Today, December 2, 2010, NASA shocked the world by revealing that astrobiologists they were funding had discovered a new form of life. Well, okay, maybe shocked isn’t the right word.
Let’s clear things up a little bit. NASA hasn’t discover life, folks; not even for those working there. (Kidding!) They’ve only affirmed that life can be made of different elements than we have previously observed.
As anyone doing astrobiology will tell you, life is more than what it is made out of.
What the researchers, such as Felisa Wolfe-Simon, have discovered is the first observed evidence that life can be constituted of elements other than the ‘big six’ of the periodic table. So, what does that mean? Science Fiction authors have speculated on that possibility for decades (some, like Clarke and Crichton, and even the illustrious Carl Sagan, more responsibly than others).
Basically, we already knew that life could be made out of other things. The furor is that this is the first time we’ve actually seen it, and unlike what the visionists had speculated, this evidence did not come from beyond our solar system or out among the stars, it was right here in our own backyard (for those that live on the ‘shores’ of Mono Lake, anyway).
So, why arsenic? Isn’t that a type of creepy poison? Well, yes and no. Arsenic (As) is an element in the periodic table, one of many in fact that can be extremely poisonous to most life forms we know of. Anyway, it’s an element. So is phosphorus (P), which we more commonly think of in connection with life and the processes of life. Interestingly, arsenic and phosphorus are in the same column in the periodic table. Coincidence?
What is important about having a life form based on arsenic is that DNA could have used arsenic instead of phosphorus as a part of one of its differential pairs.
Whoa! Okay, I just threw a bunch of you away by saying ‘differential pairs.’ Stay with me, here.
So, what is a differential, and why is it a pair?
Differentials can be thought of as opposites. Whether they are polar opposites is irrelevant and needs to take into account what your frame of reference is.
A battery has opposite ends (and they are polar opposites with respect to the battery). It is the differential of energy, the difference in voltage, that gives the battery’s two ends the ability to perform work, to have energy, to power a television remote or make a car start.
Is there an evil end of a battery? I speak as a fool, but the ends are certainly opposites with respect to each other; one end is positive (+) and the other is negative (–), and in the case of a fresh AA, the differential between them is 1.5 volts.
More importantly in terms of life, the chemicals inside the battery contain electrically opposing elements; they have potential, or a differential of energy in their atomic structure. When the differential or the potential of the battery’s electrons balance out, we have a dead battery.
And so it is with life, and computers, and DNA, and a myriad other things we don’t usually think too much about: the energy conversion of differential pairs is an essential part of doing something. In life, energy is about heat, and respiration. In computers it is about ones and zeros, and storing those differences in magnetic north and south. In DNA it’s about—oh, wait, I already covered that with computers. With DNA, just like with computers, differential pairs are about storing information. (If I’m not too far mistaken, DNA might be considered a form of molecular data storage.)
The ‘big six’ in normal Earth-based life has, until now, been a standard mix of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), phosphorus (P), and sulfur (S). Is it coincidence that all of these atoms reside within the same area of the periodic table? Probably not when one considers their function.
And so, arsenic sits just outside the ‘big six’ block. So does silicon and selenium. Are those elements next in line to have a vote? The news today is about arsenic’s suffrage movement.
And yes, arsenic is a poison. So is oxygen. In fact, several elements are highly poisonous under some circumstances, while at the same time being absolutely essential to life as we know it. Is that a contradiction? It’s a differential, and that does not make it false. “It’s in the way that you use it.”
Good and Evil might get really bored without each other. Just sayin.
Energy, or the ability to do work—to do something—is all about contradictions; polar opposites, and differential pairs. Oxygen is not evil. Neither is arsenic evil, nor is the south pole of a magnet, nor the negative end of a battery evil (or no more so than are their respective north poles and positive ends, anyway). They’re just different.
So in reviewing NASA’s big news today as reviewed by the Washington Post the only question I’m left with, is; why are we only discovering this new life-format here on Earth now?