Were I offered the chance to study again, I know what I would do. Astrobiology. In the last few years it’s been something I’ve followed. The trouble is, I’m easily interested in almost anything I come across. However, I would study astrobiology in a heartbeat. So, what is astrobiology?
Ever since humanity made its first baby steps beyond our thin layer of atmosohere astrobiology has looked to the stars, emerging as a discipline in its own right. It is the study of life on other worlds. Moreover, it is the study of life itself and asks the question: could life exist anywhere else?
We’ve all seen the movies and heard stories. The idea of life on other worlds has had a vice like grip on the human imagination for a very long time. Every single culture on Earth has some accounts of visitors from the sky and encounters with otherworldly beings.
From Judeo-Christian mythology and tradition to the various disparate and yet somewhat homogenous mythologies of Australia’s aboriginal people, it seems we’ve had visitors from the sky for quite some time.
At least so the stories go. Those stories will persist in one form or another for a long time to come, and the popular imagination is still fired up with tales of otherworldly visitors. Just trawl social media sometime and you’ll see what I mean. A search on YouTube: that paragon of level headedness, for a term such as “Area 51” will yield a miasma of conspiracy theories, alien “sightings” and general silly nonsense. Many of these videos have had millions of views. In my first search one particular video had over 20 million views. It was a “sighting” of an alien strolling across a road in some generic American desert setting.
People are eating this stuff up. But what does it have to do with astrobiology? Our desire for interstellar neighbours is always a little, shall we say, elitist? Does all extraterrestrial life need to be flying around in advanced spacecraft and spying on us: the cosmic equivalent of an ant farm?
(Are we that fascinating?)
Astrobiology specifically looks for life beyond earth. That life doesn’t need to be a wookie or a Borg drone. Something as simple as a bacterium would rock the worlds of astrobiologists everywhere.
Missions to other worlds in the solar system have had this in mind for decades now. Missions to Mars almost turned the science world on its head when micro traces believed to be produced by single celled organisms were relayed back to space agencies. Big news indeed. Life on another world. Not Yoda, to be sure, but better! The jury is still out on this “evidence” but time will tell!
You see, astrobiology is the search for life beyond earth. It is the application of a diverse set of scientific disciplines (which includes but isn’t restricted to) chemistry, geology, biology, planetolgy, ecology and astronomy to look for anything. Any life at all. If human or robotic explorers ventured across the gulf of space and found something as simple as a bacterium it would be a massive deal. From the time of earth’s formation circa 4.6 billion years ago life took around a
billion years to appear. The story of life isn’t the key point here. On earth life still took a long time to gain traction. It was only around 800 million years ago that anything as complex as a sponge first appeared, and it went through a pounding before all this happened. The Late Heavy Bombardment, a highly toxic and reducing atmosphere; likely similar to that on Titan today, which was replaced by another highly toxic atmosphere: oxygen. This change led to the greatest mass extinction this planet has ever known. An irradiated, toxic lethal planet somehow gave rise to life.
Astrobiology looks at life on this primeval earth and posits the question: if it could make it here, it kind of stands to reason that it could develop somewhere else. Earth now is a benign paradise, possessing a very particular set of attributes that enable life to thrive. Among these; a thick atmosphere and life giving heat from a nearby sun which respectively enable liquid water to exist at the surface and provide the fundamental energy for life to prosper. Earth possesses an active magnetosphere which shields life from cosmic radiation. These are only some of the factors that make earth just right, like the proverbial bowl of porridge. In fact, in honour of that famous metaphor, Earth is said to orbit the Sun in a “Goldilocks Zone” This means that we are just far enough from the sun that the temperature range is just right for liquid water to exist at its surface. Hence the thing with the porridge.
Many other worlds we’ve examined don’t have any or all of these qualities, but that’s no reason to dismiss them.
Life is seemingly turning up everywhere we look these days, and the more we look the more we see that life is extremely tenacious From the clouds above us to hadean environments deep within the earth’s crust to active nuclear reactors life seems to be able to survive anywhere.
That’s what gives astrobiologists hope.
