Nucleotides in Titan’s atmosphere?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2011

I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t seen this story all over the place. Perhaps everyone’s taking a while to get back up to speed after the holidays… or perhaps no one wants to get burned the same way they were by the last story about life chemistry that came out of NASA’s press department.

Nonetheless, complete with obligatory “maybe real life is stranger than science fiction after all OMGZ!!” closer, here’s NASA Science News talking about an experiment that demonstrates the possibility of basic life chemistry building blocks in the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon, Titan:

Hörst and her colleagues mixed up a brew of molecules (carbon monoxide(1), molecular nitrogen and methane) found in Titan’s atmosphere. Then they zapped the concoction with radio waves – a proxy for the sun’s radiation.

What happened next didn’t make the scientists shout “it’s alive!” but it was intriguing.

[ There’s good reason to make science journalism accessible, but do we really need shitty little asides like that, NASA? This isn’t Sesame Street, for goodness’ sake… ]

A rich array of complex molecules emerged, including amino acids and nucleotides.

“Our experiment is the first proof that you can make the precursors for life up in an atmosphere, without any liquid water(2). This means life’s building blocks could form in the air and then rain down from the skies!”

[ The metal-head in me now really wants to use Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” as a voice-over bed for this article. Sing along at home! ]

“We didn’t start out to prove we could make ‘life’ in Titan’s skies,” explains Hörst. “We were trying to solve a mystery. The Cassini spacecraft detected large molecules(3) in Titan’s atmosphere, and we wanted to find out what they could be.”

In hopes of obtaining clues to the mystery molecules, Hörst used computer codes to search the lab results for matches to known molecular formulas. She decided, on a whim, to look for nucleotides and amino acids.


“We had about 5000 molecules containing the right stuff: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. We knew we had the elements for organic molecules, but we couldn’t tell how they were arranged. It’s kind of like legos – the more there are, the more possible structures can be made. And they can be put together in many different ways.”

Among the structures identified in the lab experiment so far are five nucleotides found in DNA and RNA, and two amino acids. But she says there could be more amino acids in the mix.

How could those molecules have gotten there? The ice geysers of Enceladus are a possible answer, apparently, though this is all strictly speculative stuff at this point.

Search-for-alien-life bonus material! Antarctica’s massive Lake Vostok may finally give up its secrets (presuming it has any, natch) now that a Russian team has come up with a way to sample the lake’s water without contaminating its effectively closed ecosystem with dirty surface-monkey germs. What mysterious things might we discover lurking miles beneath the ice? Whatever’s down there, it might give us some more clues to what’s going on on Enceladus…

Today’s Tomorrows, 2011 edition

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Apologies to Brenda for re-using the title of her column, but it’s the start of the year… and despite most of us knowing that dates (and indeed time itself) are relative, we tend to take that as an opportunity to step ourselves out of the temporal flow for a few days and take a look both backward and forward. Of course, looking backward and forward (with a side-serving of sideways) is our daily bread here at Futurismic, but it’s nice to feel like the rest of the world’s playing along, you know? 🙂

So why not pop over to The Guardian, where a collection of clever folk make twenty predictions about the next 25 years? Some are no-brainers (“Rivals will take greater risks against the US” – that’s more of a trend than a prediction, really), some seem a little naively optimistic (“The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist” – I’d love to see it happen but doubt we will, at least here in the UK), and some are reheated versions of classic cyberpunk transhumanism, suddenly made mundane and plausible in the face of unprecedented technological advancement (“We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex”).

They all mark what, to me, is one of the most interesting social shifts of the last year or two: namely the sudden widespread acceptance of speculative thinking in mainstream media. Sure, it’s always been there, but it seems more ubiquitous now. Strange how we had to wait until the future was all around us before we started thinking hard about what shape it would be, no?

Speaking of speculative thinking, the BBC got in on the game back in December, picking apart some old (and largely failed) predictions from the 70s and quizzing present-day “futurologists” (which I maintain is a horrible noun) about how they do their work. David Brin’s response suggests that I’ve at least got the basic methodology sussed out:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin.

“You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

That’s pretty much the query-set that sits in my forebrain as I drink from the RSS firehose each morning… 🙂

And last but not least, it wouldn’t be early January without Chairman Bruce and Jon Lebkowsky taking the virtual podium at The WELL for their annual State Of The World discussion. Hell knows there’s plenty to talk about, right?

