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"These Aren't the Worlds You're Looking For"

Last week my wife and I read the chronologically-first Dragonriders of Pern book to my daughter. (She loved it.) DragonsDawn is one of more than a dozen novels by Anne McCaffrey set on the alien world of Pern, which in this story has just been colonized by humans.

I was struck by McCaffrey's detailed thinking about what colonization of another planet would be like--both because of the sophistication of some of her ideas, and the utter naivete of others. The colonists use genetic engineering to defend Pern's biosphere against incursions by an alien life form known as Thread, but nobody (least of all McCaffrey herself) seems to realize that the humans and their goats, pigs, food plants and associated fungi and microorganisms are themselves a catastrophic alien threat to the planet's biosphere.

At least the Thread and the native life forms have had some time to co-evolve. McCaffrey's colonists fan out from their initial base at Landing and spread seeds, spores, eggs and new species of megafauna all over the planet. They seem utterly unaware that this will cause massive displacement of species up and down the food chain, perturbing nearly every ecology in the world. They also seem unaware of the possibility that local life forms might be better adapted at some things, and might see them and their imports as food as well.

I raise this not to dump on McCaffrey (whose books are marvelous) but because DragonsDawn perfectly exhibits the conceptual blind spots that have gotten us into trouble on our own planet. Even more, however, DragonsDawn flags a giant blind spot among proponents of space colonization. This blind spot is the idea that the worlds we want to locate and colonize should be worlds like Earth.

The fact is, the last place we want to set up a human colony is a planet with a fully developed Earth-like ecosystem. Jared Diamond provides some of the reasons why in his excellent study of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere, Guns, Germs and Steel. European settlers didn't just come over and settle; the Vikings tried it and died out, and many early colonies in the Indies and America failed. Those settlements that were successful were the ones that had the benefit of knowledge earned through long experimentation in the micro-ecologies of the Azores, and the Canary Islands, and in Africa and Asia. More importantly, however, the successful colonies weren't bands of human beings--they were humans accompanied by the right mix of food animals, edible plants, and microorganisms. In other words, it wasn't European humans who colonized the Americas; it was European ecosystems. And the effect, both on the flora and fauna and on the humans already in the Americas, was apocalyptic.

A single species can't colonize another world; it takes a whole biosphere. Even your gut fauna have the potential to wreak havoc on a planet that's never encountered them before. You might think you could genetically engineer solutions to this whopping big problem, but the thing is, species-by-species interventions won't work. Most of the microorganisms in any randomly-selected drop of water are unknown to science, and you have thousands of species living inside you, all of which would need to be taken into account. Ditto for the new biosphere you're moving into; adaptation must be mutual.

So, these green, Earth-like worlds with their blue skies and oceans, warm breezes and waving, untouched forests--these aren't the worlds you're looking for. They're impossible to colonize without unforeseeable catastrophic results. We will want to look for them, to study them and admire them from afar, but we'd better not ever set foot there.

Instead, the worlds we will want to colonize (and I disagree here with Charlie's assessment that colonizing other worlds is impossible or impractical) are those that are fallow--Earth-analogues that could have developed life but never did. We might get luckiest on planets that do have life but where that life is stuck in the proterozoic stage, and has oxygenated their atmospheres but not yet colonized land. As long as we're willing to pave over that indigenous life entirely with our own, this might be the best way to go. Otherwise, however, for the purposes of eventual colonization, we should be searching for the Fallow Earths.

--Oh, hey, I just came up with a book title. Anybody want to pay me to write a novel around it?

90 Comments

1:

Your idea of colonizing a world with just micro-organisms reminds me of a book I read a long time ago "Handbook for Space Pioneers" I think. One of the colony worlds had an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere, no native land life and limited unicellular life in the oceans--enough to generate the atmosphere I think. The colonists not only had to bring the seeds for their crops they had to bring all incidental organisms and prep the soil since there WAS no soil, just rocks.

2:

I disagree, the history of life on earth is the history of mixing of separated species. This popular notion of ecology as some carefully evolved balance is incorrect, while there are short term zones of stability over time dramatic and some times damaging change happens. Will the mixing of exo-life and life have disastrous results? Certainly. Is is avoidable in the long term with a space faring civilization? Probably not in the long term. Beautiful and terrible things happen when creatures that have not co-evolved meet. Without technology we have plenty of examples of ecosystems merging, with technology we could probably soften the damage that this merging costs.

3:

I agree, sort of. As I noted on another thread, I wrote a novel that used New Guinea as a model of what an alien world might look like (Scion of the Zodiac) and the challenges of colonizing it.

If you've read Guns, Germs, and Steel, you'll know that Diamond counted the Papuans as some of the smartest people in the world. They've lived on New Guinea for 40,000 years. During that time, they domesticated all suitable plants, created complex agricultural systems that we can't yet match, and also failed to get past the neolithic stage in material technology. Not that Europeans have done much better. New Guinea is not a great place to live.

That's most likely the best fate of anyone colonizing an alien biosphere. American-style blitzkrieg colonization (which, I might add, took a lot of ships and about four hundred years) isn't going to happen in an interstellar situation. Rather, interstellar colonization is going to be like the family or families who rafted to Sahul (proto-New Guinea/Australia) 40,000 years ago. There aren't going to be many of them, and they're going to have to adapt themselves to the planet, rather than subjugating the planet and making it a clone of Gaia.

That said, I don't blame Anne McCaffrey for Pern. Only a very few scientists had any inkling of what a biosphere was or how complex it was when she started writing about Pern in 1967. Since then, it's taken on a life of its own, and if it is out of date, I'm not going to complain much.

I don't share your optimism that a bacteria-only biosphere is more colonizable than one with plants, on the simple basis that bacteria run our biosphere right now, just as they have for the last 4 billion years. Moreover, oxygen happened about 1-2 billion years ago, when cyanobacteria (our lords and masters) decided to poison the anaerobic world and made multicellular eukaryotic life possible. Speaking as a biologist, I'm pretty damn sure that cyanos colonized the land early on. I'm also pretty sure that, if you look at Devonian Earth (where animals were just starting to colonize land), you wouldn't want to live there.

Basically, if you can live on a starship indefinitely, you might as well keep building starships to live on, or equivalent habitats on moons, asteroids, and similar bodies. Settling a planet is a one-way trip. It might be a very worthwhile one-way trip, but you can never go home again.

4:

You are forgetting that you are (absent panspermia) absolutely certainly more closely related to cyanobacteria than you are to an alien tree. Your ecosystem is likely if anything to be orthogonal, mutually inedible even if based on carbon-oxygen-hydrogen-nitrogen chemistry - competing on physical and energy resources alone.

5:

I am reminded of the universe in Niven's A World out of Time, where most planets are abiotic but terraformable and it is those planets that Earth sends out biological packages to start terraforming.

6:

I don't really agree with the statement, "So, these green, Earth-like worlds with their blue skies and oceans, warm breezes and waving, untouched forests--these aren't the worlds you're looking for. They're impossible to colonize without unforeseeable catastrophic results. We will want to look for them, to study them and admire them from afar, but we'd better not ever set foot there."

Nature isn't about stability - it's about change. Species, environments that don't change - can't adapt, improve and evolve.

Yes there is always the risk of catastrophe - there is with anything worthwhile - from walking down the street, flying or running experiments that smash 2 atoms together at high speed.

There is a biosphere - but that sphere isn't isolated from everything around it - we already suspect that Earth was hit by a large meteor that took out large parts of it's biosphere.

It's debatable about how "natural" it was :)

7:

We might get luckiest on planets that do have life but where that life is stuck in the proterozoic stage, and has oxygenated their atmospheres but not yet colonized land.

While it is horribly dated otherwise, "Starship Troopers" briefly mentions a planet exactly like that, and describes why it is so well-suited for colonization. Very astute of Heinlein, IMO.

8:

Dammit, exactly that proterozoic Earth idea is central to a story I'm working on at the moment, for exactly the reasons you state.

9:

there is also the minor point that by the time we have sufficient technology to move even meat popsicles to another star we will likely be able to build biospheres from scratch with toothpicks and coat hangers. And perfectly model their behavior. Technology levels matter.

