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The missing planets

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Chapter 2

May 22 Afternoon, 2081.

Second conference: Amédée Owamba, exobiologist, African Union.

Discovery of life on other planets.



There was still more excitement than in the morning. Amédée Owamba, dressed in his colorful African suit, was somewhat shy to start his conference. But everybody knew he was among the best specialists on the new discoveries on life. So everyone began to gently encourage him, thus just adding to his confusion.

«Hello, hello, dear contributors, dear representatives, hello.

-Do not eat the mike!» somebody with a strong African inflection shouted in the crowd.

The joke dissipated all shyness and everybody laugh, Amédée the first. Unclutching his palm computer, he began:

«Hey, hey, as you know, the quantum telescope allowed marvelous discoveries, that I must explain you now.

«The quantum telescope allowed to discover many planets, many more than we never expected to discover. There were millions of solar systems, and it is only a small part of all what is within reach today.

«We found all kinds of solar systems. Much of them were looking like ours, some were very different.

«You know that there are various kinds of stars, according to the period in which they formed. There are ancient stars, formed at the beginning of our galaxy, when there were few or no other stars to create metallic and stony elements. Thus these stars without many metallic or stony elements cannot form big rocky planets, and they have only small planets, which can hardly retain water and air. They often have only asteroids belts. Worse, these stars are old, and old stars are dwarf stars, which red light does not allow easily for photosynthesis. But we found some planets with life around such stars, and these planets are very interesting, as we can see here the result of a very long evolution.

«There are mean age stars, as our Sun, with more metallic and stony elements. They often display planetary systems as ours, and they supply the greatest part of inhabited planets. But it can happen that a giant planet as Jupiter had formed at the right distance to shelter life. In such case, life cannot appear there, but we found some examples of such super planets with moons where life appeared.

«There are also more recent stars, say less than one billion years, which formed from an interstellar matter much more enriched in stony or metallic elements. Such stars often have one or two gigantic planets, which forbidden the appearance of mean rocky planets as the Earth. It is such planets which were discovered at first in the 1990'. Life is less likely to appear in such systems, but there are some odd cases.

«What we soon discovered is that life is a much common phenomenon, which appears as soon as propitious conditions are gathered, generally some tens of millions years after the birth of a planet. May be one star over five lights a planet with at least some bacteria life, and one over 50 witness evolved animals and plants. Of course we also discovered some planets where the process had started but stopped for various causes: huge meteoritic impact, close supernova, change in orbit of the planet (this sometimes happens) or simply the cooling of the planet, when the heat of the sun is not enough to ensure a good temperature. The loss of atmosphere is also a very common cause, as it happened on Mars.

«On the other hand, we found some strange cases of life sheltered in much unexpected places, as on Europe, the Jovian moon, where life takes as a source of energy volcanic emanations in the obscure depths of Europe's ocean. But it seems that only sunlight with energetic enough wavelengths can lead to an evolved life, with plants and moving animals.

«We found planets with only bacteria or very small forms of life, and also some planets covered with forests were animals were living, and even some intermediate cases of bleak planets, but with a flourishing life in their oceans. This life simply did not yet colonized the solid ground.

«We attempted to reconstitute the evolution of life on some planets. It seems that when propitious conditions are gathered, life can evolve from primitive bacteria to complex organisms as on Earth, but it is a rather long process, with different steps requiring sometimes billions of years. It seems that taking steps in evolution is a random process, with some steps achieved very quickly, and other steps which can require billions of years. On Earth, the appearance of bacteria was short, and we found some very young planets (100, see only 10 millions years) with bacteria. The appearance of multicellular organisms is much longer, it required more than three billions years on Earth, and we found some much older stars where this step was not taken despite very favorable conditions.

«The first step toward life seems to be the appearance of vesicles, very small droplets of water surrounded with an oily skin, which allows to retain various organic materials. This oily skin is the ancestor or our today oily cell membranes. This is not life, but we found this even in some asteroids, and it is such structures that were observed in the Orgueil meteorite. The next step is the appearance of catalytic chemical reactions into the vesicles. Catalytic substances favouring the formation of the membranes and other organs, and it can appear situations in which catalytic substances help each other to form. Such self-building systems become far much more efficient into maintaining their structure. This is half life, as the reproduction of such entities can occur when the droplets become too large, and mechanically break into several, and are thus able to colonize large areas. There are already some enzymes able to transform raw materials into structural materials. Vesicles devoid of the good substances disappear, while the well equipped vesicles can endeavor and even flourish, already in a Darwinian-like selection. This kind of half-life seems very common, and we could obtain some close looks on it, with extra magnifying telescopes, looking toward close planets.

