Asking ourselves what « life » is, leads us to profound existential questions.
Has it happened to you that for a long time you look for something and then you realize that it was always in front of your eyes but you had not realized it?
Be it simple glasses or the love of your life, by not looking well you may be blind to something that you have right in front of you.
That, according to a recent work by two astrobiologists, is perhaps what is preventing us from solving two fundamental questions: what is the origin of life and why we haven’t found life elsewhere in the universe.
The answers may be there, we just have been searching for them in a wrong.
Stuart Bartlett, a planetary science researcher at the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Wong, from NASA’s Exoplanet Laboratory, believe that to find those answers perhaps we must begin by changing what we think about « lifetime ».
Our planet is home to what is possibly just one of the life forms that exist in the universe.
And for this, they propose a new word: « Vyda » (lyfe, as it is originally called in English, to differentiate it from the word « life », which means life).
What is the concept of vyda all about and why does it pose a existential revolution?
Defining what we mean by « life » is already a complex task, but for practical purposes NASA uses this definition:
« Life is a self-sufficient chemical system with the ability to have darwinian evolution« .
That definition describes all living things of our planet.
Perhaps there are beings that function in a very different way from what we know.
Despite the differences, from the smallest microorganisms to the human being, we all consume energy autonomously, we use it through chemical processes and carry an RNA and DNA that stores information and evolves to adapt to the environment.
That’s the only life we know of, and according to Bartlett and Wong, there is the problem.
« We only have An example of what life is, « Bartlett tells BBC Mundo.
“If we focus only on systems that use chemical processes, we can be losing ourselves other examples of life ”, he adds.
Bartlett’s idea is that we are using too narrow a definition of life, preventing us from seeing other possible life forms that may have always been there but that we have disregarded.
Before that limited vision, Bartlett and Wong propose the concept of vyda.
It is possible that we are observing the universe with too limited a vision.
Bartlett and Wong’s proposal is that any system that meets these four abilities is considered vyvo:
Dissipation: capture and process energy Autocatalysis: grow or expand Homeostasis: maintain internal balance when external conditions change Learning: store and process information and use it to increase your chances of survival
We still have questions about how life originated on Earth.
Under that vision, “life, as we know it, it’s just one of the ways to meet those four requirements ”, Wong tells BBC Mundo.
In other words, life is just a way of vyda, but there may be many more.
The origin of life
The concept of vyda seeks to reformulate the way in which the question about the origin of life on Earth is asked.
Many of the theories about the origin of life on Earth are based on the observation of characteristics that are visible today and that it is believed that they were present in the first forms of life.
However, Bartlett and Wong warn, there is little evidence that any of these characteristics were present early in life.
The most primitive forms of life evolved into more complex organisms.
« We cannot reconstruct the first forms of life on Earth simply by looking at the forms of life that exist today, » he tells BBC Mundo. Douglas vackoch, president of Messages to Intelligent Extraterrestrials (METI), a scientific organization that tries to contact signs of life elsewhere in the universe.
Vackoch, who was not involved in the Bartlett and Wong article, says that amounts to compare a modern train powered by superconducting magnets and liquid helium with one of the earliest coal-powered locomotives.
« They both have their ‘metabolism, » says Vackoch, « but they are radically different in its construction ”.
Therefore, the concept of vyda proposes that the search for the origin of life focuses on the four pillars that they propose and not so much in the characteristics that have been observed.
Our conception of the universe may be limiting the way we look for signs of life in the cosmos.
Vyda on other planets
« The man has closed in on himself, to the point that it sees all things through the narrow crevices of its cavern, « wrote the poet William Blake.
That’s what Bartlett and Wong want to change.
The concept of vyda implies that we may be looking for extraterrestrial signs of wrong way, locked in a mental cavern.
Looking for vyda, rather than just life, could bring more fruitful results, astrobiologists say.
Aliens can be very different from how we see them in the movies.
Bartlett wonders, for example, why we assume we are the kind of life that serves as model for life that possibly exist elsewhere in the universe.
« That will be behind us once we discover other life examples”Says Bartlett.
The possibilities are endless, and our imagination falls short, but as an example Bartlett mentions that perhaps one day we will find beings that store information with something other than DNA, or that perform metabolism with some enzymes that we do not know on Earth.
« Extraterrestrial life will have forms that go beyond our wildest dreams”Says Vackoch.
The Perseverance rover set out for Mars in search of signs of life.
« Hollywood’s most exotic aliens will seem boringly predictable compared to the surprises we will find when we make our first contact with real aliens. «
That idea implies that perhaps we should redesign missions and teams with which we look for life on other planets, as the Perseverance explorer will do on Mars, for example.
“We want our instruments to not be limited for the conception of what life is on Earth, ”says Wong.
« We want to encourage them to seek signs of life that are not restricted to our own world ”.
The concept of vyda may lead to life-seeking missions on other planets being transformed.
The meaning of life (and the vyda)
And beyond biology and space missions, Bartlett and Wong’s proposal also implies a profound existential question.
« Why do we start from that pre-established position of thinking that we are specials? ”Asks Bartlett.
“At first we thought we were the center of the universeThen we said: ok, we may not be the center of the universe, but we are the best species on Earth and we should be the model for life elsewhere.
The new concept he proposes, however, lowers these pretenses a bit and tells us that perhaps our life is just one in the middle of an immense group of forms of vyda.
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