Major NASA announcement tomorrow may reveal new form of life

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Barrett Brown

I am the founder of the distributed think-tank Project PM and a regular inactive to Vanity Fair and Skeptical Inquirer. My work has also appeared in The Onion, National Lampoon, New York Press, D Magazine, Skeptic, McSweeney's, American Atheist, and a couple of newspapers in the U.S. and Mexico as well as a few policy journals. I'm the author of two books and serve as a consultant to various political entities and private clients.

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23 Responses

  1. I’m a pretty big fan of anything NASA does and this kind of stuff brings out the kid in me. Super-cool stuff.Report

  2. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    I hear from many people that if we did discover non-earth life that it would change many peoples world views.

    So if they do announce extraterrestrial life does it change anything for anyone here on the league or will it simply be another awesome thing to know and talk about?Report

    • Avatar Barrett Brown in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

      I wouldn’t even be surprised if we found proof that extraterrestrial life regularly visits our planet, so the mere existence of civilized life elsewhere wouldn’t even change my afternoon.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Barrett Brown says:

        Wow Barrett, you’re hard to impress. Sentient life would rock the foundations of our understandings of religion and our place in the universe. Sentient life visiting out little corner of the galaxy would imply the shattering of our very understandings of physics and quantum physics. That’d be potentially a singularity.Report

        • Avatar Barrett Brown in reply to North says:

          Well, I’m sort of unusual among those heavily involved in the skeptical “movement” insomuch as that I am not at all skeptical about the possibility of life originating on a planet, leading to sentience and civilization which in turn almost inevitably begins to send out signals, robots, and members of its own species to other planets and solar systems, as we have already begun to do so – and we are only 60 years in at this point, having already sent out a probe containing instructions on where to find us, what we’re composed of, and other information (actually it was 30 years ago that we did that). So, anyone who considers the idea patently ridiculous is a fool. Unfortunately there are a lot of fools who sully and even control the skeptical movement. If I were Andrew Sullivan, I would call it skepticismism.Report

    • My understanding of the probably announcement is not that they have discovered ET life but that they have determined life can be created outside of the ‘conventional’ carbon-based way we saw it created here on Earth. That means life could exist in mnay places we previously thought inhospitable.

      To answer your question, I have always believed that we are not alone in this universe. This won’t rattle my cage for a second so I would call it just another awesome thing to talk about – unless they bust out some alien life right then and there – then I’m going to flip out (in a good way).Report

    • Sentient life would change something for me — maybe not my day-to-day life, but the way I think about the world/universe — whereas anything less will just be something really great to know about.Report

  3. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    I’ve got no inside information on what NASA will be saying tomorrow (I’m a fairly lowly NASA engineer), but I wanted to jump in and say how amazed and thrilled I am to see how such politically different opiners as Barrett and MikeatTBS can be equally excited about NASA’s work. I often wonder why more libertarians don’t oppose NASA. I also wonder why conservatives are so gung-ho about NASA being the space-travel gatekeeper when they want everything else to be privatized.Report

    • I would speculate that conservatives kind of see NASA as like the military. It’s charged with doing the work that the private industry just can’t handle. Or maybe Republicans feel a sense of ownership since NASA really got rolling under Ike.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

        Possibly, also NASA plays very well towards the National Greatness strains that many on the right are fond of. The Moon landing as a victory over Communism for instance probably still warms many a right wing boomer memory.Report

        • Avatar dexter45 in reply to North says:

          I know that the moonlanding warms this left wing boomer’s heart, but I would think the right would not like the moon landing because it is proof positive that the government can do something right. About the aliens, I would be very suprised if their is not intlligent life somewhere besides here, but I doubt any truly intelligent life has visited earth. I would like to see it though.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to dexter45 says:

            Never meant to exclude the left Dex of course.Report

          • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to dexter45 says:

            In this country, the Progressive Left is the most likely of political factions to oppose NASA funding. For instance, my late grandmother, who loved me dearly, really didn’t want to hear how much money was going to NASA that could be feeding and educating poor children. This may be why Obama’s commercialization scheme was so strongly opposed by Republicans–they didn’t trust a change to be carried out by Progressives, even if it seemed to be sort of in the right direction. They suspected sabotage.