While Futurismic is no WELL (and I’m surely no Bruce Sterling, much to my own disappointment), I like the format they use there: like phone-in talk radio, but text based. So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind regular Futurismic heads that the contact page is always open – if you’ve seen something you think we should be talking about, or just have your own take on a story we’ve looked at already, then by all means drop me a line and let me know.

Distractions and derailments

Paul Raven @ 08-12-2010

There are so many damned layers to the Wikileaks story that it’s getting hard to keep track of them all. Assange’s arrest yesterday here in the UK has – quite naturally – refocussed attention on the figurehead rather than the phenomenon, and my inner conspiracy theorist – along with that of about half the internet, so far as I can tell – can’t help but think “well, that’s convenient”.

Complications arise from the nature of the accusations levelled at Assange, however; rape is a contentious issue at the best of times, and when combined with a highly polarising political story like Wikileaks… well, let’s just say there’s a whole lot of FAIL going on, mostly involving pro-Assange folk leaping to the assumption that the charges are trumped up, and a subsection of those folk springboarding from there into the realms of casual and institutionalised misogyny – you know, “liberal laws mean women can call rape whenever they’ve decided they didn’t like the guy after all”, that sort of thing. Assange becomes the victim of the narrative, while his accuser becomes a lying manipulative cock-tease… which is pretty much the standard narrative surrounding rape cases of much smaller profile than this one, sadly. So here’s some much needed sanity from Kate Harding at Salon:

Look, for all I know, Assange’s primary accuser does have CIA ties. Perhaps it was all a setup from the beginning. Perhaps she is lying through her teeth about the rape. Anything is possible. But in the absence of any real evidence one way or another, we’re choosing to believe these guys? Or at least this guy at Firedoglake, who says he’s “spent much of [his] professional life as a psychiatrist helping women (and men) who are survivors of sexual violence” — giving his post a shiny veneer of credibility, even though it’s a pure regurgitation of Shamir and Bennett’s — but segues from there into an indictment of the accuser’s post-rape behavior. She socialized with her attacker again! An expert like him can tell you that real victims never do that.

The fact is, we just don’t know anything right now. Assange may be a rapist, or he may not. His accuser may be a spy or a liar or the heir to Valerie Solanas, or she might be a sexual assault victim who now also gets to enjoy having her name dragged through the mud, or all of the above. The charges against Assange may be retaliation for Cablegate or (cough) they may not.

Public evidence, as the Times noted, is scarce. So, it’s heartening to see that in the absence of same, my fellow liberal bloggers are so eager to abandon any pretense of healthy skepticism and rush to discredit an alleged rape victim based on some tabloid articles and a feverish post by someone who is perhaps not the most trustworthy source. Well done, friends! What a fantastic show of research, critical thinking and, as always, respect for women.

As hinted at above, I’m very much of the instinctive opinion that the charges against Assange are dubious, if not completely fabricated; it really is astonishingly convenient for a lot of people who’d like him out of the way, and the inherent controversy of the crime he is accused of makes it even more so – just look at how the “did he/didn’t he?” aspect of the story is taking the foreground, not to mention providing great ammunition for Assange’s enemies.

But as Harding points out, we don’t actually know… and as such we should STFU and let the law run its course, while keeping a keen eye out for dodginess. My message to pro-Wikileaks people would be this: talk about the leaks, talk about the legality of the leaks, talk about the wrongdoings they expose, but shut up about Assange’s charges. Although the relationship is complicated, Wikileaks != Julian Assange – what the organisation does and what its figurehead does are not necessarily connected. And if you really believe the guy is being framed, then surely you’re playing into the hands of his framers by letting them steer the dialogue and turn it into a very public pillory?

For the sake of clarity: heroism isn’t a get-out-of-jail card. If Assange did what he’s accused of, then he should pay the price for it in the same way anyone else should. Just because he’s doing things you think are important to the world doesn’t make him any less flawed or human than the rest of us. So stop assuming his innocence – if you think about it, to do so is completely contrary to the philosophy of Wikileaks itself.

Charlie’s utopia: optimistic sf redux?

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

Over half a year after the publication of the Shine anthology, Charlie Stross wonders whether we need more optimistic utopian thinking in science fiction, and indeed in general:

The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.


