Otherworldly Life

The other day I was reading Joseph Conrad’s amazing story “Heart of Darkness” when this passage surprised me:

“I once knew a Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved, he would get shy and mutter something about ‘walking on all-fours.’ If you as much as smiled, he would — though a man of sixty — offer to fight you.”

One hundred and ten years after Conrad wrote that, we know there are no quadruped humanoids bounding about Mars. However, the door remains slightly ajar for bacteria that may produce methane somewhere in the planet’s interior — maybe that’s what the Scotchman meant by “in Mars” rather than “on Mars.”

Microscopic life developed early during Earth’s formative eons. Since then, insects, birds, bats and (anciently) reptiles colonized the skies, all sorts of swimming and squirming and floating organisms filled the seas, and you know what we’ve done to the land. On and in Earth, many inhospitable-seeming niches house life, from boiling “black smoker” vents miles beneath the ocean, to steaming pools at Yellowstone National Park, to soil deep underground, to Antarctic lakes that have been frozen over for thousands of years. Scientists actually revived bacteria that lay dormant in salt mines, sealed off for millions of years. The odds seem good that if life gets a foothold it can thrive, or at least survive, under harsh conditions.

At one time Jupiter was nominated as a domain of life, perhaps gigantic blimp creatures floating in the thick atmosphere. I find it hard to imagine anything large surviving in the icy, screaming winds, but what about small critters? What if there are warm places closer to the center where the hurricanes can’t penetrate and the highly compressed gas has a consistency of water?

The cover of the June edition of Sky & Telescope magazine asks, “Does this World Harbor Life?” and answers, “Saturn’s moon Enceladus has the stuff for life.” Geysers photographed on Enceladus apparently prove that water shoots from the ice-covered moon, according to the article.

[NASA Galileo probe view of Europa showing cracks in the surface ice]

Europa, a satellite of Jupiter, is believed to have a liquid ocean only a few miles below the ice surface. “Gravitational stresses” among the moons Europa, Io and Ganymede “are thought to be responsible for the cracked appearance of the surface and may be sufficient to maintain a liquid water or warm ice interior, insulated by a thin crust of solid ice,” says a NASA web site.

It’s intriguing to imagine life on other worlds. Unlike the sailmaker, I doubt there are humans who walk on all-fours. In fact, we may have a struggle to recognize some living form as life at all. The self-replicating and nurturing of a completely alien life form could be so different it looks like nothing familiar.

I might as well admit, ever since the Mars rovers landed I’ve clung to a flicker of hope that the myriads of tiny mushroom-like concretions they discovered peppering the surface might be some kind of mineral life; I’m too stubborn to give up on that ludicrous notion just yet.

So what’s your guess?

If there is life anywhere else in the cosmos, what might it be like? How would you describe a creature or plant or X’cinhhby dwelling beneath Europa’s hard cap? If you register your estimate here, and it eventually proves to be spot-on, your great, great, grandchildren will hail you as visionary. Or maybe as just a good guesser.

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