Sunday, 7 March 2010

It's Life, Sim, But Not As We Know It

After First Contact, please wash your hands

BE careful where you step, should you ever find yourself setting foot on some distant world in the heroic quest to meet and greet the new galactic neighbours. That pile of goo you tread in might turn out to be one of the natives – and you wouldn’t want to be the first emissary of the human race to end up scraping the host off the heels of your space-boots.

If nothing else, it’s hardly polite. Still, slime is at least unlikely to complain about it, but even if fortunately far from impolite, there’s still the matter of the dignity of history to consider.

Whether it’s little green men or just squidgy slime moulds, the quest for first contact with alien life might have to wait for a bit, especially when it comes to the more distant stars, but confirmation of life’s existence beyond this world may come a little sooner.

Teams of scientists are busily engaged in seeking to answer that timeless question – are we alone?

And if it turns out the neighbours are just slime, it may prove to be a rather disappointing anti-climax. After all, let’s be honest, most of us aren’t exo-biology geeks. Unfortunately, it is doubtless highly likely that life out there will resemble the kind of slimy muck you might find in a bucket of stagnant water (minus the curious wriggly things). That, after all, was the state of life on blessed planet Earth for quite some considerable time.

So, when we do meet the neighbours, it might just be wise to wear the wellies and the rubber gloves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the University of Leicester is about to hold a series of lectures to mark National Science & Engineering Week. The first event, presented by Professor Mark Sims, Professor of Astrobiology and Space Instrumentation at the Space Research Centre in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, will introduce the audience to research currently under way into ascertaining the existence of the neighbours.

Forget SETI, however; this focus on extra-terrestrial life isn’t about eavesdropping on the galactic radio-waves, but about detecting the chemistry of life. So, in that regard, this quest is more about data-crunching, analysis and other laborious endeavours rather than some kind of space-suited Darwin and his electronic notepad. In space, the Galapagos are really a very long way away indeed.

For those of us who might expect – having seen rather too many cheap science fiction movies – the quest for alien life to be a noble adventure, alas today’s search is far less glamorous, but at least there’s the scope to play around with some seriously expensive gadgets and gizmos.

“Data from recent space missions will be used to discuss the search for life on Mars and explore the opportunities unavailable to future missions as well as investigating the possibility of uncovering life elsewhere in the Solar System and the wider universe,” said a university spokesperson. “Professor Sims will also be explaining the Life Marker Chip, an instrument he has led and which will hopefully be flown on the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Rover Mission in 2018.”

Professor Sims added: “It s a difficult process as we still don’t really know what alien life is. That said, we now have techniques to look for carbon-water based life within the Solar System and will soon be able to detect, in 10 to 20 years, the signs of such life in the atmospheres of planets round other stars.

“It demands blending a large swathe of scientific knowledge and techniques and is very much inter-disciplinary and cross-cutting in nature. In addition some of the technologies and techniques developed have down-to-earth applications, from green chemistry through to potentially improving healthcare in the Third World.”

He believes that in the next 10 to 20 years, the human race will finally have a definitive answer as to whether life exists outside of the Earth in the Solar System and perhaps beyond – at least whether it once existed if no longer. In his lecture, he’ll be looking at the extreme conditions in which bacteria thrive here on Earth and using this to explain why bacterial-type life will dominate extra-terrestrial systems.

Professor Sims added: “We are entering an era when we might start to answer one of the biggest questions we have as a species: are we alone in the universe?”

The truth is out there, then – but be careful with that bleach!

‘Green, Grey or Little Squidgy Things, Where and What is Alien Life?’ will take place on Tuesday 16 March at 5.30pm in the Ken Edwards Building, Lecture Theatre 1, University of Leicester. The event is free to the public though places need to be booked in advance. For more information contact Pritty Wadhia at


"Oy! Who are you calling slime?"

Category: SCIENCE


You know you just might be right. Our neighbours could be slime. But as long as they stay to them selves. It is fine by me. But you know as long as we keep trying to make contact. Eventually we will come across something out there. We should leave well enough alone. They are only trying to find a planet that the rich can live on. We would not as the average person would not be able to afford to move to another planet.


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