Teens Invited To Explore “Aliens: Fact Or Fiction?”

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Streaks on the surface of Mars caused by water erosionStreaks on the surface of Mars caused by water erosion

On Friday, September 25th, Northwestern University's chapter of Sigma Xi is hosting a Junior Science Cafe event for middle and high school students at 4 pm at the Evanston Public Library. We asked our Adler Planetarium partner Mark Hammergren, who is leading the program, for a preview.

Do mainstream scientists really research the possibility of life on other planets? Absolutely. The field is called astrobiology. It has exploded since the 1990s when NASA scientists looked at a meteorite from Mars, honestly thought they saw fossilized bacteria, and published their findings in a respected scientific journal. Thing is, part of the scientific process requires findings to be replicated by other researchers. And other researchers put forth a different theory, equally as valid and honest, that showed non-biological processes could cause the same markings. There’s still no definitive answer about life on Mars, yet. But it has sparked a kind of revolution. For the first time, scientists could look at alien life in all seriousness. And they are.

How are scientists conducting this research?In a step by step process. First, they examine extreme environments here on Earth that support life, and then think, ‘Where else could we find environments like those?’ For example, if we drill a deep hole, say a mile into the lava in Washington State, there’s bacteria thriving. Then they think, ‘Could creatures similar to those live deep in the rock on Mars, or beneath the ice crusts of Jupiter?’

Halophiles, microbes that can survive extreme temperatures matching those on Mars. (Image credit: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org)Halophiles, microbes that can survive extreme temperatures matching those on Mars. (Image credit: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org)

As for space travel, NASA researchers mostly look for things that support life, either now or in the past, like water. And they’ve found evidence in abundance that Mars was once quite wet. Water probably still exists on Mars. Streaks running downs the sides of canyons suggest water is trickling, not definitely, but worth investigating more.

You’re also an expert on flying saucers. Are there any reports of sightings in our area? 

Actually, the best UFO sighting in the 21st century took place in Tinley Park in 2004. For several months that fall, in the mid- to late- evening hours on weekends, people saw three fairly bright, red lights drifting overhead, slowly changing positions. It would last for 10-15 minutes, and then the lights would start flickering, and eventually, one by one they would go out.

Hundreds of people saw it, and there were dozens of videotapes. I was asked by a local organization if there could be an astronomical explanation and I had to say no. They weren’t stars in the sky, or Venus, or meteors, or satellites, which doesn’t mean they were UFOs. Except that one day, some people with binoculars got a very good look at the lights and said they were flares suspended below balloons. Still, plenty of people still say it wasn’t a hoax.

This is one of the reasons I like teaching young people about aliens: it introduces the idea of critical thinking. It leads to a fundamental question – how do we know if something is worth believing? Scientists use the scientific method, where we ask a question (sometimes called forming a hypothesis) and then conduct experiments to answer it. This system has worked well since Galileo.

But that’s not all scientists really do.

Just like everyone else, scientists learn things by reading stuff – newspapers, journals, websites – and by observing the world. But then scientists think about the credibility of the author, the quality of the data, and so on. Do you? This may be clearer in politics, for example. People may think differently about something seen on CNN than on Fox News. But do you use those critical thinking skills to make other decisions about what to believe too?

So are you saying scientists don’t believe in UFOs?If you’re asking me if aliens are fact or fiction, then I have to encourage you to come to the program at the Evanston Library! But you know, a lot of the people who believe in UFOs say that scientists don’t want to believe, that scientists don’t want to have their world challenged. Let me assure you that there is nothing more exciting in science than being the one to create a revolution. Everyone wants to be the next Galileo!

I want to believe in aliens as much as anyone, but as a scientist, I have to look at biases. Most importantly, my own biases. We’re taught as scientists to examine our own biases and be sure we have really good evidence before we make a conclusion.

To learn more, check out the Junior Science Cafe event on September 25th. For more information,click here.

 

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