Wednesday, 14 January 2015

ET life: what are we looking for?

To search for extra terrestrial life we need to understand what life is. Until we know what it is we cannot expect to know how it started and if we don’t know how it started we can’t define the conditions needed for it and so do not even know what conditions to search for beyond our own planet, let alone recognise life if and when it is encountered unless it happens to be life as we know it....

What is life? The mystery remains. Biologists, chemists and physicists can never answer this question. All they can do is describe observable phenomena which accompany it. The reason becomes apparent when you consider the nature of any known organism from a virus to a blue whale.

At any one instant it is a wonder of finely balanced stasis or equilibrium, a mind bogglingly complex hierarchy of structures, substructures and superstructures, from those observable with the unaided eye down to the tiniest, detectable only by electron microscopy. All of them functional and crucial to the whole. Occasionally we come across a structure which appears to be unnecessary but is later found to be highly functional (e.g. ‘junk’ DNA segments have recently been found to be at least as functional as genes).

All these structures comprise atoms and each atom is all space. Even the elementary particles which make up electrons, protons and neutrons are probably vibrating configurations of concentrated energy (follows from string theory, apparently). But let’s assume such particles to be purely solid matter. It nevertheless remains true that if the entire universe, filled with trillions upon trillions of stars, were crushed down until all such particles coalesced into one continuous solid, the result would be equal in size to a sugar cube.

So an organism at a particular point in time and space is a snapshot of a seething, vibrating configuration of energy in empty space – ghostly and ethereal rather than solid. Even if you stub your toe on a rock the pain you feel is a sign of reconfiguring and interacting energy fields.

All forms of life (e.g. you or me or a rhino or a frog or a bacterium or a virus) are observed to be reproducing, growing or dying. Yet the atoms which make up an organism are being shuffled and  moved and reconfigured in space-time continuously, even when the organism does not show visible signs of change (e.g. all the skin on your body is renewed completely every 28 days, including spots and blemishes). And this marathon of organisation and re-organisation continuously adjusts to the changing world of whatever the organism is a part, which is not only the surrounding environment but, in the last analysis, the whole universe. It is comparable in one sense to the way a candle flame maintains its shape and thermal properties despite the fact that its constituent atoms and molecules are continuously being changed.

What is death? This could be the result of the sustaining creative agent of life ‘deciding’ that the organism has completed its role. Once this happens the daily plethora of mutations are no longer repaired and illness follows but the sustaining creative agent …. This is the essence of life, the source of free will and order, the eternal life which continues after biological death. It is not disease which causes death. It is the cessation of the life principle which allows disease to develop unchecked that results in death. In a sense, the onset of death causes terminal illness.

(An illustration of our ignorance on the life question is that of speciation. How does a new species form? There are over 16 different  definitions of speciation in the scientific literature, or so I understand. Forgive me if I don't count them!)

It requires a massively unimaginably super-intelligent directing agent to create and recreate and repair and control and organise and dispose of and pass on these energy systems which comprise every creature or plant in the biosphere, whether or not this is confined to earth or not. One cannot begin to conceive of the nature of this orchestral conductor. Whatever it is, this agent, it also ensures that each organism is coordinated with all the other organisms that make up the biosphere.

That is the nearest we can get to defining life. So far we have encountered biological life as carbon-based systems and it is not possible within the boundaries of logic and proven physical principles to have any other form of biological life. There are only 90 stable naturally occurring elements in the periodic table (and 2 more which occur naturally but are not stable as well as a few which don’t occur except fleetingly in particle accelerators like the large hadron collider). No other elements could exist anywhere, except for a fraction of  second, because they don't have a stable atomic structure and observations of stellar and interstellar spectra confirm this. Carbon is the only element having an electron shell structure (which determines valency) permitting it to combine with other atoms in a  sufficiently versatile way to permit the life principle to bring about biological organisms.

In fact even restricting ourselves to carbon-based life we have no idea how it started or what drives it so we can’t define the conditions needed for it to begin or flourish. All we can do is look at Earth and say that certain conditions accompany life. But this is complicated by the fact that life depends on life and the environment, the Earth’s ecosystem and even its geology. (E.g. it has recently been shown that plate tectonics is lubricated by clay layers formed by living organisms, yet plate tectonics, unique to Earth,  is necessary for the maintenance of life because it is needed to cycle carbon around the biosphere. So plate tectonics affects life and life affects plate tectonics.)

But how would we detect anything else but carbon-based biological life? The invisible and undetectable organising agent which is the essence of biological, and perhaps spiritual, life, is here on earth amongst us but beyond detection and analysis. 'It' could be universal. It may be love, sustaining and directing and building and destroying the galaxies, black holes, dark matter, stars, planets, meteors, comets, asteroids, interstellar gas and every conceivable manifestation of life. Ot it only shows itself in some form recognisable to us when it chooses. It could even be from outside of our 4D reality, i.e extra dimensional.

Biological life appears on our planet accompanied by extraordinarily unique panoply of conditions. Even the solar system and Milky Way Galaxy seem precision engineered to permit a stable, life-friendly environment on Earth. Every new exoplanet discovery makes it seem increasingly unlikely that any of the billions of planets in the universe harbour advanced, sentient beings. 0% of an infinite number is zero. If there is other life to be discovered it may require mystics and priests rather than teams of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists to sense its existence and allow us to relate to it, while science restricts itself to what can be learned about how the natural world operates at a level detectable by scientific investigation within our 4 dimensional reality.

A challenging and noble task in itself.

John Sears
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