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CHAPTER 12

LIFE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

LEWIS CARROLL,

Through the Looking Glass

MORE THAN three hundred years ago, Anton van Leeuwenhoek of Delft explored a new world. With the first microscope he viewed a stagnant infusion of hay and was astounded to find it swarming with small creatures:

On April 24th, 1676, observing this water by chance, I saw therein with great wonder unbelievably very many small animalcules of various sorts; among others, some that were three to four times as long as broad. Their entire thickness was, in my judgement, not much thicker than one of the little hairs that cover the body of a louse. These creatures had very short, thin legs in front of the head (although I can recognize no head, I speak of the head for the reason that this part always went forward during movement)… Close to the hindmost part lay a clear globule; and I judged that the very hindmost part was slightly cleft. These animalcules are very cute while moving about, oftentimes tumbling all over.

These tiny “animalcules” had never before been seen by any human being. Yet Leeuwenhoek had no difficulty in recognizing them as alive.

Two centuries later Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease from Leeuwenhoek’s discovery and laid the foundation for much of modern medicine. Leeuwenhoek’s objectives were not practical at all, but exploratory and adventuresome. He himself never guessed the future practical applications of his work.

In May of 1974 the Royal Society of Great Britain held a discussion meeting on “The Recognition of Alien Life.” Life on Earth has developed by a slow, tortuous step-by-step progression known as evolution by natural selection. Random factors play a critical role in this process-as, for example, which gene at what time will be mutated or changed by an ultraviolet photon or a cosmic ray from space. All the organisms on Earth are exquisitely adapted to the vagaries of their natural environments. On some other planet, with different random factors operating and extremely exotic environments, life may have evolved very differently. If we landed a spacecraft on the planet Mars, for example, would we even be able to recognize the local life forms as alive?

One theme which was stressed at the Royal Society discussion was that life elsewhere should be recognizable by its improbability. Take trees, for example. Trees are long skinny structures, above ground fatter at the top than at the bottom. It is easy to see that after millennia of rubbing by wind and water, most trees should have fallen down. They are in mechanical disequilibrium. They are unlikely structures. Not all top-heavy structures are produced by biology. There are, for example, pedestal rocks in deserts. But were we to see a great many top-heavy structures, all closely similar, we could make a reasonable guess that they were of biological origin. Likewise for Leeuwenhoek’s animalcules. There are many of them, closely similar, highly complex and improbable in the extreme. Without ever having seen them before, we correctly guess they are biological.

There have been elaborate debates on the nature and definition of life. The most successful definitions invoke the evolutionary process. But we do not land on another planet and wait to see if any nearby objects evolve. We do not have the time. The search for life then takes on a much more practical aspect. This point was brought out with some finesse at the Royal Society discussion when, after an exchange remarkable for its rambling metaphysical vagueness, Sir Peter Medawar rose to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, everyone in this room knows the difference between a live horse and a dead horse. Pray, therefore, let us cease flogging the latter.” Medawar and Leeuwenhoek would have seen eye to eye.

But are there trees or animalcules on the other worlds of our solar system? The simple answer is that no one yet knows. From the vantage point of the nearest planets, it would be impossible to detect photographically the presence of life on our own planet. Even from the closest orbital observations of Mars made to date, from the American spacecraft Mariner 9 and Viking 1 and 2, details on Mars much smaller than 100 meters across have remained invisible. Since even the most ardent enthusiasts of extraterrestrial life do not anticipate Martian elephants 100 meters long, many important tests have not yet been performed.

At the present time we can only assess the physical environments of the other planets, determine whether they are so severe as to exclude life-even forms rather different from those we know on Earth-and in the case of the more clement environments perhaps speculate on the life forms that might be present. The one exception is the Viking lander results, briefly discussed below.

A place may be too hot or too cold for life. If the temperatures are very high-say, several thousands of degrees Centigrade-then the molecules that make up the organism will fall to pieces. Thus it is customary to exclude the Sun as an abode of life. On the other hand, if the temperatures are too low, then the chemical reactions that drive the internal metabolism of the organism will proceed at too ponderous a pace. For this reason the frigid wastes of Pluto are customarily excluded as an abode of life. However, there may be chemical reactions which proceed at respectable rates at low temperatures but which are unexplored here on Earth, where chemists dislike working in laboratories at −230°C. We must be careful not to take too chauvinistic a view of the matter.

The giant outer planets of the solar system, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes excluded from biological considerations because their temperatures are very low. But these temperatures are the temperatures of their upper clouds. Deeper down in the atmospheres of such planets, as in the atmosphere of the Earth, much more clement conditions are to be encountered. And they appear to be rich in organic molecules. By no means can they be excluded.

While we human beings enjoy oxygen, this is hardly a recommendation for it, since there are many organisms that are poisoned by it. If the thin protective ozone layer in our atmosphere, made by sunlight from oxygen, did not exist, we would rapidly be fried by ultraviolet light from the Sun. But on other worlds, ultraviolet sunshades or biological molecules impervious to near-ultraviolet radiation can readily be imagined. Such considerations merely underline our ignorance.

An important distinction among the other worlds of our solar system is the thickness of their atmospheres. In the total absence of an atmosphere it is very difficult to conceive of life. As on Earth, the biology on other planets must, we think, be driven by sunlight. On our planet, the plants eat the sunlight and the animals eat the plants. Were all the organisms on Earth forced (by some unimaginable catastrophe) into a subterranean existence, life would cease as soon as accumulated food stores were exhausted. The plants, the fundamental organisms on any planet, must see the Sun. But if a planet has no atmosphere, not only ultraviolet radiation but X-rays and gamma rays and charged particles from the solar wind will fall unimpeded on the planetary surface and frizzle the plants.

     

 

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