The search for alien life is far too human-centric. Our flawed understanding of what life really is may be holding us back from important discoveries about the universe and ourselves.
- What, should it exist, is the universal law that connects all living things? To even dream of answering that question, and to one day find alien life elsewhere in the cosmos, humans must first reconcile the fact that our definition of life is inadequate.
- For astrobiologist Sara Walker, understanding the universe, its origin, and our place in it starts with a deep investigation into the chemistry of life. She argues that it is time to change our chemical perspective—detecting oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere is no longer sufficient enough evidence to suggest the presence of living organisms.
- "Because we don't know what life is, we don't know where to look for it," Walker says, adding that an unclear or too narrow focus could result in missed discoveries. Gaining new insights into what life on Earth is could shift our quest to find alien life in the universe.
A strange object found in the desert has prompted worldwide speculation.
- A monolithic object found in a remote part of Utah caused worldwide speculation about its origins.
- The object is very similar to the famous monolith from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: Space Odyssey".
- The object could be work of an artist or even have extraterrestrial origins.
1. Art object<p>Chances are, this is an art object. The shiny "monolith" appears to be bolted to the ground and made of metal. It also seems to be fastened with rivets, rather being a uniform block of more unexplainable production origin. Deserts are great places for unusual installations as has been evidenced by past art projects that you can discover wandering through the ghost towns and faraway canyons of Nevada, California, Utah, and New Mexico. Certainly, an artist with a sense of humor and an appreciation of Kubrick's genius could have installed such "sculpture" in hopes of exactly what is happening right now–viral fame.</p><p>On the other hand, there is evidence, courtesy of eagle-eyed <a href="https://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/jzkpad/helicopter_pilot_finds_strange_monolith_in_remote/gdg9qfi?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3" target="_blank">Google Earth sleuths</a>, that the object appeared in that location (somewhere near <a href="https://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Canyonlands National Park</a>) in 2015-2016. So it's possibly been there for a few years. Would an artist have placed it there so long ago with the aim of having this type of success eventually?</p><p>A gallery owner <a href="https://www.9news.com.au/world/utah-monolith-desert-mystery-solved-john-mccracken-sculptor-artist-2001-a-space-odyssey/0bae1a27-5bd2-451e-90a6-393928d9ed02" target="_blank">claimed</a> the work may be a tribute to the late artist John McCracken, who created similar-looking objects before he died in 2011. McCracken was part of the Light and Space movement with such artists as James Turrell, and was known to make his sculptures from plywood forms that were coated with fiberglass and polyester resin.</p><p>While the theory that the monolith was the work of a McCracken aficionado (or the artist himself) may hold some water due to the object's similarity, the fact that the artist died so long ago and the lack of clear incentive for anyone to have planted this years ago only to reveal it now work against this theory.</p>
John McCracken sculptures.
