resigned in September, feeling the PSG is unwisely refusing to take a stand urging broad, interdisciplinary consultation on Active SETI. “At the very least we ought to talk about it first, and not just SETI people. We have a responsibility to the future well-being and survival of

Billingham is not alone in his dissent. Michael Michaud, a former top diplomat within the US State Department and a specialist in technology policy, also resigned from the PSG in September. Though highly aware of the potential for misunderstanding or ridicule, Michaud feels too much is at stake for the public to remain uninvolved in the debate. “Active SETI is not science; it’s diplomacy. My personal goal is not to stop all transmissions, but to get the discussion out of a small group of elites.” Michaud is the original author of what became the “First SETI Protocol,” a list of actions to take in the event of a SETI success. In the late 1980s, several international organizations committed to its principles: First, notify the global SETI community and cooperate to verify the alien signal. Then, if the discovery is confirmed, announce it to the public. Finally, send no reply until the nations of the world have weighed in. A future “Second SETI Protocol” was meant to refine the policy for sending mes- sages from Earth, but the effort quickly became complicated. Everyone agreed that if a message were received, broad global dialogue concerning if and how to respond must take place before any reply could be sent. The rift arose over whether or not the Protocol should also address Active SETI transmissions made before any signal is detected.

At a meeting last year in Valencia, Spain, a divided PSG voted to change Michaud’s draft of the Second Protocol. They deleted language calling for “appropriate international consultations” before any deliberate transmissions from Earth, overriding the concerns of Billingham and Michaud and triggering Nature’s editorial. As Michaud describes it, “Last fall, this became an unbridgeable gap. They brought it to a vote but there was no consensus. Those with dissenting views were largely cut out of the discussion.” Michaud and Billingham feel that by not explicitly advocating a policy of international consultations, the SETI PSG is tacitly endorsing rogue broadcasters.

Seth Shostak, the current chair of the SETI PSG, maintains that Nature got it wrong, that in Valencia there was no organized effort to discourage open and transparent debate about the wisdom of sending signals. As the SETI Institute’s senior astronomer, Shostak has been involved in the science and policy of SETI for many years, and often seems to act as public spokesman for the Institute and for SETI in general. He says it’s inappropriate for the PSG to set global guidelines for Active SETI. “Who are we to tell the rest of the world how to behave? It would be totally unenforceable.”

Michaud and Billingham agree that the PSG can’t make policy for the whole world. But rather than sweep the question under the rug, they believe it is the responsibility of the SETI community to facilitate the wider conversation that must take place. “We feel strongly that the discussion must involve not just astronomers, but a broad spectrum of social scientists, historians, and diplomats,” explains Billingham. “This was simply about jurisdiction,” Shostak insists. The First Protocol, he says, is about self-policing; the Second isn’t. “If we found a signal, it would be a result of our own research. Therefore we felt it was responsible to have an agreed-upon policy about what to do next.” Shostak also worries that drafting guidelines for sending messages to aliens could generate bad press. SETI has always struggled for respectability. In the 1970s and 80s, NASA supported some listening programs, but government funding was cut off in 1993 amid congressional ridicule. Thanks to private funding, SETI has rebounded since then, but is still vulnerable to association with tabloids and talk radio guests claiming personal contact with aliens. Publicizing the real debate over rules of conduct for talking to extraterrestrials, Shostak reasons, wouldn’t do much to help counter this vision.

Long before he was an eager practitioner of Active SETI, Alexander Zaitsev was already a respected astronomer investigating planets using huge blasts of radar energy from the 70-meter radio telescope at the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in Crimea, Ukraine. Planetary radar studies rely on powerful, focused beams to “illuminate” distant objects, though much of this energy misses its target. The beams would be fleeting if seen from other stars that, by chance, lay along their path. But aimed and modulated to contain pictures, sounds, and other multimedia, they very easily become calling cards from Earth. On balance, it’s relatively simple to send signals, so why have we just been listening?

SETI doctrine states that anyone we hear from will almost certainly be much more advanced than we are. Simply put, our capabilities are so rudimentary that any chance of detecting an alien transmission would require that it be broadcast powerfully and continually on millennial timescales. We can’t predict much about alien civilizations, but we can use statistical mathematics to derive simple, robust relationships between the number of putative civilizations, their average longevity, and their population density in the galaxy. The chance of getting a signal from another baby race like ours is infinitesimally small. As Shostak says, “We’ve had radio for 100 years. They’ve had it for at least 1,000 years. Let them do the heavy lifting.”

This is one reason why most SETI pioneers advocated a “first, just listen” approach. But there is another: What if there is something dangerous out there that could be alerted by our broadcasts? This ground has been explored in numerous scientific papers and, of course, in countless works of science fiction. Few people alive today embody the convergence of hard science and fictional speculation better than David Brin, an author of both peer-reviewed astronomy papers and award-winning science fiction novels. In an influential 1983 paper titled “The Great Silence,” Brin provided a kind of taxonomy of explanations for the lack of an obvious alien presence. In addition to the usual answers positing that humanity is alone, or so dull that aliens have no interest in us, Brin included a more disturbing possibility: Nobody is on the air because something seeks and destroys everyone who broadcasts. Like Billingham and Michaud, he feels the PSG is dominated by a small number of people who don’t want to acknowledge Active SETI’s potential dangers.

Even if something menacing and terrible lurks out there among the stars, Zaitsev and others argue that regulating our transmissions could be pointless because, technically, we’ve already blown our cover. A sphere of omnidirectional broadband signals has been spreading out from Earth at the speed of light since the advent of
radio over a century ago. So isn’t it too late? That depends on the sensitivity of alien radio detectors, if they exist at all. Our television signals are diffuse and not targeted at any star system. It would take a truly huge antenna–larger than anything we’ve built or plan to build–to notice them.

Alien telescopes could perhaps detect Earth’s strange oxygen atmosphere, created by life, and a rising CO2 level, suggesting a young industrial civilization. But what would draw their attention to our solar system among the multitudes? Deliberate blasts of narrow-band radiation aimed at nearby stars would–for a certain kind of
watcher–cause our planet to suddenly light up, creating an obvious beacon announcing for better or worse, “Here we are!”

In fact, we have already sent some targeted radio messages. Even now they are racing toward their selected destinations, and they are unstoppable. Frank Drake sent the first Active SETI broadcast from the large radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in November 1974. In its narrow path, the Arecibo message was the most powerful signal ever sent from Earth. But it was aimed at M13, a globular star cluster about 25,000 light years away. At the earliest, we could expect a reply in 50,000 years.

More recently, Zaitsev and his colleagues sent a series of messages from their dish at Evpatoria. In 1999 and 2003 they sent “Cosmic Call” I and II, transmissions containing pictograms meant to communicate our understanding of the universe and life on Earth. In 2001, Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers created the “Teen-Age Message to the Stars,” which was broadcast in August and September of that year in the direction of six stars between 45 and 70 light years from Earth. The Teen-Age Message notably included greetings in Russian and English, and a 15-minute Theremin symphony for aliens. Unlike Drake’s Arecibo message, Zaitsev’s messages target nearby stars. So if anyone wishes to reply, we may receive it in the next century or two.

Along with the famous plaques attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 and the two phonograph records carried by Voyager 1 and 2–four spacecraft that will soon leave our Solar System–these messages are mostly symbolic efforts unlikely to betray our presence to the denizens of planets orbiting other stars. Our civilization is still hidden from all but those ardently searching for our kind, or those so far beyond our level of sophistication that we couldn’t hide from them if we wanted to. To date, all our “messages to aliens” are really more successful as communications to Earth, mirrors reflecting our dreams of reaching far beyond our terrestrial nursery.

For now, the dissenters have given up on the SETI PSG, but there’s still hope for a solution to the standoff. At the PSG’s 2007 meeting held in Hyderabad, India this September, the group implicitly accepted the reality of Active SETI risks by adopting a standard called the “San Marino Scale,” a formula for assessing the risk of a given
broadcast program. Michaud admits that the scale “is a useful starting point for discussion.”

When pressed, everyone involved in the recent controversy agrees that harmful contact scenarios cannot be completely ruled out. Active SETI critics like Billingham, Michaud, and Brin don’t support a blanket ban on transmissions, and even Zaitsev accepts that open and multinational discussion is needed before anyone pursues transmission programs more ambitious and powerful than his own. The major disagreement is actually over how soon we can expect powerful transmission tools to become widely available to those who would signal at whim.

At present, the radio astronomy facilities potentially capable of producing a major Active SETI broadcast are all controlled by national governments, or at least large organizations responsible to boards and donors and sensitive to public opinion. However, seemingly inevitable trends are placing increasingly powerful technologies in the hands of small groups or eager individuals with their own agendas and no oversight. Today, on the entire planet, there are only a few mavericks like Zaitsev who are able and willing to unilaterally represent humanity and effectively reveal our presence. In the future, there could be one in every neighborhood.

So far SETI has turned up no evidence of other intelligent creatures out there seeking conversation. All we know for certain is that our galaxy is not full of civilizations occupying nearly every sun-like star and sending strong radio signals directly to Earth. In the absence of data, the questions of extraterrestrial intelligence, morality, and behavior are more philosophy than science. But even if no one else is out there and we are ultimately alone, the idea of communicating with truly alien cultures forces us to consider ourselves from an entirely new, and perhaps timely, perspective. Even if we never make contact, any attempt to act and speak as one planet is not a misguided endeavor: Our impulsive industrial transformation of our home planet is starting to catch up to us, and the nations of the world are struggling with existential threats like anthropogenic climate change and weapons of mass destruction. Whether or not we develop a mechanism for anticipating, discussing, and acting on long-term planetary dangers such as these before they become catastrophes remains to be seen. But the unified global outlook required to face them would certainly be a welcome development.




We’ve been trying to make contact with aliens for years. Now the day is fast approaching when we might finally succeed. But will our extraterrestrial friends come in peace? Or will they want to eat us? An astronomer explores the perils of a close encounter.
Meet the neighbours: Is the search for aliens such a good idea?
by David Whitehouse  /  25 June 2007

We are making dangerous discoveries in space. In April, astronomers found, on our cosmic doorstep, a planet dubbed Gliese 581c. Nestling close to a dim red star, it’s a rocky world only a little larger than Earth. Like Earth, it could support liquid water. And to scientists, liquid water means the possibility of life. Gliese 581c must be an ancient world, for it circles a star that is far older than our Sun. The question is, has any advanced life evolved on that planet, or on the many other places that must be suitable sites, not so very far away?

Recently, British astronomers told the government that we might find life in space. It is only a matter of time, this year perhaps, before astronomers detect a planet even more similar in size and mass to our Earth, circling another star. And when we find that planet, we may discover a lot more than new oceans and land masses. Astronomers have been actively looking for intelligent life in space since 1960, when Frank Drake started Project Ozma, using a radio telescope to listen for signals from two nearby sun-like stars – Drake knew that radio waves travel more easily through the cosmos than light waves. He didn’t hear anything back. Since then, our searches have become more thorough thanks to larger radio telescopes and more sophisticated computers that look for fainter signals. But we still have no signal from ET. Should we want to?

This is not just a matter for astronomical research involving distant worlds and academic questions. Could it be that, from across the gulf of space, as HG Wells put it, there may emerge an alien threat? That only happens in lurid science fiction films, doesn’t it? Well, the threat is real enough to worry many scientists, who make a simple but increasingly urgent point: if we don’t know what’s out there, why on Earth are we deliberately beaming messages into space, to try and contact these civilisations about whom we know precisely nothing?

The searchers are undeterred. They argue that because of the vastness of space – even if there are 10,000 transmitting societies nestled in the stellar arms of the Milky Way – we might have to search millions of star systems to find just one. But rather than just listening, some want to announce our presence to the cosmos. In 1974, the then newly resurfaced Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico (made famous in the James Bond film Goldeneye) reversed its usual role of just listening, and transmitted a series of radio pulses towards the M13 star cluster. It sent 1679 pulses in all, which, when arranged in binary form into 23 columns and 73 rows, would form a message from humanity. It was seen as a symbolic gesture, showing those on Earth that we had the technology to send a signal across our galaxy and – if we were on the other side of the relationship – to receive a signal as well. But some scientists objected. Sir Martin Ryle, the Astronomer Royal at the time, warned that ” any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry”.

Now, after a long period when there were no deliberate transmissions into space, a new round is about to take place and more are planned. A team led by the astronomer Alexander Zaitsev has already beamed forth a series of interstellar messages, including pictorial and musical transmissions, from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Ukraine. Another group in Brazil, the Grupo Independente de Radio Astronomos in Rio de Janeiro, claims to have transmitted as well. Half a dozen commercial companies have also sprung up, among them Cosmic Connexion, a firm based near Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Cosmic Connexion website invites you to e-mail your messages to them and they will then beam them, free, into space and “introduce you to extraterrestrials”. At the moment, though, this is a low-power initiative whose signals won’t get far. Other companies offering the same service for a fee are soon to come online.

