Weird Alien Communication: Panspermia

Panspermia:  or, You Might Want To Get An Umbrella.  Yeah, I Know It’s Sunny.  Trust Me.

The somewhat icky-named panspermia is the idea that life could traverse space, somehow, and “seed” any new planets it lands on.  If you imagine interstellar dust and debris to be teeming with microbial life, you can then envision what might happen as this dust rains down upon fertile young planets like our Earth.  Cascading gently down from the sky, these interstellar travelers are thrilled (in their microbial way) to find a new planetary paradise upon which to flourish, evolve, and ultimately craft into an orb as beautiful as Earth.  You can also imagine the chagrin of those poor microbes who cascade gently down onto the surface of the sun. Can’t win ‘em all!

Needless to say, this is an idea that has been met with skepticism so healthy, that the skepticism finished fourth at the olympic trials in the 800 and 1600 m runs.  Thank you!!!  Thank you!  Ahem.  This is one of those ideas we love here at timeblimp, an idea that is 1) right on the border of plausibility (and would be considered complete science fiction if it weren’t for the support of a few notable luminaries), and 2) just batshit insane.  Past proponents of the theory have asserted that interstellar space is dense with clouds of microbe-bearing dust, and we have these dust clouds to thank for our very presence on earth.  Rather than originating in some warm tidepool on earth, they suggest that terrestrial life started elsewhere in space, then emigrated to earth.

A key piece of technology to use when researching panspermia.

Panspermia would probably find itself solely in the science fiction section of the bookstore if it weren’t for esteemed scientists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, who have been strong proponents of the theory in the 20th century.  They have proposed that all kinds of organic debris rains down on Earth constantly, including organisms capable of infecting humans (i.e. GEERRMMMSS!!!!).  They’ve even suggested that some pandemics, including AIDS and SARS, could be due to the Earth passing through vast clouds of interstellar germs as we hurtle through the cosmos.

“Accidental” panspermia is not as unlikely as you might think — all it would take is a chunk of rock to escape Earth and survive long enough in space to land on another planet.  We know Earth and Mars trade rocks back and forth, so it’s theoretically possible some Earthly microbes have touched down on Mars.  And vice versa!  Mars appears to have had conditions better suited for life long ago (e.g. running water), so perhaps life started there, and made its way here.  And of course it’s well-known by now that complex organic molecules are found out in space — amino acids, precursors to nucleic acids, and other important complex molecules have been detected (albeit not life itself).  Back in ’96, a huge media storm erupted over a meteorite from Mars (ALH84001) that seemed to contain fossilized microscopic bugs deemed “nanobacteria“.  But eventually experts concluded these were unlikely to be living, more likley naturally-occurring mineral structures.  So this idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds at first blush.

So how’s about an idea that sounds insane at all possible blushes?  For that, let’s visit the idea of “directed” panspermia, the idea that interstellar space is intentionally seeded with microbial life.  Intentional, as in “shot into space by an intelligent, purposeful agent.”   Francis Crick, the famous DNA guy, has been one of the more vocal supporters of this idea — he’s actually been quite straightforward about his role as Senior Respected Luminary Who Can Consider Batshit Insane Ideas Because Nobobdy’s Gonna Take Away His Tenure, and accordingly has delved into multiple areas on the very borders of science in his career.  Francis Crick teamed up with Leslie Orgel to propose the idea that some ancient civilization devised ways to package up and transport microbes throughout space.  Sending entire organisms would be way too difficult, but it turns out you might only need a few pounds of hardy, dormant-phase microbes to successfully seed nearby star systems.

But let’s consider why some alien civilization would want to bother with panspermia.  After all, it’s got to be a pain to set this kind of project up, right?  First of all, note that interstellar communication (as in shooting radio-frequency messages back and forth) isn’t quite as realistic as it might sound — even at the speed of light, it really is too slow to carry on a two-way conversation in the lifetime of a typical life form.  We’re some of the longest-lived organisms on our planet, and we’d die long before completing a back-and-forth conversation with any civilization out of our extremely local neighborhood.  And outside of our galaxy?  Forget it.  A much more practical goal would be to send out autonomous probes / devices that are never designed to report back home.  They could be programmed to say “hi” to whomever they come across during their one-way trip around the universe.   A civilzation could send out a fleet of these little bots to explore the universe, without expectation of getting any news back.  These little autonomous bots could gather resources from the universe as they travel, repairing themselves or even self-replicating when possible.  (If you’re planning this, remember to build in self-control mechanisms so you don’t unleash gray goo on the universe).  The whole point would be the relatively modest goal of announcing “we’re out there somewhere” to other civilizations, rather than making direct contact.

And what would be an efficient way to do this?  Probably not some gangly robot with landing pods, rocket thrusters, and an on-board computer just starting to learn what you humans call “emotion”.  You’d want to design your little bot to be hardy, self-sufficient, but not consume much in the way of resources.  It’d be much more efficient to do the job microscopically.  And you’d probably not want to cobble together sophisticated miniaturized electronics — better to use complex chemical materials that could self-organize into a probe, rather than some rickety clockwork device that might break down.  Yep, some little bag of complex molecules, a device made from chemicals not electronics, would probably be easier and more robust.  In fact if you were to sit back and design this optimal trade-off of robustness and low power usage, you might wind up settling on what would look to our eyes to be a microbe!  Paul Davies suggests you might design yourself a virus — a durable, self-contained, self-replicating microscopic machine that could survive the harsh trip through interstellar space.

Hell, we might decide to just do it ourselves.  Famous physicist Freeman Dyson proposed such an idea with his “astrochickens” — small, cheap, self-sufficient space probes capable of refueling by eating hydrocarbons it happens upon, and when in the right mood, replicating itself to further enable the spread of the flock through the universe.  The astrochicken would be much more self-sufficient than our current probes, capable of exploring the universe on its own and reporting back to us only occasionally.  Sure, a few of them might fly into the sun, but some hopefully would scavenge enough raw materials among the planets to build future generations, hopefully continuing ad infinitum as the flock spread throughout the galaxy.  Assuming our astrochickens don’t go all green goo on the universe, this flock could explore the universe at their own pace with essentially no direction from us.

And of course, since we’re designing the astrochicken, we could make sure to include a little message, a greetings from Earth for any alien civilizations the chicken comes across.  Something dramatic.  Something that succinctly captures the human experience.  Something ranch-flavored…

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