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Extraterrestrial Life

Extraterrestrial Life

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Published by BranMakMorn
Review essay on the search for extraterrestrial life.
Review essay on the search for extraterrestrial life.

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Published by: BranMakMorn on Jul 09, 2010
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The Search For Extraterrestrial Life: AReview
 The aim of this paper will be a review of current developments in the search forextraterrestrial life. I will proceed in the following way: firstly I will define what isbeing searched for, i.e., life as a biological process arising from certain physicalconditions; secondly I will review methods through which the search is carriedforward, looking for physical locations in the universe which could harbour life;thirdly, I will focus on the problem of intelligent life, its scientific status, physicalconstraints and anthropocentric biases.
 The search for extraterrestrial life is certainly one of the most potentiallygroundbreaking research projects of contemporary science. Such a projectemerges from the encounter of a number of scientific disciplines, such asastrophysics, biology, chemistry and planetary sciences. As a result, fairly recenthybrid fields such as astrobiology
(or exobiology)
are today extremely fertileareas of study, and objects of rapid development. Excitement about thesedevelopments is certainly justified: not only would the discovery of extraterrestriallife be of extreme importance for the development of our understanding of theuniverse, in its physical and biological evolution, but it would have wide culturalrepercussions on our society as a whole. The discovery of life (or, even moresurprisingly,
life) would ideally complete the Copernican Revolution
For a comprehensive introduction to Astrobiology as a new scientific discipline see Darling 2001.For a introductory textbook see Gilmour and Sephton 2004.
It could be argued that the difference between the two terms is that
biology refersspecifically to the study of biology of non-terrestrial origin, while
biology is focused on ageneral understanding of biological processes (on Earth as elsewhere) as an integral part of thephysical laws which regulate the universe. Stewart and Cohen (2001) proposed the adoption of the additional term 'xenobiology' to indicate a discipline aimed at figuring and understandingradically alien kinds of forms of life, based on alternative biochemical processes.
extending its domain from predicating the non-special status of our physicallocation to asserting the non-special status of our biological development.
By definition, the search for extraterrestrial life is a search for the non-terrestrialand autonomously originated emergence of life-forms in the universe. But what islife? Following a minimal definition of it, we can claim that any system is alive(enacting life-processes) when it has the ability to replicate, has evolvedaccording to Darwinian evolution by natural selection and it reduces its entropy atthe expense of external sources.
If we accept this definition and we suppose
thatthe material substratum for these self-sustaining features is biochemical (i.e. onewhich requires carbon as a key chemical element capable of constructing longmolecules, liquid water as a solvent for biochemical reactions to take place andsome external source of energy to sustain the process) we therefore obtainreasonable minimal constraints for the object of our search. The main problem forbiologists (and by extension for astrobiologists), however, is that if theseconstraints allow us to recognize as 'life' previously unknown entities (as stillhappens in our own biosphere when new life-forms are discovered, and as it ishoped will happen in extraterrestrial spaces) they still tell us very little about theconditions that allow for life to originate from non-living matter (the problem of biogenesis). The question of the likelihood and frequency of life spontaneouslyoriginating from the basic chemical elements and molecules which are commonlyfound in the interstellar medium (ISM) is still a largely unanswered question
 The definition of life is notoriously difficult. For a more nuanced attempt see Koshland 2002,where seven 'pillars' of life are enumerated and explained, namely: Program, Improvisation,Compartmentalization, Energy, Regeneration, Adaptability and Seclusion. For a philosophically-natured discussion of the problem of finding a unitary definition of 'life' see Cleland and Chyba2002.
A reasonable, but not completely neutral presupposition. Other scenarios could be imagined, asI will describe later.
We have a clear understanding of the steps that lead from basic elements like hydrogen,oxygen and carbon to complex molecules (including carbon chains, aromatic hydrocarbons andcarbonaceous grains, observed in large quantities in Giant Molecular Clouds), and experimentslike the Urey-Miller experiment (see Miller 1953) have shown how these molecules are able to
can only determine minimal conditions for complex molecules to form, and forbiochemical processes to happen, the main condition being the presence of liquidwater as a solvent). Therefore, the debate around the frequency of spontaneousgeneration of life in the universe has been a lively and controversial one in thelast decades, still popular to this day, and it comprises different hypotheses: fromthe one holding that life necessarily emerges wherever the conditions allow (theso-called Cosmic Imperative)
to the one arguing that life is an extremely rare,essentially unique phenomenon which took place only on Earth.
Astronomical observations could help resolving this debate on empiricalgrounds: should we manage to discover even one certain case of life in anextraterrestrial environment, the thesis of the unicity of life on Earth would bedisproved, and even claims of its extreme rarity would be severely undermined.But what kind of life forms can we expect to find in extra-terrestrial environments? The main assumption is that we should primarily look for the most abundant andsimple life-form that is present on Earth: microbial life, in particular bacteria. Thisidea is supported by the observed resilience of certain forms of microbes, knownas extremophiles, to extreme environmental conditions. Extremophiles aremicrobial organisms which have developed an high degree of adaptability toextreme environments,
presenting conditions which in fact often resemble those
spontaneously form amino acids, as it could have happened in the primordial atmosphere of thenewly-formed planet Earth. However, it is still unclear how these basic amino acids can go on toform the proteins that are the building blocks at the base of life as we know it. For a review of the different forms in which carbon can be found in the ISM (from carbon-bearing molecules tocarbonaceous compounds) see Henning and Salama 1998. For observation of amino acids indistant galaxies see Salter
et al.
 The term was coined, and the hypothesis made popular by the biochemist Christian De Duve(1996) who argued that life is the necessary outcome of biochemical forces embedded in thevery physical structure of the universe. Among other popular supporters of this position was theastronomer Carl Sagan (see Sagan 1995), who saw the proliferation of life in the cosmos as anecessary corollary to the Principle of Mediocrity (or Copernican Principle), indicating that weshould not suppose that anything is special about our place in the universe, not even theemergence of biological systems.
See for example the work of biologist Jacques Monod (1971) who argued that the study of theorigins of life could never be a science, as life cannot be derived from the laws of chemistry andphysics. More recently, geologist Peter Ward and astronomer Don Brownlee elaborated the socalled 'Rare Earth hypothesis' (see Ward and Brownlee 2000), arguing that Earth is a rare placewhere many random and extremely unlikely factors have converged, creating a nearly perfectsite for the emergence and evolution of complex life, thus concluding that it is possible thatonly a few planets per galaxy ever develop life.
Varieties of extremophiles include halophiles (single-cell, salt-loving organisms which requirehigh concentrations of salt to live), acidophiles and alkalinophiles (requiring extreme pHconditions) and thermophiles (organisms that grow and reproduce at high temperatures, up to

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