The Big Question with Alexander Rodin: The search for alien life

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Alexander Rodin is an expert on planetary climates in the solar system. He heads the infrared spectroscopy lab at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and has worked on the Mars Express and ExoMars projects. The latter is a joint astrobiology program of the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. ExoMars searches for signs of past life on the red planet.

What is the biggest question facing your field?

In general, the big question of planetary science is the following: Does extraterrestrial life exist in the universe? No matter how many spacecraft we launch, how many theories we put forward in exploring planets of the solar and extrasolar systems, we still face the same questions: Is life on Earth unique in the universe? Is it the only intelligent life form?

Why is it significant?

This subject is of much concern not only to scientists, explorers and intellectuals, but also to the whole of humanity. We have always sought to understand who we are and what our place in this world is. All religions somehow share the claim that the human being is the supreme creation that is the central purpose of the existence of our material world. We feel comfortable thinking there is just one unique world inhabited by an intelligent species and other living creatures.

As a Christian, if I find out about intelligent life outside the Earth’s biosphere, well, to be honest, I am not sure how I would go on. This is a very serious matter for me, and I reckon the number of people like me on this planet to be much greater than the number of those professionally interested in the water cycle on Mars, methane isotopes or something. So this is an issue of major importance, a serious issue.

Where is the answer likely to come from?

If we look at how our knowledge has evolved, we see knowledge expand and illusions shrink. It’s not just about intelligent life — we are not seeing any traces of life as such outside Earth. I mean, a hundred years ago, in the early 20th century, people tended to imagine some forms of life on the nearest planets. Things like the vegetation on Mars and animal life on Venus were valid subjects for serious conversation. This was no metaphor but a conjecture, so to speak.

As our knowledge grew, we came to realize that the world outside Earth is very, very inhospitable. We are becoming aware that the past history of celestial bodies, their evolution tends to be pretty dramatic. Planets constantly undergo catastrophic collisions with asteroids, planets collide with each other. In the history of the universe, catastrophic events abound — in fact, they virtually make up this history.

And amid all that, there is our planet, an intact oasis persisting for billions of years. That is a miracle indeed! We have so far not observed anything like that elsewhere. This search is not necessarily bent on finding alien life — maybe we can instead demonstrate that the terrestrial life is unique. That would be an extremely important and interesting finding, too. Imagine at some point evidence comes up, showing with scientific rigor that no other life forms exist in the universe. All the religious people, including me, would breathe a sigh of relief. Many others would probably be disappointed, but no one would remain indifferent. This concerns everyone.

For more information about Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology follow on Twitter @phystech_en

IMAGE SOURCE: Evgeny Pelevin/MIPT Press Office

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