Many scientists, frightened by the danger that might lurk out there, have argued against our actively seeking contact with extraterrestrials. Jared Diamond, professor of evolutionary biology and Pulitzer Prize winner, says: ” Those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naive, even dangerous.” The fact is, and this should have been obvious to all, that we do not know what any extraterrestrials might be like – and hoping that they might be friendly, evolved enough to be wise and beyond violence, is an assumption upon which we could be betting our entire existence. When I was a young scientist 20 years ago at Jodrell Bank, the observatory in Cheshire, I asked Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank and pioneering radio astronomer, about it. He had thought about it often, he said, and replied: “It’s an assumption that they will be friendly – a dangerous assumption.”

And Lovell’s opinion is still echoed today by the leading scientists in the field. Physicist Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has been for decades one of the deepest thinkers on such issues. He insists that we should not assume anything about aliens. “It is unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity, just as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses,” he says. ” We must be prepared for either possibility.” The Nobel Prize-winning American biologist George Wald takes the same view: he could think of no nightmare so terrifying as establishing communication with a superior technology in outer space. The late Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who died a decade ago, also worried about so-called “First Contact”. He recommended that we, the newest
children in a strange and uncertain cosmos, should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes. He said there is no chance that two galactic civilisations will interact at the same level. In any confrontation, one will always dominate the other.

The Australian astronomer Ronald Bracewell, now of Stanford University, warns that other species would place an emphasis on cunning and weaponry, as we do, and that an alien ship dispatched our way is likely to be armed. Indeed, evolution on earth is, as they say, red in tooth and claw. And it’s likely that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up its own evolutionary ladder and may possibly be every bit as nasty as we are – or worse. Imagine an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator with superior technology.

So should we stay quiet and ban these transmissions into space? When, as a newly minted young scientist, I was discussing this issue with the (late) influential astronomer Zdenek Kopal, he grabbed me by the arm and said in a tone of seriousness: “Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God’s sake let us not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves.” Others have put it more graphically, saying that the civilisation that blurts out its existence might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling “here kitty” to a sabre-toothed tiger.

But not all scientists are worried. Frank Drake, who devised Project Ozma and who was also behind the Arecibo transmission says, “As I thought in 1974, the objections to sending interstellar messages were naive and carried no weight. The argument then, as now, is that humanity has been, and is making, its presence known through our TV and radio and military radars which, in many cases, release most of their radiated power into interstellar space.”

Radio waves from Earth, from TV and radio broadcasts and from powerful intercontinental military radars are leaking out into space. Some believe they could be detected, but should we go beyond this and actively announce our presence to the cosmos? Drake points out that our present terrestrial radio telescopes, if placed on nearby worlds, would be unable to detect these transmissions at distances beyond a few light years. However, aliens would be more advanced, he says, and it is quite within the abilities of current terrestrial technology to build telescopes, using the array approach, which could detect these transmissions from great distances in the galaxy. “The point here is that Earth has made its presence known by sending a multitude of signals. It is too late – we have made ourselves visible,” he adds.

But scientist and science-fiction author David Brin thinks those in charge of drafting policy about transmissions from Earth – ostensibly a body called the International Astronomical Union, which would make recommendations to the United Nations – are being complacent, if not irresponsible. Whatever has happened in the past, he doesn’t want any new deliberate transmissions adding to the risk. “In a fait accompli of staggering potential consequence,” he says, “we will soon see a dramatic change of state. One in which Earth civilisation may suddenly become many orders of magnitude brighter across the Milky Way – without any of our vaunted deliberative processes having ever been called into play.”

Michael Michaud, a former US diplomat and chairman of the Transmissions from Earth Working Group – a subdivision of the International Astronomical Union’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Study Group established in 2001 – is on the verge of resigning in frustration at the lack of discussion about the problem. He believes it is being confined to a narrow group of scientists who share the same limited astronomical viewpoints and he wants the study group widened beyond its current remit to include planetary scientists, philosophers, historians and so on. He sees it as a problem that affects all of humanity – and one that should be debated as such.

But despite these concerns, for the moment, the plans for deliberate transmissions from Earth go ahead and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them – or even demand a discussion beforehand. One thing is clear from our searches for ET – there is nobody transmitting strong interstellar beacons in our local vicinity. If “they” are out there, they are keeping quiet, prompting the question that they might know something we don’t.

Perhaps the aliens already know about us and are on their way. Or perhaps not. Intelligences – possibly vast, cool and unsympathetic – could be sweeping their skies looking for us. At the moment when they point their instruments in the direction of our sun – a commonplace yellow-dwarf star – they may well find nothing unusual, if no one’s sending messages in the other direction. Should we keep it that way?


Is Active SETI imperiling humanity?

Michael Michaud, a member of the SETI Permanent Study Group, has come out warning that Active SETI may be putting humanity in serious jeopardy. “Let’s be clear about this,” writes Michaud, “Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue.” Proponents of Active SETI advocate that humanity deliberately transmit messages to outer space in hopes that an ETI will intercept them and learn of our existence. These signals would be different than regular radio transmissions in that they would be stronger, more focused, and contain actual messages for potential listeners. To bolster his case, Michaud lists an impressive retinue of scientists who agree with him, including sociobiologist Jared Diamond, Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald, and astronomers Robert Jastrow and Zdenek Kopal. Even lesser-known scientists have entered into the fray:

Biologist Michael Archer said that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator. Physicist George Baldwin predicted that any effort to communicate with extraterrestrials is fraught with grave danger, as they will show innate contempt for human beings. Robert Rood warned that the civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at the first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling “here kitty” to a saber-toothed tiger.

Michaud even brings physicist Freeman Dyson into the discussion–a man who has thought and written extensively on this subject. “Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not,” writes Dyson, “It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly.”

Dyson posed two alternatives: Intelligence may be a benign influence creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens, sharing at leisure their accumulated wisdom. Or intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation sweeping across the galaxy. Michaud’s recommendations re: Active SETI? Do not transmit a signal more powerful than the Earth’s radio leakage (including radars) without international consultation. And by international consultation, Michaud means the UN. He’s obviously pretty serious. So, is Michaud right? Yes and no.

Yes, in that we could alert some kind of entity to our existence (like a dormant berserker probe). And yes, in that extraterrestrial agents (sentient or semi-sentient) may be quite malign or hold radically different moral values to our own. No, in that it’s highly, highly unlikely that bad guy ETIs are waiting in their spaceships for signs of less-advanced life so that they can scoot over and subjugate them. I consider this scenario to be rather outlandish–one that fails to take into account the likely existential changes that advanced ETIs will undergo as they evolve into postbiological civs.

Also, these fears fail to take into account the Fermi Paradox. It’s more likely that nobody’s out there listening. And even if there is, if evil ETIs wanted to overtake the Galaxy they could have easily done that by now. And as the Von Neumann/berserker probe scenario shows, the Galaxy could have been colonized (or sterilized) thousands, if not millions, of times over by now also. Yet clearly this hasn’t happened, which is an interesting data point that would seem to argue against the idea of imperialistic entities residing in the Galaxy. Consequently, I think Michael Michaud’s fears are quite exaggerated. Active SETI is likely as useless an endeavor as it is harmless.





“The eighteenth chapter is called the Ozma Problem, and poses a problem that Gardner claims would arise if Earth should ever enter into communication with life on another planet through Project Ozma. This is the problem of how to communicate the meaning of left and right, where the two communicants are conditionally not allowed to view any one object in common. The problem was first implied in Immanuel Kant’s discussion of left and right, and William James mentioned it in his chapter on ‘The Perception of Space’, Principles of Psychology, 1890. It is also mentioned by Charles Howard Hinton. The solution to the Ozma Problem is solved by the experiment conducted by Chien-Shiung Wu involving the beta decay of cobalt-60. This experiment was the first to disprove the conservation of parity. However, Martin Gardner adds in the last chapter of his book that the Ozma Problem is only solved within our galaxy: due to the nature of antimatter an antigalaxy would get the opposite result from the experiment conducted by Chien-Shiung Wu.”

To Keep on Looking : As we explore Mars, it forces us to imagine otherworldly evolution, challenging our definition of life and our sense of place in the solar system.
by Don Hoyt Gorman / April 26, 2007

Before NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor stopped calling home in November, the satellite, which had been orbiting our neighbor planet since 1997 and was the source of the Google Mars data, captured a compelling image. Relayed back to Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA, was a photograph of what looked like a newly formed streambed that flowed down a gully into the base of a crater. Researchers were stunned because the exact location had been photographed five years prior by Surveyor and had revealed no such feature. The image itself is remarkable: It shows the flow–which appears lighter against the darker, older terrain around it–emerging from the Martian surface several hundred meters up a steep incline along the inside edge of a crater. It traces a course downhill until reaching the nearly flat bottom, where it spreads out like the fingers of the Mississippi Delta.

Mike Malin, the chief investigator and president of Malin Space Systems that built and operated Surveyor’s Mars Observer Camera, authored a paper in Science hypothesizing that what Surveyor had captured was in fact evidence of a brief, explosive flow of liquid water. It could only have been brief, because while the surface of Mars is around -63°C, the atmospheric pressure is so low that water boils even at that temperature. Malin suggested that water forcibly erupted onto the surface and raced down the slope before evaporating and leaving only the visible etching of shifted dust and rock.

It is a suggestion of water that leads to the suggestion of life. But the question is raised: Do we know what we’re looking for? In January we heard a hypothesis that gave us a new reason to look up in anticipation: Scientists at the American Astronomical Society meeting suggested that the Viking Landers of 1976 may have overlooked a form of microbial life that could, perhaps, exist on Mars. When the Viking missions were conceived, we had yet to find and identify here on our own planet forms of life that exist in almost unimaginably harsh environments: extreme cold, extreme pressure, extreme heat, extreme acidity. Conditions that approach the sort found on Mars have been colonized here on Earth by these extremophiles. Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and Joop Houtkooper of Justus-Liebig University of Giessen in Germany looked back at the Viking missions and pointed out that the landers’ experiments (designed to find H2O-based life forms) would have failed to find signs of life that evolved the ability to use a water/hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) mixture–which could be well suited to Mars’s harsh climate. Extremophiles on Earth have adapted to use hydrogen peroxide — one organism, Acetobacter peroxidans, for instance, uses it as part of its metabolism. Schulze-Makuch and Houtkooper argued that if H2O2 biochemistry evolved on Mars, the Viking landers wouldn’t have detected it–in fact, the Viking experiments would have destroyed H2O2 biochemistry in whatever sample they collected. Which means, of course, that we now need to go back and look again, this time with a better appreciation for the ingenuity of life. Shortly after Schulze-Makuch and Houtkooper’s presentation, investigators at NASA’s Mars Phoenix mission (due to launch this August) started looking into whether its existing experiments could also be used to search for hydrogen-peroxide-based life. In April the National Academies’ “Weird Life” group is expected to present their “Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars” paper, bringing together everything that has so far been learned about potential Martian astrobiology and presenting a plan for the search for life on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is scheduled to deliver the next-generation rover to Mars in late 2010, will carry with it a suite of tools and experimental capabilities that will drag Mars further still into the limelight of human understanding. Within a decade NASA is planning the Astrobiology Field Laboratory, a full-scale lander program whose only mission will be to uncover whatever traces of life Mars may harbor.

Of course, amidst all of these leading pictures and suggestive notions, there is the very real possibility that Mars is dead, and always has been. But as an exploratory species, we humans are also resolutely optimistic; we’ve spent billions of dollars and rubles and euros getting to Mars and exciting ourselves with the possibility of what may be waiting for us there. There is hope in these missions. It suggests that our drive to seek out new life runs hand in hand with a desire to find the familiar with the exotic…or, at the very least, find a colony of acidic bacteria.

Mars is no longer the ominous Red Planet of crisscrossed canals, and yet the more we know about it, the more we seem to want to find those canals there after all. As the explorations of our robotic and remote vehicles bring Mars closer to us, and as revelations continue to emerge about its atmosphere, its surface, its craters and ice cap, the planet continues to work its way into the big picture of human experience. It is becoming a more real and more exciting and more accessible place, not least as a physical and theoretical environment against which we can postulate some of our most novel scientific theories.

When we think of evolution, for instance, we think about single-celled organisms evolving to complex organisms, to fish, to amphibians, to birds or early primates, to hominids, to humans. We think of the Triassic to the Jurassic to the Cretaceous. We think of plate tectonics and old-growth forests. We don’t think of Mars. Mars isn’t
part of our rather Earthcentric worldview of evolution. Not yet.

Incorporating Martian evolution–or that of any other world, for that matter–into our understanding of life is one of the most profound paradigm shifts we are likely to experience in the biological sciences. It would put our own impressive and diverse natural history on a parallel existence with another entire category of life. And it
would bring with it an unending series of new questions and new scientific endeavor. That we will have to continue to redefine what constitutes life in order to conceive ways to find it is one of the greatest challenges that Mars and the rest of the universe have presented us.


