[A strange mutated hybrid of a short story. I wrote it for a class, but also needed to include commentary on a recent pop. scientific article, so the dialogue is a bit… extemporaneous (read: nonsensical) at times, and the story is a bit… well, odd. ]
As the hour grew late, Christopher Marlow watched the earth, like a ballet dancer of infinite poise, spin and move ever so slightly, obscuring the spotlight of the sun. The last shafts of dusklight pierced his study’s stained glass windows and enkindled the waves of dust that floated through the room. The room lacked any other light, and for a time, all that could be seen was Christopher Marlo in a brown tweed chair, surrounded, as if imprisoned, by horizontal pillars of radiant dust. Marlo shut his book, and the illusion dissipated with the fleeing dust. Though he read in his study by the waning sunlight nearly every day, today would be the last time his books saw sunlight. Today was unique.
As the grandfather clocks leaning on the wall chimed 7:00 PM a tall man, not three years older than Marlo and bearing a distinct resemblance to him, entered the study. He walked as if gravity had decided to play favorites- and had become particularly attached to him. With a subtle nod from Marlo, the visitor selected the nearest chair and sunk into it. The cushions rose to meet his not insignificant weight, and his feet were soon resting on a green ottoman that had caught his eye.
“Long time, no see John- or am I supposed to call you Dr. Senior Professor Emeritus Nebula award winner Johnathan Speare?” asked Marlo with a sly smile.
“Funny” said Speare flatly. “You know very well my e-mail automatically generates that signature- I’d change it if I could.”
“Only teasing- hey, it’s not like my name’s gotten any shorter since the wedding.”
“Yeah yeah, I’m just tired. You know, long day.” Speare shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Say how is Karen nowadays, anyway?”
“Fine. She took little Emily on vacation to Disney World yesterday so she’s left me alone all week. She’ll be sad to have missed you, especially since you’re never available these days.”
Johnathan raised his hands weakly in resignation. “Yeah, what can you do? Apparently the astronomy department considers ‘retired’ to be just a fancy word. They always want me for something or other. It wouldn’t bother me, but they seem to only trust me with the boring work: reminds me of my first year as a graduate student.”
Christopher chuckled lightly. “Reminds me why I didn’t follow you to graduate school in the first place. But, come now, we talk too rarely nowadays to spend all day reminiscing. Talking about your job reminded me: have I told you about the addition to my foyer?” A purely rhetorical question, Marlo was speaking too excitedly to pause now. “I converted it into a fully functional observatory- and remember when I e-mailed you asking about who actually constructs telescopes? Well, I started talking to some friends of friends and I convinced them to build me an amazingly powerful telescope. I actually think it has twice the max magnification and resolution of the one you use at the university.”
“Well I suppose wealth has its benefits.”
Marlo chuckled lightly again, this time bashfully. “I know how much my endeavors in amateur astrobiology can irk you sometimes, but I think I really hit on something this week. I–”
“Well let’s have something to drink,” interrupted Speare, “and I’ll hear you out and try to be more patient than last time.”
“Oh, of course! What kind of a host am I?” Marlo leaned over his chair to a panel on the wall. He pressed a button and spoke “Marcia, would you come in here and bring us enough drinks for the night?”
Marcia, apparently Marlo’s servant, quickly brought in an assortment of liquor and soda. Marlo went on to try a bit of everything, but he started off with brandy. Speare, less exposed to such diversity of beverages, had nothing but sparkling water with a touch of gin. Once Marcia had finished with the delivery, Marlo sent her home.
“So as I was saying,” said Marlo while mixing his drink, “I read this article on recent data covering the behavior of plants in space, and they found that the lack of gravity doesn’t affect them too negatively – just like it doesn’t affect us too negatively – which made me realize that maybe gravity is an erroneous prerequisite for life.”
“Well, you can’t really look at it that way Christopher. Prerequisites for life aren’t about right or wrong, they’re about obvious and obscure. If you look at life in the broad sense, our other prerequisites aren’t absolute either. Non-water based life is unlikely but possible. Other elements do exist to take the place of Carbon, though it would be, again, unlikely. And maybe a life form out there could even find a way to have a self-contained energy cycle. The prerequisites we set out aren’t for all life, they’re for life as we could easily detect it. So any kind of life that has no relationship with gravity would be obscure to us.”
“I don’t think it needs to be that radical. Like that article laid out- a plant makes only minor alterations to adjust to a zero-g environment- and that’s only because it’s used to gravity on earth. What that tells me- is that maybe a plant could evolve naturally without gravity at all. I’m sure you wouldn’t call a plant obscure? It’s easy enough to detect. And it obviously fits all the other prerequisites you laid out.”
“OK now that I think about it you have a point,” admitted Speare. “But gravitational concerns wouldn’t change our search for life. We don’t regularly rule out planets because of their gravity. I don’t think any astrobiologist would instantly rule out an exact earth replica that, from some strange phenomenon has incredibly little gravity. I mean Mars already has pretty low gravity- and we’re looking there right now.”