            So, anyway, that’s why I excluded the left. There are plenty of liberals (like most of the folks I work with) who support NASA, but plenty more who don’t.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

        Mike is probably right — NASA seems a lot like the military to most people. I even had a very highly educated person insist to me once that NASA was a branch of the military. It’s not, of course, but the mistake is revealing.

        As a libertarian, I’ll say that NASA is way, way, WAY down on my list of things to abolish. It’s very cheap, it’s great PR for our country, it isn’t militant, it doesn’t directly violate anyone’s rights, it’s not throwing people in prison because they smoke a plant. Yes, it takes tax money. But so does all the other stuff that is militant, violating people’s rights, etc.

        But anyway — on the larger philosophical point. I would be very worried if we discovered non-sentient extraterrestrial life. It would mean that the Great Filter is more likely to be ahead of us. That’s not good news. That’s terrible news.Report

        • Avatar Barrett Brown in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Not necessarily. The interpretation of the Fermi Paradox as evidence that advanced life is rare does not take into account the possibility that sublimation tends to become an option for a civilization at some point and that such an option is widely considered desirable and is thus undertaken. Personally I think that the tendency is that, as a civilization reaches our current point and goes beyond, it becomes capable of destroying itself due to the proliferation of advanced technologies among its individuals and factions, but if it manages to survive, it reaches the possibility of sublimation and takes it as a safeguard against the continuance of that dangerous dynamic. Once sublimation occurs, the civilization is now safe from all dangers, even presumably the heat death of the universe.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Boegiboe says:

      I often wonder why more libertarians don’t oppose NASA.

      I’ve got my doubts about whether we should be funding NASA. But even on the worst assumptions about it, it just doesn’t rise to the level of a pressing issue compared to all the other programs and policies out there to rile us up. And since it does bring out the kid in a lot of us…well, if I got to be king, I might get around to chopping it eventually, but it’d be so far down on my list I wouldn’t worry about whether I ever actually got around to doing so or not.Report

  4. Avatar mcmillan says:

    Not to dampen things but apparently the embargo got broken and it looks like the speculation that it was related to one of the scientists that’s going to be at the conference that’s been looking for things that can use arsenic instead of phosphorus (not a link to the embargo breakinng story since it’s horrible, that gives a decent description of the actual significance). That itself is very cool even if the alien connection seems to be completly unnecessary hype, since phosphorus is pretty much central to all biology we know of on earth until these bugs were found. I’m really curious about how different these things actually are. If they were just able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus like some of the stories seem to suggest may be the case, it’s cool but not earth shaking. Basically that would show that life is a lot more flexible than we’ve seen so far, which is pretty much what my impression of this field thought even before this discovery. On the other hand phosphorus is part of DNA and RNA plus other stuff that is common with all life we’ve seen so far, so if it’s using arsenic in a completely different way it could be evidence of life starting at least twice on earth, which would be a really big deal. The linked story has an abstract that says it can’t just substitutue, but my inorganic chemistry knowledge is not enough for me to really judge how absolute that statement should be taken.Report

  5. Avatar c says:

    so if it’s using arsenic in a completely different way it could be evidence of life starting at least twice on earth, which would be a really big deal

    very interesting ; thanks for the input Mac!Report

  6. Avatar mcmillan says:

    People have probably seen the actual coverage by now (amazing how much better things are when they seem to be written by people who actually know what’s in the paper). But I figured I should follow up and point out that it seems to be the least interesting of the possibilities I speculated about. This bug seems to be related things we already knew about, and knew could at least tolerate arsenic. The main advancement seems to be that this seems to be able to incorporate it pretty much everywhere phosphorus is usually found (but when it can use phosphorus it will, and would grow better). So all the hype about aliens ended up being something more analogous to if somebody found a new type of gopher that could survive stress by scrounging nutrients from dirt if it couldn’t eat plants. A cool finding, but that actual significance was completely drowned out by the hype.Report

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