"Life in Space": company in the cosmos?
"Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone" is Redmond author and Episcopal priest Lucas Mix's accessible and fascinating explanation of life forms in the universe, and a meditation on how likely it is we have company on other planets.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone"
by Lucas John Mix
Harvard University Press, 322 pp., $29.95
Redmond author Lucas Mix brings an unusual résumé to his first book, "Life in Space." Mix, 33, is an Episcopal priest in the emerging church, a movement that might be labeled as progressive but not liberal. He is an instructor of the martial art hapkido. He has studied photosynthesis in bacteria. He has a Harvard degree in evolutionary biology. And he has written this book, subtitled, "Astrobiology for Everyone."
"Life in Space," in bookstores this month, is not for everyone, despite the blurb by a Harvard authority attesting that it is "light and entertaining" and for "the casual reader."
Several chapters are heavy with such scientific stuff as amino acids, chiral molecules and the life cycle of stars. When Mix arrives at his own specialty, photosynthesis, he loses his literary discipline entirely and writes such sentences as, "NADH has the reducing power of 2.5-3 ATP and NADPH of 3.5-4 ATP," which is something about photons.
But most of this book is accessible and fascinating.
Astrobiology is the study of life on other planets. Since, as Mix says of life, "we have only one sample available," astrobiology has to outline itself along the edges of biology, ecology, chemistry, astronomy, planetology and physics.
He goes further. When he asks, "If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?" he has ventured into cosmology. When he says astrobiology offers "the chance to question the fundamental ideas about life," he is dealing in philosophy. And when he raises the question of "how we would treat nonterrean [non-Earth] organisms if we found them," he is playing in the realm of morals.
He has also been a preacher — at, for example, Seattle's Church of the Apostles in the Fremont district, one of the area's "emergent churches" that emphasizes community, common worship and activities, and helping the poor.
This makes Mix a different sort of science writer. It sensitizes him to philosophical questions, though his book is still one of science and natural philosophy, not religion. Its one reference to Christianity is his statement that, if intelligent beings were discovered, "Christians would need to ask whether Jesus Christ died for the sins of all intelligent beings or just humans."
Mix rejects the argument for intelligent design, saying that while a wristwatch clearly "has organization imposed from above," life "shows evidence of building from the bottom up."
Of the famous question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, Mix writes, "Something that was not quite a chicken must have laid an egg from which a chicken hatched." For the Darwinist it is a necessary assumption.
Mix does not make the unnecessary assumption, made by the late Carl Sagan, that at least x percentage of the "billions and billions" of stars must have life, and therefore the universe is probably throbbing with it.
It could be that life is exceedingly rare, as Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee argue in "Rare Earth," or that it exists only on this planet. We don't know. We have one data point. If the biologists succeed in creating life, they might say something about whether its beginning was easy or difficult. But they can't do even that.
Astrobiology thus remains the study of a set with no known members — but tantalizing still. Writes Mix, "The greatest motivation to find life elsewhere comes from a hope that such life would provide perspective. It would help us step outside of ourselves and discover something fundamental about how we see the world."
That is the philosopher talking. And also the scientist. "Life in Space" is a book where they meet.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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