It is a Jewish tradition during the Passover Seder to hide a piece of matzo, called the “afikoman,” for the children to find later in the evening and receive a reward. As kids know well from this experience, the question of “Where to look?” is more urgent than “What exactly are we looking for?” The simplest strategy is to search in places where the afikoman was found in the past. This is exactly the strategy adopted by astronomers in the search for extraterrestrial life. Their current search strategy focuses on rocky planets in the habitable zone of stars, consistently with the only place where life has been found so far: Earth.

But are places like Earth the most likely sites for finding life? I have discussed this question recently with my postdoc Manasvi Lingam, and discovered a surprising answer. Most places where the chemistry of life as we know it could blossom might be in the atmospheres of the not-quite stars known as brown dwarfs, where liquid water might exist on the surfaces of tiny solid particles in clouds.

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