Sunday, April 29, 2012


The notion of panspermia  has been in the news lately. And soon  it will be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

The idea that life on Earth came from another planet has been around for a while but now it appears that other planets could have been seeded from Earth. 

Life may come to another planet from Earth, but that planet might already have its own life. This raises the possibility of two great kingdoms of life waging war on an evolutionary battlefield. The carbon based life forms against the silicon based life forms. Interesting, but unlikely. It seems that since there are organic molecules drifting round in space, and since these probably give rise to planetary life, the organisms would be similarly carbon based. Furthermore, unless there are multiple different strands of DNA that can produce any of the proteins that life relies on, it is probable that all life shares the same basic components of the DNA code.

Asteroid or comet hits are fairly common. We know of several on Earth and within the past decade we have witnessed a comet impacting Jupiter. Given this, the ejecta of such collisions must be littered throughout space, teased into globs and streams by the dynamics of space. We can imagine interstellar space cris-crossed with streams of life bearing planetary ejecta, perhaps seeding planets millions of light years away.

Most of this life probably consists of dormant spores that can survive the extreme conditions of outer space, but let’s assume for a moment that some of this life is normal living matter, maybe a rock with some cracks that harbor extremophile bacteria. Is there any reason why they could not survive, breed,  adapt and evolve in outer space?

And despite adapting and evolving, would they still yearn for the warmth and nutritional riches of a planet, would they migrate, perhaps in great herds, from planet to planet grazing, fattening, breeding perhaps before setting off into space again. And would they be, as most grazers are, followed by carnivores and scavengers?

This effectively makes the galaxy and perhaps even the entire universe, a single ecosystem, and we are in that ecosystem, sedentary (at least at present) creatures among the migrating competitors. It is perhaps a step too far, but one can imagine humans, velociraptors, ants, squid and condors travelling between the stars, competing with each other for dominance in different planetary ecological niches. Perhaps this could be achieved by sending ‘generation ships’ between the stars loaded with out most prolific or versatile species. Or perhaps the competition is between the evolved intelligent descendants of these animals, not competing with warfare but to see who can best survive the evolutionary pressures of each planet, pressures such as global warming or cooling, volcanic action, rising sea level, desertification and disease.

So much for the notion that the galaxy is fundamentally inimical to life. Or perhaps it still is. Perhaps most of the universe cannot support life, but tolerates its passage, and reserves its musty fetid corners for life's infestations.

Could life take control of this mechanism, using asteroid impacts to spread to other planets as a plant on Earth uses the wind to spread its seed. A life form with a long term view could prepare itself and just wait, but I think that evolution is not that patient. A more intriguing idea is that once they are ready, they are able to summon the asteroid. Any  idea how that could be done?

However, once all this speculation is done and new and wondrous ideas have been penned and flow from the printing presses, one unresolved problem still exists. One problem that panspermia has never addressed. Where did life first arise, which planet gave rise to the first living thing in the universe? And could we trace life back to that planet? That would be a challenge worthy of a great expedition. Of course, it is likely that life arose many times independently, but even so, somewhere, a long time ago, the first life wriggled and squirmed, and perhaps we are its children.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Body

This article appeared on the CBC web site in late 2011. What makes this interesting is the obvious preparation that went into the disappearance. And the newspapers add an element of intrigue. If the deceased lady was just trying to sneak into the States, why the newspapers? The identification papers are obvious, the letters reasonable, but why the newspapers? One can only deduce that she was from a parallel universe and wanted to compare events in our universe with those of her previous universe, or that she was from the future and she planned on investing in some promising stocks, or maybe having a flutter on the gee-gees.