This post is to be the outline of an upcoming episode on my “Ben’s Lab” YouTube channel. For any who are following the channel (thank you!) It will be undergoing renovations. The subject matter will focus more on things near and dear to my heart, and astrobiology is one of those things! If you like astrobiology please leave suggestions for episode ideas in the comments, or share this with others who like it as well.
References and resources:
This list is not comprehensive and is intended to begin those who are interested on beginning their own research;
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.
Soundtrack: something from Blade runner. If not that, then “Worlds in Collision” by God is an Astronaut
Someone will die in space. Some day someone will be killed whilst working on an offworld colony or space station.
Perhaps more to the point; space will not be devoid of crime. As humanity begins it’s gradual ascent beyond low earth orbit everything that makes us human will follow us out into space: our drive to explore, to look upon new vistas, and our darker side. It makes sense really. The corporate world will be at the forefront of the conquest of space. Big money will be planting it’s flag whether it can. Wherever money goes, corruption soon follows. One day someone will unwittingly join a select group of other human beings who have achieved a first in space. They will be the first murder victim.
Law enforcement will extend its reach to the other worlds of the Solar System. I don’t think to speculate on the finer details and brushstrokes of law and order beyond Earth. I do think it would be an interesting thought experiment to wonder just what may await the very first space cop to come across the very first murder scene in space….
Ceres comes around, drifting into view as your transport approaches. The mining facility on the dwarf planet and the transports AI exchange pleasantries; handshakes, exchanges of code and other silicon bureaucratica dart across several thousand kilometres of vacuum. The transport is on old Tesla: a pilotless model now used as a taxi between outposts in the asteroid belt. Ceres is of course the largest settlement out here. Ever since the Asteroid mining business took off in a big way in the 2050s, this stretch of space between Mars and Jupiter is the new Wild West. 16 Psyche; the remnant metallic core of an ancient protoplanet is the real prize. Ceres is the main stop off point to 16 Psyche and scores of other frontiers out here. Now it’s the first crime scene in the Asteroid belt.
You’re quietly amazed it’s taken this long. 16 Psyche has seen plenty of action. It’s heavily guarded. It has to be. It’s worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars. Plenty of skirmishes. Ceres is quieter, but people will be people. Get a few hundred thousand together in an enclosed space and they begin acting funny.
Not funny haha either.
See, cops on Earth have it real easy. People have been killing each other there since before they were people. There’s a lot of knowledge to draw upon, because forensics and taphonomy have several thousand years of crime to study. All of it earthbased. Up until this day outer space has technically been a Utopia. No killing. You feel like you’re investigating a murder in the Garden of Eden.
Boy, that would be a story and a half….
So what does happen to a body in space? What happens to a body on another planet? Every single environment we can think of beyond Earth is utterly hostile to anything larger than a bacterium, and even they have only managed to hitch rides on spacecraft. Life isn’t at home in space. So how would death work there?
That sounds like a dumb question. Death doesn’t work. When you die you stop working, right? Huh!
Death is messy, but it’s actually a process, with discrete steps. Of course all living things cease functioning eventually, but for all multicellular organisms death is akin to synchronised swimming: hard to figure out with a lot happening beneath the surface.
Death comes to us all, from the smallest bacterium to the largest redwood tree. It had one obvious and final result, but this result can be arrived at in many ways. It all depends on exactly what you are too.
When you die, yes, you stop working, but like a cheesy zombie movie it doesn’t really end there. There’s still plenty happening as your body transitions back to inanimate matter. Because that’s what’s happening really. You’re being broken down and cycled back into the firmament.
Okay. So you’re dead. (Just work with me okay?) Your heart has stopped and your body is switching off quickly. About 4 minutes after death your body begins to undergo autolysis. This essentially means that your body is digesting itself. This is as disgusting as it sounds. As oxygen decreases to be replaced by carbon dioxide cellular enzymes in the body are free to roam unchecked. So off they go, breaking down all in their path; rupturing cell membranes and releasing their contents into the mix. It’s like the prison guards have suddenly stopped being paid and so they decide to let all the prisoners loose. Obviously a riot would ensue. Autolysis is your body being broken down by a biochemical prison riot.
Gases are produced inside your body by all of these enzymes and microorganisms: particularly in your gut. Your body swells like an unopened can of coke after being shaken.
