• Found the Higgs… now find the aliens!

    POSTED BY: Adi Chopra
    The hunt for the Higgs boson seems to be in its final stages. Earlier this month scientists reported a possible sighting of the elusive particle that is a key element of the Standard Model. While not conclusive, it complements results from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) last year and as the search window narrows, physicists are giving the Higg’s less than a year to come out of hiding. When that news does come through, it will be regarded as a successful milestone for the LHC, thanks to the years of effort by a large community supported in some ways by a common goal of the entire world.

    While the journey of discovery would continue for the LHC and its siblings around the world, it may be a good time to start thinking about what other grand projects the world could pursue – what should we go looking for next?

    Some biologists think they have ideas worthy of the next big adventure in science. In interviews featured in Nature this week, some notable biologists have said that it is time we seriously tackled questions that have historically been the domain of philosophy but in the last few decades become scientifically addressable.

    “Where are the aliens?” seems like a good question…

    We all want to know “Is there life elsewhere?” If you think finding the Higgs will be big news, just wait for when news of E.T. hits Twitter! Remember the frenzy around the Arsenic based life form in December 2011?

    Astrobiologist Chris McKay thinks the most likely places to harbour life beyond Earth are:

    - Enceladus, an icy moon orbiting Saturn that probably has liquid water and is spewing organic material from cracks in its surface,
    - Jupiter’s moon, Europa, whose icy surface masks tantalizing seas of water, and
    - Mars (if not today, then in the past when, a few billions of years ago, Mars was as wet as the Earth is today)

    Do we, as a society, have the willingness to make the search for aliens our next priority science? The technology to go to these sites is there (the Mars Science Laboratory reaches Mars on August 6). The scientists and the instruments for life detection are ready to go. I think that we are basically waiting for the political and the social will to make robotic or manned missions to search for life at these sites, happen within our lifetime.

    Perhaps, it is a bit early to go looking for life elsewhere if we haven’t even properly looked at possible alien life that might be lurking on Earth itself. Discovery of life from multiple origins, perhaps distinguishable by a different genetic code, will help us gauge if life is common in the universe. Answering the question “Are we alone?” has profound implications for our identity and how we perceive our place in the universe.

    Other biologists propose that we focus our efforts and resources on understanding how life got started on Earth. 2009 Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak is trying to fine-tune his recipe to make cells that can replicate in a test tube, while his colleagues are work on self-replicating genes. They hope that one day, they can put the two together and find out how life originated on Earth about 4 billion years ago.

    All of these ideas have the potential to ignite popular imagination, fuel curiosity and inspire our youngest minds to pursue careers in science. But if these ideas seem a little ‘out there’ or if you are afraid you might not live long enough to see the results, may be we should focus on the longevity gene instead…

    Further reading: Life-changing experiments: The biological Higgs” by Heidi Ledford, Nature, 28 March 2012, 483, 528