2. Alien evolutionary device<p>Certainly, explaining the monolith as an art installation may make the most sense at this point, but its resemblance to the famous object from Kubrick's epic "2001: A Space Odyssey" can't help but bring some science-fiction scenarios to our minds.</p><p>In the film, the perfect black slab was discovered by a group of prehistoric apes. After finding the slab, the apes seemed to have developed the ability to utilize found objects like bones as tools and weapons. The film suggests that finding the monolith had an evolutionary impact on the apes, perhaps serving as "the missing link" that propelled humans from being lower-end primates to the intellectual powerhouses they are today.</p><p><span></span>Later in the film, after fast-forwarding thousands of years into the future, such an object is discovered on the moon by human astronauts. Using the writer Arthur C. Clarke's short story <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sentinel_(short_story)" target="_blank">"The Sentinel"</a> as its inspiration, the film's narrative suggests that alien civilizations are responsible for these objects which potentially serve as beacons that may still be transmitting signals back to whoever created them while also possibly being responsible for fostering evolution throughout the Universe.</p><p>Could the Utah object be serving just such a function? While 2020 has offered very inconsistent evidence of human intelligence, a device from a benevolent alien race that can make us all smarter might be just what we need. </p><p>Or it could portend the exact opposite and be the one thing that will hasten our demise.</p>
3. Alien probe<p>Besides having some specific impact on the inhabitants of planet Earth, the monolith could "just" be an extraterrestrial probe, sent here to learn about our ways. Would placing it in the middle of Utah desert be the best place to probe humanity? If the object was part of many such probes being sent all over the cosmos, it's possible the advanced alien overlord wannabes may not know specifically we are here and are just sending these everywhere they can. It's similar to when humans send probes to places like Mars and assume there's no life there just because the rover landed in the middle of a desert.</p>
A closer look: the Utah monolith<blockquote class="instagram-media" data-instgrm-captioned="" data-instgrm-permalink="https://www.instagram.com/p/CH_212pAKpr/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading" data-instgrm-version="13" style=" background:#FFF; border:0; border-radius:3px; box-shadow:0 0 1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.5),0 1px 10px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.15); margin: 1px; max-width:540px; min-width:326px; padding:0; width:99.375%; width:-webkit-calc(100% - 2px); width:calc(100% - 2px);"><div style="padding:16px;"> <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/CH_212pAKpr/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading" style=" background:#FFFFFF; line-height:0; padding:0 0; text-align:center; text-decoration:none; width:100%;" target="_blank"> <div style=" display: flex; flex-direction: row; align-items: center;"> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 40px; margin-right: 14px; width: 40px;"></div> <div style="display: flex; flex-direction: column; flex-grow: 1; justify-content: center;"> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; margin-bottom: 6px; width: 100px;"></div> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; width: 60px;"></div></div></div><div style="padding: 19% 0;"></div> <div style="display:block; height:50px; margin:0 auto 12px; width:50px;"></div><div style="padding-top: 8px;"> <div style=" color:#3897f0; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:550; line-height:18px;"> View this post on Instagram</div></div><div style="padding: 12.5% 0;"></div> <div style="display: flex; flex-direction: row; margin-bottom: 14px; align-items: center;"><div> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(0px) translateY(7px);"></div> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; height: 12.5px; transform: rotate(-45deg) translateX(3px) translateY(1px); width: 12.5px; flex-grow: 0; margin-right: 14px; margin-left: 2px;"></div> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(9px) translateY(-18px);"></div></div><div style="margin-left: 8px;"> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 20px; width: 20px;"></div> <div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 2px solid transparent; border-left: 6px solid #f4f4f4; border-bottom: 2px solid transparent; transform: translateX(16px) translateY(-4px) rotate(30deg)"></div></div><div style="margin-left: auto;"> <div style=" width: 0px; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-right: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(16px);"></div> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; flex-grow: 0; height: 12px; width: 16px; transform: translateY(-4px);"></div> <div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-left: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(-4px) translateX(8px);"></div></div></div> <div style="display: flex; flex-direction: column; flex-grow: 1; justify-content: center; margin-bottom: 24px;"> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; margin-bottom: 6px; width: 224px;"></div> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; width: 144px;"></div></div></a><a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/CH_212pAKpr/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading" style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none;" target="_blank">A post shared by Dave Sparks (@heavydsparks)</a><br></div></blockquote> <script async="" src="//www.instagram.com/embed.js"></script>
4. Kubrick fan installation<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was one of the greatest film directors of all time, leaving behind a slate of films that are each considered a masterpiece </span><span style="background-color: initial;">– "Dr. Strangelove," "The Shining," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Spartacus," "Full Metal Jacket," and more.</span></p><p>The visionary American director left a profound legacy, garnering millions of fans around the world. As the monolith he devised for "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the most famous objects in movie history, it's not out of the question that one of the director's followers decided to recreate it.</p>
5. Government control device<p>The American Southwest is rife with government military installations and mysterious bases like Area 51. Having the monolith be a part of some government (vast psychological?) experiment is a connection that's easy to make for any conspiracy-minded internet dweller.</p><p>Of course, given the government's penchant for both secrecy and ineptitude, this last one may be the hardest to ever prove definitively. In any case, the Department of Public Safety is not releasing the exact location of the object and warns people against trying to find it:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It is in a very remote area and if individuals were to attempt to visit the area, there is a significant possibility they may become stranded and require rescue," DPS <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/24/monolith-utah-theories-what-is-it-mystery" target="_blank">said</a>.</p>
Zircons in a Martian meteorite widens the possible timeframe for life on Mars.
- A meteorite from Mars unexpectedly contains zircons that reveal the planets history.
- The rock likely comes from one of the solar system's tallest volcanoes.
- Analyzing the zirconium required smashing some very expensive rock.
Zirconian time capsules<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NDYyNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDU1NzI1OH0.URoz_gzrLswB109_j2MJha-A5a_S0wx2n75HlYZ2esk/img.jpg?width=980" id="61509" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c04d2caf50da8a0efdf061be4ca49bf6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="581" data-height="600" />
Earth zircon in gem form atop calcite
Credit: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com/Wikimedia<p>"We were quite surprised and excited when we found so many zircons in this Martian meteorite," says Bizzarro. "Zircon are incredible durable crystals that can be dated and preserve information that tell us about their origins." Zircons are a rarity on Mars' surface — which resembles the crust beneath Earth's ocean floors — and so scientists have not been expecting to find much of the mineral.</p><p>What makes this so intriguing, Bizzarro explains to the <a href="https://dg.dk/en/mars-meteorite-black-beauty-expands-time-frame-for-potential-life-on-the-red-planet/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Danish National Research Foundation</u></a>, is that zircon "functions as a small time capsule because it obtains and saves information about the environment as well as when it was created. In this case a time capsule with hafnium, which comes from Mars' early crust, which existed around 100 million years before the oldest zircon in Black Beauty was created. Thus, Mars got an early start in comparison with Earth, whose solid crust was created much later."</p>
Breaking Black Beauty<p>Big Think readers may recall that the meteorite — known as "Black Beauty," though its official name is "Northwest Africa 7533" — cost the university $500,000 dollars for 50 grams of its 319.8-gram volume. As such, deciding to perform any sort of analysis that requires damaging the precious rock is not a decision taken lightly, as when, say, zircons are found in the stone.</p><p>"One of the big challenges," <a href="https://snm.ku.dk/english/news/all_news/2018/2018.6/the-meteorite-black-beauty-expands-the-window-for-when-life-might-have-existed-on-mars/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>says</u></a> Bizzarro, "has been that the zircons in Black Beauty are extremely small. This called for a courageous strategy: We crushed our precious meteorite. Or to be precise: We crushed 5 grams."</p><p>The decision paid off, says Bizzarro: "Today, I'm glad we chose that strategy. It released seven zircons, one of which is the oldest known zircon from Mars. And from the zircons and their content of hafnium, we can now conclude that the crystallization of the surface of Mars went extremely fast: already 20 million years after the formation of the solar system, Mars had a solid crust that could potentially could house oceans and perhaps also life."</p><p>Eventually, the team would crush 15 grams of Black Beauty, extracting 60 zircons.</p>
Old and young zircons<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NDYzNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjI5MDg3OX0.AJwFBV9m2ygMbq-78hXqwUy359wi_V-VJzV6iHXZ9mk/img.jpg?width=980" id="2feeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cdb506ceff0db1132127e2c5aac1ff6a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="670" data-height="407" />
The oldest Martian zircon found so far
Credit: Martin Bizzarro/University of Copenhagen<p>"Zircon is a very solid mineral that is ideal for making such an absolute dating of time. In this regard, zircon can be used as a portal to pinpoint a time frame for the history of crust formation on Mars." Dating of Black Beauty's zircons shed new light on the planet's history. Most of the minerals were dated back to roughly 4.5 billion years ago, the earliest days of the planet.</p><p>Unexpectedly, though, some of the zircons were more recently formed, a period from about 1,500 million years ago to 300 million years. "These young ages were a great surprise," recalls Bizzarro.</p><p>That finding may have to do with where the rock came from. "The Black Beauty meteorite is believed to come from the southern hemisphere of Mars, which does not have any young volcanic terrains. The only possible source for these young zircons is the Tharsis volcanic province located in the northern hemisphere of the planet, which contains large volcanoes that were recently active," Martin Bizzarro adds.</p><p>That province, known as the Tharsis bulge, is a huge volcanic area that's got the largest volcanoes, up to 21 kilometers (13 miles) high, yet seen anywhere in the solar system. It's believed that since Mars lacks plate tectonics, volcanoes gather in a single area, beneath which a massive reservoir of magma is likely located.