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Astrobiology: the science of speculation

Astrobiology: the science of speculation

If you haven’t watched the Jodie Foster film Contact, watch it now. We’ll wait.

Good, you’re back. So, do you believe she was transported through a wormhole to a distant civilization? If you do, this course is for you. It’s also for you if you don’t, because as a science, astrobiology applies rigorous critical reasoning to basic questions like ‘Is there anybody else out there?’, ‘What other forms of life are possible apart from us?’ and ‘What are the conditions elsewhere in the cosmos that might support life?’

The only snag is that with astrobiology, there isn’t actually anything to study yet, or at least we haven’t found it. This fact makes the subject a big, fascinating thought experiment – but one which draws on solid science as a guide.

Research in this area can shed light on questions that are closer to home, like ‘Did life begin on Earth unaided, or was it transported here - maybe on comets or asteroids?’ Such questions are treated seriously by astrobiologists. Looking outwards into the cosmos, they also seek answers to the increasingly pressing question ‘Can we establish a permanent human presence beyond the Earth?’

Astrobiology is perhaps the most open-minded area of science, because in addition to our own version of life (carbon-based, DNA-dependent, and employing respiration or photosynthesis), one must allow the possibility of alternative life chemistries, or indeed that of no chemistry at all – intelligent beings might be energy fields rather than bodies, and they might inhabit a greater number of dimensions than those we are capable of observing. Alien life could be seriously freaky – in fact it should be. Why should it be anything like us?

In the northern hemisphere of the third planet from an insignificant main sequence star in an outpost of a spiral arm of the Milky Way, there is a city called Edinburgh. Its university houses the UK Centre for Astrobiology, where boffins ponder the above questions and many more, and teach younger humans about them. There is a 20-credit on-campus undergraduate course in Astrobiology and an online version on Coursera that anyone – even extra-terrestrials – can take if they have a broadband connection.  

On the other side of the Atlantic lies another center for astrobiological studies. The University of Washington Astrobiology Program offers research opportunities, a graduate program and a selection of education and (this is wonderfully appropriate) outreach courses.