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Are there aliens in our own backyard?
Scientists have been probing our solar system for extraterrestrial life.
Humanity has long wondered if life exists elsewhere beyond Earth. With the universe being so mind-numbingly vast, the very idea that our tiny, waterlogged rock should alone harbor life seems so…wasteful.
To sate our curiosity, NASA catalogs exoplanets orbiting Milky Way stars to look for potential cradles of extraterrestrial life, such as Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting in its star's habitable zone. And the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute searches space for clues of alien civilizations by, for example, scanning for the residuals of communication technology like narrow-band radio transmissions.
But is it possible we've set our gaze too far to the horizon? Perhaps the greatest chance we have of finding life beyond Earth isn't orbiting some distant star but can be found in our own solar backyard.
What we look for
When looking for suitable habitats for life, astrobiologists search first and foremost for water. Water is the cornerstone of life on Earth. Life needs solvents to perform biochemical processes, and water's title as the universal solvent means that even the simplest of organisms can use it for their molecular interactions.1
Astrobiologists also look for ways energy may enter a system for metabolic processes. On Earth, this form of energy is typically the Sun; however, recent discoveries have led astrobiologists to search for alternative forms, such as geothermal energy.
Finally, they look for other environmental conditions that make life more or less likely: climate, pressure, temperature, atmospheric makeup, and so on.
We should take this moment to make an important distinction. While our solar system may harbor several havens for life, this life will likely not be the intelligent life that SETI searches for. Any neighborly E.T.s we encounter won't be little grey men or green-skinned vixens so much as a small, microscopic, organisms. Think strange, exotic tardigrades. Well, stranger tardigrades.
Ever since Percival Lowel mapped the “canals" of Mars, our ruddy neighbor has been the go-to planet for science fiction writers imagining extraterrestrial life — from H.G. Wells's colonizing Martians to Ray Bradbury's mystical natives3. The canals proved a trick of the eye, and the Mars Science Laboratory Mission's Curiosity rover has yet to find signs of civilization, but that doesn't mean Mars is out of the extraterrestrial running.
Scientists have discovered dark, narrow streaks on the landscape most likely caused by flowing water. These streaks showed traces of hydrated salt, like what occurs after salt contacts water before it evaporates.
Given Mars' dry, barren landscape and lack of atmosphere, how water got there remains a mystery, but the phenomenon points to the possibility of liquid water not trapped in the planet's polar ice caps, providing a potential habitat for microbial life. Should water flow under the planet's surface, any life could even be shielded from the sun's radiation.
Adding to the intrigue, scientists think that water once covered roughly 20 percent of the surface before Mars's atmospheric gases were stripped away, and the water evaporated into space. Scientists have also discovered meteorites from Mars that contained the remnants of organic material — suggesting the rusted planet once contained the ingredients for life.
Like Mars, Venus likely enjoyed Earth-like conditions back in the day. Computer simulations of its early environment suggest the possibility of primordial oceans, moderate temperatures, and a habitable climate.
As David Grinspoon, of the Planetary Science Institute, told New Scientist: “Both planets probably enjoyed warm liquid water oceans in contact with rock and with organic molecules undergoing chemical evolutions in those oceans. As far as we understand at present, those are the requirements for the origin of life."
If early life did form on Venus, most of it probably vanished 715 million years ago, along with those oceans. Today's Venus sports an infernal landscape of volcanic activity, surface temperatures approaching 750 Kelvin, and a thick, noxious atmosphere of carbon dioxide with clouds of sulfuric acid.4,5
But it is that very toxic atmosphere that may have saved Venusian life. According to a paper in the journal Astrobiology, the atmosphere could provide a safe haven for microbial life. Using spectroscopic observations, researchers found “dark patches" in the atmosphere composed of “concentrated sulfuric acid and other unknown light-absorbing particles."
While it is unknown if these patches are organic or not, they do have the same dimension as some Earth bacteria, and researchers think they could be the Venusian equivalent of algae blooms (like those that appear in our lakes and oceans).
