Monday, July 22, 2013

Is Extremophilia a Lifestyle Choice, or Are You Born That Way?

The July/August 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics has an article about "The Case for Alien Life."  I've been trying to find it online, but haven't been able to track it down so far.  I have found thought-provoking articles like "Why 3D Doesn't Work for TV, But Is Great for Gaming" and "When Will the NFL Broadcast in 3D?", however, plus some other articles on the same theme in their archive.

I realize that it's less unwieldy than, say, "extraterrestrial," or "elsewhere in the universe," but it bothers me that their writers keep using the word "alien."  If we ever do find life elsewhere in the universe, we will be the "aliens."  I thought this was funny, for example.
"Titan is so cool," says Peter Ward, who leads NASA-funded astrobiology research at the University of Washington. "Titan is the most exciting place in the solar system astrobiologically. It has the most exciting chemistry set in our solar system by far. If there's life on Titan, it's alien life--really alien life."
If there's life on Titan, it's just plain life.  We'll have to rework our conceptions of the word "life" if it turns out that Titanian life is significantly different in structure and form from life here on Terra.  I was thinking that PM was just dumbing down its analysis for the rubes, so it's comforting to find a scientist who's pretty dumb himself.  Based on our results so far, no matter how astrobiologically exciting Titan may be, the most likely projection is that we won't find any life there.  But true believers never give up.  From the same earlier article:
"Are there ETs in the cosmos? Probably," says Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, which publishes Skeptic magazine, and investigates claims of extraterrestrial contact. "It's a big place. There are lots of opportunities for life. But that's a separate question from, 'Have they come here?'"
Shermer is still too optimistic with that "probably."  A hardcore skeptic would admit that we have no idea about the probabilities of life elsewhere, because we have only one actual case to work with: our own planet.  It's not unreasonable to speculate that life could turn up elsewhere, but so far the evidence is nil.  There's no probability here, just wishful thinking.  As the author of a book called Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer should know better. But everybody's skepticism has its limits.

So I'm working from the print version of the article.  It's pretty standard stuff, the same old come-on that science propagandists have been trotting out for decades.  I'm sure Neil DeGrasse Tyson would love it, if only to gin up enthusiasm for the scientific enterprise among the rabble.
Only one planet has been proven to support life: Earth.  But evidence is mounting that we are not alone.  Scientists now think the galaxy contains at least 11 billion Earth-size worlds orbiting in their stars' habitable zones, where life is most likely to be found.  And new studies show that strange creatures may thrive far beyond that boundary -- on nearly any of the galaxy's 100 billion planets for their moons.
Nothing there is actually false, but it promises so much more than it can deliver.  None of this is "evidence ... that we are not alone".  The main headings of the article are more of the same.  "Water is commonplace, not rare."  Maybe so, but liquid water still looks rare as far as this article shows.  There's "evidence of ancient freshwater" on Mars, for example, and "research conducted by Jay Farihi at the University of Cambridge suggests that liquid water is actually typical of rocky planets such as our own."  "Suggests" -- a very popular word in reports of scientific research, as well as in academic writing -- and a token will get you on the subway.  It's like a hunter bragging about the magnificent specimen he's going to bag.
"The kind of chemistry that could have been used for life exists everywhere," says David Blake, a geologist on the Curiosity rover team.  "There's no reason that life wouldn't have happened on other solar systems.  The ingredients are everywhere we look."
Even on earth, those ingredients don't always combine to produce life.  It's a big leap from having the ingredients to having the recipe.  This also recalls the Fermi Paradox: it's not unreasonable to think that there should be life elsewhere in the universe, but so far there's no evidence that there is.  It's easy to construct what appear to be overwhelming odds in favor of the existence, not just of life, but of intelligent life that could be broadcasting radio waves we should be able to detect.  So far, however, nada.  Enthusiasts have plenty of good reasons why we haven't detected anything, but as time goes on they sound more and more like enthusiasts explaining why Jesus is still late for his rendezvous with destiny.  You'd think science fans -- let alone scientists -- would learn a certain modesty for the claims they make, but we still get articles like "The Case for Alien Life."

Heading number two is "Life is more versatile than we believed."  The evidence here still comes from the Earth, the only planet we know harbors life.
The study of extremophiles was already well-advanced a decade ago, but work such as Christner's is continuing to extend the known boundaries of life.  Organisms thrive in the deepest reaches of the ocean, in the driest of deserts, and in the saltiest of sands. The red algae Galdiera sulphuraria can prosper in sulfuric hot springs and old mineshafts with waters as caustic as battery acid.  Even our skies are swirling with microbes, a paper published in January revealed.
And so on and on.  How much does all this matter, if there are all those billions of Earthlike planets out there?  It sounds as if there should at least be microbes on Mars, but so far our probes haven't come up with anything.  (Show us on the doll where Curiosity touched you, Mars.)  At least the first few times a probe landed there, the media were full of stories about how the high-tech equipment onboard would be able to detect life if it was there.  The equipment even got positive results at first, but then it turned out that the high-tech equipment wasn't all that brilliant after all; from what I've seen, the promoters have been more careful in the promises they've made for their gadgets.  I don't think it counts against Science that life is hard to detect in a strange environment; that itself is interesting.  But it does make me more skeptical of the claims scientific evangelists make.

Heading three: "Planets are the rule, not the exception."  So it seems.  But so far this planet is the only we know of that contains life.  There follows a two-page spread of cartoon "Aliens: How Sci-Fi Movies Can Save Humanity."  I mentioned Neil DeGrasse Tyson earlier, the voluble evangelist for science who thinks that all's fair in getting more funding for NASA.  He'd like a new space race, like the old Cold War space race, but I'm not sure we could have that without returning to the specific conditions of the Cold War; no, thanks.  It's occurred to me that one reason for declining interest in and support for the US space program might be the improved special effects of science-fiction movies and television, compared to which real space flight as we have it now looks grim, dull, and primitive.  After all, in the movies they just pass through a space warp or turn on the warp drive and bingo! they're in another galaxy.  Why aren't we building a warp drive now?  Why couldn't some smart entrepreneur build one in his garage?  They did it all the time in 1950s science fiction, which was Scientific Prophecy so it must have come true.

There's a lot of justified criticism of popular science reporting, but popular media walk a fine line.  They're supposed to get the facts right, but at the same time scientists want them to be cheerleaders for the Onward March of Progress and more funding for research, and to report their speculations as if they were fact.  You can't do both.  Getting the facts right won't inspire as many kids to want to be astronauts and scientists as the latest sci-fi spectacle.  Tread lightly, O skeptics, for you are treading on their dreams.