The subjects of Zionism and anti-semitism are incredibly delicate and difficult to discuss, and the latter has recently become a political football.  Consequently, I don’t know where this is going to go.

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that not all Jews, even religious Jews, are Zionists.  There are at least two groups at opposite ends of the religious scale who are opposed to it.  Some Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionist because they see the state of Israel as a secular rather than a divine institution, not ruled over by the Messiah.  On the other side there are of course liberal Jews who are both religious and opposed to Zionism.

I’m Christian, and libertarian socialist with anarchist leanings.  All of these are relevant to Zionism.  Taking the last first, I believe that political obligation is only achieved by coercion, which is immoral.  That is, although there is a large overlap between the law and what one should do, there is no specific ethical reason to obey the law because there is no realistic way to opt out of obeying it.  I’m not going to go into details about this because this post is not about anarchism, although just in passing I note that this view may seem at odds with being socialist, which surely believes in a strong state, but there are answers to that.  Enough waffle.

One statement among those opposed to Zionism which sounds rather aggressive is that Israel has no right to exist.  If I put this in context, from an anarchist perspective no state at all has the right to exist and Israel would be no exception to that.  It would also apply to Palestine, for example.  Hence it seems unlikely that I could maintain an anarchist position and also support Zionism.

Now for Christianity.  There are three views among mainstream Christians regarding Judaism, referred to as supersessionism, dispensationalism and the idea that the two are entirely separate things.  These are supremely relevant positions in political terms, whether or not you’re religious, because of the dominance of Christian influence on international politics, particularly via the US.  Dispensationalism has an especially strong influence.  Therefore, whereas I recognise that you may not share my religious views, I ask you to recognise that these particular positions are influential.

Dispensationalism is not my position.  I’m amillenialist, if anyone cares.  It’s an interpretation of human history which began to be articulated clearly by Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century.  Since the main Bible I used as an adolescent was the Scofield Reference Bible, before I became Christian, it’s also the view I was at first most familiar with.  C. I. Scofield was himself a dispensationalist and his references in that Bible are an exposition of that view.  According to Scofield and others, human history has seven phases, beginning with the time before the Fall.  This was followed by the Conscience phase, which continued until the Flood, then human government, which lasted from the Flood until Abraham was called.  Then came Promise, stretching from then until the time of Moses, then the Law.  This phase was the Jewish bit, and concluded with the death of Christ. After that comes the Church Age, terminated by the Rapture, and finally the Millenium.

All of this is easiest to fit into fundamentalist evangelical Protestantism with a historical-grammatical approach to Scripture, and is therefore associated with Young Earth Creationism.  Clearly this has various political consequences, but chief among them for the purposes of this post is the interpretation given to the term “Israel”.  This is seen as referring always literally to the earthly Jewish people and by extension the state of Israel.  The Church and Israel have different fates.  Israel are an earthly people whose destiny involves an earthly kingdom and the Church refers to a heavenly people whose destiny lies in Heaven.  This has all sorts of consequences.  For instance, it means that you are likely to believe in the idea of the Rapture – the saved being physically lifted up into another realm to save them from the Tribulation which will happen afterwards.  Lots of capital letters here help you Believe.  It also means that you are probably committed to the idea that the world is going to Hell in a handcart and there isn’t much point in trying to improve the lot of one’s fellow humans because everyone is utterly depraved, to use the Calvinist term.  Most relevantly though, it means most dispensationalists believe that the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and therefore, apparently, that it should be defended and protected by other nations.

I’ve characterised this view as incompatible with liberalism and socialism.  It also seems to be particularly incompatible with trusting the findings of science, which to me is close to being the same thing as both are based on rationality.  However, I personally think this arises from the political background of this view, although I’m not going to argue for that because it’s not my view.  Even so, as a Christian I recognise that my own specific beliefs may be unpopular with other Christians and that I should accept that these people are also Christian.  It’s not for me to judge, even if I wish they didn’t believe this and think they’re mistaken, and also that they

Supersessionism is the idea that the Church replaced Israel, and is close to the Islamic view of tahrif, which holds that other people of the Book have corrupted the Word of God and therefore are not following God’s will as closely as Muslims are able to due to imperfect information.  Hence from this Islamic viewpoint, which as far as I can tell is universal among Muslims, Israel seems not have a right to exist because it reflects a self-serving view of God’s will and has been superceded by Islam.  Christian supersession carries with it the idea that the covenant between God and the Jewish people was either fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah or replaced by a new covenant that meant that if the Jews didn’t accept that Jesus was the Messiah and commit in the same way as non-Jews needed to, they wouldn’t be saved.  The problem with this idea, of course, is that it seems to be along the lines of the thinking that led to the Holocaust.  It was a very popular view in the early Church, although the very earliest Church was a sect of Judaism and didn’t attempt to proselytise to Gentiles.

A third idea is that the Church is added to Israel, i.e. that the Church and Israel together constitute the saved, but in that context the word “Israel” just means the Jewish people.  On this subject, at some point a decision seems to have been made among dispensationalists that “Israel” must refer to the nation-state without that necessarily being warranted, possibly because it’s accepted as a divine revelation that that’s the case.

Then there’s socialism.  Socialism seems to imply the idea that government can be legitimate, which makes things complicated because it means that it’s not legitimate per se to deny that Israel has a right to exist although there may be conditional reasons why this is so.  Michael Moore once suggested, jokingly, that the Jews should’ve been given Bavaria because the fertility and climate were better.  There’s also the irony of the kibbutz – socialistically organised agricultural communes which are, however, on land traditionally occupied by other, non-Jewish people.

Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French-Lithuanian philosopher who prioritised ethics rather than ontology as the foundation of philosophy, which appeals strongly to me, is chiefly problematic because of his views on the Christian Phalangist massacre of Palestinians in 1982.  On being asked about this, Levinas only spoke about generalities of his ethics and did not comment on the issue directly, making people wonder whether he saw Palestinians as faceless and anonymous, whom he owed nothing.

Another Jewish philosopher, the nineteenth century Hermann Cohen, believed that if Judaism became involved in establishing its own state it would become entangled in politics and therefore compromise, and hence lose its ethical edge.  For this reason he was opposed to Zionism.  He also believed that the existence of one God meant that all of humanity was subject to the same ethics, and he was a firmly non-Marxist socialist.  For Levinas, though, the reason for pursuing Zionism is that it provided the opportunity for a state to set itself up as an example to others, where ethical behaviour could be exemplary.  I really don’t think this is the state of Israel.  Having said that, it could also be argued that the Holocaust means there’s nothing the Jews could do which would be as bad as that, so if justice is considered to apply to groups of people rather than individuals and to be based on retribution, as is the principle of the Hebrew Bible, the Jews would be absolved of any responsibility.  But Christian justice is based on turning the other cheek and Israel does not represent the Jewish people.  It doesn’t, for instance, represent all Orthodox Judaism or Reform Judaism.

It seems to me that if Hermann Cohen’s vision is accurate, there might be some mileage in examining the culture of the Jewish diaspora, and the question of language arises here.  The Ladino and Yiddish languages were the everyday speech of the ghetto, as opposed to the Hebrew of the synagogue or Israel, and as such are about communicating the Jewish attempt to live righteous lives as oppressed, although of course they should not remain so and they shouldn’t be forced to remain humanity’s whipping boy.  Another language which could be said to be Jewish and expresses this idea is Lazarus Zamenhoff’s Esperanto, which oddly brings me back to the Galactic Association.

Nigel Calder once expressed the idea that lunar activities had the advantage of there not being an environment to pollute.  Anywhere you build and operate a factory on Earth, or dump waste, there’s a problem because there is life everywhere on this planet.  Likewise, wherever people go on the land surface of this planet other than Antarctica, there’s a territorial claim and there are likely to be people.  Hence Israel displaces the non-Jewish people who had already lived there for generations.  Genesis is not like this.  There is no complex life on this fictional planet, and as a result it can be settled without displacing anyone or any land life.  And of course Genesis is a centrally planned socialist society based on the kibbutz model, and they speak Esperanto there, hence my map.  It’s not ideal to my mind because there is in fact life there, but if such places were available, maybe I wouldn’t feel I had to be anarchist because there would be other options than living in a state.  So we’ve come full circle, and I also hope this demonstrates that science fiction is a worthwhile endeavour, and needn’t be flippant mind games.

