Sunday, July 08, 2007

Re-imagining life to open up a universe of discovery

A panel of scientists with the National Research Council has released a report advising NASA to be a little more open-minded in its interpretation of what constitutes a life form. In their opinion, the US space agency has been too focused on rediscovering the traditional hydro-carbon model for life formation. With the recent discoveries of new organisms that thrive in extreme conditions of cold, heat and harsh chemicals, such a bigotted definition of ET could cause NASA to overlook some unobvious environments, such as Saturn's moon Titan (pictured at left).

It's always a good idea to step back from our failed obsessive pursuits and consider new ways of thinking and seeing. When we break out of the constraining boxes of old perceptual forms to re-consider and re-imagine our most basic, and closely held beliefs, we just may find a whole new universe open up to us. As the wise biochemist states below, it would be truly tragic to blindly stumble past the possibility of a profound discovery due to a lack of vision and imagination.

Here are excerpts from the Reuters story:

Look for life not as we know it, U.S. report urges
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

"The purpose of this whole report was to be able to look for life on other planets and moons with an open mind ... and not maybe miss some other life form because we looking for some obvious life form," said John Baross, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington in Seattle, who chaired the committee. ...

Recent discoveries of extremophiles -- organisms living in conditions of heat, cold and dark and using chemicals once thought incompatible with life -- have changed ideas of where life can survive.

As a biochemist, Baross said lab experiments also show water does not necessarily have to be the basis for life. It might be possible for a living organism to use methane, ethane, ammonia or even more bizarre chemicals, he said. ...

"If you are a biochemist, Titan is of enormous interest, because it's a carbon moon. It does have clearly some liquid methane or liquid ethane lakes or pools. There could be chemical reactions going on that could be favorable for producing complex biochemicals," Baross said.

"The exploration that could lead to a novel life form ... would be the most profound discovery ever made," Baross said.

Stumbling past it or worse, destroying it because it did not look like life, would be an equally profound tragedy, he said.

Read the full article
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