10:

The most probable outcome of a small Gaian biosphere being introduced into an enormous alien system is that the Gaian system will fail, unless it has some unique advantage.

This even includes bacteria-dominated worlds. For the techies, the best example is taking your iPhone with you when you travel back to 1984. That iPhone is pretty advanced compared to 1984 technology, but without the extensive wireless infrastructure we have now, it's pretty useless. Ditto with your laptop. While it might be more functional than 1980s laptops, without a 5 1/4" floppy drive and an old-fashioned printer port (let alone access to other computers over a phone modem), it's fairly limited.

Or if you think this is too facile, take your iPhone back to 1940.

Space colonization is the equivalent of taking a rental van into the past, and stocking said truck with sufficient technology to build a whole wireless industrial ecosystem from scratch. Even if you can hire the locals and get them to share your dream of a brilliant new future, it's a difficult task. In ecosystem terms, this is taking enough different organisms to insure that they start replicating and grow a system you can survive in. This isn't an easy trick.

11:

Robert Charles Wilson presented the hazards of trying to colonize a fully-formed ecosystem in "Bios", and it… wasn't pretty.

12:

Aside from the whole Earth-like-planet bit (and the total utter lack of interest when the colonists discover a local life form that can frickin' *teleport*, for heavens' sake), Dragonsdawn hangs together pretty well.

If you consider that how damaged the entire expedition is (it consists largely of hippy dropouts, ethnic refugees, criminals, and people with personality problems; their leader is a washed-out ex-soldier with PTSD), suddenly it all makes more sense. The reason why they make so many poor decisions is because there's nobody capable of making good ones!

Taking your second-hand colony ships on a one-way trip to a world so far away from anyone that you're years from help? Check. Deliberately picking a world that's got no useful resources? Check. (According to McCaffrey, though.) Basing your economic future on an idealised back-to-the-soil view of the Good Life? Check. Not taking the means to build, repair or refuel the machines that make your civilisation run? Check. Not taking enough people to be able to do things the hard way when the machines *do* fail? Check...

Of course, this may not have been intentional. McCaffrey is not known for thinking hard about the consequences of her worldbuilding and this could all have been happy coincidence. But it does all fit together.

Threadfall was probably the best thing that could have happened to them; without it they'd have probably have lasted a few generations and reverted to scattered peasantry working hand-to-mouth...

13:

'The War Against the Chtorr' by David Gerrold is about Earth being colonised by an alien ecosystem. Logically, they start with worms. It's just that their worms are bigger than ours ...

14:

In older novels the attitude seemed to be "Tough luck for the native life, we showed up.", as you point out, bacteria equivalents would have a say (Or not, but I wouldn't wish to bet the population of a starship on the possibility of compatibility.). Arthur Clarke's "The Songs of Distant Earth" had an interesting spin, the starship crew was heading out to terraform an iceball, so as to not put even potential alien intelligence at risk. Myself, I think if a culture works out how to live off-planet, they'll keep doing that, what need could they have for a planet?

15:

...the worlds we will want to colonize...are those that are fallow--Earth-analogues that could have developed life but never did. We might get luckiest on planets that do have life but where that life is stuck in the proterozoic stage, and has oxygenated their atmospheres but not yet colonized land. As long as we're willing to pave over that indigenous life entirely with our own, this might be the best way to go.

What would that mean? Obviously a world with oxygen and a dense atmosphere allows you to tromp about without a spacesuit, breathing air and protected from UV. Add a magnetic field and it is radiation safe. If fossil fuels are at least partially abiogenic (deep hot biosphere hypothesis) you could run combustion engines, assuming you want to.

But unless there is some sort of panspermia, the mechanisms and details of the biology will be very different. Even if it was the same, but the DNA code was different, it would prevent most bacterial and virus infections of earth biology as the resulting proteins would be non-functional.
But once you insert earth organisms that will compete with the local biota for resources, you will still need to terraform the planet correctly. It might prove easier, if slower, to do that from scratch.

OTOH, suppose the planet was filled with macro life forms. On earth very simple compounds make up a lot of the structural material, e.g. glucose sugars to create cellulose. If that molecule or a similar one was used on our alien planet, that would provide a ready feedstock for fuels and food that could be used by our own bacterial biology. The rest of the organisms materials may be totally inert wrt our biology, but probably not to more energy intensive physical and chemical processes.

If the 2 biologies are very different, it may be possible for both to coexist with minimal biological interaction, allowing our colonizer to create a farm relatively easily, even if the animals need inoculations of earth bacteria.

The "best" planets for colonization will probably be not so simple to define without knowledge of what the local biology [if any] is like.

16:

Hi Alex,

About alien infections: you're correct that we probably wouldn't have to worry about alien viruses. Even assuming the alien biosphere used DNA and amino acids (which I think is likely), there's no reason to think that the DNA would code for amino acids in the same way that Gaian life does. DNA and amino acids are great building blocks, but the translation coding (so far as I know) is an accident of history, not dictated by biochemistry or physics. You don't have to worry about an alien organism hacking your DNA, due to simple code incompatibility.

However, you're not out of the woods. Rather than worrying about alien viruses, you need to worry about alien fungal and bacterial analogs using you for substrate. Fungi, in particular, use just about anything organic for a substrate, as do bacteria. Rather than doing judo on your DNA, alien microbes will simply eat you alive, if you can't figure out how to kill them first. Skin infections, sinus infections, and pneumonia will be standard problems.

An example of what might happen is shown in this youtube video (May not be safe for work or squeamish stomachs).

17:

If our biology is reasonably similar, then I agree, we would be potentially subject to bacterial or fungal consumption. However if they are that close, wouldn't our immune system also work to keep it in check?
In principle, a very aggressive bug could be devastating - like being subjected to an acid bath.

But if the biology is rather different, then we might be shadow biologies to each other.

Which is why I am so interested in finding any 2nd genesis on another world. And until we have many examples, probably from other solar systems, we have a very large space to speculate and write SF with.

18:

With the ability to turn comets and asteroids etc into useful stuff - a common sf theme - it makes sense for some of the ship to .. umm.. acidentally not slow down at the end of the journey. So the colonial target is handily broken up into manageable chunks, and heated to remove some of those pesky little critters.

19:

I guess the death rate must have been particularly high for those first modern humans migrating from Africa 60,000+ years ago. If only they’d have realised the devastating effects on themselves and the local ecosystems!

To preclude the possibility of colonising any breathable ecosystem seems like a council of despair. Particularly so with advancing knowledge of how develop resistance to hostile bacteria, viruses et all. In any case, I wouldn’t want to give odds on the chances of finding an Earth-analog atmosphere, 1gee gravity and a temperate climate within a 200 light year radius. So perhaps there’ll be no choice other than a bit of uncomfortable adaptation.

20:

IIRC there are amino acids that our DNA doesn't code for (and recently someone built artificial DNA that does code for other amino acids, and builds proteins with them). So there's a good chance that a large percentage of the protoplasm of alien life would be inert wrt our own forms life. But ... there's no reason that alien life couldn't get functional use from some of our life forms (or parts of them) and vice versa (think of a hermit crab). It's even conceivable that commensal or symbiotic relationships could be beneficial between forms from different life systems1. Also, it's conceivable that while bacteria and probably viruses won't be able to prey between life systems, prions from an organism in one system might be able to infect an organism in another.

1.And classification systems will need another level above domain or superkingdom to designate which form of life an organism comes from.

21:

Hi Alex,

I suspect that your immune system will keep alien bugs in check, about as well as it works on Earth. In other words, it's not going to be perfect. The illnesses caused by an alien world are like to be surface ones, attacking skin, gut, and respiratory system. And wounds. These aren't things we see so often in the developed world, but it's a significant point.

If the biology is alien, that alien world can be quite intrinsically poisonous, for example if they use canavinine in place of the amino acid arginine.

I'm not sure whether it's possible to have "two biologies" (Gaian and alien) going on the same planet. It's really a question of biogeochemistry. If neither biosphere can process the other, then it's really a question of whether each biosphere can grab and hold enough nutrients to keep itself going.

Potentially, humans could engineer bacteria (and fungi, and whatever else) that can take alien amino acids and turn them into ones we can use, and that would give us a set of tools to grab resources from an alien biosphere.