“Well, I think you’re being too detail oriented. You have to look at this from a conceptual level. Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. If plants can survive in an environment where one of these four forces is significantly diminished (I know of course gravitational force can never be 0), then maybe we should reevaluate the very concept of prerequisites. Maybe we should consider life that exists removed from other fundamental forces- like electromagnetism. And we don’t have to be reduced to groping in the dark. We just have to combine search patterns. Look for water based life that doesn’t need gravity. C bonds that only use one of the nuclear forces. Things like that. And I’m telling you I have the first ste-”
“No, now you’re going too far,” interrupted Speare. “I didn’t want to bring us here again, but I can’t keep accepting these conclusions if I don’t make the obvious objection: Your sources are flawed Chris. The places you get your information are popular media- their reports lack detailed context and are sometimes just plain wrong. Take for instance this claim in your article that “gravity, which has dominated the entire experience of life on Earth, has not become a requirement for life.” The author says that based on plants being supposedly unaffected by a zero gravity environment- if he knew his astrobiology he would know that’s simply not true. If he even bothered to read the abstract from one book, he’d know that ‘the actions of gravity on plants have been studied for more than a century and it is now well known that this physical factor has a great impact on the development of plants (gravimorphism)’ (That’s from Clement 227-228). Furthermore, on the cellular level, the plant is experiencing major changes. For example, ‘In microgravity, the location of the nucleus was different from that observed in 1 g on the ground’ and ‘the transfer from 1 g to microgravity for about 6 min was sufficient to provoke a movement of amyloplasts toward the nucleus.’ (That’s in Clement 247-248).”
“I think you’re misreading the article. Or perhaps the article is a bit exaggerative at times, but certainly not completely erroneous. Look, even in the article, the author admits that changes happen. He talks about ‘metabolic shifts’ and he pointed out ‘Genetic pathways responding to physical wounding and lack of water seem to have been called into action [in space], despite the fact that neither posed an actual threat to the plants’. It’s just that all things summated, the author points out that in general the plants don’t have a hard time adjusting: ‘the seedlings still grew, and they still looked a lot like plants.’”
“Ok- maybe you’ve got some ground to stand on there. But there is still the matter of context and precision. Just look at the wording of your article: ‘More recent approaches [experiments in 0g], however, have shown relatively little disruption of the normal growth process [in plants], and some researchers in the field suggest that experimental design may be to blame for earlier reports of dramatic physiological shifts.’ Look at all the imprecision here. What is ‘recent’ and what is ‘earlier’? Is this recent trend a passing fancy? Or has it been established for years? ‘Relatively little disruption’? What exactly is ‘relatively little’? Relative to what? As I already told you, relative to cell organelles it’s certainly not little at all. And ‘some researchers’ blame ‘experimental design’ for the results? Experimental design flaw is a weighty claim, so exactly how many are ‘some’ researchers? Is it a majority or a minority? What exactly was the design flaw?
You see all the missing detail that could very suddenly remove this article’s basis? That’s not even the weakest point. Look at this passage in the conclusion: ‘What’s perhaps even more surprising than these metabolic shifts is the ability of plants to withstand weightlessness with relative ease’. There’s that word ‘relative’ again, and this time the author gives two examples: ‘the seedlings still grew, and they still looked a lot like plants’. At least there is some support here, but it’s a classic case of incomplete data. If you knew all the ways in which the plant life had a hard time adapting, you might reach a different conclusion.”
It was 11:45 PM, and after hours of talking and drinking, the drinks were starting to affect Marlo- his statements were less direct, and he spoke a bit too quickly. “Don’t you see John??” he asked nearly incredulously. “Forget the article! I’m tired of details and the arguments. The ultimate proof that my approach is valid is in the results: I’ve done it, with nothing but spare time and the amateur knowledge you continue to criticize. I found the Holy Grail of astrobiology. No! I found Jesus himself, hell, maybe God!”
“What are you going on about? Even if you’re right, which I still maintain you aren’t, everything we’ve been saying is still speculation! You can’t have results in this field.”
“No John. No. You have to keep up here. This is beyond speculation. I have evidence. Let’s go to my telescope.”
Christopher Marlo was unconscious. He had drunk too much- and Speare suspected he had already enjoyed a victory Champagne right after his initial conclusion earlier in the day. Johnathan was still in disbelief, but the evidence was there. Marlo had run him through all the data, all the spectrograph analysis, all the periodic phenomena, all the erratic features, and especially all the gravimetric data that had led to the premature dismissal of the planet. Marlo had really found strong evidence for extraterrestrial life- maybe even intelligent life.
Speare deposited the sleeping Marlo in the closest bedroom, and prepared to leave. He returned to the study and noticed a bottle had overturned and topped Marlo’s desk with whiskey. Marlo searched his jacket for a napkin. He emptied his pockets in disproportionate frustration, searching for something to pick up the liquid. He found nothing but his cigar and lighter. He lashed out at the desk chair, sending it flying to the other side of the room. The chair struck the desk on route, and sent one of the cabinet doors flying open. Speare knelt down to close the cabinet and noticed inside, somehow unblemished by the haphazard spill, a folder full of Christopher’s notes on the planet that they now knew contained life. Speare took the folder out and leafed through the flawless report. He attempted to crush the report back into its place, but realized he was still clutching his lighter in his left hand. He opened his left hand over the folder, and let the lighter fall onto the pages. He looked at the words describing undiscovered life, disfigured by the lighter’s cool metallic surface. Johnathan stared as if into an abyss- stared as he used to stare into his telescope when he was still publishing innovative articles in the most renowned astronomy journals, stared as he used to stare at colleagues and students that brought him impossible problems seeking his counsel, stared as he used to stare into the mirror when he was young, imagining the future that lay ahead of him. Speare closed his eyes, and in one natural motion, he ignited the lighter and dropped it on the desk. The whiskey burned instantly, the desk soon followed and the countless books added to the inferno one by one. Speare, the folder full of information held tightly under his right arm, swiftly exited. By the time he began driving away from the isolated mansion, half of it was already in flames.