— From The Factory of the Impossible, a forthcoming book by Laurence Gonzales
The InterPlanetary Festival returns to Earth June 14–16. In anticipation of another transporting experience, we publish SFI Miller Scholar Laurence Gonzales’s firsthand account of the “Origins of Life in Space” panel from the inaugural festival:
I drift past the stage and my attention is caught by [SFI Professor] Chris Kempes. I don’t know the man sitting beside him but I soon come to learn that he is Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, and that gets my attention. He wrote The Zoomable Universe, a dazzling tour from the scale of the entire universe to the scale of a subatomic particle with beautiful illustrations. I want to hear what he, not to mention Chris, has to say. I sit down and listen to him discussing Frank Drake, who in 1961 made an attempt to estimate “how many communicative species are out there in our galaxy,” to use Caleb’s words. The so-called Drake equation that resulted from this effort involved such factors as how many new stars form every year. Then Drake asked how many of those stars have planets. The answer is that most every star has planets. The next factor is that about ten to forty percent of those planets resemble earth. The final factor Drake considered was how often, on those small rocky planets, life actually occurs.
“And that’s where we hit a brick wall,” Caleb says. And we know nothing about this subject. In fact we don’t really know what life is. There is no accepted definition.
As they talk, life is exploding all around them. The stage has no back to it, so we can see a green and glowing tree behind the elevated platform where they sit and we can see people walking by with umbrellas against the summer sun and even one of the big Roadrunner locomotives roaring and dinging as it flashes past. It’s a typical messy rock-and-roll stage with the very cluttered signature of life all over it, the wires hanging down and the made-in-China chairs with stainless steel frames and the white plastic pitcher of water on the Mies van der Rohe cuboid table and the scattered obscure and heavy-looking items of electronic equipment, some with odd and alien-looking antennae that give no hint of their function — and thick cables and great tangles of extension cords running everywhere. But as the wind blows, the cottonwood seed is swarming through the air between the audience and the speakers as if to make a mockery of their very conversation: This is life, this spermy, erratic, random, yet astonishingly certain drive toward reproduction.
Love is blind.
God is love.
Stevie Wonder is blind.
Therefore Stevie Wonder is God.
There’s your Drake equation for you.
Chris gives a discourse on what life might be and also a general idea of the problem of answering Drake’s final question. Once a large planet or asteroid hit the earth and created the moon, the impact effectively sterilized the earth and if there had been any life it was all gone, Chris said. But then it took only half a billion years for life to arise again in the form of simple one-celled creatures. That, he said, was encouraging as far as Drake’s final necessary number is concerned. On the other hand, it took a full billion years for those cells to become eukaryotes and acquire (create?) nuclei. So maybe it’s not such an easy transition. Remember, these are all necessary steps on the road to “communicative species,” which even eukaryotes are decidedly not.
Or are they?
Caleb in turn points out that we have no first principles, no fundamental theory of life in the way that we have such theories in physics. We know to a first approximation why shit happens in the world outside of biology. Where living things are involved, we do not. So we have no tools comparable to the ones in physics to predict the probability that life might arise. However, he points out, we do have another route to the answer and that is simply to figure out how to count the instances of life occurring in our galaxy. This might have been a silly suggestion just a few years ago, like suggesting that the way to understand the human brain was to expose it and watch its gears turn. Of course, that’s exactly what technologies such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging have allowed us to do, and when it comes to exoplanets, as planets outside of our solar system are called, we have now begun to develop the technology not only to see planets around other stars but to measure what’s in their atmosphere.
Chris says, “We now have a much greater sample of environments in which we might be able to look for what we call biosignatures — signatures of life.” In other words, we are systematically working toward detecting whether or not someone is passing gas on another planet. That’s the only way to put it that captures its essence. We’re looking for methane. And oxygen, too. And some other stuff.
In 2020 NASA plans to launch the James Webb telescope, which will greatly increase the probability of detecting methane on distant planets. And Caleb believes that within a year or two of that launch, we could begin to see signs of life. And within a decade, we should be able to say something about the probability of life anywhere at all.
Chris brings it full circle to point out that what we learn about the dynamics of exoplanets can inform our quest to manage our own planet more intelligently with respect to such issues as the use of resources and a changing climate. And therein he captures the essence of the InterPlanetary Project itself: To use the whole galaxy and perhaps the whole universe as our kindergarten in becoming InterPlanetary Citizens with a decent record of stewardship of our own world that would make us worthy to visit (or be visited by) another world. And perhaps by having all of these potential citizen scientists witnessing all of this science here at the InterPlanetary Festival each year we can gently nudge the great ship of humanity in the direction of making it a slightly more urgent business to avoid destroying the world.
Caleb says that he’s an astrophysicist and so to his mind planets are stupefyingly complex, while “stars are simple. We can figure out the basic functioning of stars with just a few lines of equations and a little bit of physics. Planets are insanely complex.”
But he says the opportunities are dazzling for this new research into exoplanets, offering us the possibility of looking deep into a planet that is the equivalent of our own world when it was an infant of a billion years old. We can also find one that represents our world a billion years in the future and inform ourselves of where we are going.
“This festival is in most respects about the future, our future as a species.” And then he reflects that, “In about a billion years’ time, it’s all going to be over for life on the surface of the earth.” And a kind of collective sigh passes through the audience as we realize that we are hurtling toward oblivion, learning and dancing as fast as we can here in this lemonade sunshine of our youth.