I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Friday, December 17, 2010

NASA Finds Alien Life?

A couple of weeks ago, everyone on the Facebook community was posting one of these two articles, "NASA Finds New Life" or "Nasa Reportedly Discovers 'Completely Alien' Life on Earth." If you've read my article "Office For Outer Space Affairs," you know that I am something of a conspiracy theorist interested in the existence of extraterrestrial life. By extension, you know that I was pretty excited to stumble upon these articles.

Shortly after people began talking about NASA's discovery of aliens on Earth, a much smaller faction of Facebook researchers began to surface. While many had begun to act as if we were living in a momentous time in history, the time of first contact with extraterrestrial life, this faction was devoted to deriding these individuals for their ridiculous beliefs. They began talking about how this scientific discovery was a heck of a let down.

These particular articles talk about how NASA has discovered a new form of bacteria called GFAJ-1 in Mono Lake, California. Nearly all life forms on this planet are called carbon-based life forms, which means that the structures that support us are carbon compounds. These newly discovered bacteria do not fit this mold. Their DNA, RNA, proteins and cell membranes are instead constructed from arsenic compounds.

It has been hypothesized for years that non-carbon-based lifeforms may exist on Earth. When I was in grade school I remember hearing that people suspected that silicon-based organisms lived beneath the Earth's crust. Since silicon is a metal, it would be more useful as a building block of life where heat and pressure reach extremes beyond that which carbon-based life forms can handle. Furthermore, it is directly below carbon on the periodic table, which means that it would function like carbon in many ways. This theory was common enough by the 1960s that Star Trek: The Original Series featured a silicon-based alien life form called a Horta in the first season episode "The Devil in the Dark."

The 20th century has seen its fair share of upsets in the definition of how life forms are defined, most significantly with the discovery of archaea, microorganisms that were originally understood as bacteria but which are now understood as having a completely different evolutionary path. These organisms can thrive in the harshest of climates, in volcanic vents and toxic waste even, because of their ability to metabolize a variety of gases and metals that would kill nearly any other organism. Knowing about these variations on life, it never seemed like much of a leap to suggest that we would find a non-carbon-based life form on or in the Earth.

While the discovery of arsenic-based bacteria is certainly a momentous scientific discovery that can lead humankind down some interesting avenues of research, it has been marketed to the public as if scientists had just discovered intelligent extraterrestrial life capable of long-distance space travel. If the headlines referred to scientists discovering new life, few would find it very interesting. The nature specials I used to watch in the 90s told me that new species are being discovered on a daily basis in places like the Amazon rain forest. Instead, the headlines made use of the "NASA" keyword, which combined with the keywords "new" and "life," plants the false idea that we are dealing with ET here. Throw in the word "alien," meaning "other" or "different," and people automatically think you mean "extraterrestrial in origin."

I would love to fit this story into my greater theory regarding the possibility of extraterrestrial biological entities traveling lightyears to make contact with the civilization of Earth, but it just doesn't fit. This scientific advance is extraordinary but it is also a let down, and the crux of this distinction is the bait and switch that popular sources reporting on this issue have used. They promise Independence Day and X-Files, but instead they give us Nova.

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