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Apr 2, 2014

Would We Recognize Intelligent Life If We Found It?

Theaesta, an exoplanet. Would we recognize its life?
An artist is really just a person in touch with their creative capability. That and an assignment for an astrophysics class I'm taking prompted me to make my next project designing not a sculpture or painting but a planet. What I imagined was one with intelligent life, but– I realized– it might not be an intelligence we would recognize. Here's a short presentation about it:

The complete description of the planet follows:
Theaesta, a Planet, a Lifeform, an Intelligence.       Imagined by Tim Holmes

Theaesta is a one of a number of planets orbiting a sun-like star 2.5 times the mass of the sun. It's a terrestrial planet about 16 times the mass of the Earth orbiting at 3.2 AU on a slightly elliptical orbit. Though it has dry land and very much surface liquid, still it has some features of a gas giant, like a heavy atmosphere composed of swirling bands and whorls of chemical mixtures including hydrogen, methane, ammonia, ozone and clouds of other gases. The planet maintains a fairly steady 24˙ tilt from the orbital plane and spins at a high rate for its size, completing one rotation on its axis every 4.7 hours. It has a heavy iron core, creating a magnetic field that protects the atmosphere from solar wind bombardment.

The planet was formed out of a gas cloud and after the planet cooled, bombardment by solar system debris introduced a rich mix of carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, water ammonia and other compounds. A long year, tilted orientation and fast rotation rate leads to a fairly stabile but extremely varied environment, from boiling seas to frozen poles that periodically are baked. Oceans of fizzy water slosh against sulfurous lava mountains, constantly churned by huge storms as winds race around the planet. Wild temperature swings caused by periodic bombardments are modulated by seasons of evaporation and precipitation. After a billion years in the planet's history, the environment became somewhat regular if never mild, with a balanced atmosphere largely composed of carbon dioxide, methane, oxygen and nitrogen.

Detailed history:
Planet Theaesta

Theaesta's lifecycle can be split into 5 chapters:

I  Early Lifeforms

With a steady planetary evaporation and rain cycle– along with lightning strikes and geothermal activity– conditions are ripe for the formation of basic organic compounds. After some few billion years rudimentary lifeforms evolve that feed on mineral compounds. In places where sunlight can penetrate life evolves mechanisms for metabolizing mineral compounds using sunlight as an energy source, using a variety of methane- , alcohol- and water-based photosynthesis. As the planet maintains a hot mantel due to tidal forces, in some places there are undersea heat vents where primitive life forms evolve to metabolize minerals from the mantel that spewed out of the vents. In areas of stable microclimates, slimes and other tiny communities of organisms arise on ocean and lake beds, some of which are water, some methane or other liquids.

Several distinct life systems dependent on different biologies for metabolization arise in various environmental regions. In the ocean, water-based forms develop both at the surface where sunlight was available and at depth beneath the reach of sunlight.
Eventually these various biotic systems also become established on land and covered much of the lowlands with a carpet of colorful lichen-like molds and fungi. These lands were constantly bathed in sprays and rains from frequent storms and high winds. Shortly thereafter there appear single-celled organisms that take advantage of both water and dry land to feed on the various fungi and slimes. Over time there develop parallel lifesystems based on various biotic solvents like water, ammonia and methane, which eventually grow into close proximity.

II  Differentiation
Life- up from slime mold
From the outset there is great diversity within biotic systems as the winds and currents allow the spread of slime molds and simple life around the planet's oceans and wet surface areas. But as lifeforms diversify they find an advantage in small more or less uniform colonies which are resilient enough to survive when threatened by 'poisons' from outside their indigenous environments. These colonies introduce a new dimension of growth because they are different from each other and so possess complimentary characteristics. While each has a skill designed for its home environment, it benefits from cooperation with others who thrive in other environments. Over the next 2 billion years these simple organisms mutate into countless forms, often forming alliances and isomorphs to more fully utilize the resources around them. However, the strong gravity and very high winds prevent the growth of organisms beyond the size of a few cells.

Life has established a solid presence, distributed easily around the planet by constant movement of winds and ocean currents. The cooperation and interdependence of various species of small organisms that use the environment differently create a kind of network of communication that spreads around the planet and occupies all the regions from land to shallow sea to deep ocean vents. Life squeezes into every available slot on the planet and the variety of collaborations allows life forms to thrive in every environment from methane– to carbon dioxide– to ammonia– to oxygen–based forms, each with a unique alliance to best utilize its local conditions. These alliances become key to survival, as the more specialized cells are incorporated, the better the utilization of resources became.

