"Microbial life on Mars confirmed"

Airing on Wednesday, Oct. 19, "Finding Life Beyond Earth" featured a number of prominent scientists discussing the latest research on the question of life in our star system.

While finding intelligent life may or may not occur in our ongoing canvas of the Milky Way, in just the past ten years the search for simple life has yielded promising leads in our own solar backyard. And, if some suspect, microbial life exists just below the desert soil of Mars, or loiters in the thick carbon atmosphere of Titan, or bathes in the relatively warm liquid water that scientists strongly suspect is beneath the vents on Enceladus, than rather than being alone on this buoy, life, simple life, becomes a common feature of the universe.

Cassini, which has been cruising the Saturn system for the past nearly six years, has passed through the ice water in the geysers, pictured above, that Enceladus sends spaceward. Planetary scientists and astronomers could only suspect that prior to 2005. Think about it for a moment. Similarly, it's only in the past three years that thousands of tons of frozen water, locked in the permanently shadowed polar regions of our lunar companion, have been located. The SUV-sized Curiosity, which has just been buttoned up for flight to the Red Planet, will carry its own chemistry lab. A sample return mission to bring back Martian rocks is in the works.

What I find so gratifying about this time and place in history - this golden age in which we live - is that the curtain on the question, "are we alone?" may indeed be pulled back. Writing about being a physicist, the string theorist Brian Greene - and a former IdeaFestival presenter, by the way - says that in his work, "promising ideas lead, more often than not, nowhere."

As a professional physicist, I have long since realized that there was much naïveté in my high school infatuation with physics. Physicists generally do not spend their working days contemplating flowers in a state of cosmic awe. Instead, we devote much of our time to grappling with complex mathematical equations scrawled across well-scored chalkboards. Progress can be slow. Promising ideas, more often than not, lead nowhere. That’s the nature of scientific research.

Yet, even during periods of minimal progress, I’ve found that the effort spent puzzling and calculating has only made me feel a closer connection to the cosmos. I’ve found that you can come to know the universe not only by resolving its mysteries, but also by immersing yourself within them. Answers are great. Answers confirmed by experiment are greater still. But even answers that are ultimately proven wrong represent the result of a deep engagement with the cosmos—an engagement that sheds intense illumination on the questions, and hence on the universe itself. Even when the rock associated with a particular scientific exploration happens to roll back to square one, we nevertheless learn something and our experience of the cosmos is enriched.

Do ideas matter? The promising idea of simple sticky life nearby - energetic, mewling, fertile - may come to nothing. But if it doesn't, and if one day 10 or 20 years hence, the headline "Microbial life on Mars confirmed" appears, will you be changed?


Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute