Life as we know it is carbon-based, consisting of carbonaceous compounds like carbohydrates, proteins, DNA and its ilk, fatty substances.
But a bag of chemicals alone does not define life even if it is carbon-based. Some form of replication, some type of motility, some kind of awareness of and separation from the rest of the world’s elements is needed, isn’t it?
What if you stumble on something Out There that does replicate, has motility, is aware, and is comprised of individuals, but you don’t recognize it because it’s so different? Non-carbon based life forms for instance. Would we recognize them if they don’t respire the way we do, or move the way we do, or have genetic material in the form that we recognize?
Down through the years scientists have proposed a number of non-carbon elements that could give rise to life. Silicon is often mentioned. An ammonia, or a methanol-based system, as opposed to water-based system like ours, might work.
Regardless, the most important, hardest question to answer–What is life?–must be answered before we can truly recognize it in whatever form it takes.
Lee Cronin, at the University of Glasgow, says for something to be considered living, it must not just replicate, it must evolve or have a method of evolution, or arise from evolution. He says if elements, molecules, compounds, matter itself in any form, evolves (self-organizes to compete Darwinianly against other forms) it can be said to be alive.
So then the question becomes can inorganic substances somehow self-organize in such a way?
V. N. Tsytovich at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow may have found just such a thing in a model of a “complex mix of inorganic molecules in a plasma.” A plasma is a state of matter that’s a bit north of the gaseous state. It contains a loose comglomeration of molecules and/or atoms some of which are ionized, i.e. with a charge. A plasma can be electrically conductive.
Using computer modeling, Tsytovich demonstrated that “particles in a plasma can undergo self-organization as electronic charges become separated and the plasma becomes polarized, resulting in microscopic strands of solid particles that twist into corkscrew shapes, or helical structures. These helical strands are themselves electronically charged and are attracted to each other.”
Did you pick up the key word, helical? Sort of jumps out at you, doesn’t it. Could we be discussing inorganic DNA, hm? That would be fine. DNA works well in replication, not to mention evolution. Not sure a helix has to be the only model, but we’d definitely recognize it if we stumbled upon it. I’m sure there are myriad other ways and means for inorganic substances to replicate, but this model of Tsytovich can result in “the fittest structures.” Something that would, no doubt, make Dr. Cronin happy.
“These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter,” says Tsytovich, “they are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve”.
Even more exciting is that the “conditions for these plasmas to form such helical structures are common in outer space.”
So maybe we don’t need to find water to find signs of life. Maybe the chances for intelligent life Out There are better than we thought.
Thanks for reading.
Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at good ol’ BVC.
This essay was first posted on December 19, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.
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