The problem in this scenario is evolution. As a Gaian biosphere grows at the expense of an alien one, there is positive evolutionary pressure on the alien biosphere to exploit ours. Eventually, some of their organisms will work out how to do it successfully, and that's when the fun starts. Given the spread of antibiotic resistance, I'd guess that such evolution would take perhaps 30-50 Earth years, or 1-2 human generations. That's how long a window the colonists have to get a functioning society up, before the alien world starts reclaiming resources. After that, it's an eternal struggle.

22:

Hi Bruce,

See my reply to Alex. I'm quite aware that there's a host of other amino acids out there. Legumes use some of them as poisons, for example.

As for supra-domain classification, the obvious one is: biosphere. That's a bit old-fashioned though. With cladistics firmly entrenched, I'm pretty sure no one will be erecting Linnean-style classifications of alien organisms, assuming we find them.

How alien worlds are studied in cladists is a rather more interesting question, especially if we get endosymbiosis creating successful composite organisms out of independent organisms from two biospheres. Still, not a lot of cladists write science fiction, so the field is safe from that particular revolution. For the moment.

23:

Another potential issue is that life stabilizes a planet's environment - Gaia Hypothesis. Thus the bulk of temperate worlds may well be life bearing, so choices might be limited.

24:

I'm not sure whether it's possible to have "two biologies" (Gaian and alien) going on the same planet. It's really a question of biogeochemistry. If neither biosphere can process the other, then it's really a question of whether each biosphere can grab and hold enough nutrients to keep itself going.

The "shadow biosphere" proposition that was popularized by Davies is exactly this. I don't see any fundamental reason to doubt the possibility. Both can recycle elements that each need, either independently, together, or in isolation.

The degree of resource competition might be very dependent on their chemistries. If they lived in very different spaces, then physical competition could be minimal.


25:

Oh, goody, a chance to recommend Rosemary Kirstein's excellent but not yet complete Steerswoman series. Most of which are, I think, sadly out of print.

There's also Eric Flint's The Mother of Demons, which I consider generally hard SF... just with the sciences being biology and history.

26:

In Sir Arthur C. Clarke's THE SONG OF DISTANT EARTH, the starship crew is en route to planet they intent to colonize. They make a big deal out of the fact that the planet is totally lifeless, so they will not be destroying any existing ecosystems.

27:

The book "Encounter at Tiber" by Aldrin & Barnes largely has the same idea; aliens come to Earth, get sick, and must undergo therapy to make themselves immune to native diseases. Eventually they realize that terraforming planets from scratch is easier than coping with "germ worlds".
Also, Don't forget the classic example by H.G. Wells!

28:

and the total utter lack of interest when the colonists discover a local life form that can frickin' *teleport*, for heavens' sake

AIR there is no huge interest because the fire lizards aren't the first such species humans have encountered and the one referenced was sapient.

29:

Really? I don't recall that, but that doesn't mean much. I wasn't impressed with tha tbook.

I would have liked to have seen other books in that universe, I think. Maybe books set a thousand years after Pern was re-discovered. Now it's a moot point, of course.

30:

I suspect that the level of technology required to reach life-bearing stars with colonizers will engender much cheaper routes. Terraforming Mars and Venus with engineered bacteria, comet strikes, etc.. seems much cheaper than 200 LY trips. Advanced bio-engineering capabilities should allow modifications of humanity long before we are able to traverse light-years.

I'm mindful of the David Brin novel "Heart of the Comet" when thinking of a colonization resource. Perhaps the Old World to New, mod the environment is too narrow minded, modding humans seems so much cheaper..

Sadly , the most probable scenario's I see playing out for colonization (barring new physics discoveries) would be extremely modified humans, with engineered cells, organs, and nano-tech valiantly combating alien chemistry and environments to maintain some semblance of humanity.. At best in the OORT cloud or nearby Brown Dwarfs. Reachable "Blue Earths" at a point when we are still recognizably 2011 humans seems like utter fantasy.

31:

Non-terrestrial plants would probably crowd out and overgrow any earth crop we tried to plant. Current earth photosynthesis is about as energy-inefficient as you can get and still grow.

https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/RuBisCO

32:

Um, Rubisco is "inefficient," except for the fact that it's lasted hundreds of millions of years without a better replacement, and is the most abundant protein on the planet (about 3-4 kg/person on the planet). There's this old saying: "If it's stupid, but it works, it isn't stupid." Rubisco works.

Not that I disagree with you entirely. A different light spectrum (for example, under a red dwarf) would be hard for our plants to grow under.

The issue is that any oxygen-generating photosynthetic system is likely to evolve under a different atmosphere than it currently exists under. That's the source of Rubisco's "inefficiency," incidentally. It evolved in an atmosphere with little or no free oxygen.

Because of this evolutionary history, any photosynthetic protein will probably be "inefficient" in the atmosphere you find it in. Because of that, I'm not very worried about plants being outcompeted. I could be wrong of course, but the point is that there's no a priori reason to assume are plants are clumsy and inefficient at what they do.


33:

Poul Anderson set up an interesting scenario in Fire Time, on an earthlike world orbiting a star in a wide binary system. The other star was more massive and had already evolved off the main sequence into a red giant. But a billion years ago the other sun had been a borderline main sequence star with an inhabited planet ... and things were becoming uncomfortable for the locals as their star evolved. They attempted to colonize the earthlike world of the other sun and found that it already had its own life forms, at roughly the Cambrian level. Trouble was, one planet's life was based on dextrorotary molecules and the other planet's life used levorotary. The would-be colonizers nuked one continent and "terraformed" it; the colonization effort failed but some of the transplanted life survived.

Flash-forward a billion years: the colonized continent had collided with another, and the two types of life gradually intermingled. Each type couldn't eat the other, but they could coexist and even cooperate in a blended ecosystem.

34:


As long as we're willing to pave over that indigenous life entirely with our own, this might be the best way to go.

No one except the future equivalent of Amish would bother. Or bio artist collectives with a god complex.

Everyone respectable will most likely be a cybernetic organism such as a gleisner robot or just mind uploads.

Hell, terraforming may even be prohibited entirely in the future. It'd be needless meddling.

35:

So, how strong are we going to be?

Will we arrogantly disassemble Venus for the raw materials, seek new worlds, fail to spread out or just die here as all our high tech fails?

36:

I really should throw in one number fot those who are comfortable believing that it's possible to pave over a biosphere, and/or easily create a shadow/Gaian biosphere to counterbalance it.

The mass of living matter is hard to estimate, but it's somewhere in the range of 10^12 or 10^13 kilograms of dry matter, or 10^12-10^13 kg living matter with water added, not counting the mass of the deep biosphere, which probably adds another factor of 10.

That's 1,000,000,000,000 kg, and possibly that's low by a factor of 100.

Alex's idea sounds good, but the that mass is already part of the biogeochemical cycles of an alien world. If you want to displace it with Gaian biomass, you need to come up with a really efficient way of converting it (remember that life exists kilometers into the rock). Paving it over is a similarly bootless exercise, since you really need to autoclave it, to have some chance of stopping biological activity.

Transporting that much Gaian biomass through space is, of course, extremely difficult, especially since just getting a kilogram to orbit would cost $10,000, not counting the cost of interstellar transport.

Yes, of course, we turn our nano-magic on it, and... well, biospheres are effectively solar powered nanotechnology evolved to use local substrates, and they've been killing each other for billions of years. It's fascinating that people assume that we can quickly whip up some tech that will beat this lead time.

37:

humans and their goats,...alien threat to the planet's biosphere.
BFD

38:

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE:

The individual posting here as Anonymous is banned, and if they post here again their comments will be deleted on sight. (If they sprout sock-puppets ... well, if they can be identified as such, they're banned too.)

Reason: egregious trolling, and an attempt to divert an interesting discussion of planetary colonization into a political flame war on territory of their own choosing, followed by attempting to argue with the moderation policy (hint: deleting your comments isn't censorship, you're welcome to go get your own blog and I have no way (or desire) of stopping you from saying anything you want on such a platform). Oh, and all of the above is aggravated by doing it behind my back, while I'm AFK and extremely busy for a week.

