Just an ‘Earth Thing’

Photo of a network over the Earth in space

by Emily Harari

When I think of Earth, the first thing that comes to mind is life. When I was an undergraduate student studying biology, I saw our planet as an oasis in the desert of our galaxy, where extreme conditions made life seemingly impossible. As I graduated from university, however, I realized that life maybe isn’t just an ‘Earth thing.’ 

Astrobiology is a field of study that brings together the studies of life on Earth with the possibility for life elsewhere. At university, I had never considered this possibility. All of my studies were grounded on Earth. And that trend may also hold for many biologists with advanced degrees.

“The biological sciences are the most ‘educationally pure’,” says Robert C. Dauffenbach, a labor economist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. This means that, out of all scientists, those studying biology are more likely to stick to biology in their careers. By contrast, computer scientists are about half as likely to have come from a computer science or math background. Dauffenbach was unable to be reached for comment.

An outlier to this trend, or one of the ‘educationally impure,’ is Dr. David Presti. I first met Dr. Presti at his lecture, “Cannabis Neurobiology: More Complex than Black-Hole Astrophysics.” Presti surprised me. He began his graduate studies in astrophysics, but redirected his focus on researching the human brain. As a result, he brings an other-worldly perspective to biology. He delivered his presentation under a single spotlight in the dim room. His hair dyed blue, he was like an alien returning from space travel, challenging our perceptions of Earth. 

In his book, Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey, Presti discusses quantum mechanics, in which seemingly conflicting observations challenge our perceptions of the physical world. He believes that cosmology, an account of the universe’s origins, could unveil physical principles which explain the nature of our minds. While the average biology student may not see the connection, Presti has found that looking outward to the cosmos can help us look inward to understand the human experience.

One phenomenon from quantum mechanics that may apply to our understanding of life is the “observer effect” — by observing something, the viewer alters what they see. A famous example comes from revisiting the double slit experiment.

Set up a barrier with slits, like a fence, and shine a laser at it. Particles of light align and rush toward the fence in a single laser beam. But on the other side of the fence, they emerge— not as particles— but as waves. Waves that emerge from adjacent slits intersect and overlap as they radiate outward, like an expanding Venn Diagram. To the observer, these atomic interactions look like an array of vertical stripes, alternating between light and shadow.  

Physicists replicated the experiment, but they wanted to look more closely at the moment the light crossed the barrier, so they added a detector at the threshold, just behind a slit. They hoped to observe the light switching from particles to waves. Instead, the waves disappeared from sight. The pattern of light and shadow that normally emerged from the barrier was gone. The scientists did not change the double slit experiment, yet they altered its results, simply by observing it from a different angle.

Cosmologists and neurobiologists alike struggle to explain the vanishing act that is the “observer effect,” but this doesn’t mean that the confounding phenomenon can’t guide further research. What if biologists were to venture beyond Earth for their experiments? Would their observations change?

The laws governing observation may not be fixed. If electrons don’t reliably behave, how should we expect our own consciousness to do so? 

Perhaps, our best chance at understanding our universe is by observing it from different vantage points and reassessing the realities we take for granted.

Ask astronauts. Many have returned from their travels explaining their encounters with the “overview effect,” a psychological phenomenon proposed by Frank White where astronauts experience a shift in their awareness due to the act of seeing the Earth from space. How do we explain this shift on a molecular, fundamental scale? Is it the absence of gravity, as Robert Penrose suggested? Or is it the presence of some new force?

And, perhaps the most intriguing question of all: Had we not ventured into outer space, could we have made this observation in the first place?

The “observer effect” should remind us to not take familiar experiments for granted. And the “overview effect” should encourage us to embark on far-away journeys to better vantage points. Both phenomena challenge my initial belief that life is just an ‘Earth thing.’ Who’s to say life isn’t on another planet? We may just need a different perspective to see it.

Emily Harari is a science communicator. She studied molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley and has enjoyed working in biotechnology startups. She aspires to promote trust and progress in biotech by applying her research experience and writing skills.

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