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Book by Kaufman Marc
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1 THE BIGGEST DISCOVERY OF THEM ALL
If it’s just us in this universe, what a terrible waste of space.
But it’s not. Before the end of this century, and perhaps much sooner than that, scientists will determine that life exists elsewhere in the universe. This book is about how they’re going to get there. And when they do, that discovery will rival the immensity of those that launched our previous scientific revolutions and, in the process, defined our humanity. Copernicus and Galileo told us we were not, after all, at the center of the universe, and their ideas fathered a scientific astronomy that, four hundred years later, is allowing us to be a space-faring planet. Charles Darwin gave us our evolutionary roots, which, a century later, propelled Louis and Mary Leakey on a thirty-year search culminating in the recovery of fossil hominid remains almost two million years old in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge—proof that humankind began in Africa. So here we are now, the descendants of the skilled toolmakers and explorers who left the continent some sixty to seventy thousand years ago. We’ve populated the globe and sent astronauts to the moon. Next up: Life beyond Earth.
For thousands of years, humans have wondered about who and what might be living beyond the confines of our planet: gods, beneficent or angry, a heaven full of sinners long forgiven, creatures as large and strange as our imagination. Scientists now are on the cusp of bringing those musings back to Earth and recasting our humanity yet again. “Astrobiology” is the name of their young but fast-growing field, which immodestly seeks to identify life throughout the universe, partly by determining how it began on our planet. The men and women of astrobiology—an iconoclastic lot, quite unlike the caricatures of geeks in white lab coats or UFO-crazed conspiracy theorists—are driven by a confidence that extraterrestrial creatures are there to be found, if only we learn how to find them. Most hold the conviction that if a form of independently evolved life, even the tiniest microbe, is detected below the surface of Mars or Europa, or other moons of Jupiter or Saturn, then the odds that life does exist elsewhere in our galaxy and potentially in billions of others shoot up dramatically. A solar system that produces one genesis—ours—might be an anomaly. A single solar system that produces two or more geneses tells us that life can begin and evolve whenever and wherever conditions allow, and that extraterrestrial life may well be an intergalactic commonplace.
With goals so enormous and compelling, astrobiology has brought forth a new generation of outside-the-box researchers, field scientists, adventurers, and thinkers—part Carl Sagan, part Indiana Jones, part Watson and Crick, part CSI: Mars. They are men and women who drop deep below the surface of the Earth or tunnel into Antarctic glaciers in search of life in the most extreme places, who probe volcanoes for clues into how Earthly life began, who propel life-detecting robots and ultimately themselves into space. They come up with ever more ingenious methods for detecting planets that circle distant suns; they scour our planet for Mars- or Europa-like habitats they can minutely study for the life-supporting conditions they might encounter when our spaceships arrive there. They probe the cosmos as far as 13 billion light-years away for signs of the earliest stirrings of the order and chemistry that created life on Earth. Some are even working to define and understand “life” by creating it in the lab. They’ve harnessed that childhood excitement so many of us felt when, on hot, hard-to-sleep summer nights, we tried to imagine what it would be like to visit Mars (very dry), or travel to the end of the universe (very confusing), be around when life first began (very lonely), or come across extraterrestrial life (very exciting). The world has changed enough that today, a large and growing number of scientists are earning their livelihoods turning their imaginings into hypotheses and putting them to tests inconceivable even a decade ago.
Why now? Why does the promise of cracking the extraterrestrial barrier seem close enough that so many prominent scientists from NASA to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from the Carnegie Institution of Washington to Princeton and Cambridge universities, have decided to ignore the giggle factor associated with UFOs and ET and join the quest? The answer, put broadly, is that the field is getting results.
In the past ten years we have found that hundreds of planets orbit distant suns not too different from our own and can reasonably infer that billions more exist. Many are bound to be rocky planets in eminently habitable zones the right distance from stable suns to give life a chance. More than five hundred of these exoplanets (“exo” because they orbit suns other than our own) have already been identified and even more new ones are being discovered every week. In the past two decades, we have also explored a vast world of microbial “extremophiles” that live in Earthly environments once assumed to be incapable of supporting life—findings that make it easier to hypothesize that life survives in “uninhabitable” conditions on other planets and moons, too.
Extremophile research started with microbes living in hot springs like Yellowstone and near deep underseas “black smoker” thermal vents that are even hotter. Each year scientists reach further and almost always get results—finding life miles underground, encased in ice, or bathed in acid. A very different group of researchers is also getting closer to synthesizing something akin to life in the lab, research that sets the stage for an understanding of how life might have started on Earth and elsewhere. One of those labs will soon have produced self-replicating genetic material out of nonliving component parts—in other words, created something very life-like from synthesized genetic material. And planetary scientists are finding ever more reason to conclude that Mars in particular—written off as lifeless thirty years ago, after NASA’s Viking missions—has, or had in the past, most everything necessary to support life: liquid water, carbon compounds, nutrients, and a minimally protective atmosphere. In 2009, the life-on-Mars theory got a major boost with the confirmed discovery of methane gas in its atmosphere. On Earth, 90 percent of methane is produced through biology.
