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Designating Alien Life

  1. Dec 30, 2017 #1

    While debating the issue of clickbait headlines, I remembered that recently the Russians had embarrassed themselves with such a leap of flying unicorns!


    At the time, I opinionated that they should not be confusing alien life with earth life by using the term ‘bacteria’.

    A problem I foresee that if we ever do discover any mot-from-earth organisms? Should we not come up with a list of terms to avoid confusion between variations of Earth Biology and Alien Biology?

    It may quack like a duck, And it may fly like a duck. And it may poop all over the place like a duck.
    But if it paddles around on lakes of methane and reproduces via parasitoidal means? I doubt if baking one stuffed with wild rice and a nice orange glaze is really going to make it digestible.

    After all the confusion we have gone through here on Earth with endless squabbling over terms for designating organisms? This problem would open up a whole new can of worms! Honking big sapient worms, loudly arguing with us attempting to achieve a consensus on scientific terminology.

    Basically now we kludge together a kaleidoscope of Ancient Greek and Bastard Latin, mishmashed with some Arabic and Hindu.

    For Alien Lifeforms, should we all agree to use another language for scientific designations? Perhaps Ancient Chinese (transliterated of course for us ignorant bumpkins) or a dead language for which we can fiddle around to make almost comprehensible? Hell, why not Klingon?
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 30, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 30, 2017 #2


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    I think that's a bridge we are not going to have to cross for a LONG time.
  4. Dec 30, 2017 #3
    phinds, I quite agree with you. I am of the opinion, that at less than fourteen billion years? Earthlife is too soon. I think it all too probable that it could be hundreds of billions of years before this Galaxy, might just might, have an assortment of living worlds and species. Or, maybe not. Guess we'll have to wait and see.
  5. Dec 30, 2017 #4


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    There may be many places, other than earth, where life exists. However the distances involved make it extremely difficult for any travel, muc less communication, to take place.
  6. Dec 30, 2017 #5

    stefan r

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    Any evidence for that? The trend is to have higher metalicity over time. A star with solar mass and higher metals will burn hydrogen faster. That shortens the life of the stars. You also have a change in the types of stars and planets that form. The rocky planets with gas giants combination we have around the sun might be a significant factor in life forming on Earth. There is a time window where conditions are likely to be similar around other stars.

    Life appeared on earth quickly (quick by astronomy standards) after Earth formed. There is not any reason to believe that life is uncommon. An oxygen atmosphere came much later. The telescopes needed to search atmospheres on other planets are not yet deployed. Eukaryotes come later. It took several billion years for multi-cellular life especially animals and plants to emerge on Earth.

    I think it is an exoduck. Edibility is not a good standard for naming or classification. Would you classify portobello and eggplant, as types of beef because they can be fried?
  7. Dec 30, 2017 #6


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    I think you have that backwards. It should be "the distances involved make it extremely difficult for any communication, much less travel, to take place." That is, travel is even more difficult than communication.
  8. Dec 30, 2017 #7
    The cladistic approach to biological classification works well for Earth species.
    It could also work for alien species, but we have no examples to apply it to as yet.
  9. Dec 31, 2017 #8
    mathman & stephan r, Actually, there is no evidence either way. Neither for or against non-earth life. We are all speculating with vividly wild imagineerings.

    rootone, You are correct in the usefulness of the nomenclature used for scientific descriptions of earth lifeforms. However, consider how many centuries of heated debated has been wasted trying to come up with a common vocabulary for life. And the arguments still rage on in scientific circles!. It is my opinion that will cause unnecessary confusion. IF we ever do discover any non-earth lifeforms? I think this issue is better resolved early on.

