Mar 072011

Evidence of Life, by Richard Farrell

Micrograph of “Alien”

I recently read about a scientist who claims to have found evidence of extra-terrestrial life inside a meteorite.  Not the bulbous-headed, green-skinned Martian type, but simple life, unicellular remains of bacteria trapped inside the deepest pockets of a four-billion-year-old meteorite. Accompanying the article was a micrograph of a ghostly white, worm-shaped thing, two microns long, ‘floating’ in a cave of spongy space rock. The scientific community remains appropriately skeptical, demanding more evidence, expecting this claim to be debunked under the scrutiny of peer review and more plausible explanations.  It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that earth bacteria simply slid inside the meteorite long after it landed on our planet. But if it turns out the other way, if this bacterium is one day confirmed to be from a place other than our own world, it should shake us up.  It should erase long-held perceptions about our sense of privilege and uniqueness, and it should quell the uneasy loneliness we feel when we stare off into the vast universe.

I doubt, however, that it would do much of anything. We, as a species, would probably be far too busy with mundane things to notice or appreciate the sublime.

My mother is having her gallbladder removed today at a hospital some three-thousand miles away from where I live.  I worry about her in the silence of my California home as I sit here thinking about extra-terrestrial microbes.  Memories come back to me, in the shape of broken bones, sore throats, scraped knees and a mother’s healing touch.  And though gallbladder surgery is routine, and at sixty-four my mother’s health remains good, the cascading nature of growing old must weigh heavy on her.  How many organs can be safely removed?  How much surgical trauma can the body withstand?

I like to imagine we humans retain a burrower’s gene, some long-lost prairie dog instinct spliced onto our twelfth chromosome, right next to the gene for opposable thumbs or back hair.  For even after thousands of years of civilization, we still sift through the past as if it contains answers.  We dream of dinosaurs, ancient kingdoms and long-lost ancestors, archaeologists all of us, in one way or another.  We remain yearning creatures, hell-bent on digging our way out of loneliness, determined to find even the faintest pulse of another life buried beneath the rubble of time and space before we do indeed shuffle off this mortal coil. Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe it wouldn’t matter one damn bit if life existed on places other than earth.  But can anyone deny the thrill of the search?

I worry about my parents now.  Only twenty-three years my senior, the snapshots of their health are like a coming attractions reel for me: my mother’s surgery, my father’s recurrent prostate cancer and heart trouble. I feel the pull of time, too.  I pre-vision my body turning brittle, bones thinning out, organs misfiring, the pieces crumbling due to time, a process already well underway in the invisible cellular forces pulling me towards silence. The inevitability of degeneration.  I wonder, sometimes, how we persevere in the face of it all.

Those scientists searching for evidence of bacterial life in meteors must spend a lot of time with their hats in their hands, probably avoiding class reunions and UFO conventions with equal dexterity. I think about those men and women with awe, highly trained physicists and biologists who toiled in graduate schools along the Charles River, but now spend their careers sifting through space rubble, scouring cosmic dust with patched-together grants in a desperate search for microscopic evidence of life from outer space. It’s hard not to ask myself why they care so much, why they scrounge up dollars and lab spaces from fringe organizations while their Harvard classmates rake in the big bucks working for drug companies and defense contractors.

This morning, I overhear a conversation between my daughter and a little girl while they wait for their carpool ride.  It’s about birthday parties. My daughter is not being invited to the little girl’s party. Names are given–names of the invited girls. I don’t know the reason for any of this, nor why my nine-year-old has been left out. She pretends not to care, but it must sting.  Still, it’s not the sadness of being left out that gets to me, not the hurt feelings of rejection and confusion that linger after the girls climb into the minivan and head off to fourth grade.  It’s important that my daughter learn some of life’s hard lessons.  What bothers me is the telling. One child’s need to point out the snub, her need to belittle, to isolate, to marginalize. It’s the nature of kids, mine included, that a thin layer of cruelty exists below the innocent surface. Something that makes one want to hurt another.  It must be empowering in a way. How this relates to gallbladders or cosmic life forms I can’t honestly say.  But it seems to fit my mood.

The moments I most regret in my life are the ones where I was cruel toward other people.

Would it matter much if we found space bugs?  Would we lift our eyes heavenward more often, knowing that something existed beyond the boundaries of earth?  I suspect not. We’ll probably need the little green men to land before we’ll take notice.  Archaeological bacteria won’t cut it in our sophisticated times.

I’m out walking my dog when the ‘all-clear’ comes, a terse message on my phone from my mom’s husband.  The operation is over.  My mom will be going home soon.  All is well. And this of course comforts me, makes me relieved, desperate contingencies avoided.  But the lingering effect is one of wonder, maybe even resignation, that the worst outcome is only delayed, never avoided.  Of course I’ll happily take the delay.

I’ll pick up my kids in a few hours from school and ask my daughter about what happened this morning. I’ll try to patch whatever wounds were opened and try to explain to her that life, even in its worst moments, is far less limiting than she imagines. She’ll make a card for her grandmother and put it in the mail.  They share a close bond, my mother and my daughter.

Perhaps I’ll take her outside tonight, if the rain stops and the clouds part.  I’ll try to show her the Milky Way, try to explain to her how that gossamer web stretching out across the night sky like paint strokes of the gods is actually light from billions of suns.  And that around some of those suns are planets.  And how on some of those planets, there is surely life.

–Rich Farrell

  5 Responses to “Evidence of Life: Essay — Richard Farrell”

  1. This is beautiful, Rich. I love how you weave together your mom’s surgery, the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life and the cruelty of your daughter’s friend, how everything pivots around our human need for connection.

  2. I. Loved. This.
    I, too, was excited and maybe even giddy to learn about the (possibly) extra-terrestrial bacteria–a bacteria on a meteorite is just so microcosm-macrocosm, right? wow.
    Glad your mom made it through surgery okay, and sorry that your daughter was excluded from the party. I’m glad, though, that they two have each other.

  3. (Late getting to things.) Very, very nice, Rich. Keep brooding, keep exploring.

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