39:

The Steerswoman series has been mentioned in a post above and I want to mention it again. It has exactly what Karl is speaking about, radical, original thinking about colonizing an alien biosphere. I so want to spill all the details but that would be telling. Just go and read it!

40:

Paul @ 5
Right author - wrong book.
Try Niven's model of colonisation used by the Thrintun, starting with just-oxygenating planets watched over by caretakers. ( "World of Ptavvs" )

Alex Tolley & Heteromeles @ 15/16
U.K. le Guin: "Planet of Exile"
( I still have my ancient, signed copy ) ....
Where the colonists and the natives have to join, especially as the colonists are becoming vulnerable to the local nasty biota - eventually.

Markham @ 30
"Surface Tension"
( James Blish? )

41:

Do you need to come up with a really efficient way to displace existing life, or just a marginally more efficient way than the natives? Invasive species pull it off all the time on Earth, often due to accidental help from humans. The species the invaders displace don't have any less evolutionary history than any other. If humans were actively helping Earth species invade a new world, it doesn't seem implausible that they can establish a foothold and expand.

42:

Invasives are a really interesting issue. Sometimes, as you noted, the invaders are more efficient than the natives in the same niche. This most often happens on islands, and in isolated habitats. A classic example are Mediterranean grasses, which came from a bigger biome (the Mediterranean) where they had co-evolved with human disturbance for ~40,000 years, and successfully invaded smaller biomes with the same climate (California, southern Australia, etc), that had only experienced 10,000 years of human disturbance.

That said, invasives are often lucky because they out-run the predators, pests, and pathogens that are keeping them in check in their home range. Once those pathogens arrive, or when local species adapt, the invasiveness goes away.

The third issue is that, in many places, our weeds did not establish in a "virgin" landscape, but rather, in a landscape that had been significantly altered by the native humans we were eliminating.

As to whether Gaian organisms are more efficient than ones on another planet, I don't have a clue. Things we plant presumably won't be limited their own predators and pathogens (other than us eating them), but equally, they won't have the support structure of bacteria, fungi, mites, etc that they have on Earth, and local environmental conditions will be different than the ones they evolved under. The answer depends entirely on the conditions on the alien planet.

My take on it (again, read Scion of the Zodiac) is that it's possible to colonize an alien world, but you've got to spend a majority of your time gardening and culturing to stay alive. Effectively, you're establishing small islands of Gaia inside a bigger alien biosphere, and small biospheres tend to be unstable over time. The cultures I wrote about basically followed a shifting cultivation principle, where they started up new gardens all the time, just in case whatever they did failed in some spot. They also grew or cultured everything, from soil bacteria on up. And yes, I did include goats, too.

43:

One question that doesn't strike me as getting enough attention (here or elsewhere) is whether it's even ethical to try and terraform another planet. By doing so, you're not only destroying the ecosystem's present, but its entire future as well.

I'd argue that unless you can prove beyond reasonable doubt that a planet has no chance of supporting any kind of life at all, you shouldn't be trying to supplant its native ecosystem with a different one. Send upload minds to visit in robot bodies (or other sterile forms), sure. But if you want to spread canned apes around, then they ought to avoid trashing the neighbourhood for the same reasons that we should avoid wiping out localised ecosystems on this planet. (I'm willing to make an exception for the extermination of individual pathogenic species; wiping out smallpox, HIV, or even perhaps some types of parasitic worm is not a problem so long as you're sure that there won't be repercussions. Unintended consequences can be messy when your parasite turns out to be symbiotic with something else that you do want to keep around.)

44:

Why is it a moot point? Her son Todd has written books with her and alone. I was sure Todd's books wouldn't be good, but they turn out to be much more adult. When I mentioned the most recent to the leader/librarian/fan of our bookgroup and said it has a lot of polyamory, she blanched.

All the books so far, but not necessarily in order:

Anne McCaffrey alone:

Dragonsong
Dragonsinger
Dragonflight
Dragonquest
Dragondrums
The White Dragon
Dragonseye
Nerilka's Story
Moreta
Renegades of Pern
All the Weyrs of Pern
The Dolphins of Pern
The Dolphins Bell
The Skies of Pern
The Masterharper of Pern
The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall
Dragonsdawn

Anne and Todd McCaffrey:

Dragon's Kin
Dragon's Fire
Dragon Harper
Dragon's Time

Todd McCaffrey alone:

Dragonsblood
Dragonheart
Dragongirl

45:
Non-terrestrial plants would probably crowd out and overgrow any earth crop we tried to plant. Current earth photosynthesis is about as energy-inefficient as you can get and still grow.

Well, efficiency has to be measured relative to the emitter, yes? Even a very primitive single-junction photovoltaic cell can get "efficiencies" in excess of 80% provided the ambient light is tuned to it's particular bandgap, say with a laser.

Same with chlorophyll, I'm told; it would be much more "efficient" under the light of a red sun (making Earth a sort of anti-Krypton). That's not as facetious as it sounds; in times past the notion that chlorophyll works better elsewhere has been cited as evidence of panspermia.

46:

Chris,

Given the way your question is phrased, the answer is obviously no.

Is that the right question?

Here's a simple example: suppose something happens to render the Earth uninhabitable. Assuming we can terraform Mars, is it ethical to do so, or should we just go extinct? And will that ethical question stop anyone who doesn't want to see their kids die?

Here's another example: we're terraforming the Earth right now, or at least doing something to change it rapidly. The only way to stop is to destroy civilization. Is either course ethical?

The answer is that this can't be answered with a binary yes/no choice. Humans have a right to exist, as does every other species. The better question is how do we change civilization to get some grip on the global changes we're making? The technology and processes already exist, it's just that they're not being widely applied.

To pose a better question, ask how starfaring people can continue to exist in this galaxy. that involves both technology and ethics, and the ethics, in this case, will involve when not to do something stupidly destructive.

Our environmental ethics on Earth are really focused on the long-term continuation of human existence on Earth, because thoughtful people realize that we must meet people's needs for food, water, clothing, a proper environment, and (yes) some spiritual component, however defined, as well as opportunities for creativity and growth.

A good ethical system insures that every generation can meet their needs, and it does that by helping people understand what to return to the systems that support them. There's no reason this can't be done on an alien planet, either.

47:

Earth based life is probably around five billion years old. It's quite plausable that it would be more advanced than the life it is attempting to displace. If the need to transport the entire system can be overcome, it might well work. Especially if there is no large scale life on land at that point. That ought to be a considerable advantage.

48:

That's quite a trick, given that the generally accepted age of the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

49:

Meh. It starts within a few hundred million years of the earth's formation.

50:

It's also reasonably probable we'll find a planet that's older than Earth. It's also certain that biosphere age doesn't matter beyond a certain point.

If you go around the Earth, you can find young islands that are easy to colonize (Hawaii), young-ish islands that are difficult to colonize (New Guinea), ancient lands that are easy to colonize (Australia), and ancient lands that are difficult to colonize (the Guyana shield in South America, western Greenland).

For most people reading this, the best analogy for an anaerobic planet is a sewer or your septic tank, and you may want to let that sink in a bit before romanticizing the ease with which our Superior Gaian Biosphere could overwhelm such a simplistic system.

51:

that mass is already part of the biogeochemical cycles of an alien world. If you want to displace it with Gaian biomass, you need to come up with a really efficient way of converting it.

The basic elements are constantly being recycled via simple forms - CH4, CO2, N2, NH3, etc. Gaian life just needs to compete more effectively at this point to replace local life. The rate of recycling is key. Life in the lithosphere is not likely to be replaced for a very long time. Similarly carbon locked up in deposits. Everything else is very vulnerable. Note that even if the local life has very different chemistry, if it is carbon based then the simple compounds represent the resource to compete for.

It may be even more subtle, in that limiting elements might be the lever points, e.g. iron sequestration in the marine environment. One or other life form may dominate in the ability to capture one of these elements and thus dominate the ecosystem.

52:

...anaerobic planet is a sewer or your septic tank...

So we set up a H2O2 plant and disinfect the local area.

Or place a solar concentrator in orbit and bake the surface (or even autoclave it).

"Where there's muck, there's brass" - motto of the Planetary Sanitation Corps.

