Communion Of Dreams

“The dollar bill in the couch.”
December 2, 2010, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Brave New World, Carl Zimmer, NASA, Phil Plait, Science, Science Fiction

Well, it’s not life on Titan. But it is very damned cool nonetheless:

NASA’s real news: bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic!

NASA scientists announced today an incredible find: a form of microbe that apparently evolved the ability to use otherwise toxic arsenic in their biochemistry!

To understand just how important this is, let’s turn to an analogy from one of my favorite science writers: Carl Zimmer.

The search for alien life has long been plagued by a philosophical question: what is life? Why is this so vexing? Well, let’s say that you’re hunting for change under your couch so that your four-year-old son can buy an ice cream cone from a truck that’s pulled up outside your house. Your son offers to help.

“What is change?” he asks.

“It’s…” You trail off, realizing that you’re about to get into a full-blown discussion of economics with a sugar-crazed four-year-old. So, instead, you open up your hand and show him a penny, a nickel, a dime. “It’s things like this.”

“Oh–okay!” your son says. He digs away happily. The two of you find lots of interesting things–paper clips, doll shoes, some sort of cracker–which you set aside in a little pile. But you’ve only found seventeen cents in change when the ice cream truck pulls away. Tears ensue.

As you’re tossing the pile of debris into the trash, you notice that there’s a dollar bill in the mix.

“Did you find this?” you ask.

“Yes,” your son sobs.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not change. Change is metal. That’s paper.”

OK, I have just broken the usual standards of “fair use” and I hope Carl will forgive me. I’ll compensate by saying that you should go read the whole rest of the post, because it explains far better than I ever could what the full ramifications of this actually are. Seriously – go. I’ll write more tomorrow. Come back then.

Jim Downey

1 Comment so far
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Psh. Anybody who knows about a Horta shouldn’t be at all surprised to hear about this. And I remember reading about beings like that in stories written before Star Trek did anything with the idea.

Comment by ML

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