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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Is there anyone out there?


W hat's the most incredible headline you could expect to read in a newspaper? For me, it would have to be something like: "We are not alone: Life found on other planets."

Few other news stories could have such an impact. While this week's column doesn't have that headline (and won't be quite so important!), it's worth considering that the chances of discovering extraterrestrial life do not now belong to the realms of science fiction. The Vatican, for one, has prepared itself for that possibility.

The story begins in 1969, in a small village not far from Melbourne, in Australia. One evening in September that year, people in Murchison saw a fireball tearing through the sky. It broke into three fragments and slammed into the ground. It was a meteorite, like the thousands that constantly fall into our atmosphere from space.

But unlike most of them, it reached the surface without completely burning up. Not only that, the meteorite was seen to fall locally (one fragment crashed through the roof of a barn). But most spectacularly, when it was analyzed it was found to contain a range of common amino acids.

Scientists established that the amino acids — the basic components of proteins — were not contaminants from Earth, but had arrived from space.

This soon led to the theory that life itself could have been seeded on Earth from space. And this posed an enormous problem for religions that explain life as being created on Earth by a God in His image.

But, like organisms evolving by natural selection to new conditions, religion adapted quickly. Some theologians (and, indeed, scientists) proposed that life could still have been created elsewhere, and then migrated to Earth. Some Christians agreed.

Until recently, however, the Vatican has remained aloof. Now, a new claim about the Murchison meteorite has changed that.

Zita Martins, an astrobiologist at Imperial College London, says that the meteorite contains not just amino acids — which can be formed spontaneously given the right conditions — but also the building blocks of DNA and RNA, the key chemicals of life in all known organisms.

The building blocks are called nucleobases, carbon molecules that help form the famous DNA double helix.

Martins and her team analyzed the nucleobases and found that there was too much of a cosmic, heavy version of carbon present in them than could be possible in nucleotides formed on Earth. The Murchison nucleobases contain high amounts of carbon-13 (rather than the usual terrestrial carbon-12), which is common in interstellar gas clouds.

The team therefore concluded that the DNA components in the meteorite probably come from outer space. And they go further.

"It boosts the idea that the origin of life on Earth may have had an important contribution from an extraterrestrial object," said Martins, who published her report in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Other scientists were skeptical, pointing out that it is by no means certain that the molecules were formed in outer space. On the other hand, officials at the Vatican seemed to prepare the ground for this possibility, and even for the discovery of life on other planets.

The Vatican runs a state-of-the-art astronomical observatory south of Rome, and its chief astronomer, the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, said there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of "extraterrestrial brothers."

"In my opinion this possibility (of life on other planets) exists," said Funes, who as well as being head of the Vatican Observatory is a Jesuit priest and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict.

Funes told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that it wasn't possible to exclude the possibility of life on other planets, and said he saw no conflict between belief in extraterrestrials and faith in God.

"Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on Earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom," he said. "Why can't we speak of a brother extraterrestrial? It would still be part of creation," he said.

It is unclear whether Funes' views are official Catholic doctrine or not, or whether he was merely speaking as a scientist.

Meanwhile, Nasa's Mars lander, Phoenix, is processing soil samples on the surface of the red planet. It has already found water ice on Mars — the first spacecraft to do so — and has recently determined that the pH (acid/alkali) and nutrient content of the soil is similar to that on Earth, prompting NASA scientists to speculate that crops could be grown there.

More seriously, the discovery broadens the range of possible, as yet undiscovered organisms that would be able to live on Mars. The Vatican now takes all this in its stride.

For me, I like the demonstration that religion adapts like life itself, in an analogy with natural selection.

For Funes, and presumably for other religious people so inclined, the possibility of discovering ET life holds a tantalizing prospect: That other beings live with God, not "separated" from Him/Her like humans are.

So OK, now that would be the most incredible headline imaginable: "God discovered living with aliens."

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life)."


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