Kenneth Nealson
email: knealson [at] wrigley [dot] usc [dot] edu

Douglas Capone
email: capone [at] wrigley [dot] usc [dot] edu


“Contact” Film Review
by Larry Klaes

The 1936 Berlin Olympics Broadcasts

“Another good move was the sending back of the television broadcast of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Nazi leader Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) as one of our first representatives into the Milky Way galaxy? Unthinkable but true. I only wish I had not known this scene was coming (due to the novel) to feel the full impact of surprise that many theater audience members expressed when they and the film characters realized that the initially fuzzy black shape was a swastika grasped in an eagle’s talons.

I believe Sagan used this fact to make aware to those who produce and transmit our television and radio entertainment that their audience is possibly far wider and larger than they can imagine, thanks to the microwave leakage displayed at the very beginning of Contact. Perhaps a few of them (besides PBS) will try to show the Universe at large that not everything about the human race is relentless advertising, lame sitcoms, and cheesy movies of the week — but neither am I going to hold my breath waiting for that day to come from the mainstream media. Money is a far greater concern to most of them than impressing our galactic neighbors (or humanity) with the good traits we do possess.

Of course we can take some comfort from the knowledge that any ETI encountering our technological leakage will not completely understand what they have picked up from distant Earth. There is conjecture that the reason we have not heard from anyone out there yet is that they already know of the human race through our radio and television leakage and want nothing to do with us because of what it contains.

Perhaps, however, we are being too rough on our young selves. SETI scientists would be thrilled to detect an alien civilization by their own leakage and would not be too concerned, at least in the beginning, if that leakage contained either noble qualities or cultural dreck. Of course, who is to decide what is treasure and what is garbage when it comes to another society? Any good anthropologist knows that the trash created by a community tells you far more truth about themselves than any carefully written records or monuments. (11)”



Try plotting values in a three dimensional coordinate system.

A pattern begins to emerge.

Throw a gray scale on it; standard interpolation.

Rotate 90 degrees counterclock wise.

Willie enters commands.  All are mesmerized by the shadows taking form on the screen.

It has to be an image.  Stack it up, string-breaks every 60th character.

On the screen a distinct black and white moving image forms; grays define it even further.  The group is transfixed.  Kitz whispers to an aide who makes a call in
a hand radio.

Um… I’ve got an auxiliary sideband channel here.  I think it’s audio.

An otherworldly RUMBLING GLISSANDO of sounds joins the image, sliding up and down the spectrum… and then the faint SWELLING MUSIC is heard.  Ellie reaches over Willie and type more commands.  The picture rotates, rectifies, focuses —

What in the hell…?

It’s a hoax.  I knew it!

Um, excuse me, but would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?

Other reactions range from astonishment to nervous laughter.  Ellie and Peter stare in utter amazement.

A grainy black and white image of a massive reviewing stand adorned with an immense Art Deco eagle. Clutched in the eagle’s concrete talons is a swastika. Adolph Hitler salutes a rhythmically chanting crowd. The deep baritone voice of an ANNOUNCER, scratchy but unmistakably GERMAN, BOOMS through the room.  The dark absurdity of the moment plays over Ellie’s face; helpless:

Anybody know German?

Kent tilts his head, closes his eyes.

The Fuhrer… welcomes the world to the German Fatherland… for the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games.

Hitler’s face fills the screen.  The crowd roars its approval.



in Berlin.  Police with hoses try to keep a mob of skinheads under control.

(in German) … the signal from the American observatory depicting Adolph Hitler has brought about chaos in the streets of Berlin, where hundreds of neo-Nazis gathered to swear eternal fealty…

Slowly WIDEN to reveal a monitor wall.

A kaleidoscopic display of global news coverage of the event.  Demonstrations in a dozen cities, commentary from pundits, Aryan leaders and Auschwitz survivors.  A single figure sits before the monitors, taking in the cacophony.

Forty million people die defeating that sonofabitch and he becomes our first ambassador to another civilization?  It makes me sick.

With all due respect, the Hitler broadcast from the ’36 Olympics was the first television transmission of any power that went into space. That they recorded it and sent it back is simply a way of saying ‘Hello, we heard you –‘

“Carbon-based bipeds appear to walk using two limbs while balancing precariously in a semi-upright posture but may be evolving rudimentary transportation systems based on the wheel.”

As preparations near completion for the return of the Olympics Games to their ancestral home in Athens, the time is ripe to revisit whether the Olympics has been our diplomatic calling card in other places beyond the home planet. As the world prepares for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, one can ask the question: Are we on Earth the only ones who will watch the games?

Recall that a key story point in the Carl Sagan novel, “Contact”, relies on the unique premise that we are not the only onlookers. Sagan’s scenario depends on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as symbolically transmitting our existence beyond the solar system. Earth inhabitants showed their interest in contests for national pride and
athletic skills to a listening audience on the nearby star Vega. In the novel and screenplay based on the book, our own message in a bottle then boomerangs back to us, as a greeting from another world that they have heard us.

The plot device that the Earth leaks intelligent signals has appeared in many science fiction stories of first contact. Broadcasting early radio shows or even reruns of “I Love Lucy” to another culture on the home world, much less another planet, has long been a source of potential bemusement. How would such a randomly selected reflection of our culture be interpreted?

Perhaps Sagan chose to single out first transmission as the 1936 Berlin Games because the content is so antithetical to what we might have hoped for. Or in an ideal case, a warlike contest of brawn and nationalism seems less than what one might have planned as a friendly greeting. What as a species could show us as less prepared for greeting another civilization than the way we greet each other? After all the ’36 Games advertised the politics of a nationalistic Germany, on the precipice of the bloodiest war in human history, when virtually no part of our globe could remain untouched by battle and conflict. Even the notion of competitive games or a contest to rank national and individual power, while oftentimes used historically to trigger truces or peace talks, also represents a metaphor for unabashed cultural
ambitions and seemingly arbitrary or artificial borders that simply disappear when viewed from space.

In that context, what maturity can humans portray to species even more unlike ourselves, not just athletically but intellectually, culturally or morally? As David Grinspoon noted on this dilemma in his book, “Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life”, an advanced civilization observing happenings on Earth might easily reply to our first signal: “Humans of the planet Earth, you want to encounter other beings? First you have to learn to live with your different people?” Was this challenge encapsulated by the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

From his years in designing SETI strategies, University of Washington Professor, Woody Sullivan thinks what Hollywood did with Carl Sagan’s book, “Contact”, particularly the first half, is about as close as a popular film can get to what it’s like to do real SETI research. Much of the opening sequence owes a debt to Sullivan, since he spearheaded the scientific understanding that the Earth is leaking electromagnetic signals all the time, mainly from TV and some military radars. Twenty-five years ago, “most SETI was set up mainly to look at beacons from another civilization. But we don’t have a devoted beacon broadcasting from Earth even. A priori, we don’t know that a civilization would set up a beacon. But we Earthlings are leaking all the time, just from our daily activities.”

Just as the film, “Contact”, begins, the viewer is taken on a voyage, as if riding such a signal from the depths of the universe until it zooms back towards Earth. Before Sullivan’s work, previous SETI strategists more often thought of broadcast sources from another civilization as likely to be directed beacons, or singularly devoted
transmitters. Instead Sullivan supposed a viewpoint about the more constant background noise, one that unavoidably might date back to the film’s key plot-point when the advanced civilization finds the first terrestrial TV broadcast–the carrier signal when Adolf Hitler hauntingly introduced the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. “These are not great examples of our civilization,” said Sullivan.

“I call this eavesdropping,” continues Sullivan. “Sometimes when you eavesdrop, you get a better idea of what is really going on, say at a party. So when another civilization is eavesdropping on us, they may actually get a better idea about what is going on with Earth. There is more to Earth, as a planet, than what we could send on the gold record that travelled on the Voyager spacecraft. We, as a planet, are not just about listening to Chuck Berry.”

It is, according to Sullivan, easy to miss whether TV coverage of the Olympics can serve as an effective SETI message. Particularly when the picture itself, the moving color image, is the least of what an advanced civilization might want to watch, the physics of TV is more important than the actual content carried. Sullivan notes “the input is not actual TV programs in the broadcast signal. But I was talking first about the video carrier, which is a single frequency carrier. Your TV locks onto it. You can’t get the whole program information. From another planet, you could get alot or dozens of those carriers, about a rotating planet with doppler shifts. That communicates alot of information to a receiver.”

Whether the 1936 or 2004 Olympics represents a global signal that we leak apparently has less to do with the event itself and more to do with the electromagnetic spectrum. Sullivan considers “what signals we Earthlings are optimally leaking to our neighbors…should be broadly spread, strong, and possibly discernable as an intelligent signal… So for a good signal for reception, you want to balance a trade-off between both powerful and broad-area beaming.”

Sitting down to watch the Olympics from 10 to 100 light-years away may not reveal much of interest about a race of carbon-based bipeds. We will leak the 2004 Games to travel into deep space, just like we did with the 1936 Games. Most of what qualifies as signals of sufficient persistence and strength have a small probability of reaching just the right antenna. But chances are better that another civilization will not be caught watching our TV. Sullivan concludes TV is only one way we declare ourselves outside our solar system: “Military radar, called the Ballistic Military Early Warning System or BMEWS, is a very powerful broadcast, but carries no real information. There are a couple other strong radars on the planet. The strongest radar is Arecibo, but it covers a very tiny bit of sky. The odds that you were in that patch, or broadcast path, is unlikely.”

Whatever the source of our leaked signals, there is a timeliness to considering how we decorate our own local solar neighborhood. As the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter, often cited as the inspiration for the lead scientist in the movie “Contact” describes: “When you realize that you live in the first generation of humans with access to a
technology that might answer the age-old question, ‘Are we alone?’ all other scientific questions fade in importance.”


THE LISTENERS, by James Gunn

“Here the aliens contact Earth to give us all their history and knowledge in order to preserve as much of themselves as they can before their star Capella expands into a red giant and renders them extinct. These ETI do not intend to conquer the human race. They do not possess starships with warp drives or subspace radios. The transmissions between Capella and Earth move at the speed of light and no faster (a message from Capella takes 45 years to reach us [at 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 kilometers per second]). The story therefore stretches over hundreds of years, as a real two-way communication between distant star systems would take.

If an ETI were transmitting to Earth in a deliberate and non-hostile attempt to communicate, the message contents would most likely be about their culture and what they know of the Cosmos. Preserving themselves by sending this information to other star systems is also plausible. We have done this already on a small scale with the Pioneer plaques, the Voyager records, and the Arecibo radio message sent to the globular star cluster Messier 13 in 1974. Our microwave leakage might also be considered cultural preservation on a galactic scale of a sort.”

THE KILLING STAR, by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski,
BY Gerald Jonas  /  May 14, 1995

“The Killing Star is a novel of ideas — or, rather, of one big idea. Carl Sagan, among others in the scientific community, has argued that any intelligent forms of extra terrestrial life we encounter, either in space or here on Earth, are likely to be friendly, since overly aggressive species will most probably destroy themselves before they
become capable of interstellar travel or communication. Mr. Pellegrino and Mr. Zebrowski beg to differ. They have embedded their rebuttal in a novel of such conceptual ferocity and scientific plausibility that it amounts to a reinvention of that old Wellsian staple: Invading Monsters From Outer Space.

In painstaking detail, the authors describe the annihilation of virtually all life on Earth by weapons expressly designed to “cleanse” human beings from the universe. The aliens responsible for this unprovoked attack do not think of themselves as monsters. They are not interested in stealing our land or our resources. Having deciphered the television broadcasts we have so rashly been transmitting to the stars for the last 50 years, they feel it only prudent to destroy us before we have a chance to destroy them. With an objectivity that gives new meaning to the phrase sub specie aeternitatis, the authors present the aliens’ view as a perfectly reasonable act of pre-emptive defense.

If you imagine that this scenario makes for a grim tale, you are right. But without deviating from their appointed task, Mr. Pellegrino and Mr. Zebrowski manage to find a number of bright spots. Here and there — in a submarine exploring the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor and in a few space stations and interplanetary vessels — isolated pockets of human beings survive the first assault. However, even these are relentlessly hunted down by automated alien weaponry. The survivors are rooted out and exterminated.

Despite a style that mimics the cool detachment of scientific writing — “Microdiamonds fell out of the cloud, little industrial-grade needles of compressed carbon. They were all that remained of Vinny, Sharon, Lenny and Robyn” — the authors wring a surprising amount of suspense from their resolution of the overriding question: Who will escape to carry on the species and to wreak a little reasonable revenge on the perpetrators?”


“Radio astronomy on the Moon in 2021 reveals the presence of life by a nearby red dwarf, on a tide-locked planet. To investigate them and the message they are transmitting, Earth’s governments confiscate the Lancer (a large colonization ship based on a crashed alien ship discovered in the Mare Marginis) and send it to investigate. In 2061, it arrives and discovers a primitive biological race of nomads broadcasting en masse with organs adapted to emit and receive electromagnetic radiation; their transmissions was blurred by various nomads falling out of synch with the rest. Close up, the transmission is discovered to be an old radio show from the 1950s – the signal the EMs (as they are called) consider best to reply to Earth with.”


