Prediction: Life will turn out to be everywhere (after a certain point)
Where, when, and why I think the universe will be full of life
Yeah, I think life will turn out to be everywhere, after a certain point. (I also believe it takes a long time to develop, and that process can’t really be sped up. More on that below.)
Now, the James Webb Space Telescope obviously can’t see life, in all its individual glory, waggling its sexy tentacles on the shore of some distant watery world; but the telescope’s magnificently advanced spectrograph, with its 100 individually-controllable “eyes”, will be able to “see”, say, free oxygen – which is a marker of life – in the atmospheres of exoplanets.
And I think it will. I predict that trillions of exoplanets throughout the universe will contain life, and the James Webb telescope will soon start to find some, nearby.
(Exoplanets are just planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. They can be big, small, hot, cold, rocky, gassy…)
WHEN WILL WE SEE IT?
Well, it probably won’t happen tomorrow, when the James Webb is due to deliver its first ever data, including images and spectral information on an exoplanet called WASP-96 b. (I nearly gave myself a panic attack just writing that – right now, it’s Monday evening, and the announcement is tomorrow, Tuesday July 12th 2022. I really need to get this finished and posted…)
Where was I? Yes, I’m not saying it will see free oxygen, or any other out-of-equilibrium atmosphere, in the atmosphere of that particular planet: WASP-96 b has been chosen partly because you can get a great photo of it: it is only a thousand light years away (that’s in our back garden!), it’s really big (about the size of Jupiter), it’s INCREDIBLY close to its star (closer than Mercury is to the sun), and it is extremely hot (probably over a thousand degrees Celsius).
For all these reasons, it will therefore look nice and big and bright in the infra-red light (heat!) which the James Webb is designed to detect. But a planet that big and gassy and hot and irradiated by its star is not a likely candidate for life. Stable, complex chemistry is hard under those conditions.
Over time, though, I think the James Webb will, indeed, find huge numbers of planets with signatures of life.
This is not a particularly radical prediction, as many scientists now believe that life is likely to be ubiquitous in our universe. But I just want to put down a marker, and explain why an evolved universe theory firmly predicts this.
An evolved universe theory argues that Earth is not a random and unlikely one-off. Instead, complex, homeostatic, out-of-equilibrium biospheres like the earth’s are what our universe does at this point, almost fourteen billion years into its developmental process. They should have started to pop up all over the place by now.
WHAT SIGNATURES WILL WE SEE?
Now, as I mentioned, if you are searching from many lightyears away, the most obvious sign of life on any exoplanet is a chemically out-of-equilibrium atmosphere, like that of earth. Without life constantly replenishing the supply, all the free oxygen in our own atmosphere would quickly either turn into carbon dioxide, or disappear back into the rocks and soil, as it combined with other elements to make other oxides.
We know this because the atmosphere of Venus, for example, is 96% carbon dioxide, and basically no free oxygen.
The atmosphere of Mars? It’s 95% carbon dioxide, and less than 0.2% oxygen.
But the atmosphere on earth, where three trillion trees and a hell of a lot of algae and cyanobacteria eat carbon dioxide and shit oxygen all day long, is at this point pretty stable at 0.04% carbon dioxide, and 21% oxygen. (Er, yes, human activity is tweaking those figures a little right now, but that’s a whole other post.)
We certainly didn’t start off that way: before life arose on earth, our atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and almost no oxygen at all.
So, planets that have large amounts of life will have out-of-equilibrium atmospheres.
But they will also have radically altered geologies.
THE BIOSPHERE AND THE GEOSPHERE ARE ONE
As the mineralogist and astrobiologist Robert Hazen said, just three years ago (when the Deep Carbon Project, which he headed, wrapped up a decade of research by twelve hundred researchers from fifty-five different countries)
“We now understand that the Earth’s biosphere and its geosphere are one integrated and complex system, and carbon is the key. This is a fundamentally new way of thinking about our planet.”
Good! Mainstream science is moving closer and closer to an evolved universe approach.
Because from an evolved universe perspective, the whole planet, once life has developed, is a dynamic, homeostatic, out of equilibrium system, with life regulating and stabilising its own environment. Life acts as its own thermostat.
