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Our expert voices conversation on "How to look for alien life."

We find ourselves in a universe that appears, at first glance, ripe for life. Liquid water, abundant even in our own solar system (though most of it is hiding underneath thick icy crusts), amino acids hitching rides on comets, simple proteins found in young systems, millions upon millions of stars exactly like our sun in just the Milky Way galaxy.

By all appearances we should not be alone, and yet we don't see a single sign of anybody else, anywhere.

The chances of life appearing in the universe are obviously greater than 0 (otherwise I wouldn't be writing this and you wouldn't be reading this), but seem far, far less than 1.

What Earth got right: We can understand why planets like Mars and Venus wound up dead — too small to sustain a protective magnetic field and choking on its own oppressive atmosphere, respectively — even though they had a decent shot. But we don't fully understand the special sauce that makes life possible. So we're playing a numbers game. How many planets are out there? How many have liquid water? How many have a stable star and the right cocktail for life? It's only by obsessive, detailed observations will we crack it.

The other voices in the conversation:

Go deeper

Dems race to address, preempt stimulus fraud claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Biden officials are working to root out the systematic fraud in unemployment and Paycheck Protection Program claims that plagued the Trump administration’s efforts to boost the economy with coronavirus relief money, Gene Sperling told House committee chairmen privately this week.

Why it matters: President Biden just signed another $1.9 trillion of aid into law, with Sperling tapped to oversee its implementation. And the administration is asking Congress to approve another $2.2 trillion for the first phase of an infrastructure package.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.

Biden's Russian sanctions likely to achieve little

President Biden announces new sanctions against Russia. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite bold talk from top administration officials, there's little reason to think the Russia sanctions package President Biden announced Thursday will do anything to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior or calculus.

Why it matters: While it's true some elements of the package — namely, the targeting of Russia's sovereign debt — represent significant punitive measures against Moscow, it leaves plenty of wiggle room for the Russian president.

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