Valerian or unbearable abundance of life

Another pop-culture product of prolific and colorful but recently rather tarnished imagination of Luc Besson, based on classic comic books from 60’s Valérian and Laureline. It follows a trend of burlesque sci-fi like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or strongly sarcastic superhero movies like “Deadpool” but somehow reflects theme that seems to be haunting Besson: future of humankind and life in the universe unforgettably started in “The Fifth Element” and butchered in “Lucy” (although with good idea and intentions). “Valerian” is infinitely colorful and filled with wild technological ideas but overloaded with CGI which makes your head spin like after VR overdose. It’s endless blitzkrieg on your senses, roller coaster of flashing images and music testing perception skills of jet pilots. Absurd is mixed with sparkling imagination plus there is a 15 minutes implant reserved for Rihanna to attract teenage pop-audience not familiar with science nor fiction: some kind of investment offset I believe? Noble cause but I doubt it can justify her role.

Still: there is some important message lurking behind all this mainstream cinema noise. I think we’re slowly getting used to the idea that we are not special, more: life is nothing special. It’s abundant in fact, inevitable process of cosmic evolution. It’s just the matter of time before we discover hard evidence confirming Giordano Bruno visions and fill all the gaps in Drake’s equation.

This is another copernican revolution devaluing our privileged position in the universe, this time in biology. The more exoplanets we confirm the more obvious variety of shapes and forms in which matter and energy can manifest itself becomes and the more we realize that our imagination was confined to our anthropomorphic, mediocre and narrow vision. Life is much more rich, unpredictable and amazing than we have ever imagined. We don’t even have to venture to stars to realize this. Only recently we found out that most Earth biomass in comprised in the soil, up to 8km deep in Earth’s crust or in oceans’ midnight zone where all sorts of extremophiles live for billions of years. We are only insignificant (in terms of volume) branch of tree of life. Deterioration of our ethnocentric position in time and space was just the beginning: we are not only living on quite average planet circulating around main sequence star in quite average galaxy but our understanding of chemistry and biology is being challenged by the tiniest organisms and molecules which happen to be present everywhere we look.

Genetic history of life on Earth

Rosetta spacecraft found traces of amino acids (mainly glycine) in the cloud of gas and dust surrounding Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. Astronomers also confirmed presence of hydrocarbons in some planetary nebulae which means that building blocks of life are being spontaneously assembled in space. Life on Earth originated probably in hydrothermal vents deep in the sea around 3.8 billion years ago (or alkaline vents like Lost City in the Atlantic Ocean) with abundance of basic minerals, water and energy, creating anoxic, high temperature and high-pressure ecosystem. There is even chance of life (of course in the most prolific form of Bacteria and Archea like on early Earth) on moons of Jupiter and Saturn: Europa and Enceladus in our own Solar System. If it happened multiple times in our relatively young backyard (only 30% of the total Universe lifespan), what must have been achieved within all this time and space available? We’re just beginning to realize how common this form of matter and energy must be in the Universe.

If, with the most conservative estimates, we can expect that 2% of stars in Milky Way galaxy alone have Earth-like planets, which means at least 2 billion habitable worlds, how can we even believe that life haven’t been seeded anywhere else? We have over 4000 confirmed exoplanets at the moment, twice as much still waiting to be verified. All this after 20 years of scratching the surface! Like Thomas Carlyle put it: “A sad spectacle. If they be inhabited [other worlds], what a scope for misery and folly. If they be not inhabited, what a waste of space.”

Mainstream Hollywood cinema seems not to be noticing revolution happening before its eyes (and even in their neighborhood – Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley is a cradle of all new discoveries). What happened to all sci-fi script writers? It doesn’t require mastery of Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan to write decent scenario now – history of “space exploration” in the last 30 years is fascinating enough copy and paste endeavor. Fill it with necessary drama and romance, call Hans Zimmer and off you go…

Of course, intelligence, consciousness and advanced forms of life are much more difficult to achieve for nature and imagine for us due to numerous factors so we don’t expect to find them too soon. It will rather be isotopic trace of organic compounds that once existed or discrete evidence of methane and oxygen and variations that only astrobiologist will understand; maybe some primitive carbon forms if we are lucky (carbon is the most universal and flexible currency of life that we know of and can create amazingly complicated bonds due to its atomic properties). If it’s going to be something more, we can expect everything, not necessarily with limbs, eyes, brains like in Star Trek, Valerian or even Arrival. Imagination doesn’t seem to be venturing too far in this respect. Surely in the “city of the thousand planets” we can expect more variety of species than Khodar’Khan (whose main representative closely resembles Jabba from Star Wars), Pearls, Poulong Farmers, Boulan-Bathor or even Bromosaurs. They all look just like disfigured or mutated versions of humanoid or at least mammal-like creatures with noble exception of Omelites who are just robots. The same lazy matrix of space zoo popularized by Star Wars. Is that it? Why not intelligent ocean like in “Solaris”, living planet or even mechanical structure with some kind of neural structure embedded in? On Earth we have electric eels, fish with transparent heads (Barreleye), Tardigrades that can survive spacewalk, viruses that are not even alive per se, cyanobacteria that can turn sunlight into oxygen and all sorts of crazy creatures if you think about it, so life has no boundaries, especially if it can play with unlimited resources.

If there are other civilizations up there (and I’m sure there are), we will have to redefine our scientific laws many times before we can come to terms with everything that’s waiting for us. Besson, Star Wars, Star Trek and other blockbusters open our imagination to new possibilities but I don’t think it’s enough, still too Earth-bounded, anthropocentric and shy; sometimes just stupid.  What’s amazing is that we can try to understand and think about it at all. One of the best pieces of writing about it came from Carl Sagan, as usual:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. […]

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

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