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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Life beyond earth... or at least not what we're used to (book reviews)

the life form in question
Update 6/2/11: radiation-eating bugs a mile underground, and possibilities of life on Mars.

original post:
NASA's much-hyped announcement today concerning having found an "alien" life form proved to be a bit of a disappointment, but at the same time NASA was making an important point. Sure, it's a fascinating discovery, and I wasn't really expecting ET (people are saying) but isn't this arsenic-based life form found here on Earth just another extremophile? Hasn't NASA heard of all the extreme forms of life that have been discovered in recent years, from sulfur-eating volcano dwellers to snottites? They all defy the old definitions of life. But this one is "peculiar" in yet another, important way:
"This organism has dual capability. It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly 'alien' life," commented Paul C. W. Davies of Arizona State University, a co-author of the report appearing in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science.
That's right, they grew right here, so they can't be called alien... Well, probably. And the point a lot of people seem to be missing, in the failure of NASA to produce a flying saucer, is that this is yet another significant piece of evidence against all the old beliefs about life originating only here. For those who still believe that.

I think this photo is from the press conference in question...
My cousin Val (a Marsophile who keeps up on space science better than I, and alerted me to the upcoming NASA annoucement in the first place) reports on the press conference, and nails the importance of the NASA discovery:

"I was watching the news conference on the NASA channel yesterday and what I got from it was that every other life form on earth, including extremeophiles, have phosphate as a backbone in their DNA helix except this one, which is the only DNA ever found that has arsenic rather than phosphate as a backbone in the double helix.  One of those on the panel was the head of the Mars Science Laboratory project who was extremely excited about the discovery, saying that it will change the way everyone will look for alien life from now on, including the MSL. 
"I enjoyed watching the young woman who discovered it, as she was not only so intelligent but also very animated and personable.  One of the older experts on the panel was trying to pontificate that more time was needed to study, etc. and she crushed him (all the others on the panel agreed that the science was good and was proven - NASA wouldn't have presented it as it did if it wasn't). 
"I'm excited about the discovery because I think it will open up a LOT of closed minds (like the finding of water on the moon, which was thought impossible until they actually found it).  Open them to all sorts of life possibilities such as silicon-based.  Who knows what will be discovered if they if they don't shut their minds to what they're seeing!"
 Yes, if only people wouldn't shut their minds to what they're seeing - there is so much of the new to see in our time, it's probably one of the best things about being on the planet right now. In my darker moods I feel as if the more amazing new things we learn, the more some people (especially those caught up in the strange mental traps of the various "great" religions) work to deny it and go backward.

As for truly "alien" life - that is, life that isn't from around here? As a science fiction reader since childhood, I don't know when I first heard of Fred Hoyle's theory of Panspermia; seems as if it's always been with me. It's the idea that the "seeds" of life might have come from somewhere else (carried through space on comets or something), landed here (and elsewhere) like broadcast seeds looking for fertile ground, and then evolved into whatever works here.  (I know, but the term was coined a long time ago, when most [mostly male] S&SF writers didn't even envision women space travellers; today's SF writers, including many of the males, might be just as likely to have thought to call the  concept "panovula." It does work better with the concept of seeds.) So really, what we call life in its new, greatly expanded variety of definitions, could be anywhere - and appear in a great many different versions, depending on location, location, location. Which only makes for common sense to anyone even vaguely aware of  how many planets/possible scenarios there are, out there in space.

I'm kind of making this up since, as I say, the idea's been in the back of my head for a long time, as a plausible idea. And then there is the rock from Mars, with probably "life" in it, that we found here. And here, in a recent  news story, the idea of pansperm/ovula gets another boost, as a possible bringer of life to Earth: http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2010/09/mystery-of-indias-red-rain-of-2001-points-to-extraterrestrial-origin.html

All of which reminded me of a couple of nonfiction books that I really enjoyed, when I read them to review for SLJ. They probably aren't too dated, and they were really fun to read. For anyone who went to school before, say, the 1990's, and hasn't kept up, they would be eye-openers even now...

Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life beyond Earth by Robert Shapiro (2000)
Recently, there have been several fine books reporting on the latest developments in the scientific quest to understand life. Here, Shapiro looks at the fascination these questions exert on the human imagination, and treats readers to many perspectives on life-its nature and origins, and the possibility of its existence on other worlds.

Through an entertaining exploration of ancient myths, the tabloid journalism of the 19th-century, and the pseudoscience of the 20th, and finally our own age's scientific explorations, he shows that dreams of life beyond Earth are as old as humanity itself and as new as today's headlines.

Shapiro recognizes not just the views of scientists, but also gives space and a fair (and thus inevitably rather crushing) hearing to the perspectives of religionists of various stripes (including, but not limited to, creationists). Through various devices, he makes vast concepts accessible; for instance, readers tour an imaginary museum of time and space, and sit in on a lively conversation that includes various scientists.

Arguing persuasively for support of future scientific efforts to look for life beyond our planet, the author evokes a sense of wonder worthy of science fiction. Though some readers might enjoy reading this book straight through, others will prefer to browse its colorfully titled sections. It is enlivened with good black-and-white and color illustrations drawn from biochemistry, space science, and fiction, and its extensive notes and index should make it useful for assignments.

Dark Life: Martian Nanobacteria, Rock-Eating Cave Bugs, and Other Extreme Organisms of Inner Earth and Outer Space (1999) by Michael Ray Taylor
Taylor first heard of "dark life" from scientists searching for it in the pristine environment of a newly discovered cave system. Nanobacteria had been unknown until very recently, when advances in electron microscopy finally revealed them to astonished human eyes. Now, many of the hidden places of the earth, previously thought to be "sterile," were seen to be teeming with strange and diverse creatures. Eventually Taylor crossed the line from journalist-observer to participant-advocate, when he joined the quest for these new "bugs" and the secrets they might reveal about the nature of life.

The story is compelling not just for the fascinating nature of the discoveries made, but also for the insider's view it offers of science as a working community. One likable young scientist, Anne Taunton, stands out among the many colorful players in this drama and makes the story particularly accessible to teens, as Taylor follows her career from high school graduation and on through college. As an undergraduate NASA intern, Taunton found herself at the center of the "Mars life" controversy. She gained new friends and mentors, faced strong personal and professional challenges with grace, and joined Taylor in making a significant discovery.

At heart, this book is a celebration of life--human, as well as theoretical.

Here's a NOVA program with author/explorer Michael Ray Tayor, about Lake Lechuguilla!

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As extromophiles go, you have to love snottites (above). For their name, if nothing else. (Didn't Charles Pellegrino discover and name them that?) There was a neat section on extremophiles living in caves, including snottites, in the BBC series Planet Earth, in the episodes on Caves. We just saw that recently here in our documentary series.

And here's a Nova episode to watch for, "A World Unseen," about extremophiles. This looks like a happy scientist -- Diane Northrup, who works with SLIME (Subsurface Life in Mineral Environments), a loose affiliation of cave scientists working on geomicrobiological interactions in caves.

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