Astronomers On Life In The UniverseAuthor: John Prytz
When it comes to the subject of extraterrestrial life, exobiology or astrobiology, the profession most oft associated is that of the astronomer*. That should be nonsense as the focus should be on the word "life" or "biology" not on the word "extraterrestrial", "exo" or "astro". I've often said that when it comes to UFOs, for example, astronomers are out of their league because the subject of UFOs is not a proper astronomical subject for astronomers to professionally study and thus comment upon in a professional capacity. Astronomers, being human and all that entails, do not always draw a line in the sand between what they believe professionally through academic study and research and what they believe personally, without benefit of academic study and research.
The only astronomer who ended up making a serious professional study of UFOs, in fact employed as a consultant to the USAF on UFOs – astronomical at first, hence all facets – was the late J. Allen Hynek, so he's qualified to wax lyrical. What's interesting is he started off sceptical on the bona-fides of the field, but came around to the opinion that UFOs were serious scientific business.
The turf of astronomers starts at the top of Earth's atmosphere and goes outward bound from there, although I'd maintain that things like meteorites are the realm of mineralogists; Transient Lunar Phenomena (TLP) and the ‘Face' on Mars and other dynamic visible features on planetary and satellite ‘surfaces' are more the turf of meteorologists, geologists, and maybe even oceanographers (i.e. – Jupiter's moon, Europa).
WHAT ASTRONOMERS CAN, SHOULD, CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT COMMENT ON REGARDING EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE
Probability of Extraterrestrial Life: Astronomers can tell us roughly how many stars there are per galaxy and what kind of stars they are and how many galaxies there are in the visible universe and roughly what the average solar system might be like, it's components and constituents, but that's as far as it goes. When it comes down to whether life arises and evolves on any of these extra-solar planets up through and including intelligence and technologies is an exercise better left to biologists and anthropologists.
Extra-Solar Planets and Planetary Systems: Astronomers are doing an outstanding job in discovering planets orbiting around other stars than just our Sun. They can pretty much estimate, maybe guesstimate, their size and orbital characteristics. They can also determine what the atmospheric constituents are – if any. However, what precisely that composition signifies – constituents perhaps in chemical disequilibrium suggestive of biomarkers – is an analysis best left to chemists and biochemists.
Origin of Life and Panspermia: Astronomers have no academic bona-fides that enables them to wax lyrical on these topics. Maybe terrestrial life originated on Earth; maybe it came via spores (or some such) from outer space (panspermia), but that's not a subject that's part and parcel of astronomy, even if extrapolated to abodes somewhere out there.
Transition from Simple (Unicellular) to Complex (Multicellular) Life: Any pontificating on this subject by astronomers is pure and simply their personal opinion. Astronomers would be pissed if evolutionary biologists got press coverage for commenting on the astrophysics of Black Holes, yet astronomers seem to feel capable of practicing biology, as long as it's called extraterrestrial biology, astrobiology or biology in outer space.
Evolutionary Rise of Intelligence, Technology and the Longevity of Civilizations: Any such speculations are best left to anthropologists as these topic fall way, way, way outside of the realm of academic astronomy.
Life Not As We Know It: Any speculation on alternative biochemistries (substitute silicon for carbon; ammonia for water; etc.), in fact the entire definition of what life itself is, is best left to biochemists and related disciplines.
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI): Professionally, astronomers seek out photons – visible light photons; radio photons, microwave photons, gamma-ray photons, infrared photons, ultraviolet photons, etc. Astronomers have a good handle on what naturally originating photons are like and what they can tell us about astronomical objects. Thus, astronomers should be able to spot anomalous photons – artificially originating photons with the accent on the artificiality. If astronomers spot unnaturally emitted photons then the odds are rather good that they have found an extraterrestrial intelligence, an intelligence that has the ability to emit artificially produced photons – like radio signals, optical (laser) signals, etc. Of course there have been false alarms. Pulsars were first thought to be artificial signals; ditto some quasars; and there were those who thought they had picked up radio broadcasts from Mars in the early years of the 20th Century. However, once astronomers have detected anomalous photons and unanimously concluded they came from an extraterrestrial technological civilization, then any extrapolation from that is out of their bailiwick and resides more with anthropologists, linguistics experts, and other social science academics.
