Doesn’t it often happen that when we first look at a particular animal species, fish, or insect, our mind goes, whoa! It has to be from another planet! Never had that feeling? Well, maybe looking at fangtooth lurking deep in the darkest corners of Earth’s oceans could give you the creeps we are referring to.
An unimaginable form of life
As humans, we must admit that we have limited imagination. So our movies depict aliens almost as humans, only with minor tweaks to our anatomy — unless it’s a cosmic horror or another Lovecraftian story. The cartoons our children love show aliens walking on two legs like us, but they are aliens because they have different head shapes, weird eyes, green, blue, or pink-skinned, etc.
These are the images and depictions we grow up with, which become imprinted in our minds as we grow older. We expect alien life to have a nose to breathe, a mouth to eat and speak, and a pair of legs to mobilize.
And any idea suggesting that aliens may live on Earth while hiding in plain sight becomes quite an alien thought. But that is exactly what one of NASA’s top astrobiologists maintains could be true: aliens may live on Earth. But we wouldn’t know.
Penelope Boston, Director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, gave a keynote speech at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium a few years back. She introduced the very concept under discussion here — the existence of alien life on Earth.
In her speech, she basically presented the idea that alien life could be entirely different from what we consider. It’s by no means necessary that alien life could be akin to a human walking upright, a horse galloping, a reptile slithering, or a bug in its chaotic rush. It could be something entirely beyond our imagination, something we could never even identify.
“It’s not like you can walk into a new environment with your lovely robot on some other planet, look at the ground, and go ‘gosh, it’s life!’ Instead, it’s ‘gosh, it’s blue something, and it’s got a copper signal, and I don’t know’ — and then you have to investigate,” Boston said in her speech at the symposium.
She went on to say that it was, in fact, the “great challenge of astrobiology” to become knowledgeable enough to recognize life in its various adaptations. Her presentation also highlighted various unmet astrobiological challenges, including the hunt for life in extraterrestrial environments, non-invasive life detection techniques, methods of detecting ancient life traces, and pattern recognition at microscales and macroscales.
What in the world
To drive her point home about the existence of alien species, Boston presented a series of pictures portraying life forms she discovered during her research around the world. The flip side? She or none other knows what they are or how they came to be. As explained by Boston, many of these life forms seem mineralogical to the naked eye, yet they were living.
She also cited an example of an organism that looks like mesh stockings found in subsurface environments or every kind across the world. “We cannot figure out what they are,” she said. “When we take those samples from the environment, and we do a genetic analysis, we get this [a long list] of strains. None of these strains are related to anything known; they’re all novel organisms.”
“I think it’s a new kind of life. It may not even have DNA. I don’t know,” she said. The biodiversity in the subsurface is “stupefying,” Boston said.
She added that most people working in the astrobiology community were not engineers or makers. The only way to secure major capability leaps was to have innovative engineers and scientists join hands with enthusiastic astrobiology customers. So they can come up with technology that could identify organisms instantly, like the tricorder writers of Star Trek imagined a few decades ago.
When it comes to alien life, even astrobiologists are “clueless”
So, with scientists as invested in astrobiology as Boston finding themselves clueless about the existence of unknown life forms present everywhere around the world, the average folk hardly stand a chance of knowing what’s alien or not. We can only still guess why dogs chase their tails or bark at cars, for that matter. Maybe it’s an alien habit. Perhaps it isn’t.
The evidence of life forms spread worldwide, as unearthed by Boston, has given way to two major realizations. One, our imagination doesn’t know what life in the universe would look like, and two, we nearly do not have any technology to recognize or communicate with that alien life.
“I would sure like to solve this or have one of my students solve this before I drop dead, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Boston maintained.
While we may be fascinated by the thought of aliens flying spacecraft over our heads and creating crop circles in fields as we lay asleep just to freak us out, alien life could be entirely different. Just like the organisms Boston discovered in subsurface environments. Humans could be the most advanced species in the entire universe or the most backward.
Like Horton’s world from Dr. Suess’ book, ours could be a speck. Or we could be aliens ourselves in a world first inherited by creatures we have slowly eradicated. Guess we’ll never know.