An Accidental Ecosystem in Space

astroarchaeology, astroarcheology, astrobiology, Biology, ecology, scicomm, science fiction, Uncategorized

Update:

I’m always interested in podcasting, and I’ve created an episode of a tentative series on the Anchor app. It’s just this blog post read out. Convenient for those whom listening is a better way to digest content. Here’s the link:

Listen to my segment “Abandonment among the stars” on Anchor: https://anchor.fm/astro-biological/episodes/Ecosystems-in-an-Abandoned-Megastructure-e1e59n/Abandonment-among-the-stars-a3bp5i

Imagine this. It’s the distant future. Space travellers have discovered a huge structure in deep space. Let’s assume the travellers aren’t human. These beings have stumbled upon the greatest discovery in their history. A vast megastructure, hundreds of kilometres long, it’s a huge cylinder spinning slowly across interstellar space. The structure is a riotous collection of cyclinders, and other smaller structures seemingly thrown together. Tests on the structure reveal it’s very old: several thousand years at least. No signals or signs of current occupation can be found, and it’s determined after several years of examination and debate that the structure is abandoned.

An O’Neill cylinder, adrift in cyberspace.. A 3D model of a physical model I plan to build.

The very first team is sent on board…

What do they find?

The structure is derelict, to say the least. The team can safely determine this. There are no signs of intelligent life.

Mechanisms keeping the cylinder habitable are still somewhat operational. By some miracle of engineering the cylinder still has gravity as well.

But that’s not to say that life hasn’t found a way.
The structure is exploding with life!
The structure is essentially intact. It continues to rotate, driven by some unknown energy source and mechanism. It orbits a medium sized yellow star, lying just beyond the orbital path of the second planet out from this sun. The second planet is completely uninhabitable.

Image: Pixabay

There is a third planet from the Sun which seems habitable. Other expeditions are already exploring that world, and it seems this cylinder was built by whatever sentient beings once lived there.

Image source: Unknown

The structure is an oasis of life, all alone in the night. The builders may have long vanished, but the other organisms they brought on board: whether they be pets, food or pests, don’t seem to know they shouldn’t be here claiming this place as their own. It’s become an accidental ecosystem that has no business being out here and yet out here it is.

….

A couple of weeks I decided to do something different with all the video stuff I do. I did a livestream on facebook and periscope. The topic of my stream was the very question addressed above: what new ecosystems and organisms could arise in an abandoned, livable space station were the human occupants to disappear?

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Image: Pixabay

It actually really got me thinking. The whole thing began as a random question on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism facebook group. To my surprise there were a lot of great comments and ideas in response to this question.

I’ve addressed this subject matter before. A blog post explored the nature of interactions between the natural world and those sad, abandoned places on the periphery of civilisation. It’s like discovering a completely new world when I stumble upon these “transitional” places. Imagine finding such a world like the cylinder orbiting Venus. Just how and in what direction would any life on board manage?

It’s a really interesting question, and ties into the nature of life and how it has spread across our own planet. Most life existing today hasn’t arisen spontaneously from the firmament. Nothing’s done that for around 4 billion years. No, life has migrated, hitched rides or been tossed about by catastrophe and happenstance. It has essentially gone where the wind blows, and taken root wherever it has landed. The theory of panspermia relies on this vagrancy to offer an explanation for how life might have appeared here in the first place. I personally think Panspermia is very plausible.

In some ways we’ve seen panspermia in action, from a certain point of view.

This is of course, a very tenuous observation I make, but the principle is the same, using the example of Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. This tiny little mound of dirt popping up from the waves is a giant ecological lab, an ongoing experiment that began over 150 years ago. All manner of species: some introduced, some native, were thrown together, on a barren little rock. Within decades, the island was a lush green paradise, with new ecosystems and new equilibriums. Quite amazing really, and Ascension Island represents a window into the greening of a dead planet such as Mars.

