Few people are as willing to answer what life is and where we can find it as Carlos Briones.
A scientist, poet and poet, the Spanish astrobiologist spent years asking himself the big questions about the origin of life on Earth and the existence of other life forms in the universe.
As he says on his Twitter account, “Science to understand the world, poetry to name it. And always, doubt,” he has an interest and passion for doing so through his “Third Culture,” the relationship between sciences, humanities, and the arts.
He and his team are conducting research on the first biological molecules capable of transmitting genetic information and developing biosensors with the function of detecting molecules related to the existence of life, wherever it may be.
Briones – who works in the Laboratory of Molecular Evolution of the Center for Astrobiology (CSIC-INTA) in Spain associated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, the US special agency – is participating this week at the Hay Festival in Queretaro, Mexico, where he will talk about his latest book: Are we alone? Searching for another life in the universe.
He did the following interview with BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish language news service.
BBC News Mundo – You said that if there was intelligent life outside Earth, it wouldn’t exist in the Solar System. Because?
Carlos Briones – Because all the major planets and satellites of the solar system have already been visited. And we’ve found worlds with great geology and chemistry, but none of them have shown any evidence of structure, signs, or anything to tell us that there might be intelligent life within the solar system.
If there is intelligent life outside our planet, we must assume that it will be on exoplanets, that is, outside our cosmic neighborhood. Today we know, for example, that there are more than 5,000 exoplanets, but we assume that there must be a number like 1 followed by 23 zeros.
BBC News Mundo – This number is so huge that if there is intelligent life on other planets, how can we detect it?
Briones – We can detect it by radio signals. If there was intelligent life, they would have had a cultural development similar to ours and would be able to send or receive radio waves, that is, they would be able to send messages to us and receive our messages.
BBC News World – but if it evolved differently from us, it wouldn’t necessarily be able to communicate via radio waves…
Briones – If they did not develop radio waves, given how far away they are, it would be impossible for us to communicate with them, even if the universe was teeming with life. This seems a little disappointing, right?
It may be that, around some stars – like the ones we see when we look at the starry night – there are planets and that there is life on those planets, but we are unable to detect them.
It also means that we could not have been discovered by anyone before the early twentieth century, when radio was developed. He noted that we were clever in the Renaissance or in Classical Greece, but we did not develop the technology that could be detected.
BBC News World – Why should they be broadcast waves? Are there no other ways to connect with intelligent life?
Briones – Because they are too far away, we cannot see the structures built by intelligent beings. There is no telescope and there will never be a telescope with sufficient accuracy to see these structures. Outside the solar system, the closest known planet, Proxima b, is 4.2 light-years from Earth.
BBC News World – then, çHow do we discover its existence?
Briones – Radiation reaches us, waves that can be light in the visible spectrum or other waves in the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation reach us.
BBC News World – In the mid-1970s, scientists thought they had found a sign of intelligent life, but that hope quickly dissipated…
Briones – Yes, a signal called WOW has been found, which is what American observer Jerry Iman noticed when he spotted it. I thought there were some implicit effects of intelligent beings in this signal. But then it turned out to be most likely a reflection in a piece of space junk.
So, so far, we have been transmitting and trying to receive radio signals, but we have not had any good news in this regard. Until now, we are alone in the universe.
BBC News World – How far are we in space?
Briones – With tools made by humans, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are the most distant ever to leave the solar system. They are traveling through space outside of this planetary environment and they have done an excellent job.
What can we see? Using the James Webb Telescope we can see the light emitted by the first galaxies that formed, very close to the origin of the universe, about 13 billion years ago.
The farthest we humans have been able to physically travel is the moon and we’ll be back soon with NASA’s Artemis program. Maybe in a year or so.
BBC News Mundo – How far have we come in the search for the origin of life, which is fundamental to finding life on other planets?
Briones – The origin of our planet was geology and chemistry. There were increasingly complex molecules that formed systems capable of self-reproduction and evolution, that is, living organisms.
BBC News World – If humans evolved from molecules that managed to reproduce, when did this happen?
Briones – We can’t know exactly when this happened, but we assume that if our planet was about 4.5 billion years old, then life appeared about 700 million years later, or about 3.8 billion years ago.
