Life As We Know It

Scientists have a difficult time of it. They are expected to come up with radical new methodologies and theories on a regular basis while operating within the budgetary constraints enjoyed by teenagers mowing lawns. If they fail to spend their £5 wisely, they are forced to make it up, so that the next £5 may be forthcoming.

Having been given at least £10 to come up with a fleet of interplanetary survey robots, NASA have succeeded in landing another electrical beastie on the Red Planet, with the intention of finding the pre-requisites for life.

I stand and applaud the brains of those involved in getting Phoenix all the way to Mars and getting the Global Surveyor orbiter to take a photo of it’s descent. It makes you proud of what we can achieve, and twice as sad about what we continue to ignore.

What does worry me slightly is how we judge mission success. We – humans – have spent literally tens of your local currency units in developing a spacecraft to search for life “as we know it”. We have then sent that spacecraft to a planet that it quite dissimilar to ours. Logically, any Life that exists on this planet will be different to Life on our planet. How then do we propose to recognise Martian Life when we see it?

Life “as we know it” is a broad church, from penthouse-dwelling carbon-based bipedal simian-derivatives at one end1 to primordial, single-cell spheres at the other. So, let’s suppose for a minute that Life as we know it does exist on Mars. It can’t be at the penthouse-dwelling end of the spectrum, as the cameras on the orbiting spacecraft can spot the specific shade of blue of an outdoor pool from a long way away, and we would have heard about it by now.

Therefore, any Life that exists must be at the primordial soup level of being. Even if Phoenix can detect Life at that scale, how excited can we really be expected to get? Space tigers and Martian bear analogs are one thing, but microbes with three eyes instead of two? Sorry, but I’m watching Eastenders and I can’t take my two eyes off it…

Clearly, we have no idea what Martian Life looks like, so how can this mission ever succeed? And if the scientists believe they can, how do they propose to convince the rest of us? I can understand the Carbon-centric definition of Life – humans have been assuming that they are the centre of everything for centuries. But if the scientific output of my lifetime is anything to go by, it is abundantly clear that we are but an infinitesimal speck on the universe and that any definitive statements we make about the universe is found to be wrong a few years later.

So, we have spent billions of cash creating the industry and specific technologies required to send a robot to another planet to look for Life whose signature we have no clue about. Lots of cash wasted, no chance of success? Now that is Life as we know it.

1 I know I put us at one end, but there are no Polar Bears around here to say “Actually, mate…”