But of course Israel is a really difficult issue.


Not As We Know It


One problem with trying to talk about life elsewhere in the Universe is that, as with Earth, we only know about one example of it, so whereas we might look at biochemistry and think there’s no option other than carbon, that’s because we are thinking of the kind of life of which we seem to be examples. The thing about aliens is that they’d be alien, and the issue is really how alien they could be.

There are a few suggestions as to other types of biochemistry than what makes us live. I’ve already discussed silicon-based life here and here, and there are a few other suggestions as to how things might be different.


One of these is chirality. Many organic molecules are left or right handed, so for example the substance limonene, whose ball-and-stick model appears above, smells lemony one way round and orangey the other. The nuts and bolts of life could have opposite threads, but they don’t. Ordinary chemical processes lead to racemic mixtures of left- and right-handed molecules and many drugs are roughly equal mixtures of this kind, but sometimes it turns out that one chirality is much more toxic than the other and then it needs to be sorted out. Solutions of molecules of a particular chirality can sometimes be told apart because they refract light in one direction or the other. Living things in general consist of left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars, so there are four possibilities even there, or of course life might have been racemic.

A few other suggestions have been made which still centre on life that’s rather similar to ours. It’s often mentioned that water might be replaced by ammonia. Water is a very unusual substance because among other things it has a very high boiling point for its molecular weight and the fact that it expands on freezing, which however it isn’t alone in this as gallium and bismuth also do that, along with a few other metals. This means bodies of water freeze over rather than doing so from the bottom, which would lead to a massive block of ice which might never thaw. Water is also polar, that is its molecule has differently charged sides, which is one reason why it behaves so strangely, and because most liquids we’re familiar with are either water or based on it, we tend not to realise how peculiar it is. Oils are more typical liquids.

Ammonia is apparently another option. In this solar system there is no planet in a location where pure liquid ammonia is able to exist, although it’s commonly found as a gas, a mixture with other liquids or a solid in the outer Solar System. If there was one, it would probably be where the asteroid belt is. Like water, ammonia is polar, but since it’s highly alkaline in aqueous solution, as a pure liquid it would push everything in it towards the acid end of the pH scale and most substances dissolved in it, i.e. the ones used to keep life going, would be strongly acidic. It melts at -77°C, so the reactions taking place in it are likely to be slower than in water-based life because it would be a lot colder, although under pressure it would boil at up to 132°C at 113 million times atmospheric pressure at sea level, which is probably not a realistic pressure under which life could exist. Other possibilities include formaldehyde, whose extreme polarity is responsible for its ability to preserve biological specimens. It melts at -92°C and boils at -19, so it’s vaguely similar to ammonia in that respect.

In ‘Replicas’, I followed the Galactic Association lead and imagined biochemistry based on silicon and chlorine on a planet circling α Centauri B. This strongly suggested to me that the equivalent to water in such a system would have to be hydrogen chloride, that is, pure hydrochloric acid, which is however not necessarily an acid in such a form. This was because oxygen goes in and out of water on Earth, so there kind of has to be a hydride of the element for it to work. This also suggests that ammonia-based life would need to breathe nitrogen, which though it’s highly reactive is in fact so much so that it forms very stable molecules in the atmosphere which it takes a lot of energy to separate. It also means they would exhale cyanide, but this is not necessarily a problem if it never comes in contact with oxygen-breathing life.

One interesting thing about chlorine is that there’s enough halite – sodium chloride – in this planet’s oceans for there to be about the same amount of chlorine in the atmosphere as there currently is oxygen. This would also mean, though, that there would probably be caustic soda in the oceans, which would be highly unsuitable for life, but again, life as we know it. That said, chlorine and the other halogens are a “dead end” because their atoms can only bind with one other.


Another thought – I won’t go far enough to dignify it with the word “possibility” – is free fluorine in the atmosphere. Fluorine could be released on a planet high in fluorite with concentrated sulphuric acid rain and oceans, but since it’s the most reactive element known and it therefore forms very tightly bound compounds, such a planet might have a lot of fluorine compounds but it wouldn’t be able to use them easily. Remarkably, such a planet could even have xenon fluorides as minerals in its crust, and since xenon is a noble gas this is really something. The picture above is from Derbyshire and is a bowl made of blue john, a variety of fluorite found only in Derbyshire, which is quite remarkable as it means this mineral is located there and nowhere else in the entire Solar System. You would have to go a bare minimum of four light years to find some more, and it’s a few kilometres from where I’m currently typing. This very rarity, though, and there are much more common forms of fluorite but it’s not the kind of mineral you can expect to be found in vast quantities like quartz or limestone, means the likelihood of a planet with participating fluorine is pretty small and it would be a real freak occurrence.


The other halogens, iodine and bromine, may have their possibilities. Both are involved in terrestrial biochemistry already, the former notably in thyroid hormones and the latter in compounds found in red algae, who are able to incorporate bromine in chemicals. However, since they’re heavier than chlorine and fluorine these halogens are rarer. Incidentally, the redness of the red algae, the rhodophyta, brings up the possibility of different methods of photosynthesis although the red algae themselves use chlorophyll. It’s thought that the reason plants use chlorophyll is that their predecessors used a purple pigment to photosynthesise, so other colours of sunlight were blocked by their competitors. This clearly implies that there’s absolutely no reason why the magnesium-based chlorphyll is the only option, although whether it would end up producing oxygen is another question.

This brings up the minor side issue of different colours of blood. Vertebrates, with the exception of so-called bloodless fish, all use haemoglobin, but there are also copper-based blue pigments as used by, for example, horseshoe crabs and also a green iron-based pigment used by some arthropoda.

All of these thoughts, which are quite common incidentally, are however in a sense “life as we know it”. They’re based on chemical reactions, and amount to substituting different elements than the ones which are present in life as we do know it. The real question for me is whether there can be life based on radically different principles than this.

Familiar life always relies on a principle which I find oddly melancholy, possibly because it’s demystifying and monotonous. On the whole, a very significant feature of all life except viruses, which rely on organisms which do have this feature, is the use of membranes. A thin layer of matter separates internal and external environments through which the movement of substances can be controlled and within which substances can be brought into close proximity so they can react, usually with the help of enzymes. This applies to cell membranes, nuclei, plastids such as the formerly symbiotic organisms which became parts of the cell, including the “batteries” called mitochondria and the “solar cells” known as chloroplasts. Then there are the labyrinthine endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, lysosomes and vacuoles. There are other structures which don’t fit into these categories such as chromosomes, but there’s no denying that membranes are among the most essential parts of life.

A few years after the Miller-Urey experiment, the scientist Sydney Fox tried drying out amino acids as were produced in the earlier procedure. He found that they formed into polymers which are referred to as “proteinoids”, and ultimately into tiny globules called microspheres. These are thought to be early precursors of cells, and to have formed before life began. They have an outer wall, i.e. a membrane, produce more microspheres by budding, divide in two, change size due to osmosis and have internal particles which stream through their interiors. In other words, they’re notably similar to living cells, though in the latter the membranes are made of thin layers of oily substances with protein molecules floating in them acting as gateways to molecules, or as sensors or sites where reactions can take place.

Electrical charge is often a significant consideration in the operation of cell membranes and the movement of substances across them. The forces involved in osmosis and diffusion include electromagnetic attraction and repulsion, and alkali metal and alkali earth ions are vital to nerve conduction and muscle contraction. Acidity and alkalinity are, unsurprisingly, also controlled in this way. Hence there is a system involving thin layers and electrical charges. Lipid membranes and mediator proteins are not the first or most straightforward such system in nature, and are in a sense quite contrived and unusual. There’s also plasma.

