We Don't Know Anything

Unless you’ve been sleeping for the past few hours, or just haven’t been near an apparatus capable of capturing radio waves or receiving digital signals, you know that NASA just announced that they’ve discovered a new lifeform which has substituted phosphorus with the poisonous element arsenic, right here on Earth.

This could be monumental. Phosphorus has always been considered an essential building block of all life on the planet. If this finding stands up to the post-hype public scrutiny, it will be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of this century. It will actually deserve a tagline coming from Apple’s PR department. But it’s significant for another reason than “just” forcing us to think of “the tree of life” in plural. It underlines something more important than any single scientific discovery: The fact that we don’t know anywhere near as much about the universe as we like to believe. Heck, we don’t even seem to know enough to speak confidently about the attributes of our own planet and the life on it.

Do We Care?

The popular argument against exploration in science has always been that we don’t need to know anything else. That surely we don’t need to study fruit flies in Vienna or microbes in California lakes; that we should be satisfied with our modern, stationary lives, our couches, our televisions, and our Internet; that there’s nothing significant, only minor details, left to discover. But Felisa Wolfe-Simon, unimpressed by the comfort we’ve developed, serves us with a striking reminder that that just couldn’t be further from the truth. She thought it would be interesting to look for microbes in a peculiar lake, and ended up changing one of our core presumptions about life.

Felisa knew what she was looking for. Most don’t. Most breakthrough discoveries are accidents. But all of them, whether intended or not, are the product of something that’s been within us since we first discovered fire: An unfailing craving to explore and experiment with the unknown — to find out more about that which we do not understand. To quote Carl Sagan:

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game — none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our ability to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few — drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

It’s been in our nature for millions of years, but a sad fact distorts this picture: Most of these breakthroughs were made with very little, if any, funding. We spend almost no money on science. As Brian Cox points out in his TED talk, Why We Need the Explorers, the U.K. and other western countries allocate less than two percent of their budget to all scientific efforts, of which exploratory projects constitute only a fraction.


I never saw as much public interest in science as I did these past few days. Everyone were so ready, so hopeful, to hear about life elsewhere in the universe. For a short while, all the world’s eyes were on NASA and on science, almost like they were on July 20th, 1969.

The world didn’t see extraterrestrial life, but perhaps what they saw was even more profound — an alien lifeform right under our noses. A cold reminder that not only do we have so much to learn about where to look and what to look for, but that we’re not nearly finished scrupulously investigating our own planet. That we shouldn’t put our insatiable craving to explore on the back burner.

We don’t know what we’re going to discover. We cannot try to perceive what’s to come. What we can do is insist that there is more, and that exploration is absolutely essential for our development, our well-being, and, indeed, our survival!

In a few weeks, most people will go back to not caring. What about you?

Update: The claims that an arsenic-based lifeform had been found were greatly exaggerated. My sentiment wasn’t, though :-)