James Green: 3 moons and a planet that could have alien life @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by James Green about a planet and three moons within our solar system that may be home to lifeforms of some sort.

Watch James’ TED Talk. Most science talks are based on research performed in a laboratory. Hypotheses are codified, tests performed, and the results published. But once we leave the earth, the concept is a bit different. While any scientific discovery involves speculation, this factor becomes more prevalent off planet.

If your story involves science, and you’re thinking that science can’t be fun or it won’t seem exciting, this is a talk that will convince you otherwise. It’s a brilliant example of how technical information can be brought to life.


(my notes in red)

Is there life beyond Earth in our solar system?

Asking a rhetorical question can serve as a powerful opening. As a reminder, rhetorical questions are asked in order to make a point and/or stimulate the thought process of a listener. It’s not meant to solicit an answer. In this case, James asks a question that’s been asked for thousands of years, and it’s one that most of us would love to have an answer to.

This question provides a physical frame of reference – not on earth, but still within our own solar system. Rhetorical questions can take us back in time, or into the future. Phrases such as ‘Imagine you are…’, or ‘What if…’ signals the audience that you want them to change their perspective away from the here and now. In doing so, it sparks their imagination.

Note: In general, I’m not a fan of speakers asking literal questions as a way to engage their audience. It makes sense in very specific situations but the majority of the time it’s a feeble attempt to connect with the audience, and indicates a weakness in the speaker’s story.

Wow, what a powerful question. You know, as a scientist — planetary scientist — we really didn’t take that very seriously until recently. Carl Sagan always said, “It takes extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.” And the claims of having life beyond Earth need to be definitive, they need to be loud and they need to be everywhere for us to be able to believe it.

James takes a moment to frame how he will answer the question in his talk – from a scientific point of view – one that is based on evidence.

So how do we make this journey? What we decided to do is first look for those ingredients for life. The ingredients of life are: liquid water — we have to have a solvent, can’t be ice, has to be liquid. We also have to have energy. We also have to have organic material — things that make us up, but also things that we need to consume. So we have to have these elements in environments for long periods of time for us to be able to be confident that life, in that moment when it starts, can spark and then grow and evolve.

James provides another aspect of the framing, so that there is clarity regarding the process. When your story is intended for a public audience, don’t assume they will know each of the parameters that you’re working within. In most situations you will need to be explicit. Otherwise, confusion will crop up later in your narrative.

Well, I have to tell you that early in my career, when we looked at those three elements, I didn’t believe that they were beyond Earth in any length of time and for any real quantity. Why? We look at the inner planets. Venus is way too hot — it’s got no water. Mars — dry and arid. It’s got no water. And beyond Mars, the water in the solar system is all frozen.

In this brief historical story block, James looks back to describe what scientists previously thought about the question at hand. This is a common technique, used to contrast how things were in the past versus how things are today.

But recent observations have changed all that. It’s now turning our attention to the right places for us to take a deeper look and really start to answer our life question. So when we look out into the solar system, where are the possibilities? We’re concentrating our attention on four locations. The planet Mars and then three moons of the outer planets: Titan, Europa and small Enceladus.

The use of this visual image is impactful as the planet and moons he’s referring to become more that just his words. We can see the relative sizes and differences in color. We are not given any details, yet our imaginations continue to engage.

So what about Mars? Let’s go through the evidence. Well, Mars we thought was initially moon-like: full of craters, arid and a dead world. And so about 15 years ago, we started a series of missions to go to Mars and see if water existed on Mars in its past that changed its geology. We ought to be able to notice that. And indeed we started to be surprised right away. Our higher resolution images show deltas and river valleys and gulleys that were there in the past.

And in fact, Curiosity — which has been roving on the surface now for about three years — has really shown us that it’s sitting in an ancient river bed, where water flowed rapidly. And not for a little while, perhaps hundreds of millions of years. And if everything was there, including organics, perhaps life had started. Curiosity has also drilled in that red soil and brought up other material. And we were really excited when we saw that. Because it wasn’t red Mars, it was gray material, it’s gray Mars. We brought it into the rover, we tasted it, and guess what? We tasted organics — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur — they were all there.

You can hear the excitement in his voice, the sense of surprise at what the rover had found. As you listen to your rehearsal recordings, always pay attention to whether the emotion on the page is reflected in your voice. Happy, sad, angry and perplexed have unique tones.

So Mars in its past, with a lot of water, perhaps plenty of time, could have had life, could have had that spark, could have grown. And is that life still there? We don’t know that. But a few years ago we started to look at a number of craters. During the summer, dark lines would appear down the sides of these craters. The more we looked, the more craters we saw, the more of these features. We now know more than a dozen of them.

