I’ve been working on some more astrobiology art. It’s taken on a life of its own, and I have to say, I’m paying more attention to these images than my YouTube channel!
I’ve been enamoured lately of dead or dying worlds. A recent video on my channel talked about the amazing possibility of limestone fragments orbiting the white dwarf star SDSSJ1043+0855. Ever since reading of this it’s captured my imagination. The notion that life has existed long ago, possibly before life began on earth bears thinking about.
Limestone is a mineral produced primarily by organisms which produce shells, using a matrix that incorporates calcium carbonate. In the early days of multicellularity, as the predator-prey paradigm took hold of Darwinian evolution, an ancestor of today’s molluscs discovered how to make use of an upsurge in calcium levels in the oceans. It used it to produce a protective suit of armour. This trick was so successful that molluscs became incredibly abundant. So abundant, in fact, that their remains ended up as vast deposits of limestone.
To the present day.
Using spectroscopy, the three elements that comprise calcium carbonate: carbon, oxygen and calcium have been detected in the upper atmosphere of this particular white dwarf. By themselves they aren’t a smoking gun. It’s also fair to point out that limestone can form abiotically. Limestone deposits in subterranean caves are one example. However, the vast majority of limestone on earth is biologically produced.
The “limestone” orbiting this star is believed to be embedded in the fragments of a large rocky object. We know nothing about this world, only that it probably existed and (possibly) limestone comprised part of it. Is it a fossil, spotted across the light years by modern humans? How long ago did this world harbour life? White dwarf stars (which aren’t technically stars! Find out why here) have been discovered which are nearly as old as the universe.
Earth is 4.6 billion years old. What of the world currently being torn up by the immense gravity of this white dwarf?
It would be interesting to look forward and see how our own world eventually will die. For now, this white dwarf star and it’s companions are a way to look ahead at what may befall us. It’s believed that eventually the earth will become incapable of supporting life, as the sun begins to undergo senescence billions of years from now. What iterations will the terrestrial biosphere take over such a vast stretch of time? Will life start over? Are these “fossil” fragments within this unnamed rocky world pieces of its last ecosystems?
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!
Ligeia Mare, a methane lake on Titan, complete with channels and tributaries. Image: NASA/JPL
Titan today, viewed by ESA’s Huygen Lander. Image: NASA/JPL
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”.
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.
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….
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?
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?
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.
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.
Hi all, and welcome to another #OddPuzzlePieces post. I’ve been busy these last couple of weeks working on all kinds of stuff. My YouTube channel for one. I’ve put a few videos up recently and have gotten back a desire to try and make it work. Right now it does. It’s not big, but it’s fulfilling, and that is becoming more important.
Odd Puzzle Pieces.
In this series I look at things that tend to be based firmly in fact. This post however could be seen as slightly different.
Do you know what a “cryptid” is? According to a Google search a cryptid is:
“An animal whose existence or survival is unsubstantiated, such as the yeti.”
Simple enough. We all know about cryptids then. Who hasn’t heard of the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot? The Kraken or mermaids? These are all well known fabulous beasts that seem to stubbornly refuse to exist, despite the efforts of cryptozoologists all around the world.
What’s a cryptozoologist? It sounds kindof scientific, but cryptozoology is at best a pseudoscience. A lot of fun, to be sure, but just not rigorous and codified as true science is. A cryptozoologist is someone who hunts fabulous beasts. Their methods tend to be, shall we say, unscientific. They take confirmation bias to the next level.
If this is the case, why am I writing about such quackery? Because as Aristotle once uttered: it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. For much of human history these creatures and thousands more were real. They inhabited the world beyond the edges of known maps for thousands of years, as well as imaginations and stories. In fact, the human fascination with exploring the unknown and seeking out fabulous beasts provided some momentum for the birth of modern science.
Fact 1: Tales of strange hominids or ape-like creatures even exist in countries where no such real counterparts exist. The Yowie is a humanoid creature which inhabits Australian bushland and waterways. Believed to be quite tall and hairy (reminiscent of Bigfoot? ) tales of the Yowie are found all over Australia. However, Australia has no native non human primate species, living or extinct.
Fact 2: The Ozenkadnook Tiger was a mysterious striped animal photographed in 1964 by a motorist after a chance sighting in Victorian bushland. This creature has essentially been designated a hoax, but it carries with it a certain mystique. Perhaps it’s appearance is a factor:
This leads on to
Fact 3: Australia has a rather woeful track record when it comes to mammalian species extinctions. Creatures like the Ozenkadnook tiger just won’t go away, because perhaps our guilt over the untimely disappearance of so many species weighs on us. This could be why “sightings” of extinct creatures are a regular occurrence here. The thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger is regularly spotted throughout mainland Australia and on the island of Tasmania.
At a glance the two “tigers” are superficially similar, with a vaguely dog like appearance and tiger like stripes. Where they differ markedly is that the thylacine is still being “spotted” to this day.
Draw your own opinions.
Fact 3: Move over Nessie! Australia has it’s own water monsters. The bunyip is a mythical creature believed by Australia’s original inhabitants to frequent water holes, rivers and creeks.
Fact 4: The bunyip was even on display in the Australian Museum in 1847, when several fragmentary remains; including a bizarre skull were presented to a curious public. The skull was refuted as evidence for the bunyip by various experts, who declared the skull to be that of a deformed foetal calf.
Fact 5: Science itself owes a debt to the mysterious! That’s all I’ll say about that!
As long as people wonder what’s out there, patrolling the empty spaces of the world, I think there’s hope for us all. As long as we still have imaginations we’re still able to choose the right path for ourselves. Whether these creatures are real or not; or whether they’re extinct or not, we should never stop looking for them. It’s when we stop looking for the mysteries and stop caring about exploration that progress is dead.
Darren Naish over on Twitter was very helpful, particularly with information on cryptids and the motley folks who pursue them. His input on the Ozenkadnook tiger was invaluable. Darren is an author and zoologist who doesn’t seem to stop moving for one second! Check out his work!