April 2, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Imagining Worlds: Is It Science?

An entry on Space.com is almost pure speculation with no observation.  Does it belong on a science news site?
    Reporter Clara Moskowitz gave Viorel Badescu [Polytechnic University of Bucharest, Romania] free rein to imagine life on free-floating planets (FFPs) – bodies wandering free in space after being abandoned, like wayward children, from their parent stars.  “The search for alien life usually focuses on planets around other stars,” she began.  “But a lesser-known possibility is that life has sprung up on planets that somehow were ejected from their original solar systems and became free-floating in the universe, as well as on small bodies called sub-brown dwarfs [SBDs], which are stars so small and dim they are not really stars at all, but function more like planets.”
    First of all, do such bodies exist?  Badescu admitted they are “extremely hard to detect.”  Moreover, “Present day technology does not allow a systematic search for habitable FFPs and SBDs,” but that did not stop him from imagining that “Sub-brown dwarfs weighing between 1 and 13 Jupiter masses may be about as common as stars, Badescu said.”  So far, we have imaginary planets; now, we need to imagine life on them.  What are the conditions for life, and can we imagine them existing on these imaginary habitable planets?

  • Heat:  Without a star to warm them, FFPs would presumably be hopelessly frozen to death.  No problem; thanks to internal radioactive decay, “One may expect a rather stable heat release for long periods of time, exceeding two or three times the present age of the solar system,” Badescu surmised, not having observed even one present age of the solar system.
  • Atmosphere:  The imaginary planets also have imaginary atmospheres.  “Though meager, this heat could be trapped on the object by an optically thick atmosphere.”
  • Solvent:  Needless to say, FFPs would probably not be warm with lush oceanic baths of water for microbes.  But even though all life we know about relies on water, one can imagine any other liquid doing the job: “In particular, Badescu found that ethane – a compound of carbon and hydrogen – could function well as a solvent for alien life.
        One of the two instances of observation in the article is found in this sentence: “Synthesis of observational data makes it possible to conceive chemical reactions that might support life involving non-carbon compounds, occurring in solvents other than water, Badescu wrote in his paper.”  The observations were not about actually making chemical reactions work that might support life – but only data that “makes it possible to conceive” of reactions that “might” do so.
        Speaking of ethane, no life has been observed on the only world we know about that has some liquid ethane – Titan.  And no origin-of-life researcher has ever come up with a theory of how ethane would work in alien life-forms.  Despite those difficulties, “Badescu said that some sub-brown dwarfs might have lakes or oceans of liquid ethane that could prove quite homey to alien microbes.”
  • Polar solvent:  Problem: ethane is not a polar molecule, like water.  It’s the “polar properties of water [that] enable certain kinds of molecules to dissolve easily in water, while others remain stable.”  That would not be the case with ethane.  “However, the challenge is not insurmountable,” according to Badescu’s fertile imagination: “– a completely different type of molecule could be used to code life’s blueprint on a FFP or SBD.”  He did not offer any candidate molecules.
  • Genetic code:  So what would convey the genetic information required by alien cells swimming in ethane on imaginary worlds?  After all, “small changes in molecular structure may create large changes in molecular behavior” with a non-polar molecule, and “That is not acceptable in an encoding biopolymer that must support Darwinian evolution, in which case, the molecule’s physical properties must remain relatively constant when the informational content changes.”  Again, though, his way out was simply to assert that “the challenge is not insurmountable”.

After surmounting all these difficulties with leaps of imagination, Badescu gave his grand finale: “it might be conceivable that FFPs and SBDs are the most common sites of life in the universe.”  Well, then, we should search for them: “the existing observation programs” [there’s the other instance of the word observation] “of young star forming regions should be supplemented with activities related to FFP and SBD identification and characterization.”  It might be worthwhile; we might just find imaginary life some imaginary day.  But even before that, since it might be conceivable that imaginary life is common on imaginary worlds, we would first have to find out if it is even possible to conceive of such things; it might be, or it might not be.
    The article was decorated with imaginary images of imaginary landscapes.  Speaking of imaginary landscapes, that was the title of musical compositions by John Cage that experimented with “chance music” as a kind of divination – i.e., “imitating nature in its manner of operation” (Wikipedia).  In Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 12 operators twiddled the knobs of 12 radios at random.  One never knows; it might produce imaginary music.  To be more like Badescu’s speculation, though, one must imagine the radios and the operators, too.

Reread the 01/17/2007 commentary.
Exercise:  Write a fairy tale with this much imagination and see if you can get Space.com or one of the other secular science news sites to publish it without any criticism whatsoever.  If Badescu can do it, it would be discriminatory not to let you do it.  Be sure to portray it as a scientific quest.
Extra credit:  make a case for funding your search for your imaginary whatever.  Be careful not to specify a timeline, dollar limit, or any criteria for success.

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