February 15, 2015

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Astrobiology, the Pseudoscience – Part 1

Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in London this past August, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. The link is provided below…

“Astrobiology - The Hunt for Alien Life encompass[es] research into the origins and limits of life on our own planet, and where life might exist beyond the Earth. But what actually is ‘life’ and how did it emerge on our own world? What are the most extreme conditions terrestrial life can tolerate? And where in the cosmos might we reasonably expect to find ET? Join Dr. Lewis Dartnell on a tour of the other planets and moons in  our solar system which may harbour life, and even further afield to alien worlds we’ve discovered orbiting distant stars, to explore one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone...?”

Ah! My favorite subject and one I teach every summer – Alien Worlds!

This is the question I invariably start out with: “Let’s start out simply. How many of you believe that there is ‘life’ somewhere off of Earth – and by life, I mean anything from microorganisms to vast, interstellar alien empires?”

In the class, every hand is raised. When faced with the parameters of “from microorganisms to…”, most young people are willing to go out on that limb. Actually, so are lots of adults. In a 2013 HuffPost survey (PLEASE consider the source here!), half of the people who took it said that they believed that there was SOME sort of life elsewhere.

Confidence dives when I press on: “How many of you believe that there is COMPLEX life somewhere off Earth?” Some hands drop.

More drop when I ask, “How many of you believe that there is INTELLIGENT life somewhere off Earth?”

I then ask them to give their reasons and the ensuing discussion is lively and one of the main reasons I’ve been teaching the class three or four times a year for the past 17 years. But when I ask my final question...you might hear crickets chirping in the room. “Can you give me scientific proof that there is life anywhere else but on Earth?”

Speaking into the silence, “I am a science fiction writer,” I tell them. “I WANT to see or know that there are aliens. I write about it. I dream about it. I teach this class because of it. But the incontrovertible, scientific FACT is that there is absolutely nothing except faith and hope that life exists anywhere else but here.”

And so astrobiology is, by definition, a pseudoscience: “a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.”

No matter how much we want to believe that it’s a science that is laying the groundwork for future work it is, at this point, a pseudoscience. It’s an imaginary job.


So let’s talk about the basis of this imaginary job.

Astrobiology pseudoscientists, in preparation for the day they get real evidence of life off of Earth, have become instead experts on life at its most extreme on Earth. Creatures who live on these edges are called extremophiles.

The one I find most fascinating are the hyperextremophiles and the psychrophiles – bacteria that can survive and reproduce at temperatures as high as 121 C (250 F) down to – 20 C (-4 F). Data returned to Earth from space probes allow us to speculate that if life can exist on Earth at these extremes, then certainly life can exist on other worlds that are constant at these extremes.

With the recent announcement that “we’re going to Europa!” (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26902-green-light-for-mission-to-jupiter-moon-europa.html#.VOCdCWd0zIU), astrobiologipsts stand ready to develop experiments that can offer incontrovertible proof that there is life somewhere besides Earth.

That it will give them a real job to do instead of the pseudo job they claim today goes without saying.

More on this same subject next time around!

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