We want to understand these processes scientifically and be able to explain them. It’s important to determine precisely what the external conditions for these chemical reactions were as they prevailed on the early Earth at that time. This concerns, for example, the composition and density of the early atmosphere and the presence and chemical properties of water. Tackling these complex and multilayered issues calls for coordinated interdisciplinary approaches, which is why leading universities around the world have set up research centres for this purpose. With its Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life, founded in 2022, ETH Zurich is playing a prominent role in this.
Are we alone in the universe?
Another fundamental question about life concerns life beyond the Earth: Are we alone in the universe? At the moment, Earth is the only place in the cosmos that we know is home to life. Empirical evidence of life on other planets or moons within our solar system or beyond has yet to be found. Such a discovery would be a sensation from a scientific point of view, and it would certainly have implications for other disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, religion and ethics. It would suggest that the emergence of life may be more universal rather than being linked to specific, unique initial conditions.
Enter the exoplanets. This is what we call planets that orbit not our sun but other stars. More than 5,500 such exoplanets have been discovered in the past 30 years, and more are being discovered almost every week. Most of them are located within just 3,000 light years of us, and many are even in the immediate vicinity of our sun; indeed, there are at least two planets circling Proxima Centauri, the sun’s nearest stellar neighbour.