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March 26, 2009 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Are plasma crystals alive? Cosmic dust can, in the presence of plasma, creates formations known as plasma crystals. An international team of researchers published a study in the Aug.14, 2007, issue of the New Journal of Physics (PDF here, abstract here) that indicates that these crystals may be more sophisticated than anyone realized. In simulations involving cosmic dust, the researchers witnessed the formation of plasma crystals displaying some of the elementary characteristics of life -- DNA-like structure, autonomous behavior, reproduction and evolution.

Could extraterrestrial life be made of corkscrew-shaped particles of interstellar dust? Intriguing new (circa 2007) evidence of life-like structures that form from inorganic substances in space have been revealed in the New Journal of Physics. The findings hint at the possibility that life beyond earth may not necessarily use carbon-based molecules as its building blocks. They also point to a possible new explanation for the origin of life on earth.

The concept of interstellar dust-based life was described in the 1957 SF book, The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was also responsible for the term Big Bang, though Hoyle himself did not believe the Big Bang theory. In an ironic plot twist that would foreshadow Hoyle's stance on panspermia (more here and here), the cloud expresses surprise that intelligent life is capable of forming on planets.
posted by KokuRyu (48 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ugly Bags of Mostly Water!
posted by Cobalt at 9:48 PM on March 26, 2009 [9 favorites]


They must do the cloud computing!!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:53 PM on March 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Aaaaaaah!!
posted by Electrius at 9:53 PM on March 26, 2009


Could be trouble, especially if it starts feeding on our colonies.
posted by demiurge at 9:53 PM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Time uniform less prime.
posted by Mblue at 9:59 PM on March 26, 2009


Best science story I've seen in ages. Feels truthy, doesn't it? Beware...
posted by unSane at 10:00 PM on March 26, 2009


I agree with Electrius.
posted by taliaferro at 10:01 PM on March 26, 2009


Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:05 PM on March 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


This is pretty awesome.

I think it's the sort of idea where people today will respond, "Hey, I didn't think of it that way..." and in 10 years, "Of course it is!"
posted by Alex404 at 10:19 PM on March 26, 2009


They're made out of meat.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:29 PM on March 26, 2009 [14 favorites]


"It's life Jim, but not as we know it."

Seriously, this is thought-provoking as hell. It implies that the most common form of life could be (not saying it IS, mind you) something completely different from what we considered the basic building blocks of life; organic chemistry.
posted by happyroach at 10:37 PM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Emergent properties of self-organizing systems are so amazing, but are these alive or just a fascinating, highly advanced form of something like the nonlinear mathematical patterns in John Conway's "Game of Life"? Those move, eat and reproduce as well, don't they?
posted by dacoit at 10:47 PM on March 26, 2009


Andromeda Strain
posted by exlotuseater at 10:56 PM on March 26, 2009


I thought the dust bunnies in my house were replicating.
posted by ornate insect at 10:56 PM on March 26, 2009


You know how you sometimes hear interviews with scientists that go something like, "blah blah blah mouse blah blah blah culture blah blah blah CURE FOR CANCER NEXT WEEK!!!!" and then never hear anything else about said "discovery" ever again?

This may be very close to the theoretical limit of that phenomenon.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:58 PM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


happyroach: Don't you mean: "It's life Jim, but not as we know it."

I for one would like to... blah blah blah.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:13 PM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


In an infinite number of Universes, one wonders what infinite forms of life must spring up from Them all.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:20 PM on March 26, 2009


Maybe it's God.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:43 PM on March 26, 2009


That's really really cool. Also, thanks for being a link to that damn NewScientist rag. I almost didn't check this out because I thought it was their usual crap.

Another entry in Hoyle's Book of Games I suppose!
posted by freebird at 11:46 PM on March 26, 2009


Ok, that was a lousy link that fails to do justice to Pullman's concept of dust as a living entity, which is what I'd intended to highlight. Apparently I'm too tired to do so properly, so I'll go to bed now.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:51 PM on March 26, 2009


I knew it, the universe is alive...
posted by idiotfactory at 2:09 AM on March 27, 2009


I definitely welcome our new cosmic dust overlords.
posted by acrobat at 2:18 AM on March 27, 2009


Aargh, the dust monsters cometh!

Lucky for me I often go for weeks at a time between vacuuming my floors; here's hoping they show me similar mercy.
posted by metaBugs at 4:40 AM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The article was written by a dude with a BA in English. These particles may exhibit features of living matter, but we need to know more about their environment and how they survive. I'll suspend judgment on this until then.

Don't read more into the article than what it says.
posted by kldickson at 5:05 AM on March 27, 2009


The researchers want to test whether dust clouds in a non-simulated environment, such as those in Saturn's rings

Seriously? But then they'll begin to vibrate in unison to send a signal out telling their creators that intelligent life exists in our quadrant of the galaxy.