«But going further in evolution requires more time, and more accurate and stable conditions. Often the life experience stops, for such conditions disappear. Or the process does not have further evolution, as the conditions are too extreme. On Earth it seems that this further step required half a billion years, and we found times ranging from 100 million to 2 billions years.

«The next step is the appearance of structures encoding data on the chemical constitution of the vesicle. At this step, we can speak of cells, in place of vesicles, and it is really life. About data encoding systems, we immediately think to our DNA. It is difficult to make comparisons here, as we cannot observe what may be such structures, which can be very similar to our DNA, but which can be also very different. We found at least a strange case, where bacteria have to meet at several in order to reproduce. But we did found this only at the stage of bacteria. It is likely that further evolution converges toward a system where all the necessary genes are gathered into each individual organism, but we cannot do biochemistry with a quantum telescope and there is no evidence that these genetic systems look like our DNA.

«The next step is the longest, and on Earth it took more than three billions years. We never found any planet younger than two billions years engaged into this step, and we found many where seemingly all the conditions for it were present since five billions years and more, but where this step was not yet taken.

«This longest step is the appearance of organisms composed of several cells of different kinds: pluricellular organisms. This is for life a challenging breakthrough. Think that the DNA (or whatever plays its role) of a bacterium cell contains only the data for that cell. For a multicellular organism, it must also contain the data for all the types of cells, plus the overall structure of the organism, the communication systems, the growth organization versus time and space, feeding strategy, reproduction... and many other things that are absolutely not present in the genome of a simple bacterium. Thus the genome of the simplest multicellular organism is much larger than the genome of a bacterium.

«The appearance of multicellular organisms could require in fact several sub-steps. Soon may appear some means, for instance for the cells to stick together. This is common in our primitive mushrooms and yeasts, which even go further: such cells are able to exchange chemical messages triggering automated responses, allowing for a collective organized behavior. The second sub-step is taken when appear specialized cells, cells of different kinds. An individual cell can choose what kind it will be, according to chemical messages, and specialized structures can appear, leading to organic forms. It is the case of evolved mushrooms, and it is the explanation of why they can grow so quickly. Of course, several sets of genes must be present, one for each kind of cell, and must be activated separately to give each kind of cell. This activation of a set of gene can be reversible, or irreversible. The second system is less flexible, but only it allows for enough stability for the third step to take place. Really multicellular organisms with a body structure may appear only when appears a representation of this body structure in the genes structure. On Earth it is the HOX genes system, which is universal, and is expected to have appeared 600 millions years ago, in the depth of Earth oceans. The first discovered HOX system, in the 1990', is a chain of genes, each coding for a segment of the body, in the length axis.

«It is even likely than the information structure of the DNA allows for more or less flexibility. A rigid data structure for the genome can lead to further obstruction or dead end in the evolution. A more flexible data structure allows for more changes. This is the profound reason for what mammals won over the dinosaurs: the data representation of their brain in their genome was more likely to evolve than that of the dinosaurs. So it is understandable that each progress in life is irreversible, as it is a choice which forbids any other choice. Getting back is impossible, and a bad choice leading to a dead end cannot be corrected, unless some external cause makes disappear the wrongly evolved organisms and favours other opportunities. This happened on Earth with the dinosaurs, and also seems to have happened on other planets, so far as we can reconstitute their evolution.

«Many other steps are also necessary to lead to evolved animals: complex organs, blood, nervous system, muscles, etc.... But they can be taken in much less time. They are even mandatory, once achieved the main step of pluricellular organisms. On Earth to pass from the most primitive pluricellular organisms to the most evolved mammals required only half a billion years, and very similar times are found on other planets.

«Some other steps are also necessary for the appearance of an evolved life. A major step is the photosynthesis, the capacity to use solar power, much more abundant and efficient than the sulphur emanations of volcanoes. This step alone can ensure that life effectively colonizes all the available surface, in place of keeping itself hidden into only some small oasis around volcanic springs. This step is also a major step for animals, as they can use oxygen, the only energy source allowing efficient muscles, movement, and complex nervous system.