The idea that there are three states of matter is the result of us living on a solid globe with a substantial atmosphere at a certain temperature, meaning that we encounter liquids, which only exist under pressure, gases and solids, but rarely plasmas. If a solid is defined as firmly resistant matter which changes shape only gradually if at all, a liquid as matter which flows and has a constant volume, and a gas as matter which has variable volume and also flows, plasma is none of these things. Strictly speaking, plasma is a state of matter dominated by ionisation, and in which electromagnetism operates over a distance, but is also a fluid. It’s rarely encountered on the surface of this planet but we experience it as lightning, the Sun, stars and nebulae. This seriously skews our view of the nature of matter.

Assuming hot dark matter doesn’t exist, which is my view but I don’t want to say why here, most of the matter in the Universe is either cold dark matter or plasma. Solids are a kind of trace impurity in the sample, gases are pervasive but rarefied, liquids are a freak phenomenon confined to solid bodies at a certain temperature range and solids are gritty bits which God has to really focus to notice. Plasma, on the other hand, is all over the place. It makes up stars and nebulæ, and when it comes down to it practically everything visible is one of those.

Gases do form structures, such as cumulus clouds or jets, but a plasma is not really just a special kind of gas and the structures it can form are different.  One example is the Debye Sheath, a layer of more positively charged plasma above a solid surface which is negatively charged.  This is clearly dependent on the presence of another state of matter, but there are also sheets called double layers which consist of two oppositely-charged layers within the body of the plasma.  This kind of structure is reminiscent of the double layer found in cell membranes, where there are two layers of molecules facing away from each other because one end is attracted to water and the other repelled by it.  This structure in living things is essential as it’s a common component of cell membranes.


One familiar form of plasma is lightning, which has its own structure as shown above, but ball lightning is a mysterious and unusual form which has possibilities in terms of life.  Ball lightning is interesting sociologically because like certain other now well-established phenomena, science wouldn’t accept that it existed for a very long time.  Other examples are meteorites, and more significantly for this post, will o’ the wisp, which as well as being an animated TV series starring Kenneth Williams about which I expect he showed Withnail-like withering disdain, is a luminous glow which occurs in swamps and above decomposing matter, whose existence was probably rejected because it sounded too spooky to be true.  I’ll be coming back to this.  Ball lightning’s reality was finally accepted in the 1960s.  It consists of a luminous sphere, which can be various sizes, and being quite rare and unpredictable is difficult to study in its natural state although various experiments have succeeded in producing objects which are at least similar.  For instance, lighting a match under a jam jar in a microwave oven, blowing it out and letting the smoke accumulate (this could easily go in a different direction couldn’t it?) then turning it on produces a glowing ball which can destroy the microwave and also generates nitrogen oxides by causing the oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere to ionise and combine, which is poisonous and quite polluting.  Such an object consist of small solid particles a few nanometres in diameter.

By Berndthaller – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

There are many theories about ball lightning, many of which include the idea that it’s a form of plasma.  The pretty diagram shown above is related to another theory that it’s made of something called Rydberg Matter, which is a form of matter consisting of atoms with outer electrons located at an unusually large distance from their nuclei, which would explain why ball lightning explodes, since the lifetime of Rydberg matter is usually less than a minute.  They may be rotating rings of plasma which can maintain themselves in existence without an external magnetic field, and if this is true it could mean that there’s a way of controlling nuclear fusion as an energy source.  Another energy source-based theory is that they’re fine suspensions of tiny, naturally formed batteries which provide a current keeping them in existence.  They could be a special case of St Elmo’s Fire (not the brat pack movie).

Whether ball lightning is or is not an example of a sustained plasma structure in our atmosphere, it is possible to generate spherical arrangements of plasma with cavities inside them.  It’s possible to produce balls of plasma which can grow, reproduce and communicate, and regulate the entry and exit of neutral atoms through their membranous surfaces.  This has been suggested as the origin of cells on Earth, although it seems quite far-fetched and as mentioned previously there’s already an adequate explanation for that.  However, the process whereby microspheres are formed, which it looks like did take place on the early Earth and feasibly led to the appearance of the first living cells, might be paralleled in the formation of spheres of plasma, which could ultimately become functionally similar to cells and therefore alive.

It seems to me that there are two promising environments for this to take place, in different forms.  One is in association with stars.  The abundance of plasma in these locations and the forces involved seems ideal for such structures to form and proliferate.  The other is in nebulæ, and in a far more rarefied and gigantic state  Such life might not even “care” what matter it was composed of in the sense of whether it was carbon, silicon, argon or whatever, as the physical properties of the matter would be more important than the chemical ones.

There is another form of plasma composed of electrostatically charged dust.  This has been suggested as an explanation for some transient lunar phenomena, where dust on the surface becomes charged and repelled from it, hanging above it for some time until the situation is resolved and it returns to neutrality.  Dusty plasmas, as they’re known, exist in the mesosphere of our atmosphere, which is directly above the stratosphere.  Here, particles are rubbed off meteoroids and meteors and metals such as iron vaporise and stay in this layer.

This blog is about to take what might look like a bit of a bizarre turn.  Before I get into it, I want to explain that I don’t necessarily believe what I’m about to say, but that it’s oddly fitting and leave it at that.

Suppose, and it’s a big “suppose” – there is life made from either conventional or dusty plasma.  On the whole, the surface of this planet would seem to be a hostile place for it, since it’s wet and windy among other things.  I would imagine that plasmas would only be able to exist in the relatively calm surroundings of nebulæ and the high-energy and therefore sustaining circumstances of stellar environments.  If there was anywhere it could survive, it would probably have to be very dry.  Well…

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out.

And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished.

 Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

This is Luke 11:24-26, and as with angels, if I take my religious faith seriously I’m kind of constrained in taking these Biblical verses seriously as well.  One of the remarkable things about the Christian faith is that it can be completely compatible with physicalism, i.e. the idea that there is nothing more than the human body and no separate soul, but one of the problems with this idea is the reference to spirit possession in the Bible.  If there are plasma-based life forms, perhaps dusty plasma, they could be expected to be found in “dry places”, a claim also made by Muslims, who believe in the djinn, made from fire, and concentrated in remote tracts of desert.

This is of course the kind of thing science pushes into the outer darkness by its very design, which is rightly cautious and prefers the most boring possible explanation, and that’s got us a long way, but there are examples of things which science took a long time to accept because they were unnerving, such as ball lightning and will o’ the wisp.  Having said that, it’s one thing for an apparently living plasma phenomenon to survive, along with the desert varnish, in a remote and arid location but another thing entirely for the same entity to take up residence in a barn conversion in Borsetshire or the wet and squishy habitat inside the human head, except perhaps as a concept.

It isn’t necessary to buy into the Abrahamic version of djinn to accept that there may be plasma-based life, which needn’t exist on Earth or immediately above it to be true.  It’s also not quite “not as we know it”, since it still depends on membranes of a kind, but it is at least a possibility that shows that life existing elsewhere in the Cosmos might be so unlike us that we don’t even know what to look for.  You don’t have to accept my final, rather outlandish, suggestion, but clearly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and we can’t say definitively what form life might take.

He’s in the best-selling show…

Yesterday I was careful to talk about Mars without mentioning the possibility of life there. Whereas it’s a fascinating subject, it tends to overshadow the other interesting things about the planet which are then neglected. It’s impossible to isolate the subject completely because talking about it at all tends to edge into the similarities and differences between Mars and us. Today though, I will be talking about life on Mars.

322 Vermilion Sands web

This is Pyracantha’s 1983 depiction of ‘Vermilion Sands’, from this blog over on Blogspot, which will of course be removed on request but then this is free publicity, so hopefully not. She’s chosen here to imagine a Martian Vermilion Sands, and has done a sterling job of creating quite a funky version of the place, with the twin moons which are of course unlike the real Phobos and Deimos, but anyway I love this painting! In the past, Mars was considered such a dead cert for life, and intelligent life to boot, that a competition held to establish contact with extraterrestrials specifically ruled it out as being too easy!