So. To return to the premise of this post. Explorers find a derelict space colony, now overrun by non human life. We’ve seen this on Earth too. Life is especially good at exploiting new niches. When the dinosaurs perished, the mammals that had lived in their shadow for 180 million years suddenly had an entire planet all to themselves. This resulted in the Tertiary radiation, a speciation event rivalling the Cambrian Explosion in the profusion of new species of mammal that suddenly appeared to exploit all this open space. Disaster ecology is an area of study devoted to this knack life has of adapting to catastrophe and finding new balances. Places like Ascension Island are one example of this. Others, like Chernobyl, are another.

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Life is doing nicely in the radiation soaked wilderness of Chernobyl. Image: James Beasley and Sarah Webster, National Geographic Creative

So what of my superstructure, adrift in orbit around Venus? It would take several posts to really give it some justice, and so that’s what I’m going to do. A few posts on the post human world in a self contained semi functional space colony.

I must admit I have not been active with this blog lately. I have been busier than usual with new work and things in personal life shifting and changing constantly. It’s never forgotten. This will be attended to, and posts are going to start going up on a more frequent basis. Stay tuned, keep reading and I’ll be writing soon.

Ben.

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#Emergence in Action

astrobiology, astronomy, Biology, Biomolecules, ecology, emergence, Molecular Biology, nature, scicomm

The universe is a truly incredible thing. It is an endlessly cycling chaotic simulacra, churning out endless iterations of itself. The best part about being immersed in such wonder? No one needs to travel to the ends of the Universe to see this. At roughly 93 billion light years across there’s plenty to see. But the thing is, the universe is self assembling!

Yes, self assembling. What does this mean?

Exactly what it says. Nature is chock full of patterns. It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that nature abhors disorder. Patterns arise naturally from the firmament of whatever lies beneath the universe every single second every where at once all across the universe. In all of that vastness messes and disorder arise, but order always eventually spontaneously emerges.

Or at least it seems that way.

Life is a special example of emergence in action. A rather special example. It’s the most incredible phenomenon in all of existence. It’s right next to me as I write:

This is a collective of eukaryotic organisms. They all share the same genome: a special set of instructions which has emerged over evolutionary time. This set of instructions co-opts other seemingly random but very precisely designed molecules to pretty much do nothing but make more copies of itself ad infinitum. This collective of cells has organised itself into specialised structures that make the business of being a collective a little bit easier for all involved.

Now, replication of these instructions will eventually become riddled with flaws, as a process called senescence begins to emerge from this collective’s previously youthful state. Time will march on and eventually another equilibrium will emerge called death.

It doesn’t even end there. All of the atoms and compounds within this collective (from now on we’ll call this collective “Jasper”) will cycle through soil, clouds, other organisms, stars, molecular clouds, other planets and galaxies. Eventually they’ll come to rest at the end of time along with everything else. It’s a heck of a story. Really.

And all of that is self organising. Structures and patterns arise spontaneously from the laws of nature. Structures such as rivers and streams are no different to other familiar branching structures such as circulatory systems. Methane based river systems on frozen Titan resemble precisely the branching network of blood vessels that winds through your body like…..well, a river system. And it all creates itself!

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Naturally arising branching patterns on earth.

This spontaneous self organisation is ubiquitous in nature. Life , and especially multicellular life, has borrowed this proclivity for patterns, recreating those which seem conducive to biological processes functioning well.

Is this how multicellularity got a leg up?

Consider this example. Physarum polycephalum is the scientific name for a rather interesting species of plasmodial slime mold. Now, its name is a sign of things to come, meaning “many-headed slime”.

