Thursday, September 17, 2009

Solar Made Relations

Say you were on the Starship Enterprise and you came out of warp drive only to find yourself in a the new neighborhood of a star and a few friendly looking planets.  Now, the planets seem to be vaguely habitable places with water, mist and a strange purple light, perhaps a kind of vegetation, but your not sure.

"Captain," asks the irritatingly breathy voice of your flaming Number One, "do you think there might be some young blondes buck naked down there?"  You look at Number One, tempted to explain to him the proper decorum he has never given a damn about, but reconsider, "That's just what I'm about to discover."

Now wait a minute.  We've all seen some version of this scene before.  What you, the Captain, should do is obvious: simply ask for a "scan for life."  It's that easy.  And if you act now, I'll throw a Chop-O-Matic in, absolutely free!

What exactly would a "scan for life" look like anyway?  Ever thought about that?  What does life look like in a planetary sense?  I mean, you might start with the color of vegetation.  So we know that life has a color, on earth, which is more or less responsible for a greenish cast to the planets face, from space.  But, come on, that is surely a lame metric to use in a science fiction scenario.  We need to be more fancy and scientific here.  We have to be able to operate without a flashlight!

Well, jeez, Captain, I'm thinking as hard as I can.  I know you are, but perhaps I can suggest a few things that exist only in the presence of life, which should you be able to sense them, somehow, you'd surely know something was up, other than Number One, whilst thinking of his blondes.

For example, say you measured the amount of radiation that the planet was receiving from it's star.  Say this amount was a number, like, 1000 units of radiation.  The determining factor of radiation received by the planet would be determined by the amount of radiation that would fall on any surface in the solar system at that distance from the sun.  Multiplied then to the size of the planet.  Nothing fancy.  You just pull up alongside the planet, take a measurement for a standard measured area.  Now you know the radiation falling for the standard area.  Then measure the area of the the entire planet and divide it by two, giving you the area of the face of the planet being showered with the suns rays at any given time.  Divide the area of the face of the planet by your standard measurement that you took of the suns rays next to the planet.  And multiply the amount of radiation that fell on your standard surface times the number of them it would take to cover half the face of the planet.  Voila! you've got yourself the magic number.  We said 1000 units of radiation.

The reason we are doing this?  Well, as the whole world seems to be learning these last few years, interesting stuff happens to sunlight when it falls on planets.  Sometimes, if the surface of the planet is rocky, but devoid of atmosphere, the sunlight merely warms the surface (to an extent having to do with its distance from the sun) until night falls, whereon the surface gives the darkness of space a warm bath of infrared.  And turns so cold that Antarctica would seem a tropical isle, by comparison.

Such a scenario is exactly the one enjoyed by some moons in our solar system.  Not all rocky moons, but most of them.

Needless to say, life is unlikely to exist without geofluids such as water and atmosphere.  They help create flows of energy that life rather depends on.

In the more likely case of "scanning a real candidate for life" there would be water, like in our example above, and atmosphere.  And now, as I mentioned, we know that 1000 units of solar radiation are bathing the planet, pretty much all the time.

How does this help us to determine much in the way of whether or not life exists for Number One to chase tail with?  Simple:  entropy.

Entropy itself is not a sign of life at all.  In a sense, it's somewhat it's opposite.  Useful energy degrading into heat (or random molecular motion), not due to the Second Law of thermodynamics, but rather in accord with it.

Life increases organization with flows of energy and matter, gaining complexity, and somehow creating something of a black hole, in the smooth plane that would otherwise have graphed our planets entropy.  This should indicate to you that our test for "signs of life" must include some aspect of entropy.  And the aspect you are most likely going to guess, now that we're discussing it, is a loss of entropy, a sequestering of complexity and energy on a planet that harbors life, which would not be the case, otherwise.

So how might you do this, or determine this.  You probably already can guess: it's not really that hard.  But first I ought to give a little background as to my interest in the subject.

I first read about "entropy" in a book my parents had on their sagging shelves called, "Entropy."  The only thing I learned about "entropy" in the book, well... I actually learned nothing about entropy, but rather, learned a great deal about the scandalous lack of efficiency of the modern agriculture employed by the West.  The book, no doubt (I haven't returned to it) explained a good deal what "entropy" is, but the only thing I could gather, by reading it, was that "entropy" was the winding down of things in the universe, which somehow, everything always does, eventually.  I took it, I suppose, as a somewhat technical term for death or something.  Oh well, I was young.

After that I continuously have brushed up against thermodynamics, as I mentioned before in this blog, and not infrequently, given it's somewhat prominent role in the same, "entropy."  By and by, I think by the writings of Fritjof Capra, about  complexity, and systems theory, I slowly came to realize my ignorance, and determined at least to admit I didn't know what "entropy" was, and would one day really endeavor to figure it out.