We’ve known this since James Lovelock put forward the Gaia hypothesis (co-developed with Lynn Margulis), in the 1970s. The problem was, without the idea of an evolved universe (which didn’t get properly formulated until Lee Smolin’s work in the 1990s), it was hard to know what to do with the Gaia hypothesis.
It seemed to be true, but WHY was it true? How could a planet be so extraordinarily efficiently assembled, to such a level of intricate, interconnected complexity, in a one-shot universe?
That inability to explain how such an unlikely thing came about made it easy for many conservative mainstream scientists to dismiss the Gaia hypothesis. And you can see their point: maybe Earth was just a weird outlier, the result of a series of lucky accidents. Maybe our planet looked unlikely because it was unlikely… But that might be about to change.
FROM ONE LIVING WORLD TO A TRILLION
With a life-altered atmosphere and life-altered geology, a planet with a biosphere can, from tomorrow on, potentially be detected as being alive from lightyears away. If we do find a lot of them, what will that mean?
Well, a useful way to think of such planets is as living cells, generated by the evolved organism that is the universe.
We are inside one such cell, and thus have no perspective on it, so it can be hard for us to think of it that way. It’s much easier to think of other living planets as cells: and if we do find a lot of them, then it will become clear that the system that builds the cells – our universe – is the organism of which those are the cells.
And it must have evolved. What other strong, simple, no-woo-woo explanation can there be?
A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
This is going to come as a tremendous psychic shock to the system for a lot of people, but, I hope, for many, a wonderful one.
At the moment – and for at least one more day! – science is trapped inside a worldview that causes tremendous psychological suffering to many people (including quite a few scientists), whereby we think of the entire universe as dead matter, with no purpose whatsoever, going nowhere.
But, simultaneously, we think of the place we live in as absolutely stuffed with life, and highly evolved.
The fact that the place we live in is nested inside, and assembled by, the place which we think of as completely dead, and going nowhere, causes a cognitive dissonance which we have yet to resolve, and that science in particular suffers from terribly. It can’t think straight about the universe, because it has divided it into two utterly separate realms.
And so I predict that is going to be fixed, soon, because the James Webb is going to see signatures of life everywhere; and so we are going to start seeing planets as cells in an organism, bursting with life, everywhere, and our entire view of the universe and of our place in it will have to change.
And, as a happy side-effect, science will finally be able to integrate its split personality, after several hundred years of increasing dysfunction.
WHAT KIND OF LIFE ARE YOU PREDICTING?
Basically, carbon-based life. Not necessarily specifically DNA-based life, as deoxyribonucleic acid may just be one of many ways of organising biological life – but they will all be based around carbon, because no other element can build out so many strong, flexible, complex molecules. (Silicon can make a lot of similarly complex molecules too, yes, sure, but the bonds are too weak and brittle for life.)
Lifeforms on other planets will all have some way of copying themselves that is very much like DNA (even down to the fact that, I suspect, phosphorus will be the backbone or zip for whatever molecule they use, because nothing else has the right Post-it Note-like bond strength – neither too weak nor too strong).
And I think it’s highly likely that something awfully like photosynthesis will exist, and something awfully like ATP (adenosine triphosphate) will be involved in energy transfer, everywhere. They are just so hyper-optimised here on earth that it’s hard to see what could do a better job, anywhere.
How dementedly efficient is ATP at energy transfer? We make and destroy our own bodyweight in ATP every day, and we can fuel all of that with a bowl of muesli, a Happy Meal, and a banana, THAT’S how efficient. (Put another way, each ATP molecule is recycled between 1000 and 1500 times a day.)
WHEN, IN THE LIFETIME OF THE UNIVERSE, WILL LIFE BE POSITIONED?
Well, biological life is complicated, and needs almost two dozen elements to function successfully, from hydrogen to selenium. You definitely can’t make life out of just hydrogen and helium, so the really early universe will, obviously, not contain biological life.
