'Wonders of the Solar System': Brian Cox Thinks About Life on Mars (no, not the TV show)

Today's cuppa: coffee on the set of ABC's "No Ordinary Family," which is about regular people with superpowers who are not aliens, like Superman, but ordinary folk who get zapped, like Spider-Man. Got it? Good. Moving on ...

21146_00_09_2MB.jpgScientists have discovered that there are several planets in our solar system and even more planets out there in the universe.

Many of the non-Earth worlds we've glimpsed to this point, whether through observation from the ground or through our robotic spacecraft and space-based telescopes, have plenty in common with Earth.

They can have atmospheres, rocks, night and day, mountains and valleys, vast plains and sheets of ice. They can even have weather. But what they don't have, at least not so far, is life, whether you're talking about baobab trees, blue whales, turkey vultures, bighorn sheep, tuna or microbes.

For the month of August, Science Channel has been running "Wonders of the Solar System," a series that combines experiential adventuring with computer graphics to help explain our nearest neighbors in space. Leading the charge is the show's host, Professor Brian Cox, a rock musician/physicist who evidently likes getting out of the lab once in a while.

20631_101.jpg(Speaking of labs, Cox splits his time between the University of Manchester in England, and CERN, a Switzerland-based particle-physics laboratory. It's not only the birthplace of the World Wide Web -- through the efforts of Tim Berners-Lee -- but is also home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest particle accelerator, which some people fear could create deadly antimatter or suck the planet into a black hole, or something equally scary. But fear not, because Cox says the exaggerated concerns are "a load of bollocks.")

The episode airing Wednesday, Aug. 25, is called "Dead or Alive," and looks at the universal forces of nature that create worlds but can also tear them apart.

That may sound extremely cool and dramatic, and it is, but Cox's favorite episode of the series is the finale, airing Sept. 1.

It's called "Aliens," and it looks at the possibility of life on other planets, which seems a tad more plausible when one considers the rather implausible conditions under which life exists here on Earth.

Take, for example, the snotites (pronounced "snot-ites").

"We filmed in a cave in Mexico," says Cox. "It's an incredible place, which is full of hydrogen sulfide. You get these organisms, which are called snotites. They look like snot, and they drip down from the tops of caves.

"Their respiration process is hydrogen sulfide plus oxygen goes to sulfuric acid. They drip a combination of sulfuric acid. It tested it, and it's PH zero. It's quite strong. They're the most alien organism you can imagine, in a way."


He also went deep into the sea to observe bacteria that live on geothermal vents so far down that no light penetrates.

"There are carpets of bacteria,"
Cox says, "that are living off the geothermal vents instead of using sunlight."

Cox says that one of the requirements for life is water (along with an electron donor, a sort of battery or energy source), and there is plenty of that in the ocean. But the water doesn't have to be liquid, at least not all of it.

"We also filmed in the last one, in a glacier in Iceland," Cox says. "We took an ice-core 21146_05_06_43MB.jpg sample, and you find organisms living in this glacier. These little things secrete antifreeze, which melts a little bit of water around them.

"So the glacier is an ocean to these things, because they can melt their own water."


And it gets even weirder.

"There's a gold mine in South Africa," says Cox, "where there's uranium in the rocks. The radioactive decay of the uranium splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen is the electron donor. So, instead of the sun, they're living off the uranium in the rock."

While Cox says he came away convinced that life could exist anywhere given the right conditions, that doesn't necessarily mean he knows for sure if those conditions exist anywhere else -- such as Mars, for instance.

"The thing is," he says, "we're not remotely sure if there's life on Mars until we go there. I would think it's one of the most urgent questions in our society -- is there life on another planet? Are we alone in the universe?"


Asked if it's likely, given the robustness and persistence of life on Earth, that it never happened on another planet, Cox says, " Science is about investigating, so you can't answer that question until you see an example of it evolving twice, emerging twice.

"But we can answer that questions. It's one of the few great questions of the universe that we can actually answer."


And he'd like us to get to it.

"All the best science theories have got an agenda," Cox says, "and for me, it's that exploration is not a luxury. It's an absolute necessity."

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