Plasmodial slime molds; not quite colonial, not quite multicellular. Image: Wikipedia

P. polycephalum breaks several tenets of what we would call common sense. Essentially, it is a single gigantic cell, consisting of thousands or millions of individual cells which have joined together for common interest. Unlike creatures like you and me, however, these cells aren’t compartmentalized like our own. In us, each cell is partitioned from its brethren by walls and membranes. The innards, including the nuclei are tucked away safe and sound. It’s truly a neighbourhood as we would understand it. Within the slime mold it’s like the sixties never died. It’s an orgy in there. All of the individual nuclei all slosh around inside this plasmodial common area. Creatures bearing this property are called coenocytic.

So. The slime mold has this kind of generic look about it, doesn’t it?

All of these structures emerge spontaneously, coded for by some as yet unknown aspect of spatial and quantum topography. I don’t know what this is, or how to elucidate it, but I know it’s there.

Life has somehow managed to encode these structures. Just like Jasper in the first image, these structures have evolved over geological time to work together, creating assemblages from which something emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Could the first attempts at multicellularity have gotten a leg up? Did the laws of nature lay the groundwork for biological structures shared by the vast majority of multicellular organisms today? Consider this scenario.

Earth, several billion years before the present day. You’re drifting above a hellish landscape, in a little temporal bubble, that allows you to observe and record data but not interact with the landscape in any way. That could be disastrous. How so? Just imagine accidentally stepping on L.U.C.A; the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life. Let your imagination do the rest. So you’re drifting along, observing, and you see something.

The earth at this time is hot. Islands of freshly minted land protrude above the semi-molten surface of a world still cooling down. You see chunks of the planet high above you, settling into a tenuous orbit. Only recently something the size of Pluto crashed into baby earth, shattering much of its outer skin and sending it into high orbit. All of those chunks you see in the sky will one day become the Moon. The collision wiped the surface clean like an Etch-A-Sketch, and so as a result baby earth is reforming again. Pockets of land like this one harbour water and other organic muck delivered by comets; the Universe’s version of Fed-Ex. Not to mention the stranger that caused all this damage in the first place.

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Space plays rough. Earth’s surface, wiped away in a catastrophic collision, provided the raw materials for its moon. Image: NASA/JPL

The view is impressive. Just imagine every vision or rendition of Hell you’ve ever seen and apply reality to it. It’s pretty cool. But something else huge is happening as well. Life is forming in the midst of this apocalypse. Your time machine hovers over the most momentous event in the history of the universe…

Whatever this tiny thing is, drifting about in warm eddies and swirls in that hot little pond, it’s the first. It may not live to see another day, or it may eventually give rise to things like you. You would love to examine it in more detail, but you ask yourself. How did this singular piece of organic machinery manage to figure out that one day forming collectives would be a good idea? Your time machine bubble thing seems to know what you’re thinking. It is only fictional after all, and the writer decides to jump forward a billion years or so….

Something large and dark slowly glides past you in the brightly lit upper layer of a sea that completely covers over three-quarters of the planet. The thing pushes you aside as a tremendous tail fin propels it down into dark depths. It’s some kind of fish. A big fish. The armour plating on its head gives it an appearance reminiscent of a tank. If Thunderbird 2 and the Batmobile (Christian Bale’s batman of course) had a baby, it would look something like this: Dunkleosteus. Your time bubble wobbles alarmingly as the behemoth sends powerful compression waves through the water. You know this is a fictional scenario, but you don’t care. You’ve gone too far forward anyway….

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Primeval earth, with a toxic atmosphere, much closer moon and primitive colonial life, in the form of stromatolites (right foreground). Image: NASA/JPL

