Thursday, April 26, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Xenobiology

This is one of those that I find really cool but still can't help thinking, "What the heck?" about.

I don't remember what book I was reading when I first came across the term xenobiology. It was definitely science fiction, and, although I want to say it was Asimov, it probably wasn't. One thing I am sure about, though, is that it was not The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein, since I haven't read that. That is, however, where the term originates. At the time, it meant "the study of alien life." Even before coming across the term in whatever book it was, there was some other book that several different friends had back in the '70s that was a book of art of what alien life might look like. I was kind of fascinated with the book, especially since it was presented rather as if it was "true." The one image that has stuck in my mind (and I could not find the illustration) was of a large jellyfish-like creature that lived in the atmosphere of Jupiter (evidently inspired because Carl Sagan said something like that might possibly exist).

Several years after Heinlein's 1954 book, NASA started an exobiology program which focused on the search for life on other planets. Now, these were two different things:
1. xenobiology -- the study of "alien" life
2. exobiology -- the search for alien life
All of this came to be under the heading of astrobiology, which is sort of all-encompassing: Astrobiology is the search for extraterrestrial life and the study of its origin, evolution, and distribution (as in whether it's traveled from one planet to another (like on a meteor)).

But let's go back to just xenobiology for a moment. The idea of alien life is fascinating. And the movies of the '70s, like Star Wars and Close Encounters and, even, E.T. (yes, I know that one was 1980), really cemented the idea into the heads of many young minds. So much so that a "real" disciple around xenobiology developed. Mostly, it was involved in speculation about what alien life could be like, but they considered it a science. A completely hypothetical science. Which I just find fascinating. And astounding. I mean, I was completely unable to believe that there were schools that offered classes in this when I was still in high school and looking over my college options.

"Yes, please, can I sign up for that class in completely make-believe science?"

Not that I don't believe in the possibility of alien life; I do. I also find it completely... well, a little like jumping the gun to be trying to say that speculation about what life might be like on another planet is science.

Some good came of all of this, though. In 1977, we discovered some life here on Earth that does not require sunlight to live or, even, thrive. This changed our definition of the requirements for life (and I remember learning in science when I was a kid that sunlight was required). We've got the requirements boiled down to water and energy (pardon the pun), at this point. We don't even think that all life need be carbon-based anymore, which is another of those things I learned when I was a kid.

At any rate, all of this lead to a change in the definition of xenobiology to "biology based on a foreign chemistry." Mostly, now, it deals with weird forms of life we've been discovering on Earth that have previously been thought to be impossible (like the tube worms that don't need sunlight and those weird bacteria discovered a few years ago that can live off of arsenic).

But, still, there are plenty of people out there studying (speculating about) alien life that we haven't even discovered.

And, now, I want to digress for a moment (like that's unusual):

My buddy, Briane Pagel over at The Best of Everything is doing alien languages for the A to Z challenge. Well, saying that he's talking about alien languages might not be exactly correct since a lot of what he does is talk about talking about them, but that's his announced theme, so I'm just sort of going with it. Anyway... Last week he did a post about our potential for communicating with aliens if/when we ever do meet them. In his post, he talks about dolphins and about how we've been working with them for decades, and we still can't communicate with them. This seems like a similar topic to me as what I'm talking about with this xenobiology stuff.

People start talking about talking to aliens, and we haven't even met them. The pre-supposition is that they will be similar enough to us that we will have some basis of relation to them and, thus, facilitate understanding. And this might be true. However, it might also be totally wrong. Which is kind of why it's not the smartest thing to start speculating about  these sorts of things. Talking to aliens or what alien life might be like.

Here's the thing, dolphins are smart. Really smart. Potentially, as smart as humans (or even smarter). After all, their brain/mass ratio is roughly equivalent to that of humans, which plays a part in our standards for intelligence. For instance, an elephant also has a brain that is roughly the same size as a human's or a dolphin's, but their mass is so much larger, they fall lower on the intelligence scale, because their brain has to be more concerned with their bodies than a human's brain to theirs. No, I don't know why it's defined this way, but that's how they do it. Well, okay, I do sort of know why, but it's not really important to this, so I'm not going to go into it.

So we have this animal that lives here on Earth with us, an animal that has a completely alien way of being. Alien to us, you understand. And despite that we've been working with them for decades, we're no closer to understanding how they communicate. And it's clear that they do communicate. But they don't communicate in any way that makes sense to us, but we think we'll be able to talk with aliens should we meet them?