</p><p>First author of the study is Mafalda Costa , who says, "Having samples of the deep interior of Mars is key. This means that we can now use these zircons to probe the origin of the volatile elements on Mars, including its water, and see how it compares with Earth and other planets in the Solar System."</p><p>The most important element the zircons contain for the purpose of looking into Mars history is hafnium. Bizzarro explains that hafnium "retains a memory of where the zircon formed. We found that the hafnium isotope composition of the young zircons is unlike any of the known Martian meteorites, which indicates that the young zircons come from a primitive reservoir that we did not know existed in the interior of Mars."</p>
An ancient Martian meteorite carries with it some compelling implications.
- The meteorite behind the new research, Black Beauty, is 4.45 billion years old. This means it is from right around the time when Mars formed.
- It contained intact, ancient water-bearing minerals.
- The research indicates later asteroid-impact effects that could only have occurred if water was already present.
Black Beauty<p>The authors' research is based on a meteorite from Mars called "<a href="https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/2258/black-beauty-mars-meteorite/" target="_blank">Black Beauty</a>" that was found in the Moroccan desert. Black Beauty is 4.45 billion years old and comes from the Martian crust, providing a rare window into the early days of <a href="https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/mars/in-depth/" target="_blank">Mars</a> and the solar system. "It is a gold mine of information. And extremely valuable," Bizzarro tells <a href="https://news.ku.dk/all_news/2020/11/researchers-present-wild-theory-water-may-be-naturally-occurring-on-all-rocky-planets/" target="_blank">University of Copenhagen News</a>. At $10,000 per gram, the researchers purchased 50 grams for $500,000. </p>
Early Water<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc3NDY1My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NzMzNTQ2NX0.7WAs8y6IDCPkr65xT76wyabW0F6ecLXPDVUeG-8bVe8/img.jpg?width=980" id="b1557" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="704699570a755afa740a81b70e90cff2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1051" />
Lake-floor sedimentary deposits on Mars
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS<p>Black Beauty indicates that liquid water was present on Mars in the first 90 million years after it was formed. To deduce this, the researchers had to crush and dissolve 15 expensive grams of the meteorite for analysis. "It suggests that water emerged with the formation of Mars. And it tells us that water may be naturally occurring on planets and does not require an external source like water-rich asteroids," says Bizzarro.</p><p>Supporting this were signs of asteroid impacts that resulted in the release of a great deal of oxygen, something the scientists say could only have occurred if water was present. "We have developed a new technique that tells us that Mars in its infancy suffered one or more severe asteroid impacts" says Deng. "The impact, Black Beauty reveals, created kinetic energy that released a lot of oxygen. And the only mechanism that could likely have caused the release of such large amounts of oxygen is the presence of water."</p>
Mystery solution?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc3NDc1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzk1MDY0MH0.eMw-JPwYcXTDa7dfYfjg2CUSFwwxpBaBK-0vlXTQEFI/img.jpg?width=980" id="02e74" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87960e3e5ad8d9f0d39954e400746cb8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1070" data-height="545" />
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>The analysis may also provide an answer to one of the lingering mysteries of Mars: How could such a cold planet have accommodated the water for the lake and river remnants we see there today, as shown above? Black Beauty bears indications that early asteroid impacts released a significant amount of greenhouse gases that warmed the now-chilly orb for a time. "This means," says Deng, "that the CO2-rich atmosphere may have caused temperatures to rise and thus allowed liquid water to exist at the surface of Mars."</p><p>The researchers are not yet finished with their expensive rock, and are currently engaged in further study of the microscope water-bearing minerals it contains. They appear to be present in their original, unchanged form. The authors of the paper believe Black Beauty was there at the long-ago moment when water first emerged on the red planet.</p>
Using a laboratory model, scientists get a nice Jovian surprise.
