Jennifer Senior writes a thoughtful review of Jim Al-Khalili’s book Aliens: the World’s Leading Scientists on the Search For Extraterrestrial Life (NY Times May 25, 2017). She gives us a nice summary of the author’s detailed look at what alien life might be like—mainly boring micro-extremophiles.
Senior notes that life itself is not easy to define, since, even on Earth, we have several questionable critters that imitate life, we can’t seem to reproduce life from scratch, and we don’t know how it began here. Unfortunately, she neglects the work of Nick Lane, author of the book The Vital Question. He makes a good case for Earth’s life starting up in alkaline hydrothermal vents on the ocean’s floor. Stay tuned on that idea.
Senior’s review propagates the myth that we need to master interstellar travel. Is Martin Rees’s suggestion that space travel will best be done by robots really “far out?” I like his touch of realism—it’s critical that we understand just how isolated we really are. The simple hugeness of space and time mean most of will never go far from Earth. Once that sinks in, Enrico Fermi’s question that Senior quotes—“If the universe is so vast…and its stars so plentiful, where is everybody?”—seems more than a little naïve.
One more myth looms large in Senior’s review. She describes the contribution of Lewis Dartnell, who falls into the sci-fi trap of assuming aliens can’t possibly be anything like us—“…they would almost certainly lack the proper enzymes to digest us.”
No, we may not be genetically compatible, but that may not be as critical to digestion as Dartnell suggests. His assumption of a biological mismatch dismisses everything we know about biochemistry and evolution, with its billions of years of selecting what reactions work best.
Organisms whose chemical reactions are outpaced or less efficient are quickly eliminated from life’s inventory. Meanwhile, Earth keeps inventing a huge variety of living critters that find amazing places to live. Many are yet to be found, but we’ve managed to understand, even relate to some, like the octopuses, whose brains are scattered into each arm.
Given the kind of biochemical sorting that Earth experienced over our four billion years, the assumption of aliens–so weird we can’t relate—makes no sense. Carbon works too well for building life structures. It will out-compete anything else, anywhere else in the struggle to survive, as it has here. The elements are all the same throughout the universe.
I’d have to agree with Dartnell that Earth’s raw materials are not worth mining, not even our water, compared to Europa. Again, time and space have somehow shrunk way beyond reality in such considerations of alien raiding, as it has in way too much science fiction.
At least, Dartnell and the other authors in this collection apparently agree that most extraterrestrial life is most like “…hardy microbes that can withstand extreme conditions.…” As Senior points out, this book delves into the philosophy of it all—how to define life, what does ‘is’ mean? How do we distinguish “nonliving chemistry from life” ?
The authors point out an observation made by Nick Lane in his book The Vital Question. En Earth there has only been on instance when “one unicellular life form lodged inside another, “ only one instance of symbiosis when our simple bacteria-like cells incorporated what we now call mitochondria for their energy-producing talents. That’s why we big critters are so complex.
What puzzles me about the book Aliens is how someone like Seth Shostak of SETI can end a reasonable comment about alien life being in a form of “machine intelligence,” by saying that we need to “be alert to apparent violations of physics.” True, we don’t know It all yet, and we puzzle over black holes and the Big Bang, but our basic physics has brought us a long way, far enough that we can be fairly certain that “violations of physics” are more than unlikely.
Are we really so strange or dumb that we could never recognize or decode an alien message? Or is our love of mystery and the scenarios that classical scifi present so great that we hope this would be the case? Some of the contributing authors to this collection of essays seem to think so.
Author of The Archives of Varok
The View Beyond Earth (Book 1.)
The Webs of Varok (Book 2.)
Nautilus Silver Award 2013 YA
ForeWord IBPA finalist 2012 adult SF
The Alien Effect (Book 3.)
An Alien’s Quest (Book 4. Released Nov.21, 2016)
Excerpts, Synopses, Reviews, On Writing, Characters and More-
Reviews of significant books- www.goodreads.com/Cary_Neeper
How the Hen House Turns- www.ladailypost.com
Complexity, Bio, Bibliography and Links- caryneeper.com
Astrobiology- astronaut.com search:Who’s Out There