Friday, August 17, 2007

We Don't Need No Steenkin' Carbon


Okay, now here's a paper to kick your paradigms a little off-kilter: self-replicating, mutating complex structures built from inorganic dust, kick-started into a form of rudimentary "metabolism" by charged plasmas.

For want of a better word, Life. Inorganic life. Spawned from starting conditions reasonably common in deep space, if I'm to believe the commentary.

Of course, the results are just out, and so is the jury. We don't want to get too carried away; lots of nonliving structures superficially resemble life in a variety of ways (ball lightning, Fox's microspheres from the fifties — I even wrote a children's story once premised on the thought that fire might be considered a life form under the right circumstances, although the logic of that argument was about as feeble as the story itself). And for every thought-provoking Hoyleian thought-experiment into sentient clouds, there are ten third-rate episodes of Star Trek and Space: 1999 that trotted out the ol' energy-being trope for no better reason than that a blob of blue light was even cheaper to render than a guy in a rubber mask. There's a certain hokey taint to the whole concept.

Still. Those of you who read Maelstrom may remember the definition "Self-replicating information shaped by natural selection", based on (and slightly mutated from) a line I stole out of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. Tsytovich et al's "inorganic living matter" seems to meet that standard, at least. And since I'm presently gearing up to build a deep-space lifeform or two of my own, I for one welcome the arrival of our new dustbunny overlords...

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4 Comments:

Blogger Nicholas said...

That article kicks ASS.

August 17, 2007 at 8:09 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I don't follow all the paper, but it seems like all the most exciting implications are speculative, and the only thing we know for sure is that space dust sometimes forms into tubes.

Their diagram of the "possible model" for transmitting a bifurcation between two helices shows the two helices lined up. That made me think that they are proposing that the sequence and location of the bifurcations is what encodes genetic information. But I can't see any reason to think that the helices would aligned in the same direction or have similar lengths or other properties. So has the creation of the new bifurcation actually transmitted any information that could form the basis for ongoing natural selection? If the bifurcations themselves have intrinsic properties which affect "fitness", then perhaps. But surely there's no reason to think that the convective process they show would create the same kind of bifurcation in the "target" helix?

I find A.G. Cairns Smith's idea of replicating defects in boring old non-plasma crystals to be a lot more convincing as an inorganic form of life.

I've often thought that positing the survival of an advanced form of this crystalline life would make a good science-fictional McGuffin. How do the infective agents in prion diseases survive extreme conditions? They're crystal replicators, changing the conformation of proteins for their own ends.

"Nanobes"? Crystal replicators.

Osteoporosis? Crystal replicators living in your bones. Why do women tend to get osteoporosis more? Crystal replicators can stow away in an egg cell, but a sperm is too small, so it's a maternally inherited condition.

August 18, 2007 at 5:33 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Ben said...

I don't follow all the paper, but it seems like all the most exciting implications are speculative, and the only thing we know for sure is that space dust sometimes forms into tubes.

Well, helical tubes that can generate heritable heterogeneities. But if you didn't follow all of the paper, you did way better than me; I read the whole thing through and I could understand hardly any of it. You're right, though, from what I could glean — a lot of the more far-reaching implications were based on simulation modelling, not actual experiments. Still, it's good enough for an sf writer to cannibalise.

I find A.G. Cairns Smith's idea of replicating defects in boring old non-plasma crystals to be a lot more convincing as an inorganic form of life.

Great. Another book to read. At least this one's online.

I've often thought that positing the survival of an advanced form of this crystalline life would make a good science-fictional McGuffin. How do the infective agents in prion diseases survive extreme conditions? They're crystal replicators, changing the conformation of proteins for their own ends.

You know, I was thinking prions while reading Tsytovich et al; the replication they posited for their helices was not true replication so much as infecting other, already-extant tubes with their own specs. It seemed exactly analogous to protein reconformation.

But again, all that physics was over my head...

August 20, 2007 at 12:25 AM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

I for one welcome the arrival of our new dustbunny overlords...

Mind if I steal that the next time my BH is bugging me to sweep under the bed?

August 23, 2007 at 6:35 PM  

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