The chance that extraterrestrial bacteria would be deadly to humans is zero. Not just very, very small. Zero.
Pathogenesis requires intimacy. This intimacy is attained through millions of years of co-evolution. The need for intimacy is apparent when you look at how bacteria and viruses cause infections and disease.
Infection requires binding to a cell surface. Bacteria (and viruses) bind to human cells through proteins that recognize human proteins and carbohydrates. The structure of these human proteins and carbohydrates is, to a first approximation, arbitrary. There are an almost infinite number of permutations of them that could exist and work just fine. But only one does exist. The chance that an alien bacteria would have evolved to stick to that protein is infinitesimally small.
Even if this alien bacterium were able to stick to a cell surface, this alone would not establish an infection. Infecting bacteria secrete all kinds of toxins and virulence factors. These toxins and factors bind to specific human proteins. They block or modify their activity in ways that degrade cells and tissues, releasing nutrients that the bacteria can feed upon.
Again, the target proteins have fairly arbitrary structures. They are the result of billions of years of evolutionary history and their precise structure—and even their existence is not at all predictable. The chance that an alien bacterium would have evolved toxins that precisely target them is infinitesimally small.
Pathogenicity is extremely rare on Earth. There are millions, perhaps billions, of species of bacteria. The number of potential human pathogens among them is very small, no more than a couple hundred. And only a couple dozen are able to infect otherwise healthy humans. These are bacteria that have been with us for millions of years, evolving as we evolve, becoming intimately familiar with our proteins, our cells, our immune systems.
This knowledge is stamped into their genomes; it is a diary of their long association with us. It is not a book that could be written in an alien language. Alien bacteria are no more likely to be human pathogens than intelligent aliens are likely to speak Urdu as their native tongue. It just isn’t possible.
Humans may not reach Mars until the 2030s (optimistically), but you can get your name there a whole lot sooner. As Space.com reports, NASA is accepting names from the public to be engraved on a small silicon microchip that's being sent into space with their latest Mars lander, InSight.
All you have to do is submit your name online to NASA, and the space agency will put it on the lander—in super-tiny form, of course—which will set off for Mars in May 2018.
This is the public's second shot at getting their name to Mars: NASA first put out a call for names to go to the Red Planet with InSight in 2015. The planned 2016 launch was delayed over an issue with one of the instruments, and since the naming initiative was so popular—almost 827,000 people submitted their names the first time around—they decided to open the opportunity back up and add a second microchip.
NASA is encouraging people to sign up even if they've sent in their names for other mission microchips. (The space agency also sent 1.38 million names up with Orion's first test flight in 2014.) You can put your name on both of InSight's microchips, in other words, as well as any future missions. The agency's "frequent flyer" program allows you to keep track of every mission to which your name is attached. Interplanetary fame, here you come.
You can submit your name for the InSight mission until November 1 using this form. If you miss the deadline, though, don't worry too much: You'll soon be able to submit your name for Exploration Mission-1's November 2018 launch.
Carl Sagan was perhaps America’s most beloved scientific visionary since Albert Einstein. Both a gifted astronomy researcher and an incredible communicator, he brought the wonders of the universe to the masses with his popular TV series Cosmos and books like the Pulitzer Prize–winning Dragons of Eden and Pale Blue Dot. His only novel, Contact, later became a sci-fi movie starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Here are a few things you might not know about the scientist, TV star, and amateur turtleneck model.
1. HARVARD PASSED ON HIRING HIM.
After Sagan served five years at the esteemed university as an assistant professor, Harvard denied him tenure in 1967, in part because one of his mentors at the University of Chicago derided his work as needlessly wordy and useless. He took a job at Cornell instead, where he stayed on as a professor until his death in 1996.
2. HE DICTATED ALL OF HIS WRITING TO AN AUDIO RECORDER.
Carl Sagan standing with a model of the Viking Lander.
JPL via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Sagan was an avid self-editor. A total of 20 drafts of Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot exist today in the Library of Congress, each filled with handwritten edits, annotations, and revisions by the author. However, he drafted all of his writing—even grant proposals—by dictating his ideas onto a cassette. The contents were then transcribed for him and returned for editing.
3. HE CONSIDERED WRITING A CHILDREN’S BOOK CALLED HOW DO BIRDS FLY?
In 1993, Sagan brainstormed a long list of possible children’s books for a series structured around the theme of “why?” Other potential ideas included Why Is It Warm In Summer?, Why Are There Lakes?, and What Is Air?
4. HE DIDN’T LIKE THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM.
Sagan argued against funding NASA’s Space Shuttle program in favor of more robotic exploration of the farther reaches of space. “That’s not space exploration,” he said in an interview about the space shuttle program’s week-long orbits. “Space exploration is going to other worlds.” A space station would only be worth it, he argued, if it was preparing humans for long-term journeys to space, he told Charlie Rose in 1995.
5. HE WAS AN EARLY CRUSADER AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE.
Carl Sagan with the other founders of the Planetary Society in the 1970s.
JPL via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Sagan’s 1960 Ph.D. thesis concerned the atmosphere of Venus. His theoretical model showed that the planet’s extremely high surface temperatures were due to the greenhouse effect of an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and water vapor. In his book Cosmos, he wrote, “The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.”
6. HE HAS AN ARCHIVE IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ENDOWED BY THE CREATOR OF FAMILY GUY.
Part of the Carl Sagan Papers in the Library of Congress.
After Sagan appeared in several successful spots on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Carson saw fit to send up the scientist’s signature style (turtleneck included) in a parody sketch.
Carson’s exaggerated use of “billions and billions” would later become associated with the astronomer, though he didn’t use it himself. However, Sagan did talk about large numbers quite a lot, as this supercut shows.
8. HE AND ANN DRUYAN DATED FOR ONE PHONE CALL—AND WERE ENGAGED BEFORE HANGING UP.
Sagan and Druyan, who would create the TV show Cosmos together, fell in love while working on the Voyager message. The courtship was exceedingly brief, as NPR's Radiolab describes:
“After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2500-year-old song called ‘Flowing Stream.’ In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married."
9. HE WANTED TO LEGALIZE POT.
Under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Sagan wrote a 1969 essay for Time magazine about the personal benefits he’d seen from cannabis use. Then in his mid-30s, he admitted to smoking throughout the prior decade. “I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high,” he wrote, going on to observe that marijuana had enhanced his appreciation for art and music. He concluded that “the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
10. HE THOUGHT STAR TREK WAS TOO WHITE.
“In a global terrestrial society centuries in the future, the ship’s officers are embarrassingly Anglo-American. In fact, only two of 12 or 14 interstellar vessels are given non-English names, Kongo and Potemkin,” he wrote in a piece about the impact of science fiction on his life in The New York Times in 1978.
11. HE WANTED US TO LEAVE MARS ALONE.
Despite his passion for exploring space, Sagan argued for the preservation of Mars even if it meant limiting our exploration of the planet. In Cosmos, Sagan declared:
“If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.”