Detecting alien life is a difficult task because it’s hard to find signs of life that could apply to any life form. However, complex molecules could be a promising indicator of life and evolution.

Currently, it’s not possible to experimentally determine how complex a molecule is and how that correlates with information-theoretic approaches that estimate molecular complexity. Assembly Theory has been developed to quantify the complexity of a molecule by finding the shortest path to construct the molecule from simple parts, revealing its molecular assembly index (MA). In this study, we present an approach to rapidly and exhaustively calculate molecular assembly and explore the MA of over 10,000 molecules.

We demonstrate that molecular complexity (MA) can be experimentally measured using three independent techniques: nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), tandem mass spectrometry (MS), and infrared spectroscopy (IR), and these give consistent results with good correlations. By identifying and counting the number of absorbances in IR spectra, carbon resonances in NMR, or molecular fragments in tandem MS, the molecular assembly index of an unknown molecule can be reliably estimated from experimental data.

This represents the first experimentally quantifiable approach to defining molecular assembly, a reliable metric for complexity, as an intrinsic property of all molecules and can also be performed on complex mixtures.

This paves the way to use spectroscopic techniques to unambiguously detect alien life in the solar system, and beyond on exoplanets.

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