“These berserkers, a doomsday weapon left over from an interstellar war 50,000 years ago, are killer spaceships furnished with machine intelligence, operating from asteroid-sized berserker bases where they are capable of building more Berserkers and auxiliary machines. The name is a reference to the human “Berserkers”, warriors of Norse legend. The Berserker stories (published as novels and short stories) describe humanity’s fight against the berserkers. The term “humanity” refers to all sentient life in the Galaxy, emphasizing the common threat the berserkers pose toward all forms of life. Homo sapiens, referred to as Earth-descended or ED humans, or as Solarians, are the only sentient species aggressive enough to put up a fight.”


BY Terry Bisson

(From OMNI, April 1991. This story, which was a 1991 Nebula nominee, has been appearing around the internet lately without my name attached. Several people were kind enough to alert me, but the truth is I’m more flattered than offended. )

“They’re made out of meat.”


“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”


“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”

“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”

“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”

“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”

“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”

“No brain?”

“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“So … what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!  Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”

“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”

“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”

“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”

“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”

“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”

“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”

“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”

“Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”

“I thought you just told me they used radio.”

“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”

“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”

“Officially or unofficially?”


“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”

“I was hoping you would say that.”

“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”

“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”

“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”

“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”

“That’s it.”

“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”

“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”

“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”

“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”

“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”

“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”

“They always come around.”

“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”


“Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute discusses some of the most basic issues behind listening for signals from advanced civilizations in the vast sea of space.”

Q. Why doesn’t SETI transmit?
A. It’s not for paranoid reasons… not because someone’s afraid that if we make our presence known, the aliens will come to Earth to steal our chlorophyll or our women. After all, I Love Lucy is already announcing our presence to neighborhood extraterrestrials. The reason we don’t broadcast is far simpler. Suppose the nearest
civilization is 100 light-years away (not so far, astronomically speaking). Our “message” would take 100 years to get to the aliens, and if they deign to reply, their answer would take another 100 years to make the return trip to Earth. Total elapsed time: two centuries. By that time, all the scientists involved with the project will have
lost interest and, probably, funding!

Q. So how many star systems has I Love Lucy already reached?
A. I Love Lucy was popular in the fifties, so the earliest shows have travelled 40 light-years into space. There are about 100 stars within that distance, and if there are any inhabited planets encircling these nearby stellar sites, they might be watching Lucy and Desi if they’ve bothered to build a very large antenna capable of
working at the relatively low broadcast frequencies of television (about 100 MHz).

Q. How powerful would the aliens’ transmitters have to be in order for us to hear them?
A. This depends on two things: how far away are the extraterrestrials, and how large a transmitting antenna are they using? As a typical example, suppose the nearest cosmic civilization is 100 light-years distant (there are about a thousand stars within that distance, incidentally). And further suppose that their transmitting antenna is comparable in size to the antennas we use for receiving — for SETI — here on Earth, a few hundred feet in diameter. Then they would need a 500,000-watt transmitter for us to hear their call. That’s not very much; there are radars and TV stations that burn up that many kilowatts here on Earth.

Q. Would the aliens be friendly?
A. Obviously no one knows the answer to this. If we pick up a signal from an alien society, that civilization will almost surely be far in advance of our own. They will presumably have survived the aggressive instincts in their own society, and may have a benevolent view towards others. On the other hand, aliens that undertake interstellar travel and land in our backyard might be of a different sort. The history of such expeditions on Earth has always been that it is better to be the visitor than the visitee. Consider the Indians of North and South America; their societies didn’t survive contact with the Europeans, even in those few instances when the latter weren’t deliberately malicious.

Q. Why would any real, detected extraterrestrials be much more advanced then the familiar aliens from sci-fi films?
A. We won’t hear anything from aliens that are less technically advanced than we are, that’s obvious. But what are the chances that they have just invented radio in the past 100 years, as we have? That’s highly unlikely. It would be like getting on the freeway and finding that the first car that passes you has the same license plate number as your own, except incremented in the last digit. It could happen, but most probably won’t. Any aliens we overhear will be thousands to millions of years more advanced than our own civilization.

Q. Could we ever understand anything we pick up? If so, could we short-circuit a million years of history, and leap into the future?
A. If the aliens are sending deliberate broadcasts for the benefit of emerging societies, such as ours, then they will make the messages easy to understand. In that case, we might grasp their meaning. If, on the other hand, we merely happen to “eavesdrop” on internal traffic, there’s little chance we’ll ever be able to make anything of it. It would be like giving a Neanderthal the output from your modem. He might have considerable cranial capacity, but he’d never understand a bit of it!

Q. What about UFOs? Are the aliens already here? Or stacked up somewhere by the government?
A. The answer is no. This would be the biggest science story of the millennium. If scientists thought there was even the slightest chance that this was true, thousands of them would be working on the problem. They’re not!



FROM: Alexander L. Zaitsev
date Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 4:15 AM

Dear Colleague,

I am Dr. Alexander Zaitsev, IRE, Russia.

Just now I detected and read your post ” IF THEY’VE BOTHERED” with great interest and would like to make only two notes:

1) In Aug-Sep 2001 we transmitted the TAM not one, but SIX times to the six nearest Sun-like stars, see, for example:

2) Also, in the sentence:

Now, after a long period when there were no deliberate transmissions into space, a new round is about to take place and more are planned. A team led by the astronomer Alexander Zaitsev has already beamed forth a series of interstellar messages, including pictorial and musical transmissions, from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Ukraine. was established a fact that the TAM was the world-first musical IRM (Interstellar Radio Message). Therefore, the NASA Beatles Transmission was the second musical IRM and all NASA’s declaration:

about theirs palm of supremacy in music to space transmission is not correct.

With best regards,
Dr. Alexander L. Zaitsev, IRE, Russia

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

“Each year, farmers in the town of Inakadate in Aomori prefecture
create works of crop art by growing a little purple and yellow-leafed
kodaimai rice along with their local green-leafed tsugaru-roman
variety. This year’s creation – a pair of grassy reproductions of
famous woodblock prints from Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji – has
begun to appear (above). It will be visible until the rice is
harvested in September.”

Hokusai woodblock prints:

“The residents of Inakadate have been drawing pictures with rice since 1993.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Looking for Life in All the Wrong Places
Weird space critters could be right beneath our planetary probes.

By Christen Brownlee

In 1976, scientists anxiously waited for the first data streaming back
from the Viking 1 and 2 landers, sent to search for signs of life on
Mars. The results were frustratingly inconclusive; for decades
researchers have been debating whether the Vikings detected life. Then
last January, two scientists presented a paper arguing that Mars may
indeed harbor life, but that the landers’ life-detecting equipment may
have killed it. They theorized that Martian microorganisms might
contain a mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide; if so, a Viking
experiment that doused Martian soil samples with water would have
drowned such life-forms.

The idea that Mars may harbor microbes containing hydrogen peroxide is
based in part on the presence of what appears to be that chemical on
Mars’ surface. The theory that microbes may be the origin of that
hydrogen peroxide is not well accepted-not yet, anyway. Most
researchers digging for extraterrestrial life are focused on forms
containing water and carbon-based molecules-the only forms found on
Earth. But a growing number of scientists are speculating that the
solar system may harbor what they call “weird life”-forms that contain
chemicals not traditionally associated with living organisms.

Thanks to the discovery of unusual creatures on Earth, such as
“extremophile” bacteria adapted to the extreme heat of underwater
thermal vents, most astrobiologists accept the possibility that life-
forms on other planets could have unfamiliar appearances or
adaptations. However, most still envision microbes filled with water
and carbon-based, or organic, molecules. It’s not unreasonable, says
David Grinspoon, astrobiology curator of the Denver Museum of Nature
and Science and formerly NASA’s principal investigator for exobiology
research. He points out that such compounds have been detected in
practically every corner of the universe that has been examined.

However, he and other researchers now suggest that an element other
than carbon may serve as the backbone for molecules essential to life-
forms on other planets. One proposed substitute is silicon, which
occupies a place on the periodic table directly under carbon. Vertical
rows on the table represent an element’s most basic behavior, so
carbon and silicon’s close positions suggest that one can be swapped
for another to form molecules with similar characteristics, says

Likewise, water isn’t the only solvent that life-forms could use to
enable necessary chemical reactions, says Dirk Schulze-Makuch of
Washington State University in Pullman, one of the scientists who
suggested that Viking may have killed Martian microbes. “Life and
environmental conditions on a planet are intrinsically related,” he
explains; he champions the idea of Martian organisms containing
hydrogen peroxide because it fits with the very cold and dry
conditions on that planet. Depending on its concentration in a
solution, hydrogen peroxide does not freeze until at -70 degrees
Fahrenheit, and when it does freeze, it does not form crystals, which
would destroy cells . And the compound absorbs even minute amounts of
water vapor from the atmosphere, which would benefit a water-dependent
organism in an extremely dry environment like Mars’.

Chemist Steven Benner of the University of Florida in
Gainesville suggests that the molecules that might make up weird life
and enable it to reproduce may differ from terrestrial proteins and
the nucleic acids DNA and RNA. By making some simple chemical tweaks
to these molecules, Benner and his colleagues have crafted new
variations that still work. “You can pick any one of these [molecules]
and easily walk away from its natural structure” while still
preserving functionality, he says. Benner and other researchers have
come up with a variety of new amino acids, the molecules that string
together to form proteins, that don’t exist in nature-at least not on
Earth. His group has also constructed new types of DNA with bases
different from the adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine that form
the rungs in the double helix on Earth.

The probes that search for life on other planets use technology that
can detect a range of chemicals beyond water and organic molecules.
The trick is to devise experimental protocols that do not destroy or
miss signs of possible life-a protocol, for example, that does not
douse samples with water if hydrogen peroxide is thought to be a
possible constituent. Recently, Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez of the
University of Mexico in Mexico City and others decided to check the
instrument that Viking used to test Martian soil for organic
molecules, a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS), which
identifies the atomic constituents of a substance. The scientists used
the instrument to test soils from areas on Earth that are similar to
Mars and known to have organic molecules, but it nonetheless gave
negative readings, again casting doubts on Viking’s results. Navarro-
Gonzalez says that the Mars Science Laboratory, presently planned to
launch in two years, will also use a GCMS, but it will follow a
different sample-treatment protocol, one that uses solvents, and is
more likely to reveal organic molecules, if any are present.

Another way to increase the chances for finding new life-forms is to
send probes to areas where they are more likely to be found-that is,
to search creatively. The Mars Science Laboratory will cover a much
greater area than Viking did. And NASA’s Phoenix probe, currently
scheduled to take off this August, will land in a subpolar area of
Mars that is especially cold and higher in atmospheric water vapor-
more favorable than the Viking sites for detecting life, especially
the hydrogen peroxide-containing organisms Schulze-Makuch envisions.
Phoenix will also carry non-chemical tests: two microscopes to study
samples for signs of life.

What’s the probability that life unlike anything we know is thriving
in extraterrestrial obscurity? “The chances that it might exist are
high, but the chances that we’re going to encounter it are probably
low,” says Benner. “Space is a big place.” To plan a search that has a
decent chance of finding whatever may be out there, we will need not
just technology but imagination.

“Fundamentally,” says David Grinspoon, “the universe is much more
creative than we are.”

By Cherie Winner, WSU News Service, 509/335-4846, ,
Washington State Magazine

Contact: Dirk Schulze-Makuch, WSU School of Earth and Environmental
Sciences, 509/335-1180,

New Analysis of Viking Mission Results Points to Possible Presence of
Life on Mars

PULLMAN, Wash. — We may already have ‘met’ Martian organisms,
according to a paper presented Sunday (Jan. 7) at the meeting of the
American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and Joop Houtkooper
of Justus-Liebig-University, Giessen, Germany, argue that even as new
missions to Mars seek evidence that the planet might once have
supported life, we already have data that may show life exists there
now-data from experiments done by the Viking Mars landers in the late

“I think the Viking results have been a little bit neglected in the
last 10 years or more,” said Schulze-Makuch. “But actually, we got a
lot of data there.” He said recent findings about Earth organisms that
live in extreme environments and improvements in our understanding of
conditions on Mars give astrobiologists new ways of looking at the 30-
year-old data.

The researchers hypothesize that Mars is home to microbe-like
organisms that use a mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide as their
internal fluid. Such a mixture would provide at least three clear
benefits to organisms in the cold, dry Martian environment, said
Schulze-Makuch. Its freezing point is as low as -56.5 C (depending on
the concentration of H2O2); below that temperature it becomes firm but
does not form cell-destroying crystals, as water ice does; and H2O2 is
hygroscopic, which means it attracts water vapor from the atmosphere-a
valuable trait on a planet where liquid water is rare.

