Matthew R. Francis is a science writer, freelance journalist, physicist, and frequent wearer of jaunty hats. His writing has appeared in Nautilus, NOVA, Smithsonian Air & Space, Symmetry Magazine, Physics World, and a number of other publications. He is a regular contributor at Forbes and The Daily Beast. He holds a PhD in physics and astronomy from Rutgers University, and taught at several universities before becoming a full-time writer. He specializes in stories about astronomy, some unusual corners of physics, and the nuts-and-bolts of how science operates — or fails to operate.
What is your story about?
When we look at all the possible places life could exist in the cosmos, we have to wonder: is Earth-like life inevitable? Many potentially habitable worlds in our Solar System aren’t much like Earth. Even Mars, the most Earth-like of the lot, is strikingly different in a number of important ways, but when we start thinking of icy moons like Europa, we have to wonder if life need follow the same patterns elsewhere that it followed here.
But it’s not just the species of life that could be different. At a recent conference, I heard several fascinating talks about understanding the chemistry of life by testing how much that chemistry could be tweaked. That got me started thinking again about a major theme in the writings of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: that life as we know it is contingent on the vagaries of history. Specifically, if we reran the history of life on Earth, the species we see today wouldn’t exist — and possibly the chemistry of life itself might have turned out differently.
My story examines how scientists on Earth can examine the possibility of alien life without leaving the planet: both in the lab and at field sites around the world.
What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
The most exciting things for me were all on the biochemistry level, which is an area of science I have never studied formally. Researchers can now discuss evolution on the level of molecules, which helps us understand viruses, the rogue proteins known as prions, and of course the way new species evolve from existing ones. Learning that led to all sorts of new thoughts (for me at least!) about how life could have arisen, and whether early Earth could have evolved different forms of life with different chemistries than we see today.
Read Matthew’s article on Mosaic from 20 October 2015.