Carbonization

All life forms known to humankind are carbon-based. That does not mean all life forms are carbon-based; only those we know about. Despite a widespread assumption—that, if ever we encounter life outside our own planet, it also will be carbon-based—science does not guarantee the legitimacy of that hypothesis, a bias some call carbon chauvinism.

Regardless of the possibility that life might be based, in certain conditions, on other elements, the theory that all life we might encounter is also surely to be carbon-based is grounded in reality. One carbon atom can form bonds with up to four other atoms. Beside the fact that carbon atoms readily form bonds with other carbon atoms, this establishes the opportunity for building molecules that are almost immeasurably long and complex. In addition, the energy required to make or break a bond with a carbon atom is conducive to the requirements of life; it allows stable molecules to form and remain reactive, thereby permitting the molecules to be part of the complex, dynamic system that is a living organism.

Science fiction frequently paves the way for reality. I do not know whether minds creative in the application of ideas or minds creative in the formation of ideas should be given more credit for technological advances; clearly, though, reality often follows on the heels of fantasy fiction. I mention fantasy because science fiction has had something of a fixation with non-carbon life forms for a very long time. The latest (as far as I know) foray into non-carbon life assumes life can be based on silicon. Silicon, like carbon, can also form four valence bonds, and it also readily bonds to itself, although those bonds are structured differently from carbon bonds. Science fiction, as “correct” as it sometimes seems to be in its forecasts, is often wrong. For that reason, I am more interested in pure, hard science. But pure, hard science seems intent on limiting itself to carbon chauvinism. That bothers me. It’s like religions that refuse to permit observable facts to interfere with the insistence on basing all religious thought on the Bible; provincial and parochial and narrow-minded (what other synonyms can I use to express my disgust with such insular thinking?).

A central problem with my interest in exploring the possibility of life-forms based on elements other than carbon is my almost limitless ignorance of chemistry, organic and otherwise. I received the only “F” in a six-week grading period in a high school course in chemistry (I think the other lowest score I got was the rare “C”). I was absolutely lost and the teacher was utterly disinterested in helping me find my way; in fact, he seemed to take an intense dislike to me. I do not remember his name; I think I called him “The Bastard.” Ignorance and sloth are problems for me in so many areas that I find interesting. I am no sufficiently interested in overcoming my ignorance to invest the energy and time to learn. I want to know things, but apparently I am unwilling to have to experience the process of learning; I simply want to know.

Obviously, that presents a problem. That problem, though, is largely responsible for a theme that arises in my fiction from time to time: the combination of chemicals and electrical currents (both measured in nano-measurements on the order of the quadrillion level) introduced to the human brain to control centers of knowledge. For example (one of my favorites), I envision the possibility of injecting into the bloodstream an incredibly complicated mixture of fifty or more chemicals (but in incredibly small amounts) at the same time an enormously complex series of electrical pulses are delivered to the brain. The result, after a period of thirty minutes of a convoluted process of injection/shock/injection/shock/etc., the subject of the endeavor would speak fluent Spanish or would possess unmatched expertise in high-end mathematical theory. That sort of thing. I suspect this sort of thing is coming. Probably not in my lifetime nor in the lifetimes of your great-great-great-great grandchildren; but some day.

See, I explicitly said I was more interested in pure, hard science than in science fiction. And then, as predictably as the beat of a baby’s heart, I changed course and delved into science fiction. What the hell. Is it outside the realm of possibility that elements not presently found on Earth and, therefore, not included on the periodic table could behave in much the same way carbon does? Of course it’s possible. A carbon-like extraterrestrial element could well exist and it could have the capacity to bond with every other known and unknown element in impossibly long chains. Life in this dimension could express itself in a radically different way than life as we now know it expresses itself.

I would pay quite a lot of money (if I had it) to experience vast increases in my levels of knowledge: theoretical physics, mathematics, chemistry, multiple languages, medicine…the list of knowledge I would absorb by injection and electrical current is virtually endless. Imagine modifying one’s brain so that every letter on every page of all the works of Shakespeare were imprinted on one’s memory. The idea is intoxicating!

Unfortunately, no amount of money and ambition or raw desire can make those things happen. Living in a dream world, though, is sometimes better than living on the outskirts of a hydro-carbon village where oil is worshiped, while the sounds of souped-up pickup trucks and speed boats roar in the background. What? I think I slipped into someone else’s dream-world. I like mine better.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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