Schulze-Makuch said that despite hydrogen peroxide’s reputation as a
powerful disinfectant, the fluid is also compatible with biological
processes if it is accompanied by stabilizing compounds that protect
cells from its harmful effects. It performs useful functions inside
cells of many terrestrial organisms, including mammals. Some soil
microbes tolerate high levels of H2O2 in their surroundings, and the
species Acetobacter peroxidans uses hydrogen peroxide in its

Possibly the most vivid use of hydrogen peroxide by an Earth organism
is performed by the bombardier beetle (Brachinus), which produces a
solution of 25 percent hydrogen peroxide in water as a defensive
spray. The noxious liquid shoots from a special chamber at the
beetle’s rear end when the beetle is threatened.

He said scientists working on the Viking projects weren’t looking for
organisms that rely on hydrogen peroxide, because at the time nobody
was aware that such organisms could exist. The study of extremophiles,
organisms that thrive in conditions of extreme temperatures or
chemical environments, has just taken off since the 90s, well after
the Viking experiments were conducted.

The researchers argue that hydrogen peroxide-containing organisms
could have produced almost all of the results observed in the Viking

Hydrogen peroxide is a powerful oxidant. When released from dying
cells, it would sharply lower the amount of organic material in their
surroundings. This would help explain why Viking’s gas chromatograph-
mass spectrometer detected no organic compounds on the surface of
Mars. This result has also been questioned recently by Rafael Navarro-
Gonzalez of the University of Mexico, who reported that similar
instruments and methodology are unable to detect organic compounds in
places on Earth, such as Antarctic dry valleys, where we know soil
microorganisms exist.

The Labeled Release experiment, in which samples of Martian soil (and
putative soil organisms) were exposed to water and a nutrient source
including radiolabeled carbon, showed rapid production of radiolabeled
CO2 which then leveled off. Schulze-Makuch said the initial increase
could have been due to metabolism by hydrogen peroxide-containing
organisms, and the leveling off could have been due to the organisms
dying from exposure to the experimental conditions. He said that point
has been argued for years by Gilbert Levin, who was a primary
investigator on the original Viking team. The new hypothesis explains
why the experimental conditions would have been fatal: microbes using
a water-hydrogen peroxide mixture would either “drown” or burst due to
water absorption, if suddenly exposed to liquid water.

The possibility that the tests killed the organisms they were looking
for is also consistent with the results of the Pyrolytic Release
experiment, in which radiolabeled CO2 was converted to organic
compounds by samples of Martian soil. Of the seven tests done, three
showed significant production of organic substances and one showed
much higher production. The variation could simply be due to patchy
distribution of microbes, said Schulze-Makuch. Perhaps most
interesting was that the sample with the lowest production-lower even
than the control-had been treated with liquid water.

The researchers acknowledge that their hypothesis requires further
exploration. “We might be mistaken,” said Schulze-Makuch. “But it’s a
consistent explanation that would explain the Viking results.”

He said the Phoenix mission to Mars, which is scheduled for launch in
August, 2007, offers a good chance to further explore their
hypothesis. Although the mission’s experiments were not designed with
peroxide -containing organisms in mind, Phoenix will land in a sub-
polar area, whose low temperatures and relatively high atmospheric
water vapor (from the nearby polar ice caps) should provide better
growing conditions for such microbes than the more “tropical” region
visited by Viking. Schulze-Makuch said the tests planned for the
mission, including the use of two microscopes to examine samples at
high magnification, could reveal whether we had the answer all along-
and if we’ve already introduced ourselves to our Martian neighbors in
a harsher way than we intended.

“If the hypothesis is true, it would mean that we killed the Martian
microbes during our first extraterrestrial contact, by drowning-due to
ignorance,” said Schulze-Makuch.

The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal
volatilization-gas chromatography-MS and their implications for the
Viking results

Rafael Navarro-González*,, Karina F. Navarro*, José de la Rosa*,
Enrique Iñiguez*, Paola Molina*, Luis D. Miranda, Pedro Morales, Edith
Cienfuegos, Patrice Coll¶, François Raulin¶, Ricardo Amils||, and
Christopher P. McKay**

*Laboratorio de Química de Plasmas y Estudios Planetarios, Instituto
de Ciencias Nucleares, and Institutos de Química and Geología,
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Circuito Exterior, Ciudad
Universitaria, P.O. Box 70-543, 04510 México D.F., Mexico;
¶Laboratoire Interuniversitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques, Unité
Mixte de Recherche 7583, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique,
Université Paris 12-Val de Marne and Université Paris 7-Denis Diderot,
61 Avenue du Général de Gaulle 94010, Créteil Cedex, France; ||Centro
de Astrobiología, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas/
Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Torrejón de Ardoz, 28850
Madrid, Spain; and **Space Science Division, Ames Research Center,
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Moffett Field, CA

Edited by Leslie Orgel, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La
Jolla, CA, and approved September 11, 2006 (received for review May
21, 2006)

The failure of Viking Lander thermal volatilization (TV) (without or
with thermal degradation)-gas chromatography (GC)-MS experiments to
detect organics suggests chemical rather than biological
interpretations for the reactivity of the martian soil. Here, we
report that TV-GC-MS may be blind to low levels of organics on Mars. A
comparison between TV-GC-MS and total organics has been conducted for
a variety of Mars analog soils. In the Antarctic Dry Valleys and the
Atacama and Libyan Deserts we find 10-90 µg of refractory or graphitic
carbon per gram of soil, which would have been undetectable by the
Viking TV-GC-MS. In iron-containing soils (jarosites from Rio Tinto
and Panoche Valley) and the Mars simulant (palogonite), oxidation of
the organic material to carbon dioxide (CO2) by iron oxides and/or
their salts drastically attenuates the detection of organics. The
release of 50-700 ppm of CO2 by TV-GC-MS in the Viking analysis may
indicate that an oxidation of organic material took place. Therefore,
the martian surface could have several orders of magnitude more
organics than the stated Viking detection limit. Because of the
simplicity of sample handling, TV-GC-MS is still considered the
standard method for organic detection on future Mars missions. We
suggest that the design of future organic instruments for Mars should
include other methods to be able to detect extinct and/or extant

In 1976, the Viking Landers carried out an extensive set of biological
experiments to search for the presence of extant life on the surface
of Mars (1). In addition, a series of molecular analysis experiments
were conducted to search for the presence of organic compounds in the
martian soil (2). The biological tests consisted of three independent
experiments designed to detect Earth-like microorganisms in the top
few centimeters of the martian soil. The gas exchange experiment was
designed to determine whether martian life could metabolize and
exchange gaseous products in the presence of water vapor and in a
nutrient solution (3); the carbon assimilation experiment was based on
the assumption that martian life would have the capability to
incorporate radioactively labeled carbon dioxide and/or monoxide in
the presence of sunlight (i.e., photosynthesis) (4); and the labeled
release (LR) experiment sought to detect heterotrophic metabolism by
the release of radioactively labeled carbon initially incorporated
into organic compounds in a nutrient solution (5). At both Viking
landing sites the three biological experiments yielded positive
responses demonstrating the presence of a highly reactive soil.
Surprisingly, the LR experiment was suggestive of the possible
presence of biological activity in the martian soil. However, the most
puzzling result came from the molecular analysis experiments (2, 6)
performed in the martian soil: three sample analyses from surface
material from the Viking 1 and 2 sites and another from underneath a
rock from the Viking 2 site. In these experiments, soil was subjected
to thermal volatilization (TV)-gas chromatography (GC)-MS; this assay
consisted of a rapid heating of the soil to vaporize small molecules
and break down larger ones into smaller organic molecules, and the
resultant fragments were separated by GC and analyzed by MS.
Unexpectedly, in none of the experiments performed in both landing
sites could organic material be observed at detection limits generally
of the order of parts per billion for molecules larger than two carbon
atoms and of parts per million for some smaller molecules. The
evolution of CO2 and H2O, but not of other inorganic gases, was
observed upon heating the soil sample at 200°C, 350°C, and 500°C. One
important concern was whether the GC-MS instrument worked properly.
Fortunately, experimental data existed that demonstrated the proper
function of the instrument beyond any doubt (7). Traces of some
organic solvents that were used during the cleaning of the instruments
before they were incorporated into the Landers were detected in the
background, such as methyl chloride (15 parts per billion) and
perfluoroethers (1-50 parts per billion). These contaminants were
previously detected in preflight and cruise tests. Therefore, the
detection of these contaminants demonstrated that the instruments
worked well. Consequently, the presence of life in the martian soil
was in apparent contradiction with the results from the TV-GC-MS. The
lack of organics in the TV-GC-MS experiment was used as the most
compelling argument against the presence of extant life on the surface
of Mars.

The reactivity of the martian soil observed in the three biological
experiments (3-5) was subsequently explained by the presence of one or
more inorganic oxidants (e.g., superoxides, peroxides, and
peroxynitrates) at the parts per million level. The lack of organics
in the martian soil could also be explained by their oxidation to
carbon dioxide due to the presence of such oxidants and/or direct UV
radiation damage (8). There have been many suggestions regarding the
nature of the chemical reactivity of the martian soil, but no
laboratory experiment has yet been able to simulate both the gas
exchange (3) and the LR response (5). Instruments built to further
investigate the reactive nature of the martian soil [e.g., Mars
Oxidant Experiment for the ill-fated Russian Mars 1996 mission (8) and
Mars Oxidant Instrument for the European Space Agency ExoMars 2011
(9)] have not yet performed in situ experiments on Mars. Mars Oxidant
Instrument has been successfully tested in the Mars-like soils of the
Atacama Desert, where the oxidative nature of the soil is thought to
be triggered by strong acids (e.g., sulfuric and nitric acids)
depositing from the atmosphere (9).

A recent evaluation of the oxidative destruction mechanisms of
meteoritic organics on the surface of Mars suggests that the end
products are salts of aliphatic and aromatic polycarboxylic acids
(10). Such compounds are refractory organics (e.g., nonvolatile and
thermally stable) under the temperatures reached by the molecular
analysis experiments, and consequently they were missed by the Viking
TV-GC-MS (10). Alternatively, the absence of organics in the soil at
parts per billion levels does not preclude the presence of extant life
in the martian surface. Klein (11) pointed out that the Viking TV-GC-
MS would not detect Escherichia coli at levels of 106 per gram, which
has been confirmed by recent simulations (12).

The search for organics on Mars continues to be a key science goal for
future missions. Because of the simplicity of sample handling, TV-GC-
MS has still been considered the standard method for organic detection
on Mars; for instance, the ill-fated Beagle Lander carried a
combustion-MS, the Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer instrument on the 2007
Phoenix mission is a thermal analysis and MS, the basic unit on the
Sample Analysis at Mars instrument selected for the upcoming 2009 Mars
Science Laboratory mission is a TV-GC-MS, and the Mars Organic
Detector unit for the 2011 European Space Agency ExoMars mission is a
TV coupled to capillary electrophoresis with a fluorescence detector.
We report here results of studies on several Mars analog soils in
which we compare the detection of organics by TV-GC-MS with total
organic analysis of the samples. We analyzed samples from the dry Mars-
like environments of the Dry Valleys in Antarctica (13) and the
Atacama Desert (14) in Chile and Peru, where environmental conditions
result in soils with low biological and organic content, and the
Libyan Desert in Egypt, which is part of the hyperarid Sahara. For
comparison, we also analyzed samples from wetter desert areas in the
Atacama and Mojave (in the southwestern U.S.) Deserts. We also
analyzed samples of jarosite-containing soils from the Rio Tinto in
Spain (15) and the Panoche Valley in California (16). These soils may
be analogs for the soils detected by the Mars exploration rover at the
Meridiani Planum site on Mars (17). In addition, we analyzed samples
of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars-1
martian soil simulant, which is derived from Hawaiian palagonite

Results and Discussion
All samples were analyzed for total organic matter, 13C, C/N ratio,
and their response in TV-GC-MS at 500°C (Viking protocol) and 750°C. A
summary of the results is listed in Table 1. The total organic matter
varied from 10 to 1,500 µg of C per gram of soil depending on the
environment. In all cases, the 13C values varied from -28.93 to –
20.06, a typical range for organic matter produced by C3
photosynthesis (19). Similarly, the C/N ratio for most samples is
typical of soil organic matter, 9-30 (20), except in Antarctica and La
Joya, where the ratio is 1. Surprisingly, the production of benzene, a
major organic compound resulting from TV-GC-MS was not correlated with
the amount of organic matter present originally in the soil. The
samples from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica (cold desert) and the arid
core regions of the Atacama (temperate desert) and the Libyan (hot
desert) contain very low levels of organics from 20 to 90 µg of C per
gram of soil. Antarctic sample 726 is of particular interest because
it was one of the prelaunch test samples for the Viking mission.
Interestingly, this was the only terrestrial sample testing by Viking
that did not contain organics detectable by the TV-GC-MS (21) yet did
give a positive result for the LR experiment (22). Subsequent analysis
has shown that this soil contains primarily metamorphosed coal,
kerogen (John R. Cronin, personal communication), and some low levels
of amino acids (23). We also found that TV-GC-MS of this sample, even
at temperatures higher than used by Viking (up to 750°C), yielded no
detectable organics. Other soils from the Antarctic show low total
organic levels that would also be undetectable by the Viking GC-MS.