    If consensus turns out to avoid using, yet another human language? How about a mathematical system? Similar to the Dewey Decimal System? Avoiding translation errors and constant shifts in word usage?
  10. Dec 31, 2017 #9


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    I am well aware that travel is much harder than communication. I suppose I didn't express it clearly enough.
  11. Jan 4, 2018 #10


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    This time window is another constraint on the Goldilocks Zone requirement. Time, in terms of length of time to develop a life form and in terms of when it happens with respect to us on Earth. The time factors tend to be neglected, as does what I refer to as the 'relevance factor' - i.e. how could it actually affect us? If you cannot have a meaningful conversation with an advanced organism because its distance away is too many light years, then how relevant to our existence is it?
    I remember the scenario in that A For Andromeda series on fifties TV. A message was received (from the direction of Andromeda)which gave us the ability to build an organism (via a computer prog). It was only defeated in time, before it took over the Earth, of course. That mechanism (message in a bottle) of cross infection would increase the relevance factor but, of course, it would decrease the time window factor so we can probably breathe a sigh of relief about that.
  12. Jan 4, 2018 #11
    Guys, guys, (cause women are generally too sensible to get caught up in these logic traps). If you want to waste electrons discussing fabulist fiction there is a million, useless forums for that.

    I started this thread to engage a thoughtful discussion of achieving a consensus to prevent a tedious repetition of the scientific nomenclature wars.

    As we are driving in the direction of the edge of the cliff, It makes sense to me to turn the steering wheel and avoid an unnecessary disaster.

    We know that there is biological life on Earth.
    We do not know if there is biological life any where else.
    Testimony from comicbooks doesn't count.

    Aside from inadvertent contamination from our space programs. There is a faint possibility over several billion years, that maybe, just maybe. Some Earth microorganisms, spores, whatever, have been blown into Space from the Earth. By very large meteor strikes or super-volcano explosions? So we will have to look out for finding such orphans.

    In other words, if we do find life in this star system? To not automatically label it as Alien. I know you're drooling over being the first to announce "THE DISCOVERY OF THE MILLENNIUM!" However, control your wild-eyed enthusiasm and show some self-discipline. Yeah, I know, all too well. That we each have at least one major humiliation to inflict upon ourselves, during our lives!

    I had suggested using the Dewey Decimal System as a model for designating Alien Life from Earth Life. But what if there is an overlap?

    On an irregular basis, over billions of years. Our Solar System or at least the Oort Cloud passes within a light year or less of other Star Systems and those Oort Clouds. Perhaps close enough to intermingle the two systems outer shells of ices and dusts.

    This would, I think, be the best opportunity for Alien space-borne microorganisms to be captured by our comets. A very, slow and awkward form of Panspermia. But then of course, that also cuts the other way. Allowing the possibility for Earth microorganisms to spread to other star systems.

    So? How out of this world do we assign labels. Cause we do love our labels. And we do love even more loud skreetching arguments for who gets the credit!

    Therefore, I opinionate that any systematic attempt to label lifeforms and fossils discovered off Earth, needs to start with a Zero designation. In other words, that any and every find is listed as unproven, unverified and unconfirmed.

    Once confirmation, with multiple verifications is proven. Then Designation 100 would be Earth-Life found off Earth. And then Designation 200 would be Non-Earth-Life. Not yet sorted out as to possible origins. And build from there.
  13. Jan 4, 2018 #12
    It just dawned om me that I have overlooked two more possible categories. First, Earth life that may have colonized Early Mars and maybe the Outer System Satellites.

    Second, not-from-earth life (but also native to this system) that may exist or may have existed in this Solar System. Though I am of the opinion that it is most likely that we will find only fossils on Mars. That Enceladus and other ice-covered 'ocean' worlds, will prove to be sterile water mixed with seltzer.

    I think Titan will be the best chance we have to find off-earth life in this star system. Maybe derived from Earth life. Maybe indigenous not-from-earth life. And again, just to confuse the issues, maybe something totally unexpected!
  14. Jan 4, 2018 #13
    Any exo-life which is associated with life on Earth should be just another variety of DNA.
    Life which is not based on DNA is not ruled out, but so far no such life has been seen.
  15. Jan 5, 2018 #14
    rootone, yes true. However, alien variations on DNA structure could really muddle up our discovery process. That is why I am strongly urging a strict process of empirical evidence. And not relying on speculative guesstimates to cloud our judgement.