First Contact: While there are lots of terrestrial examples of first contact, astronomers aren't historians, sociologists or anthropologists and thus shouldn't professionally speculate as being all-knowing on the subject of extraterrestrial first contact.
AREAS WHERE ASTRONOMERS NEED TO REALLY BUTT OUT
Visitors from Outer Space: Astronomers are qualified to tell us about the vastness of the cosmos and the immense distances between stars and our neck of the woods. But, the ability of advanced technological extraterrestrial civilizations to transverse those distances is a matter for engineers not astronomers.
Unidentified Flying Objects: UFO crashes in general and Roswell (July 1947) in particular falls way outside the province of professional astronomy (unless such a ‘crash' can be positively identified as an impacting meteorite). Yet astronomers feel quite capable to wax lyrical on the subject. However, any opinions expressed by astronomers are really personal, not professional ones, and have no more validity than comments by Joe and Josephine Citizen.
UFO abductions, or abductions by ufonauts (the ‘greys'), fall outside the province of professional astronomy and are more properly the province of mental health professionals.
Government programs associated with investigating UFOs, UFO censorship or cover-ups fall outside the province of professional astronomy. Astronomers aren't experts in national security matters, defence protocols, political science and other associated areas that deals with intelligence operations.
Close Encounters of any kind including geophysical, physiological, electromagnetic, ground trace cases, fall outside the province of professional astronomy.
Analysis and commentary on UFO films and photographs fall outside the province of professional astronomy.
Analysis of radar returns from UFOs, a rather technical and complex matter, tends to fall outside the province of professional astronomy even though radar has been used to probe some of the planets and satellites of our solar system, and thus their ground topography which puts such data in the realm of the geologist in any event.
Alien motivations (i.e. – why don't they land on the White House lawn, etc.) fall outside the province of professional astronomy. At best this is a matter for psychologists and anthropologists and sociologists, though when it comes to what motivates an alien or alien culture neither is anyone else really qualified for that matter.
The only intersection between astronomy and UFOs is where assistance is required in ruling in or out astronomical bodies (the moon, planets, stars, meteors, etc.) as the cause or unlikely cause of a UFO sighting event. Or, perhaps where statements by so-called ‘contactees' contradict known astronomical data. Otherwise, UFOs are the province of meteorologists, experts in optics and atmospheric optical phenomena, psychologists, etc. Yet astronomers wax lyrical on all facets of the UFO phenomena as if all things UFO were exclusively part and parcel of their turf.
So 99% of what astronomers do (like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth Shostak, and Donald Menzel) when pontificating about UFOs, are in reality spouting off personal opinions, not professional or professionally related (i.e. – astronomical related) factual knowledge.
Ancient Astronauts: Astronomers are not archaeologists, anthropologists, historians or usually conversant with mythologies, and thus should steer clear of anything to do with the subject of "ancient astronauts".
Crop circles fall outside the province of professional astronomy, even though IMHO crop circles have probably nothing to do with ETI.
The animal (wildlife and livestock) mutilation phenomena fall outside the province of professional astronomy.
Ball lightning and other associated anomalous lights (like the Australian Min-Min Lights) fall outside the province of professional astronomy or astronomers who are not geophysicists.
Again, any commentaries by astronomers on these issues quasi-associated with ETI are, when all is said and done, when crunch comes crunch, are personal, not professional commentaries.
* And if not the astronomer then physicists. In fact the bulk of material dealing with life in the universe is penned by physical scientists, not biological or life scientists or naturalists. When I did a course in the subject of life in the universe, SUNY @ Stony Brook, it was of course taught by an astronomer, Tobias C. Owen, who has since co-authored along with Donald Goldsmith an entire textbook on the subject "The Search for Life in the Universe" (third edition - 2001).
Science librarian; retired.