;)

53:

Well, if Gaia is more efficient, then we're not talking about setting up a separate biosphere, are we? Rather, we're talking about Gaia taking over, at least to a certain level.

The separate biospheres thing might work in a case where the Gaian biosphere captured some part of the globe (most likely in the temperate zone, perhaps on an isolated continent or island) and ceded the rest to the native planet. After all, if you want Gaian life to compete effectively in all climates, you'll need to carry quite a large range of organisms. That's a lot to lug across interstellar distances.

The other possibility, as I mentioned in that book, is that humans could engineer temporary Gaian biospheres (aka gardens) that don't last forever. So long as you have enough of them producing, you'll survive. However, in Scion of the Zodiac, I gave myself an out, which was a world that didn't regularly experience fire (hotter, wetter, and with lower atmospheric O2). That allowed humans to make terra preta as a precursor to creating suitable Gaian garden soils. It also meant I had to do a lot of climate and atmosphere calculations, which is why this is not necessarily the easiest way to go.

54:

The point I was trying to make is that the shear mass of the local biosphere is not really an issue if the mass is rapidly recycled. This leaves a leverage point for Gaian life to capture resources and replace some of the biosphere with itself.Clearly if the local biosphere dies off every year and replaces itself with spores/seeds, there is the possibility of almost complete replacement of the biosphere by Gaian life in 1 year.

Stable coexistence of newly introduced Gaian life with the local life would require Gaian life to be more efficient at competing for recycled elements, but with other constraints, e.g. limitations of another resource.
This would allow conversion of some fraction, but not all, of the local life to Gaian life. We might imagine for example that Gaian life is very good at capturing carbon, but that local life is better at capturing Mg, or that Magnesium is very limited and local life uses iron instead.

55:

Alex,

We'll have to agree to disagree.

To my knowledge, one doesn't often get that kind of massive break-down to release simple "universal" chemicals. In fact, one way ecological succession works is for late successional forms to simply hold on to nutrients for longer than their competitors do.

In our biosphere, there are organisms that rapidly cycle through nutrients, meaning that they take them into tissue, then discard them as waste quickly. There are also very slow-cyclers that hang onto nutrients for a very long time, and thereby outcompete the fast cyclers by starving them of resources.

So far as I know, the tendency is for organisms that take up nutrients quickly to lose them quickly, and vice versa. These are organisms that grow fast, but don't have much in the way of defenses against attacks or environmental stress. Slow-cyclers are heavily armored, but grow slowly due to their investment in defense. I don't know of anything that is fast on taking up nutrients, and then holds onto stuff for a long time. Redwoods are the closest example I can think of, off hand.

The strategy you suggest might work, but only on a planet that is totally dominated by really fast cyclers. The issue is that most human domesticates are fast-cycling plants and animals, because they turn resources into food quickly, and that food isn't heavily defended. To make this strategy work, you'd probably need to invest heavily in tree crops (chestnuts perhaps, or coconuts), slow-growing animals (turtles?), and have a good plan for keeping yourself fed while these things reach maturity.

56:

What are the odds you'd get a world close enough to our own to walk around unassisted, anyhow?
Look at the variable oxygen content of Earth's atmosphere over the past few hundred million years- we'd have had bit of a hard time adapting to Earth 250 million years ago.

57:
Given the way your question is phrased, the answer is obviously no.

Is that the right question?

I think it probably is, yes.

Here's a simple example: suppose something happens to render the Earth uninhabitable. Assuming we can terraform Mars, is it ethical to do so, or should we just go extinct? And will that ethical question stop anyone who doesn't want to see their kids die?

I think that's probably a false dichotomy. We're very unlikely to be in a position where we have the technology to terraform a planet but not to, say, construct free-floating habitats out of asteroid belt chunks.

Here's another example: we're terraforming the Earth right now, or at least doing something to change it rapidly. The only way to stop is to destroy civilization. Is either course ethical?

That's definitely a false dichotomy, and one usually only presented (to me, at least) by AGW deniers. There are, demonstrably, lots of things we can do to mitigate our effect on the planet without "destroying civilization". The fact that fossil-fuel companies are willing to pay lots of money to insist that those things aren't practical, or should be banned, or shouldn't be done for another twenty years doesn't make any of those statements true. Our civilization needs some tweaking, yes (especially the USA, where the assertion that it's somehow patriotic to burn as much fossil fuel as possible seems to have taken a disturbing hold in some circles), but renewable energy, sane biofuels (ie algal/bacterial, not field crops) and higher efficiency of energy use can at least reduce our problems, and probably, over time, reverse the disaster, provided we act soon. (Preferably thirty years ago, when the evidence first became incontrovertible.)

The answer is that this can't be answered with a binary yes/no choice. Humans have a right to exist, as does every other species. The better question is how do we change civilization to get some grip on the global changes we're making? The technology and processes already exist, it's just that they're not being widely applied.

So you agree that you were asking the wrong question (and presenting a false dichotomy) then?

To pose a better question, ask how starfaring people can continue to exist in this galaxy. that involves both technology and ethics, and the ethics, in this case, will involve when not to do something stupidly destructive.

Agreed. I think our disagreement is on where to draw the line that distinguishes acceptable from stupidly destructive. I'd argue that terraforming any planet that is capable of supporting life is stupidly destructive. But there may well be planets that will never support life without external prodding, which it would be fine to terraform. Even without that possibility, there are plenty of barren space rocks that can be transformed into habitats. Unless you presuppose FTL travel, anyone who arrives at a potential colony world is going to have spent their entire life in such a habitat anyway. Staying in them seems a more ethical reaction, to me, than wiping out entire biospheres so that your great-grandchildren can have the fun of getting used to gravity again.

A good ethical system insures that every generation can meet their needs, and it does that by helping people understand what to return to the systems that support them. There's no reason this can't be done on an alien planet, either.

If you're proposing that the two biospheres (Terran and that of the colony planet) could coexist without problems... I think I'd want to spend several millenia testing that hypothesis out in a sealed habitat before committing anything to the planet's surface. We don't even understand the interactions within our internal ecosystem, never mind any given human-supporting earth ecosystem; messing with the interface between two ecosystems that have evolved on different planets strikes me as a recipe for disaster without an awful lot of very careful study.

58:

There is an assumption that if we can make a 'ship' that can reach another solar system, then it can survive indefinitely at it's destination. I think that problem might actually be quite a bit harder, as it would need to be able to service every component, and presumably build new ones. Including having a small chip fab and a safety culture capable of dealing with nuclear engines.

59:

Makes me think of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy books, in which this is a major issue. Though Mars is dead, there is a faction in his books called Red Mars, which wants to keep Mars conserved as it is, or even WAS before colonization, by reasoning that it has sovereign rights and aesthetic value as an unique form of it's own, even as a lifeless entity. Admittedly the characters in the Mars trilogy who are proponents of this are a little crazy (one was in fact insane I believe later on), but their logic is sound if it were to encompass living beings as having value in an of themselves as sovereign beings.

Same is mentioned in Ken McLeod's Fall Revolution series, where a colonization of a Mars-like planet affects the alien (well, indigenous) microbes in the soil.

60:

I was thinking of the Mars books, because he engaged in the Red Mars/Green Mars debate throughout the whole series. At the end, the major Green Mars proponent (Sax Russell) admitted he was wrong, but only after he had lived centuries. Back when they were debating terraforming, they thought they wouldn't live another year.

I wouldn't call the Red Mars contingent crazy, although they were extreme environmentalists.

The basic problem with ethical arguments about terraforming is that their philosophical, not workable. In environmental work, I get to see this kind of crap all the time, and it is crap. Both side (the environmentalists and the developers) present a pre-programmed agenda, the politicians get this frustrated look on their faces, make a Solomanic cut-the-baby decision, which typically comes up with an unworkable environmental program, and the developers build crappy, inefficient houses that depend on AC to stay cool rather than angling their windows away from the sun, while the little patch of saved land gets over-run by weeds, since it's too small to support itself.

The reason I get so sarcastic about this is that people have been living with those same plants for 10,000 years, and they make perfectly good landscaping. I've got a bunch in my front yard. If the developer had put down his prejudices long enough to get an environmental type involved in the design, the community would have been much more livable.

