|The “Spirit or Alien” Question
by Peter Fotis Kapnistos
(Copyright © 2009 Peter Fotis Kapnistos)
Posted: 16:10 August 6, 2009
At the dawn of our social development, humans believed that the sky or firmament was the abode of spirits. In most traditions, a spirit was a ghost or being without a material body. The sky as seen from Earth was called “the heavens” and was accepted in various doctrines as the dwelling place of God and angels –– as well as the blessed after death. Most religions looked upon the spirit as an intelligent life force or “soul.”
The introduction of modern science finally consigned ghosts and spirits to the fantasy zone of delusions and superstitions. In our day, eminent reasoned thinkers are in charge of our scientific and educational systems. But the swift growth of astrobiology in the past few years has presented an exceptional challenge. Several popular theories have been proposed about the possible basis of alien life. The latest phase in the critical analysis of extraterrestrial life now focuses on what physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies recently described as “Q-life.”
“A century and a half after Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species, the origin of life itself remains a stubborn mystery, and is deeply problematic. The simplest known living organism is already stupendously complex, and it is inconceivable that such an entity would arise spontaneously by chance self-assembly. Most researchers suppose that life began either with a set of self-replicating, digital-information-carrying molecules much simpler than DNA, or with a self-catalyzing chemical cycle that stored no precise genetic information but was capable of producing additional quantities of the same chemical mixture. Both these approaches focus on the reproduction of material substances, which is only natural because, after all, known life reproduces by copying genetic material. However, the key properties of life — replication with variation, and natural selection — do not logically require material structures themselves to be replicated. It is sufficient that information is replicated. This opens up the possibility that life may have started with some form of quantum replicator: Q-life, if you like.”
Q-life –– set apart as a “life form without material structure” –– ironically harks back to our ancient belief in spirits. According to Professor Davies, the benefit of simply copying information at the quantum level, instead of building rigid duplicate molecular structures, is speed: “Q-life can therefore evolve many orders of magnitude faster than chemical life,” Davies pointed out. The environment of theoretical Q-life is unclear, but the surfaces of interstellar grains or the interiors of comets could allow “low-temperature environments with rich physical and chemical potential.”
The possibility of a quantum replicator became evident in 2007, when an international panel from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Institute of Germany, and the University of Sydney found that under certain conditions galactic dust “comes alive” in outer space. The panel’s chief researcher, V.N. Tsytovich, announced that microscopic corkscrew shapes (helixes and double helixes) could form “spontaneously” in interstellar space. As they have memory and the power to reproduce, the helical strands show the necessary properties to meet the criteria for life. Since that affirmative disclosure, NASA scientists have given weight to a search for what they now call “weird life” –– organisms that lack DNA or other molecules found in life on Earth.
Quantum mechanics predicts that a proton can probably tunnel through the potential barrier separating quantum states of a DNA base pair, thus producing genetic mutations. “Mutations are the driver of evolution,” Davies wrote. “So in this limited sense, quantum mechanics is certainly a contributory factor to evolutionary change.” But how did Q-life evolve into familiar organic life? A possible scenario proposed by Davies is that common bio-molecules were derived by Q-life as a dynamic back-up information storage process.
“A good analogy is a computer. The processor is incredibly small and fast, but delicate: switch off the computer and the data are lost. Hence computers use hard disks to back up and store the digital information. Hard disks are relatively enormous and extremely slow, but they are robust and reliable, and they retain their information under a wide range of environmental insults. Organic life could have started as the slow-but-reliable ‘hard-disk’ of Q-life. Because of its greater versatility and toughness, it was eventually able to literally ‘take on a life of its own’, disconnect from its Q-life progenitor and spread to less-specialized and restrictive environments — such as Earth.” (Paul Davies, "The quantum life," physicsworld.com - July 1, 2009.)
Cambridge astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe first took up the question of quantum life in the 1970s, when they said that self-organizing plasma in interstellar space could have the form of a panspermia life cloud. In 2008, Arvydas Tamulis of Vilnius University described a comparable kind of Q-life progenitor as a molecular quantum computer able to absorb energy from stars, perform digital functions, and travel through interstellar space by means of radiation pressure. A quantum computer cloud in space would use photoactive molecules to convert light energy to floating point operations at extremely low temperatures.
Since a Q-life cloud meets the key criteria for life, but does not require any material substance, it bizarrely suits the limit for an intelligent spirit. The paradigm of a sentient computer cloud also helped to add some details to current reasoning that plasma has willpower –– and water has memory. Emergence theory describes the way complex systems and patterns crop up from simple interactions. For example, the self-organization of plasma (an ionized gas) leads to the formation of membranes, which eventually partition a cell’s genetic material.
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