The field of astrobiology in its modern form came into existence in the late 1990s, following an announcement by NASA that its researchers had found likely signatures of life in an ancient Martian meteorite that landed in Antarctica. The proof supporting that conclusion was contested by many scientists, but the study of meteorites from Mars and elsewhere has blossomed anyway. Since then, increasingly sophisticated instruments have allowed researchers to tease more widely accepted secrets from the rocks. All these very concrete discoveries—and the fact that interstellar space is full of potentially life-supporting, carbon-based compounds that constantly rain down on us and on other celestial bodies—have convinced scientists around the world that it’s highly unlikely that Earth is the only place in the universe where life arose.
This is heady stuff, and it has scientists moving in all directions. If primitive life forms can exist miles below the Earth’s surface in the mines of South Africa without contact with the sun or its products, why couldn’t the same be true on Mars, or on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, or on the untold number of rocky planets we now know exist across the universe? The same logic applies to extremophiles in the abyss of the deep sea, in glaciers tens of thousands of years old, in Spain’s acidic Rio Tinto or California’s alkaline and arsenic-laced Mono Lake. Extremophiles even survive in the upper atmosphere of our planet.
Perhaps you’re thinking that the discovery of bacteria deep underground does not seem all that earth-shattering. Perhaps you’re thinking, too, that even if Mars or a moon in our solar system turns out to have comparable subterranean life, that would prove little except that primitive life forms come into being and survive in all kinds of places. Astrobiologists see things very differently. As they are quick to point out, life has existed on Earth for at least 3.8 billion years, and for more than 3 billion of those years single-celled bacteria and related microbes were the only living things around. In other words, butterflies, tree sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and humans all evolved from single-celled organisms too small to see without a microscope. Astrobiologists today have a deep respect for the significance of bacteria and other single-celled creatures—and their ability to evolve into intelligent life.
Searching for and understanding extremophiles is almost universally embraced by the scientific community as essential and revelatory science now, but as late as the mid-1990s it was seen as quixotic and something of a career ender. Tullis Onstott is the man who changed the field by descending into deep gold mines in South Africa and coming back with remains of bacteria that have lived down there in their own peculiar worlds for millions of years. Onstott, a geobiologist at Princeton University, initially couldn’t get funding for his research, and his first expeditions were paid for out of his own pocket.
Stories like his are common in astrobiology. The early extrasolar planet hunters were told in the 1980s and early 1990s that they were wasting their time, that there was no way to detect their quarry through the blinding glare of parent stars hundreds or thousands of light-years away. So they developed other techniques based on measuring the slightest movements of those suns, minuscule course corrections caused by the gravity of the orbiting exoplanets. Now, through those methods, planets beyond our solar system are found regularly and the expectation is that billions more remain to be mapped. What we know of them remains limited to their orbits, their mass, and a little about their component parts. The new challenge is to characterize them much better, especially the smaller Earthlike planets expected to be discovered in the years ahead. But these planets are minute at such great distances and are blotted out by the intense light from their parent stars.
So how can astronomers compensate? One proposal, years in the making, involves sending into deep space a football-field-sized sunshade, that would then work in tandem with an orbiting telescope 35,000 to 50,000 miles away to create an “occulter.” The flower-petal-shaped screen would block light from the star and thereby allow the telescope to see and study orbiting planets, their atmospheres, and any signatures of possible life. The long process of transforming an idea like this into a space-faring reality got a big boost in 2010 when a panel of the National Academy of Sciences gave its highest priority to exploring exoplanets and their atmospheres in the next decade. An occulter system may ultimately not be the technology selected for the job, but it is a serious contender.
The sunshade might sound like a far-fetched project to pursue, but many of the most successful results in astrobiology began as pursuits that sounded impractical or extreme. Take, for instance, the work of Sara Seager, the astrophysicist who first opened my eyes to the breakthroughs and great promise of astrobiology. Her mind easily visits places where few of us can follow. Raised in Toronto, she puzzled her father with an early interest in outer space, which later turned into degrees in math, physics, and astronomy. Her pioneering work on the atmospheres of exoplanets is what persuaded MIT to offer her tenure and an endowed chair in planetary science. She was thirty-four at the time. She is a theorist rather than a hands-on planet hunter: her scientific specialty is to predict and refine ways to identify the elements and compounds in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, work that she began before the first extrasolar planet was detected. She was told when she started that her ideas were theoretically interesting but couldn’t be tested in her lifetime. But little more than a decade later, we know that the gas methane exists on a giant planet orbiting a star 63 light-years away, that sodium exists on a planet orbiting a sunlike star 150 light-years away, and that evidence of both oxygen and carbon has been detected enveloping another planet in that solar system. Now Seager is convinced that extraterrestrial life will be detected within her lifetime, and she wants to be part of that triumph.
Given the size of the challenges taken on by astrobiology, however, the big break won’t come from the inspired minds of one or two great thinkers, as they did with Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Watson and Crick. This search is more of a broad-based, inexorable, but oddly unheralded Apollo program, an undertaking that requires thousands of researchers with very different backgrounds, technical skills, and obsessions. The enterprise is playing out in plain view, yet is so big it is almost invisible.
