By Tedy Rushton
The current definition of “life” is a being that replicates itself, and has an energy flow based on the ability to make, use and store energy, says astrobiologist John Malloy of Arizona State University.
“Anything that is alive can make, use and store energy,” Malloy told a recent meeting of the South Mountain Astronomy Club. “The eventual goal is to find a universal ‘law of life.'”
Understanding stars will help in discovering a “law of life” will help understand the beginning and existence of the Universe, why it emerged from “nothing” through what is popularly called the “Big Bang” of some 14 billion years ago and to what end it is destined. If people learn the meaning of the Universe, which would be the essential “moral” purpose of existence and the forces that govern material creation, they will have discovered how to live in perpetual harmony – – the goal sought by all religions for thousands of years.
Astrobiology is another step “back to the beginning” to help understand the mind, meaning or mystery of the universe. Unlike human societies, which invent moral codes for every big and little groups and even individuals among people, “astrobiology” seeks universal answers to the “Why?” of the Existence – – human and otherwise.
It starts with a list of simple chemical compounds thought to be the foundation of life: H, H20, CO2, H2SO4, H3PO4, NH3. From these elements emerge the building blocks of carbon-based lifeforms. It’s a simple list of building blocks, just as a residential house may be built of many different blocks and mortars. Carbon is the critical element, because it bonds so readily with so many other atoms. Mix them, or stir vigorously, and life emerges.
Astronomy now makes it possible to detect planets around distant stars, and whether or not any are in the “habitable” zone that makes life feasible. In our system, Venus is too hot, Mars is too cold; all others are much further from the habitable zone. One of the moons of Saturn, the ice-covered ‘Enceladus’, is intriguing because “fountains” of what seems to be water or steam erupt from its icy surface. It may indicate a layer of “warm” water between the icy shroud and the moon’s rocky interior – – thus, a possible zone for life.
The current assumption is life will be carbon-based, due to the nature of carbon atoms to form bonds with so many other atoms. There is some speculation that silicon, which is next to carbon on the scale of elements, might form enough bonds to enable life (one of the original ‘Star Trek’ programs, in the 1960s, was based on this speculation).
The essential question is: How?
The asteroid-caused great extinction of 66 million years go, which eliminated the great dinosaurs and at least 80 percent of all other life, is part of these studies. The post-apocalyptic recovery was based on the creation of less aggressive species, based on the theory that millions of variations form the basis of creating sustainable life. Think of it as an example of the “creative destruction” of modern innovation – – then ask if useful innovation can be achieved by replacement instead of destruction.In brief, life is a process of “keep trying until you get it right.” Think of it as someday all progress may be on the basis, “First, do no harm.”
In other words, even without the asteroid based extinction of the large dinosaurs – – the small dinosaurs became today’s avian species – – the story of life seems to be based on the evolution of “intelligence” rather than the power to kill other species. Human life, to date, is based on co-operation among people (eusociality) until a critical mass is formed, at which point “groups” from the size of bands to tribes to cities and nations go to war with each other.
The counter to this is retention and spread of information – from the creation of art and then writing to printed books and the modern Internet. Early forms of new technology often include destructive side-effects -perhaps the lingering impact of innate aggressive tendencies – but progress seems to be based on the creation and constructive use of new intelligence instead of the destruction of other life-forms.
Thus, the Internet is now plagued by malicious hackers; in time, aggression will lose its impact of novelty and be replaced by the spread of useful intelligence. Astrobiology is the search for the beginnings of life – – to understand the linked origins of individual creativity and the dark urge for mutual-destruction.