All this came to an end on 15th July 1965 when Mariner 4 started to return pictures like this:


Up until that point, Mars was assumed to have life due to seasonal changes in colour and the presence of canals, which turned out mainly to be illusory. The 1960s generally were a decade of disillusionment regarding planetary exploration, as it was steadily revealed that Venus was neither an ocean planet nor covered in tropical rainforests and dinosaur-like life forms but a raging inferno as hot as a kiln on which one would be instantly fried, poisoned and squashed, as Patrick Moore once memorably put it, and that Mars was much more lunar than the quaint Barsoom of the Edgar Rice Burroughs tales.


Nonetheless NASA and the Soviet Union persisted and in 1976 the two Viking landers arrived successfully on the planet, sending back pictures like the above, although this particular picture has been re-rendered due to the discovery of errors in the colour profile. Most or all of NASA’s pictures are edited because of issues like white balance, contrast and brightness, and this is used by Flat Earthers and moonlanding hoax people to make outlandish claims of fakery.


The Viking landers conducted four biological experiments designed to detect life in the Martian soil, as follows:

  • A gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer to detect organic compounds in the soil. This, remarkably, detected only trace amounts of chloromethane and dichloromethane, which at the time were attributed to cleaning products which had been used to ensure no life from Earth contaminated the results. The carbon content was in fact even lower than lunar soil, which was probably the reason why the research team later became so pessimistic about the other results. It has more recently been suggested that the reason for these results was the presence of calcium and magnesium perchlorates, which were detected in 2008, and which incidentally create problems for the plotline of ‘The Martian’ because they make it impossible to grow potatoes on Mars unless something is done about them. In this case the more recent idea is that they combined with organics. The chlorine isotope ratio might make it possible to work out which planet it was from.
  • The Pyrolytic Release experiment placed the sample in a radioactive carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide atmosphere, exposed it to light minus the ultraviolet for several days, emoved the gases, baked it at 650°C and attempted to detect radiation, the idea being that this would indicate that photosynthesis had happened and the carbon 14 in the gases had been processed by organisms. None was detected. At the time, I had an issue with this experiment even before it was carried out because it seemed to me that since natural Martian sunlight is high in ultraviolet radiation, specifically excluding it might stop photosynthesis from taking place. Whereas Earth organisms use red light for the process, it doesn’t follow that Martian organisms would. It’s also notable that both gases used are poisonous to vertebrates, with the possible exception of bloodless fish, and whereas in the absence of any information about possible Martian organisms there’s no reason to suppose they’d be poisoned by them, nor is there any reason to suppose they wouldn’t be in the case of carbon monoxide. However, carbon monoxide is only poisonous to us because it permanently alters haemoglobin, making it impossible for it to bind with oxygen, and there’s no oxygen in the Martian atmosphere anyway,
  • Gas Exchange: This replaced the Martian atmosphere with helium and provided a nutrient-rich watery soup containing a number of organic and inorganic substances. The chamber in which this took place was then periodically sampled for oxygen, methane, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Nothing was detected. A later hypothesis about life on Mars was that rather than using water, it used a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water because that wouldn’t freeze at the temperatures found there, and treating a sample in such a way would have killed such life. On the subject of hydrogen peroxide, it’s also been suggested that static electricity built up by dust storms produces this chemical, which would destroy any Earth-like life on the surface of the planet, but if the life is based on that mixture, this would obviously not be so.
  • Labeled Release: This is the one that totally did my head in at the time, and it also confused a lot of scientists. A drop of substances as found in the results of the Miller-Urey experiment, labelled with radioactive carbon, was added to a sample of Martian soil and the air in the chamber was tested for radioactive carbon dioxide. This was in fact found. Some scientists have maintained ever since that this demonstrated that there’s life on Mars.

At the time, since I was only eight or nine I didn’t have a particularly firm grasp of scientific method and found NASA’s response to the Labeled Release experiment perplexing and frustrating. Most of the scientists involved concluded that it was a toss-up between there being life and not, and came up with an alternative hypothesis that there were various oxygen compounds which explained the results. It seemed to me that this was post hoc explanation for what to me had seemed like pretty good evidence for the presence of life. This may have been a naïve reaction on my part. A few years later in 1981, the Galactic Association, publishers of my episode of Tenko novel ‘Replicas’, stated that the Viking lander had not found life on Mars. My view is that the situation is best explained psychologically. I suspect that people were in denial about there being life there, and perhaps also afraid to make such a bold statement in case they turned out to be wrong and ruined their careers. One explanation offered for the apparently inconsistent results was that the Labeled Release experiment showed that there were microörganisms in the sample but also that there weren’t enough of them to show up on the other experiments.

Another experiment was designed for the Viking Landers but ended up not being included. This involved attempting to grow organisms on a transparent surface and shining light through it to see if any of it was blocked. The scientist who developed this experiment sadly died in Antarctica, where he was testing the technique with positive results.

By Mark Marathon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Moving on from Viking, there’s desert varnish. This process, which I’ve mentioned before, occurs in very dry deserts with little wind. It involves the appearance of a micrometre-thick shiny layer on rocks and is made of clay and manganese and iron oxides. Mysteriously, the concentration of manganese is about fifty times higher than in the general environment, and some people believe this is the result of a biological process carried out by unknown microbes living in the pores of the rocks, who are undetected because their biochemistry is unlike that of any known life forms. Since nobody is looking for the right chemicals, nobody notices that these organisms exist. A common way of detecting organisms is by polymerase chain reaction, which creates multiple copies of traces of DNA and RNA. If these microbes don’t use nucleic acids for any genetic codes, they would remain undetected.

The lump of rock shown is in an Australian desert, but there may also be desert varnish on Mars. Firing a laser at such rocks reveals that the surfaces of many of them are similar in composition, but change once the outer layer is vaporised, which is what would also happen with terrestrial desert varnish. It’s always the first five firings of the laser which show similarity, suggesting that the depth of the material is always about the same. If desert varnish on Earth is evidence of a shadow biosphere – undetected life on Earth – it’s also quite likely that the same effect on Mars is caused by life as well.


In the 1990s there was much interest in a meteorite found in Antarctica called ALH84001. Like some other meteorites, ALH84001 is Martian, possibly from Valles Marineris west of Tharsis as mentioned yesterday. This image certainly looks like a bacterium, but it’s much smaller than most cellular microörganisms found today. It would be impossible for an object of that size to contain ribosomes, the transcription devices found in modern cells. In answer to this, it’s claimed that there is a possible smaller piece of cellular machinery made of RNA itself which would fit. If these are organisms, they may have shrunk due to dehydration or some such process post mortem. Or, they could form colonies whose members depend on each other to carry out all functions needed for life. There are also polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the rock associated with these structures. These are organic molecules consisting of rings joined together in sheets or chains, but these are also found in the interstellar medium without the need to evoke living processes. Finally, there are grains of magnetite embedded in carbonates which would be considered diagnostic of biological origin if found in a rock formed on this planet. The meteorite does not seem to have been contaminated by microbes originating here.

There’s a little confusion in my mind about this. I first read about meteorites containing rod-like structures in 1974, which were suspected of being fossils, and also compounds of putative biological origin. I think the distinctive thing about ALH84001 is that it’s from a period of Martian history when there was liquid water under the surface. Valles Marineris is of course quite deep, so the air pressure would be quite high. The temperature at which this rock formed would’ve been about 18°C.


The presence of Martian meteorites here is significant for another reason. There are organisms, such as this tardigrade, who can survive in very extreme conditions, such as would be found in meteors and their formation during impacts. If there are Martian meteorites on Earth, there could equally well be terrestrial meteorites on Mars, and since we know Earth has life, these could have taken it to Mars, where the conditions may not be too unfavourable for certain organisms to survive. It may also be that the reverse happened early in the history of the Solar System and that life here was originally seeded from Mars or Venus, and in that sense we may all be Martians. There simply are, practically certainly, rocks on Mars which, when they left Earth, had at least ex-living things on them.

Archaeans are often extremophiles, and they also produce methane. This is relevant to Mars because of the methane detected there. Methane has a half life of about three centuries on Mars, so for there still to be detectable amounts by now means it must be constantly generated. Almost all the methane here is made by biochemical processes. It’s also many times as concentrated in our atmosphere as in Martian air, and varies seasonally.

I was going to talk about Martian trees and the microbiological explanation offered for them but I think I’ve gone on long enough by this point, so bye!


