Life on Comets? Or a Scientist who Cried Wolf

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ Such is the case with the search for life. Any scientist who finds direct evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life had better be sure. And then once they are sure they had better find too much evidence because people will still not believe them.  It’s because alien life would be such a monumental, paradigm-shifting discovery, and our entire way of life and system of beliefs would be compromised.

A close up image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken at a distance of 130 km using the OSIRIS camera on the Rosetta spacecraft. A range of features, including boulders, craters and steep cliffs are clearly visible. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

For this reason, I simply shake my head every time I see some sensationalized news article about the ‘potential for life’ on a comet.  Everyone immediately turns it into ‘the comet is teeming with life.’  This is exactly what happened over the weekend with comet 67P, colloquially known as the Rosetta comet.  Astronomers at Cardiff University in Wales have suggested that the features observed on the comet’s surface are consistent with a mixture of organic material and water that could form life as the comet warms from the Sun.

“Rosetta has already shown that the comet is not to be seen as a deep-frozen inactive body, but supports geological processes and could be more hospitable to micro-life than our Arctic and Antarctic regions,” says Dr. Max Wallis, the researcher who communicated the ideas at the national astronomy meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

I generally don’t see the problem with suggesting that life could be responsible for the features seen on 67P, but as scientists, we should know better than to participate in this sort of sensationalized speculation. It happens every time someone with any credibility speaks of life on another world.  Nearly a century ago, it was Percival Lowell’s canals on Mars, thought to be dug out by a vast civilization.  It captivated the public but did such a disservice to the scientific world.  The cycle just repeats.

If we find life on another solar system body, and that is a big if, it won’t be for a long time.  And the intelligent scientists who discover it will have the respect for the world to confirm it 100% before they make their claims and confirm its existence.  I hope that day comes in my life time, but if it doesn’t, I’ll know that good scientists are still searching.

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