One Less “Possibility of Life”?

I'm getting pretty tired of the phrase "possibility of life." These three words might be the most overused in all of astronomy. In fact, I dare anyone to find a popular-level planetary-science story that mentions the word "water" and doesn't include those three magic words.

I'm not saying the search for life isn't important — I'm simply saying that we've reached a saturation point. Between the 30-year-old Viking lander labeled-release experiment and the purportedly fossil-bearing Martian meteorite ALH 84001, the public has had its hopes lifted and crushed more than once. And with so many overanxious press officers and journalists trying to sell newspapers, I think people have heard "wolf" a few times too many.

Just because Saturn's moon Enceladus has active geysers doesn't mean it harbors alien life. That's the take home message from an upcoming scientific paper.
That's why the latest press release to cross my desk is so refreshing. A team of astronomers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are publishing a new model for the interior of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. The Cassini orbiter found active geysers spewing from Enceladus's surface, and since then everyone (including yours truly) has been trying to connect the water coming off the surface to the "possibility of life."

The press release does a pretty good job of explaining the science. For those of you who want the CliffsNotes version, the model finds a way to power the geysers and to form the associated geologic surface features without water ever melting. In this "Frigid Faithful" idea, the moon's water ice always stays well below its melting point. And without liquid water, there is no "possibility of life." You'll find the paper in an upcoming issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Do you think we've reached the saturation point? Are you unimpressed when reporters and press officers claim another result might mean life is out there? And are there any other phrases used by science writers that just drive you crazy?

15 thoughts on “One Less “Possibility of Life”?

  1. Robert

    I’m tired of reading on EVERY news release for EVERY new space probe (and earth-based telescope), how this one is going to help explain the “Origin of the Universe”.

  2. Robert

    In addition to “possibility of life” I’m tired of hearing on EVERY news release about EVERY new space probe or telescope, how this one is going to help explain/understand the “origin of the universe”.

  3. astro-nut

    I agree that the jumping to conclusions whenever water is found has gotten out of control. Yes, water is neccesary for life, but just because water is found certainly doesn’t mean that life is there. But evoultionist go crazy over the slightest hint of water, because they are desparate to find extraterrestial life to support their theories, which are already failing.

  4. dgp

    Amen, Astro-NUT!

    I should add that even if extraterrestrial life were found, the fact would still remain that it must have been created by other, more intelligent life, because it’d be obviously too complex to have been otherwise. (And we all know who I’m talking about…)

    Besides, since we are merely human beings, we can never comprehend the ways of you-know-who. Therefore, we cannot ever acquire true knowledge of the workings of the universe created by Him.

    But, gotta run. I’m in my observatory trying to get orbital data and a light-curve on 4627 Thales, an asteroid, so that I can predict its path and model its surface features. TTFN

  5. Stargazer

    I totally agree with Astro-Nut and Dgp! Water is necessary for sustaining life, but as Astro-Nut said, just because water is there doesn’t mean there is life. For me it is annoying when they say, “We’ve found water” and then quickly add that water ‘use to be there’ but isn’t now. Wouldn’t it be better to say, “We’ve found traces that water use to be here but it isn’t now”? Then they chuck whatever speculation up to evolution. I don’t know why Mars use to have water but doesn’t now. Only God knows why.

  6. Barry Scholles


    Calm down. Calm down. You need to visit Starbuck’s a little less often. “Possibility of life” is a phrase us sci-fi and sci followers have been using and hearing since the ’50s.

    I’m not tired of it.

    So chill out. There’s a lot more meaningful phrases to attack like “country music.” LOL.

    Barry Scholles

  7. Ann Sidbrant

    I am the owner of a book from 1964, Beyond the Solar System by Willy Ley and Charles Bonestell, and with a foreword Werner von Braun. This book confidently predicts that Alpha Centauri A will be found to have planets and probably even life, because Alpha Centauri A is the same type of sun as the Sun. (As if that would ensure that it has planets, let alone life.)