Yesterday NASA launched Insight, its new seismology probe to Mars. Rather surprisingly to me, it’s apparently only going to take six months to get there, which I don’t really understand as there’s this thing called ∆v involved which is to do with how much impulse power is needed to perform a manoeuvre, and since it edges into calculus my brain shuts down right there. My main issue with it is how it can take six months to reach Mars when it ought to take 259 days, but I’m sure this is to do with my failure to understand rocket science.

Anyway, Insight rather contrivedly stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”, and while it does all of those things it’s a bit annoying that this has been crammed into a meaningful acronym. Since its purpose is to look inside Mars though, it does kind of make sense. It’s a geological lander which will sit on Elysium and measure marsquakes. What are marsquakes then?
On Earth, most earthquakes result from continental plates moving around. The Pacific Ocean and various landmasses, and a few areas of sea bed, move against or slide across each other, causing earthquakes. Other causes of earthquakes here include the movement of large masses of magma in connection with volcanic eruptions, as happened yesterday in Hawai’i, and sadly also fracking. Earth is, though, the only planet with continental plates and drift, and consequently the quakes elsewhere in the Solar System have other causes.
On Cynthia and Mercury, the extreme lengths of the days mean that parts of those worlds heat up and cool down dramatically in a day-night cycle, causing expansion and contraction due to heat and cold. They are also regularly impacted by meteorites, which causes vibrations. Cynthia is also pulled about by Earth, so she has tides like we have, but because her companion has six times the gravity these are rather more aggressive than the land tides on this planet. Even so, nothing on the inner planets can compare to the force of quakes on Earth, and the other planets have no continental plates or drift.
One of the significant uses of earth tremors is that if they pass through the planet, they can reveal the structure because they are bent differently by liquids and solids, which is yet another proof that our planet is round since they are refracted by a roughly spherical core and also wrap around the planet and focus on the antipodes. As far as I can tell, this couldn’t happen on a flat surface.
If it survives, InSight will measure marsquakes. Unlike Earth, Mars has no continental drift and unlike Mercury and Cynthia he has nowhere near as much contrast between night and day temperatures. His moons are also minute compared to Cynthia, so the tidal forces are very weak, and the fairly substantial 6.1 millibar atmosphere means meteors are less likely to make it through. I’m guessing that Venus has even fewer quakes, but Mars is not going to have very powerful disturbances compared to the other three substantial worlds of the inner Solar System.
Nonetheless there seem to be four sources of tremors on Mars. Meteorites are still more able to make it through the much thinner atmosphere, and Mars is a larger target than Mercury and closer to the rubble of the asteroid belt. Both moons, though small, orbit very closely and quickly compared to ours.

The planet is also still cooling and therefore contracting, just like Earth, and the dust storms which rage at half the speed of sound across the surface would also cause vibrations through friction on the ground. Mars is therefore not completely quiet, although it’s apparent that these effects would all need much more sensitive instruments than are needed to detect tremors here.

InSight is also going to drill down into Mars a little way.
The general idea of all this is to find out whether Mars has a core and if so, whether it’s liquid or solid. The movement of space probes and the moons suggests that it has a liquid core rather than a solid one.
As you might know, a few years ago I prepared a Martian calendar which was fairly lavishly illustrated, mainly with the help of the NASA missions, and quite extensively annotated. Unfortunately, due to the lies of the company making the ink jet printer I used to produce it, it wasn’t cost-effective at the price I set for it, and since it was in the Before Time this led to me flinging the printer forcibly into the pantry and deleting the files in a fit of pique. I suppose that was quite appropriate considering that Mars is the god of war. Although this has led to the calendar ceasing to have any physical presence in my possession, though I did sell a few copies, mainly in Australia for some reason, it led to me very much feeling Mars as a real world, but also feeling rather jaded about the place nowadays.
Although he’s a much smaller world than Earth, Mars has coincidentally almost exactly the same land surface area as we have. This is divided into roughly equal halves corresponding approximately to the northern and southern hemispheres. Like Great Britain, the boundary between the two types of terrain is slanted, but in the Martian case it’s the south that’s higher and more mountainous, and also cratered, which Britain generally isn’t. In a sense Mars is a planet with a single continent covering the southern part of the globe, and to me this makes sense because being smaller it might be expected to have fewer continents, although we have ourselves gone through phases of only having one continent. In a way it’s quite fanciful to refer to Mars as having a continent at all, but if he ever becomes Earth-like, the northern hemisphere would basically be an ocean and the southern land, and since it would be quite a large area of land unless it was totally inundated, it does seem to make sense to call it a continent.
It’s actually quite important to Martian geology, also known as “areology” after the Greek god Ares, that there is no continental drift. On Earth, the enormous Pacific plate has a central hot spot which is volcanic because it’s a long way from the edges of the plate where volcanoes can relieve the pressure somewhat, which in human terms means you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, unless you live somewhere like the British Isles. This has led to the Hawai’ian island chain as the plate gradually drifts, with magma spurting up and forming islands which gradually erode, so that Hawai’i itself, the southeasternmost island, is the largest and most volcanic. Hawai’ian volcanoes are gently sloping or even flat because as you may remember from primary school they have basic lava rather than acidic. Incidentally I find it hard to understand how lava can be acidic exactly when if you added molten lava to water it would cause it to evaporate, but I presume there’s a reason for this distinction. Mars also has apparently basic lava in the Tharsis region, where there are three large volcanoes, and a fourth one, Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System, just outside the region and more than twenty kilometres high, which always looked to me like the tines of a fork stuck into the planet to see if it was cooked yet, but unlike Hawai’i, all the lava building up these volcanoes has stayed in the same place and has not been substantially eroded by any water, because there isn’t any, with the result that there’s a massive bump making up the Tharsis region, which deviates about ten kilometres from the sphere which marks the notional mean surface of the planet. Tharsis is so massive, in fact, that it began at about the latitude of Britain but the centrifugal effect caused the whole planet to shift so that it ended up near the equator.
The weight of Tharsis on the crust has caused a crack to form, the Valles Marineris, stretching eastwards from Tharsis so far that it can be noon at one end and sunrise at the other. The temperature difference this generates causes wind to blow along the cavern. At the western end is Noctis Labyrinthus, an area of cracked ground containing vast canyons.

Mars as a whole has a density close to Cynthia’s by contrast with that of the other three inner planets, at about 60% of the rest. This is probably due to Jupiter robbing it of heavier elements but I wonder if the similar densities are linked. It used to be theorised that Earth was the dense core of an older larger planet whose less dense outer layers had become the other two bodies, either due to breaking apart because of rapid rotation or because a larger planet hit us. The rotation theory is now out of favour, but sometimes when I look at pictures taken from the surface of Mars they do look quite like the other lightweight except for the sky and colour.

Finally, I haven’t mentioned life. I for one do believe there’s life on Mars and quite good evidence for it, but for once I wanted to talk about the place without that impinging, because that tends to dominate.

Serial Numbers for All

People find that names are an important part of their identity, communicating family membership, cultural background and the choices of their parents, among many other things. They are also, however, potential burdens and can convey unfair treatment. Before I get into this, I must assure you that I’m completely serious about this. The difficulty in accepting it which I expect readers to have will probably be due to its dystopian associations, but I don’t see it as dystopian. What I do see it as, in conjunction with my proposal about marriage on transwaffle, is part of a novel approach to legislation and government.

Personal names are often problematic. They can lead to assumptions about someone’s ethnicity, nationality, social class and gender, and there are also problems arising from the very nature of the names themselves. My surname has three letters and begins with a U. I’ve had problems with bank accounts in the past because their software only accepted surnames of at least four letters. When I’ve had a pigeonhole it’s tended to fill up with junk because people don’t think anyone’s surname begins with a U. On the other hand, I like the link my surname provides to history and culture. It’s a fact, however, that there is unconscious prejudice against people whose surnames are unusual or occur towards the end of the alphabet. Then there’s the custom of changing one’s name at marriage, which inexplicably is still quite widespread, and the oncoming problem of multiple-barrelled surnames. When people get divorced, the process is needlessly exacerbated by the issue of their surnames.