This is where the magic happens. Microorganisms are now officially in charge. Further breakdown of tissue turns you into a fetid mess. Those gases produced during the bloat stage? Those ones in your now distended gut? They begin escaping; sometimes violently. We all know what happens when gas escapes our bodies. Sometimes this out gassing is so nasty it ruptures the skin! Putrefaction essentially means that decay is running rampant and you now resemble an extra from “The Walking Dead”. If you’ve ever seen that show, or anything featuring the undead, you’ll notice that often the dead are crawling with maggots. This is an important stage in decomposition. Breakdown by insects and larger animals is part of putrefaction, and a necessary function performed by these creatures. If nothing broke down dead bodies the world would be awash with diseased corpses. Forget “The Walking Dead”. This is nowhere near as cool as it sounds.
The last discrete stages of decomposition are mummification and skeletonisation. Mummification means that whatever is left behind after voracious bacteria have exhausted your body’s nutritional goodness and larger creatures have cleaned you out and moved on just dries out. Usually this is skin. It becomes a dry dessicated shrink wrap around your bones, which are themselves leaching their component compounds into the environment.
So that’s it in a nutshell. Death.
Hang on, you say. I thought this post was about Ceres! I thought it was gonna be detective story set in space, like CSI meets The Expanse! Well it is, but to understand how death works and to understand death in space we only have a single frame of reference: Earth.
Let’s head back to our unfortunate murder victim, sailing serenely around the largest asteroid/dwarf planet in the solar system. You’ve gone out and collected the body, cursing several poor life choices as you bring it into your transport.
Be a space detective in a someone’s blog post they said. It’ll be fun they said.
The body on the slab can’t tell you much. Trying to work out a time of death will be problematic, at best. It’s hard to tell how long this guy’s been floating home. See, the stages of death mentioned before tend to be fairly discrete and take place in a fairly predictable sequence. Of course Earth is one big mess of wildly changing environments and variables. Gil Grissom would have found life easier out here. Space is a little more unchanging.
When someone steps beyond the veil you can almost set your watch (metaphorically speaking) to these physical stages:
Pallor mortis. A paleness sets in within minutes; more noticeably in those with lighter skin.
Algor mortis. Internal temperature regulation is switched off. The body’s temperature acclimatises to that of the external environment. The rate of acclimation can actually be used with some precision by investigators to determine a reasonable time frame.
Rigor mortis. A stiffening of the body occurs around 4 hours after death. This is due to chemical changes in the body causing cellular fluids to gel. This can be affected by the environment. For example, freezing cold can greatly prolong the time it takes rigor mortis to take hold.
Livor mortis. When a body has been prone for some time blood (particularly the heavier components like red blood cells) settle, pooling in the dependent or lower portions of the body. This causes reddish purple discolouration in these lower portions. Livor mortis usually starts becoming really apparent about 2 hours after death.
Alright then. You’ve read the Wikipedia pages. You know how death works.
But you’re in the asteroid belt. There’s no gravity, no air and no insects or scavengers out here to make short work of this poor sap’s remains..
Time to roll your sleeves up.
A lot of things are confounding your attempts to determine a time of death. First of all being in a vacuum has freeze dried him. He went out for a nice space walk without his helmet, remember? His nostrils and mouth look burnt because they are. In a vacuum liquids instantly boil away. It’s no different to what happens when you open a can of coke. The pressurised carbon dioxide in the drink depressurises, forming bubbles of gas. This is a more extreme example. The saliva and fluids in his nose boiled away instantly. Ouch.
People don’t explode in space. Forget every B-grade science fiction movie you ever saw. Your skin is actually pretty tough- as are your eyeballs. This guy is bloated though. Depressurisation has caused the water in his body, particularly in his circulatory system, to start boiling. His blood vessels have expanded and ruptured. Not to mention the fact that this guy didn’t listen to any safety instructions during his time in space. Golden Rule when being cast out onto the Big Empty: exhale. Do not hold your breath. Have you ever blown too much air into a balloon? The air inside becomes pressurised, more so than the air around the balloon. We’ve all scared enough small kids and cats to know what happens. You’re trying not to imagine what’s left of this guy’s lungs.