This is the end-result of such philosophical dichotomies. Either-or arguments of this type are ultimately destructive, often pointlessly so. Both-and works very nicely, when people are willing to try.

61:

So if it turns out that Martian life was the seed for Earth life through transfer, was there some violation of the "rights" of proto Earth life? I find that a little hard to accept.

I certainly want to study and preserve any Martian microbes that may exist. The science alone might be hugely valuable. However, subsequent terra forming Mars doesn't seem to me to be terribly destructive.

Whether space habitats or planetary surfaces are the best solution will depend on the economics and desires of the colonists. For sheefr lebensraum, asteroid conversion has to be the best option. If you want a more natural, open landscape, planets are likely to be better until we can build very large structures.

As someone mentioned earlier, unless we have some breakthrough in technology, I doubt we will be sending meat in cans to the stars. Reworking teh solar system will be much easier and more viable for colonization. Our exploratory probes will either be robots or human intelligences embodied in non-biological forms, or some variant of both. Clarke, Stapledon and numerous others have suggested this as a logical step in their stories.
Alternatively, embody the intelligence into local biology to be minimally disruptive.

62:

Assuming Fallow Earths actually exist and life simply hasn't evolved there, what you are talking about is colonization on a geological time-scale. Even if you assume really impressive tech, turning a pre-biotic world into a habitable one means creating an oxygen atmosphere and soil before you can start introducing multicellular animals and plants (such as humans). This process took many 10s of millions of years on Earth. Assuming we've got really impressive tech, we might get this down to 200,000 years or so. Maybe we could even manage something ludicrously fast like 50,000 years, but even with immortal post-humans running the show, that seems like a ridiculously long time. I can't see anyone bothering with this sort of process. I rather doubt the practicality of engineering projects that last longer than the modern human species has existed.

"We might get luckiest on planets that do have life but where that life is stuck in the proterozoic stage, and has oxygenated their atmospheres but not yet colonized land. "

That looks considerably better, the oxygen atmosphere (and presumed ozone layer) will majorly cut down the time required, but you still need to convert rock and clay into earth-useable soil, a process which will take thousands of years for even local areas (and far longer for the planet).

I could see this potentially working, but what you would have is a number of terraforming sites using engineered life to createa dozen or so regions where a hundred or so square km of land have been converted to soil. This process will optimistically take a thousand years before you get a single vascular plant or a single bird or mammal to grow outside of a greenhouse. This is colonization of a really long-term time-scale, but at least not a completely ludicrous one. It's also not all that different (on any reasonable timescale) from living on a domed colony on Mars.

63:

Hi John,

While you may be right, it's possible that terraforming could go much faster. The reason is that it's potentially a non-linear process, and that makes it hard to predict where the accelerating growth rate of Gaian life will peak out.

Otherwise, I'm with you, and were I running a terraforming effort, I'd be making a lot of domes. My bet is that we won't find worlds that could readily support life, but that aren't already supporting life.

64:

"it's possible that terraforming could go much faster."

There's a whole lot we don't know about biology, but some of what is involved is basic chemistry. It currently looks like Earth's major rise in oxygen levels took around 200 million years. Maybe we could go faster than that, but even if you're talking about going 10,000 times faster, that's still 20,000 years.

However, it also currently looks like this rapid rise in oxygen levels only occurred after there had been sufficient oxygen produced over almost a billion years to oxidize all of the iron and other oxidizable materials, which soaked up vast amounts of free oxygen. Only after all exposed materials had already been oxidized could oxygen levels in the atmosphere begin to rise, and I think 200,000 years is an exceptionally (and likely ludicrously) optimistic time-scale for that sort of world-wide chemical reaction to occur.

65:

Assuming we've got really impressive tech, we might get this down to 200,000 years or so.

This is a good point. In te time it takes for the first nearby planet to be even part way terraformed, even slow star ships could cross the galaxy. This seems like a big waste of time if the purpose is colonization.

Like cooking, there is no obvious way to speed up the process of terraforming. So either the planet is close to completion, or you might as well just build artificial hollow worlds quickly and use them instead. Want wide open spaces? - use a VR rig, or walk about in an environment suit or a surrogate.

66:

Hi John,

I've been looking a little bit at that time period (ca. 2.4 billion years ago), and there may have been a conflict (for lack of a better term) between sulfur producing bacteria and oxygen-producing bacteria, such that the atmospheric composition flip-flopped several times (see this reference on banded iron formations. It's one of those things that the paleoclimatologists haven't reached consensus on, and yet another little warning to terraformers. This, incidentally, is an example of the type of conflict between biospheres that others were contemplating in earlier posts.

Oxidation of iron and other elements certainly slows down production of an oxygen atmosphere, but the anaerobic component of terraforming could proceed without it.

67:

But the main reason that we should avoid wiping out ecosystems here on Earth is just self-interest- it's in our best interest as an Earth-bound species to ensure that the Earth remains livable for as long as possible. On that basis, why not terraform other planets, given the capability to do so? Why not terraform this alien biosphere (presumably one incompatible with our own), if we need the room?

68:

43: One question that doesn't strike me as getting enough attention (here or elsewhere) is whether it's even ethical to try and terraform another planet. By doing so, you're not only destroying the ecosystem's present, but its entire future as well.

-- ethics deals with relations between human beings, or to stretch the point in an SFnal context, with other sophonts.

The rest of the universe is just "stuff"; it can have aesthetic value, or practical value, but morally/ethically it might as well not be there.

Dealing with stuff only has an ethical component as it affects people; that's why conservation is often a good idea -- not doing so may harm people.

As for local ecosystems... in large parts of (for example) New Zealand, practically -everything- is an invasive, from the grass and earthworms through the trees and the mammals, to the people.

And so what? In what way is this bad, except that there wasn't a chance to study the local stuff before it was displaced? And that's only a loss of scientific data, not the most overwhelmingly important of concerns.

69:

By the time it's possible to move large masses over interstellar distances, what's technologically possible will necessarily be very different.

Look at the energy requirements, for starters. Once you can manipulate energies on that scale, doing quite drastic things to an object the size of an earthlike planet becomes fairly easy. Things like dropping a series of asteroids to screw the local biosphere by shutting down photosynthesis or equivalent will be -trivially- easy.

By that time biology will probably be a solved problem as well.

We can't predict the methods in question, any more than we can predict what the interstellar drive will be.

Offhand, my -guess- would be a more sophisticated model of the way many areas were colonized in the post-Renaissance expansion of the West Europeans.

Use a shotgun approach. Disrupt the local ecology, then release everything that might conceivably survive and be useful (which is why California and the Mediterranean basin are full of eucalyptus, for example).

70:

On the topic of providing oxygen to an otherwise Earth-like planet that has little or none in its atmosphere: behold the power of exponential growth. Assuming the comparatively trivial* power to make a robotic solar panel factory that can build copies of itself and a few other bits of machinery, you can produce as much oxygen as currently exists in Earth's atmosphere in mere centuries.

Assumptions:

Average surface insolation of 5 kilowatt hours per square meter.
Target oxygen production: 10^18 kilograms (approx. 1/5 of total atmospheric mass of Earth).
Photovoltaic conversion efficiency of 15%.
Panel lifetime of 27 years.
Panel energy payback time of 3 years. This is also the doubling time, if the panels are dedicated to power panel factories.
Oxygen production by water electrolysis: 6.25 kilowatt hours per kilogram of oxygen produced.

Starting with a single square meter of panel, it takes 47 doublings (141 years) to cover 140 million square kilometers (approximately equal to all land area on Earth, but floating panels on ocean are preferable to taking land near the poles due to low insolation there).

Each square meter of panel surface can produce 0.75 kilowatt hours of electrical energy daily, though 1/9 of that is budgeted to self-replacement, leaving 0.666 kilowatt hours of useful surplus energy per square meter per day.

If dedicated to water electrolysis, the array's output can produce 1.48 * 10^13 kilograms of oxygen per day. In 185 years it produces as much free oxygen as currently exists in Earth's atmosphere. If released into the atmosphere, the hydrogen should eventually escape the planet's embrace due to its very low molecular weight. Unfortunately, the kinetics of this process are probably too slow to dissipate the hydrogen fast enough to prevent the formation of an explosive atmosphere. Either the process needs to operate sufficiently slowly that the atmospheric composition does not become dangerous or the hydrogen should be used to reduce carbonates and produce stable hydrocarbons**.

