Who’s Out There?—Clues From the Conference “Alife 2014”3 min read

First, a follow up on hurdles life must jump in order to get started.  Here’s a grand one, as reported by Christopher Crockett in Science News,  June 28, 2014: In studying the way the sun formed, probably in a cluster  of “several thousand stars,” Ivan Ramirez at the University of Texas,  Austin, found a sun similar to ours (HD 162826- reported in May 8 xiv.org). 

If such a cluster of stars is too big, radiation from “too many massive  stars would have destroyed the infant solar system.” However, there  needs to be enough mass in the cluster so supernovae could create heavy elements. Another balancing act that Earth won in the game of life. 

If we could jumpstart artificial life on Earth, we might have a better idea of what it takes to get life going on in extraterrestrial environments. 

At the conference on artificial life (ALife 2014, July 30-August 2 in New York) Lee Cronin from Glasgow pointed out that the assembly of life involves self-assembly and self-organization in chemistry. Engineering 
emergent chemical systems include “…chemists, chemical engineering, reaction modeling, complex systems modeling, evolutionary theory, synthetic biology, robotics, and Artificial Intelligence.” 

Christopher Salge urged those doing isolated research in these fields to join forces and exchange ideas. Alife can be characterized as “…soft, hard or wet.” 

In a previous blog, we identified these three approaches to alife as AI in software, intelligence in robotics and the biochemical approach to re-inventing life. The latter is called synthetic biology, and searches on this topic can provide clues to exploring possibilities for life beyond Earth. 

Syntheticbiology.org defines the term in two parts: “…A) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, systems, and B) the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. The site reports that a lab manual has been published, and there was an International Summer School in Italy in June. 

Among the Projects listed were synthetic genome projects and “Engineering the Host-System Interface.” This title caught my eye, as it suggested the major problem in astrobiology—how does a biochemical 
system relate to its environment (the host?) so it can survive and reproduce? Actually, this project seemed more concerned with finding an interface between an engineered system and its host cell, using RNA 
polymerase and mutant ribosomes. 

Not to worry. It seems that cellular life of any form is so complex that any approach may provide the clues we need to imagine possible extraterrestrial life and devise the search tools needed to detect it. Or consider this: 

Perhaps the conditions on Mars were better than Earth’s (drier) for overcoming obstacles and beginning the chemical magic that initiates life. Then Earth’s conditions became more friendly to the new critters, 
and were seeded from Mars in the kilogram of Mars that “…lands on Earth every day,” according to Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. (See Discover Magazine June 2014, page 22 
“Are We All Martians?” More on this next month. 

Author of The Webs of Varok 
Nautilus silver award 2013 YA 
ForeWord finalist 2012 adult SF 
Books, On Writing, Characters and More– ArchivesofVarok.com 
Book Reviews– www.goodreads.com/Cary_Neeper 
Animal Sentience– www.ladailypost.com 
Complexity, Bio, Biblio and Links– caryneeper.com 
Astrobiology– astronaut.wpengine.com


Cary Neeper is an avid student of complexity theory, sustainability, steady-state economics, and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion. She grew up in the foothills of Hayward, California, where she helped rack dried fruit on her father’s 40-acre apricot ranch. After studying zoology/chemistry and religion at Pomona College and medical microbiology at the University of Wisconsin, she moved with her husband to northern New Mexico, where they raised their family. The Neepers still live in the Southwest with a friendly menagerie of dogs, fish, chickens, geese, ducks and a turkey called Little Bear. Cary plays string bass with local folk, symphony and jazz groups and tennis with local retired physicists. She paints landscapes in acrylics, including the cover art for her first Penscript title, The Webs of Varok. Cary's first novel and Webs of Varok prequel A Place Beyond Man was originally published in 1975 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Dell, and Millington, London. Cary re-released A Place Beyond Man as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition, now available from online booksellers. Its themes of sustainability and interspecies cooperation have now grown into new adventures for its human, elll and varok family as they travel the alternate 21st century Solar System in the five-volume Archives of Varok, coming from Penscript Publishing House in 2012–2014. Cary’s other works include two musical science fiction comedies “U.F.F.D.A.!” and “Petra and the Jay,” as well as newspaper and magazine articles, essays, short stories, and book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.

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