Secchi, like scientists today, also mused on the possibility of life beyond Earth, a theme that Vatican scientists discussed at the conference, Funes added, putting a passage from Secchi's 1870 book, "Le Soleil" (The Sun) on the screen.
"What to think of these stars without any doubt similar to our sun," the passage read, "destined like the sun to keep alive an enormous quantity of creatures of every kind?"
Finding alien life will be a complex task, other scientists pointed out. Perhaps extraterrestrials will require a "wet" planet like Earth and a "dry" planet like Mars to pass material back and forth, said biochemist Steven Benner of The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in Florida.
Benner suggested that it might be easier for organisms to come alive in a dry environment, but that it would take water to make sustained life possible.
Other researchers, meanwhile, are trying to better understand the parameters of life by creating synthetic lifeforms to see how they will behave in different environments. Lynn Rothschild of NASA's Ames Research Center, is the faculty adviser for Brown University and Stanford University students participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.
Using DNA samples in a library, the students build artificial systems meant to address certain scientific questions like how to be more resistant to radiation. This can help supplement research on extremophiles where "there are not a lot of studies," Rothschild said.
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