I have no idea how much additional oxygen is needed to oxidize low-valence iron. The speed of the process is determined by geological processes after an initial surface oxidation, so that while a large additional amount is needed in geological time it is slight on human time scales. After 185 years the vast majority of the solar array can be dismantled or devoted to other purposes, only a small fraction of the original productive capacity needed to supplement atmospheric oxygen beyond what imported terrestrial phototrophs can do.

*Compared to traveling interstellar distances in the first place.

**Due to the tremendous scale of the project, I am not sure if this is plausible. The limiting factor may not be energy production but safe disposal of byproducts. Incidentally, I feel that this is the same limiting factor that confronts current industrial civilization.

71:

#44 - I think Marilee has got the "history of Pern" in about the right copyright/publication order. In which case any prequels to Dragonsong and Dragonflight that start with selecting Pern as a colony World have already got both a pre-defined start point and a pre-defined end point. Such being the case, any handwavium used to get from one to the other is dramatically necessary.

72:

A couple of points: first of all, if you've spent any time on James Nicoll's blog, you won't use Guns, Germans and Steel as an authority.

Secondly, less snarky...to intercut the British Empire thread with this one, the empire didn't just let settlers take things along and not take too much care about the ship rats. It carefully swapped species between ecologies, doing serious science in the process. The classic statement is in Neal Stephenson's Mother Earth, Mother Board where he's talking about Kew Gardens' role in building the submarine cable networks (getting rubber trees from South America, raising them and selectively breeding them in a big greenhouse in West London, and deploying them in industrial-scale production in Malaya, mostly to provide the guttapercha insulation for Cable & Wireless as it wasn't before 1921).

There's a reason almost all Commonwealth countries have a really nice park called the Botanical Gardens or similar in their capital city.

Occasionally, of course, they fucked up really badly as with groundnuts in Kenya.

There's an organisation called CABI Bioscience based near Cambridge that has diplomatic status, which is odd for an agricultural research centre. It used to be called the Imperial Bureau of Entomology when it started in 1911, which is as steampunk as fuck. There's also a place on Ascension Island called Green Mountain, which is an artificial ecology actually designed by Charles Darwin.

Also, I think you'll find you can't have a symbiosis with terran and alien biospheres without story being generated at the interfaces:-)

73:

Playing the game of exponential growth for ultra fast terraforming. Here is an approach for our "Weyland-Yutani shake and bake" terraforming system.

Requirements:
1. Oxygen atmosphere planet with carbon based life.
2. Self replicating processing system. (terraforming Von Neumann machines)
3. Initial innoculum of Gaian life.

The earth's surface is ~ 0.5x10^9 km^2. So starting with 1 km2, doubling annually, we can convert a whole planet in 30 years.

Assume the terraforming plant builds a volume with local materials, sterilizes and converts all the organic life to basic compounds. Any soil can now be innoculated with the requisite organisms and you will have a terraformed soil in 1 year. After 1 year, the machines self replicate, and repeat the process. A fraction of the terraformed soil is used to start the next volume.
Photosynthetic algae/bacteria can be used to fix the carbon and nitrogen to Gaian chemistry. After that, we have a Gaian chemistry in the volume. All processes can complete the cycle within the 1 year period.

The volumes may be structures of carbon/silica with fused glass bases to prevent contamination from the exterior. All exchanges of resources with the outside will be treated to prevent 2 way contamination.

After 30 years, the replicators shut down. The terrestrial part of the planet is now fully Gaian except for the life in the rocks below the structures.

If the oceans need to be terraformed, a similar process could be used there.

30 years is enough for garden-like environments to mature, with some wilderness starting up if desired.

Not Star Trek's "Project Genesis", but certainly a very rapid process that does not violate any soil creating process I am aware of. After that, it is flower arranging.

With enough energy, the environments could even be climate and light controlled, so that the local planetary conditions could be converted to earth like ones, except for any gravity differences.

The volumes would eventually be huge, effectively like being in open air. Think Varley's lunar civilization in "Steel Beach".

Of course you could also eliminate much of the macro-biosphere in advance, perhaps using sunshades to freeze the planet, concentrators to bake parts of it, metabolic poisons to kill it, etc. This would make it easier for the machines to process the biosphere.

Such a brutal terraforming seems immoral to me, especially as the techniques could be applied to more lifeless bodies with greater scope for building tailored, controlled environments. However, the thought experiment suggests that this approach might be possible, in devastatingly rapid time frames.

74:

re: gut fauna
I think Arthur C. Clarke wrote that short story.

75:

Reading through the comments on this post reminded me of a novel (I think; possibly novella) I read many years ago. If anyone recognises it and can identify it for me, I'll be grateful!

Human in space ship crashes on alien planet, waits without result for rescue, waits as the ship's systems eventually fail around him, wanders around the planet in an environment suit, and (when that and its supplies finally give out too), exposes himself to the local environment on a sea shore, where as he dies he has some sort of shared recognition as life with indigent sapients who witness his demise.

It struck me then, and has stayed with me since, because of its realistic portrayal of incompatibly alien biospheres, and its refusal to supply any deus ex machina happy ending.

Pete Jordan

76:

If you have a completely anaerobic planet, then simply introducing cyanobacteria into some rather nutrient impoverished area of it (probably having to do so repeatedly with differing species until you find one that works) will give you a slowly increasing dose of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Oxygen is actually pretty nasty stuff; it causes a lot of damage to proteins and cell components that aren't set up to cope with it, and with colonists busily trying to do everything in their power to seed the planet with oxygen producers that are more and more efficient, the existing anaerobic life ought to start dying off fairly rapidly. The key to doing this is getting as efficient a set of oxygen producers in place as quickly as possible, since before an oxygen atmosphere gets established, you have to oxidise all the iron in the planet's oceans.

To this end, I would strongly suggest parking very large solar mirrors over the planet, to illuminate the dark side of the planet as much as possible and give the photosynthetic bacteria as good a chance of doing their job as possible.

77:

If you have a completely anaerobic planet, then simply introducing cyanobacteria into some rather nutrient impoverished area of it (probably having to do so repeatedly with differing species until you find one that works) will give you a slowly increasing dose of oxygen in the atmosphere.

This will almost certainly work (unless the native life finds a way to eat or poison the introduced life), but the issue is time. Even if you can get things going 1,000 times faster than on Earth, we're still talking the process taking millions of years. If intelligent technological species only last (on average) a few million years, then humanity would be extinct by the time it's complete, and that's assuming finding ways to vastly speed up the process.

78:

Responding to post 70:

You forgot one other assumption, that there will be really big piles of all of the elements needed to create the solar panel rigs just sitting around. Even if self-replicating tech like this is possible, supplying the raw materials means creating another set of mining and refining robots, which also need to self-replicate and which also need raw materials. Sure, solar cells are mostly silicon, but you also need various metals and other materials, some of which are likely to be at least somewhat rare.

The machines you are creating need to both self-replicate and move, so 1 cm seems like a probable minimum thickness. So, to cover the planet you need 1,400 cubic km worth of raw materials to make these machinese (not counting the mass of materials you need to make the self-replicating mining and refining machinese. Now consider the mass of the other materials that isn't easily available silicon. THink about how much earth might need to be moved to extract the aluminum, boron, gallium, arsenic, copper, and whatever else might be needed. That's a whole lot of cubic kilometers of rock and clay to mine.

79:

I've read that, but I don't remember, either. If he doesn't show up, I'll ask James.

80:

Um, Eucalyptus in California (and the issue of biology being a "solved problem")...

Speaking as a California botanist, the story I got was that back in the late 1800s, some Californians heard about this wonderful hard wood in Australia called "Eucalyptus." Now, California has some really nice timber trees (redwood, pines, some oaks), but in the south, it doesn't have a lot of good wood.

Fine, thought these Californians, they'd import "Eucalyptus" from Australia. So they sent an order out, and in due course got 800 trees.

Here's the kicker:

Under the old taxonomy, there are about 800 species of Eucalyptus, which do indeed contain some wonderful timber trees. However, what the Californians got was Blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) which is crappy as timber, but has the dubious advantage of growing fast and being hard to kill.

