The first problem facing anyone seriously considering the question of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe is to reach an understanding of what the concept of ‘life’ might mean. Without that we can’t prepare ourselves for the implications of whatever answers our scientific investigations may return. It’s an issue Andrew May is happy to address in his new book ‘Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe’, but it’s one that, even when expressed as a pair of simple alternatives, immediately seems to take us away from what we’re all secretly hoping for: the universe of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’.

“It’s worth making the distinction,” says May, “between the search for advanced aliens – SETI, or in more modern parlance ‘technosignatures’ – and the search for ‘biosignatures’ indicating the presence of non-technological life: anything from primitive bacteria to an intelligent pre-industrial society.” Perhaps counterintuitively, we’ve been searching for technosignatures for about six decades (“without success”, May reminds me) despite the fact that the technology deployed in that search is continuously improving, while we continually come up with new ideas of what to look for. “On the other hand, the search for biosignatures has barely begun.” May assures me that this aspect of the search for life out there, “should really get going in the next couple of decades, and I’d expect the first positive results in that sort of timeframe too”.

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