So anyway. There goes bloat as a yardstick.
So. Your murder victim is frozen, freeze dried and a purple mess with a case of weapons grade sun burn. No sunblock out here. No pretty blue sky protecting him from deadly solar radiation. Had he survived he would have had a million percent chance of terminal cancer anyway, and soon. Livor mortis is nowhere to be seen. No gravity well down which red blood cells can settle. Algor mortis seems tricky too. He didn’t freeze instantly. Again, forget those bad Sci Fi movies. Heat transfer happens via conductance. Space is a vacuum. There’s nothing to draw heat away from this man’s body. He’s frozen now, but he’s not a popsicle. About the only normal stage of death you notice is rigor mortis. The ion channels and transfers involved in muscle contraction and relaxation don’t seem to be affected by being in a vacuum.
Maggots and scavengers feeding on a body are disgusting to be sure, but they’re also really handy for determining how long a body has been lying around somewhere. Insects are purely driven by instinct, so on finding fresh meat they deposit eggs, or feed or interact with the corpse in very discrete waves or phases. These phases and even their durations are so predictable that forensic entemology is one of the most useful tools investigators have when determining times of death.
Stupid earthbound forensics guys you mutter under your breath. They think they’re so cool, don’t they? Not so much as a tick on this guy. Not even bacteria or fungi. They don’t do well in a vacuum and they’re all in cold storage. Radiation would have wiped most of them out too. This guy is basically perfectly preserved. No pooling of blood, no putrefaction and no chew marks from hungry scavengers!
It looks like you might have to look beyond regular physical and chemical factors surrounding death here, because out in space they mostly don’t apply.
Cause of death? Er, being thrown into space without a helmet! He would have passed out within a minute or so. Blood pressure became essentially nil, resulting in no oxygen getting to his brain at all. In addition exposure to the vacuum caused oxygen to be dumped from his brain. He died of asphyxiation, before ruptured lungs and internal membranes got to him.
Your first instinct as a cop, and particularly as a space cop in this blog post is to establish a time of death. Unfortunately, no such studies have been carried out just yet. Mankind is still stuck in Low Earth Orbit. If the forces of ignorance ever gain control (if they haven’t already) we may never leave LEO.
But, if we do…it’ll be business as usual. Crime will colonise the solar system along with us and wouldn’t it be useful to get some space forensics knowledge under our belts, so we’re ready and waiting for it?
What do you think?
Vass, Arpad A (November 2001). “Beyond the grave – understanding human decomposition” (PDF). Microbiology Today. Spencers Wood: Society for General Microbiology. 28: 190–192.
Soundtrack: anything that makes you bleed out of your ears..
The horizon is small. It always feels weird when you see it curving away unnaturally the way it does. Of course, this chunk of nowhere you’re on is a little smaller than home on Mars. Even there though tourists from Earth are full of ooh and aahs at the Red Planet’s horizon.
16 Psyche. Take a security job there they said. It’ll be fun they said. Guard the most precious hunk of metal in the solar system; an asteroid over 200 km in diameter, composed almost entirely of iron and nickel. Over a quadrillion dollars worth. This place could smash the earth’s economy to smithereens.
A lot of other places in the solar system have a certain feduciary value. Asteroid mining has been big biz for a long time now. Your grandparents were among the first belt miners, heading out from Hamer Station on Phobos.
16 Psyche is the jewel in the Crown. This chunk of metal comprises nearly one per cent of the asteroid belt. Like all gold rushes there’s naturally a lot of interest, to put it diplomatically. You’re here to take care of folks who get a little….too interested.
This place sure gets boring though. Most security is automated these days. Fleets of weaponised drones orbit the moon, keeping a watchful eye out for unwanted visitors. Space piracy isn’t much like Star Wars. Space is way to dangerous and chaotic for that. No, in this day and age anyone wanting a piece of this prize has to be organised to the fourteenth decimal place. They need to know what they’re doing, and they need lots and lots of money behind them. Like the privateers of old, the only pirates these days are on government or corporate payrolls, mainly out to disrupt things. Occasionally they head out here and make pains in the ass of themselves, but that’s about all they really do. The real wars for territory take place in boardrooms across the solar system.
