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Is There A Giant Life Form Lurking In Our Solar System? Possibly, Say Scientists

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 - 11:13 AM

What if — just maybe — we find extra-terrestrial life in the oceans of Europa, a little moon circling Jupiter? If we do, says writer Caspar Henderson, don't expect that oceanic alien to be very big. Or very scary. Or even very visible. Nothing like this ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

The "top predator" on Europa, Henderson reports, is likely to be "a fearsome creature with the mass of one gram." That's three one-hundredths of an ounce.

We wouldn't be able to talk to it. It wouldn't have much on its mind since creatures that small probably don't have minds.

The sad fact is extra-terrestrials are much less interesting than they used to be.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

A hundred years ago, it was so different. Harvard astronomer Percival Lowell was describing "canals" on Mars built, he thought, by an intelligent race of thirsty Martians who were trying to channel melting water from the poles to dry cities on the Martian equator. What a tale!

Today? Today we've got a little robot sniffing the dry Martian air for a hint of microscopic life that may — or may not — be hiding in the Martian soil.

It's not just that we've given up hope of finding intelligent beings, it's worse than that. The life we now expect (or rather hope) to find is usually imagined as depressingly small, pebble-sized, or even smaller, like the period at the end of this sentence.

Yeah, that small.

Obvious And Unnecessary Aside

I know, I know, it would be enormously exciting to find life somewhere other than Earth, any kind of life, of any size — but I think it would be so much more fabulous if that life had heft — a body that weighed, oh, 100 pounds, that was four, five, six feet across. Something just a little ... umm, scary.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Well, it could happen.

Professor Dirk Schultze-Makuch and astrobiologist David Grinspoon have proposed the possibility of just such a creature. Schultze-Makuch is an environmental science professor at Washington State University and Grinspoon is an astrobiologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science; both are serious, well regarded scholars (even if Grinspoon fronts for a funk band called "House Band of the Universe.")

In 2005, they describe this large alien life form in a paper called, "Biologically Enhanced Energy and Carbon Cycling on Titan?" and when I read what they wrote, suddenly I was, happily, frightened again!

Just to set this up, Titan is a moon that circles Saturn (In 2005, a probe landed there, and took pictures). It's very cold there, something like 180 degrees Celsius below freezing, and yet there seem to be lakes on its surface. You can see them in the photos ...

NASA

Those aren't water lakes. Water would freeze. They are presumed to be lakes of liquid ethane or methane, and several scientists, including NASA's Chris McKay proposed back in 2005 it's just possible there could be life in those lakes. Not water life, obviously, but acetylene or hydrogen eating creatures. After all, there are methane eaters here on earth, down near vents in our oceans, so why not on Titan?

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Chris suggested that if we ever fly close, we should look for missing methane on Titan. If there's lots of methane and hydrogen in Titan's air and less on the ground, one possibility is: something on the ground (or in those lakes) is eating the stuff. And lo and behold, we did fly close by, and a series of papers published in 2010 found missing hydrogen and missing acytelene on Titan's surface. Just like Chris McKay hoped.

Does that mean there are methane eaters on Titan? No. Reporters got very excited for a day or two until the scientists and then Carolyn Porco, leader of the imaging team on the Titan project tweeted "Everyone: Calm down! It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible."

But methane eaters are still possible too.

And here's where my heart starts to beat fast. In their 2005 paper, Dirk Schultzs-Makuch and David Grinspoon said if one day methane eaters are found to exist on Titan, and if they swim around in very, very cold ethane lakes or oceans, and if those oceans don't have the pressure or weight of water, the cells in those critters might grow much larger than living cells on Earth. That's when they thrilled me. They used the H- word, as in "huge."

It's smack in the middle of this paragraph. In fact, I'll boldface it for you:

In an extremely cold, hydrophobic (but liquid) environment, surface/volume ratio considerations may be less constraining than at higher temperatures in polar solvents. Thus, life on Titan could involve huge (by Earth standards) and very slowly metabolizing cells, in which case biomass densities would be higher than calculated above.

That means one day, it's possible — not likely, but scientifically plausible — that we will get to meet a life form in our solar system that's not a puny, dumb little thing, but a huge dumb thing. Like dog-sized. Or maybe Volkswagen-sized. Yes, it would be very, very simple, probably an extremely dull life form, a floating giant egg of a thing, but it would be what we haven't dared dream about for the last 50 years: It would be big! And alive!

