There’s no doubt that NASA’s discovery announced today has significance – should the research be verified.
Up until this discovery it was thought that all life on Earth required six essential components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur and phosphorus.
NASA’s research on bacteria found at the Mono Lake in California has apparently changed all that.
The bacteria in question: GFAJ-1 is thought to be able to replace phosphorus with arsenic.
As with such announcements in the media there has been much hype, over simplification and straight out misunderstanding.
Many initial reports seemed to suggest that the bacteria naturally used arsenic rather than phosphorus constituting a truly new life form. Not so.
They were subjected to an environment where phosphorus was replaced with arsenic – a chemical found in high concentrations in the Mono Lake – and found to be able to survive using the arsenic where the phosphorus would normally have been used – apparently within the DNA. Though even this has been questioned.
As interesting as the discovery itself is the way in which it has been announced and the assumptions underlying the whole media ‘event’. It raises all manner of questions about the place of science and the scientific method within Western culture and world view.
Why, for instance, should it be so surprising that life may take other forms that we have not yet discovered?
It’s more than mildly ironic that the scientific establishment, frequently the source of criticism ranged at supposedly closed thinking establishments such as ‘religion’ has itself created a highly bounded view of life defined by its own parameters.
Anything lying outside of these carefully defined borders is either invalid or – if it happens to have been discovered through ‘scientific means’ – becomes a ‘major discovery’.
This tiresome pattern is repeated in the media on a regular basis with topics spanning the microscopic to the macroscopic and always with inevitable metaphysical implications about the origins of life etc. and how we will better understand ourselves and our place in the universe.
Sounds like religion to me.
All we need is a world head-scientist Pope-like figure to keep the priests and prophets in some sort of official order and we’ve got ourselves a beautiful religion to give us all hope in this world we are quietly destroying with the help of technology given to us by… scientific advancement.
We certainly need help from somewhere. Hopefully there are more intelligent life forms that can offer assistance before we wipe ourselves off the planet.
Head GFAJ-1 researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues agree that there is a lot more work to be done on this new discovery.
“We have 30 years of work ahead to figure out what’s going on.”