You don’t care. The view is incredible. You’re walking on the core of a protoplanet!
This place was named Psyche after the greek word for soul. Walking on this bare expanse of metal it seems fitting; that this exposed core is a window into the soul of a dead world…
The gravity on these tiny bodies always messes with you. On Phobos you weigh about 70 grams. Here, you’re the same weight as a small cat. You think back to your time on the tiny Martian moon. Handrails everywhere. The moon was covered with them like chain mail. Too easy to trip over a rock and become an unofficial new moon of the red planet. Who was that guy working out of Stickney Crater? He had a good operation going; a small fleet of drones patrolling the space around Phobos, plucking over enthusiastic hikers from Martian orbit.
You’ve forgotten his name. Who cares anyway? Here on 16 Psyche the handrails aren’t a big deal. The whole asteroid is metal, right? Iron, for the most part. Taking a walk across the metal fissures and canyons is simple. No engineering expertise needed; just magnetic boots.
Break time. You squat down in a dark crack in the surface and log off for a bit.
The commute out here is the ultimate trip to work.
This asteroid lies roughly 3 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU is roughly 93 million kilometres: the distance at which earth lies from the sun. 16 Psyche spins slowly- so you’ve been told. With only the Milky Way up there you can’t really tell. There’s been a bit of activity today. A few unmarked ships have come a little close. One even buzzed the extraction facility over at Jay Gorge. It’s a low gee quarry basically. The drill broke down, a monster the miners out at Jay call Grindstein. Built on Earth decades ago, Grindstein saw service on Mars and the Moon, carving cities out of the regolith. Now it’s here, taking tiny nibbles out of the most valuable chunk of metal anywhere.
The broken drill is sabotage someone said. Economic rivals want this place, and they’ll stoop to all sorts of tricks to disrupt things anyway they can.
You don’t really care. You really came here because it’s not every day you get to walk on the core of a planet! 16 Psyche is a battle scarred veteran of the very earliest eons of the solar system. Once it was a newly minted protoplanet. Now a remnant, this place dodged other large forming bodies and chunks of debris, orbiting a ten million year old sun. The night sky looked very different then. The solar system was a coalescing mess of rock, ice and organic muck. Everything was colliding and jostling. 16 Psyche’s outer layers were destroyed; torn away by up to eight impacts with other large bodies.
Rough childhood. Maybe this nugget represents what Earth may have ended up looking like, had Jupiter not scooped up rogue planetesimals terrorising the inner solar system during the late Heavy Bombardment.
Where did all that outer shell go? You wonder sometimes. This place took a beating for sure. Now this frozen little nugget is all that’s left. Old NASA sent a mission here way back in the 2020s, sending back pictures of a cracked metal hulk. Not all of the outer mantle was stripped away. About ten per cent of the surface is silicate rock, no different to anywhere on Mars, Earth, Venus or Mercury. That thin veneer was once the mantle and crust of a planet that no longer exists.
Science began taking a back seat to big business sometime after that NASA mission arrived, so the one and only scientific mission to 16 Psyche couldn’t turn up much. But big business was more motivated. All the big players headed out here to slap their dollars, roubles, renminbi or rupees down on the table. There were even people sent here. There’s only so much automation can do. Tunnels were dug into the asteroid, and human beings finally journeyed to the centre of the earth, in a sense. Jules Verne would have been proud. The first tunnel into the core of this core was actually called Verne tunnel….
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip into the future. 16 Psyche is just one of a number of bizarre places in the solar system that are worth a tale. There are several other incredible places I plan on visiting in future posts. Tell me what you think!
Follow the nascent 16 Psyche mission, blasting off from a planet near you in 2022.
If you’re a fan of the fantastic and the (almost) magical, then you’ll know that it’s getting harder and harder to get through a single day without being almost paralysed by the veritable flood of big announcements being unleashed upon the world.
Gravity waves, TRAPPIST-1, Juno and it’s watchful eye on Jupiter. All just more science candy to rot our teeth with.
I LOVE IT!
But here’s a little secret.
There’s no magic like old magic. Warning label: this post will contain references to talking lions and impossible cosmologies.