Changing one’s name is a fairly straightforward process, achieved via deed poll or statutory declaration in England, but due to the welcome lack of legal codification in this country there’s no central registry for names, and a number of other restrictions found in some other countries don’t apply. One of these is the absence of a list of approved names, although they’re not permitted to use Arabic numerals. This lack of bureaucracy, though it’s a good thing, means having to contact everyone with your name on record, such as passport authorities, the DVLA, bank account, utilities providers and so forth, and if you also change your gender that is yet more complicated. In the case of gender, the current arrangement also tends to cause strife and distress, and making it either more or less difficult would be unsatisfactory to different groups.

There are of course many people who go by nicknames in one way or another pretty much of the time, particularly if their name has a common short form such as Sue or Maggie. They clearly don’t have the same name as on their birth certificates although they do sometimes have them on exam certificates and elsewhere, and the inconsistency can make it difficult to prove they’re the same person. There are also problems for people who need to hide their names for safety’s sake, because although there is now a private electoral roll for example, many possibly dangerous people, or those wishing to commit fraud or impersonation, will be easily able to do so if they know someone’s official name and that name is memorable by virtue of consisting of generally familiar names.

The answer to this seems to me to be fairly simple: replace names on all official documentation with serial numbers. At birth or on becoming a citizen, everyone should be allocated a random serial number which is placed on their birth certificate, all ID documents, all communications with the government, exam certificates, bank accounts, legal contracts, job applications and anything else appropriate. Other numbers, such as NI and NHS numbers, are still maintained: they are not merged with this system. This number is a unique identifier, although given that names are not unique there’s no real need for this to be so although it’s an opportunity to fix this ambiguity.

In everyday life, everyone continues to go by their usual name. This is not a suggestion that we should all refer to each other by strings of digits and in fact this would be counterproductive because the fact that the number is a purely official means of identifying the person concerned, not used in everyday interaction, makes them more secure from identity theft. Because of that, it is in no way dehumanising. It also means the prejudice which prevents some people from even getting to the interview stage in jobs, for example, or from being able to rent a house, because of such factors as gender or ethnicity, would be less able to operate. Equally importantly, anyone wishing to change their name could just do it, without having to go through any legal process. Incidentally, even now the titles Ms, Miss, Mrs and Mr are not legally binding and it’s perfectly legitimate for anyone of any gender to use any of those, so there is a precedent for this kind of practice. Moreover, many people sign their name with an illegible squiggle even now, so it isn’t that big a step for those people

I also have a tentative suggestion for a system to manage this, inspired to an extent by vehicle number plates. This system uses letters and digits while omitting letters which could be mistaken for numbers, although it also employs the letter Q for special cases. Missing this one out leaves A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, T, U, V, W, X and Y, a total of twenty-one letters. If these are combined with digits, there’s a total of thirty-one options. Six characters would then provide nearly 900 million options. Some of these would be actual names or other words, or resemble names such as D3BB13, and shouldn’t be used, but this would still leave a huge number of options. But this is just one suggestion. The principle is more important than the details.

It occurs to me that this suggestion is similar in some ways to the one about civil partnerships. This is that marriage should have no legal force but still be taken seriously as a custom, and that civil partnerships are used between any two people, even parents and children, to take advantage of the provisions made for marriage in family law, without regard to any personal or sexual relationship. This maintains the emotional element of marriage while providing a legal framework. In practice I would expect most people to marry and enter into civil partnerships if this arrangement was in place.

The way in which these two are similar seems to establish a principle which could be applied more widely. Informal lifestyles remain the same: people carry on calling each other Susan, Bob or whatever, and they still go to places of worship to get married or come up with their own ceremonies with a celebrant like a humanist or other secular marriage. Then there’s the entirely separate legal aspect, which is extremely useful but most of the time wouldn’t impinge much on people’s perceptions of what they were doing. I’m curious as to whether this could be extended, but haven’t though of anything else yet.

Living In Escher’s Worlds

Dutch artist Maurits C Escher, like science fiction authors and to a extent Dalí, tends to be treated superciliously by aficionados of what might be termed high art, and is referred to as a graphic artist for that reason. There’s clearly an irrational bias against art which emphasises mathematical and scientific themes. To some extent Vasarely suffers from the same prejudice but with Escher this is particularly unfair because not only was he an ingenious artist regarding what the viewer sees before her when perusing one of his works, but his techniques are also pretty awesome. Escher is also famously one of the three figures used to form the theme of Douglas Hofstadter’s legendary ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid’, which links the ideas of mind, artificial intelligence, formal languages and recursion in a most appealing and stimulating way. To Hofstadter Escher’s work is the visual equivalent of Bach’s compositions.

Practical considerations have forced me to upload images directly here whose copyright status is unclear. All will be removed on request

Escher used three techniques to produce his pictures, none of which involved paint or drawing implements in the finished product as far as I know. This is unusual for a renowned Western artist of his time although Japanese ukiyo-e does rely on similar methods and is similarly looked down upon by certain people. These were woodblock printing, lithography and mezzotint, and since I don’t even seem to be able to represent what I see using pencil and paper, this completely blows me away.

Woodblock printing, at least per block, allows only fully toned and blank areas. Intermediate values of grey are mimicked using various densities of lines or dots. ‘Sky And Water I‘ is one of many examples of this, whose only colours are black and white, as is the early work ‘Tower Of Babel‘ . In theory several blocks could be used with different inks, which I presume is what Japanese woodblock printing did.

A few of his prints are mezzotints. These allow gradations of tone and are newer technology than woodblocks. A sheet of metal is pricked repeatedly to make pits which take up ink, giving an image with varying degrees of ink saturation. I understand this to be the earliest printing technique which made this possible.

Finally, many of Escher’s images are lithographs. This is something I’ve actually done. Lithographic limestone is drawn on with oily ink, then acid is used to etch away the parts which have not been covered, then the oil is washed away and replaced with ink for printing. I’m going to permit myself a diversion here. Lithographic limestone is limescale building up at the bottom of a body of still water with no oxygen in it, which leads to a very fine, pure calcium carbonate. Fossils are sometimes found in it, including the renowned Archaeopteryx lithographica, found in the Solnhofen limestone of Bavaria, which has many amazingly well-preserved delicate fossils from the Jurassic when it was part of the Tethys Sea, which used to sweep round the planet like today’s Southern Ocean but in warmer climes.

Reptiles‘ is an example of an Escher lithograph.

I would roughly divide Escher’s work into three categories: depictions of objects which could or did exist; two-dimensional tessellations, often hyperbolic or giving the illusion of infinity; apparent three-dimensional structures which couldn’t exist. This is for my current purposes. It isn’t meant to be definitive or authoritative.

Now the question arises of whether one could wander about in one of Escher’s images, either in reality or virtual reality.

Some are dead easy, such as ‘Hand With Reflecting Sphere‘. They’re simply reflections, so to speak, of a realistic scene seen from an unusual perspective. Two-dimensional tessellations are not meant to be interactive and are in a sense entirely passive: we’re often able to experience all they have to give already. When perspective gets involved, the issue can become one of adhesion.

Relativity‘ works fine provided every solid object in the scene is sticky or attracts others at close range. This shows a world where the strong nuclear force is more important on the scale of the figures than gravity, since it diminishes as the seventh power of distance – twice the distance makes it 128 times weaker. It could as easily be explained via the use of glue, which works via electromagnetism. In terms of the physics of a 3-D gaming engine this is relatively simple to achieve.

Double Planetoid‘ is equally achievable, perhaps as an object in an orbital Escher theme park or simply as a model. The edges of the tetrahedra can be calculated as about thirty metres in length, assuming the human figures to be of average adult height. These two cases along with a few others are not complicated.

Somewhat more difficult are the likes of ‘Waterfall‘ and ‘Ascending And Descending‘. These cannot exist physically in the real world except in cases of forced perspective. It’s possible to do these if they only look the way they do from the point of view of the projection, as demonstrated in this video and this one, which has the added merit of zooming in and out, showing that there are infinite straight line segments along which CGI would be successful. Here’s another, using the Unreal engine. But can you do a first person point of view tour of these?

