Surface of Europa

A rather odd coupling of event and venue managed to drag me into a little project last Thursday. A legitimate astrophysicist was giving a presentation at a local brewery. His emphasis was on the search for alien life, and no, we haven’t found any yet. One of the curiosities of this event was whether the patrons would lean more in the direction of science nerd or ruffians yelling “more mead, wench”. The astrophysicist presenter started the night by saying that he was fully prepared for the latter and he was OK with that, but sadly, he was mistaken, people were there to learn. Now that doesn’t mean that nerdy types don’t like their beer, They’re just more timid about how they get it.

Perhaps one of the most useful new tools in search for life is the new Webb telescope, which can decipher the chemical make up of the atmospheres of planets in other solar systems. Webb won’t be able to prove life on another planet, but it will give us an idea of how likely or unlikely it is for said planet. Before this, the only aliens we could hope to find outside of our solar system would be ones with radios and radio telescopes, which is a very high bar, in my opinion. I would guess that the majority of the pockets of life scattered around the universe, quite an assumption in itself, do not have such abilities.

It’s been recently learned that the most likely places for life in our own solar system is the vast oceans of one of the moons of Jupiter, named Europa, and one of the moons of Saturn, named Enceladus, and this… This is what the presenter was most excited about, what he was really here to talk about. Europa is estimated to have twice the amount of water than the Earth, under a layer of ice. His imagination and hopeful expectation was that, under the ice, one might find microscopic organisms, perhaps similar to the ones that have inhabited our oceans for billions of years, huddling around geothermal vents.

Now, by this point, you might be asking yourself, “what was David’s project he opened with? Why am I reading this? Is that an ant or a termite walking across my floor?” Well, all of your answers… One of your answers is here.

In the question and answers, a staff member of a politician asked “What is your best argument that my boss can use to explain why we should fund these projects.” At this, the presenter completely whiffed, babbling about this and that. So my project, thrust upon me, was to write a better answer:

It is the innate human desire to explore that caused us to walk out of Africa, depart into an open ocean in rickety boats for possible destinations not known at departure, make maps for future people to follow, build microscopes, discover that there are more elements than earth wind and fire, test and make the necessary corrections to our understanding of the laws of physics, without which understanding, none of our current technologies could possibly have been invented. These are the practical things. Then, isn’t there a desire to know? We are curious by nature, at least when we are very young. Sometimes the routines of life hide that curiosity but can often be revived with new discovery, which lead to new questions. Are we alone? Where did we come from? What might be our fate? Many discoveries can be done by clever individuals or corporations, but there are some discoveries and questions that require the kinds of effort, cooperation and resources that will only come with collective entities such as governments. For profit corporations are not set up to tackle a giant project who’s payback will be answering questions like are we alone, or how is our sun likely to behave, and not get a result for thirty years or more.


A question that I wish I got answered: If we found microscopic life on Europa, and brought some back, do you think they would brew good beer? Is this brewery secretly funding your project?