Intelligent clouds

David Toomey

Weird Life, David Toomey, Norton.

There is a tendency for both atheists and believers to accuse the other side of arrogance (in a competition to see who can be the most humble). But both sides contain a mix of anthropocentrism and humility. Religious/theists tend to see themselves as small when compared to God, but also tend towards thinking of the human race as somewhat special in the eyes of God – as created in the image of God. Atheists/secularists tend to want to prove that we are no more significant than the other animals, while at the same time having a belief in the unflagging power of scientific enquiry, that exclusive creation of humanity.

For the latter group, a positive result from the often desperate search for extraterrestrial life would result in proof that life on Earth is nothing special, thereby discrediting religious types (even if the Bible doesn’t exactly rule out extraterrestrial life). David Toomey’s book Weird Life describes the search for life forms very different to what we know of on Earth, whether it be in the deepest oceans, our solar system, or in deep space. He is a decent popular science writer, able to communicate complex science in easy language. And this is an intriguing book, even if he has a tendency to list amazing discoveries, only to tell us on the next page how the discoveries have been since discredited. What we end up with is a list of creatures as fantastic as any medieval bestiary. But, then, Toomey’s book is about the speculation about possible weird life, not just a list of what we already know.

One of his quite valid points is that we typically find it hard to imagine creatures that are not in some way like ourselves. For instance, we search the solar system for water, assuming, perhaps rightly, that water is an excellent medium for the generation of life. Yet life may not need water (microscopic life on Earth doesn’t always need water), or be carbon based. (The idea of silicon-based life forms is often dismissed because silicon is not so versatile as carbon, but Toomey argues this is only at temperatures we are used to – silicon bonds well at super-cold levels.) Toomey finds in science fiction inspiration for thinking about what might be out there, including intelligent clouds of interstellar dust.

Final chapters deal with the weird speculations of quantum theory, and the idea of the multiverse, which seems to be regularly confirmed by modelling, and which, in relation to weird life, might suggest, coming close to pure metaphysical speculation, that any possible life is actually out there in parallel universes.


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