When I was a child, my favorite tv show was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Although the good doctor’s naïveté about cold war politics sometimes dismayed my realpolitik-minded parents, the amazing breadth of his show’s exploration of the natural world–and the wider universe beyond–was a wonder to me. For the first time I was introduced to quasars, pulsars, and stellar aging. From Sagan’s delightfully filmed documentary, I learned about Kepler, the Kreb’s cycle, DNA pair sequencing, and the great library of Alexandria. The eclectic scope of Cosmos was a direct inspiration for this blog (although I can hardly claim to be such a polymath). Hopefully the new Cosmos–with a new science hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson–will inspire today’s generation of children to look beyond sports and the internet up to the soaring science of the firmament!
My very favorite segment of Cosmos however, did not involve real science at all, but rather airy speculation about extraterrestrial life on a gas giant planet. Carl Sagan, his physicist colleague, E. E. Saltpeter, and the space artist, Adolf Schaller, worked together to imagine a floating ecosystem which might exist on a planet such as Jupiter. In the tempestuous atmosphere of such a world, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water are violently stirred together to form organic molecules. Small drifting organisms might feed on these compounds and reproduce as lighter spores before air currents bear them down to their doom (in a cycle reminiscent of phytoplankton). Giant floating life-forms like living hot-air balloons would stay in the habitable zone of the atmosphere by photosynthesis or by grazing on the microscopic “plankton”. These beings could be kilometers in diameter and would congregate in vast aerial schools. Sagan and Saltpeter even envisioned jet-propulsion super predators which would blast through the alien skies feeding on the huge clouds of “floaters”.
It is a tremendously compelling vision! Now, whenever NASA or ESA releases a new list of exoplanets, I pause to wonder whether such alien creatures are actually found floating on the super-Jupiters and strange giant worlds which orbit far-off stars. However today I would like to present an even more fantastic vision—and one which humankind could actually create! By combining Sagan’s imaginary vision with contemporary aerospace and biotech research, it is possible to visualize my own fantasy of human colonization of Venus…or even upon other worlds with complex atmospheres.
Just this year, two aeronautical engineers, Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress, crafted an ornithopter based on the swimming motion of a jellyfish. The tiny mechanism relies on four teardrop-shaped wings oriented around a dome-like apex to achieve stable, directed flight. At the same time a new array of futuristic blimps, zeppelins and dirigibles are being brought to market to transform the skies of earth. Most importantly Craig Ventner, the bioengineer-entrepreneur, is out there sampling the esoteric genetics of the deep ocean and forging ahead with synthetic genomics (which is to say he is building new living things from scratch). In our lifetime someone will figure out how to meld Ventner’s synthetic organisms with the advanced engineering and technology which are the hallmark of our age. The possibilities then grow exponentially out of this world.
Imagine if the floating ecosphere invented by Sagan and Saltpeter were instead a floating society-economy based on advanced engineering and bioengineering. There would be levitating cities which are also bioengineered life-forms (like the vast balloon beings of Sagan’s invention). Between these cloud cities would fly flocks of tiny ornithopters that would gather resources for further farming/engineering.
Jet propelled aircrafts and super habitats would zip between the living arcologies. Armored crawlers would inch through the deeper layers of atmosphere or creep along the molten pressurized ground. Eventually there might be flying bio-colonies which self arrange out of many highly specialized flying zooids—like the siphonophores which are so prevalent in our oceans! These collective entities would act as sky factories to build an ever more symbiotic and efficient synthetic ecosystem. Humankind, living things, and technology would no longer be at odds but would grow together to form the ideal world of tomorrow. Life, beautiful and united would expand to new planets and develop into a stronger, brighter presence in the cosmos.