Floaters, huh? Toomey’s just getting started. Critical to this book’s ethos is his unrelenting attitude: Sure, that would be weird, but can we get weirder? What about organisms trillions of years from now existing as interstellar clouds of dust that communicate by electromagnetism, or as the interaction of matter surrounding black holes or white dwarf stars? These possibilities have been considered.
Can we get even freakier? Yes. The multiverse. Other universes might have different forces, or discontinuous time, or extra dimensions. In that spirit, do simulated worlds on computers count as universes, with creatures made of bits living within? Which leads to: Are we a simulation? (By one reckoning, we probably are.) Finally, we’ve reached a good stopping point. Yonder be dragons, or not. It’s pure surrealistic speculation, with diminishing scientific returns.
(W. W. Norton) - ’Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own’ by David Toomey
“Weird Life” includes many fields: biology, organic chemistry, planetary science, nuclear physics, astronomy, cosmology. And Toomey, a science writer and English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, pulls them together with amiable humor and appreciable verbal efficiency. In most cases he provides just the right amount of explanation — though in a few cases I wish he’d gone one step further (why, exactly, does life require macromolecules?). The book also lacks much discussion of how probable its various possibilities are, but presumably hard numbers are hard to come by.
“Weird Life” is a good general introduction to science — and to the scientific process, demonstrating the abundance of disagreement, noting the importance of experimental replication, underscoring the influence of starting assumptions, and even pondering the differences in perspective between disciplines. The astronomers and physicists, who think big and think abstract, tend to be more optimistic and free-ranging in their considerations of weird life in the universe, with the sourpuss biologists pointing out the level of complexity required to make it all happen.
Does weird life exist? Toomey notes that if the universe is indeed infinite, flat and filled with stuff, as is thought, then all possible arrangements of matter, and of life, are out there — and out there an infinite number of times. So yes, weird life exists. Will we ever find it? We can hope to — if we’re clever, and patient, and we don’t first annihilate life as we know it.
, a science writer living in New York City, is the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrationality Keeps Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.”