Twenty-five years to find life outside the solar system


The first management team of the new Center: from left to right, Roland Riek, Didier Queloz, Cara Magnabosco and Sascha Quanz. (ETH Zurich) ETH Zurich

Life is no longer the exclusive domain of biology. Astrophysics, chemistry, geology and other disciplines are also on the journey, which begins at the new Center for the Origin and Prevalence of Life, which opened on Friday at ETH Zurich.

This content was posted on September 02, 2022 – 15:55

“In science, great advances are often made at the point of contact of various disciplines”, recalled this Friday, September 2, Joël Mesot, president of the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (ETH). And to cite the example of nuclear magnetic resonance, a phenomenon discovered by a physicist and which, 80 years and four Nobel Prize winners (including two Swiss) later, became an imaging process that medicine could no longer do without.

The 41 professors and research groups at the new Centerexternal link come from very different backgrounds. Basically, these gases that the astrophysicist detects in the atmosphere of a distant planet, the chemist will characterize them, then the biologist and geologist will say where they come from, and if it is possibly from a life form. Because life changes the environment of a planet, as we can observe on Earth.

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Long before receiving the Nobel Prize for the discovery (with his professor Michel Mayor) of the first exoplanet, Didier Queloz, who will direct this Center, never hid his faith in the existence of extraterrestrial life. For him, there are so many planets in the universe that it is simply impossible for the emergence of life to be a single phenomenon, confined only to Earth.

His fellow astrophysicist Sascha Quanz is even more direct. “We will find life outside the solar system in less than 25 years,” he reaffirmed. An optimism fueled by the impressive progress made in recent decades in the disciplines represented at the Center. Today, we have cataloged nearly 5,000 exoplanets, we know how to reverse engineer living things (how to take apart a car and learn to rebuild it), and space agencies will soon be bringing soil samples from Mars back to Earth for analysis. None of this existed just 30 years ago.

“Let’s be honest: the agenda is vast and very ambitious”, said Didier Queloz. But he himself is well placed, since his sojourn in Cambridge, to observe the formidable flight of the pursuit of life. Thus, the James Webb Space Telescope, which was not initially designed for this, has already made significant contributions to the field: a few days ago it first identified the chemical signature of CO2 in the atmosphere of a planet 700 light-years away. Earth. If the world in question is a gas giant too hot to support life, the discovery is no less historic. And there will be others.

>> The origins of life, we can also look for them – or rather, under the Earth

Swiss excellence

Without false modesty, the speakers recalled the prominent place occupied by Switzerland in the field of exoplanets in general and in the search for the origins of life in particular. And, of course, the interdisciplinarity of the Center will not stop at national borders. Like any major scientific institution, it will collaborate with its peers internationally – even if Switzerland has temporarily withdrawn from European research.

The idea is to attract the best teachers, but also the best students. Starting in October, young talent from around the world will be able to apply for a research grant under the new structure.

For the time being, the funding of the Center for the Origin and Prevalence of Life is nine million francs, provided by the Écoles polytechniques and various institutes and foundations. Enough to guarantee its operation for six years. Furthermore, Joël Mesot has no doubts about its sustainability and its integration into the EPFZ. Mainly because for him, “the path is as important as the objective, and the methods that will be developed here will serve other areas, bring unexpected innovations and give rise to start-ups”.

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