The universe and all within is an impossible cornucopia of wonder. J.R.R. Tolkien once spoke of the wonders of the unexploredvista in fiction. The universe is still (and always will be) an unexplored vista, like some dark brooding mountain range; its fell winds filling a lost band of travellers with foreboding. The mountain ranges are the same in every fantasy novel I ever read: cruel, dark and vast. I would join the travellers on their journey; be they the Fellowship of the Ring, Atreyu and companions finding a way through the Nothing or the Pevensey children, seeking Aslan. I would see the same mountains or vistas they would see and wonder what was in them, watching the story unfold.
Did you ever wonder what was beyond those mountains? Nameless lands and other unrecorded epic histories and struggles? Life? Death? Infinity? Cyborg armadillos? A back door out into some rat infested alley somewhere? I spent a lot of time beyond the borders of these imaginary lands, seeing them as some kind of dreamlike state attached by imaginary geography to the main tale. Like junk DNA they didn’t seem to play any kind of part in the story, yet they also provided it with further structure. Playing a very important role by simply hanging there, forever out of reach.
In a sense the distant past is like this imaginary land, especially the very distant past and in particular those very very first moments. Maybe even the time before time. How far back can we go really? Like the resurrection of Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the Lord of Narnia drew power from a time before time, is everything built on something else?
Life is such a thing.
Contemporary scientific dogma explains life as a phenomenon emerging from inanimate disorder. To the scientific mind this makes intuitive sense: a bit of stuff and another bit of stuff merged or were bonded chemically and some miraculous act of transmutation took place. Life appeared: self replicating systems, handing down and reliant upon the seamless transmission of information/instructions. Hiccups in this basic routine were bound to happen of course. If biological information transmission were completely flawless I wouldn’t be sitting here in a McDonald’s writing this, I’d still be a blob of stuff flopping around in some warm little pond somewhere. Obviously I’ve used the simplest description possible. Life changes in response to environmental changes and pressures, but I’m not going to have a blog post blowout by hyperlinking into a discussion about evolution.
Where was I? Life.
I’m thinking now about this process of emergence. Life itself is (at the very least) an emergent property, arising somewhere from within the girders and tangled architecture of Nature. Is it created by this chemical and physical architecture, or was the promise of life already hiding in the basement somewhere?
This emergence is a built in property of the universe. Quantum theory holds that our perception of the universe calls it into existence. If this is true, then what of a time before life or perception even existed? Did the universe even exist before we came along? “We” being life that is.We of course aren’t the first things to experience the universe. Even a jellyfish experiences existence in it’s own way. I must make here a distinction between perception and intelligent perception.
Obviously the universe existed before us. Take whatever side of the fence you like: religion or science. We can all explain the universe and we are all intrinsically aware that the universe was created and was here long before the first living thing flopped out of the primordial mud.
This emergence of life was always meant to happen. The universe cycles itself, refreshing every second, every single passing of whatever fundamental subunit of time ticks by. We perceive it into existence, but it was perceived by things before us, things before them and so on. But what of the first thing? What perceived the universe before anything even knew it was there?
The universe has always contained the framework for perception. Patterns in inanimate nature repeat themselves in biology.
When I was at university I gave some thought to the emergence of multicellular life. After completing my degree I kept studying, doing an Honours year. I originally wanted to study biofilms. Of course the project mutated and became unrecognisable. My supervisor steered me towards something completely different, but I always thought about the emergence of something fundamentally different to single celled life. I felt that simplistic biological structures like biofilms represented a step in the transition from single celled existence to colonial organisms and from there to multicellularity.
Take a wild guess what got me thinking about multi celled organisms emerging like this; ready made as it were.
I was in one of the University cafés, up on the hill behind the sciences building. As did many others I spent a lot of time here studying, reading or just thinking. It was quiet and I had actually been thinking about multicellularity on this day when I looked down at my coffee. I have a tendency to forget things when I’m pondering the world and my coffee had gone cold.
The wrinkly skin that had formed on top got me thinking. I remember drawing it, doodling it on a corner of a notebook page, recognising something. It looked exactly like all kinds of biological structures, in particular biological infrastructure such as a circulatory network. The branching structure or pattern we see here is so familiar to us we don’t even think about it.