A few months ago the fairy tale came true. We announced to the world that we know what these streaks are. It’s liquid water. These craters are weeping during the summer. Liquid water is flowing down these craters. So what are we going to do now — now that we see the water? Well, it tells us that Mars has all the ingredients necessary for life. In its past it had perhaps two-thirds of its northern hemisphere — there was an ocean. It has weeping water right now. Liquid water on its surface. It has organics. It has all the right conditions. So what are we going to do next? We’re going to launch a series of missions to begin that search for life on Mars. And now it’s more appealing than ever before.

Science becomes real when it’s described in language that the average person understands. We understand the search for water, the discovery of a river bed, a robotic rover identifying elements, and craters weeping water. Without being there we can visualize what James is describing.

He doesn’t just say, ‘we went to Mars and discovered water and chemicals’, he takes the time – in this instance around 3 minutes – to paint a vivid picture with words, but he also includes images that say so much more. Think about how you can use a combination of sentences and images to give your audience a richer experience.

As we move out into the solar system, here’s the tiny moon Enceladus. This is not in what we call the traditional habitable zone, this area around the sun. This is much further out. This object should be ice over a silicate core.

But what did we find? Cassini was there since 2006, and after a couple years looked back after it flew by Enceladus and surprised us all. Enceladus is blasting sheets of water out into the solar system and sloshing back down onto the moon. What a fabulous environment. Cassini just a few months ago also flew through the plume, and it measured silicate particles. Where does the silica come from? It must come from the ocean floor. The tidal energy is generated by Saturn, pulling and squeezing this moon — is melting that ice, creating an ocean. But it’s also doing that to the core.

Now, the only thing that we can think of that does that here on Earth as an analogy … are hydrothermal vents. Hydrothermal vents deep in our ocean were discovered in 1977. Oceanographers were completely surprised. And now there are thousands of these below the ocean.

What do we find? The oceanographers, when they go and look at these hydrothermal vents, they’re teeming with life, regardless of whether the water is acidic or alkaline — doesn’t matter. So hydrothermal vents are a fabulous abode for life here on Earth. So what about Enceladus? Well, we believe because it has water and has had it for a significant period of time, and we believe it has hydrothermal vents, with perhaps the right organic material, it is a place where life could exist. And not just microbial — maybe more complex because it’s had time to evolve.

In this story about the moon Enceladus, James uses an analogy to compare something we’re unsure of, to something here on Earth that we do have knowledge of. This is a big ‘what if’ as the answer to what’s happening on Enceladus isn’t known so he uses the phrase ‘we believe’. When you’re presenting scientific information, it’s important to differentiate between what is ‘believed’ versus ‘what has been proven’. The phrase ‘it now seems’ is rather different from saying ‘we now know’.

Another moon, very similar, is Europa. Galileo visited Jupiter’s system in 1996 and made fabulous observations of Europa. Europa, we also know, has an under-the-ice crust ocean. Galileo mission told us that, but we never saw any plumes. But we didn’t look for them. Hubble, just a couple years ago, observing Europa, saw plumes of water spraying from the cracks in the southern hemisphere, just exactly like Enceladus.

These moons, which are not in what we call a traditional habitable zone, that are out in the solar system, have liquid water. And if there are organics there, there may be life. This is a fabulous set of discoveries because these moons have been in this environment like that for billions of years. Life started here on Earth, we believe, after about the first 500 million, and look where we are. These moons are fabulous moons.

Another moon that we’re looking at is Titan. Titan is a huge moon of Saturn. It perhaps is much larger than the planet Mercury. It has an extensive atmosphere. It’s so extensive — and it’s mostly nitrogen with a little methane and ethane — that you have to peer through it with radar. And on the surface, Cassini has found liquid. We see lakes … actually almost the size of our Black Sea in some places. And this area is not liquid water; it’s methane. If there’s any place in the solar system where life is not like us, where the substitute of water is another solvent — and it could be methane — it could be Titan.

Early on James states that one of the requirements for life is a liquid solvent, which I assumed would be water. But in describing Titan he speaks about another solvent – methane – that could also work. That had me wondering how life could exist in a liquid solvent other than water. I would have appreciated the addition of one minute to this talk for an explanation.

But my desire serves to highlight the potential problem of a story’s length. If James was only given ten minutes for this talk, that extra minute wasn’t in the cards, unless the story was cut elsewhere, and I couldn’t find any aspect of this story that could be cut and not lose meaning. You may very well come up against a similar constraint and have to chose what to include or cut. Stories don’t go on forever.

Well, is there life beyond Earth in the solar system? We don’t know yet, but we’re hot on the pursuit. The data that we’re receiving is really exciting and telling us — forcing us to think about this in new and exciting ways. I believe we’re on the right track. That in the next 10 years, we will answer that question. And if we answer it, and it’s positive, then life is everywhere in the solar system. Just think about that. We may not be alone.

James concludes where he started by admitting that we don’t know if life exists beyond the boundaries of earth, but he offers his personal view that we’ll have an answer in the next decade. And his final words, ‘We may not be alone.’ are a perfect mirror to the words that he opened with, ‘Is there life beyond Earth in our solar system?’

Thank you.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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