This column was written for Many Worlds by Michael L. Wong and Stuart Bartlett. Wong is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Astronomy and Astrobiology program and is a member of NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative as part of the university’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory team. Bartlett is a postdoctoral scholar in Geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and has been a fellow at the Earth-Live Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.
By Michael L. Wong and Stuart Bartlett
The search for extraterrestrial life is in its early phase still and, the truth is, we don’t yet know if life exists beyond our pale blue dot. Or, if it does, whether it will be easily recognizable or truly bizarre.
Predicting what might be out there, and how to find it, is a hypothesis-driven area of research at present — one that has given rise to hundreds of possible definitions for the “life” we are looking for.
But after grounding ourselves in scientific principles, it may be that our greatest tool is to let our imaginations fly. Science fiction often helps us embrace our ignorance of what might be out there.
In the Star Trek universe, our galaxy is teeming with life—both astonishingly familiar and incredibly different.
The familiar variety includes Mr. Spock, the U.S.S. Enterprise’s half-human, half-Vulcan science officer. He is the product of an extraordinary cosmic coincidence: the emergence of nearly identical biochemical machinery on two completely separate worlds. Vulcans—despite their pointy ears, upswept eyebrows, and a nearly religious devotion to bowl cuts—are incredibly similar to humans on the cellular, genetic, and metabolic level.
We can share meals, share air, and, yes, share intimacy. Even their green, copper-based blood is not as alien as it might seem; this trait is typical of most mollusks and crustaceans on Earth.
But Star Trek also depicts life forms that are incredibly dissimilar from you, me, or Mr. Spock.
Take the Horta, for example. This lumpy mass, like a misshapen meatball crossed with a child’s volcano science experiment, is a silicon-based life form composed of molten rock and acid.
Then there’s Q, a non-corporeal being that possesses god-like powers which, it seems, are directed solely upon harassing Captain Jean-Luc Picard.… Read more