Here's what I'm getting at: It seems to me that it would be more profitable for scientists to be spending their time on understanding the things in front of us that we don't understand rather than speculating about how we can send coded messages into space to talk to aliens. It seems quite clear to me that if we can't figure out how to communicate with dolphins that we have no hope of stumbling blindly across some code that will allow us to speak to aliens. And I give Briane the credit for this thought, because I'd never really thought about it at all until he brought it up.

In the same way, I think scientists would be better served working to understand the life on our own planet rather than speculating about how life might develop on some other planet. Until we can actually go there and see how that life might have developed, speculation doesn't matter at all. Not that we shouldn't look for life, I'm all for that, but the fact that we have (or had) a science devoted to studying alien life seems more than a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

Leave that stuff to the science fiction writers and you scientists get back to work on the real science. Like faster than light travel so that we can find that alien life.


  1. How bizarre, I wonder if a xenobiologist will read this and give their take on it!


  2. You've raised a lot of points in this post. Your logic is infallible. Understanding our world better could benefit everyone.

  3. Speculation can lead us to more discoveries, however it can't really be science unless we have something to study.

  4. That seems like one of those phony sciences like paranormal psychology or astrology or phrenology or whatever it was where you studied bumps on someone's head. Though the main character in my novel studies meteors, which could be part of exobiology since other than telescopes that's about the only way we can study stuff from other planets.

  5. I'm pretty neutral on the idea of alien life but I tend to agree with you that maybe we'd be better off understanding our own world.

    That said, maybe I'd be better off not writing fantasy novels.

  6. That may be true,but I have to admit. I'd really love to be a xenobiologist. It just sounds like a really cool profession. Fourth after writing, archaeologist/treasure hunters (as in Indiana Jones or Lara Croft), and pirate.

  7. Pure research, for the sake of curiosity alone, has given us the modern world. I don't think it's a good idea to let scientists not be allowed to pursue the line of inquiry that has fascinated them.

    As I mentioned on Briane's blog a few times, Math is the key to communicating with an alien intelligence. SETI is looking for aliens that have technology, that build things. Precision instruments (like a satellite dish to direct a message) require math to be built. We can't communicate with dolphins because they don't have math.

    So there is a real chance that we'd have a better chance of understanding an alien message from the stars than we would a whale song.

    However, the Big Picture Science podcast is produced by the SETI institute and it really a great primer on what they are really doing when they talk about astrobiology. It's way more productive than you might think.

  8. I think the biggest problem with communicating with dolphins has to do with their fins. It makes it really hard for them to phone or text. If only someone would invent a device to make it easier for them, then I think we'd have our breakthrough.

    Heh, actually I was thinking while I read this that it would be really presumptuous of us to assume aliens would have anything in common with us. I was reading just the other day about an enzyme or something that eats plastic. Others eat petro-chemicals. I think we need to be open to the idea that an alien species could come in any form and eat anything. Including us. They ought to have a class in that. Defensive arts against human-eating space enzymes. :))

  9. I think you make some good points--it seems likely that extraterrestrial life would be much harder to understand than dolphins or the other organisms on Earth in extreme locations. But it's interesting to think what life could be like, limited as human speculation is.

    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  10. I'm all for people speculating and doing what is most interesting to them, but you're right that speculation can't do us a whole lot of good right now without actual scientific data to help it along. Direct that mind power to figuring out how to accomplish actual space exploration.

  11. OT: That would be cool. Thanks for stopping by!

    Michael: I agree! Your logic is also infallible.

    Alex: Certain types of speculation can, yes. The kind that starts with, "I wonder if I can..." especially.

    Grumpy: There has actually been some new investigation to do with some meteorite and whether markings on it have to do with bacterial life.

    M.J.: Well, I don't think I agree with you about the fantasy novel part.

    S.L.: Well, being a xenobiologist as they currently stand would be cool. The whole thing with the arsenic eating bacteria is really fascinating. I'm not sure how you'd ever get past being a pirate, though. Would that ever wear off?

    Rusty: I think a line of inquiry is different from, well, daydreaming. Because when you start on something "what is life like on other planets?" with no way of verifying or doing anything with it, that's all it is: daydreaming. Like wondering what it would be like to go to Disneyland.

    L.G.: I think if we start making some waterproof iDevices and give dolphins a stylus that they can wear on their heads then we could, maybe, get them into texting. Or, at least, making some cool youtube videos.

    Golden Eagle: It is interesting to think about. It's even fun. But that's... well, it's more like philosophy.

    Shannon: Exactly! I want my FTL drive!