Cosmologist Paul Davies explores notion of 'alien' life on Earth

February 15, 2009

Astrobiologists have often pondered "life as we do not know it" in the context of extraterrestrial life, says Paul Davies, an internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University. "But," he asks, "has there been a blind spot to the possibility of 'alien' life on Earth?"

Davies will challenge the orthodox view that there is only one form of life in a lecture titled "Shadow Life: Life As We Don't Yet Know It" on Feb. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His presentation is part of the symposium "Weird Life."

"Life as we know it appears to have had a single common ancestor, yet, could life on Earth have started many times? Might it exist on Earth today in extreme environments and remain undetected because our techniques are customized to the biochemistry of known life?" asks Davies, who also is the director of the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In the lecture, Davies will present, challenge and extend some of the conclusions from a July 2007 report by the National Research Council. That report looked at whether the search for life should include "weird life" - described by the Council as "life with an alternative biochemistry to that of life on Earth."

"If a biochemically weird microorganism should be discovered, its status as evidence for a second genesis, as opposed to a new branch on our own tree of life, will depend on how fundamentally it differs from known life," wrote Davies in the Nov. 19, 2007, issue of Scientific American.

Davies and other pioneers who speculate that life on Earth may have started many times are wondering "why we have overlooked this idea for so long?"

The concept of a shadow biosphere, according to Davies, "is still just a theory. If someone discovers shadow life or weird life it will be the biggest sensation in biology since Darwin. We are simply saying, 'Why not let's take a look for it?' It doesn't cost much (compared to looking for weird life on Mars, say), and, it might be right under our noses."

Davies, whose research is steeped in the branches of physics that deal with quantum gravity - an attempt to reconcile theories of the very large and the very small - is a prolific author (27 books, both popular and specialty works) and is a provocative speaker (he delivered the 1995 Templeton Prize address after receiving the prestigious award for initiating "a new dialogue between science and religion that is having worldwide repercussions").

Among his books are: "How to Build a Time Machine," "The Origin of Life," "The Big Questions," "The Last Three Minutes," "The Mind of God," "The Cosmic Blueprint" and his most recent book "The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the universe just right for life?" published in the United States under the title "Cosmic Jackpot."

He is putting the finishing touches on "The Eerie Silence," to be published in 2010 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the SETI Institute. According to Davies, the book is "a comprehensive fresh look at the entire SETI enterprise."

Source: Arizona State University

Explore further: The fate of the universe—heat death, Big Rip or cosmic consciousness?

Related Stories

Explainer: What is a neutron star?

September 1, 2015

Neutron stars are arguably the most exotic objects in the universe. Like one of those annoying friends who seemingly must overachieve in every aspect of life, neutron stars exceed in almost every category: surface gravity; ...

Five bizarre fossil discoveries that got scientists excited

July 20, 2015

From trilobites to tyrannosaurs, most fossils are of creatures with hard shells or bones. These materials don't easily biodegrade and sediment has time to build up around them and turn them into a record of the creature that ...

Recommended for you

What happens when your brain can't tell which way is up?

October 13, 2015

In space, there is no "up" or "down." That can mess with the human brain and affect the way people move and think in space. An investigation on the International Space Station seeks to understand how the brain changes in ...

Hubble sees an aging star wave goodbye

October 12, 2015

This planetary nebula is called PK 329-02.2 and is located in the constellation of Norma in the southern sky. It is also sometimes referred to as Menzel 2, or Mz 2, named after the astronomer Donald Menzel who discovered ...

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2009
Stereo-isomers ??

IIRC, that's how eg biochemical markers from the earliest sponge-fossils were identified as that rather than, um, 'inorganic'. And. IIRC, the precursor chemicals found in eg meteorites and interstellar gas-clouds are 'equal' proportions of stereo-isomers rather than 'handed'...

Of course, any discoverer would have to do a lot of work to convince...
3 / 5 (2) Feb 16, 2009
I have a suspicion that we will know more about this once we land humans on Mars. If my hunch is correct, we will see oceanic fossils on Mars that are identical to species that are found on earth. It will be then a problem of understanding how these species came to be found on both planets at roughly the same epochs.

Migration of species on a planet is one thing, but interplanetary migration is quite another, and really not possible for these forms of life.

We may find that some extraterrestrial ecology was being practiced in our solar system at a time when mars was dying, and some benolvent intelligence brought to earth the species that had begun on Mars.

So truly there may be aliens on the earth, and they may be right in front of our eyes.

If this idea is right, then we should perhaps look at the story of Utnapishtim again with a deeper understanding of nature.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.