But her plans came to naught with her unfortunate demise. Doing a body swerve round the most obvious and mundane explanation for her death, that she was abducted by aliens, subjected to anal probing and having her short term memory erased, then returned, by an incompetent trainee transporter operator, to the wrong side of the river where she was set upon by a posse of redneck vigilantes who, on seeing her materialize out of nowhere, made the obvious deduction that she was an Islamic terrorist, and flung her back into the river in the hope that she would return to Canada, land, as all redneck vigilantes know, of atheists and Islamic terrorists, but where she was dragged to the river bed by a couple of angry teenage catfish and drowned, then drifted down river a couple of miles before returning to American soil, we should probably consider some less plausible possibilities.

I can't help feeling there is an s.f. story here, but I can't think what it is. What if the newspapers were from the future and the government hushed them up (as governments are reputed to do on a regular basis), or if the identification papers identified someone who was still living, perhaps a young girl or an old woman, or someone still living in Montreal, so that the story was to explain where her duplicate came from. Or perhaps it was impossible to trace the person who was identified. Or what if the autopsy revealed that though she looked human externally, inside her organs were different, or she was different at a cellular or DNA level.

Finding an unexplained body is not new to literature. The idea has already been used by John O’Hara in his novel Butterfield 8 following the discovery of Starr Faithfull’s body in 1931, but John O’Hara was not a science fiction writer so left a vast and fertile field for the rest of us.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Intelligent Life

As new planets are discovered every day and the search for life in and beyond our solar system becomes more and more an issue of when and where rather than if, we start to ask; what will we find first, a fossil or a living creature, a single cell or a green man with six limbs and a brain the size of an asteroid?

Since simple life precedes complex life, it seems reasonable that there is a lot more simple life than complex life in the universe. We can also assume that almost all organisms that have ever lived are now dead. It therefore seems most likely that the first proof of life we will find will be a fossil of a single cell organism, an alien prokaryote.

Perhaps that’s for the best. We don’t want to meet the creature of Neil de Grasse Tyson’s “fascinatingly disturbing thought. At best that would be bad for humanity’s collective ego, to find that we were the stupid white men of the galaxy, at worst it would be fatal to our species, perhaps to our entire planet.

An intriguing possibility is that we will find life and not recognise it or more likely, find intelligent life and not recognise the intelligence. If our understanding of life or intelligent life is too Earth-centric, we may not recognise it when we find it on another planet, or, as Olaf Stapleton suggested , in deep space.

About forty years ago I read Stanley Weinbaum’s short story ‘A Martian Odyssey’. At the time, I though the different Martian life forms that Weinbaum described a little unlikely, because I couldn’t understand their functional morphology or behavior. Now I realize, that was the point. That is exactly how life on other worlds will look to us. Inexplicable. Another point to take from Weinbaum’s tale is that just because we have plants and animals for our complex organisms, doesn’t mean we will be limited to two, particularly these two, kingdoms on other planets. There will be life forms that will not be animals or plants. The science of Biology will take on a whole new lease of life as we start to gain some understanding of the underlying principles that apply to all life, not just life on Earth.

So, what is life? At least in our Universe, I offer this definition. Life is a self-sustaining, self-propagating complex collection of molecules capable of controlling its own destiny. Not too difficult to spot, one would think. One would look for something that could move uphill, seek out or avoid sunlight, heat acidity, pressure or conservatives. It would be capable of locating, ingesting and metabolising other living matter, and now and again, split into two while having a bit of fun doing it. Even on a planet such as this, it may be difficult to predict what form life will take, but we will probably recognise it when we see it.

The interesting thing about other planets isn’t just what kind of life they will give rise to, but what evolutionary pressures on such a planet can produce in the way of complex, or even intelligent life. Not only do I think there is a story there, but I think if you define your planet and describe its geology and history, you would be able to identify its evolutionary pressures and thus define an environment with realistic life forms with their motivations, challenges and accomplishments.

But, what is intelligent life? Here, I have no definition to offer and so I turn to the hypothetical ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ (to hijack a legal term), and suggest that he might see, not an indivisible whole, but a collection of components such as language, memory, abstract thought including speculation, tool making and problem solving. In any individual human being, these skills are more or less developed. And in any animal, these skills are more or less developed. We see some of these components in animals as diverse as bonobos, dolphins, parrots and octopuses, but only in humans do they all come together and reach their full flowering in Beethoven’s 9th, Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’ or the Blue Mosque of Herat.

