ELSI Colloquium

Prof. David Kipping (Columbia University)
March 30, 2018

Place: ELSI-1, ELSI Hall

A Bayesian Informatics Approach to Abiogenesis & Prospects of In-Situ Sensing

One of the greatest challenges facing modern science is to understand how frequently life naturally emerges on worlds scattered throughout the cosmos. Although we do not possess direct evidence for life elsewhere, the early start to life on Earth is sometimes held up as a hint that life must be common. Anthropocentric bias tells us things may not be so simple, and Bayesian inference offers a convenient way to fold this bias into the formalism. With such a framework, one can ask the question - what kind of experiment would yield the greatest information gain about the rate of abiogenesis? Three hypothetical (but feasible) experiments are quantitatively compared in this way: 1) paleontological evidence for an earlier start to life on Earth 2) Monte Carlo Miller-Urey style laboratory experiments 3) remote sensing for exoplanet biosignatures. A basic conclusion is that merits exist to all but 1) can never truly measure the underlying rate. The question of life would be greatly aided by not just potentially ambiguous biosignatures but in-situ detections of life on other worlds. I discuss some recent work investigating the use of light sails as a means of relativistic flight, in terms of the Starshot project and also a new concept that more advanced civilizations could exploit.