And so it began. I got thinking..
We see so many repeating patterns and structures in the natural world that they are almost white noise. The forking of tree branches or blood vessels, the winding of streams and rivers and the somehow disciplined swirling of clouds are very familiar to us all. It’s interesting how the same kinds of patterns appear both spontaneously, as in the case of rivers, or under the guidance of carefully meted out biological information (tree branches etc).
This video summarised some of the points of this post really well. Enjoy the heck out of it. Via Biographic.
Consider this image.
A river winds through a muddy delta plain, stretching toward the brackish waters of an estuary.
Now consider this one:
The branching pattern running through the midst of this mat is quite reminiscent of a river system. In fact, you’ve most likely figured out that these are both the same image. This is why I’ve used this image. It represents a key point I’m trying to make.
The mat is likely mostly microbial, or composed of biological material: microorganisms, waste products, in addition to inorganic muds or silt. The branching and bifurcations within the mud are most likely formed due to abiotic factors, in the same way that synaerisis cracks form in muddy lake bottoms as the last of their water dries.
My question: could such structures; formed by innocuous natural processes, provide templates for biological processes? Biofilms are known to possess channels and a certain level of internal structure. Some of these structures are similar both in form and function to structures that perform analogous tasks in multicellular organisms.
Did early multicellular life get an organisational leg up from a deeply mathematical universe, in which all manner of patterns appear in a multitude of environments?
I say the universe is deeply mathematical, but I will admit here and now I am no mathematician. It’s just always seemed apparent that the universe operates around a very secretive and mysterious set of guidelines. In the same way that a businessman from Sydney can walk into a McDonald’s in New Delhi and expect exactly the same Big Mac he’d get in Moscow, so it follows that rivers of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan form branching channels and patterns; following the same recipe as rivers of water on Earth.
What I mean is that some things just never change, wherever you may be in the local Universe. If you were standing on an exoplanet passably similar to Earth you’d see flows and channels just like those on Earth. One of the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 may make a good setting for this imaginary walk. The sky is dark. It’s like a permanent sunset: a red hue washes over a rocky landscape. You’re standing on a low cliff, looking down at a river. It looks like any river on earth. OR, just like the river systems on Titan.
This similarity is spontaneous. That’s something we all intuitively know. This is what I’m getting at. If life formed spontaneously as a result of natural laws, then life- and more complex life would arise on other worlds. Depending on its environments and circumstances it will obviously be different to life on earth, but there will also be similarities.
It’s all about infrastructure. Infrastructure arises unbidden in all manner of systems.
A system is a collective of interconnected parts or processes, all acting within the context of a greater whole. A flock of starlings differs from spaghetti on toast in this fundamental aspect. The flock appears chaotic, but in fact behaves according to rules which are seemingly set in stone. The spaghetti shows no flavour of interconnectedness nor any kind of behaviour. The strands do not interact and so are unable to work together to prevent being eaten by me. The flock of starlings however can.
I’ll take the spaghetti.
The swarming behaviour exhibited by the birds and other creatures which swarm (locusts, Monarch butterflies etc) is an emergent property, arising from the interactions between sub units.
Back to infrastructure. The flock of starlings acts as it does because all of the birds can see each other or otherwise interact with each other in some way. Mechanisms exist by which the birds connect to each other, and so something new emerges from a seemingly disparate collection of birds. Consider a city. Many cities began as gatherings of family groups or tribes. For these small groups such an existence worked. Not much infrastructure other than language, common customs and some simple rules were needed in order for these simple societies to function.
But then the families began to grow. Other villages were discovered. Tribes went to war. Other villages and tribes were conquered. Populations and customs began to change as other cultures and ideas sped up progress. Farming was discovered: trade followed. Technology developed. This is all part of the growth of a society, and it is an analogue for the evolution of multicellular life. As time goes on infrastructure is a necessity. Roads, money, writing, advanced modes of travel, all develop as a natural by product of the growth of a society. A city becomes an organic thing. It sprawls across a landscape, complete with a venous network of roads and railways. Communications dart back and forth along phone lines and fibre optic lines: the equivalent of nerves, enabling disparate sections of the city to be aware of outside forces and distant events. From a distance these branching roads and lines could bear a passing resemblance to biological infrastructure. Even lower eukaryotes appear to understand this:
This is the famous example of a slime mold set to work redesigning Tokyo’s rail network! Many experiment have shown these unbelievable organisms effortlessly redesigning Spanish and Portuguese rail networks: often rendering them more efficient than the human engineers!