Table 1. Total organic matter (TOM) present in different Mars
analogs soils and its detection by TV-GC-MS

The arid core regions of the Atacama Desert (Yungay, Chile) contain
Mars-like soils in the surface that have extremely low levels of
culturable bacteria, low organic concentrations (20-40 µg of C per
gram of soil), and the presence of a nonchirally specific oxidant
(14). The level of organics in these soils (see Table 1) would be
undetectable by TV-GC-MS at Viking temperatures but detectable at
higher temperatures (750°C). The organics present in these soils are
dominated by carboxylic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (as
determined in the extracts by the NMR and IR). Soils from the Libyan
and La Joya Deserts also contain very low levels of organics (20-70 µg
of C per gram of soil) that are undetectable by TV-GC-MS. Samples from
the wetter regions of the Atacama, which contain 400-440 µg of C per
gram of soil, are easily detectable by the Viking TV-GC-MS protocol
(see Table 1).

Soil samples from jarosite-containing soils also contain high levels
of organics (140-1,500 µg of C per gram of soil; see Table 1). In
contrast to the desert soils, this organic material was not readily
detectable by using the Viking TV-GC-MS protocol. TV at higher
temperatures (750°C) results in the detection of low levels of benzene
in comparison with samples from Las Juntas, where the levels of
organics are considerable lower. Fig. 1 shows that CO2 is expected to
be the major thermodynamically stable carbon species at 750°C when
organic matter is subjected to thermal treatment in the presence of
ferric sulfate and pyrite (<95%), two minerals present in the Rio
Tinto sediments; if pyrite is the main component (>95%) in the mineral
matrix, then carbon disulfide (CS2) is the major thermodynamically
stable carbon species. TV of the organic material (1,050-1,500 µg of C
per gram of soil) present in the Rio Tinto sediments produces carbon
dioxide as the most important carbon species. Fig. 2 demonstrates that
the oxidation of the organic matter to carbon dioxide is catalyzed by
the iron species present in the inorganic matrix and goes to
completion at temperatures 350°C in the TV chamber. If the organics
from the Rio Tinto sediment are extracted with organic solvents and
then the dry residue is subjected to TV-GC-MS in the absence of
mineral matrix, a variety of organics are detected (see Fig. 3).
Organic molecules larger than seven carbon atoms do not elute from the
chromatographic column. The organics detected in the extracts were
indigenous from the Rio Tinto sediment and not from contamination
during the processing of samples because blanks run in parallel
indicated the lack of organics in the blanks. We find that organic
detectability is reduced by a factor of >1,000 by TV compared with
extraction by organic solvents. The attenuation in detectability
between liquid extraction and TV for the Panoche soils has also been
reported elsewhere (24).

Fig. 1. Thermodynamically stable carbon species equilibrating at
750°C in an iron matrix containing various quantities of oxidized
[ferric sulfate: Fe2(SO4)3] and/or reduced (pyrite, FeS2) species.
Less than 1,000 µg of organic C per gram of soil was initially present
as stearic acid (C18H36O2). These iron species are present in the
sediments of the Rio Tinto with similar levels of organic matter.
Organic compounds are thermodynamically unstable in the presence of
iron, and the carbon species that are thermally stable contained only
one carbon atom at 750°C.

Fig. 2. Percent oxidation of the initial organic carbon to carbon
dioxide catalyzed by the iron species present in the Rio Tinto during
the TV step at various temperatures in an inert atmosphere. The total
organic matter content in the Rio Tinto sediment (RT04-01) was
determined to be 1,200 µg of C per gram of soil by titration of 1 g of
soil with permanganate and subsequent analysis by GC-MS. The degree of
oxidation of the organic matter during the TV step of 20-40 mg of
sediment was derived from the amount of carbon dioxide detected by TV-
GC-MS. Because of the inhomogeneous distribution of the organics in
the sediment and the small amount of sample used for TV-GC-MS, the
degree of oxidation of some samples exceeds 100%.

Fig. 3. Reconstructed ion gas chromatograms of the volatile
fraction released during flash thermal volatilization at 750°C of a 50-
mg sample of RT04-01 before (a) and after (b) removal of the mineral
matrix. Peaks: 1, nitrogen; 2, carbon dioxide; 3, water; 4, methanol;
5, 1-propene; 6, sulfur dioxide; 7, 1,3-butadiene; 8, acetonitrile; 9,
2-propanone; 10, 1-pentene; 11, cyclopentene; 12, benzene; 13,

Another iron-containing soil used as a Mars analog is the NASA Mars-1
martian soil simulant. The main component of this soil is weathered
basalt known as palagonite from a cinder cone south of Mauna Kea,
Hawaii. This volcanic soil has visible and near-IR spectral properties
that are very similar to martian surface materials as determined by
remote sensing (18). In addition, the major inorganic elements in the
soil roughly match the bulk composition of the soils at the Viking
landing sites (18). Because this soil is from Hawaii, it is not
surprising that it contains organic material at 1,200-1,400 µg of C
per gram of soil (Table 1) and microorganisms. Like the jarosite-
containing soils, no organics are detected with the Viking TV-GC-MS
protocol. If the endogenous nonvolatile organics present in the Mars-1
soil simulant are thoroughly removed by organic solvent extraction,
and then the dried soil is doped with stearic acid in different
concentrations, the detectability of this organic material is greatly
reduced when processed by TV due to the catalytic oxidation of the
organics by the iron oxides present in the soil (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Reconstructed ion gas chromatograms of the volatile
fraction released during flash TV. The sample consisted of stearic
acid doped in an organic-free NASA Mars-1 martian soil simulant at
750°C in an inert atmosphere composed of helium: 50 (a), 10 (b), 5
(c), 1 (d), 0.5 (e), and 0.1 (f) mg of C per gram of simulant. Peaks:
1, formic acid; 2, 1-butene; 3, 2-pentene; 4, benzene; 5,
methylbenzene; 6, ethylbenzene; 7, methylethylbenzene. For simplicity,
only the major peaks are labeled in the chromatograms. The NASA Mars-1
martian soil simulant was thoroughly washed with methylene chloride/
methanol (2:1) over 24 h to remove the organics in a Soxhlet
apparatus. The gas chromatograms of this martian soil simulant after
solvent cleaning did not show organics by TV-GC-MS.

The results in Table 1 show two limitations of the Viking TV-GC-MS for
the detection of organic material. First, when organics are present as
low-level refractory substances, the temperatures reached by Viking
(up to 500°C) may be inadequate to release the organics. This
limitation of the Viking instrumentation was recognized but
unavoidable (2), and its implications for detection of organics have
been explored (10, 14). There is a second effect seen in the data in
Table 1 that appears to be due to an interaction of iron in the soil
with the organics during TV. The results of the jarosite and
palagonite soils suggest that during TV there is an oxidation reaction
of the organics catalyzed by the iron in the sample. To investigate
this effect we have constructed a chemical model and an associated set
of experimental simulations to determine the effect of iron compounds
on 1,000 µg of C per gram of soil from stearic acid on a silica matrix
during thermal heating. Fig. 5 shows the results of both the
theoretical model and the experimental simulations. The thermochemical
model predicts that the thermally stable oxidized carbon species at
750°C are CO2 and CO. The lower and upper dotted lines indicate the
predicted conversion to CO2 and the sum of CO2 and CO, respectively.
In the experimental simulations, CO was not detected by TV-GC-MS
possibly because it was readily oxidized to CO2 by the water molecules
absorbed in the mineral matrix from the ambient humidity. However, the
oxidation of stearic acid to CO2 falls within the predicted range,
indicating that the organics are readily oxidized by TV-GC-MS, with
samples containing >0.01% iron in the form of oxides or sulfate salts.
A similar result is obtained at 500°C. If the samples contain higher
levels of stearic acid (1,000 µg of C per gram of soil), then the
oxidation of the organics does not go to completion in the TV step,
and several organic fragments are detected by TV-GC-MS. Therefore, the
degree of attenuation of organic detection by iron compounds in the
soil is not linearly dependent. Consequently TV-GC-MS per se is not an
adequate tool for the study of organics in soils with low levels of
organics and high iron content, as is expected on Mars. If the organic
material is separated from the inorganic matrix by water or organic
solvent extraction and then the dried residue is subjected to TV-GC-
MS, a variety of organic compounds are detected (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 5. Oxidation of a 1,000 µg of C from stearic acid with iron
species present in silica by flash TV at 750°C in an inert atmosphere
composed of helium. Symbols correspond to experimental data, and
dotted lines are predicted. Open circles and triangles are Fe2O3 and
Fe2(SO4)3, respectively. Solid symbols indicate values of oxidation
with sulfuric acid.

Because carbon dioxide was replaced by hydrogen in some Viking TV-GC-
MS experiments, we have investigated whether hydrogen would have
counterbalanced the oxidizing power of the iron species present in the
martian soil. The iron content in the soil of Mars was determined by x-
ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and based on this it was inferred that
Fe2O3 composes 19% of the soil at both Viking landing sites (25). Our
thermodynamic analysis shows that at the Viking temperatures (200-
500°C), the reduction of hematite (Fe2O3) by hydrogen is
thermodynamically favored; however, in the gas phase the dissociation
of molecular hydrogen to atomic hydrogen (a necessary step to cause
the reaction) is extremely slow at temperatures of <1,500°C (26).
Hematite is known to catalyze its own reduction to wüstite (FeO) via
magnetite (Fe3O4) in the presence of hydrogen according to the
following reactions:


This process takes place at temperatures of <1,000°C (27-29), but the
reduction is kinetically controlled by hydrogen pressure (29) and
temperature (27, 28, 30). We have experimentally studied the oxidation
of hydrogen to water by the hematite present in the NASA Mars-1
martian soil simulant in the temperature range from 200°C to 1,200°C.
The hydrogen pressure in the TV chamber was 6.4 atm (1 atm = 101.3
kPa), 13 times higher than that used in the Viking experiments (0.5
atm) (2). Fig. 6a shows the evolution of water vapor from heating the
NASA Mars-1 martian soil simulant in helium and hydrogen atmospheres
by TV-MS. At temperatures between 200°C and 650°C, there is a broad
peak in both experiments that originates from the dehydration of the
mineral phases of the soil simulant. However, at temperatures of

>650°C there is a significant enhancement in the production of water

in the presence of hydrogen, reaching a maximum at 930°C. This water
originates from the oxidation of hydrogen catalyzed by hematite. This
result is consistent with previous studies on the reduction of pure
hematite, where the highest reduction rates occur at temperatures of
910°C (28).

Fig. 6. MS ion current curves for water vapor as a function of
temperature for the NASA Mars-1 martian soil simulant (a) and jarosite
from the Panoche Valley (b). Solid lines show values for experiments
run in a helium atmosphere, and dotted lines show values for
experiments run in a hydrogen atmosphere.

We also studied the oxidation of hydrogen to water by jarosite. Our
thermodynamic analysis shows that, at the Viking temperatures (200-
500°C), the oxidation of hydrogen to water by jarosite is
thermodynamically favored. Fig. 6b shows the evolution of water vapor
from heating jarosite from the Panoche Valley in helium and hydrogen
atmospheres by TV-MS. In both experiments, there are three peaks at
305°C, 405°C, and 790°C that originate by the stepwise dehydration of
jarosite, KFe3(SO4)2(OH)6. Each step involves the loss of two hydroxyl
units, resulting in the formation of an oxide and the evolution of a
water molecule (31). In the presence of hydrogen, there are two
additional water peaks caused by the reduction of jarosite centered at
540°C and 940°C, respectively. The first reduction corresponds to the
decomposition of jarosite into magnetite, iron(II) sulfide, potassium
sulfate, and water vapor, according to the following reaction:

The second reduction is due to reaction of magnetite with hydrogen
according to Eq. 2.