The difference between teeny and alive and BIG and alive — is big.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

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Comments [8]

Koko the Talking Ape

Re large or complex organisms: it would help if we knew if ecosystems eventually produce large or complex organisms as a kind of natural tendency. I have heard some people think that organisms will eventually fill empty ecological niches, and absent other limitations (like thermodynamics or material strength), one of those niches is "Largest." I.e., SOMETHING (not all) will gain some kind of advantage by getting larger. So over time, barring some catastrophe, the largest animals will be larger than the ones before. Could something be true also of complexity? (And how is complexity measured?) On the other hand, for most of life's history on Earth, life was simple single-celled organisms. For all we know, multi-celled organisms are an absolute fluke (no pun intended.)

David Grinspoon is a terrific guy, by the way!

Nov. 16 2013 03:12 PM
APRIL from MANHATTAN

WHY DO WE LOOK FOR LIFE ELSEWHERE INSTEAD OF TRYING TO NOT TERMINALLY WRECK THIS PLANET AND ALL OTHER LIFE ON IT BUT GLORIOUS US. YES, WE'RE WONDERFUL, "THE THINKING REED", BUT WE'RE INCAPABLE OF RATIONAL ACTION. WE KNOW WE'RE KILLING LIFE ON THE ONLY BEAUTIFUL BLUE PLANET WE CAN SEE, YET WE JUST CAN'T STOP. STEPHEN HAWKINGS SAYS WE'D BETTER FIND ANOTHER PLANET FAST, YET NO ONE COVERS OVER POPULATION, HARDLY ANYONE AS A CAUSE OF CLIMATE CHANGE. HE ADDS THAT WHEN ALIENS SHOW UP WE'RE THE NATIVE AMERICANS. OR LUNCH. SEE WERNER HERZOG'S GREAT DOCUMENTARY "LIFE AT THE END OF HE WORLD" ABOUT AN AMERICAN BASE IN ANTARCTICA. SCIENTIST TELL DYSTOPIAN SCI FI TALES, AND HAVE BUILT A SHRINE AT THE END OF AN ICE TUNNEL WITH PICTURES OF FLOWERS, TREES, ANIMALS, EVEN US. FOR THE ALIENS WHO MIGHT COME AFTER WE'VE RUINED IT ALL. AND LIFE IS DEAD.

Nov. 16 2013 11:47 AM
Dwight Howard

What a bunch of douchebags/

Sep. 22 2013 11:10 PM
Jarno from Helsinki

While I agree that finding large-scale life-forms anywhere outside the Earth in our solar system would be beyond exiting, for me, finding just microscopic life would not be that much less exiting.

That is because such a discovery could answer some truly profound questions about life and biology, and the abundance or scarcity of both in the universe. Does all life use DNA, RNA, with maybe only minor differences? If a microscopic life form we'd find, say, on Europa, would turn to out to use RNA, or DNA, then we could deduce one of two things: either this RNA/DNA setup is the only, or most likely way life arises, or life on Earth, and on Europa, came from the same source; giving credence to panspermia ideas.

If it turned out to be something completely different in it's structure and biochemistry, then we'd know that there are more than one fundamental way of life, and we'd know that life has arisen within the same solar system at least twice, which would mean that life is probably ubiquitous in the Universe.

We'd reach that same inference about the probable abundance of life, were the newly discovered lifeform found to use RNA or DNA, but we might then speculate that living things are probably more similar across the Universe than we might otherwise think.

Of course, if we found the newly discovered life to be TOO similar to what it is on Earth, then there might be a difficulty in ruling out that the discovered life isn't actually a contaminant - something that hitched a ride on the spacecraft.

I'm hoping that I'll see a discovery of anything - even tiny bacteria like life on another planet or moon. That would make my decade! :)

Aug. 19 2013 11:48 AM
Mark Brown

Oops, I should have said:
Your remark about one gram equaling about 3/100 ounce is about right.

Aug. 18 2013 03:54 PM
Mark Brown

Your remark about one gram equaling about 1/300 ounce is off by an order of magnitude. There are 28.3 grams per ounce.

Aug. 18 2013 09:59 AM
S.C. Barrus from Seattle

That's fascinating. If the cells are much larger than earth cells on this creature, what do you suppose they will look like? A collection of amoeba all glued together, wriggling and writhing? Or maybe it looks more like a big glob of jello with strange organs visible through it lime flavored body... Ew, I just grossed myself out.

Great article!

Aug. 16 2013 01:21 PM
sepiae

Nice one!
We'll need to think of a name at once!
Fred or Daisy.

A lil fun-fact about Percival Lowell's Martian canals, as told by Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson:
looking at stuff through Percy's telescope folks have found a possible explanation for his seeing canals where there aren't any - the lens was badly scratched and they could make out pretty well what he described.
I'm trying to imagine this, but someone understanding more about telescopes and optics should step it: even the worst scratches should be badly in focus when a planet is looked at, but perhaps there was a way those scratches showed?

Aug. 16 2013 04:26 AM

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