Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Making Aliens 3: The Landing

europa.jpgThe Repercussions of Planetary Settlement

by Athena Andreadis

Art image: Europa, by Joe Bergeron

Part 3: The Landing

Even if we come up with propulsion systems that shrink the distances between the stars, they are just the overture to a very long and difficult opera. If our venture out is not to be merely a more expensive repetition of our vanity foray to the Moon, we have to give serious thought to how we will live on extraterrestrial planets.

Like good representatives of humanity, we will address this question through technology — but the vital question is, which technology. We have three choices:

1. closed systems — terrariums for people such as Biosphere 2;
2. terraforming — making other planets Earth-like; and
3. genetic engineering — changing ourselves and our imports to suit our planet host.

Science fiction, especially in its film incarnations (with its preference for filiming in California), has spoiled us by postulating a universe that is excessively endowed with Earth-like planets. Even when shuttles are forced to perform unscheduled emergency landings, they invariably crash on planets where neither breathing apparatuses nor protective clothing are necessary, and which often tempt the crew with hanging fruit and dancing girls. But how likely is the existence of all the Xerox copies of Earth that have been paraded throughout sf films and series, from Star Trek to Star Wars?

At this point, evidence is steadily accumulating that Jovian planets are circling other suns. Where big gaseous planets exist, small rocky ones also must lurk. Nevertheless, all the planets that belong to the same class as Earth will differ widely in their outcomes, just as tiny details in our local drawing boards have generated environments as different as Earth and Venus, and on Earth itself hot springs and frozen mountains, and lifeforms as diverse as roses and sea urchins.

The final state of a planet depends on a huge number of variables — type of primary, distance from primary, system configuration, planetary mass, rotation rate, inclination of orbit, number and size of moons, thickness and composition of atmosphere. So, contrary to the optimism of science fiction, we’re unlikely to ever find a twin Earth. If we find planets within another star’s habitable zone, we will probably need to either terraform them extensively or genetically engineer the colonists so that they can survive without external aid — for example, make them able to hibernate. But let’s suppose that we do find an unspoiled second Earth. Even if it fulfills all the requirements of the long astrophysical / planetological list, details are also important

For instance, one issue rarely discussed in science fiction is that all molecules involved in life display the property of chirality (Greek for “hand”). That is, they are fundamentally asymmetric. Life on Earth has exclusively chosen one of the two possible configurations — the “left-handed” orientation — and has stuck to it throughout its evolution.

If the biochemistry of New Earth is right-handed, we won’t be able to digest any native foodstuffs, because our digestive apparatus will not be able to degrade them into useful units nor use them for energy. No matter how luscious the fruit appears, it will be strictly eye candy. The alternative will be to introduce terrestrial animals and plants, which may overwhelm indigenous life.

Other problems could doom would-be colonizers. Gravity significantly lower than terrestrial will make our muscles atrophy and turn our hip and leg bones brittle. More crucially, gravity seems to play a role in embryo formation and in correct configuration of brain synapses. It will avail us little to go to another planet, if we cannot have children, propagate plants — or think straight. Even subtle shifts will lead to problems: for example, we have an in-built circadian rhythm of about 24 hours. If you think jet lag is bad, imagine what it would be like to suffer from it permanently, living on a planet whose length of day differs greatly from that of Earth. Just as a day of different length will confound our biological rhythms, a primary star of a different color will do the same to our vision (as explored by Ursula LeGuin in her short story, The Eye Altering).

Such dislocations would drastically decrease our ability to survive, because the compatibility of inner and outer cues intimately affects competence and health. Too, recent results from orbital experiments show that mice born in low gravity have a permanently different sense of balance and of 3-D space and, unlike adults transiently exposed to low gravity, they don’t re-adjust their brain wiring upon return to Earth. Contemporary Westerners tend to forget that even Earth presented humans with major survival challenges before engineering and medicine relegated most of them to dusty museum dioramas.

Even if we find an ideal planet, should we try to colonize it, given the dismal record of human colonization on Earth? An Earth-like planet could harbor intelligent indigenous life, though some scientists believe that self-aware intelligence might be very rare in the universe. They point out that humanity is the only species that became sentient on Earth, even though billions of other species have existed during the planet’s 4.6 billion year history.

I think that is too pessimistic an assessment. The fact that humans stand alone does not preclude non-human sentience, on Earth or elsewhere. Once humans developed intelligence they cut off the possible evolution to sentience of any other terrestrial species, even of close humanoid cousins who were already making the transition to high intelligence. The dice of evolution never fall the same way twice. If events had occurred just slightly differently on Earth, humans wouldn’t have appeared. For example, the impact of the large meteor on the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs, gave mammals their big chance.

Though humans are unique in the cosmos, intelligence most likely is not. If a planet is Earth-like enough to tempt us to settle on it, I think it will be favorable enough to eventually grow its own version of intelligence. This raises a serious ethical dilemma, and past human behavior is not reassuring on this point. Paradoxically, this is why we need to send the ships out early, before Earth runs out of resources. If we send out expeditions at the last possible moment, when our very survival is at stake, we won’t have the luxury of factoring ethics into our equations and we’ll undoubtedly swarm over the new planets like army ants, denuding and devastating as we go.

Making Aliens 1: Why Go at All?

Making Aliens 2: The Journey

Making Aliens 3: The Landing

Making Aliens 4: Playing God I

Making Aliens 5: Playing God II

Making Aliens 6: The Descendants

8 Responses to “Making Aliens 3: The Landing”

  1. intrigued_scribe says:

    Excellent third part. 🙂 As the two previous segments do, this very fittingly brings to the fore important aspects of interplanetary travel and more than that, the conditions and changes that would be necessary to survive on vastly different worlds. (The same factors that many works of SF fiction out there do indeed overlook.) In addition, the gripping–and disturbing– possibility that the human race would not so much adapt to other planets as take over and relentlessly consume resources along the way effectively makes one think of not only the need to send exploratory vessels out early, but the manner in which ethics can too often be eclipsed by a self-serving mentality. Highly captivating stuff!