Though life cannot survive the molecule-ripping extremes of high temperatures or the activity-killing lows, it can find a means of surviving those states by,
at high temperature:
  1. burrowing to survivable depths and using heat to metabolize the surrounding minerals,
  2. building protective shells, pods and shelters against harsh conditions, and
  3. constructing cells that can enclose more favorable environments, such as for sloughing off excess heat in boiling seas to maintain cool enough temperatures for cell function.
at low temperature:
  1. burrowing into soils to find environments heated by mantle activity heated by tidal forces.
  2. living in light cycles, gathering light to energize metabolism when it is available and going into dormancy when it is not (during periods of orbital freezing).
  3. Forming communities of intra-connected organisms live on the heat generated by other species that operate as in 1. and 2.

Differentiation and intelligence
The process of differentiation is the secret to the formation of an eventual super intelligence. As lifeforms become more varied they find advantage in small distinct creatures. Each unicellular creature has a distinct advantage of being able to develop a perspective different from others. This creates the possibility for synapses as one creature communicates with another with a different perspective from its own. Thereby both creatures benefit from the other's differences. (This makes Earthly biology seem terribly primitive in comparison. Earth creatures tend not to cooperate but rather compete with each other for scarce resources. Although creatures like humans host microorganisms to help with their own digestion and other functions, for the most part their use of other species amounts to enslaving them for their own very narrow and immediate purposes. This results in a lack of foresight and the opportunity for cooperation that would incorporate perspectives different from their own to increase their own awareness and intelligence to address changes that might come in the future.)

III  Cooperative Explosion and Intelligence

Reverse Tribalism
Unlike an environment of isolated species competing to survive in an environment of scarce resources, Theaesta never evolves to develop competition for resources. Because the environment is constantly changing cooperation is much more valuable as a strategy than competition. Although there is competition between individuals of the same species, evolution selects for cooperation with other species, creating a kind of “reverse tribalism” where different skills are more valuable than those of one's own species. Therefore since the entire evolution of the planet depends on successful collaboration between diverse lifeforms,cooperation is selected for and mutation becomes common. Life on Theaesta depends on the “attitude” that every species different from itself offers an advantage to dealing with environmental extremes that it cannot handle on it's own. Cooperation therefor becomes the life-strategy for the entire planet.

Cooperative Life theory
Life might expand into whatever form allows it to take advantage of the resources that it needs at the time, including those that may come in handy in the future. In fact, it stores in its biological database the “memory” of each of the extreme states it has survived previously in a morphic resonance. This allows a kind of super-intelligence to survive in the very chemistry of its makeup that can respond to any change the environment can undergo. The lifeforms evolve as a kind of cross between individual specialized species and a fully-integrated community that really cannot be separated into individual units. It might be easiest for us to think of a city where one day the doctors rule due to a medical emergency, the next, there are plumbing issues and the plumbers take over the whole city, then there is a plague of rats and the cats rule. Eventually those roles become confused, skills becomes dispersed among individuals, who become more widely skilled, but in less distinct ways as the depth and breadth of collaboration complexifies.

Because the environment is not conducive to large body forms, life tends to evolve smaller rather than larger. There is a great proliferation of nano creatures that are selected for since on the nanoscale the environment has fewer restrictions. As widely varied as species become, so they increase the resiliency and capacity of the entire community to thrive. Since each makes a living in a different environment, by collaborating the whole community becomes more robust and resilient. This capacity becomes the Genesis for the growth of super intelligent, solar system-wide life form.

This network forms a kind of intelligence network like the internet. Since the distances between areas of local variation in conditions were far too great for individual creatures to negotiate, these lifeforms learn how to modify their own makeup in oder to change their needs and abilities as well as to re-form alliances to better take advantage of oscillating environmental conditions. This creates a kind of planet-wide intelligence that can only be described as a single de-centralized creature also called Theaesta.

IV  Flexibile Planetary Expansion and the Planetary Organism

We Earth creatures have evolved to take advantage of a very narrow slice of environmental resources. Humans for instance metabolize and use materials to stay alive and reproduce but then also appreciate and celebrate the environment through enterprise and art. We live comfortably only within very narrow conditions: a dry, airy, interesting environment with about a 20° temperature range.