That's where the initial eucalyptus in California came from. Lack of knowledge about biology.

As for biology being a solved problem, that's a bullshit perspective based on a false understanding of science, if you'll pardon my French. Biology is a historical science, which means that if you go back in time and re-run the tape, you get a different result each time. This is unlike physics, where, in principle it's possible to understand what's going on mathematically (although if string theory is right, physics is also a historical science).

Because it's a historical science, biology is totally contingent on what went before. It can never be totally solved, any more than politics can. Evolution is still happening (perhaps accelerating), and we're part of the ride. Community assembly is largely contingent on what is there, and so from cell structure to biospherics. Furthermore, much of the past is denied us through destruction of the fossil record, so we'll never have enough information to understand trajectory that produced the current biosphere, and anyway, we'd need to turn every atom in the universe into a supercomputer to run the simulation (since interactions among trillions of organisms over hundreds of millions of years scale as a combinatorial raised to some power).

As I said, biology is never going to be a solved problem, whatever our advances are in other fields. It's the acting out of total ignorance (as with the eucalyptus) that causes the problems.

And sometimes, it's not even a problem. Most of Australia's eucalyptus species have been imported into California at some point in the last hundred years, for botanic gardens, the gardens of the rich, and such. Some of these species are now so rare in Australia that Australian conservationists have supposedly come to California to reacquire the seeds of their eucalyptus. That's another aspect of biology. Sometimes a problem can be the solution to another problem.


81:

Pretty tangential, but I'll also point out -- as a native Southern Californian -- that the main reputation eucalyptus has for me is... it burns. Easily. And often. And quickly. And hotly. And then it's back in a couple of years to do the same thing.


82:

Even if self-replicating tech like this is possible, supplying the raw materials means creating another set of mining and refining robots, which also need to self-replicate and which also need raw materials. Sure, solar cells are mostly silicon, but you also need various metals and other materials, some of which are likely to be at least somewhat rare.

The machines you are creating need to both self-replicate and move, so 1 cm seems like a probable minimum thickness. So, to cover the planet you need 1,400 cubic km worth of raw materials to make these machines (not counting the mass of materials you need to make the self-replicating mining and refining machines). Now consider the mass of the other materials that isn't easily available silicon. Think about how much earth might need to be moved to extract the aluminum, boron, gallium, arsenic, copper, and whatever else might be needed. That's a whole lot of cubic kilometers of rock and clay to mine.

Life cycle analysis for solar panels doesn't assume that you have refined silicon, wiring, glass, and assembly plants already sitting around; the precursor stages are part of it. I based my energy payback time (e.g. doubling time) on modest real-world figures for current commercial PV tech. I could have assumed better technology that leads to a shorter doubling period, or assumed a longer doubling period to give a larger safety margin, but even if self-duplication takes twice as much energy as I've budgeted that is still lightning-quick compared to the natural processes that oxygenated Earth.

Crushing and refining 1400 cubic kilometers of rock (~4 trillion metric tons) is no big deal in this context. Double or triple that figure if you like. Keep in mind that it's more energetically expensive, gram for gram, to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen than to mine and process hard rock, and the solar array's main job is already to split 1125 trillion (1.125 * 10^15) metric tons of water.

I don't think that rare elements are going to be a big holdup. Silicon, oxygen, and aluminum are the 3 most abundant elements in the Earth's crust. With these 3 elements you can produce glass, the actual silicon for cells, structural supports, and electrical connections. Silicon PV doesn't require arsenic or gallium. Aluminum can be used instead of copper for electrical conductors at a moderate performance penalty. The electrolysis process can use iron cathodes and carbon anodes -- again, very abundant and widely distributed elements.

The rarest elements you need in the panel assemblies are phosphorus and boron for doping silicon, but only at ppm levels. If you take a kilogram of homogenized terrestrial crust and use only the silicon and dopant elements (phosphorus and boron) in it, you'll actually have a surplus of dopants left over after turning the silicon into purified PV material.

83:

How are you storing the energy again from these solar panels?

84:

You only need continuous energy supplied for the share of it that goes to non-interruptible manufacturing activities, like refining aluminum and silicon. Even then you do not necessarily need full power at night, just enough to (e.g.) keep your electrolytic aluminum cells above their freezing point. The lion's share of energy goes to the water-splitting atmospheric conversion project and there's no problem with running that on an intermittent basis whenever sunlight is available.

How about high-temperature fuel cells and chemical energy storage for the minority share of energy that does need to be supplied continuously? You don't need any rare metal catalysts for them and you're already going to be producing hydrogen and oxygen from water. Until the atmospheric conversion process is well along you can even store the oxygen alone and get "free fuel" from the atmosphere* (the opposite of Earth, where the oxidizing atmosphere means you have to store fuel but oxygen is "free"). This is advantageous because oxygen is much easier to store than hydrogen. The round-trip electrical storage efficiency is worse than with flywheels or batteries, but the total mass and space requirements are considerably lower. If you need thermal energy rather than electrical, chemical energy storage is actually perfect and requires only a burner to recover that stored energy.

*If the planet has a reducing atmosphere something like the composition used in the Urey-Miller experiment, then you can substantially increase efficiency by always (or at least until bulk atmospheric change renders it infeasible) using the electrolytically produced oxygen in high-temperature fuel cells to recover some useful heat and electricity. The oxygen's going to release the same amount of energy on oxidizing the atmosphere whether it happens naturally and slowly or swiftly and in your fuel cell. But in the latter case you get some useful work out of the reaction. If the planet has a reducing atmosphere to start with it will also take longer to oxidize it and start building up free oxygen in the atmosphere, so in that case the process will take longer regardless of any cleverness with partial energy recovery using the oxygen.

85:

dasher :

"Nature isn't about stability - it's about change. Species, environments that don't change - can't adapt, improve and evolve."

The point (which the author really missed) is that the adaptation would have to be on our end.

As for change, rates matter - if one is jumping from an aircraft, a parachute is useful, even though one could land without it.

86:

Nope, he doesn't quite remember the title, either.

87:

Damn. Thanks for checking it out though (and for confirming that the memory wasn't just some sort of fantasy construct of my ageing brain :)

88:
ethics deals with relations between human beings, or to stretch the point in an SFnal context, with other sophonts.

The rest of the universe is just "stuff"; it can have aesthetic value, or practical value, but morally/ethically it might as well not be there.

Wrong. Ethics is (to quote the OED) "the science of morals in human conduct". There's no limiting "but only if it involves other humans". It's logical to conclude from your statement that you think it's ok to torture a wild animal for fun (since according to your statement "morally/ethically it might as well not be there"). But you'll find that's not a very popular position. (There are people who take this to the opposite extreme, of course, and say that there's no acceptable reason to cause harm to any animal; I disagree with them, too. We don't have a good enough understanding of human biochemistry to create useful computer models; medicine can frequently only be tested on animal or human models, and the people who do the research generally work very hard to avoid causing unnecessary pain.)

Taking the fictional case, lets suppose a universe where (a) time-travel is possible and (b) you can look at the future and then change it. Given that situation, would you regard it as acceptable to deliberately wipe out a race of non-sophonts because you wanted their planet even though you knew that they would evolve into sophonts over the course of the next million years if left alone? If not, why not? (After all, you've said they're "just stuff", with no moral value.) If you think it would be ok, where would you draw the line? Are sophonts who haven't invented the wheel yet fair game? What about ones who have spaceships but no guns?

89:

I think the biggest blind spot of them all is that we have to colonize planets. Here we come with a generationship to a new solar system, proving man has mastered the technology of indefinitely maintaining environments inside canisters perfectly attuned to human needs. Naturally it makes more sense to build more of these canisters instead of going through the much more costlier process of terraforming planets. The only immediate reason you'd want to go down a gravity well is for scientific curiosity and mining minerals. Because so many minerals are the results of geobiological processes it would make sense to aim for planets with old established biospheres.

90:

I have a vague memory of an older (1980s/early 90's)Ian McDonald story like that, but maybe I am off base.

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This page contains a single entry by Karl Schroeder published on July 29, 2011 3:06 PM.

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