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Science / Space

Science Fiction vs. Science Fact: What Will Aliens Look Like?

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It's a question by a science fiction author with The New York Times.

Whether it’s friendly little green men or scary mind-reading creatures, humans love to imagine what alien life will look like when we find it. But the human-created image of alien life is not completely unrealistic. In fact, they’re a combination of human’s experiences, science and space exploration.

New York Times bestselling author of science fiction works and co-editor of The Big Book of Science Fiction Jeff VanderMeer said images of alien life have been around for centuries but it wasn’t until the 1960s that images of extraterrestrial life transformed into what we see on screen today.

Space exploration kindled curiosity but also worries about the appearance and intentions of inhabitants in other worlds. “A lot of times it would be about either aliens coming to earth and being in some way horrifying, or going to Mars and finding that life was pretty horrifying there, too,” VanderMeer said.

“They’re reflections of our hopes and fears, and not necessarily an accurate feeling of what an alien might be, you know, it’s like not biologically correct,” he added.

The author said the inspiration behind the aliens comes from the mystery of the emergence of life on Earth and all the unknown organisms living among us.

“I think sometimes we forget that there’s a lot of alien life on our planet,” VanderMeer said, explaining that his creative process comes from looking at studies of organisms here on Earth and imagining how they would look in space. “There’s a lot of really beautifully strange organisms that we don’t even understand,” here on Earth he added.

“I sometimes feel like we are the aliens, coming down to a planet that we don’t fully understand and we’ve settled on and live on without fully grasping the ecosystems here,” he said.

Just like VanderMeer, scientists look at the start of life on Earth as one big mystery and focus on discovering what ecosystems in our early years might have prompted it.

LISTEN: SEARCHING FOR ALIENS. Listen to Are We There Yet?, WMFE’s space exploration podcast.

Laurie Barge, an Astrobiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said that discovering the conditions that helped create life on Earth can help understand how life could form in other worlds.

Barge’s research focuses on recreating hydrothermal vents, chimney-like systems discovered more than 40 years ago in our oceans. She studies the habitability — or ability for an environment to support life — of these systems and how life came out of them.

“By understanding how life currently lives in vents, it may also give us some insight into how life lived on the Earth, and then if hydrothermal vents were a primordial environment for life, then perhaps that could give us insight also into how metabolism began,” she said.

For scientists, the chemical reactions that hold life in our oceans are important in their efforts to study habitability in the underground waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa. However, Barge said such studies require a lot of effort.

“Even on Earth, exploring events is a very difficult activity,” Barge explained. “It’s hard to get robots down there, and it’s hard to get samples back, so exploring oceans can be quite a challenge,” she added.

Although Barge said it’s not easy to predict exactly what life will look like, the astrobiologist said that it all depends on the environment scientists decide to explore.

“If we find something microbial, then maybe we could look at it under a microscope,” she said. “But also, it’s possible that depending on what sort of signatures we’ve seen about life, we may or may not be able to actually look at it, and we might find signatures of [life] on things like minerals or rocks or chemicals.”

Scientists keep working on tracing biosignatures and minerals that might indicate habitability in space and potential alien life. Even if the discovery doesn’t look like a friendly Martian, the smallest sign of life will mean we were never alone in the universe.

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