But on Theaesta organisms thrive by collaboration from the start in order to take fuller advantage of resources, allowing for communication on a scale that earthly biology is not familiar with, where creatures can communicate at many levels with many different species at once. The only way to conceive of such a network of life forms is as a single planetary organism. As such it is able to adapt to any environment it encounters and to use the advantages of the resources available with those conditions presented by the changes in the environment.

This allows for the existence of the kind of life form that is a quantum leap beyond biology. On Earth, much of the resources available are not used by life. But on Theaesta the resources are used to such an efficient degree that the entire planet essentially is covered with life forms; it is essentially a terrestrial planet covered with a “skin” of life. In fact such cooperation allows life to build up in layers from some distance above the surface to some distance beneath the liquid oceans and even into the solid rock surface. In this case the organism can use any and all resources available to it for life. This means that there is essentially no surface on the planet that is not inhabited by a layer of more or less thickness depending on the richness of the resources available. This allows for not only the immediate use of resources but the ability to anticipate changes in the future and so to transfer, store and remember resources that will be used when the environment next changes.

Thus the life community has within its memory all the possible forms of life that thrive in all the extremes. This allows Theaesta to “design” new forms to inhabit all the available territory up to the very borders of the extremities of survival, which is essentially to the limits of atomic integrity. The “spores” of all these forms might be encoded if not in DNA then in some sort of mineral crust dispersed across the landscape that– like silicon chips– are encoded with the memory banks to thrive in any specific chemical environment.

Theaesta develops the capacity to engineer the environment for various purposes. Just as hollows are etched into rock, primitive sponge structures could be formed for protection from the sun or wind or other environmental obstacles. Over time the creature develops the capacity to utilize every resource in the environment. Theaesta architecture is that of a kind that we could not imagine. It might be used to amplify communication over great distances, to develop sophisticated art, or build pressurized pods or farms or capsules containing resources like a stocked liferaft that– upon an impact blasting material into space, could be used to colonize every bit of matter blown up in the resulting explosion.

Then a very strange thing happens.

Theaesta's orbit is elliptical though once it was fairly circular. After 4 million years of relatively peaceful planetary history there is a monumental event. Approaching from a great distance, a very dense passing planet from a great, elongated orbit that only takes it past its home star every trillion years passes quite close and pulls Theaesta into an elongated elliptical orbit. Suddenly the environment of Theaesta is pitched into even greater chaos.

First the planet is thrown closer to the sun than it has ever been since its formation. This heats the planet to the point of nearly boiling the liquid off its surface. But the encounter also increased the spin of Theaesta by a factor of 3.5. This has the effect of evening out the new temperature flux across the face of the planet. At the same time Theaesta begins to adapt to these dramatic changes. It does so by changing the format of its own biology to compensate for the temperature extremes. This happens not so much as a conscious process of “learning” the facts of the new environment, but by being so biologically flexible and responsive that Theaesta's changes include anticipation of the next phase of change. As the temperature increases, Theaesta anticipates the change and arrives at the optimal position before the next stage is reached. Response time grows to be almost instant.

This served the creature very well because when Theaesta then swings around the sun and out into the next leg of its orbit– newly distant from its sun– it is able to adapt to the challenges of a newly world that is mostly frozen for years on end. Theaesta compensates through a whole host of strategies such as burrowing into the mantel, building light– and heat–concentrating structures, transforming kinetic energy into heat, hibernation, etc.

V  Solar System Expansion

What we have is an ultra-responsive planetary organism that incorporates incredible ability to change, adapt, and take advantage of any and all environmental changes. In fact on those rare occasions when the planet is bombarded by a stray astroid the result is not a mass extinction but little more than a body wound to the planetary organism. Particles generated by the collision become spaceships for the organisms as those particles are blasted into space; and so the neighborhood is seated with life, leaving a solar system of three kinds of material: burning star, “black” matter (uninhabited) and “red” matter (inhabited by Theaesta).

Eventually the solar system becomes mostly red matter as Theaesta inhabits all the space debris that it encounters. The resulting life ranges from fairly simple lifeforms on specks of dust and rock to extremely complex ones that inhabited large gas giant planets. It might be that over billions of years a cloud of red material that coalesced into a planet might have life even in deep layers of the mantle, living off heat and chemical interactions between mineral salts. There may even be architecture built into the planet from its inception. This could raise the possibility of a planet that is actually designed by fiesta to most efficiently or beautifully use the coming together of the planet for its own life and enjoyment.

To Theaesta all matter from grains of sand to planetoids are seen as resources. Whereas to us an asteroid may look like lifeless rock floating through space, to Theaesta it is a warehouse of rich resources with waves of energy bathing the rock from every direction.

