Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Ownby David Toomey
“Weird indeed, and not a little wonderful.”Nature
In the 1980s and 1990s, in places where no one thought it possible, scientists found organisms they called extremophiles: lovers of extremes. There were bacteria in volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, single-celled algae in Antarctic ice floes, and fungi in the cooling pools of
“Weird indeed, and not a little wonderful.”Nature
In the 1980s and 1990s, in places where no one thought it possible, scientists found organisms they called extremophiles: lovers of extremes. There were bacteria in volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, single-celled algae in Antarctic ice floes, and fungi in the cooling pools of nuclear reactors.
But might there be life stranger than the most extreme extremophile? Might there be, somewhere, another kind of life entirely? In fact, scientists have hypothesized life that uses ammonia instead of water, life based not in carbon but in silicon, life driven by nuclear chemistry, and life whose very atoms are unlike those in life we know. In recent years some scientists have begun to look for the tamer versions of such life on rock surfaces in the American Southwest, in a “shadow biosphere” that might impinge on the known biosphere, and even deep within human tissue. They have also hypothesized more radical versions that might survive in Martian permafrost, in the cold ethylene lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan, and in the hydrogen-rich atmospheres of giant planets in other solar systems. And they have imagined it in places off those worlds: the exotic ices in comets, the vast spaces between the stars, andstrangest of allparallel universes.Distilling complex science in clear and lively prose, David Toomey illuminates the research of the biological avant-garde and describes the workings of weird organisms in riveting detail. His chapters feature an unforgettable cast of brilliant scientists and cover everything from problems with our definitions of life to the possibility of intelligent weird life. With wit and understanding that will delight scientists and lay readers alike, Toomey reveals how our current knowledge of life forms may account for only a tiny fraction of what’s really out there.
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Meet the Author
David Toomey is an associate professor of English and director of the Professional Writing and Technical Communication Program at the University of Massachusetts−Amherst. He lives in Amherst.
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Despite all the advances that biological science has made during the past two centuries, it has not been able to come up with completely satisfying answers to two of its most fundamental questions - "Just what is life anyway?" and, "What are the physical limits within which life can survive?" Especially during the latter half of the 20th century and continuing right up to the present day, discoveries have repeatedly overturned or at least forced reconsideration of the definition of life and extensions of the boundaries of life's physical domain. Weird Life provides an excellent review of the state of what we know about the basic nature of living organisms and an up-to-date survey of every possible limiting, extreme physical environment in which life has been found. Organisms have been discovered thriving or surviving at temperatures well below the freezing and far above the boiling points of water; at pressures of thousands of psi and in the vacuum of space; in clouds; in deep, tight rock formations; just about anywhere anyone has bothered to look. And much of that newly discovered life can be categorized as "weird" - having evolved physical and biochemical characteristics very different from those of common ordinary Earth surface or marine organisms. So far, that extreme, "weird" life, despite its unique characteristics, still bears the genetic and biochemical fingerprints that clearly link it to "ordinary", familiar life. But, if life can survive under such extreme conditions, could truly weird (employing alternative chemistries, alternative energy sources, alternative physics, even) organisms be living among us or on distant worlds? Weird life so different from what we know that we might not even be capable of recognizing it? Unfortunately, the subject matter lends itself to some fairly wild speculation. Once the author, David Toomey, leaves the realm of carbon biochemistry and ventures into realms, for example, defined by current theoretical physics, there appears to be little to define the limits of speculative life in parallel universes with which we can never interact or even know to exist. Life as a game played on a cosmic scale where Earth's organisms are simply chess pieces? How many aliens can you fit on the head of a pin? This type of speculation is not science and leads nowhere - except, perhaps as fodder for science fiction. It detracts from the valid discussion of life-as-we-know-it's limits. The author would have been better off devoting the latter part of Weird Life to a discussion of the theoretical boundaries of possible alternative biochemistries. Perhaps too daunting a task for the general reader, but more likely to yield useful insights into the nature of this thing we call "life". A Glossary, adequate notes, a bibliography, a few images and an index round out this work. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University