A haze wafts across a landscape dominated by volcanic ash and a truly huge moon. Waves crash against a dark craggy shoreline. The time bubble lets you observe, but not interact, right? You can observe with all your senses. This place stinks. The shoreline is matted with a thick film of bacteria and gunk. Waves crash against the mat, breaking it up, and dispersing it further landward. You’re guessing with the moon so close tides must be insane here. This whole area is sub-littoral. Anything that can hold on here has to be tough. The rocks all give off steam. The sun isn’t as hot now as it is where you come from, but seams of volcanic activity are evident out in the water. Pillow like ridges of freshly solidified lava stretch up the shore, still not quite cool. Bacteria, or these Archean versions of them carpet some of the rocks. It’s here that you see something big. Almost as big as life appearing in the first place. Channels and rivulets run through some of the mats. Skins have formed and as water has reduced within the mats, structures have appeared. These mats have been given a push towards colonialism by the blind forces of nature. In these early more experimental times, genetic information and it’s transfer is a lot more promiscuous. A lot less Darwinian and a little more Lamarckian. These bacteria with their scrambled DNA and transfer will find this way of doing things a little easier, and will adopt it. Quickly.

Does this scenario make any sense? It does, but it had to have some basis in fact. I saw the principles in action, and they are as follows: an organic matrix, containing all manner of constituents useful to life is forced into biologically useful patterns and structures by some kind of energetic input. Where did I see this happen, or at least some analogue of it?

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My creature lives! Meet Soupenstein.

Meet Plasmodium botanicus, or plant muck. Otherwise known as puree vegetable soup. It does bear a striking resemblance to P. polycephalum, doesn’t it? This little monstrosity was created accidentally in the lab. Or should I say kitchen?

20170728_133413 It was busy. I was moving at a million miles an hour, when I spilt soup on the grill plate next to me. This odd structure was the quick result. Branching patterns and channels formed within seconds, and I was instantly taken by its similarity to a slime mold. It was this random splash that was the inspiration for this post. Now, this post is only a speculative “what if?” with some cheap time travel thrown in, but could the earliest multicellular life, or collective modes of existence have been given some kind of initial leg up by similar incidents or circumstances? There are parallels between my imagined “slime on a rock” and the soup accident above. Let’s call the soup an extracellular matrix. It is a composite substance, containing all manner of organic compounds, plus a few impurities (probably. What doesn’t?). Energy in the form of heat is applied to the ECM as it comes into contact with a flat hot surface. Water in the ECM reduces, leaving behind a concentration of material, which forms channels and branches in accordance with the laws of nature. Bacteria within this newly formed arrangement suddenly find life a little bit easier.

What of other mixes of organic and inorganic compounds? Could life have resulted from a random splash like this? Did multicellular life arise when the cosmic cook was a little busy and not being careful? It would be interesting to perform a series of experiments. Why not use foodstuffs such as soup? Would different recipes lead to different structures? Would other energy sources, or electricity, lead to new outcomes? Who knows? That’s the point of experimenting!

I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this. Thanks for reading.

 

Ben.

References and Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titan_(moon)

http://www.elijahwald.com/origin.html

https://www.seeker.com/life-continues-within-the-body-after-death-evidence-shows-2212720233.html

http://www.medicaldaily.com/life-after-death-according-science-cells-fight-stay-alive-long-after-body-dies-409525

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5303275/

P.S.

Thanks for reading this far! Could readers please do me a favour? I have a YouTube channel, and I would like feedback on it. If people could watch a couple of videos and give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. What’s good? What’s not? Am I boring? Do I mumble etc? All feedback is welcome and if you can leave comments either here, on my twitter, Facebook or YouTube channel that would be awesome. I’ll make you famous. Or something. 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClvBq6G-DkIlKci7xXdWYzA

#Yggdrassil: The World Within a Tree

Biology, ecology, emergence, entemology, folklore, insects, mythology, nature, scicomm, science fiction

“We live in a Universe that seems to be unsure of its rules sometimes. Is everything preordained, folded and tucked into the very tiny recesses of whatever quantum realm underpins our own world? Is everything an emergent property, constantly cycled and coded in real-time? Writers and thinkers have pondered this question and its countless variations since thought began. I’m not arrogant to declare I have the answers, and honestly, at this point in time could anyone? 

Whatever viewpoint you have on the universe and how it all stacks up, there are some things no body can deny. Everything works the way it works, no matter what explanation you put forward for it.”

