Science that sounds like science fiction. In recent years, scientists have hypothesized life-forms that can only be called "weird": organisms that live off acid rather than water, microbes that thrive at temperatures and pressure levels so extreme that their cellular structures should break down, perhaps even organisms that reproduce without DNA. Some of these strange life-forms, unrelated to all life we know, might be nearby: on rock surfaces in the American southwest, hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, or even in our own bodies. Some, stranger still, might live in Martian permafrost, swim in the dark oceans of Jupiter's moons, or survive in the exotic ices on comets. Others - the strangest of all - might inhabit the crusts of neutron stars, interstellar nebulae, or even other spatial dimensions. In Weird Life, David Toomey takes us on a breathtaking tour of a universe of hypothetical life, a universe of life as we do not know it.
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book about forms of life that exist outside the terms of what has come to be the "standard model" of heat, pressure and PH circumstances of survival. Toomey's work here is informative but presented in a way that is easily accessible to the layman, often entertaining, always engaging stuff to make us see deeper into life and its incredible durability.
Life by different rules -- the knowns and unknowns
Weird Life takes on the question, “what forms can life exist in besides the carbon-based, water-saturated, oxygen-metabolizing, DNA-encoded ones we’re most familiar with?” Which leads to other questions: did life evolve on Earth more than once? Is there a “shadow” evolutionary tree, whose organisms work differently, and perhaps are specially adapted to hostile environments like undersea hot vents? Could there be life elsewhere in the solar system, in the clouds of Jupiter, the methane seas of Titan, under the ice of Europa, or on the high mountain peaks of Venus (where the temperature is relatively cool)? Is hypothetical life elsewhere in the galaxy MORE likely to be on NON-Earthlike planets?
My own take-away from this book was that much is still a mystery. The first few chapters, which discuss life that manages to survive in extreme environments on Earth and current theories about biogenesis, make clear that a lot of the knowledge science does have is both recent and somewhat speculative. Indeed, it’s difficult to define exactly what life IS, and what we’ve gotten used to thinking of as fundamental building blocks (cells, nuclei, etc.) might not necessarily be. And perhaps this chauvinism is blinding us as we begin to search other worlds for signs we’re not alone in the universe.
Later chapters consider other planets and the SETI program, and I found these the most interesting. Toomey discusses the famous Drake Equation, and its current implications for the distribution of intelligent life in our galaxy. While there are still many unknowns, the Earth itself offers some important clues. For example, most scientists agree that life appeared almost as soon as it was possible. Then it took another billion years for multi-celled life to appear, and another two billion for intelligent life to appear. Unless our planet is a drastic edge case, the implication is that life could arise easily, but intelligent life, not so. Perhaps the last other sentient species in our neighborhood came and went before modern humans ever existed.
The last chapters go into more unconventional territory, and consider possibilities like machine intelligence swiftly outpacing biological intelligence, becoming something beyond human comprehension (i.e. the “singularity” concept coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge and further popularized by Ray Kurzweil). There’s also some contemplation of what, in the fundamental rules of physics, makes life possible in our universe, and whether it could exist in other universes, operating under somewhat different rules. And might we even be living in some sort of a simulated reality, like The Matrix but more so? If so, what would be the clues?
All in all, the topics discussed here represent only a skimming of a wide-ranging body of scientific research and speculation, and more knowledgeable readers might find it light fare, but Weird Life is still a tasty sampler platter.