Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Commission F3 (Astrobiology),
International Astronomical Union,
Masatoshi Ohishi, President
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the Universe. Astrobiology aims to answer the famous question, “Are we alone?” Commission F3 (Astrobiology, hereafter “the Commission”) of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was established in August 2015. The subject of astrobiology is an interdisciplinary subject, and our members come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from astronomy, biology, chemistry, Earth science, geology, and planetary science. The Commission has 206 members and one associate, as of October 5, 2020.
Any astrobiology research is serious and challenging across diverse fields. It encompasses the search for extant life, evidence of past life, or evidence of prebiotic chemistry on solar system bodies, including Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus. It includes the search for planets around other stars and potential spectroscopic evidence of habitability and biological activity; the origin of the biogenic chemical elements and the study of biologically relevant molecules in the interstellar medium and in primitive solar system objects such as comets, undifferentiated asteroids and some meteorites. The search for intelligent signals of extraterrestrial origin and the study of the origin, early evolution, and environmental constraints for life on Earth are important components of astrobiology. The Commission is charged with the coordination of efforts in all these areas at the international level and with the establishment of collaborative programs with other international scientific societies with related interest.
In September, 2020, a possible detection of a single phosphine (PH3) line in the Venusian atmosphere was published in Nature Astronomy (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1174-4). The authors stated that the detected phosphine abundance could not be reconciled based on our current knowledge of abiotic chemistry on Venus. Consequently, the authors proposed a hypothesis that the phosphine could be formed through a biological process in microorganisms floating in the Venusian atmosphere. We are aware that there are interesting research results that have not yet been proven. For example, there was in 1996 a report on the possible discovery of micro fossils in the Martian meteorite, ALH84001. As soon as the paper was published, hot debate among relevant researchers erupted concerning many aspects of the claimed discovery and its interpretation. The Commission understands that the claimed discovery has still not been proven as of today, although the paper contributed much to the astrobiology community.
In this regard, the Commission is concerned with the way the potential detection of phosphine has been covered for the broad audience. It is an ethical duty for any scientist to communicate with the media and the public with great scientific rigor and to be careful not to overstate any interpretation which will be irretrievably picked up by the press and generate great public attention in the case of life beyond Earth. The way results about phosphine were reported lead some news organization to report that evidence for life in Venus was found. The Commission understands that such a reaction by the press would reflect high interest in astrobiology research by the public. Such a report, however, misleads the public, and might be harmful to the advancement of astrobiology research.
Finally the Commission would like to remind the relevant researchers that we need to understand how the press and the media behave before communicating with them. It is quite important for any researcher to keep a good relationship with the press since they have great power to disseminate our research results to the public. We, researchers, should provide the press with sufficient background information so that they can report our research outcomes as faithfully and scientifically as possible.
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this page last updated 10 October 2020
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