«This step of photosynthesis does not enter in the evolution scheme evoked above, and it can be passed before (as on Earth) or after the step of multicellular organisms. But it is however necessary to obtain evolved animals with a brain.

«As you all knew, we did not yet discovered any really intelligent form of life, comparable to mankind. The most evolved we found were animals having some kind of hands or reasoning capacities, like on Earth with the monkeys, some millions years ago. Maybe such a life may evolve toward intelligence as mankind did, in only some million years.

«At the beginning we simply thought we were unlucky in our search. But while data was accumulating, we had to admit the fact: mankind is very probably alone in all this part of the galaxy, and perhaps in all the galaxy. At least chances to find our match in this galaxy become increasingly low, and our first samples of neighboring galaxies are not encouraging. Such a state of facts of course explained the complete failure of the search for radio emission by extraterrestrials, such as the historical SETI project. But to actually affirm that there are no other civilizations in our galaxy will still need years of tedious checking of all the planets.

«Of course, it was a deception. And even a big one, for some of us. Some were demobilized, and there was even less funding for exobiology. This seemed to make true all the pessimistic theories on the evolution of life and intelligence, stating that intelligent life is only a very rare chance, or that it can only destroy itself once appeared. We ourselves, on Earth, escaped a hair width of destruction by greenhouse effect, release of oceanic chlatrates, nuclear industry, artificial genes spreading, POPs, deforestation, and we have to bear many irreversible destructions and dangers from the barbarian 20th Century. There was even, following our discovery, a world wide kind of moral crisis, with a come back of some fascist ideologies: racism, punk, antisocial egocentricity, puritanism/pornography and the like.

«We however continued our searches.

«An important factor, which does not appear in the Drake's formula, is that the appearance of a stable long-during civilization requires time. There is plenty of time in the cosmos, but there are also plenty of causes for stopping the life experience on a planet.

«At first, some stars have a short time span. If we had Sirius as a star, in place of our sun, we should be right now experiencing this star dying and expanding, and the Earth becoming a blazing hell. Brighter stars are even more short living, and we could expect to find there only bacteria. Sub-dwarf stars as our sun, or still smaller stars, have life span ranging from ten billion years to sixty billions or more. Only there we can expect to find evolved life. Very small stars have reddish light which makes photosynthesis more difficult. For lack of oxygen, the life evolution remains blocked at the stage of bacteria, at best of some primitive multicellular organisms. Only sub-dwarf stars really allow for evolved life and civilization, and they are only 10 to 15 percent of the total star population.

«Some solar systems can be unstable, from the presence of a close companion star, or of big planets. It may happen that the orbit of a planet is shifted progressively, or that a planet is suddenly ejected from its orbit. In this case, life disappears. More rarely, on the contrary, favorable conditions appear, and we found some cases like this.

«The planet itself can play some tricks. Too small, and it looses its atmosphere, as on Mars. Too close to the sun, and greenhouse effect races out, as on Venus. Too big, and the atmosphere is too thick, not allowing for the self-regulation of greenhouse effect which takes place on Earth. Large volcanoes can play tricks, in changing climate or destroying an unique place with favorable conditions.

«Glaciations can also be a cause for life to disappear. Basically, glaciations are due to instabilities in a planet orbit, caused by big planets like Jupiter, and damped by the presence of a big satellite like the Moon. In some systems, these instabilities are too strong, especially in close double star systems, which seldom shelter life. There is also a significant advantage to planets with a big Moon, which more often shelter life. But glaciations are often enhanced or damped by geographic conditions on the planet itself. On Earth, the recent ice ages triggered changes in North Atlantic currents pattern and water flow pattern in North America, which multiplied by two or three the effect of Earth orbit instabilities. Our today civilization could withstand a new ice age, but not a giant volcano responsible of a ten years winter. Mankind could even not survive the incredible climate changes which took place about 600 millions years ago, when the continents were all gathered along the equator, lefting room for two huge polar oceans. This situation allowed for the Earth to freeze entirely at -50°C in some years, only to, some thousands years later, suddenly unfreeze at +50°C. Fortunately, at that time life was only present in the depths of the oceans, and it survived. Should such a thing happen today, and only worms could survive.