  2. Athena says:

    There is, too, the problem of unintended consequences: as persuasively outlined in Mann’s 1491, the worst thing the Europeans brought to the Americas was not gunpowder or horses, but disease, an unknown parameter to both sides. This particular item may not apply to other lifeforms, but the point about unknown or unexpected factors is still valid.

  3. Walden2 says:

    I have been wondering about what will happen when we do
    finally expand into the galaxy. I think it is inevitable for the
    basic reason that has been stated here: Unless we all want
    to go back to being hunter-gatherers, the needs of our
    growing civilization will always demand more resources,
    which Earth and one day the Sol system will no longer be
    able to completely accomodate.

    So what happens when we meet other intelligences in the
    galaxy? Will it be a peaceful and cooperative Federation type
    situation, or will it become an alien-eat-alien Universe? I wish
    we had more than just one data point to go here, because what
    I see from the life on this planet – from microbes on up to us –
    doesn’t bode well for the potential reactions from alien beings
    when we do meet. And the actions of most of the life on Earth
    are not being deliberately sadistic, they are just following their
    ancient biological programming to survive and reproduce.
    Those they harm and eat are often either just necessary or
    got in the way.

    I hate saying this even to myself, but I am starting to see
    Carl Sagan’s view of a benevolent Universe full of advanced
    beings (all the “bad” ones wiped themselves out before they
    could spread into space and infect others with their negative
    ways) as rather nieve. I hope I am wrong, but it doesn’t help
    when you read something like this (scroll down about halfway
    to get to the meat of what I am talking about):

    The two bright points I see from the discussion on that page
    are that it is a Web site designed to help role playing gamers
    conduct scientifically realistic space battles and warfare, and
    the point he made that wiping out other species in such a
    noticable way might get the attention of other ETI who would
    not take kindly to such a society that likes to smush the
    competition before it becomes the competition.

    Say that there are advanced ETI in the galaxy like the ones
    described here:

    They are way beyond conquest and warfare and can reshape
    whole solar systems to get what they need. Will living on or
    being a Dyson Shell be enough for their needs? What if they
    decide they need the whole galaxy to function as to how they
    are accustomed? Or maybe just the part we are in. How
    bothered will they be to sweep out the little bugs from Sol 3
    before turning Earth into building material? ETI don’t have to
    be malevolent to be a threat to us. They just have to be so
    different from us that they cannot relate to us as intelligences
    worthy of deference.

    I also have to wonder if Starship Troopers has the right if
    scary idea about what will happen when we meet others in
    the galaxy? Evolution has taught that not only is the bottom
    line about survival and reproduction, it also shows that the
    intelligences out there probably won’t look anything like us
    and maybe not act or think like us either. We could easily
    meet beings whom we have nothing in common with and
    both parties do not see each others as equals (sorry to
    bring out this old chestnut, but look how humans act over
    others of their kind with just a different skin tone). Will we
    try to overcome our differences to get along, or will we be
    lobbing space rocks at each other until only one society is
    left standing?

    Somebody tell me that I am wrong, that I am just being
    way too pessimistic these days. That ETI with Dyson Shells
    for habitats are all beyond violence and war and only want
    to broadcast the Encyclopedia Galactica into the Cosmos for
    the benefit and uplifting of all sentient beings.

  4. Walden2 says:

    Or maybe Orion’s Arm has the right idea, where even the
    AI Gods are subject to the same foibles as the Greek gods:

  5. Athena says:

    Most likely, the lifeforms we encounter will be so different from us that there will be no competition. Besides, each galaxy is truly vast, there is plenty of room and resources. Your second scenario is likelier: if an alien civilization is significantly different biologically and also relatively very advanced, it could crush us without much thought, just like humans stepping on an anthill.

    Orion’s Arm is an interesting place, I’m planning to visit it again. The project rho site is dedicated to Heinlein — so its tone is not surprising. But as you said, with terrestrial life being a single data point, it’s impossible to predict what will happen if/when we encounter real Others.

  6. Walden2 says:

    The realization that saddens me the most is that there
    may be no “perfect” beings anywhere in the Universe.

    The only more frightening thing is that humans are the
    height of the cosmic food chain. A clear sign that the
    Cosmos is deeply flawed and not under control, for sure.

    If we are alone in the galaxy and we do spread out into
    space, one likely scenario is that over the ages, our
    descendants on their various worlds will change so much
    that they will seem like aliens to each other, thus fulfilling
    the idea of a galaxy full of intelligent life.

    One more – Robert Bradbury’s Matrioshka Brains:

    What would a galaxy full of them think of us, if at all?

    No wonder people did and do not want to deal with the true
    vastness of the Cosmos – that incredible indifference is
    frightening and soul-sucking to tiny little creatures like us.

  7. ZarPaulus says:

    The only science fiction I’ve read that did deal with the issue of chirality was the webcomic Freefall. In that there was a brief attempt to colonize a planet that used right-handed biochemistry by uplifting one of the native species, unfortunately that project never made it past the proof of concept stage (one of the main characters is an uplifted red wolf that was created to prove it could be done). Humanity has to terraform dead worlds because the only planet with compatible biochemistry (but a high-O2 atmosphere) discovered is inhabited by a race of kleptomaniacs. One of the minor characters has genetic modifications for life in space, but ironically lives on a planet.

  8. Athena says:

    Yes, chirality seems to be neglected in SF despite although in real life it would complicate things as much as matter/antimatter encounters.