Some astrobiologists (and astrobiology fans) no doubt dream of a “Eureka!” moment when life is discovered beyond Earth or synthesized here—an equivalent to Neil Armstrong’s giant step on the moon, or the unraveling of the structure of DNA. Someday that may come, but science generally works incrementally, and takes much smaller bites. Even the biggest, hottest research questions in astrobiology involve work akin to crime-scene forensics, often drawing on small left-behind clues to help put together pieces of the larger puzzle. These are the kinds of questions absorbing, inspiring, and at times dividing the inherently fractious tribe that constitutes the field of astrobiology.
That tribe is fractious because it’s attempting to answer a set of unavoidable and obnoxious questions—obnoxious because they appear so simple, yet actually are so complex: What, when all is said and done, is life? Could we encounter it elsewhere and simply pass it by? Are we blinded to extraterrestrial life by our Earth-based assumptions of what life must be? We have a substance on Earth—a blackish rock coating called desert varnish found in many arid places and often used as a background for Native American petroglyphs. Experts in the field going back to Charles Darwin have studied it, and they still sharply disagree about where it comes from: whether it is a product of microbial biology or of geology and chemistry. Getting a better sense of what is living and what is not on Earth seems pretty essential to the quest for life beyond Earth, and so these borderland cases attract lots of attention. Desert varnish is especially intriguing because something that looks similar to it has been seen during several Mars missions, or so some scientists contend.
Nobody knows how or why, but virtually all the amino acids—molecules that make up essential building blocks of proteins (and therefore of life as we know it)—share a necessary quality that is otherwise seldom seen on Earth: Their molecules are all organized in a formation that scientists call “left-handed,” enabling them to interact with uniformly “right-handed” sugars. Because virtually nothing else on Earth is structured like this—all “left-handed” or all “right-handed”—some scientists suspect the initial overabundance of left-handed amino acids arrived here by way of meteorites or comet dust. Evidence from one large and quickly recovered meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969 lends some support to that conclusion, with potentially major implications about how life began and evolved here, and the possible ma...
“An up-to-the-minute look at the frontiers of the search for life outside Earth... Kaufman provides an invaluable summary of the current state of research into extraterrestrial life. An excellent preview of what may be the next big scientific breakthrough.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Marc Kaufman traveled to the ends of the Earth to report this fascinating, awe-inspiring, and accessible book. Are we alone in the universe? Almost certainly not. Kaufman leaves the reader with a lucid sense of what we know and where the next wave of discovery will take place.”
—Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Ghost Wars
“In First Contact, journalist Marc Kaufman reveals how the extremes of life on Earth illuminate our search for life in the universe. Along the way, Kaufman invokes crisp, clear, and engaging narrative that, at times, leaves you to think you were conducting the research yourself.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History and author of The Pluto Files
“The search for life beyond Earth has now become the big scientific quest of our age. Kaufman skillfully weaves personal narrative and technical exposition to guide the reader through the challenges, both scientific and philosophical, that confront astrobiological researchers. An immensely readable book, infused with the thrill of the chase.”
—Paul Davies, author of The Eerie Silence and The Goldilocks Enigma
“Writing with cinematic clarity, Marc Kaufman provides a masterful, gripping tour along the frontiers of the search for extraterrestrial life and shows how this quest is inextricably linked with the struggle to understand life on Earth. As he transports readers from the parboiled netherworld of a South African platinum mine to Earth’s coldest, driest extremes, from an Alaskan volcano crackling with energy to microscopic Martian landscapes and ultimately to the ends of the cosmos, Kaufman brings into vivid focus the triumphs and frustrations of scientists as fascinating as the bizarre life forms they study.”
—Kathy Sawyer, author of The Rock from Mars
“Marc Kaufman brings to life the broad and increasingly successful effort by scientists to find signs of life beyond Earth. It's an exciting read about a scientific venture that will no doubt surprise and intrigue many people—especially when he takes us to incredibly exotic locations. Space, it seems, is the next frontier not only for exploration, but quite likely for learning about life as well.”
—Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors
“Marc Kaufman, a world-class reporter whose writing is clear and clean, is just the right author for First Contact. I found this book as thrilling as it is illuminating, as he takes us around the Earth and off into space in search of the beginnings of life here and probably elsewhere.”
—David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered
"Fascinating . . . While genuine alien life, in any form, has yet to reveal itself, Kaufman’s tantalizing tour of the research that could achieve this breakthrough makes engrossing reading."
“With a child’s curiosity and a reporter’s skill, Kaufman delivers a concise, thorough, and utterly fascinating summary of the search for life elsewhere in the universe—and what it means for life on Earth. If you’ve ever wondered about life beyond Earth, let Marc Kaufman introduce you to the men and women who are searching for it. His explanations will make the night sky seem more vivid and the very life around you seem more improbable and precious.”
—Susan West, former executive editor of Smithsonian
“The range of this new field of astrobiology is exhilarating, and even though scientists are still learning how to sort out the hard science from the understandably infectious enthusiasm, getting to ride along with Kaufman is an expansive joy.” --The Washington Post
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