It’s life, but not as we know it...and maybe not for long
If, like me, you watched and enjoyed Brian Cox’s recent short series on The Wonders of the Universe, you’ll have some idea of just how mindbogglingly big space really is.
That awe-inspiring feeling of your own smallness you get looking up into the sky on a clear night is barely the beginning.
Those far-away stars are just a few of the nearer ones, barely a sample of the billions of suns in our own galaxy. And ours is just one among billions of galaxies.
Given that abundance of heavenly bodies, it seems inconceivable that ours could be the only planet where life has evolved.
On the other hand, the precise conditions that make life as we understand it possible are pretty specific.
So even if there is other life out there, it’s unlikely to have evolved to a stage where it’s capable of space travel, or interstellar communication, anywhere within reach of us.
So if it’s there, we’ll never know. And ‘they’ will never know that we are here.
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After all, the nearest other galaxy, the Andromeda – which you can see clearly on a good night with even a cheap pair of binoculars – is roughly 2.5million light years away.
When the Andromeda starlight you might see tonight set off, our species had not yet come into being. Not by a couple of million years or more.
Life, particularly human life, is a pretty brief blip in the grand history of the universe.
All of which makes life – and Earth – rather special.
Pity, then, that one species of creature has evolved rapidly to a point where its rapacity could actually threaten the continued history of life itself.
If, like me, you’ve watched over the years those wonderful BBC programmes about life’s rich diversity – usually presented by David Attenborough – you may recall seeing some rather weird underwater places. Places where plumes of hot water and acidic gas rise in the dark from rocky pillars like knobbly stalagmites.
Science’s best current guess is that life may have begun around those hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
They occur along the edges of tectonic plates, where volcanic activity creates boiling, sulphurous geysers.
The combination of high pressure, high temperatures and harsh chemical conditions would make most life impossible there. Yet life of a kind thrives in a chemical soup in which simple proteins – basic building-blocks of life – have been proved actually to form.
In 2005 James Cameron – the director of the brilliant Avatar – teamed up with scientists from NASA to explore the Mid-Ocean Ridge of undersea mountains and make a movie about these Aliens of the Deep.
Whether or not life really began there, the vents are among the world’s most remarkable places, and the most important to science. The creatures that live there, creatures every bit as weird as any extra-terrestrial yet imagined, are important too.
But none of that, of course, will stop humans doing what humans do. Destroying life and wrecking environments for the sake of a quick buck.
Copper, zinc, silver and gold are all to be found around the vents. And plans are afoot to start strip-mining the ocean floor. Out of sight of most people and therefore, the mining companies no doubt hope, out of mind too.
A company called Nautilus Minerals has gained a 20-year lease from the government of Papua New Guinea to open-cut mine an area about the size of ten football fields to a depth of up to 30 metres.
Not much, you might think – but no one knows what the effects will be of completely trashing a complex eco-system over such an area. And that, you can be sure, will only be the beginning.
Bizarrely, Nautilus Minerals has promised to compensate for the loss of life it will cause by “repopulating” a similar area of seabed somewhere else.
Which could be a bit like compensating for trashing Suffolk by trying to set up a farm in the Sahara.
Interestingly, there’s another place where all the metallic minerals Nautilus is going prospecting for can be found. A place you’d think it might be easier to retrieve them from.
In fact, there are a lot of these places. There’s one at Foxhall and another at Great Blakenham.
Conventional mining companies generally shift about a tonne of ore to extract a single gramme of gold. According to the United Nations, just 41 used mobile phones could yield the same amount. In Britain alone, around a million mobile phones were dumped last year.
There’s silver, cobalt and palladium in them there landfill hills too.
Yes, we’ve made green strides in recent years. A lot of our trash is now recycled. But a lot isn’t.
And meanwhile, big companies continue to ravage land – and seabed – to go on satisfying our demand for more and more electronic gadgets to throw away.
Now, what was I watching that Brian Cox series on?