So until stars have produced all of these elements (by fusion) and distributed them (through supermassive-black-hole-driven jets, and supernova explosions), there can be no life. And it takes a couple of generations of stars to manufacture and roll out all those elements (and even longer to roll out the full suite of 92 naturally-occurring elements).
Biological life also needs an environment, and that environment has to undergo a long period of (prebiotic) chemical development before biological life can emerge.
For example, the surface geochemistry of a wet, rocky planet like earth needs to develop in chemical complexity for quite a long time – hundreds of millions of years – before even primitive biological life can survive and thrive on it.
And not just the surface! The hot, molten, elements beneath need time to separate out by mass. Only then can a liquid core of iron and nickel create the dynamo which generates the planet’s magnetic field. That is needed to protect the surface of the planet from the intense solar radiation (and cosmic rays) that would otherwise make life impossible.
This all takes time.
Bear in mind that the original cloud of dust and gas, five billion years ago, that condensed to form the earth, only contained a couple of dozen minerals: the surface of the earth today comprises over four thousand minerals. (See Mineral Evolution, by Hazen et al, for a terrific guide to this epic unfolding. He means development, of course, not evolution in my sense, or Darwin’s: but evolution, at the level of universes, indeed explains this marvellous developmental process.)
The cascade upward into complexity of the earth’s surface chemistry looks remarkably like the development of an evolved organism – the chemical complexification of a cell, say. And that logical, step-by-step complexification of the earth’s surface (and the oceans’ depths) enables the development of DNA, and DNA evolution. (Or its close equivalent.)
Put another way, the DNA developmental process on earth is embedded inside, and flows directly out of, that geochemical developmental process – it’s all one long process of chemical complexification. We just get excited by the chemistry once it starts to make accurate copies of itself – once it can inherit information – because we can label that “life”.
And we should get excited! It's a huge leap. But the leap is made possible by the preceding intricate set of chemical processes. Those processes have a strong internal logic and direction…
OH SHIT, IS THAT THE TIME?
(Okay, I went home, and had dinner. It's coming up to 8 pm, and I have just cut a huge section on geochemical development, because it was too long and baggy, and I don't have time to get it right tonight. If you're a chemist, though, I recommend you read RJP Williams and JJR Fraústo da Silva’s dense, chewy masterpieces, The Chemistry of Evolution, and The Natural Selection of the Elements. And if you're not a chemist, the most accessible guide to this story is the brilliant A World From Dust, by Ben McFarland (OUP 2016), a book which deserved far more love and attention than it received when it came out. It’s chemistry heavy, but not as heavy as Williams and Fraústo da Silva.)
Anyway, the chemical logic of life on earth will be replicated on many, many other worlds. The surface and oceanic chemistry of exoplanets will complexify, in chemically predictable and logical ways, for many hundreds of millions of years before the chemistry we call life can emerge.
OK, I’ve got to go to bed soon, so let’s just do bullet points:
Anaerobic life will precede aerobic (oxygen-based) life.
Life will develop first in seas (because chemical transportation of food and disposal of wastes is easier there), and only later on land. (If there is land!)
Multicellular life will usually not emerge until after the transition to aerobic life. (It is hard to keep internal cells alive without a system for delivering oxygen to them.)
There will be something like plantlife. (Not mobile; using sunlight as an energy source.)
There will be something like herbivorous life. (Mobile, and able to eat the plantlife.)
There will be something like omnivorous and/or carnivorous life. (Even more mobile, and able to eat the herbivorous life.)
The three will emerge in that order.
Seen through the lens of an evolved universe theory, the whole thing looks awfully like an evolved developmental stage, unfolding.
And like any developmental process, it can only unfold at a certain speed. Embryos have to embryo for a while. Toddlers have to toddle. You can’t rush it.
So we will find life everywhere, but not in the first few billion years.
EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITY SPACE
Oh, and life will turn out to occupy a broad possibility space. That is, there will be life on a lot of planets that are not like earth. (And a lot that are, too, of course.) Big planets, little planets, rocky planets, gassy planets, watery planets.
There will turn out to be a surprisingly high number of watery ones, that is with H20 available in all three phases, solid, liquid, and gas. At least one, in most planetary systems.
