Life on other planets might not look like any beings we’re used to on Earth. It may even be unrecognizable at first to scientists searching for it. Credit: William Hand
Topics: Astrobiology, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Planetary Science, SETI, Space Exploration
Sarah Stewart Johnson was a college sophomore when she first stood atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. Its dried lava surface differed from the eroded, tree-draped mountains of her home state of Kentucky. Johnson wandered away from the other young researchers she was with and toward a distant ridge of the 13,800-foot summit. Looking down, she turned over a rock with the toe of her boot. To her surprise, a tiny fern lived underneath it, sprouting from ash and cinder cones. “It felt like it stood for all of us, huddled under that rock, existing against the odds,” Johnson says.
Her true epiphany, though, wasn’t about the hardiness of life on Earth or the hardships of being human: It was about aliens. Even if a landscape seemed strange and harsh from a human perspective, other kinds of life might find it quite comfortable. The thought opened up the cosmic real estate and the variety of life she imagined might be beyond Earth’s atmosphere. “It was on that trip that the idea of looking for life in the universe began to make sense to me,” Johnson says.
Later, Johnson became a professional at looking. As an astronomy postdoc at Harvard University in the late 2000s and early 2010s, she investigated how astronomers might use genetic sequencing—detecting and identifying DNA and RNA—to find evidence of aliens. Johnson found the work exciting (the future alien genome project!), but it also made her wonder: What if extraterrestrial life didn’t have DNA, RNA, or other nucleic acids? What if their cells got instructions in some other biochemical way?
As an outlet for heretical thoughts like this, Johnson started writing in style too lyrical and philosophical for scientific journals. Her typed musings would later turn into the 2020 popular science book The Sirens of Mars. Inside its pages, she probed the idea that other planets were truly other. So their inhabitants might be very different, at a fundamental and chemical level, from anything in this world. “Even places that seem familiar—like Mars, a place that we think we know intimately—can completely throw us for a loop,” she says. “What if that’s the life case?”
The Search for Extraterrestrial Life as We Don’t Know It, Sarah Scoles, Scientific American