I think you can, although it would be restricted. Firstly, it’s feasible to look at the scene as if with a spotlight, zooming in on narrow fields of view while maintaining a distance, as with isometric projection – no vanishing points. It’s also possible to glide along at least one straight line towards and away from the scene even with vanishing points, although that may only be doable from one side. Finally, if the field of view is sufficiently narrow, it ought to be possible to walk, swim or fly about on the object while maintaining the illusion. Fog could also be our friend. If the scene is much bigger than the observer and distant parts become invisible due to haze, it once again becomes possible to do this. Bearing in mind the mention of a game engine earlier, the question arises of whether there could be a game based on a map like this, and how that map would be represented to the computer. If the physics were sufficiently complex to the extent that something like electromotive force could be simulated, it might even be possible to construct a perpetual motion machine in such an engine, although of course in reality this would just be drawing the normal power any computer system would, which raises the previous issue of what really happens when hyperspace shapes are simulated again.

The apparently coherent world of a 3-D CGI reconstruction of such impossible objects leads nicely into the final set of Escher’s works. One way of managing such a scene would be for the edges of objects shown through the “telescope” to the viewer to deviate imperceptibly from Euclidean geometry by being curved, slightly crooked or for objects to increase in apparent size somewhat more than they do in the space with which we’re familiar. This is effectively hyperbolic geometry, where parallel lines not only fail to converge but actually diverge. There are local regions of space where hyperbolic geometry does apply, for example just outside the event horizon of a black hole. A young earth creationist cosmologist once evoked hyperbolic geometry to explain why the distant Universe appears to be so much older than his literalist interpretation of the Bible said it could be, which is a waste of a fine mind if you ask me, but still. ‘Circle Limit IV‘ is a quasi-religious image showing an infinite number of coëxisting angels and demons receding into the “limits” of the circle. This also serves to depict hyperbolic geometry. One way of looking at it is to imagine oneself in the centre of a sphere a kilometre in radius, with freedom to move in any direction. However, five hundred metres from one’s starting point one has shrunk to half one’s size and the distance to the outside is therefore still a kilometre. You can probably guess that covering half of the remaining distance halves one’s size again and so on ad infinitum. The surface is thus infinitely far away despite appearances, meaning that in effect one is still at the centre of the sphere.

To some extent this would be practical using CGI. However it would need to be carefully written in order to avoid a problem a friend of mine once came up against on writing a Mandelbrot Set zoomer which ultimately became blurry. Most programming languages seem to use the IEEE floating point standard of storing the exponent in such a way as only to allow values down to about 10^-38 to be calculated. This would mean that once dimensions had been halved more than one hundred and thirty times or so, things would become blurry and indeterminate. This problem can be deferred by treating the initial location as zoomed out as far as possible, of the order of 10^38 times, but even then the limit is merely doubled. Clearly there is an answer to this in the case of the Mandelbrot Set but I suspect that the scenery would have to be procedurally generated because otherwise it would require infinite storage. That said, clearly the ‘Circle Limit’ series do lend themselves to this.

It seems, then, that hyperbolic geometry might provide a means of roaming about inside any of Escher’s images, but I doubt this is intentional. It happens to be a possible solution which arises because of the consistency and theme of the original material, and is a good illustration of how great artists are unwittingly inspiring and universal in a way which is almost impossible to quantify.

Silicon-based Life

Nicki Minaj

A rather sexist comment made on one of my most popular YouTube videos was that Nicki Minaj was a silicon-based life form. This is one of those clever but dodgy comments which are all the more annoying because their ideologically unsound content is accompanied by ingenuity, although in this case it’s not very original. Not being into celebrity culture, I had no idea who Nicki Minaj was at the time, so anyway this is her:

This could very easily impinge on transwaffle territory, so taking this in a different direction, I want to talk about why this sexist statement is oddly relevant to the idea of silicon-based life by starting with breast implants and working out from there.

A human breast, among other things, consists of ducts, glands, muscle and adipose tissue, and it’s the last which is most relevant to this post. Humans use technology to modify their bodies, such as silicone implants. An animal which uses silicon-based materials is in a sense silicon-based to some degree. Many cosmetics contain silicon compounds of various kinds, as do some surgical implants with functions other than breast implants. Beyond our own bodies, we use glass, optical instruments, spectacles and digital technologies as extensions of our nervous systems. In a way we’re the most silicon-based species on this planet, but we’re not unique.

This is a caddisfly in a case she has made from silicate rock fragments. Caddisfly are insects whose larvae build protective cases for themselves out of various bits of solid matter spun together with silk. This may or may not be silicate, but in any case there’s a sense in which caddisflies share the human tendency to wear clothes.

This use of silicon can be scaled down further with the likes of diatoms and radiolaria, who have glassy shells, a practice similar in some ways to the tendency of algae to have cellulose cell walls.

Nor are silicon compounds purely structural. Some of the silicon chemicals used in toiletries and cosmetics are hormonally active and the infamous silicate mineral asbestos is carcinogenic, so there’s nothing to stop silicon from participating in the workings of organic life. Hence the non-existence of silicon-based life on this planet may have nothing to do with it not being possible.


Creationists sometimes claim that the theory of evolution is useless for explaining the origin of life from non-life. This is arguable. Although some scientists do claim that the actual origin of life is a different problem to the question of evolution, clearly a chemical process which can copy itself fairly accurately has greater fitness to continue than one which can’t. That said, there is a separate question regarding the conditions under which such processes might be able to start and continue. JBS Haldane hypothesised in 1929, following an earlier idea by a Soviet scientist in 1924, that life might arise from a soup of chemicals such as ammonia, methane and of course water in the primordial ocean under the action of various energy inputs such as lightning strikes, ionising solar radiation and volcanic heating.

The Miller-Urey experiment, conducted in 1952, sought to mimic the conditions of the early Earth by placing water, hydrogen, methane and ammonia in a sealed container, heating it and passing an electrical current through it. It was found that the contents turned pink after a day of this and after a week the reactions were stopped and samples were taken. It turned out that even though less than five litres of liquid were used for only a week, five amino acids were detected at the time and recent re-tests of the resultant substances showed that there were more than twenty, many of which could form into proteins, plus some which had other biochemical rôles such as the neurotransmitter GABA. Although it’s no longer believed that the primitive atmosphere and ocean were rich in the compounds they started off with, the composition they’re now thought to have is still compatible with the results of the experiment.

Amino acids are by no means the only organic compounds essential to our kind of life, but it’s certainly an encouraging result showing that something like this could have led to the first life on this planet.

Interstellar medium

The putative content of the ocean and atmosphere assumed at the time of the Miller-Urey experiment is closer to the kind of substances found in interstellar space and comets than on Earth. Ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane and water are all present, along with more complex organic compounds such as formic acid, ethanol and acetone. Silicon compounds are much less common and less complex, such as silicon tricarbide, but the silicon equivalent to methane, silane, is present.

Taking space as a neutral environment with no particular bias towards the chemistry found in life on Earth, it looks like organic molecules are much more likely to form and become complex than ones containing silicon. In addition, the chains of molecules so vital to our kind of life are much shorter for silicon than carbon, and although ring-shaped molecules can form which include silicon, their units always include other atoms such as oxygen. The repertoire of compounds available to silicon-based life is much smaller.

The four inner planets in this solar system are all rich in silicon, including the one which is obviously teeming with life, but despite this huge reservoir of the element, only organic life exists here. There’s also the circumstantial evidence that we’re not living on a carbon planet but are still carbon-based. Carbon planets are another type of solid planet not found in this system which are primarily made up of carbon rather than being high in silicates. If we exist even though our planet is not particularly high in carbon, that strongly suggests that silicon-based life is rare or requires very specific and rare conditions to arise.

I also have a hunch that if the Miller-Urey experiment were to be repeated with silane replacing methane, you’d probably just end up with a load of weird gritty stuff. Then again, maybe there’s a silicon-based lifeform out there somewhere saying the organic version of their own experiment would merely produce a load of gooey gloop, but the thing is, we are that gloop, so it may just be my carbon chauvinism talking.