So at a glance at least it looks as though the collective behaviour shown by a slime mold runs along similar lines to the growth of a city. Lines of infrastructure, connecting sub units, create a gestalt entity; something more than the sum of its parts.
If life (and in particular multicellular life) arose due to a proclivity for exploiting the connective properties of certain naturally recurring patterns and structures, how did life figure this out? Obviously roads didn’t appear before cities. But in every single city on earth roads could be found. The idea of a road always existed. Roads were inevitable.
Off on a wild tangent? Is this a flight of fancy? Maybe, maybe not. What do you think? Self organisation and emergence aren’t just products of group behaviour. They are inherent tendencies, built into the fabric of space and time. Feel free to pipe in with your opinion. Thanks for reading. It’s been a long post, and possibly rambling, but it’s a blog. Not the six o’clock news.
Check out Biographic on YouTube and Twitter. Well worth it.
It’s nearly 4 pm, on an absolute postcard perfect day. I’m in my car, parked at a tiny beach; one of a handful strewn along the Port River. Birds scamper on the sand, waves whisper past and the sound of distant traffic is like the pulsing murmur of an unborn child’s heartbeat through an ultrasound. Peace can be found in the most unlikely places sometimes.
In this frame of mind I’ve been thinking about science and it’s place in the lives of the world out there. I know where I fit in, and through a fairly brief but active time on Twitter I’ve discovered a host of others who care about various aspects of science. Scientists, science outreach folks, artists, explorers, collectors and wanderers. There’s a lot of conversation going on out there. Much of it is exciting and engrossing, some of it can shorten your life one stupid statement at a time.
Where did this start for people? I got curious, after reading a great article in Lateral Magazine. It was the observation of the author that dinosaurs and outer space seem to be two of the main “gateway drugs” leading people into science. I can vouch for both: many of my earliest memories centre around toy dinosaurs, books my dad got for me and the awe inspiring spectacle that was Star Wars, 1979. However, I would have to say that for me it was dinosaurs that led the charge. Dinosaurs taught me to read. After all, if you want to understand something you find a way to work it out. My earliest books were dinosaur books. Of course, and as seems to be the case, this love affair grew and evolved. I got older, and I found myself interested in just about everything in the animal Kingdom, but dinosaurs were the key to this Kingdom. What about you?
So. We’ve all moved on from toys and daydreams…
(Of course we haven’t! )
Back to Twitter. I decided to run a little poll, asking folks what it was that got them into science:
Not a huge turnout, to be sure, but you can see some common patterns making themselves apparent.
We Love Outer Space!
Duh!! Who doesn’t. We are either drawn to the distant past or the future- immediate or not. Several comments reflected this predilection for the stars, but nature did pretty well also;
“Bug People” seem to be really passionate and popped up a lot in elaborating further on their “gateway drugs”. Even fictional creatures, such as the arthropod-like xenomorph in the “Alien” franchise played a bit part in responses.
Yes, stories are definitely important in the “recruitment” of budding scientists. The stories we tell ourselves: daydreams, childhood play as well as books and movies.
While bugs and nature had the loudest voice among respondents Outer Space was the runaway winner. Again it’s hard not to disentangle a childhood fascination with the heavens from the landscape of Sci Fi that dominated mine (and many others) imaginations as children.
Excellent responses all, and it’s hard to disagree with any of them.
One thing that stood out was a response regarding coming into science later in life. This was an interesting point for me. Many of you reading this most likely are interested in science and related fields. Is it fair to say that most of you acquired a taste for it early in life? Another poll seemed to reflect this, although the response was extremely minimal:
Were you bitten by the science bug early? Were you grown up, working in some completely unrelated field (as I still do), before you took that left turn? It would be interesting to examine this further. Please leave some details on your own experience with science if you wish. It would make a great future post!