(OK, just chopped another long baggy section on water… It isn’t urgent, and needs its own post. But if you are interested in water, and the deep peculiarity of water, a magnificent book on the subject is Philip Ball’s H20.)
One huge question: will we discover a totally alternate biochemistry to the water-and-carbon-based one we are used to on earth? The only obvious (that is, chemically plausible) alternative would seem to be one where water at relatively low pressure (as on earth) is replaced by ammonia at relatively high pressure (as on Jupiter). Warm ammonia, at high pressure, can do many of the difficult and unlikely chemical jobs done by water on earth. Thus, a complex ammonia-and-carbon biochemistry, optimised for warm gas giants (warmer than Jupiter) might be possible. The British, and later Indian (he changed citizenship in 1961) biologist and mathematician J. B. S. Haldane first suggested this, in the 1950s. But I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the chemistry and physics of gas giants to make a solid prediction there.
Shall I go with my gut? Yes, I think there will be an ammonia-based biology on warm gas giants, to complement the carbon-based biology of the rocky planets. Seems silly to have all those gas giants otherwise. An efficient evolution (at the level of universes) would only produce so many of them if it was going to use them for something – and planets seem to be optimised for complex chemistry, which ultimately means life.
WHY WOULD UNIVERSES EVOLVE SO AS TO MAXIMISE THE PRODUCTION OF LIFE?
This is where I will lose some of you, because this step sounds unavoidably nutty to most people. (I don’t think it is nutty; but I can understand why many people feel it is.) Even Lee Smolin, who came up with the theory of cosmological natural selection, hates this next step, which came later, from other scientists developing his theory, not from him: he says it’s too “science fictiony” for his liking. But I think he’s wrong. There is a powerful evolutionary logic in favour of it.
JUST GIVE US THE NUTTY IDEA, AND GO TO BED
OK. Well, there is a strong argument that, once life becomes conscious, and learns to manipulate matter (as humans have recently done), the next logical step is for that lifeform to optimise its energy sources (because all lifeforms attempt to optimise their energy sources, so as not to run out of energy and die).
And that will inevitably, eventually, mean lots of optimal-size black hole production, because they are the most efficient energy source in the universe – far more than an order of magnitude more efficient than fusion. (We have already discussed the astonishing energy efficiency of black holes when we discussed galaxy formation.)
And more black holes mean more reproductive success for the universe; which is why the original, and no doubt highly unlikely and slow, arrival of the first matter-manipulating lifeforms many generations of universe ago was an evolutionary success, and why such lifeforms are now highly optimised for.
Any planet more than a billion years old, with a lot of water, and a water cycle, basically, will turn out to have life, because the water cycle (combined with the day/night cycle) drives the relentless, regular, cyclical, chemical mixing required for biological life to emerge. And having billions of years to play with really helps here.
EVERY LIFE IS ON FIRE
The sheer inevitability of the emergence of life is beautifully described by the American physicist (and Orthodox rabbi, a rare combination!) Jeremy England, in his superb book Every Life Is On Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things,
“Of course, some processes that seem rare and improbable on one timescale (like a bolt of lightning on a particular mountain peak) become near-certainties if we just wait a hundred or a million times longer.”
Oh man, I just looked up, and it’s now half ten at night, and I still need to finish editing, copyedit, and format all this before I can post it… OK, I’m running out of time to finish this, so just go read England’s book, if you want to see how the cascade upward into complexity is basically inevitable in this universe, given enough time.
I’ll give you another quote from Every Life Is On Fire that helps set the scene:
“I do not know, and never expect to know, exactly which molecules did what or when a long, long time ago. What I do want to propose is that there is a set of ideas, based on a branch of physics called nonequilibrium thermodynamics, that is starting to show us how to break the stepwise process of life’s emergence into comprehensible increments. Once we recognize that life, through the lens of physics, is an omnibus of specific but different phenomena with precise physical definitions, we can study the emergence of these phenomena more in parallel, as little, limited successes in lifelike self-organization. The more these pieces of the puzzle can be separately implemented, poked, and tweaked in a laboratory, the more we can start to relate to them as banal, tangible bits of the places and timetables we inhabit.