Staring at traffic gets me in a pensive mood sometimes. It makes me wonder (as an aside) how much thinking is done at windows, watching the world rush by? Right now I’m thinking about several hours just spent at some local wetlands. Just near my home, they have been virtually rebuilt by local councils over the last fifteen years or so, in a bid to clean up the environment a little bit. It isn’t really a token gesture. The wetlands have been a beacon of success amid the constant flood of tales of environmental woe. I visit them all the time when I get time off work, and love nothing more than wandering for hours at a time, taking photos of insects and whatever else takes my fancy.

You see, I really like science. I even studied it, slogging through five years of university, so I could get a nice big certificate to put on my wall. It was fun, but I’ve realised that for me science is all about wandering around in lonely places and just paying attention to things that others sometimes don’t see. It’s all about where you feel at home, and I’ve always felt at home in my imagination.

Today’s walk took me through the Paddocks Wetlands. They’re an area set aside by local government for environmental remediation. They constitute a fairly large chunk of land, set behind factories and commercial precincts.

The open space didn’t interest me today. I was armed with a bunch of cameras and a cheap little macro lens for my smart phone. Today, I went bug hunting. I went yesterday as well, just a boy and his smartphone.

Today’s trek through the wilderness was initially not panning out. With some pretty miserable weather, insects seemed to be sleeping in that day. I was getting a little bored. I was streaming my walk on Periscope, and getting a little distracted, clowning around for the viewers.

Then, a tree happened.

Trees hold a powerful place in world mythology. The mighty Ents of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are derived from ancient European myth. Trees are sacred in many cultures. This probably found its greatest expression in Norse mythology, with the World Tree Yggdrasil.

Die_Eiche_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heine

Rooted in Eurasian mythology, Yggdrasil continues its hold on modern imaginations.

According to Norse legend, Yggdrasil was a mighty Ash (sometimes Oak) tree, whose branches extended beyond the heavens into the nine realms of existence. It’s roots extended far below, into the homes of Gods and demons. I personally have always loved this tale. It’s always given trees a certain mystique. When I was younger I used to believe they could think and feel just as we do, and wondered what secrets they kept to themselves…

In a way this assumption wasn’t far off. At the paddocks wetlands today I was able to focus on a single tree, finding a host of life and drama within.

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This quiet unassuming tree became my main focus for the day.

This wasn’t just some boring old gum tree. On walking past it, I immediately noticed something I don’t see very often:

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This praying mantis, about 4 cm long was lurking quietly among some drooping Eucalyptus branches.

I was truly excited to find this little beastie. It was in the midst of eating the still twitching halves of a European wasp. It’s not every day we get to see nature at its violent best, and my camera was at the ready. The mantis was on to me, I’ll give it that. About the only important thing to heed when trying to photograph or film insects is that they are 1: extremely alert, and 2: extremely timid as a rule. They’ve been around for a very long time, and they’ve been on everyone’s menu for a long time. They’ve become very good at evading big clumsy beasts like myself. If you are, however, very quiet and move really slowly, you can get decent shots.

Or at least Twitter worthy shots.

The tree was home to so many. Dramas were unfolding before my eyes, and that was what was so great! From blood thirsty evisceration amid large gum leaves hanging like drapes to the aftermath of pitched battles:

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Sometimes, no one wins.

Yggdrasil continued to unfold before me. Fire ants were foraging in the tree branches, coming down to investigate the praying mantis. The mantis actually tossed the wasp away, on realising I wasn’t going to leave it alone! That, and the inquisitive ants coming down to assess the situation and the mantis went into lock down, assuming it’s well-known posture of supplication. As I’ve said, insects are incredible survivors. On turning away for a few moments to further explore the tree the mantis was gone forever, melting into the greens and browns of the branches drooping down to the ground.

Note: My identification of these ants may be completely wrong. Feel free to correct me. 

