Evaluating Our Importance In The Universe

Feb 4, 2016

Photo credit: ESA/NASA

By Marcelo Gleiser

For the past two weeks we’ve been exploring some of the questions related to life’s origin on Earth and possibly elsewhere.

We know life was present on Earth at least 3.5 billion years ago. It may have been present even earlier, but results remain controversial. The window of opportunity for life to emerge and take root here opened after the Late Heavy Bombardment calmed down some 3.9 billion years ago. Before then, conditions were too harsh for living creatures to survive; if anything lived, it was most probably destroyed, leaving no clues. Life’s early history is written in rocks. As primal rocks melted and got mixed and remixed in a churning inferno, life’s early experiments were erased into oblivion.

We can’t know what really happened to life that early on. We can study possible metabolic and genetic pathways to life, collect fossilized evidence from old rocks, and conduct experiments in the laboratory, expanding our understanding of this most vexing of questions, the transition from nonlife to life. But even if we are able to make life in vitro, we can’t be sure that this is what happened around 3.6 billion years ago here.

What we do know is that the history of life in a planet depends on the planet’s life history: change the sequence or intensity of events — asteroid collisions, massive volcanic eruptions, radical changes in atmospheric composition — and life’s history is rewritten.

This casts the question of life here, and elsewhere, into new focus. We can state, with high confidence, that even if there are other intelligent creatures in the universe, even humanoid ones, they won’t be like us. We are the only humans in the cosmos, the product of a very particular set of cosmic, geochemical and evolutionary circumstances. Life is an experiment in natural selection, and an amazingly creative one at that. There may be certain biological patterns that offer an evolutionary advantage and would be fairly common, such as two eyes or left-right body symmetry. But details will vary as they do with snowflakes, all coming from the same chemistry but amazingly diverse due to environmental details.


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12 comments on “Evaluating Our Importance In The Universe

  • we have no importance whatsoever

    we have no meaning

    life is like the eddies in a river – the river flows towards increased entropy – that some water periodically flows back the other way is just the nature of things

    everything in the universe seeks increased entropy – life is one of those ways it can happen faster – complex life is very good at reducing order

    you could say that life is the universe’s way of not going out without a fight

    or life is the universe’s way of going down kicking and screaming

    but it has no value whatsoever – all life expressions die, all threads of speciation die

    there is no point

    none at all

    how we deal with that – how we embrace reality in it’s absolute pointlessness

    that’s what matters – and only to each other – fleeting as it all is

    to hold on to anything at all is just delusion

    so spoke Moses, Buddha and others since

    so speaks science

    pop



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  • @OP – This casts the question of life here, and elsewhere, into new focus.

    The Rare Earth, and stellar and galactic “habitable zones” suggest that planets with life – especially intelligent life, will be uncommon.

    We can state, with high confidence, that even if there are other intelligent creatures in the universe, even humanoid ones, they won’t be like us.

    While there is great diversity of life on Earth and certain mechanisms have evolved multiple times, our egocentric fixation on the human bodily form, is simply a statement of our failure to recognise other intelligent life-forms on Earth!

    We are the only humans in the cosmos, the product of a very particular set of cosmic, geochemical and evolutionary circumstances. Life is an experiment in natural selection, and an amazingly creative one at that.

    . . . . So we can expect diversity IF life exists elsewhere.

    There may be certain biological patterns that offer an evolutionary advantage and would be fairly common,

    Certain geometrical structures and repeat patterns, are more probably going to lend themselves to evolutionary development.

    such as two eyes or left-right body symmetry.

    From Earth’s life forms, there is no evidence, that having only two eyes necessarily confers an advantage. There are vastly more organisms on Earth with multiple eyes, or even no eyes, than there are organisms with two eyes.
    Bodily symmetry gives stability and optimises structural support, when moving or coping with mechanical forces.



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  • While there is great diversity of life on Earth and certain mechanisms have evolved multiple times, our egocentric fixation on the human bodily form, is simply a statement of our failure to recognise other intelligent life-forms on Earth!

    This should be on a T Shirt.

    I wonder if chemistry limits what is possible biologically in the universe. Carbon because of its chemical properties is the most likely base element for life, given its myriad propensity for diverse organic carbon compounds. Oxygen is the universal and common oxidizer. There are other oxidizing elements and on a planet with no oxygen, another may step up. Sulphur is a solid. Florine and chorine are way to chemically active. Calcium carbonate is great for either internal or external support structures.

    Eyes should have at least two, as stereoscopic vision gives depth perception. Can be more. You need to be able to move about to make use of all of your environment. You need to be able to manipulate things in the environment. You need to have a stable base. Millipedes have a stable base. You need to be able to communicate. The communication of ideas and discoveries accelerates evolution. How you stack all these things together is a bit irrelevant. An octopus ticks a lot of the above boxes and is thought to possess a level of intelligence.

    Interesting use of copper instead of iron to transport oxygen around an octopus’ circulatory system.

    Octopuses use hemocyanin as their respiratory pigment, which binds oxygen through copper rather than the iron used by our own hemoglobin.



