Whose Out There? – An Overview of Two Books3 min read

The extraterrestrial hunt is on. Expectations of finding alien life are rising, for reasonable building blocks are out there, scattered all over our solar system–liquid water and/or ice, sulfur, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and organic compounds.

In 2010 and 2011 two books summarized in extraordinary detail how life may have evolved and may be living still on the planets and moons of our solar system. No chemical possibility is left unexamined in We Are Not Alone: Why We Have Already Found Extraterrestrial Life by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and David Darling and Cosmic Biology: How Life Could Evolve on Other Worlds, by Louis Neal Irwin and Dirk Schulze-Makuch. Interesting comparisons are made between possible life forms elsewhere and those on Earth since 1977, the extremophiles that live in either very hot (Yellowstone and hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean) or very cold (Antarctic) environments.

The authors of these books consider anything biochemically possible. They review energy reactions available on each likely moon or planet in the solar system and relate the energy source to how any living thing would have to be designed to survive and multiply in specific environments discovered so far. Though carbon is favored for its “chemical versatility” and “talent for making large stable molecules” (quoted from Wolf Vishniac, the first microbiologist to be funded by NASA), silicon is also considered as a building block in some places.

Water is still considered the most likely solvent for energetic biological metabolism, but hydrogen peroxide and water together may provide a solvent for critters on Mars. Hydrogen peroxide can help shield life from the cold and radiation there and could conceivably be involved in a photosynthetic reaction, like carbon dioxide reacting with water to produce methane and hydrogen peroxide.

In the book We Are Not Alone: Why We Have Already Found Extraterrestrial Life, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and David Darling make the case for such a hydrogen peroxide solvent. They postulate that Viking experiments may have missed finding the life on Mars because their procedures killed microbes in the soil samples. The data, the authors claim, are consistent with the assumption that Martian lives depend on hydrogen peroxide, not water, as a solvent. Only in non-sterilized Martian soil did experiments release an initial rush of oxygen or carbon dioxide that lasted some hours then slowed way down–as the Martian microbes died, according to the authors. Their detailed explanation makes sense and fun reading.

The authors also talk about the unexplained continuous release of methane on Mars, as well as larger amounts of formaldehyde. They consider the atmosphere of Venus in terms of an unusual presence of both oxidation and reduction reactions with sulfur. The book also summarizes the candidacy of life on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

In their 2011 book, Cosmic Biology: Irwin and Schulze-Makuch systematically list moons and planets in our solar system that could support life, how the changing environments and energy sources could have driven the evolution of different kinds of life, and how those energy sources either encouraged or limited their mobility, their size, even their shape.

The European Space Agency will launch a deep-space mission to explore the icy moons of Jupiter in 2022 the authors say. They finish their book with a look at biocomplexity and the long-term future. Cosmic Biology was written before the exciting discovery of watery plumes jetting from Tiger Stripes on the South Pole of Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn. For a detailed update on the discovery of under-ice water lakes there, go to the article “Watery Enceladus” by John Spencer in Physics Today November 2011, page 38-44.

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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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