The Search for Life in the Universe

This post was contributed by Phyllis Hughes, editor of U3A magazine Sources. Phyllis attended the Birkbeck Science Week 2016 U3A talk: “The search for life in the universe – The new science of astrobiology” on Monday April 11 at the University of East London.

Science Week - astrobiology event Ian CrawfordThe search for life in the universe ranging from simple organisms to intelligent beings was the subject for Prof Ian Crawford from Birkbeck University.

Prof Crawford is an astrobiologist whose work looks at the possibility of life on other planets. He told his audience of members of the University of the Third Age that Earth was the only place currently where life was known to exist.

Scientists therefore were concentrating their research on planets that were thought to have been similar to Earth when life first developed.

“Life appeared on Earth fairly soon after the planet formed,” he said. “However it took a long time for microbiological life to develop into multi-cell animals.”

He said that Mars was currently of interest because it was known that it had an atmosphere similar to Earth 4bn years ago when simple life forms were first developing. This atmosphere contained water and was comparatively warm.

In 1976 the Viking space probes took samples of the Mars soil to see if there was evidence of life, but these had proved negative. However the samples were very small and research was continuing in this field.

Professor Ian Crawford

Professor Ian Crawford

Other places that were thought to be worth investigating included one of the moons of Jupiter, called Europa which was first discovered by Galileo in 1609.

Two moons of Saturn, Enceladus and Titan were also potentially similar in atmosphere.

As well as examining the geology there was also interest in trying to pick up radio signals from the galaxy that might have been transmitted by intelligent life. The Search for Extra Terrestial Intelligence (SETI) had also proved negative so far.

“Given all the necessary factors I think the possibility of advanced technological life is rare,” Prof Crawford said.

Find out more

View the full Science Week 2016 programme of free events

Courses at the School of Science

Prof Ian Crawford


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