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  • bonnie
    Feb 4, 2016 at 7:31 am

    Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

    I think it is wildly speculative fantasy!

    http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2008/jupiter_lrs.html

    A Category Five hurricane, the strongest class on Earth, has winds raging at more than 155 miles per hour, and they usually max out around 200 miles per hour. Jupiter’s Little Red Spot could blow them away with winds of about 384 miles per hour, some of the highest wind speeds ever detected on any planet. Nearly the size of Earth, the Little Red Spot (LRS) could easily consume the largest terrestrial hurricane.

    Giant balloons are not compatible with an abundance of super-hurricane force storms.



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  • Getting tired of the ‘we’ll never know’ hand-waving. That’s not really the important question. More interesting is the processes involved to create life out of non-life, and that, we can know.

    Artificial life, synthetic life, or even non-organic life, more important than just the history of it, however fun and interesting and enlightening it might be in its own right.



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  • Humans are important to humans.

    On the scale of the Universe and our importance to the Universe, we are such a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001% of it, that we can be totally ignored as far as 99.999999999999999999999999999999%+ of our galaxy is concerned, – and that galaxy is only an infinitesimal fraction of the Universe!

    God-delusions and childish egocentrics, never were any use at realistic estimates, probabilities, or big numbers! Many of them cannot count years in thousands beyond where they run out of fingers!! 🙂



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  • We are perhaps the most important form of life in the cosmos. And the reason why I say this is because we have the ability to radically change the universe as it is, though ineffective we are but on the brink of a robotics revolution that would amplify our intelligence existentially and massively parallel. Right now we are just beginning to transfer our intelligence to computers that only do exactly that. Why? We have the unique ability to describe and implement function.why is this so important? It is because we can describe our own function. To those who understand that ARE the important ones because it enables adaptability and to survive in an ever changing universe you need adaptability. This my friends is the meaning of your existence at the very core, everything else are extras to your experience that you have graciously made for yourself and this herein lies the problem, since civilisation has done so much for us we are neglecting our methods of adaptation , there is hardly any drive in you to colonise other planets is there? Perhaps you don’t see the necessity for this, but like minded people like myself see this planet is over populated and right now intellect and strategy could be better. Maybe it’s a human spirit problem, something is supposed to drive us all out to the stars… Think for a bit. Why are we still here? We contemplate so much stuff and we are supposed to be thinkers. So where is this unreasoned with, called upon direction that is the extension of our core functionality? Any strategist against an inevitable demise only conquered by implementing shear intellect, a sharp edge on survival would realise, finally, the inevitable demise is not so inevitable after all, and significance does come with beating our own predetermined fate of death.



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  • George Wagenknecht
    Feb 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    We are perhaps the most important form of life in the cosmos. And the reason why I say this is because we have the ability to radically change the universe as it is,

    Sorry George, but this demonstrates a lack of understanding of the scale of the Universe.

    though ineffective we are but on the brink of a robotics revolution that would amplify our intelligence existentially and massively parallel. Right now we are just beginning to transfer our intelligence to computers that only do exactly that.

    Our robotics revolution may take us to a few nearby stars in our own galaxy, and in 4 to 6 billion years (if we still exist then), may take us and/or our machines to the merging Andromeda galaxy, but these galaxies are an infinitesimally small and rather isolated part of the Universe!



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  • @Alanfordiscussion.

    The Rare Earth, and stellar and galactic “habitable zones” suggest that planets with life – especially intelligent life, will be uncommon.

    Just curious, but, who determines what “Intelligent Life” is? Are you under the impression that the human race is in fact intelligent?



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  • Derek Speed
    Feb 5, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    Just curious, but, who determines what “Intelligent Life” is?

    I think as a minimum, multicellular life would be a first prerequisite, followed by some sort of brain providing inductive and deductive processes.

    Are you under the impression that the human race is in fact intelligent?

    I think that is still an open question, both in terms of species characteristics and in regard to some individuals!! 🙂

    On the record, with regard to the unrestrained exploitation of our planet:- I have on occasions, suggested that the human race needs to demonstrate, that it has more intelligence than a yeast culture in a barrel of fruit juice! – which exploits its resources until there is nothing left to exploit, and is then pickled in its own waste products!! 🙂



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  • Derek Speed
    Feb 5, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    @Alanfordiscussion. – The Rare Earth, and stellar and galactic “habitable zones” suggest that planets with life – especially intelligent life, will be uncommon.

    http://www.astrobio.net/news-exclusive/galactic-habitable-zones/
    Our Milky Way Galaxy is unusual in that it is one of the most massive galaxies in the nearby universe. Our Solar System also seems to have qualities that make it rather unique. According to Guillermo Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington, these qualities make the Sun one of the few stars in the Galaxy capable of supporting complex life.

    For one thing, the Sun is composed of the right amount of “metals.” (Astronomers refer to all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium as “metals.”) Moreover, the Sun’s circular orbit about the galactic center is just right; through a combination of factors it manages to keep out of the way of the Galaxy’s dangerous spiral arms. Our Solar System is also far enough away from the galactic center to not have to worry about disruptive gravitational forces or too much radiation.



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