Chlorine for oxygen

Another suggestion for an alternative to a common element making up our own bodies, oxygen, is chlorine. Like oxygen, chlorine supports combustion and it might therefore also be suitable for the slow “burning” process keeping many living things going. The problems would be the source of the chlorine and the nature of the chlorine bond. As mentioned previously, one sign of previous advanced technology on this planet might be the persistence of organic chlorides, because it may not be possible for organic life to produce an enzyme strong enough to put asunder a chlorine and carbon atom once joined by an ungodly force such as Dupont, so if that did happen, it might turn into a sort of unresolvable rubbish tip of unbiodegradable matter. Maybe there are other worlds where this has happened, but life has ceased to exist for that very reason because everything got tied up as tetrachloromethane.

Chlorine is a dead end in another sense. The above diagram depicts dioxin, the deadly substance released from the Seveso chemical plant near Milan in 1976 which killed thousands of vertebrates and led to an increase in cancer and diabetes in the human population. The point of this image, though, is to indicate that whereas oxygen can easily link to two other atoms and therefore, for example, form part of a ring, chlorine can only link with one, meaning that it doesn’t lend itself as well to being incorporated into complex structures. Also, the analogous compound to dihydrogen monoxide – water – in this situation is hydrogen chloride, which is of course hydrochloric acid when combined with water and highly corrosive. There are very dry worlds, such as Io, where HCl wouldn’t be an acid, but it also has quite a low boiling point compared to water, so reactions would be much slower if it could replace water.

Why I’ve mentioned this should become clearer later.


Getting back to breast implants, while some would consider these to be of limited utility, they do illustrate that there are inorganic alternatives to fat. The function of adipose tissue in animal bodies is not confined to energy storage. It also provides insulation and padding. There is a rare condition called congenital generalized lipodystrophy where the body cannot produce normal adipose tissue, causing them to develop a fatty liver and diabetes among other problems, but also meaning that they lack the protection afforded to their bodies by the presence of fat around internal organs and are susceptible to hypothermia. In theory, silicone implants might help such people. Taking this more generally, if it’s possible for a “warm-blooded” animal to synthesize its own silicone gel, it would satisfy the mechanical and insulatory functions of adipose tissue, although if it had organic biochemistry it would be unable to fulfill the energy storage requirement, which might edge it out from an evolutionary perspective as it would still need a way to do that.

There are also silicone lubricants. In a vertebrate body, with joints, these could act like the synovial fluid in joint capsules. The bones and teeth themselves are in reality composed substantially of mineral – apatite or calcium phosphate – and to me it doesn’t stretch credulity to imagine an alien animal with silicate bones. Speaking of stretching, silicone rubber is another example of a silicone, which is strongly water repellent and could therefore function as a waterproof skin for a land animal or an aquatic animal who needs to keep the concentration of body fluids constant, though it would also necessitate specific organs for breathing, which very small organisms don’t need because gases can pass freely through their permeable surfaces. Silicone is also used medically to glue wounds together, so it could serve as an equivalent to scar formation. It’s also easy to imagine silica-based horns, hoofs, claws and nails, and the eye lends itself to glass or glass-like lenses and corneas.

As mentioned above, silicon compounds can also act hormonally. The five-silicon ring-shaped molecule in the first diagram is oestrogenic and widely distributed in things people put on, and therefore to some extent in, their bodies, where it’s difficult to break down and excrete and so persistent and constitutes a feminising and therefore sterilising pollutant to aquatic life, particularly considering its extensive bathroom use. But in any case, this means that in theory many chemical messengers within organism and pheromones outside them could be silicon-based.

In terms of energy storage, polysilanes suggest themselves. Silane is silicon tetrahydride, in other words the silicon version of methane, and like methane it forms the first molecule in a series of increasingly longer chains of the respective atoms bonded to hydrogen, including branched forms. In the case of organic life, Archaea generate methane and also oxidise it, one of the signatures astrobiologists look out for in their search for extraterrestrial life, and it is in fact found on Mars. The longer chained hydrocarbons, such as octane, are liquid at room temperature and pressure and are of course used as fuel. Trisilane and tetrasilane are both liquid in such situations and could therefore be used as an energy source. Silanes are more fragile than alkanes such as methane, propane, butane, octane and the like, and are more explosive.

Clearly, then, there are silicon compounds which could replace synovial and other lubricating fluids, skin, scars, the hard parts of organisms such as horns and shells, serve optical needs and even act as hormones and oils. There are two broad categories of potential biological silicon use here, one of which is more feasible than the other. Into the more conservative class fall the optical uses, bones, skin accessory organs such as scales and hair, and are conventional silicates as are known to occur in living things. More radical are the more organic-like, and perhaps more central, hormones, rubbers, lubricants and energy sources. These would require a much less similar biochemistry than what is known to science at the moment and might involve energy levels and properties of matter which are in fact non-existent.

The question is how far silicon chemistry could penetrate from their clearly realistic peripheral functions as structural elements into the core of living systems. A largely silicon-based life form could exist if by that is meant that a substantial fraction of its solid matter could be made up of silicon compounds, but its living would still be masterminded by a centrally organic biochemistry. Thoroughly silicon-based life is a considerably harder proposition. However, I suspect that the main problem with it is not so much whether it could exist as how it could appear in the first place.

The role of silicon-based life in ‘Replicas’

My recently published novel ‘Replicas‘ would not have been possible without the help of the Galactic Association and was therefore able to build upon what had already been established in that setting as well as added, I hope respectfully, some of my own backstory, which isn’t explicit in the book.

The Galactic Association universe has robots although they’re only mentioned rather than portrayed, largely because the technology on the settled planets is not as advanced as on Earth. It also has Graves’ Planet, the second planet of Alpha Centauri B, which has “silicon-chlorine” based life. I interpret this as meaning that the compounds involved in the biochemistry of life on that planet, which is simple and primitive, are largely silicon-based, and that the photosynthesis there generates chlorine while respiration combines it with other substances to release energy. This would require a lot of useful and interesting silicon- and chlorine- containing compounds which I’ve chosen to depict as employed in robot design. However, the robots already exist and are already conscious at the start of the novel in the 2320s.

They have an implicit history which is entirely mine in conception. They have had to struggle in the past for liberation and civil rights and have been divided into two types, one Asimovian (not autonomous and governed by the Three Laws, which means they are restricted in achieving their potential) and the other non-Asimovian, who are as free as humans but also more capable than us. There is also an issue about realising the potential of non-living matter – if a robot could be more capable, is a lower tech machine effectively disabled and imprisoned by not being able to do more?

The history before liberation is where the joke about Nicki Minaj becomes relevant again. We all do various things to our bodies such as dressing in particular ways, washing, grooming, and doing more or less intimate things to ourselves, and many of us draw the line at our skin, or we think we do. As time goes by, body modification becomes more acceptable, so recently piercings and tattoos have become more tolerated. This is a gradual impingement a little reminiscent of penetration, and the more extensive cosmetic procedures become, the more intimate the technology is.

At the same time, much technological innovation is driven by lust. Photography, cinematography, VCRs, DVDs and the internet seem to have been used as vehicles for pornography. Today we have the Campaign Against Sex Robots. This raises a question in my mind. What if the lust-fuelled technological development of sex robots ultimately leads to a self-aware gynoid (female android) as intelligent, or more so, than a human? I also see the penetration of body modification into the body giving rise to fusion between the human condition on the one hand and the gynoid on the other. The question also arises of how manufactured beings can be said to have gender. It also means that a campaign which currently makes sense and appears very pro-feminist and liberationist would in these circumstances be effectively advocating genocide. Literal sexual objects become subjects in their own right.

Besides this is the theme of the vitality of matter. As organic life forms living on an inorganic planet it’s easy for us to contrast the non-living world of the inanimate from the living, but the likes of mineral components of living matter and the hormonal action of inorganic compounds challenges that distinction. The idea of silicon-based life is in that sense subversive, because if it exists it is both inorganic and vital, and leads one to question the idea of a world of dead matter inhabited by living beings. And of course robots do the same.