Jo Walton has a fantastic breakdown of possible solutions for life on other planets, based on different takes on the Fermi Paradox by various SF luminaries over on Tor.com. This reminded me of this post which I’d begun to write a little while ago, but languished in the obscurity of my ‘pending drafts’ queue for some reason or another. Regardless, here it is:
Scientists in Australia have determined that some of the organic compounds found on a meteor they’ve been studying were created in space and survived the meteorite’s entry and impact on Earth. From the paper’s abstract:
Carbon-rich meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, contain many biologically relevant organic molecules and delivered prebiotic material to the young Earth. We present compound-specific carbon isotope data indicating that measured purine and pyrimidine compounds are indigenous components of the Murchison meteorite.
The big news is that some of those molecules are basic components of amino acids, the building blocks of life. So, what does this mean, exactly? Phil Plait has a great post on his site, Bad Astronomy, where he clearly explains the discovery, outlines the possible implications, an debunks all the “Iz I teh alienz?” chatter that’s been making the rounds through the internet since this discovery was announced.
In short, it is possible that some of the elements that created life on this planet may have come from space, but it’s also equally possible that they developed here on a young Earth, since any conditions that would enable the compounds to survive after impact would also be conditions primed to host the development of these compounds independently.
Regardless, it’s big news, and brain-candy for those of us with a science-fictional bent, who like to extrapolate from these scientific discoveries. This discovery, while not necessarily implying that life on Earth has its origins elsewhere in the universe, does seem to indicate that the elements required for the development of carbon-based life exist outside of our planet, and could have found a hospitable environment in which to develop and flourish into life on some other planet. This opens up the possibility for many interesting scenarios.
There could be very distant genetic cousins to humans living on a hospitable planet somewhere out there. Given the right conditions, such as those on Earth, they could have developed into as wide a range of flora and fauna as we find on Earth, and even developed sentient life forms. Unfortunately for xenophiles, cross-breeding would probably be out of the question (assuming we are still tethered to our meatspace bodies by the time we discover our cousins).
There could also be sentient life just now crawling out of their primordial ooze as we speak, giving us a chance to observe, sometime in the future (when our technology is sufficiently capable to observe direct, on-the-ground action in faraway places), the initial stirrings of evolved life. Could we also, at that point in our technological development, have access to tools that enable us to edit and alter that genetic evolutionary process? This is very likely, and opens up the door to some ethical debate as to whether our involvement would be appropriate. This could turn into the hot-button, abortion-like issue in the political world of the 24th century. Trekkies will bust out copies of the Prime Directive as reference. Furious debate will ensue regarding the age-old question: When does life begin?
In short, a bit of news that helps to place humans as a species, and humanity as a civilization, into perspective. Every new discovery like this helps us realize that more than even global citizens, we’re denizens of the universe, which serves to reinforce the need for us to explore the stars, and start working towards taking our place among them.