|We come in peace - shoot to kill|
Society's intellectual elites
seem obsessed with fundamental questions. And every generation seems to ask the
same ones. Not things like 'will I be pretty, will I be rich?' Those
questions are for the Proles to sing in trashy commercial media. More
fundamental questions - like 'Where did we come from?', 'Are we
alone?' and 'How can I use socialist ideology to secure a pay
This column normally derides the efforts of such intellectual elites, but on
occasion one is forced to admit that not all their efforts are destructive - in
particular, the variety which spend cold nights gazing through telescopes.
They are not like the rest of us who use telescopes to acquaint ourselves with
the social habits of the the neighbor's 17 year old daughter. These guys use
really really powerful telescopes to look for new galaxies on the other side of
the universe. They might be wasting tax-payers money, but at least they aren't
using the money to promote their hidden socialist agendas. They are too busy
staying up all night gazing through telescopes. And shivering.
It seems that one group of
astronomers has discovered HD 209458b - a planet with with a temperature
between 0 and 40 centigrade, and with water on it. So what's the big deal about
water? Well water, dear reader, is the stuff of life, so it comes down to the
question: what are the chances of life (ie chains of replicating nucleic acids)
from forming in an environment with water?
The religious zealots will
insist that only God can create life, but we can deal with that argument by
patting them on the head and giving them an explosive vest.
Life is thought to have evolved from a 'primal soup' - an environment with many
amino acids floating around in water. Somehow self replicating strands of DNA
formed, and then evolved into single-celled creatures, and then multi-celled creatures,
and finally into staunch conservative bible bashers who sit around denying the
Sort of makes you wonder what the purpose of it all is really. But to succumb
to such a question would align one with the intellectual elites. So let's not
Some calculations around 30 years ago put the probability of the production of
a spontaneous self-reproducing DNA strand in a primal soup at around
1/10^40. Pretty long odds even by astronomical standards. But as more and more
studies are done into the bootstrapping possibilities of biological chemicals,
we realize that the probability is much higher (ie more likely). Around 15 years ago,
probabilities of 1/10^20 were being bandied around as people discovered more
mechanisms which would self replicate.
At the risk of being bogged down, biologists realized that you didn't need
self replicating strands of DNA. Just a strand which randomly joined
amino acids together would eventually replicate itself by pure chance, and then
there would be two of them, so the process would go twice as quickly and then
... well you get the idea.
In fact, the more such processes are studied, the more shortcuts become
obvious. And eventually it becomes obvious that the spontaneous formation of life
from a primal soup is almost a certainty given enough time. Given that
life probably formed on Earth within the first half billion years of it's
formation gives a clue as to the kind of timescales we talking about here.
So the conclusion is that life on HD 209458b is almost a certainty. It may not
be sentient, it might
still consist of slime and dung beetles. But it's life. It's carbon (or
perhaps silicone) based, and it's life as we know it.
And the planet is only 150 light years away from us. That means that we could
send a messages, and expect a response in 300 years or so. A game of Chess
would take a mere 7500 years. Every 300 years intellectual elites could argue
about the best way to make a collective decision on
which move Earth should play.
Regardless, one of humanity's fundamental questions has been answered.
Questions like 'Where did I come from?' can be answered with a quick
lesson on sex. 'How can I use socialist ideology to secure a pay
rise?' is not really a question but a skill, already mastered by university
But at least one of the most fundamental questions which man has asked himself,
ever since he climbed out the primeval swamp and sat down to watch Star Trek,
has been answered:
We are not alone.