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Start We Are Not Alone… Or Are We? (part II)
12 August 2013

We Are Not Alone… Or Are We? (part II)

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The previous post ended with the question: what kind of life do we expect to find out there?

Most theories are based on an interpretation of life as we understand it on Earth. They are trapped by the paradigms of what we have seen and are based on a search for molecules of known elements – water and carbon – and cellular structures and systems “in our own image and likeness”, or at least similar to those found our own planet – axes of symmetry, oxygen-based breathing apparatus, central nervous systems, DNA molecules…

“One very interesting question” –says molecular biologist Jack Szostak, a Nobel Laureate for Medicine– “is whether life could exist without water, for example. A highly complex chemical has been discovered in Saturn’s moons. There are plenty of intriguing issues that need to be studied and many experiments that still have to be done in the area”. The chemical peculiarities of Saturn’s moons also fascinate Carolyn Porco, who discusses the topic in this Ted talk. After all, Saturn’s moons are within our own Solar System, relatively close.

Going further afield, Freeman Dyson tells us that exploration outside of the Solar System is no longer the realm of science fiction, while Richard Dawkins –author of the best-seller The Selfish Gene – believes “there is loads of life in the universe, but the number of stars is so vast that the islands of life may be extremely isolated and never discover one another”. Seth Shostak is also a believer that “we are not alone”, saying in this TED talk that we should be ready because there are likely to be other life forms different from those known on our blue planet.

Without going quite so far, Paul Davies has been searching for non-DNA based life forms for years. “There has been no success as yet”, says Dawkins about Davies’ research, “but this work is a lot cheaper than going to other planets to search for life”. Why can’t there be chemical compositions based on elements not included in our periodic table? Or extremophile life that has adapted to living in oceans of liquid butane, or that can extract energy via chemical photosynthesis from spectrums beyond the ultraviolet… that communicate using electromagnetic waves on a different plane from light and sound, imperceptible to our senses.  These brilliant minds – who are far from suspected of taking hallucinogenic mushrooms – seem to agree that we are not alone, and are determined to prove it.

We at the BBVA Innovation Center often set our visitors a small challenge: we give them a minute to draw a Martian. Their artistic abilities are of little importance. What matters is how they understand the difference between incremental and disruptive innovation:

If they draw a Martian with eyes, a mouth, a head, a torso and extremities… that’s incremental innovation, representing a slight evolution of a known concept. However, if their drawing looks more like a jellyfish or mollusk, with no corporal symmetry, this would be closer to disruptive innovation, removed from known paradigms. Why would they need eyes in a world without light?

So, yes, please… Open your mind.

Nacho Villoch

Events and Activities Manager, BBVA Innovation Center, Madrid (Spain)

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