In Search of Life (on other planets)

Finally got around to starting/finishing a book I had bought ~5 yrs ago. I think I was way too afraid to even go over its first few pages at the time or I could have been slacking away, just as much. (Link: “Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order To Chaos And Complexity” by John R. Gribbin).

It goes into variety of subjects (Chaos Theory, Power Law, Complex Systems, Fractals, Thermodynamics, Physics, Maths, Biology, Earthquakes, Why Zebras have stripes etc) and wonderfully pieces together a comprehensive narrative of how nature follows simple rules – irrespective of its scale (whether its atom/molecules or Universe/Stars/Human body) and how it is self organized. Heady stuff for sure, had to re-read the whole book several times – and I can only understand half of it.

One of its chapters (Life Beyond), lays out a proposed experiment to NASA (around 1960s) regarding common attributes that scientists and astrophysicists should look for, in order to find signs of life on Mars. If, for example, they observe that the planet is in a reduced entropy state, one can theorize presence of life.

The best way to look for entropy reduction processes at work on Mars would be to measure the chemical composition of its atmosphere.

If there were no life on Mars, the gases in the atmosphere would be in a state of thermodynamic and chemical equlibrium, dominated by stable compounds such as carbon dioxide.

If there were life on Mars, then the waste products from life processes would be dumped into the Martian atmosphere, providing reactive gases such as methane and oxygen, which would lower the entropy of the atmosphere.

Today, NASA uses modified version of the proposal via spectrography to find similar signs in other planets (Of course, what else could it be, if not spectrography or whatever its called 🙂).

A simple set of rules (as explained in the book) to examine if thermodynamic equilibrium exist, is good enough to tell whether a particular planet, orbiting millions of light-years away, has environment hospitable to nurturing life – all without any space probe, even without leaving our Solar System. And thats a pretty striking statement – understanding deep simplicity that underpins the Universe, opens the door to much more discovery.

(Given that NASA discovered Earth-like twin planet just last week, wonder what its spectroscopic analysis will show? guess we’ll have to wait and see. The author of this book, which was published in 2004, had speculated that astrophysicists would find Earth-like planet around 2020-2030, he was off by ~5-10 yrs. Not bad.).