Dancing World-Soul Kali                                                           Kali for the World

What sort of universe do we live in?
Olaf Stapledon's book Star Maker
and possible life on Titan

Oh biggest moon of Saturn,
how still we see thee lie.
Above thy tars, among the stars,
unmoving rings hang high.
Yet in thy dark lake shineth,
a phosphorescent slime.
The wild ideas of all the years
just might be true this time.
C.R. (23 July 2010)

Suspicions that there is some form of life on Saturn's moon Titan have been strengthened by recent analysis of data from the Cassini-Huygens space mission. What can Titan tell us about the sort of universe we live in?

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Why is this universe so big? 

Why is this universe so big? To put it another way, does its enormous size have a meaning?

"... the vastness of the universe rightly humbles us..." writes Benjamin Wiker, a conservative Christian. 1  Which may, indeed be one reason for the vastness, one part of its meaning.

Another reason, or meaning, is suggested by Olaf Stapledon (1886 - 1950). Stapledon was a British philosopher and science fiction writer, with an independent and liberal view of religion. He writes that the physical immensity of the universe provides room for complexity and diversity. 2 Which suggests that complexity and diversity are of value to the Creator, if you believe in a Creator or entertain the idea of one.

Olaf Stapledon makes this point in an afterword to his remarkable book Star Maker, a work described by Brian Aldiss, another author of thoughtful science fiction, as "a new -- and so far unsurpassed -- version of the spiritual voyage". 3 Star Maker is now out of copyright, at least here in Australia. A text (without the just-mentioned afterword) is available without charge from Project Gutenberg Australia at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601841.txt

Olaf Stapledon's vision

I agree with Brian Aldiss. The book Star Maker is not so much a novel as a vision. In saying this, I am certainly not suggesting that its portrayal of the universe and the Creator is true in every detail. (Nor, by the way, do I think that the Purāṇas or the Bible are true in every detail.) I mean simply that it makes deep statements about both the universe and the Creator, statements worth serious consideration.

As envisioned by Stapledon, the universe can be place of terror and tragedy, yet it also contains a big range of intelligent living things. These "strange mankinds", as Stapledon calls them, 4 vary greatly in shape, size, and mentality. They fall into various kinds of conflict and confusion: for instance there is a species of plant-like people who at a particular moment in history begin to destroy their own roots. 

Yet gradually the intelligences overcome their confusion, and learn to work together in a quest for the meaning behind life and suffering. Eventually they make contact with the Star Maker, the Creator of the stars and galaxies.

A paradoxical Creator

In Stapledon's vision, this Star Maker has a paradoxical character. The Creator is also the Destroyer, the giver of enlightenment is also the author of delusion. This is similar to what the Devī Māhātmya says about the Goddess whom it names as Mahādevī, Mahāmāyā, and Mahākālī. 

The Star Maker -- whom Stapledon speaks of as a God rather than a Goddess -- is a terrible deity, from one point of view... yet also an exuberant creative power, a fountain of diversity.

How does Stapledon's picture of the universe compare with what is known today?

In at least one respect, the universe as we know it today looks more friendly to life than Stapledon supposed. He wrote at a time when no planets had yet been detected going around other stars. Stapledon's picture of the universe was influenced by James Jeans' theory that planets form when two stars happen to very pass close to each other without actually colliding. This theory implies, as Stapledon understood, that only "a small minority" of stars would have planets. 5 But recent astronomical work shows that planetary systems are actually quite common. 6

If there are lots of planets out there, is there also a lot of life? The astronomers can't yet answer this question. 

That is one reason Titan is important. If more than one world in our own solar system has life, even microbial life, and if there are lots of other solar systems, it would suggest there are multitudes of living worlds in the universe. 

If extraterrestrial life exists, why is it hard to find?

Benjamin Wiker:  "Extraterrestrials... are supposed to be material organisms; if they exist, we should be able to detect them the same way we detect any other physical body." 7 This is true, in principle. Living organisms are physical objects; however an organism (even something like a whale) is a very very tiny object when compared to a star, a planet, or a planet-sized moon like Titan. 