Europa<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc3MTI1My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NDI3NDc0NX0.JbEiK8PdcXijlCQpx64kRa31ZK7LHYBxWbSNvYDnPtk/img.jpg?width=980" id="82e0a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9b59f7517b28903965ceda93f5ea2fda" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1435" />
Enhanced closeup of the "chaos terrain" that is the icy surface of Europa
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute<p>Europa is believed to have an ocean of water or slush beneath its chaotically-featured water-ice surface. <a href="https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/jupiter-moons/europa/in-depth/" target="_blank">According to NASA</a>, it's suspected that the moon's ice layer is 10 to 15 miles thick and floats atop an ocean 40 to 100 miles deep. Europa is just a quarter the size of Earth, but its vastness and depth may mean that it has twice as much water as all of our oceans combined.</p><p>With water considered to be a prerequisite for life, scientists' interest in Europa is obvious. NASA is sending the radiation-resistant <a href="https://europa.nasa.gov" target="_blank">Europa Clipper</a> there to have a look. The spacecraft will conduct 45 flybys at different distances, ranging from 1,675 miles to 16 miles above the ice. The Europa Clipper will carry cameras, spectrometers, ice-penetrating radar, magnetometer, thermal instruments, a device for measuring gravity, and more.</p><p>NASA has previously detected what may be vapor plumes extending outward from Europa. If the Europa Clipper confirms their existence, it may be possible in the future to sample the moon's escaping vapors without needing to land or drill through the ice.</p>
ICE-HEART<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc3MTI0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzczOTc0MX0.yHxmPxW2kGnOS781_VJTNQilyM6u42dr16-ySPJqpKU/img.jpg?width=980" id="0a149" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a3a27b24fb13430dd900d92e9267bf38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="773" />
Artist's impression of Europa against a backdrop of Jupiter
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech<p>The researchers modeled Europa's response to Jupiter's radiation using a special instrument they constructed called the Ice Chamber for Europa's High-Energy Electron and Radiation Environment Testing (ICE-HEART). To blast it with radiation, they took it to the Medical Industrial Radiation Facility at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a high-energy electron beam facility.</p><p>Expecting that Europa's oceans would contain a mix of water and salts similar to those on Earth, they were investigating the response of various materials to radiation. They began with magnesium sulfate and sodium chloride — essentially Epsom salt and table salt — both believed to be in Europa's ice.</p><p>They weren't surprised to see some glowing caused by energetic electrons getting through the moon's ice and energizing molecules beneath it. The glow is generated when the molecules relax after exposure.</p><p>However, the variety of colored glows emitted by radiated compounds was a surprise, according to co-author Bryana Henderson. "We never imagined that we would see what we ended up seeing," Henderson said. "When we tried new ice compositions, the glow looked different. And we all just stared at it for a while and then said, 'This is new, right? This is definitely a different glow?' So we pointed a spectrometer at it, and each type of ice had a different spectrum." (Spectrometers divide light into wavelengths that can signify specific compounds.)</p><p>"Seeing the sodium chloride brine with a significantly lower level of glow was the 'aha' moment that changed the course of the research," said co-author Fred Bateman.</p>