Transcript for Marc Kaufman on First Contact

Jim Fleming: Are we alone in the universe? Almost certainly not. That’s an astonishing statement, isn’t it? Just a few years ago it would have been the stuff of science fiction. Now it’s mainstream science. To find out what changed Anne Strainchamps turned to science fiction writer Mark Kaufman and his new book, First Contact.

Anne Strainchamps: Well your book, Mark, begins with this remarkable opening statement. It is actually so remarkable, I want to quote it. “Before the end of this century and perhaps much sooner than that, scientists will determine that life exists elsewhere in the universe.”  Really?

Mark Kaufman: Absolutely, and this is the consensus of the people who are involved in this field. What they have found so far points directly to the virtual impossibility of there not being life elsewhere.

Strainchamps: So let’s go through some of these building blocks that have led to the idea that life exists elsewhere in the universe, the extremophiles.

Kaufman: This is a world of research that kind of began at Yellowstone where they found, at this hydrothermal vent, that even though it was super-hot they were finding little microbial life; bacteria, single cell organisms. And then that got carried further and they found and they found hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, where things were much, much hotter and still there were microbes living in temperatures that no one had imagined possible.

Strainchamps: And then there have been some found in extremely cold environments too, right?

Kaufman: Absolutely. It turns out, and again this is all quite new research, that Antarctica is now being seen as an ecosystem. It’s not just frozen ice but rather in the ice, going down two, three miles, there’s microbial life in the ice; vast amounts of life. 

Strainchamps: I sort of have this image of a bunch of microbe hunters who are travelling the world to the most extreme, inhospitable corners of the planet and scarping around trying to find evidence of living bacteria.

Kaufman: It is an absolutely accurate impression. They’re doing that in the bowels of the earth, into the gold mines of South Africa, which are the deepest on earth. They’re finding it in places like Mono Lake, which is very heavy in arsenic. So yes, you’re absolutely right. The point, in a sense, has already been made, that life is far, far more tenacious than we ever imagined, but everywhere they look, they find it.

Strainchamps:   I have to ask the So what?”question. I mean, it’s marvelous to see how tenacious some of these primitive life forms can be but what does that prove really?

Kaufman:   It actually proves a lot in two different levels. The first is there has been life on earth scientists believe somewhere around three point eight, three point nine billion years. Of that time, more than three billion years, all they had was microbes. So everything that there is; you know, ragweed and cats and us, it all came from this soup of gradually evolving microbial life. The extrapolation from that is; why wouldn’t that happen on Mars? Why wouldn’t that be in the Seas of Europa underneath the ice crust and so on? So that’s the importance of it as seen through astrobiology.

Strainchamps:   In the meantime, you mentioned that one of the other avenues of astrobiology is this investigation of the make up of space. What’s going on there?

Kaufman:   To me, utterly fascinating things. You know, you look up in the sky and you think, “Well, you know, they’re just a bunch of stars and a lot of dark matter, dark energy and there’s not anything in it.”Well it turns out that it is, in many different parts of the sky and of the universe, there are complex carbons that are formed and are just floating around; polyaromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde. They even have found amino acids floating in space and, most important; they’ve found them in meteorites that come from space and have in them both amino acids and something called nucleobases, which are the compounds which are the essential core of RNA and DNA.  So all of that is out there in space.

Strainchamps: Wow. That makes me think that when you look out into the night sky what we’re seeing, or what we would see if we had giant telescopes, is a universe that’s just seeded with life, or the building blocks of life, and those seeds then, like dandelion fluff drift down onto a planet and if the conditions are right they can take root and produce life.

Kaufman: And that’s absolutely correct. Which is why, one of the main reasons why, astrobiologists believe that it is almost impossible that there isn’t life elsewhere, because there is all those planets and there’s all that material and it’s all falling down. And that’s happening on every planet and every moon in the universe.

Strainchamps: Mark, you started by saying that most astrobiologists, and you yourself also, firmly believes that there is life elsewhere in the universe. I guess I want to ask you about whether that’s changed you personally? When you look out at the night sky now do you feel any different?

Kaufman: Actually I do, yes. It’s just kind of filled me increasingly with an awe and just a wonder of what’s out there. The amount of knowledge that scientist’s have put together is extraordinary and impressive and what it says is that the universe has in it a logic that seems to drive towards there being life, toward biology, and it’s hard to not be deeply moved by the very strong likelihood that there is life in different forms of evolution all around.

Jim Fleming: Mark Kaufman talking with Anne Strainchamps. He is a science writer and national editor for the Washington Post and the author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth.


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