It is true, also, that when space probes from Earth began to visit other worlds in our solar system, they didn't immediately catch sight of cities, farms or jungles. This could mean (as Benjamin Wiker believes) that there is no life anywhere beyond our own planet... or it could mean that worlds with abundant life are like small oases in a large dry plain, widely separated, by no means easy to find, yet not unique. (The astronomer George Greenstein compares life on Earth to a flower growing in a little sheltered niche within a rocky cliff face. 8)

How does Titan compare with Mars?

I grew up in the nineteen sixties, when crewless space probes were beginning to reach Mars and Venus. A time of technological triumph was also a time of disillusionment: as revealed by the space-craft, Mars and Venus looked a lot less Earth-like, and a lot less living, than many had expected. 

A small treasure which I have kept from my childhood is a book called Exploring Science, by J.M.Leonard, first published in the USA in 1959. It is a very well-written introduction to topics ranging from hominids to automation; but what it says about Mars was soon to become obsolete. Exploring Science tells of a Mars where flourishing vegetation is probable, and intelligent life a distinct possibility. 9

I was eight years old in July 1965, when Mariner 4 flew past the planet Mars and photographed a rocky, cratered terrain, very like the surface of Earth's Moon. Some years later, as a young adult, I read a bleak and haunting description by Lynn Margulis (one of the originators of the Gaia Hypothesis) of what was seen when a Viking probe landed on Mars with a camera: 

... not one thing has moved in 40 days. Nothing. Not even a dust particle. I just can't imagine sitting anywhere on the Earth for that long and having nothing move except shadows. Even some wind, some weather or something. 10

Now, in fairness to the planet Mars, it should be noted that this isn't necessarily the whole story. The seasonal growth and shrinkage of the planet's polar caps (where ices turn into vapours rather than liquids), seems to involve a quite dramatic sort of weather. 11 All the same, Mars does appear to be an inert world compared to Earth... or to Titan.

For the picture we humans have of Titan has also changed, but it has changed in the opposite direction. 

The closer the space probes have looked, the more Earth-like features have come to light -- such as big lakes of liquid, such as fogs and rains. Yet calling these features Earth-like is only half the truth, for they are also quite unearthly. The lakes of Titan are found in the polar regions, whereas in the case of Earth, the poles are the one place where surface liquid is not found. And the lakes of Titan are not made of water, but of liquid methane and ethane. Still, the more we see of it, the more apparent it becomes that Titan is an active world.

What do the differences between Mars and Titan mean about the possibility of life there?

Does this difference between Mars and Titan say anything about presence or absence of actual living organisms? Scientific opinion varies. As Carl Sagan pointed out, 12 the fact that Mars, like Earth's Moon, has lots of craters, does not  logically prove that Mars is as lifeless as the Moon. 

Conversely the fact that Titan, like Earth, has few impact craters does not prove life is present there. What it does mean is that things have been happening to reshape the surface since the early days of the Solar System, when craters were forming everywhere.

David Grinspoon (like Sagan, a scientist with NASA) thinks that "planets that are geologically and meteorologically alive are much more likely to be biologically alive as well" 13 

What has happened recently that makes life on Titan look more likely?

Recently, analysing data from Cassini-Huygens, Darrell Strobel of John Hopkins University concluded that hydrogen molecules, produced by ultraviolet radiation in Titan's upper atmosphere, are streaming downwards, by diffusion, only to disappear as they approach the ground. This strengthens suspicions there is life on Titan, because living things need to consume something for energy, and hydrogen molecules could be used that way. (Some organisms on Earth in fact use hydrogen for energy, although we humans use oxygen instead.) 

To get their energy, organisms on Titan would need to combine their hydrogen with some other substance, such as acetylene or ethane -- and there are indications that these compounds, like the hydrogen, are being generated by radiation in the upper atmosphere and consumed by something or someone near the surface. But we still don't know whether living organisms are responsible. 14

Isn't the surface of Titan too cold for life?

Saturn and its moons are a long way from the so-called Goldilocks Zone -- the part of the solar system where the temperature is supposed to be just right for life. 15 The surface of Titan is undoubtedly much colder than the surface of the Earth. Without protection from the cold, any creature from Earth would freeze to death there in a few moments.  But does this rule out any sort of life? 