«But space encounters are also a very common cause for life to disappear. We immediately think to the meteorites, the one which killed the dinosaurs 64 millions years ago, or the deadly chain of meteorites which, 250 millions years ago, bombed the Earth with ten 200km craters in only one minute, destroying many forms of life at that time. The evolution of life on Earth is punctuated with such catastrophes, which each time just missed to eliminate life. It is very likely that on many other planets it was not a miss.

«Neighboring stars can also be very dangerous. A supernova exploding in the vicinity of Earth could completely sterilize it with nuclear radiations or heat. A close encounter with another star could eject Earth from its orbit. Some places in a galaxy are thus very hostile to life. In the center of a dense globular star cluster, most of the planets are ejected and freely wander in the dark space. Life can only survive there at the stage of bacteria inhabiting volcanic springs. In the center of a galaxy, there are many supernovas, nuclear radiations and relativistic particle jets, star encounters and even star collisions, not to speak of wandering giant black holes which destroy everything on their way, in their salvage dance around the center of a galaxy. Far from this hell, the galactic suburbs with their huge populations of scattered old stars are much quieter places, and as a matter of fact it is here that we found the most inhabited and evolved planets.

«The effect of planetary or stellar catastrophes must be accounted in the estimation of the number of stars with evolved life, and we really found a clear decrease of the number of stars with the increasing evolution of life, explaining that stars with bacteria are many, and stars with animals are less. But this decrease rate varies widely with the place in the galaxy, and it still allows for the appearance of many civilizations in the most propitious places, and even in our neighboring.

«So, despite all these obstacles and traps, we should find in our galaxy thousands, see millions of planets having reached the state of civilization. But we must now account with the ability of these civilizations to survive with time. If they last long, we should really find thousands or millions. If they last only some thousands years, like us, they can be only a handful at a given moment in our galaxy. But the ability of civilizations to last in time is a matter of psychology and philosophy. Many pessimistic thinkers abruptly stated that any civilization like ours can only destroy itself, from egocentricity, violence and lack of environment awareness, so what we can find none. On the other hand, optimistic thinkers state that intelligence and good heart will triumph of all the dangers, so that, beyond a certain stage in wisdom, a civilization becomes eternal, unless some natural cause puts an end to it. In this case, civilizations would be millions, and we could not miss them. So observation seems to confirm the pessimistic view, but it is impossible to make a real estimate of this.

«To fix this issue we searched for remnants of such ruined planets. If all the civilizations were self-destroyed, such remnants should be hundred of millions in our galaxy, and thus easy to find, on close enough stars.

«We searched for old enough stars with well placed planets. Planets which were first excluded from our observations, as lifeless. But we examined a large enough sample. And we found the ruins of an apparently self-destroyed civilization. A greenhouse burned planet, any erosion stopped, shrouded in an heavy sulphuric acid cloud, where ruins of mountain-size huge buildings were found, dating more than 400 million years old, together with other smaller ruins on another bleak planet of this system, proving that this civilization knew an age space as ours. Although it was not sure that this civilization was effectively self-destroyed, this discovery was considered by the pessimistics as the proof that ALL the civilizations automatically self-destroy, and this started much more social troubles, the most serious since the ecology wars of the first half of the century. But also another more realistic view arose: there was only ONE dead planet found, when thousands were expected from the pessimistic view. More, it was thus proven possible than another human-like technological civilization could appear, and perhaps still exists somewhere. But we wondered why there were only two in a galaxy where animal inhabited planets accounted by millions. Only one thing was now sure, they did not disappeared from self-destruction. The matter was settled for the scientists, but this did not stop the social troubles and political setbacks.

«Aware of this mystery, but without any idea of where to search the solution, we however continued our statistical study of the various forms of life we encountered.

«The statistical ideas exposed above about the time required to effectively achieve a given step of evolution were systematically exploited. We build with computers various diagrams, according to the different evolutionary paths life could use. We had enough data from observations to fix a statistical duration for each step. So we were soon able to build an unique diagram showing the probability of having such or such step of evolution, as a function of time, on about ten billions years.

«And then we tried to extrapolate the diagram until the appearance of intelligence. We had no direct statistical data for the time required to pass from evolved animal life (for instance mammals) to intelligent life (for instance humans). The only value we knew, Earth, was quite short, thirty million years. We were perhaps extremely lucky, the required time being usually very long.