The ants only numbered in the dozens.  They were like a scouting party, sent from their command centre to gauge the lay of the land before invasion day. One explorer to another, I watched them go about their business.

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When going on these kinds of walks,  I have found that you can’t go out intending to find something. Most times the only times I find things worth capturing on film is when some random glance leads me to a new discovery. Even knowing where to look is not enough sometimes. Insects are extremely elusive. Their size and alertness has kept them alive for hundreds of millions of years. Like Tolkien’s Hobbits, it seems that insects and their arthropod cousins will only be seen by us big folk when they want to. This is when we go out using only our eyes to look.

One tree was full of dramas and epic struggle. A fight for survival, a loser vanquished by a stronger foe and rent asunder like a bloody trophy. The first tendrils of conquest, seeking new worlds, coming into contact with the natives. These first contacts not going so well for some; even for combatants from both sides. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for those who care to see it.

For these tiny creatures, this eucalyptus tree was their world. Like the Norse stories, the tree was their Yggdrasil, their entire cosmology. Branches swept up out of sight into the heavens, where only the foolhardy would ever travel, risking swooping birds. The tree’s roots grasped deep, clenching around the foundations of their universe. Some branches were reaching out, entwined with those from other universes, where brave travellers would cross over, meeting inhabitants of the neighbouring universes. Unknown to them all, they were all being watched by higher powers, hovering over them.

Or, were they unaware?

#Symbiosis: meeting at transitions

ecology, emergence, nature, scicomm

I’m standing on a very worn and not well maintained footpath overlooking a huge expanse of pungent sand. A mile or two out the ocean shivers and snaps in a strong midday breeze. It’s cool but the sun is putting up a fight. This place has that perfect combination of quiet, bottomless deep blue sky and loneliness. I could spend  a whole day in a place like this.

I’m here to explore a small part of the vast tracts of mangroves that crowd the coast of the St Vincent Gulf north of Adelaide. 

There are only a few places like this left in South Australia. Humanity has wrought it’s usual brand of havoc on local ecosystems, concreting and carparking the living heck out of everything in it’s path. These kinds of places are a refuge of all kinds. A refuge for wildlife and a refuge for those wanting to escape the cancerous sprawl that is humanity.

It always strikes me when I visit these kinds of places that there is a particular kind of peace here. A bizarre form of symbiosis exists between nature and the derelict fringes of civilisation  you find in these forgotten corners. To be sure, St Kilda is no wasteland: hundreds of people live out here. However, out here you see a kind of comfortable embrace between abandoned humanity and the natural world. Like tired frayed spiderwebs such old ruins hold on, degenerating somewhat to a previous natural state. 

Perhaps another term to describe this relaxed coexistence is attenuation. Out here, nature and abandoned places have become used to each other. An old shack, with it’s windows and doors long gone may be held up by nothing more tangible than the fact that gravity hasn’t really bothered with it yet. Like an old worn face these shacks sag and lean at unflattering angles, but the myriad creatures that make them their home don’t mind. 

I love finding these kinds of places, but I also respect them. They don’t belong to us anymore. They lie on some boundary which has emerged from the clash of two Orders; the human and natural worlds. We have removed ourselves so completely from nature that we forget our place in it. I watch these places fade away and see this symbiosis: a kind of neutral zone between humanity and the living world. 

These places are another kind of beast: a hybrid world, where old patterns overlay the new, and something new emerges. Even now we are beginning to see nature coming to terms with humanity in this way, as more and more species transplant themselves into our world. Birds are an example of organisms that are now thriving in the densest of human population centres. As we spread so relentlessly across the planet, do they really have any other choice?  It’s the oldest choice in nature: adapt or perish. 

These “edges”: places like the St Kilda mangroves and other regions that form transitions between humanity and wilderness will be where a true coexistence between us and Nature develops. This symbiosis could be crucial not only for our future but the future of life on this planet.