There are two reasons for thinking the surface of Titan may be too cold for anything to live there. 

1. All living things on Earth consist largely of water: not ice or steam, but liquid water. The surface of Titan is too cold for liquid water to exist there; although liquid water may occur deep underground.

2. Living things depend on chemical reactions within their bodies. Chemical reactions typically happen more slowly at a lower temperature.

On the other hand... 

1. The suggestion is that life on the surface of Titan is based on liquid methane, instead of liquid water.  For such a methane-based organism, the temperature on Titan would be just right. If the organism were to come to Earth without protection from the heat, it would die in a few moments, because its juices would boil. 

2. If the slowness of chemical reaction raises questions about how living organisms could function, it also makes it harder to invoke non-living chemistry to explain changes in the atmosphere near the surface. Living things on Earth use carbon-based catalysts (including enzymes) to speed up chemical reactions. Carbon compounds are known to be abundant on Titan, but have not been thoroughly catalogued. So it cannot be ruled out that some may work like enzymes. 16

...but what if it stinks?

In John Carpenter's film Dark Star, (1974) an astronaut speaks cynically about travelling many light-years, to a planet expected to have life on it, only to find a stupid little creature that looks like a beach-ball. I was reminded of this by some of the commentary I've seen on the internet about possible life on Titan. 

Last April, the website SPACE.com began an article (based on the views of biochemist William Baines), with the statement that any life which exists on Titan probably stinks, because its chemistry would likely involve compounds such as hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg gas). 17   

That might be disappointing, if you expected space exploration to reveal worlds where everything is nice -- nicer, in fact, than here on Earth, where rotten egg smells are hardly unknown... Personally, I don't much care whether Titan, and any inhabitants it may have, would smelly nasty to us humans or not... 

And what if it isn't life?

It remains quite possible that the hydrogen, ethane and acetylene molecules are being removed from Titan's lower atmosphere by some unfamiliar but non-living process, either chemical or meteorological. 18  Or that the substances are being consumed, or catalysed away, by something that will be difficult to classify either as living or non-living.

In the words of C.S.Lewis, the universe "may be full of things quite other than life which satisfy the Divine Wisdom in fashions one cannot conceive". 19

Whichever of these possibilities turns out to be true, Titan is telling us that universe beyond Earth does not consist only of inert globes of cratered rock. There is complexity, multiplicity, change... It's good news.

Titan is confirming the diversity of the Star Maker's work.

Colin Robinson, July 2010

1 http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0591.html

2 Stapledon, Olaf; Last and First Men and Starmaker; Dover, NY, 1968, p 435

3 Aldiss, Brian; Billion Year Spree -- the History of Science Fiction; Corgi Books, London, 1975; page 232

4 Stapledon, Olaf; Last and First Men and Starmaker; Dover, NY, 1968, p 304

5 Stapledon, Olaf; Last and First Men and Starmaker; Dover, NY, 1968, p  page 391

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extrasolar_planet

7 http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0591.html

8 Greenstein, George; The Symbiotic Universe -- Life and Mind in the Cosmos; William Morrow and Co, New York, 1988; p28

9 Leonard, Jonathan N.; Exploring Science; Odhams Press, London, 1961 (first published 1959); pp 123 - 130.

10 Brand, Stewart (ed); Space Colonies; Penguin, UK, 1977; page 123

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars#Polar_caps

12Sagan, Carl and Head, Tom; Conversations with Carl Sagan; Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2006; page 12

13 http://www.astrobio.net/interview/1720/the-living-worlds-hypothesis

14 http://www.ciclops.org/news/making_sense.php?id=6431&js=1

15 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitable_zone

16 See the comments of sobrien60 (Jun 8, 2010) robin (Jun 8, 2010) cmckay (Jun 8, 2010) at http://www.ciclops.org/news/making_sense.php?id=6431&js=1


18 http://www.ciclops.org/news/making_sense.php?id=6431&js=1

19 Lewis, C.S.; God in the Dock; Collins, Glasgow, UK, 1979; p 33

© Colin Robinson 2010


Comments about the poem

23 July 2010

I love that Colin - that's really good !!!!!

John Law

28 July 2010

hi colin - love the little poem - fits well - have been very busy lately -

love Margaret

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