    I forgot to mention Callisto as a small probability fir us finding life, of one sort or another.

    If I remember correctly, the Jovan Sub-System satellite, Ganymede, is within the very energetic radiation belt orbiting Jupiter? Which probably renders it a lethal environment for any life.

    However, the largest Jovan moon is outside the radiation belt. My reasoning for why I think Callisto is a better candidate for us finding life on it, is two-fold. Even without an atmosphere, Callisto receives a lot less radiation than Mars.

    And second, Callisto is better positioned to receive regular bombardments from cometary ices. What doesn’t boil away during impacts. Or lost to space by radiation decomposing the evaporated gases.

    Might actually soak deep into the surface geology. It’ll be difficult to test bore deep enough to ascertain the truth of this idea.

    However, even if Callisto turns out to be lifeless? Water found could be an important resource for a robotic colony. Not only for reaction mass and other volatiles for space craft. But also for industrial purposes. For instance, it takes one hundred tons of water to produce one ton of steel.
  16. Jan 5, 2018 #15


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    Really? How is it different, in principle from any scientific statement that begins with "If"?
    Our brains use many different strategies to solve problems and gain understanding. There is a lot of totally loony technical stuff in Science Fiction but you cannot dismiss it all. The most down to Earth example that we all know is the work of Arthur C Clarke. But then, I have always found many of his books a lot less 'fun' than those from other authors because they tend to be more concerned with the Science than with the people.
    Don't knock fiction; it's based on the way our minds work.
  17. Jan 5, 2018 #16
    sophiecentaur, I want to thank you for your thoughtful comments before I disagree. Doesn't mean I'm right. Doesn't mean you are wrong. We just agree to disagree.

    I am of the opinion that fabulist fiction is a real drag on scientific honesty. That it colors the perception of Public comprehension of the scientific method as a process. Keep in mind, it is the Public who has to fund all this work.

    The constant pressure for glorifying headlines forces the release of incomplete and unverified research. "To beat the competition! Rah! Rah! Our Team!"

    As one example of how these two cultural memes should be separate. Dr, Asimov was always careful to designate his scientific publications and textbooks from his fictional works as entertainment.

    There is speculation to delineate the wandering paths of progress science when all the data is not available. And there is speculation as an extravaganza for recreation.
  18. Jan 5, 2018 #17


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    @r8chard : I don't think we are too much in disagreement about this. Our Venn diagrams actually overlap quite a lot.
    On the subject of "fabulist fiction", my problem with it is that it is treated as FACT by most consumers. (Kids, in particular)
  19. Jan 5, 2018 #18
    Then again, things like the ancient Greek gods were once accepted to be facts by one of the most technological advanced civilizations at that time.
  20. Jan 5, 2018 #19
    While I applaud the OP's attempt to standardize nomenclature for exo-life, I think the OP is overlooking our very long history of misnaming things or coming up with really stupid names. Particularly in astronomy. Like "Nova" or "Supernova", when "nova" is Latin for "new" or "young", to describe a dying star. Or "planetary nebula" which has absolutely nothing to do with planets. Or "QUASAR" to describe an active galactic nuclei. Or "Blazar" to describe a QUASAR, but from a different viewing angle. Just to name a few of the more blatant misnomers.

    Yes, all of these badly chosen names were made when we knew little or nothing about the object being named, however, after a better understanding of the object was obtained you would think that renaming them would be in order. Apparently not.

    Judging also from the botched attempt by the IAU to define a planet, I don't think the OP can find much hope there. The OP should be commended for his efforts, but naming things stupidly has already been a long standing astronomical tradition.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2018
  21. Jan 6, 2018 #20


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    Same thing is going on today, aamof.
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