So if intelligence is a collection of parts, what would an animal be like who has a slightly different collection of parts, who perhaps lacks a tool making ability but can read minds. This may seem odd (and using mind reading as an example is, I admit, stretching your credulity a little) but let us briefly consider the possibilities.

First, let us detour a moment to consider some other peaks of evolutionary development, swimming, flying, communication. A whale and an octopus have radically different approaches to moving round in water. A bird and a bumble bee use different properties of air to fly and men who create vibrations in the air and ants that spread chemicals, use radically different mechanism to communicate. So is it unreasonable to suppose that human intelligence is not inevitable, but is only one solution to the evolutionary pressures faced by our ancestors? Humans have not developed the cooperative society of bees and ants, the ability to communicate over hundreds of miles like whales, the coordination of swarms of birds or fish or the inertial navigation of birds, eels or salmon. Perhaps other intelligences would incorporate some or all of these skills.

So given this possible variation, what would other types of ‘intelligence’ look like. So far it seems that S.F. authors have been rather conservative in speculating on this. In ‘Calculating God’ Rob Sawyer introduced creatures that could recognise up to 25 items without counting (humans can only manage about 4 or 5) and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’, describe creatures, ‘Moties’, that have such good visual judgement and such quick reactions that they had no need of traffic signals and avoided accidents on their roads merely by avoiding each other, often by only a few centimetres. Sawyer’s ‘Neanderthal Parallax’ also gives us a few ideas, though he is much more inventive when describing Neanderthal culture.

But if we look into the ever-dependable Wikipedia, we get some hints. Plant intelligence is probably the most alien to us. Artificial intelligence could give us some ideas. Another Wikipedia article adds a telling comment. “What is considered intelligent varies with culture.” A recent book on Neanderthals raises the possibility that our close cousins may have been different from us in several ways, such as not being willing to adopt new technologies, a practice of many religious sects of our day. So even on Earth, we see considerable variety. What then will the intelligent organism on another planet behave like?

Of course, the problem isn’t so much finding intelligent life (after all, if it is intelligent, it will probably be hiding from us) as recognising it when we stumble over it. First consider how we recognise life on Earth? Let us acknowledge that we have a head start in that since we currently belong to the only intelligent species on earth, we start recognizing intelligence by recognising ourselves. But what behaviours do we demonstrate that would indicate intelligence? The diurnal lemming like migration to and from work? No, I don’t think so. The fact that we board obviously manufactured dirty, smelly, polluting conveyances to do so? Probably. Trips to the store to collect our groceries? Again, probably not. The fact that we enter out airmiles number as we checkout? Definitely. Our annual migrations across country to indulge ourselves in the pleasures of snow or sunshine? Definitely not. The fact that we apply sunscreen once we get to these new locations? Possibly. The fact that we return again next year with renewed optimism, despite the broken leg or sunburn that spoilt our previous vacation? Absolutely. Keeping other animals for our own use? No, ants do that. Teaching them to fetch. Yup. Fighting? No. Waging war? Indisputably! Staring in wonder at the stars? No. Thinking there must be a god up there making the stars move across the sky? You bet.

So when we reach our alien planet, perhaps it is the artifacts and detritus of intelligent life we look for, rather than intelligence itself, the rubble, pollution, carnage and chaos that comes with intelligence. We look for the creators of that ugliness and there we find intelligence.

And if, as seems likely, we are looking for intelligence in creatures now extinct, it is appropriate that we look for what they have left. Space exploration isn’t for biologists or psychologists, it is for palaeontologists and archaeologists. These are the sciences of interstellar exploration. (See the novel Chindi for an account of archaeologists exploring the galaxy.)