“Where is everybody?” That is the question Enrico Fermi reportedly asked, summarizing the quandary: if the universe is so big, why haven’t we seen any aliens? Since then, many people have tried their hand at answering why it is that we have yet to find evidence of extraterrestrials (notwithstanding claims of some fringe groups that contact has already happened).
One tool to answer the so-called Fermi Paradox is the Drake Equation, which lists out variables that would determine whether we would be able to detect life elsewhere in the universe. A key variable in the Drake Equation is the likelihood of life’s emergence in the first place. Recently, an entire field has emerged that studies the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe – astrobiology. The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), founded in 1998, is devoted to pursuing questions in this field. And it is active: it recently awarded five-year grants to three research teams studying astrobiological phenomena.
Some individuals who spend their careers thinking about the Fermi Paradox, such as Stephen Webb, conclude that we may be alone. Many, if not most, scientists seem to believe there is certainly a possibility for extraterrestrial life. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “To suggest that we are the only life in the universe would be inexcusably egocentric.”
Other scientists think the likelihood of life elsewhere is so probable that it is worth spending resources on. The SETI Institute, for which Carl Sagan served on the board of trustees, employs over 130 individuals to support its mission: exploring, understanding, and explaining the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence.
Filling Space spoke with Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor at the Technical University of Berlin and one of the co-authors of The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds, to hear his thoughts on the subject.
What is the biggest challenge for the field of astrobiology?
The biggest challenge for astrobiology is to figure out the origin of life. We have a pretty good idea on the persistence and adaptability of life (as we know it), but in order to get any handle on how common life is in the Universe, we need to figure out the odds of the origin of life and the presumably different pathways on how to achieve it.
What do you think the biggest misconceptions about life in the universe are?
I think the biggest misconception is that life has to be like us and as we know it. We are way too Earth-centric in our assumptions. That may be an ok approach for a first attempt to search for life, but the danger is that we miss life if it is significantly different from the form and types we are familiar with.
What is one finding from your research you would like to be more generally known?
The conclusions of our book “The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds” – that if life originates on a planet and if that planet or moon stays habitable long enough, then life eventually and inevitably will develop to become complex – meaning not necessarily organisms that we would identify as animals, plants, or fungi, but that would be in their function and capabilities very similar.