We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Compare and contrast with this post from Jetse de Vries written during the Shine submissions period, as writers supplied reason after reason for why they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – write an optimistic piece:

In the real world, people face those huge challenges (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) and try to overcome them. In the real world, the majority of people are optimistic. So why isn’t SF trying to address these huge problems in a near future SF story (not use them for implementing the next dystopia, but try to fix them, try to do something about them)? Why is SF extremely reluctant to feature an upbeat outlook?


Imagining things going bad, technologies grossly misused, the world going down the drain is so goddamn easy that everybody’s doing it. So if almost everybody’s already doing it, then why do we need to keep stating the bleedingly obvious? Maybe some of that creative energy, that imaginative potential might be used for envisioning a solution?

Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.

There’s an obvious difference in character here (Charlie is being rather more cautious and diplomatic than Jetse, perhaps), but it looks to me like they’re both driving toward the same destination by slightly different philosophical roots… and Jetse himself calls out Charlie’s piece as a vindication of the Shine project (albeit a somewhat belated one).

So let’s raise a recent ghost after a long year of tough times all round, and ask again: should science fiction be trying harder to think positively about the future?

And if not, why not?

Genesis reloaded: are there forms of life on Earth we’ve missed?

Paul Raven @ 11-11-2010

It’s a well-used riff, but it seems to be making a comeback in recent months: is there a “shadow biosphere” of lifeforms on Earth that don’t obey the known rules of biochemistry? And if so, how might we find it – let alone recognise it when if do? A nice long article; you should go read the whole thing, but here’s a few snippets:

To investigate a species of microbe fully, you first need to culture it in the laboratory and then study its biochemistry by sequencing its genome to position it on the tree of life. This technique, while undoubtedly important, has its problems.

Many microbes don’t like being plucked out of their natural habitat and cannot be cultured easily. Some resist gene sequencing.

And, because the chemical techniques used to analyse microbes are customised and targeted to life as we know it, they wouldn’t work on an alternative form of biology. Should there be a different type of microbial life out there, it is very likely to be overlooked, simply because it would be unresponsive to the biochemists’ probes used so far. In a laboratory sample it might well get thrown out with the garbage.

If you set out to study life as we know it, then what you find will inevitably be life as we know it. It’s therefore an open question whether some microbes might actually be the descendants of a different genesis.


Notwithstanding their exotic nature, to date all extremophiles that have been analysed are standard life: they belong to the same tree of life as you and me. Their existence proves that the range of conditions under which standard life can survive is much broader than previously suspected. Nevertheless there are limits.

If there is a shadow biosphere, it might be occupied by weird ‘hyper-extremophiles’ inhabiting environments beyond the reach of even the hardiest form of standard life, and have so far escaped detection because nobody thought to look for any form of life under such extreme conditions. A good example is temperature: standard hyperthermophiles seem to have an upper limit of about 130˚C – and for good reason. The intense heat disrupts vital molecules, and even with a host of repair and protection mechanisms, DNA and proteins start to unravel and disintegrate if they are subjected to temperatures much in excess of 120˚C.

Suppose we find nothing living between 130˚C and 170˚C in a deep-ocean volcanic-vent system, but then discover microbes thriving there between 170˚C and 200˚C? The discontinuity in temperature range would be a strong indicator that we were dealing with weird life as opposed to standard life that had simply pushed the temperature envelope higher.


There are plenty of other places that could be home for isolated weird extremophiles. The inner core of Chile’s Atacama Desert is one place – it is so dry and oxidising that bacteria can’t metabolise. The U.S. space agency NASA has a field station there, but so far there is no evidence for any carbon chemistry that could be attributed to weird life.

Other possible locations include the upper atmosphere, cold dry plateaus and mountain tops (where high-ultraviolet flux is a problem for standard life), ice deposits at temperatures below -40˚C, and lakes heavily contaminated with metals toxic to known life. We don’t need to confine our search to a single parameter such as temperature; it’s possible that some combination such as temperature and acidity together is more relevant.

Very speculative stuff, as science goes: it’s basically hinging on the old “white crow” aphorism, which says that the fact that you’ve never seen something doesn’t prove that the thing doesn’t exist. But we’re friends of informed speculative science around these parts, so… 🙂

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