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Life

In the early hours of the morning, I’m usually asleep. This morning however was different, I had two completely unrelated things on my mind. One was technical and is documented elsewhere and one involved the origin of life. Yes, some of us do have deep thoughts from time to time and occasionally, they’re not rubbish. This may or may not be one of those time.

So firstly, a disclaimer, I’m not a doctor, scientist – or anything really – just someone who was brought up learning how things work and watching Attenborough and challenging just about everything. Still, at age 63, what you are about to read may be complete bollocks but hopefully entertaining bollocks.

Where does life come from?

I think we’ve pretty much gotten to the bottom of the latter stages of evolution.. a long, long time ago, life started off pretty simply – cells that replicated and over time “improved” in response to available resources… cells that replicate imperfectly – hence allowing change to occur depending on the environment and perhaps a little chance. There is no point in going into this as it is well documented – evolution through natural selection has not been a simple theory for a long time – it is a well-explored fact.  Even complex things such as eyes didn’t just pop up out of thin air, we know that creatures exist or have existed with everything from no eyes, through simply light sensors to the wonderful eyes that we mammals possess. The same applies to ears, the sense of smell and touch etc.. there really is no need to look at alternative ways to explain how human beings came about.

Complexity.

We balk at complexity and yet look at the world’s telephone network – look at computer chips, look at cities – we’re pretty good with complexity.

So the complexity of life is somewhat understood and people like Craig Venter have made the first steps which I believe will be completed this century (if we don’t blow ourselves up first or run out of food) that is – understanding and taking control over how life evolves to better suit out rapidly degenerating environment. We have done very well to get this far in understanding how this works and how we might improve it in the future. The first drugs to eliminate cancer are just now appearing – it isn’t that long ago that cancer was considered too complicated to defeat.

But where would all of this have started?

Where we’re a little less sure is how and where it all started. I’m going to assume that over millions or billions of years, a lot of chemical compositions came about which were not up to the mark and that somehow, a some point, the right basic materials able to replicate, appeared. Given enough time and given the drastic changes that have happened over time on our planet and others, this is not hard to imagine and may even be inevitable.

Options:

Scenario 1. In this scenario, the very early earth in turmoil started the ball rolling – and here we have the possibility that we may be the only planet in existence with life.  But of course there’s another possibility.  We know that another planet collided with our own at some point – and part of that spun off to make the moon. Could it be that some very early “extremophile” existed then and was blasted off into space and could well now have developed elsewhere.  And if so, would the end result look like us? Of the former, then any life anywhere else in Space will be UTTERLY different to us – no chance of having 2 eyes, 2 hands an a bit of green scale, Star-Trek style.  If on the other hand creatures based on our early life HAS evolved elsewhere, well, there’s at least a chance they might have the same number of eyes and ears.

Scenario 2. If life did not develop on earth but started elsewhere and a similar cataclysmic even ripped through their planet sending early extremophiles off into space. In THIS scenario we may well have a similar situation where several planets have species based off the same starting block. Far- fetched? Well, we’re pretty sure that Mars once had an atmosphere and water and that is but one of billions of planets – only some of which are in reach, time-wise.

Scenario 3. This may seem the most extreme version but could it be that (as in one of the alien movies) – a race of beings much like us but WAY more advance technically, did what we may well do in the future if endangered  – that being to engineer an extremophile specifically to handle the harshness of space and end up on a planet – ultimately to develop into a version of themselves? Impossible? Unlikely?  Read on on Venter and his team who have put part of a poem into DNA and made a simple form of life that self-replicates WITH this information intact.  40 years ago we didn’t even have the Internet and already we’re achieving what was once thought impossible. Where will we be in another 40 years time. If we hadn’t had the dark ages where would we be now.  No -  I don’t think this is impossible or unlikely at all.

Hard to believe that not too long ago we were still debating whether or not there were other planets outside of our tiny solar system and yet today the only question is how many look like earth and do they even need to do THAT to sustain life. I DO think if life travelled from another planet to earth, there are limits on how far away it could have been to allow for practical travel. as we feel we know the age of our universe, that can’t be too hard to narrow down.

Well, there you are, that’s my two-pence-worth. Overall, it does seem VERY unlikely that we are the only intelligent life in the universe (or universes, another topic for another time) – but unless someone tells me how to travel faster than light, I don’t think we have a cat in hell’s chance of ever meeting human-like creatures from another world. It may be that there is an as-yet undiscovered way to communicate faster than light and if that is true, then maybe we could have a chat.

There are of course, still in the 21st century, millions of people who cling to a much simpler version of life – wherein some all powerful creator (there are in this scenario, several incompatible creators – mostly male and human like, strangely enough) made it all happen – end of story. This of course falls apart as soon as you ask who made the all powerful creator and so on, backwards forever – but the origins of the universe I think are going to take us longer to figure out – it may be that the distant past (which we can see through our telescopes) is now SO distant we may never actually know (though we can make a damned good guess)  –

I don’t think we should confuse the origin of our universe (or possibly other universes) with the origin of life, where it came from and where it is going and why – I do think that is something we can and should ultimately understand and even learn to influence the forward direction of life for our own benefit.

However, I have been wrong before. If life, the universe and how we try to understand everything interests you, there are many clever people around today (and some no longer with us such as Christopher Hitchins, Richard Feynman) and  – I can recommend just about anything that Attenborough has done on TV in recent years. Then there are people who are brilliant, great speakers or both -  Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian CoxMichio Kaku, Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins (I could go on forever – Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Greene) and at the extreme if you like to be confused – Quantum Gravity Research or this little number – which is mind-blowing..

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