(Does no one else here read Ben Bova? This sounds like it was lifted wholesale from one of his Grand Tour books...)
posted by caution live frogs at 5:19 AM on March 27, 2009


Crystal entity! Stay away! Stay awaaaaaaay!
posted by odinsdream at 5:31 AM on March 27, 2009


No, plasma crystals are not alive. But then, DNA isn't alive either.
posted by DU at 5:57 AM on March 27, 2009


You know someone had to say it:

I, for one, welcome our new cosmic dust overlords.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 5:58 AM on March 27, 2009


Well, this is something that scientists think could happen based on a computer simulation, not something they've observed in the real world. Also, even some of the scientists involved in the project are hesitant to call it life.

Emergent properties of self-organizing systems are so amazing, but are these alive or just a fascinating, highly advanced form of something like the nonlinear mathematical patterns in John Conway's "Game of Life"? Those move, eat and reproduce as well, don't they?

No, they don't. there are little objects that move around, but they don't ever duplicate themselves or pass along information. I think on a 2-d matrix, there isn't enough degrees of freedom to build any 'real' life structure.
posted by delmoi at 6:09 AM on March 27, 2009


"organisms could be found in the rings of Uranus"

If scientists ever want to be taken seriously, we've got to rename that planet.
posted by etc. at 6:24 AM on March 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


"It's life Jim, but not as we know it."

Yeah, because plasma crystals don't work at Dunder Mifflin and aren't engaged to Pam.

what? oh.
posted by jimmythefish at 6:24 AM on March 27, 2009


If scientists ever want to be taken seriously, we've got to rename that planet.

Farnsworth: I'm sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed Uranus in 2620 to end that stupid joke once and for all.

Fry: Oh. What's it called now?

Farnsworth: Urectum.
posted by The Whelk at 6:31 AM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Emergent properties of self-organizing systems are so amazing, but are these alive or just a fascinating, highly advanced form of something like the nonlinear mathematical patterns in John Conway's "Game of Life"? Those move, eat and reproduce as well, don't they?
No, they don't. there are little objects that move around, but they don't ever duplicate themselves or pass along information
A Turing-complete engine can be built in Conway's Life. This essentially means that anything that any computer could ever possibly calculate could be calculated by Conway's Life.

So they definitely can "pass along information".

And, as for "duplicate themselves", I don't know about Conway's Life in particular, but there are definitely cellular automata (which Conway's Life is an example of) which support self-reproducing patterns. Langston's Loops, for example.

I'm not saying that Conway's Life and the like are alive, but I am saying that if you want to say they're not, you need to add some additional requirement to your definition of "alive".
posted by Flunkie at 6:41 AM on March 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


This article spends a lot of time talking excitedly about how the shapes they make are helixes. You know, just like DNA. There's nothing magic about that shape, it just happens to be convenient for organic chemistry.

Anyway not only do intelligent clouds exist, but they have Usenet:
Crypto: 0
As-Received-By: OOB shipboard ad hoc
Language-Path: Arbwyth->Trade 24->Cherguelen->Triskweline, SjK units
From: Twirlip of the Mists
Subject: Blighter Video thread
Keywords: Hexapodia as the key insight
Distribution: Threat of the Blight
Approved: yes
Date: 8.68 days since Fall of Relay

I haven't had a chance to see the famous video from
Straumli Realm, except as an evocation. (My only
gateway onto the Net is very expensive.) Is it true
that humans have six legs? I wasn't sure from the
evocation. If these humans have three pairs of legs,
then I think there is an easy explanation for
--MORE--
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


From how stuff works:
In the scientists' simulations, which were performed on the International Space Station and in a zero-gravity environment at a German research facility, the plasma crystals sometimes developed into corkscrew shapes or even the double-helix shape of DNA.
Um.. Why does my computer have to be in a zero G environment to get this code to run? Or.. I think they mean "experiments".

But wait! Science Daily says:
Tsytovich and his colleagues demonstrated, using a computer model of molecular dynamics, that
So it is just an elaborate version of Conway's Life then?
posted by Chuckles at 9:38 AM on March 27, 2009


Flunkie makes a good point: self-duplication and informational transference are already computationally here, and since most definitions of life include, either explciitly or implicitly, the prefix "carbon based," then if non-carbon-based-life is indeed a possibility, we would seem to come upon a curious terminological circularity when addressing the somewhat loaded question of what precisely constitutes life.
posted by ornate insect at 9:42 AM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Echoing Ornate Insect and Flunkie, the definition of "Life" is so broad that one has to either a) extend the definition to include some ethereal essence that imbues certain organisms with a "life force", or b) accept that computer programs and robots can be just as "alive" as self assembling molecules and bacteria. Plenty of new-agey folks choose the former. I'm still grappling with the latter (and the attendant lack of an ontological foundation for ethics)
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:08 AM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Computer programs can be alive, but none of them are yet. Some of the most sophisticated computer viruses are getting very close to some of the least sophisticated forms of living organism though.
posted by Chuckles at 10:28 AM on March 27, 2009