The above experiments clearly demonstrate that shifting from carbon
dioxide to hydrogen atmospheres in the Viking TV-GC-MS did not
overcome the oxidizing power of the Fe2O3 present in the martian soil
at both Viking landing sites. For jarosite-rich soils, such as those
found in the Meridiani Planum site, only a slight neutralization
effect occurs as a result of heating to 500°C in the presence of

Our results influence the interpretation of the Viking TV-GC-MS data.
The fact that no organic molecules were released by this analytical
treatment during the analysis of the Mars soils does not demonstrate
that there were no organic materials on the surface of Mars because it
is feasible that they were too refractory to be released at the
temperatures achieved or were oxidized during the TV step by the iron
present in the soil. The release of 50-700 ppm of CO2 by TV from 200°C
to 500°C in the Viking analysis (2) may indicate that an oxidation of
organic material took placed. The water that evolved in the
volatilization experiments (0.01-1.0%) could be associated with the
oxidation of hydrogen present in the organic matter by the iron oxides
as well as water present in the soil. The detection of CO2 evolving
from the heating of martian samples in the TV-GC-MS experiments
required a major change in the experimental procedure of the
instrument. In all samples analyzed by TV-GC-MS experiments on the
Viking 1 Lander and in two of nine experiments with two samples of the
Viking 2 Lander, the martian soil was heated in a 13CO2 atmosphere.
H2, which was the carrier gas for the gas chromatograph, was not used
to avoid the possible catalytic or thermally induced reduction of
organic material possibly present in the sample (2). However, in an
effort to lower the detection limit for the most volatile components,
H2 was used in two sample experiments (2). The source of the H2 was
the gas chromatograph carrier gas, and the net hydrogen pressure in
the sample oven was 0.5 atm. Our thermodynamic analysis shows that, at
the Viking temperatures (200-500°C), the reduction of iron oxides by
hydrogen is thermodynamically favored; however, our experimental data
indicate that the reaction is kinetically controlled and does not
occur at temperatures of <650°C. Therefore, it seems unlikely that
hydrogen could have neutralized the oxidizing power of the Fe2O3
present in the martian soil. The CO2 released from the thermal
treatment of the martian soil could have also originated from an
inorganic source, such as carbonates (2); however, carbonate minerals
do not seem to be important in the martian environment (32). Thermal
IR spectra of the martian surface indicate the presence of small
concentrations (2-5 wt %) of carbonates, specially dominated by
magnesite, MgCO3 (33). Because magnesite starts to decompose into
magnesium oxide (MgO) and CO2 at 490°C (34) and considering that the
amount of CO2 released in the martian soil did not change from 350°C
to 500°C (2), we can conclude that the effect of magnesite in the
martian soil at Viking Landing Site 2 was negligible. Certainly most
of the CO2 and H2O detected by the Viking TV-GC-MS was derived from
desorption from the soil as suggested (2). We are demonstrating that
some fraction could have been derived from oxidation of organics.
Therefore, the question of whether organic compounds exist on the
surface of the planet Mars was not conclusively answered by the
organic analysis experiment carried out by the Viking Landers.
Furthermore, it is important that future missions to Mars include
other analytical methods to search for extinct and/or extant life in
the martian soil. The Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer instrument on
NASA’s 2007 Mars Scott Phoenix mission is a TV-MS for the analysis of
water, carbon dioxide, and volatile organics (35). The Sample Analysis
at Mars Instrument Suite for the upcoming NASA 2009 Mars Science
Laboratory mission will include laser desorption MS for analysis of
insoluble refractory organics, solvent extraction followed by chemical
derivatization coupled to GC-MS, and TV-GC-MS for the analysis of
soluble and insoluble organics, respectively. The Mars Organic
Detector for the European Space Agency ExoMars mission scheduled for
launch in 2011 or 2013 will include a TV chamber connected to a cold
finger for the sublimation of amino acids and polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons, which will then be analyzed by capillary electrophoresis
using a fluorescence detector (36).

For further detail, see Supporting Materials and Methods, which is
published as supporting information on the PNAS web site. Total
organic matter was determined by titration with the oxidation of
permanganate and by its oxidation to carbon dioxide followed by GC
(model no. HP-5890; Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, CA) MS (model no.
HP-5989B; Hewlett-Packard) analysis. Elemental analysis was done with
a model EA1108 analyzer (Fisions, Loughborough, U.K.) at 1,200°C. TV-
GC-MS was performed with a coil filament-type pyrolyzer (Pyroprobe
2000; CDS Analytical, Inc., Oxford, PA) coupled to GC-MS (model nos.
HP-5890 and HP-5989B). Organics from the soil were extracted by a
Soxhlet system with methylene chloride/methanol (2:1) over 8 h, and
the dried residue was analyzed by 1H NMR (Eclipse 300-MHz
spectrometer; JEOL, Ltd., Tokyo, Japan), Fourier transform IR
spectroscopy (Tensor 27 spectrometer; Bruker, Billerica, MA), and by
TV-GC-MS with a ribbon element probe for direct deposition. The carbon
isotope analysis was performed with MS (Delta Plus XL analyzer;
Finnigan, Breman, Germany) equipped with a Flash 1112EA elemental
analyzer. Hydrogen oxidation of soil analogs was carried out by
replacing helium with hydrogen in the oven of the TV-MS analysis.
Thermochemical modeling was carried out with the FactSage software

{To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:}

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New Planet Could Be Earthlike, Scientists Say

By DENNIS OVERBYE  /  April 25, 2007

The most enticing property yet found outside our solar system is about
20 light-years away in the constellation Libra, a team of European
astronomers said yesterday.

The astronomers have discovered a planet five times as massive as the
Earth orbiting a dim red star known as Gliese 581.

It is the smallest of the 200 or so planets that are known to exist
outside of our solar system, the extrasolar or exo-planets. It orbits
its home star within the so-called habitable zone where surface water,
the staff of life, could exist if other conditions are right, said
Stephane Udry of the Geneva Observatory.

“We are at the right place for that,” said Dr. Udry, the lead author
of a paper describing the discovery that has been submitted to the
journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

But he and other astronomers cautioned that it was far too soon to
conclude that liquid water was there without more observations. Sara
Seager, a planet expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
said, “For example, if the planet had an atmosphere more massive than
Venus’s, then the surface would likely be too hot for liquid water.”

Nevertheless, the discovery in the Gliese 581 system, where a Neptune-
size planet was discovered two years ago and another planet of eight
Earth masses is now suspected, catapults that system to the top of the
list for future generations of space missions.

“On the treasure map of the universe, one would be tempted to mark
this planet with an X,” said Xavier Delfosse, a member of the team
from Grenoble University in France, according to a news release from
the European Southern Observatory, a multinational collaboration based
in Garching, Germany.

Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics,
who studies the structure and formation of planets, said: “It’s 20
light-years. We can go there.”

The new planet was discovered by the wobble it causes in its home
star’s motion as it orbits, using the method by which most of the
known exo-planets have been discovered. Dr. Udry’s team used an
advanced spectrograph on a 141-inch-diameter telescope at the European
observatory in La Silla, Chile.

The planet, Gliese 581c, circles the star every 13 days at a distance
of about seven million miles. According to models of planet formation
developed by Dr. Sasselov and his colleagues, such a planet should be
about half again as large as the Earth and composed of rock and water,
what the astronomers now call a “super Earth.”

The most exciting part of the find, Dr. Sasselov said, is that it
“basically tells you these kinds of planets are very common.” Because
they could stay geologically active for billions of years, he said he
suspected that such planets could be even more congenial for life than
Earth. Although the new planet is much closer to its star than Earth
is to the Sun, the red dwarf Gliese 581 is only about a hundredth as
luminous as the Sun. So seven million miles is a comfortable huddling

How hot the planet gets, Dr. Udry said, depends on how much light the
planet reflects, its albedo. Using the Earth and Venus as two extreme
examples, he estimated that temperatures on the surface of the planet
should be in the range of 0 degrees to 40 degrees centigrade.

“It’s just right in the good range,” Dr. Udry said. “Of course, we
don’t know anything about its albedo.”

One problem is that the wobble technique only gives masses of planets.
To measure their actual size and thus find their densities,
astronomers have to catch the planets in the act of passing in front
of or behind their stars. Such transits can also reveal if the planets
have atmospheres and what they are made of.

Dr. Udry said he and Dr. Sasselov would be observing the Gliese system
with a Canadian space telescope named MOST to see if there are any
dips in starlight caused by the new planet. Failing that, they said,
the best chance for more information about the system lies with the
Terrestrial Planet Finder, a NASA mission, and the Darwin missions of
the European Space Agency, which are designed to study Earthlike
planets, but have been delayed by political, technical and financial

“We are starting to count the first targets,” Dr. Udry said.

For plants on alien worlds, it isn’t easy being green
11 April 2007  /  Jeff Hecht

The greenery on other planets may not be green. Astrobiologists say
plants on Earth-sized planets orbiting stars somewhat brighter than
the Sun may look yellow or orange, while those on planets orbiting
stars much fainter than the Sun might look black.

Vegetation colour matters to astrobiologists because they want to know
what to look for as a sign of life on planets outside the solar
system. Terrestrial photosynthesis depends mostly on red light, the
most abundant wavelength reaching the Earth’s surface, and blue light,
the most energetic. Plants also absorb green light, but not as
strongly, so leaves look green to the eye.

Extraterrestrial plants will look different because they have evolved
their own pigments based on the colours of light reaching their
surfaces, says Nancy Kiang of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space
Sciences in New York, US.

To determine the best colours for photosynthesis on other planets,
Kiang worked with NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory at Caltech to
determine the light reaching the surfaces of Earth-sized worlds
orbiting their host stars at distances where liquid water – and
therefore life – could exist. The results depended on the star’s
brightness and the planet’s atmosphere.

Autumn colours

Brighter stars emit more blue and ultraviolet light than the Sun. An
oxygen atmosphere would form ozone that blocks the ultraviolet but
transmits more blue light to the ground than on the Earth. In
response, life would evolve a type of photosynthesis that strongly
absorbs blue light, and probably green as well. Kiang says yellow,
orange, and red would likely be reflected, so the foliage would wear
bright autumn colours all year round.

A star slightly dimmer than the Sun would deliver a solar-like
spectrum to the surface of a terrestrial planet, so its foliage would
look much like the Earth’s.

But plants would be different on planets orbiting small M-type stars,
or red dwarfs, which are between 10% and 50% the mass of the Sun. Red
dwarfs, which comprise 85% of the galaxy’s stars, emit strongly at
invisible infrared wavelengths but produce little blue light.

“They’ll definitely be absorbing in the infrared,” unlike terrestrial
plants, Kiang told New Scientist. Because they would benefit by
absorbing visible light, she says they might look black, although she
admits that any colour might be possible. Whatever their colour, the
plants would likely look dark to humans because little visible light
would reach the ground.
Floating and sinking

Photosynthesis might not draw enough energy from infrared light to
produce the oxygen needed to block dangerous ultraviolet light from
the dwarfs.

But if there were at least 9 metres of water on the planet, mats of
algae would be protected from the planet-scalding ultraviolet flares
produced by young red dwarf stars, says Victoria Meadows of Caltech,
principal investigator at the Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

She envisions a bizarre world where microbial mats float near the
surface for efficient photosynthesis when the star is calm, then sink
to a safe depth when a flare hits.

Life could spread further when the stars pass their flare stage, she
told New Scientist: “M stars don’t produce a lot of ultraviolet once
they quiet down, so you don’t need an oxygen layer to shield [life]
from the ultraviolet.”

Journal reference: Astrobiology (vol 7, p 252)

Danger zones mapped for developing planets
18 April 2007 / David Shiga

Stars incubating developing planets would do best to stay at least 1.6
light years away from very massive stellar neighbours. If they venture
any closer than this, they risk having the raw materials needed for
planet formation blown away from them, a new study says.

Previous studies have shown that radiation from very massive stars can
evaporate the planet-forming discs of gas and dust around other nearby
stars. But the exact size of the ‘danger zone’ around massive stars
was not known.

Now, Zoltan Balog of the University of Arizona in Tucson, US, and
colleagues have used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to map the extent
of danger zones around massive stars in the Rosette Nebula, a star-
forming region 5200 light years from Earth.

Previous research has found that about 50% of young stars in star-
forming regions have dusty discs around them. Balog’s team found
similar results in the Rosette Nebula – but only for stars that were
at least 1.6 light years from their nearest massive neighbour.

For those at closer distances, the number retaining dusty discs
dropped to 27%, suggesting that many have had their discs blown away
by the massive stars.

Long stay

“Stars move around all the time, so if one wanders into the danger
zone and stays for too long, it will probably never be able to form
planets,” Balog says.

Watch an animation showing how the disc evaporation might appear over
hundreds of thousands of years.

But stars passing through these danger zones might not be completely
sterilised as far as planet formation is concerned.

If planets can form fast enough, they could coalesce before radiation
has a chance to blow the raw material away. One theory says gas giant
planets like Jupiter could form in less than a million years, which
might be fast enough to avoid the evaporation problem.

Also, one previous study suggests that blowing away some of the gas in
a dusty disc might actually aid the formation of planets, because gas
can make it harder for the dust to clump together and form larger

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



12-29-03 By Mark Floyd, 541-737-0788
SOURCE: Martin Fisk, 541-737-5208

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists has discovered bacteria in a
hole drilled more than 4,000 feet deep in volcanic rock on the island
of Hawaii near Hilo, in an environment they say could be analogous to
conditions on Mars and other planets.

Bacteria are being discovered in some of Earth’s most inhospitable
places, from miles below the ocean’s surface to deep within Arctic
glaciers. The latest discovery is one of the deepest drill holes in
which scientists have discovered living organisms encased within
volcanic rock, said Martin R. Fisk, a professor in the College of
Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

Results of the study were published in the December issue of
Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, a journal published by
the American Geophysical Union and the Geochemical Society.