Central to this discussion will be an idea I have called dissipative adaptation, which essentially is a fancy way of saying that when matter gets knocked around by the patterns in its surroundings, it ends up getting stuck in shapes that look specially suited to respond to those patterns.”
What I would add to Jeremy England’s analysis is the idea that those characteristics of matter, and the forces that move matter, which ratchet matter upward into the complexity we call life, have themselves evolved, through many earlier generations of universe, so as to be particularly effective at just that life-forcing function.
THE ENERGY MOVING THROUGH THE SYSTEM ORGANISES THE SYSTEM
In this view, evolution at the level of universes takes the place of that set of mysterious shaping forces which, in most cultures, ends up given the name of God – or a bunch of gods.
But such evolution at the level of universes – paradoxically, wonderfully – thus generates a highly directional universe of astonishing complexity and subtlety, with many of the properties we have traditionally attributed to God.
As another religious scientist, the Jesuit geologist, and Darwinian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, would put it, the universe is God coming into being.
Yet it is perfectly possible to be an atheist, and nonetheless fully embrace this theory. It is the almost mythical beast that philosophy has sought for the past couple of centuries; meaning without God.
Or perhaps a better way to describe it… A naturally occurring universe so rich and complex (and with a history so infinitely deep), that God becomes unnecessary.
OK, let me wrap this up, it’s getting unwieldy.
To make it explicit: the majority of the more recent, metal-rich stars will have planetary systems; and the majority of those planetary systems will have at least one water-cycle planet; and the majority of those water-cycle planets will have life. (You only need one per solar system.)
Oh, a subpoint:
INTELLIGENT LIFE WILL BE RARER, BUT THAT’S JUST BECAUSE IT TAKES SO LONG TO DEVELOP: IT HASN’T HAD TIME YET ON MOST PLANETS
Primitive life automatically develops into intelligent life, but the process takes several billion years.
Here’s the dynamic: As primitive organisms develop senses, predator/prey relationships evolve. (Because now they can detect and hunt each other.) Predators need to evolve enough intelligence to outsmart their prey (or they’ll die out); but that forces the prey to evolve more intelligence (the less smart ones are eaten), which forces the predator to evolve more intelligence, to outsmart the newly smarter prey.
Basically, the least smart prey get eaten, and least smart predators starve to death, in each generation, so there is an automatic ratchet upward in intelligence.
YIN/YANG CYCLES: NO BLAME
There is firm evidence for this in the fossil record: in all periods, the adjusted brain-weight-to-body-weight ratio in predator animals is usually higher than in prey animals (though there are exceptions, particularly among fish – you can be a pretty dumb fish and still make it as a predator) – but, more importantly, and revealingly, both ratios rise smoothly over time, as they drive each other upward into complexity.
It’s a slow, subtle process, but it has brought us a long way. The Stegosaurus, bless it, was up to thirty feet long, and could weigh seven tons… but you could fit its entire brain into a walnut shell.
AN ASIDE ABOUT GOATS, TO ILLUSTRATE THIS DYNAMIC IN REVERSE
When prey animals get isolated on islands with no predators, their brain size can drop, dramatically.
For example, the Balearic cave goat arrived on Mallorca five million years ago, when sea levels temporarily fell. The seas rose again, and cut it off, on an island where it had no natural predators… Over the next several million years, its brain shrank by 44-50%, compared to its living relatives, who were still dealing with predators on the mainland.
A Tyrannosaurus Rex is (in some ways) slightly smarter than a Triceratops.
A lion is (in some ways) slightly smarter than an antelope.
You are (in some ways) slightly smarter than whatever you ate for dinner.
To get from single-celled creatures to Einstein (and Beyoncé, and Messi, and David Bowie, and Marie Curie) seems to take several billion years of predator/prey cycles, and there might not be any way of speeding this up. Ratchet’s gonna ratchet, at a certain speed. So a two- or three-billion-year-old planet will not have intelligent life. Yet.
OK, enough! I’ve got to get this posted before the James Webb releases its first data and makes me look like an idiot, or not.