• Dirk Schulze-Makuch

How Science Can Help Us to Understand the Past but also Tackle Earth´s Future Challenges

Exciting Talks at the Breakthrough Initiatives Meeting

One of the Breakthrough Initiatives projects is Starshot to allow interstellar flight with light sails (

Earlier this week, the Breakthrough Initiatives held the scientific meeting Life in the Universe 2021: Our Past, Present, and Future Selves. The meeting was all virtual and featured many well-known experts from various scientific disciplines of astrobiology.

One of the memorial talks was by Steve Benner from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FAME), who claimed that by 4.36 billion years ago, Earth´s rocky mantle was already oxidized. This is important because it means that borate was available to stabilize carbohydrates (sugars) and silicates to stabilize RNA from decaying. According to Benner they are both critical steps in the origin of life process. Benner further elaborated that any water-based life would not necessarily be based on RNA or DNA but could be based on some other biopolymer with repeating charges of the same sizes and shapes. This expected property could then be used to search for life on Mars, as proposed in his Agnostic Life Finder (ALF).

Another talk on the first day was by Arik Kershenbaum, a zoologist from the University of Cambridge (UK), on universal laws of biology and what we can and cannot predict about alien life. That presentation was of special interest to me because it is also the main theme of my book Life in the Universe: Expectations and Constraints. Kershenbaum emphasized that natural selection, game theory, physical laws, and ecological interactions and its dynamics are crucial for predicting alien life. He suggested that complex life can only be present in complex environments, meaning fragmented habitats with lots of interactions between different types of species. He stated that most alien life would be recognizable to us, but admitted that in some cases we might find “freak life”. One example he gave was that the vast majority of life on Earth has bilateral symmetry, but there are a few exceptions like jellyfish or corals.

The second day started with a talk by Martin Rees, who was the 78th president of the Royal Astronomical Society (UK). Rees started with projections of Earth´s future and its challenges, including climate change, AI, and the growing population. In regard to the stress caused by the increasing population, he quoted Gandhi: “There will be enough for everyone´s need, but not for everyone´s greed.” He also noted that escaping space will not solve problems on Earth and that the case for human spaceflight will become weaker and weaker as we can do more and more with robotics and AI. Rees admitted that there are many natural phenomena, which we are not (yet?) aware of, like monkeys are not aware of the existence of galaxies.

Another impressive talk was by Frances Westall from CNRS in Orleans, France. She tied the possible presence of alien life to whether the origin of life requires exposed land surfaces with lakes and rivers or whether it can also occur at white smokers, which are deep, alkaline hydrothermal vents. This has repercussions whether we would expect life on an ocean world such as Europa. Another critical question she brought up was the scale of the emergence of life, both in regard to time and space. There are some indications that life may have originated relatively quickly, perhaps in much less than one million years, but how much area or volume do you need (a whole ocean perhaps?). Right now, this is anyone´s guess.

These talks and others – such as the one by Barbara Sherwood-Lollar on the subsurface biosphere or the one by Jason Wright about technosignatures –will soon be online on the Breakthrough Initiatives website. This was certainly an exciting meeting with cutting-edge science in various astrobiology-relevant topics.

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