"Hydrogen atoms," it has been said, "are things that, if left alone long enough, give rise to thinking humans."
While that's been the story of terrestrial life in a microscopic nutshell, just what are its details? Specifically, are we jaundiced to see life through eyes that have learnt to recognize creatures of astounding levels of similarity on only the third planet from an otherwise mediocre star-system, and have thus lost the ability to see other, perhaps more virulent, life-forms? In a more abstract sense, can any living system completely explain life so long it is itself living? How can you know about a system to any degree of completeness unless you stand outside of it? But leaving a living system to define life brings us, by definition, to a system that is non-living, so aren't we caught in this pattern of infinite regression? Yet, philosophy aside, as a thinking life-form unweaving the mysteries of life (and bearing our present state of knowledge, and ignorance, in mind), just what factors might cook up a working definition of life?
To me one such factor that has been sadly ignored is the substantial effect of life on non-life. Categorically speaking, any sufficiently intelligent and technologically advanced society would be able to manipulate its environment to an extent that would leave a permanent mark in our universe. In contrast, human influence on our planet has gone widely unnoticed save for those putrid wars, forced extinction of countless species and systematic widening of the ozone hole. But even this hasn't played any role in the evolution of our universe. Our earth will probably live for a while if we manage to dodge the dogs of war or every passing asteroid. It will, however, be devoured by our red-giant sun in a few billion years. Intelligent life-forms, if still on earth, would move on to other planetary niches to save themselves from getting extinct. However, another possibility that isn't realistically considered is that earthlings then should certainly possess the technological prowess to control the mood-swings of their parent star. It is not illogical to imagine Homo sapiens, its cousins or descendants to deliberately slow down, shut down, or even reverse, nuclear fusion reactions and stop the sun from becoming too huge too soon. Stellar astrophysics is studied even now, and there is no reason under the sun why we wouldn't be able to manipulate a stellar system to our advantage. This requires that the evolution of stars, even their birth, life and death, be actively regulated, and would significantly differ from the way such evolution would otherwise occur in nature. By a similar token, super-intelligent civilizations can be thought to artificially transform entire galaxies to their needs. It is clear, then, that the evolution of nontrivial portions of the universe could be heavily influenced, even tailor-made for the purposes of life. Life is hence capable of molding the very stardust from which it was born.
Our existence could merely be due to the accidental juxtaposition of certain parameters in the physical laws, or, it could be meant to bring thought and kindness to an otherwise silent and unaffected universe. Both prospects are immensely exciting, and for all we know, equally probable. But one thing - once we shed our heavily anthropocentric skin - becomes certain: life should be a common phenomenon in the cosmos. Granted, its detection could call for revolutions in the way we think. Among them might be studying isolated systems in equilibrium, local discrepancies from the laws of thermodynamics, Dyson spheres, and even tracking of unappreciated artifacts. Our technology for such detection is at best nascent, but I guess it's never too late to weave some original ideas.
And in case my words make you think I am an idle dreamer, I'll teach you a lesson in aerodynamics. Parachutes are meant to surf the winds, to stay afloat amidst harsh situations, and are made by humans for humans.
If they can work best wide open, why not the human mind?
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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