«To fix this issue, we measured the time elapsed from the appearance of evolved animals to present, in a large sample of planets. This time was short, statistically. So we could validly assess that the time required to pass from evolved animals to intelligent creatures was relatively short, 10 to 100 millions years, nothing in the life span of a star. We even discovered that in fact this process was already engaged in half of the animal inhabited planets, and even prettily advanced in some cases, this making the shortness of the time very sure.

«And we actuated our overall diagram with this new measured value.

«The statistical diagram was eloquent: the civilizations must be hundred of thousands in a galaxy like ours. And we knew only two.

«But it was now quite clear that the diagram is truncated, as you can now see on the picture.

«When the overall curve grows smoothly with the course of evolution, it suddenly flattens at the moment where civilization is expected to develop.

«As if something was making civilizations to disappear without trace as soon as they appear.

«As you know, this new somewhat released the social tense. It was getting clear that the lack of other civilizations in space was not due to the weakness of their chance to appear, neither to their self-destruction (even if by the time we found some other ruined civilizations, the chances for self-destruction were in fact very weak) but to an important event preventing them to last in time. We clearly had to admit that they DISAPPEAR WITHOUT TRACE AS SOON AS CREATED, in so short a time that it is just like a lightning: even under a heavy storm, we should be very lucky to catch one in just an eye blinking. It was the only way to explain the truncated diagram and the quasi-absence of ruins.

«This is the mystery.

«I have my own idea about this, that I may tell later, when I shall have gathered enough evidences.

«But there was very recent breakthrough about this, this year. Some scientists already know this, and it is now the time for the public announcement. But we have still another very new and still stranger discovery, that only very few of us already know, which could explain all the mystery.

«Thank you for hearing.

«Have a good fun tonight! »


Even this last joke did not break the profound silence in the hall.

Everybody was puzzled, even if this speech was already known. There was a tremendous mystery, that all of them named the Missing Planets issue: simply, evolved civilizations disappear without traces. And the general social tense about the lack of extraterrestrial life recently changed into a great expectation: where are the missing planets gone?


Steve Jason felt all the looks upon him. Tomorrow it would be his turn to climb on the tribune to explain the recent discoveries. But there was something still more mysterious, and he waved his way in the crowd to find a place in the restaurant, near his friend Jean Delcourt.


He found him, discussing with Sangye Tcheugyal, Liu Wang hearing them. Jean and Tcheugyal politely stopped their discussion and welcomed Steve. But Steve noted the e-book disappearing in the folds of Tcheugyal's robe.

«Hello, Steve, made Jean. I found useful to show some of our results to Tcheugyal. He may help very much to solve the mystery, for he is well educated in the domain of high esotericism and Tantras. He may interpret some things we discovered.»

Steve was much astonished. He perfectly knew that the general decline of the traditional religious beliefs in the 20th Century slowly but surely reversed in the 21st, with the study of various profound esoteric and psychological teachings of Eastern countries, which even helped to rejuvenate the weakened Western traditions.

He also perfectly knew that there was a slowly growing but effective official tolerance toward the fields of spirituality and of powers of the mind over matter, even if there was still no academic recognition.

He also knew that Tibetan masters had some strange and advanced knowledge in these domains. Sangye Tcheugyal was a teacher and researcher in the Zambu Shedrup Ling University in Lhassa, and a master of meditation in the neighboring monastery of Sera, and he even founded his own retreat center near the submillimeter observatory in the Amnye Machen Mountains. There was only one road leading at both, and the retreatants passing by could not miss the overwhelming view of the huge and gracious white parabolas glittering in the snow, while scientists and technicians could not ignore the entrance of the forbidden road, surrounded by the statues of the four ferocious guardians, leading to the hidden retreat valley nestling among gentle round-shaped mountains.

But for a physicist like Steve, the study of spirituality is not his usual concern, and no Tibetan master ever attempted to change his mind. Even if there was more and more scientists of every field involved in various spiritual paths or researches, there was still many scientists like him thinking that science and esotericism are two separate things, and only involving into the first. But to see one of the greatest scientists requesting a spiritual advice into his own physics field was somewhat puzzling. Steve suddenly felt that something was about to occur. But he could not wonder what.

«Please let us go to the restaurant before it closes» simply answered Tcheugyal with a gentle smile. Maybe this is Tibetan wisdom, though Steve, what they call: Non-action. Doing only what is necessary to do in the situation...



The missing planets

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