Since we’re moving forward with privatizing space exploration at a rapid pace and Elon Musk thinks he’s going to have somebody on Mars in the next decade, people are already looking ahead to what comes after. I don’t mean Jupiter or Saturn. I mean… way out there. We need to get off this rock eventually and out to the stars, but we still don’t know the answer to the big question. Is there anybody out there or is Earth the only place where life arose? The broadest consensus among scientists these days seems to be that the galaxy almost has to lousy with life. But there are still some in that field who aren’t so sure. If the rest of the galaxy has no habitable worlds we’re in a lot of trouble.
Now there’s one scientist who wants to hedge our bets and make it far more likely that we’ll find other worlds with life on them. How? He wants to send the life there ahead of us. I first saw this story at Mysterious Universe, but it’s popping up in a few other places as well. And the man with the plan is no kook from some Reddit forum. He’s mathematician and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. You might recognize his name as the guy who came up with the Dyson sphere.
So how does Dr. Dyson plan on seeding the galaxy with life? Read on.
Dyson is back in the news this year with a new proposed technology the English-born visionary believes could seed life throughout the universe. Dyson calls his idea the “Noah’s Ark Egg” and describes it as a “way of making space colonies highly cost-effective.” In an interview with influential science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the theoretical research center Institute for Advanced Study, Dyson outlined his vision for sending the eggs out into the cosmos in order to spread the Earth’s biodiversity to distant exoplanets and speed up the colonization process:
The Noah’s Ark Egg is an object looking like an ostrich egg, a few kilograms in weight. But instead of having a single bird inside, it has embryos — a whole planet’s worth of species of microbes and animals and plants, each represented by one embryo. It’s programmed then to grow into a complete planet’s worth of life. So it will cost only a few million dollars for the egg and the launch, but you could have about 1,000 human beings and all the life support, and all the different kinds of plants and animals for surviving. The cost per person is only a few thousand dollars, and it could enlarge the role of life in the universe at an amazingly fast speed.
I understand that somebody operating at the level of Freeman Dyson deserves an audience when he proposes a plan and I wouldn’t brush him off lightly. If the technology to do something like this is actually going to be available in the next few generations I’m sure mankind will consider taking on the project. But should we?
If you’re approaching this from the assumption that most of the stars only have dead, rocky worlds (hopefully with some water) circling them, I can see the appeal. Why not give life a leg up and kickstart it with something we’d probably recognize when we eventually arrive? And if you could land actual people there somehow in embryonic form (?!) then we’d definitely know what to expect.
But here’s the other disquieting thought. If there is life on many of those rocky worlds, should we really be crashing arks full of all manner of Earth organisms on them? To answer that question, think about the reverse scenario. If a space egg crashed somewhere on Earth and spilled out a bunch of alien goo and wriggling things, you’d be running away as fast as you could and calling the CDC hotline. Truly alien organisms, particularly of the microscopic kind, could turn out to be lethal and the native lifeforms, including us, would likely have zero natural defenses against them. It could be the pandemic to end all pandemics.
Do we really want to do that to the life of whatever sort that’s evolved on some other world? It just seems like a rather poor way to introduce ourselves if, by chance, there’s other intelligent life out there someplace.
For a bit more perspective on Dyson and how he approaches these heavy questions, check out this short video where he explains why he sees no conflict between his Christian beliefs and the scientific work he engages in. (He also knocks Einstein for turning science into a religion.)