Somehow or other I came across enough books that explained thermodynamics, that it gradually sunk in.  And then I started to understand math a lot better, and feel less anxiety about actually reading the equations, instead of skipping to the "interesting stuff."  Lo and behold:  "entropy."

It wasn't that "death" was a terrible metaphor.  It's just that, as in so many cases in life, a metaphor wasn't as useful as a visualization through the language of science.  It's almost impossible to explain the subtle difference, but suffice it to say that whereas before I was inspired by the concept of "entropy," today I can understand it's role in the language of science, on the subjects near and dear to me like: photosynthesis, agriculture, biology, and sure... climate.  "Signs of life" indeed.

So what's a Captain to do, moored out in a possibly hostile location: say the Horse Nebula Latitudes.  Nowhere to castaway, and grog went out of fashion six centuries ago.  Better find Number One something to love, eh?

Scientists, like most of us, are prone to a certain degree of bombastacy.  I'm not a Scientist, and I certainly love to make unflattering comparisons frowned on by less immodest gentlefolk.

So, while a scientist might certainly make a lovely point by sticking you in a bomb calorimeter and pressurizing the thing to some forty atmospheres with Oxygen gas, and sending a current of electricity through an igniter:  in the end all he's going to have left is some measure of the periodic table, composed of ash worth maybe $30.00 at a demon Pharmacist of Bleaker St.  I get it, I get it... life is just chemicals.  Who hasn't heard it before?  Here's the thing though... a planet without life is chemicals too.  But a planet without life doesn't decrease in it's entropic equilibrium.  Life isn't just chemicals.  Don't tell the Christians, but, Goddamn, life's kinda smart.

Though it's a bit of a cop out, the easiest way to sort of glean what I mean about all this is to think of oil, natural gas, and coal.  Guess what?  They're energy!  And guess where that energy came from?  The Sun.  So, wouldn't you agree that whatever sunlight is in the total reserves of coal, oil and natural gas on our planet were retained by our planet once the sunlight fell?  Which is to say, once the photons in the coal, oil and natural gas hit the earth, they giggled around in some ancient form of life for a good long while (twenty to forty years on average, in case you really are interested) and then settled in for a nap, in a somewhat supremely gated community.

So, if you were to measure the sunlight falling on the earth, at least a portion of it is surely going to not return to space, as was the case of nearly all of it on our rocky planet with no atmosphere and water.

This is, though crude, more or less what is meant by "negative entropy," the equally crude term of the art for life's effect on a planets thermodynamic equilibrium.  I have had the habit in my writings of referring to such phenomena as "negative entropy" as disentropic, but nowhere else will you find such claptrap.  So "negative entropy" it is.

So, by now it is clear to you what the aim of our "scanner for life" should be.  It should measure the radiation hitting the surface of the planet, and then compare that figure to the radiation escaping from the entire planet (the whole planet, not half.)  A planet giving back what it takes from the sun, in equal measure, is a very bad candidate for life.

Which if you've ever longed for a nice meal, as Number One pines for his pleasure, should make a great deal of sense.


Postscript:  Should there be some concern on your part as to my teasing that portion of our race who pine for young blondes... it might comfort you to know that I have modeled Number One on an old friend, D.H.  D.H. and I used to jog together frequently.  He was a very wonderful friend of mine.  And while running, nothing would encourage his interest in healthy pursuits so much as the rather frisky, young, slim, blonde men who passed us at intervals we had no hope of equalling.  This habit of my friend was a deep pleasure to me, when I wasn't laughing so hard at his rather "negative entropy" of desire:  a structure of deepening complexity which I hope by now has been shattered by a dozen or so unpigmented fellows.  D.H., had it been in my power, I would have grabbed them by the hair myself, and explained to them the small sacrifice their free will truly represented next to the generosity of your desire.  But, that's the rub.  I suppose it's a free country after all... and that played no small part in my pride at your friendship with me.


Ande said...

This was a hugely enjoyable read.

There was a time when I wondered why complex life couldn’t be sustained if we continued to maintain negative entropy; I don’t know what Number One would have answered but I gave up on the question. We’re nothing but over privileged consumers, increasing the universe’s entropy; that’s for sure.Oh, well.

Andy Coffey said...


I suppose it is true that life couldn't be maintained, indefinitely... with negative entropy.
But I'll accept a few Billion years without suffering more psychological damage than I already can claim.
Thanks for reading it. I was hoping you would!

Ande said...

Andy - yes, I would settle for that too. But there is something inside us which stops responding to the wealth of the solar power after a while. On the other hand, the universe will also grow old (so we are not alone in this fate at least); a few billion years without damage is indeed all we possible can hope for in either case. Hmm, I would settle for that too.

Andy Coffey said...


Si, Senor!