    I also own a translated Russian book from 1959 (published ofter the giddying success of Sputnik). This book claims that there are jungles and perhaps dinosaurs on Venus. And it claims that Mars definitely has canals and an advanced civilization!

    Today there is no talk about canals on Mars, but the buzz about life on Mars is as insistent as ever. Look, there’s ice here, and look, there’s a dry flood bed… so obviously there was liquid water on Mars in the past! And where there’s liquid water, there is life! And because there must have been life on Mars in the past that life is probably still there, because life is tough! Hey, we just proved that there is life on Mars!

    I will be as excited as anyone else when astronomers really find solid evidence that there is life on another planet. But until they do… why all this breathless speculation? Are astronomers telling the public that there is life on Mars because they think that this is what the public wants to hear? Is astronomy about pandering feel-good wishful thinking to the public?

    So far there is not a shred of positive evidence that life exists anywhere but on Earth. Perhaps life really is rare in the universe. Perhaps we need to dwell on that possibility a lot more than we do. Perhaps we need to question a lot more than we do what we are doing to our marvellous planet Earth.

  8. Ddently

    I agree that the phrase is overused..but..
    I have a very different view than what’s commonly believed:
    The assumption that life needs water.
    Life HERE needs water, obviously. But why is it automatically assumed that ANY form of life would need water?

  9. dgp

    Keith Kline,

    The problem with regarding creationism as merely one side in a scientific “debate” is that creationism is not a scientific hypothesis, but a philosophical one. Creationism is fundamentally opposed to the philosophy which underlies all of science, the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism (specifically the assumption of that philosophy in the face of the question: what is the origin of life?). This does not mean that creationism vs. naturalism should not be debated (it definitely should!), but it does mean that any such debate belongs in Philosophy 101, not Astrophysics or Evolutionary Biology.

    For a defense of this view, I refer interested readers to the highly original op-ed “The Bait and Switch of Intelligent Design”, by Dr. Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute. It can be read here:

  10. enrico the great

    Well, now overused terms, lets see “lightshow” used to describe ANY astronomical phenomenon by the media, “life as we know it” has gotten annoying. Also the term “life form” used for organism. C’mon now, leave THAT one to the Trekkers! (Relax, I like THOSE shows as much as anyone, but lets not talk like Spock , Data Picarrd OR Kirk! Sheesh!
    Gratuitous use of paintings of asteroids hitting Earth has been annoying since about 1989. I call that “Impact Porn”.

  11. Enrico

    I find the phrase “Lightshow” used by the media to describe any Astronomical phenomenon to be annoying. The term “Life form” is not neccesary, leave it to the sci fi fans. The over use of speculative images of asteroids hitting the Earth are by now a cliche and indeed have been annoyin me since about 1989. They are now merely Impact Porn.

  12. Enrico

    Also annoying——any variation of this: The Earth, an insignificant planet of an ordinary star in the outskirts of Galaxy… Sounds like Philip Marlowe after a BAD night !

  13. astro-nut

    I read the article “The Bait-and-Switch of Intellignet Design”, and I agree that the intelligent design only attempts to show that the universe must have been designed and ignores the question of who designed it. But it is not a bait-and-switch tactic; intelligent design, or Biblical creation, requires the supernatural. That article was written by someone who is vehemently anti-God, and such a worldview comes out in his great distain for anything “religious”. But the evolutionists use bait-and-switch; for example, they switch the meaning of the word ‘evolution’ from simple mutations in an organism that changes it properties somewhat, which they claim as proof for the theory, to molecules-to-man theory when talking about origins (see for an example).

  14. Enrico the Great

    Mat I point out that major religions like Roman Cargolicism, many strains of Judaism and many Protestant bodies have NO PROBLEM with Darwinian evolution.
    Intelligent Design is not neccesary, even though they believe in a God concept.

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