“We identified the bacteria in a core sample taken at 1,350 meters,”
said Fisk, who is lead author on the article. “We think there could be
bacteria living at the bottom of the hole, some 3,000 meters below the
surface. If microorganisms can live in these kinds of conditions on
Earth, it is conceivable they could exist below the surface on Mars as

The study was funded by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California
Institute of Technology and Oregon State University, and included
researchers from OSU, JPL, the Kinohi Institute in Pasadena, Calif.,
and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The scientists found the bacteria in core samples retrieved during a
study done through the Hawaii Scientific Drilling Program, a major
scientific undertaking run by the Cal Tech, the University of
California-Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, and funded by the
National Science Foundation.

The 3,000-meter hole began in igneous rock from the Mauna Loa volcano,
and eventually encountered lavas from Mauna Kea at 257 meters below the

At one thousand meters, the scientists discovered most of the deposits
were fractured basalt glass – or hyaloclastites – which are formed when
lava flowed down the volcano and spilled into the ocean.

“When we looked at some of these hyaloclastite units, we could see they
had been altered and the changes were consistent with rock that has
been ‘eaten’ by microorganisms,” Fisk said.

Proving it was more difficult. Using ultraviolet fluorescence and
resonance Raman spectroscopy, the scientists found the building blocks
for proteins and DNA present within the basalt. They conducted chemical
mapping exercises that showed phosphorus and carbon were enriched at
the boundary zones between clay and basaltic glass – another sign of
bacterial activity.

They then used electron microscopy that revealed tiny (two- to
three-micrometer) spheres that looked like microbes in those same parts
of the rock that contained the DNA and protein building blocks. There
also was a significant difference in the levels of carbon, phosphorous,
chloride and magnesium compared to unoccupied neighboring regions of

Finally, they removed DNA from a crushed sample of the rock and found
that it had come from novel types of microorganisms. These unusual
organisms are similar to ones collected from below the sea floor, from
deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and from the deepest part of the ocean –
the Mariana Trench.

“When you put all of those things together,” Fisk said, “it is a very
strong indication of the presence of microorganisms. The evidence also
points to microbes that were living deep in the Earth, and not just
dead microbes that have found their way into the rocks.”

The study is important, researchers say, because it provides scientists
with another theory about where life may be found on other planets.
Microorganisms in subsurface environments on our own planet comprise a
significant fraction of the Earth’s biomass, with estimates ranging
from 5 percent to 50 percent, the researchers point out.

Bacteria also grow in some rather inhospitable places.

Five years ago, in a study published in Science, Fisk and OSU
microbiologist Steve Giovannoni described evidence they uncovered of
rock-eating microbes living nearly a mile beneath the ocean floor. The
microbial fossils they found in miles of core samples came from the
Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. Fisk said he became curious about
the possibility of life after looking at swirling tracks and trails
etched into the basalt.

Basalt rocks have all of the elements for life including carbon,
phosphorous and nitrogen, and need only water to complete the formula.

“Under these conditions, microbes could live beneath any rocky planet,”
Fisk said. “It would be conceivable to find life inside of Mars, within
a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, or even on a comet containing ice crystals
that gets warmed up when the comet passes by the sun.”

Water is a key ingredient, so one key to finding life on other planets
is determining how deep the ground is frozen. Dig down deep enough, the
scientists say, and that’s where you may find life.

Such studies are not simple, said Michael Storrie-Lombardi, executive
director of the Kinohi Institute. They require expertise in
oceanography, astrobiology, geochemistry, microbiology, biochemistry
and spectroscopy.

“The interplay between life and its surrounding environment is
amazingly complex,” Storrie-Lombardi said, “and detecting the
signatures of living systems in Dr. Fisk’s study demanded close
cooperation among scientists in multiple disciplines – and resources
from multiple institutions.

“That same cooperation and communication will be vital as we begin to
search for signs of life below the surface of Mars, or on the
satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.”

Martin Fisk
email: mfisk [at] coas [dot] oregonstate [dot] edu

Evidence of biological activity in Hawaiian subsurface basalts


The Hawaii Scientific Drilling Program (HSDP) cored and recovered
igneous rock from the surface to a depth of 3109 m near Hilo, Hawaii.
Much of the deeper parts of the hole is composed of hyaloclastite
(fractured basalt glass that has been cemented in situ with secondary
minerals). Some hyaloclastite units have been altered in a manner
attributed to microorganisms in volcanic rocks. Samples from one such
unit (1336 m to 1404 m below sea level) were examined to test the
hypothesis that the alteration was associated with microorganisms. Deep
ultraviolet native fluorescence and resonance Raman spectroscopy
indicate that nucleic acids and aromatic amino acids are present in
clay inside spherical cavities (vesicles) within basalt glass. Chemical
mapping shows that phosphorus and carbon were enriched at the
boundary between the clay and volcanic glass of the vesicles.
Environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM) reveals two to
three micrometer coccoid structures in these same boundaries. ESEM
-linked energy dispersive spectroscopy demonstrated carbon,
phosphorous, chloride, and magnesium in these bodies significantly
differing from unoccupied neighboring regions of basalt. These
observations taken together indicate the presence of microorganisms
at the boundary between primary volcanic glass and secondary clays.
Amino acids and nucleic acids were extracted from bulk samples of
the hyaloclastite unit. Amino acid abundance was low, and if the
amino acids are derived from microorganisms in the rock, then there
are less than 100,000 cells per gram of rock. Most nucleic acid
sequences extracted from the unit were closely related to sequences
of Crenarchaeota collected from the subsurface of the ocean floor.

Received 3 June 2002; accepted 16 October 2003; published 11 December

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): You’ve said that, in our investigations
of the solar system, you hope we find a completely alien life form.
Could you explain what you mean by that?

Chris McKay (CM): I think one of the key goals for astrobiology should
be the search for life on other planets, and in particular the search
for a second genesis. And by that, I mean life that represents an
independent origin from life on Earth. All life on Earth is related;
all can be mapped onto a single web of life.

If there is a form of life that started separately, it might have some
important differences from Earth life. It might still be DNA-based, but
with a different genome than life on Earth. Or it might not be
DNA-based at all.

Think of Earth life as a book written in English. There’s an
alphabet, there’s words, and there’s a language structure. A book
in Spanish has the same alphabet, but it’s clear that it’s a
different language — there are different words with different
constructions. A book in Hebrew, meanwhile, has a different alphabet. A
book in Chinese doesn’t even have an alphabet. It has a completely
different logic, using symbols to represent ideas or words directly.
All four of those books — English, Spanish, Hebrew and Chinese —
could be about the same topic, and therefore contain the same
information. So at an ecological level they would all be the same, but
they have fundamentally different ways of representing that

In our biology, the alphabet is A, T, C, and G — the letters in the
genetic code. The words are the codons that code for that. It could be
that alien life will have the same alphabet but different words, the
way Spanish is different from English. But it could be something
completely different that doesn’t use DNA, like the Chinese book.

AM: So if we did find a completely different basis for life, what would
we learn from the comparison studies? For instance, could it help us
develop a standard definition for life?

CM: It certainly will contribute to understanding life in a more
general sense. But it may not contribute to a definition. In the end,
we may have a complete understanding of life and still no definition.
There are some things that are like that — for example, fire. We have
a complete understanding of fire, and yet it’s very hard to define it
in such a way that distinguishes between a hot charcoal and a raging
flame and something like the sun. Fire is a process, so it has
different aspects.

Carol Cleland and Chris Chyba have said that defining life is like
trying to define water before the development of modern chemistry.
Once we know what it is — H2O — we’ll have a definition for it. But
there are a lot of things that we understand and can duplicate and
simulate, but we still don’t have a definition for. That’s a
limitation of what a definition is — it tries to categorize things in
a simple way. Some things, like a molecule of water, are ultimately
simple. But a process like fire is not a simple thing, and it resists
being categorized in a simple way.

Life may be that way. Even after we’ve discovered many examples of
it, even after we can reproduce it in the lab and can tie it to
fundamental physical and chemical principles, we may not have a simple

AM: If there is alien life out there, how could we hope to detect it
with current exploration methods?

CM: We know how to detect Earth-based life, but to detect alien life we
need a more general test. We could use a property of life that I call
the LEGO Principle. Life is made up of certain blocks that are used
over and over again. Life is not just a random collection of molecules.
For example, life on Earth is made up of 20 L-amino acids which form
the proteins, the five nucleotide bases which form RNA and DNA, some
D-sugars which form the polysaccharides, and some lipids which form the
lipid membranes and fatty molecules. So that kit of molecules — the
LEGO kit of Earth — is used to build biomass.

Life has to pick a set of molecules that it likes to use. A random
distribution of organic molecules is going to have a smooth
distribution, statistically-speaking. For instance, for the amino acids
found in meteorites, there are no systematic differences in the
concentrations of L versus D. Certainly in a Miller-Urey experiment, L-
and D-amino acids are produced equally.

But for organic molecules associated with life on Earth, the
distribution is not smooth. Life uses molecules it likes in very high
concentrations, and it doesn’t use the molecules it doesn’t like.
So you’re much more likely to find the L-amino acids on Earth than
their D counterparts. You’re much less likely to find amino acids
that aren’t in that set of 20 that life uses.

I think that test can be generalized if we find organic material on
Mars or on Jupiter’s moon Europa. We can analyze the distribution of
organic molecules, and if they represent a very unusual distribution,
with concentrations of certain molecules, that would be an indication
of biological origin. If the molecules are different than the molecules
of Earth life, then that would be an indication of an alternative
biological system.

AM: Since all the planets in the solar system formed from the same
basic materials, do you think life elsewhere could have the same
preferences and biases as life on Earth?

CM: Certainly the places we’re looking for life — Mars and Europa
— are going to have carbon-based, water-based life, for the reasons
you just said. That’s what those planets are made out of; that’s
what is in those environments. But whether they’re going to be
exactly the same as Earth life at the next level of complexity is, I
think, debatable. By the next level of complexity, I mean how those
carbon atoms arrange to form the basic building blocks.

Some people have argued that there is only one way to do it — that the
fitness landscape of life has a single peak, and no matter where you
start, life is going to climb that peak to the summit. And life
anywhere is going to end up using the same molecules because they’re
the best, most efficient molecules. There’s one best biochemistry,
and we’re it.

Does life always evolve to reach the same fitness peak, or can there be
multiple peaks that different life forms could strive to reach?

That assumes the fitness landscape is just a single peak, like Mount
Fuji. But maybe the landscape is a mountain range with a bunch of
peaks, and the range is not continuous. If you start in one place,
there are only certain fitness peaks that you could reach, and if you
start somewhere else, there’s no way to get over to those peaks
because there’s a zone in-between that’s not a viable biological

We don’t know what the fitness landscape for life looks like. All we
know is that there’s one peak at least that we’re sitting on, but
we don’t see the topography of the whole system. I would argue that
organic chemistry is sufficiently complicated and diverse to have more
than one single, global maximum.

AM: Do you think it might be related to a planet’s environment? That
there might be a peak for Earth, a peak for Mars, a peak for Europa?
That chemical systems will develop and adapt in an optimum way to their
particular environment?

CM: It could be, but I would guess not. I think that as long as the
environment is defined by liquid water, the differences will be just
chance. The molecules that life happened to put together are what
evolutionists call “frozen accidents.”

Life uses L-amino acids, but why not D-amino acids? We don’t think
there’s any selective pressure of L versus D. It’s a trivial
difference. Perhaps life just had to choose one or the other.

It’s like driving, where everybody has to drive on one side of the
road. It really doesn’t matter if everybody drives on the left, like
England, or on the right, like most of the rest of the world. The fact
that England drives on the left and others drive on the right is just a
frozen accident. It would be very hard to change now, but there’s no
fundamental physical reason why they drive on the left and we drive on
the right. It’s a historical artifact.

My guess is that a lot of biochemistry is just a historical artifact.
Where you start off in this biochemical landscape determines where you
end up, and you end up at the optimum near you. Whereas if you start
off, for some reason, someplace differently, you might end up in a
completely different optimum, with a completely different set of
molecules — all operating in water because that’s the medium that
all these environments that we’re looking at have in common. Because
they have water in common, the range of possible environmental
influences, I think, is small.

AM: But if that were true, then why aren’t there multiple unrelated
forms of life on Earth?

CM: I think the answer is because life is a winner-take-all game.
There’s no mercy. If at one time there were many competing forms of
life on Earth, the others were driven to extinction because life is
competing at a system level for resources — physical space,
sunlight, nutrients, and so on.

As long as different species have different ecological space, they
don’t compete directly. But species that directly compete face an
unstable situation. If there’s a complete overlap on their needs and
requirements, then one will win and one will lose. For an entire system
of life, the requirements are energy, nutrients, and space. Since those
are exactly the same requirements of an alternative system, there’s a
hundred percent competition.

Now, that doesn’t prove that alternate life forms couldn’t be here.
There’s been some speculation that there might be a shadow biosphere
on Earth, and some people are trying to find traces of that. But so
far, they’ve found nothing.