How Big is Life?

Galaxy in Hands

Galaxy in Hands

Intelligent life should be abundant throughout the universe, according to the Drake Equation. However, for humanity to encounter intelligent extraterrestrials, the Fermi Paradox suggests that several conditions have to be met. We must exist during the same time period, we need to be located close enough within the universe, and we need to be within a reasonable size range in order to be visible to each other. The least comprehensible of these three conditions is that of size. How big or small can life get? Is it possible, as in the movie Men in Black, for an entire galaxy to be as small as a marble to us (microscopic) or for us to be a mere speck within a greater (macroscopic) realm?

Let’s look at it another way. Our bodies are composed of many molecules built from atoms that are mostly empty space. Those atoms have a nucleus with electrons circling at a great relative distance from that nucleus, and are themselves composed of additional sub-atomic particles. So, from the viewpoint of a sufficiently small creature, we would look mostly like open space with many clusters of matter around which other pieces of matter revolve. When I was in high school, scientists were just beginning to discover subatomic particles. Now, such particles continue to be identified or postulated, but nothing that looks like a teeny tiny spaceship. Still, if it were sufficiently small, it would of course go unnoticed.

The point of this discussion, however, is that it is hard to say what life looks like from too small a scale or, for that matter, too large a scale. The collection of atoms that make up the bacteria, skin, flesh, blood and bones within our bodies would not show any apparent relationship to each other. They might not even appear to be static assuming they are continually recycled into new molecules as the body replaces itself. It would, in fact, be impossible to discern the structure of that life form or to interact with it in any meaningful way, especially if the time scales involved were also out of proportion. So, what makes something alive? Could the universe itself be alive? Could the component parts of our bodies be alive at the subatomic level?

Gut-Brain Connection

Gut-Brain Connection

We already know that the bacteria within our bodies constitute a major ecosystem that affects our physical health and most likely even the functioning of our minds, including our thoughts and behavior. In effect, we have an entire small universe of life within our own bodies.

We believe that DNA contains a pattern of instructions for the creation of life, but have no idea how those instructions are implemented. Instructions, after all, have to be followed according to a perfectly timed plan that converts raw material and energy into something new. Instruction books can’t build things by themselves, so when an egg is fertilized, what uses the information within the DNA to create a new life? If there is some vast universe of life within a single strand of DNA that is responsible for the creation of life, then that life form must be abundant and functionally identical within every atom and molecule.

Could human life also be a common and abundant form of life in a universe that itself is growing into a greater life form, much like the bacteria within our own bodies? Do we exist merely to play a role in the development and reshaping of our solar system and galaxy as a step in the creation of a greater form of life? Is it the “manifest destiny” of all intelligent life forms to develop social skills and technologies that enable them to expand throughout the universe? If so, are we here to create, transform, or destroy?

Am I talking crazy now or did I reach that point a long time ago? In any case, do these questions even matter? If we are a part of a greater life form or if we are composed of a nearly infinite number of incredibly tiny intelligent life forms, we’ll never know because it is beyond our scale of time and space to be able to comprehend. We’re back to the question of why life exists at all and how and why it continues to transform.

Invasion of Virus DNA

Invasion of Virus DNA

Back to the size of life. Scientists are now coming to realize (or at least hypothesize) that most of the life on the planet consists of viruses. Yes, those simple, tiny things that have not quite been considered alive, yet can affect us in profound ways. Craig Venter, one of the first inventor entrepreneur to use machines to sequence the human genome, has been traveling the world collecting and documenting new viruses (among other things) and is finding that the number of different types is astounding. A recently discovered virus, the Mimivirus, is so large and complex, that scientists are reexamining all previous assumptions about them. Viruses may actually be responsible for the evolution of humanity.

Viruses may be the original body snatchers. You see, some viruses can actually alter human DNA. That’s right, they are actually altering the DNA in your cells and, as they spread throughout your body and as the altered cells reproduce, a new set of DNA is propagated throughout your body. Remember how a human was transformed into a half¬-human, half-fly creature in the movie The Fly? Thinking about having my DNA altered, whether inadvertently by a virus or through deliberate Gene Therapy gives me the chills!

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