Andrew Locock at the University of Alberta discovered two new minerals in a fragment of the El Ali meteorite that landed in Somalia. These minerals had never been found naturally on Earth, although scientists had synthesized them in a lab. Chris Herd, an Earth and Atmospheric Sciences professor and curator of the University of Alberta’s meteorite collection, named the two alien minerals “Elaliite” and “Elkinstantonite.”
The tabloids try to use this find to suggest that alien worlds exist that are radically different from Earth. The fact is that these minerals contain the common elements iron, potassium, and oxygen. Like many other “alien minerals” such as Brianite, Xifengite, and Heamanite, scientists have synthesized them. Inorganic materials can form new chemical configurations when they are subjected to temperatures and pressures not seen on Earth’s surface. All of these minerals with unfamiliar names are the product of conditions not present on the surface of our planet.
There are chemical restraints on what elements can sustain life. Biologists tell us that life is “that form that can move, breathe. respond to outside stimuli, and reproduce.” The elements that make those functions possible are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. For example, living things made of iron are not chemically possible, yet iron is the dominant element in meteorites. Oxygen is the one oxidizing element that allows respiration without adverse chemical reactions that would prevent life from surviving. For that reason, life forms breathing chlorine or bromine are not possible.
At the same time, alien minerals in meteorites do not mean that alien life is impossible. On the contrary, if there is life in space, it will be made of the same elements that we are. It may not look like us or live as we do, but we will not have any trouble identifying it as life.
Every time this issue comes up, it reminds me of my experience on a radio show. I was in Washington, D.C., doing a call-in talk show with Larry King (before he became famous) and a local atheist. We had a lively discussion about science and faith with some references to alien life. A caller said to the atheist, “What would you do if a spaceship landed on the White House Lawn and a little green man jumped out with a Bible in his hand and said, ‘Has Jesus been here yet?’” Before I could point out some problems with that proposal, my atheist opponent looked at me, smiled, and said, “Punt.” Larry King responded by going to a commercial.
— John N. Clayton © 2022