Cybernetics aside, computer programs or robots are perhaps only a technological extension of human life and ingenuity--no different in kind from hammers or houses. In no way did any of these things arise organically and independently of humans. Thus, the notion of "hard" AI always seems circular to me: how is a computer any different, other than by degrees of functional complexity, from a screwdriver? Of course I realize the possibility of synthetic life is vastly complicated with biotech and nanotech. Either way the line between genetic engineering and self-originating life is difficult to discern. This is certainly true when the brains of disabled patients can, as they now can, be "read" through mapping to perform simple tasks.
posted by ornate insect at 10:55 AM on March 27, 2009


Anyway not only do intelligent clouds exist, but they have Usenet:

Usenet circa 1992, no less. The glory days!

Anyway, Twirlip actually made more sense than a lot of usenet posters, despite being an intelligent gas cloud.
posted by Justinian at 10:58 AM on March 27, 2009


Cybernetics aside, computer programs or robots are perhaps only a technological extension of human life and ingenuity--no different in kind from hammers or houses. In no way did any of these things arise organically and independently of humans
A couple's child didn't arise independently, either. I'm not quite sure what "organic" and "independent" have to do with life. Even replication seems like an arbitrary qualification of life. A sterile human is still alive. Why would it be any different if we created a new organism that acted in every way lifelike but lacked a capacity to reproduce?

The book you referenced sounds interesting, and somewhat along the lines of what I've been thinking, although far more fleshed out and math-y. Life seems in some way to violate or manipulate causality (or at least the billiard-ball view of the universe), moreso the more complex and intelligent it becomes. Maybe this is just an illusion of an emergent system, but it almost seems simpler to describe it in the former way

And drawing a line between life and non-life seems difficult, as a process like natural selection seems to occur in every system on every level, creating stability and order where before there was none. Entropy increasing in the whole system and decreasing in many self-perpetuating parts
posted by crayz at 12:04 PM on March 27, 2009


crayz--I have a long-standing casual interest in this question vis a vis the systems theory (and related offshoots like cybernetics and complexity theory) of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, James Grier Miller, Gregory Bateson, etc., and along those lines would recommend this book.
posted by ornate insect at 12:10 PM on March 27, 2009


I don't think it should be considered life until it's ready to be conned into something.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:23 PM on March 27, 2009


It seems like a stretch to call these alive, but it seems like they could be the basis for life— they show the possibility of complex stable tiny environments. Much like micelles and liposomes could suggest the possibility of Earth-style life to an alien chemist investigating exotic water-based chemistry.
posted by hattifattener at 2:06 PM on March 27, 2009


A sterile human is still alive. Why would it be any different if we created a new organism that acted in every way lifelike but lacked a capacity to reproduce?

I think you are confusing life with consciousness. I think English is part of the problem :P
posted by Chuckles at 3:07 PM on March 27, 2009


the wolframic concept of computational equivalence may just make it into the lexicon :P

speaking of conway:
Mathematicians John Conway (inventor of the Game of Life) and Simon Kochen of Princeton University have proven that if human experimenters demonstrate 'free will' in choosing what measurements to take on a particle, then the axioms of quantum mechanics require that the free will property be available to the particles measured, or to the universe as a whole. Conway is giving a series of lectures on the 'Free Will Theorem' and its ramifications over the next month at Princeton. A followup article strengthening the theory (PDF) was published last month in Notices of the AMS.
btw: Fermilab Discovers Untheorized Particle

oh and freeman dyson has a nice discussion of the black cloud in Is Life Analog or Digital?
Silicon-based life and dust-based life are fiction and not fact. I use them as examples to illustrate an abstract argument. The examples are taken from science-fiction but the abstract argument is rigorous science. The abstract concepts are valid, whether or not the examples are real. The concepts are digital-life and analog-life. The concepts are based on a broad definition of life. For the purposes of this discussion, life is defined as a material system that can acquire, store, process, and use information to organize its activities. In this broad view, the essence of life is information, but information is not synonymous with life. To be alive, a system must not only hold information but process and use it. It is the active use of information, and not the passive storage, that constitutes life. The two ways of processing information are analog and digital... [quantum? probabilistic?]
also: BONUS GRAPES
posted by kliuless at 9:24 AM on March 28, 2009


If you're interested in Cellular Automata and other such things, I highly recommend Bio-Inspired Artificial Intelligence. It gives a good overview of all the various computational techniques inspired by examples in nature, including cellular systems, genetic algorithms, and immune systems. It's strikes a good balance between being a high level overview and giving juicy details, and every chapter references further reading material.
posted by heathkit at 1:57 PM on March 28, 2009


Are plasma crystals alive?

No.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:05 AM on March 29, 2009


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