The jets of Enceladus, c/o NAS
Enceladus and Europa
Moving away from Earth's rocky neighbors, astrobiologists are also considering the possibility that life may exist on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
When the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft flew past Saturn's sixth moon, Enceladus, it discovered hydrogen gas in an erupting plume of water.6 The eruption suggested hydrothermal activity may be taking place beneath Enceladus' icy surface. If so, the moon would offer two important ingredients for life — water and energy for metabolic processes.7
Europa's surface is similarly covered in ice, with long streaks of “brown gunk." But beneath that surface, scientist estimate that there could be twice as much water as on Earth. If this Jovian moon also produced hydrothermal activity within that ocean, it too could be a harbor for life.8 A study using computer models has even suggested that Europa may have hydrogen and oxygen in amounts comparable to Earth, even if the moon is lacking in volcanic activity.
NASA is planning to launch a Europa flyby mission in the early 2020s, and the agency's SUBSEA project will be studying hydrothermal environments in the Lō`ihi seamount, off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island, to learn how life can thrive on Earth in conditions similar to those possible on Enceladus and Europa.
Our final candidate is Ceres, a dwarf planet and the largest object orbiting in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A spherical clump of rock and ice, Ceres would be an unlikely contender for this list until last year, when NASA's Dawn mission detected organic material on its surface.
Originally, it was thought this organic material covered 6–10 percent of the spectral signature, but a recent analysis of the data suggests the amount of could be as high as 40–50 percent. Since carbon-based compounds are necessary for life, it makes for an exciting discovery that could change how we view objects in the asteroid belt.
With that said, this is a recent discovery and much remains unclear. It is possible the organics weren't created on Ceres but planted there by comets, and even if they are native, organic compounds can come about from non-biological processes.
As Ralph Milliken, a professor at Brown University and one of the study's co-authors said in a press release: “Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples."
The end of life as we know it
So far, our solar search has focused on the conditions for life as we know it. But what about life as we don't know it?
Bacteria recently discovered in Antarctica can survive off just the hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide they get from the air. These guys make breatharians look gluttonous by comparison and could lead the way to remove water as a prerequisite in our search for extraterrestrial life.
Additionally, Sara Seager, MIT physics professor, considered that alien life may evolve around different chemical combinations than life on Earth and used computer-generated models to devise a list of those possible combinations.
“The theory ended up being, we should maybe consider all potential molecules that would be in gas form," Seager said. “Why not consider all of them? I just combined them in any way possible, like just taking letters in the alphabet and combining them in all ways."
Could life possibly exist in Titan's methane sea? Or could the seeds of life be floating on some yet undiscovered asteroid? The more we learn about life on Earth, the more we learn about the myriad of paths it has taken to thrive, opening avenues for us to find it in our solar system and beyond.
1. Water: The molecule of life. NASA website. Retrieved on July 5, from https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/solarsystem/Water:_Molecule_of_Life.html.
2. NASA dives deep into the search for life. NASA website. Retrieved on July 3, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/nasa-dives-deep-into-the-search-for-life.
3. The “canali" and the first Martians. NASA website. Retrieved on July 5, from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Canali_and_First_Martians.html.
4. Was Venus the first habitable world of our solar System? Michael J. Way, David H. Grinspoon, et al. Geophysical Research Letters. Retrieved on July 5, from https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1608/1608.00706.pdf
5. Venus entry. NASA science: Solar system exploration. NASA website. Retrieved on July 4, from https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/venus/in-depth/.
6. Hydrothermal vents on Saturn's moon Enceladus may harbour life. Andrew Masterson. Cosmos. Retrieved on July 5, from https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/hydrothermal-vents-on-saturn-s-moon-enceladus-may-harbour-life.
7. NASA dives deep into the search for life. NASA website. Retrieved on July 3, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/nasa-dives-deep-into-the-search-for-life
8. Europa: Our best shot at finding alien life? Paul Rincon. BBC News. Published on March 24, 2017. Retrieved on July 3, from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38925601
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.