Theaesta could grow to be as large as the solar system, with each element of red matter being in instant communication with every other through morphic resonance. This allows Theaesta to communicate with a red matter asteroid hurtling toward its star. It could think about how to seed its star as the asteroid approached, and might even be able to adapt to make use of the newer higher energy conditions it encounters there, who's to know?

Network Intelligence
Theaesta's intelligence is nothing like ours. Though there is morphic resonance on a molecular level, individual creatures have no awareness or consciousness. Self-reflection only develops on a mass scale, as an outgrowth of the exchange of information across the face of the planet. This intelligence does not proceed out of individuation and so finds its apogee not in devices or communication with other solar systems but in responding to ever-expanding natural challenges it encounters. Though it cannot be said to understand time or possess forthought, Theaesta is able to respond almost instantaneously to environmental changes, a kind of capability we can only dream of. Rather its memory allows for an extremely flexible response that seems super-biological to us creatures imprisoned in individual consciousness.

Playing God
Theaesta might in fact decide to play God by creating life forms of its own imagining. Using some of its planets in the habitable zone it might create simple water-based biology and other life structures that could produce bodies of all kinds, large and small, fit for the environments of those planets. Such creative activity would no doubt provide endless interest, not to mention humor!

Composed of creatures whose lives span only hours, Theaesta's experience of time is exponentially faster than ours, making something like a falling rock more akin to human experience of planetary motion. We would see the lifeforms clear from underneath the impact area just before the rock hit and perhaps even colonize each of the shards as they scattered. Their experience of time is so rapid that we could share only a few common experiences, like lightning flashes or impact explosions.

What if we met?
I wonder if– should the two intelligent species of Theaesta and Earth meet– they would recognize each other as intelligent? Of course we would be able to see that this planet is covered with microbes, but their intelligence would be invisible to us. All we would see is this remarkable ability to adapt to any environment by dumb creatures. Likewise, what Theaesta would likely see in humans– in all plants and animals perhaps– is nothing but frozen habitable space to move into. Having no science, Theaesta would not recognize high technology. SInce time for Theaesta would be orders of magnitude faster than ours, trying to determine the “activity” of human life would be like our looking at plate tectonics and trying to determine if the earth shows signs of life through geological movement. Communicating as it does largely by morphic resonance– of which humans are ignorant– they would not see any intelligent communication except perhaps in the animals, though even that would be so slow as to be probably undetectable by Theaesta.

I wonder if humans will one day look back on this period of our development with an amazement that we could be possessed of such hubris and anthropomorphism. Future humanity will of course have a much clearer picture of the state of reality (or at least our prejudices will have evolved) and will look back at we 21st century inhabitants as such primitive creatures to so believe that the world is as it appears at first glance. We formulate opinions and then they have to be wrested from us by force of proof of how silly our former beliefs were. But, unfortunate as that is, it is the way of things.


A team drills thousands of feet into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to reach a lake buried for millennia. By Douglas Fox, Discover Magazine, 2013

Feeding under the ice: mineral salts could serve as food for microbes.

New research suggests that  the collision of icy comets with our planet billions of years ago may have produced a 'cosmic factory' for early life on Earth.

By Amelia Pak-Harvey, Chiristian Science Monitor, September 16, 2013

By Freeman Dyson ,, Apr 15, 2014

Tim Holmes Studio
446 N. Hoback, Helena, MT 59601 USA

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Tim Holmes Studio

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I'm a sculptor/filmmaker living in Montana, USA. I am using art to move the evolution of humanity forward into an increasingly responsive, inclusive and interactive culture. As globalization flattens peoples into a capitalist monoculture I hope to use my art to celebrate historical cultural differences and imagine how we can co-create a rich future together.

I see myself as an artist/philosopher laboring deep in the mines of joy. I've had a good long career of exhibiting work around the world and working on international outreach projects, most notably being the first American to be invited to present a one-person exhibit in the Hermitage Museum. Recently I have turned my attention from simply making metal sculpture to creating films and workshops for engaging communities directly, tinkering with the very ideas and mechanisms behind cultural transformation. I feel that as we face tragic world crises, if the human species favors our imaginative and creative capacities we can cultivate a rich world to enjoy.

For me the deepest satisfaction in making art comes in engaging people's real life concerns rather than providing simple entertainment or decoration. Areas of conflict or tension are particularly ripe for the kind of transformative power that art uniquely carries. I invite any kind of challenge that serves people on a deep level.