We are talking about life, which is understood as a system of molecules capable of copying and reproducing. This will be at the root of the common trunk that all living things possess, which is in the metaphor of the tree of life. In this tree, we have a trunk from which first two branches came out, then three, then several. We consider that there may be about 600 million branches, that is, species.
BBC News Mundo – Hence the idea of Luca, the universal ancestor of all living things on our planet…
Briones – After a series of molecular processes, we reach Lucca, which is located at the top of the tree. We suppose that Luca was a cell similar to ours, and from there diversification of life and species occurs.
BBC News World – How is this system of molecules capable of self-reproduction, what does it look like?
Briones – Imagine a bubble with a membrane of oil-like molecules capable of carrying genetic information and carrying out metabolism. They would be much simpler organisms than bacteria, but with the essential trait of making copies of themselves and evolving.
BBC News Mundo – That question to ask yourself about the origin of life and if there is extraterrestrial life, what really is the point of it if the chances of finding it are slim, i.e. why spend so much time and resources on it?
Briones – I think the benefit of these kinds of big questions is to take us to the limits of what we can ask ourselves, to take us to the edge of knowledge. Asking ourselves the big questions helps us develop our brains and be more human, which is no small feat. Along the way, every time we investigate these issues, very useful techniques are created afterwards.
BBC News World – Like which ones?
Briones – For example, new materials. Space exploration has been the main driving force behind the search for stronger and lighter materials. They can be applied, for example, in aircraft or new communication systems that are subsequently applied in technologies such as telephones. Or in the life support systems of astronauts, which are transported to hospitals and allow us to survive in the intensive care unit. or drug development. Space exploration has a direct impact on the well-being of residents.
BBC News World – With exploration so expensive and resources so scarce, when it comes to choosing where to focus efforts to find extraterrestrial life, where do they go? Where is life most likely found outside Earth?
Briones – In terms of close life, that is, in the solar system, the best candidates are Mars and a satellite of Jupiter called Europa, which has an ice crust 20 km long with many cracks, but under it 100 km of liquid water. It is a great ocean, and in that water there can be living creatures.
What we are looking for are places where water can be, a source of organic matter, ie carbon and energy molecules. When you have these three components, we assume that the conditions of life are ready.
BBC News Mundo – And what have we found so far on Mars?
Briones – Mars has a lot of frozen water, and water with a lot of salt that forms a kind of very liquid mud, a kind of dense lake 1500 meters below the surface. Various types of molecules have been discovered, but there is still something that allows us to say that life arose there.
BBC News World – When will humans be able to set foot on Mars for the first time?
Briones – It’s still more than 20 years or less, but things can go much faster, because there have been special initiatives, like Space X, that have revolutionized this whole field a little bit. Perhaps, instead of 20 years, there are only 15 years left to reach Mars. There are high hopes for putting a human footprint on Mars, as happened in 1969 with the Moon.
BBC News Mundo – And why not go back to the moon?
Briones – The NASA program was stopped because it was too costly, what was needed had already been done, and because geopolitics was essential. The United States had already shown its leadership, and at the time there was not much to investigate. But this will change. It may be the first human flight in a year or so. The dates are constantly changing, but we’re about to go back to the moon.
BBC News World – How advanced is China’s space exploration programme? Recently we have seen recriminations between the Americans and the Chinese about their desire to “grab the moon”.
Briones – Yes, just as there was tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is now clear between the United States and China. China has a very ambitious space program, and they are doing things very quickly and very well. They have been very successful in lunar exploration.
They were also able to reach Mars last year with an orbiter, and a fixed lander, from which a wheeled vehicle descended, all in the same spacecraft. It’s something that NASA hasn’t accomplished, and China did on their first attempt, which means they are very good at space exploration, in missile technology, and therefore they are and will continue to be a major competitor to the United States.
On the other hand, in China, they use propaganda devices that use this kind of success to silence other issues related to human rights and the level of democracy. So there is now an open competition between Washington and Beijing over the moon. And another race to Mars. We’ll see who will win.
Scientists are more interested in what advances can be achieved than about who was the first to raise their flag. This is something much more than politicians.
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