A discussion of the possible nature of live in the universe
Life in the Universe
Humans have been speculating about life beyond planet Earth for a very long time, at least by our standards. Stories have been written about everything from little green men to giant machines from other worlds. Scientists are now scanning the near regions of the Milky Way for Earth-like planets, looking for water.
Water is a very good thing to be looking for, if you are wanting to find life “as we know it,” or to find humankind’s next home. That may take a lot of looking. However, if you are looking for life in any form, the first place to look may be at our definition of life itself.
The following is a little science, some science fiction, philosophy, and most of all, an exercise in reasoning.
The conventional definition of Life
Biologists have had a lot of experience with life which is carbon-based in a medium of liquid water. They have cataloged life forms ranging from viruses to large complex organisms, nearly all grouped as either plants or animals.
To biologists, all life is to interact with its environment and somehow reproduce itself, and thus continue its own kind. Furthermore, it is composed of organic material. The details about all of this is the subject of biology. However, when looking for life elsewhere in the universe, this point of view may be a little too restrictive.
Testing the Viewpoint
It is not a new idea that alien life forms might not be carbon-based. More than forty years ago, scientists conceived the idea of silicone-based life. I recall a proposed creature on Mars that was clear, flew like a bird, and attacked its pray by focusing heat from the Sun down onto it by bending its body into a lens.
As we discover more about life on our world, we find that it can live in conditions never thought possible before. We have found creatures living in everything from dry frigid environments, to very close to hot, toxic vents deep in the ocean, and fish with clear bodies and have their eyes inside their heads. Therefore, scientists have become more flexible in their thinking about the nature of life. This is a start to understanding what we might find elsewhere in the universe.
Some forms of life on Earth, scientists have not been able to trace to their origins. Take spiders, for example, to the best of my knowledge we do not know how they got here. Once someone suggested that if Venus once hosted life, as we know it, some event might have caused organic material to cross the space between Venus and Earth. Venus does rotate backwards on its axis from the other planets in the solar system, except for Uranus, that rotates nearly on its side. Thus, something struck Venus hard enough to flip it upside down. So far, we do not know when this occurred. Such an event would have sent a large piece of its surface into space. The solar wind would have pushed this material away from the Sun, in our direction. If any forms of life came to Earth by this event, it means that life can survive, at least for some amount of time, in the vacuum of space. This may cause someone to wonder if life has to have water and an atmosphere.
Life in the world of Fiction
One gift we have, without a doubt, is a grand imagination. Some may discount some of the works of writers on the basis that they have ideas that are too strange to be possible. On the other hand, I have often heard people use the phrase, “Stranger than fiction,” when talking about real events. To me, those ideas are in conflict. Religious thinking has many of its own ideas. However, if God created us, could we possibly have imaginations grander than God’s imagination? In addition, if God also created the universe, then how could our imaginations be stranger than the universe we live in?
In this world, we have no experience of life beyond it. The data from present day astronomy seems to indicate that it is statistically impossible for Earth to be the only planet in the universe hosting life, as we know it. I have seen fiction, from our innocent world, describing imagined forms of life far stranger than anything we have seen on Earth. However, the truth in the universe may be stranger than fiction.
How about “Shape Shifters,” intelligent beings that can change the form of their bodies at will, if we can imagine it, why can’t it be? Additionally, some people have claimed observing forms of life here on Earth that we normally cannot see, even though some of them appeared quite large. Most of these reports came from people at high altitudes. Such forms of life may not exist on this planet, unless they do; but that does not mean that they do not exist somewhere.
I have worked on a story, which I might finish one day, where I described blob-like creatures living in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. While on the subject of Jupiter, I will mention its moon, Europa. It is mostly water, frozen at its surface. However, there is evidence that an ocean is under the ice. Therefore, Europa has a source of heat under its surface. At this point, it is anyone’s guess, what is going on under the ice.
Not all forms of life in fiction have lived, or only lived, on planets. Some have been like clouds or energy fields. I recall one creature on “Andromeda” that was something so large that it traveled through space taking bites out of small planets. Other forms are comparable to free beings that could be anywhere they wished, and had a body only when they wanted to have one.
What about ghosts, if they exist, are they truly what we think they are? Could any of them be beings with bodies that we may only sometimes be able to see? If that is the case, they do not seem to mean any harm to anyone.
A new vision of Life
The only part of the conventional definition of life, which I have truly challenged so far, is to be composed of organic material, which leaves to interact with its environment and to reproduce, relatively unchallenged. In order for anything to interact with its environment, something must move. Motion can be the result of physical movement of a form, chemical interaction, or simply the movement of some form of energy. However, any movement always involves some form of energy. Therefore, I will point out that movements are always a result of the movements of energy. Thus, physical movements and chemical interactions are not necessary for something to interact with its environment. If a form, and the environment, affect one and other in some way, there is an interaction.
The need for life to reproduce itself is largely due to life forms having physical bodies that wear out. The only other reason is that it is always good to have more than one like you around; and you may enjoy parts of the reproductive process. What if a form of life had a form that did not wear out? This would make reproduction an option, not a requirement. If it did not reproduce, due to the lack of the need, I would still think of it as a form of life. Additionally, other options to reproduction could be at least as pleasurable.
I recall an episode of “The X-Files” about a race from another planet, where the aliens did not reproduce. When they became too old, they went into a cocoon, and came out later as a child of the opposite sex. However, if they had sexual contact with someone, they remained adults, but changed genders.
This leads the way to another option. If you believe in the soul, that it is alive, and you believe in afterlife and or reincarnation, instead of the soul reproducing to continue life, it is changing form. This would make changing form another option to reproduction.
With that in mind, life could be anything — regardless of its composition — that interacts with its environment in some way, and is capable of either reproducing itself or changing its form.
If you were to apply this description of life, literally, it could apply to everything in the universe. I am not suggesting that you do this. However, there are many who have done so in some form. American Indians and some New Age thinkers are among these people. To them, the whole universe is a form of life.
Frontier of Speculation
Sometimes, scientists dream up scenarios that writers have yet to entertain. Many of these would not be easy to use to write a marketable story. However, I will let you be the judge of that.
I recall reading a scientific article in a card set titled “Secrets of the Universe.” The article was about speculative objects called “Strange Stars.” If they exist, they are the next step from a neutron star, before turning into a black hole. There, the gravity of a neutron star had broken down the neurons into quarks, their primary component. In the article, the author suggested that if life could exist on such a body, it would need to be composed of quarks.
I would not know if living organisms could form from quarks. Such forms would be the size of atoms, if not smaller. However, Einstein showed us that all in the universe is relative. One aspect of relativity is the size scale. An entire civilization of such creatures could live on the tip of your nose, having a complex molecule as their planet.
Scientists’ knowledge of black holes, wormholes, neutron stars and the like is very sketchy. There is no proof, for example, that black holes have no space or time at their singularities. If space and time do exist there, creatures like I mentioned above could live in the singularity of a black hole, as well as neutron stars, worm holes, and our Sun, if they do exist.
The greatest Teacher
Throughout time, three things guide us through life, each other, wisdom from within, and the universe around us. With the first two, we may not always receive reliable information, for one reason or another. It is there, but we do not always know how to tell facts from non-facts. However, the universe only responds with the truth; we just sometimes misunderstand its response. Therefore, the universe is the greatest teacher. Given enough time, it always shows us the truth.
As we continue to look for life beyond Earth, I cannot say what definition of life we will be using, when we find it. Nevertheless, what if the Indians are right? The question we would then want to ask is, what kinds of life are we looking for?