I’m convinced that the first aliens we find will be bacteria…

Despite all kinds of speculation – both serious and in sci-fi – the scientific fact about alien life is that we haven’t actually found any yet. So if anybody asks whether it exists, all that can be said scientifically is ‘nobody knows’.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Life might well exist on Mars – as bacteria. But I think we’ll have to go there to find it. Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

That said, it’s highly likely that it does. There’s still a chance that we might find bacterial life even within our solar system – possibly underground on Mars, possibly beneath the frozen ice crust of Europa or Enceladus.

But if not in our own solar system, I’m sure there’s life elsewhere. Somewhere. It’s a big universe out there. That doesn’t mean I think every crackpot story about big-eyed, big-headed humanoids who’ve arrived to teach us A Better Way is true. On the contrary, all that stuff is made up by humans.

Trust me – if aliens arrived, we’d know. No mistake. No room for error. They also wouldn’t look anything like we ever imagine. They’re alien, remember.

So what would it look like? Hard to say – but my take is that, when we finally do get a proper data-set, we’ll probably find that about 99 percent of all the life in the universe consists of bacteria. Or maybe slime.

That, basically, is what life on Earth consisted of for much of its history. More complex organisms only appeared relatively late in the piece, after a ‘Snowball Earth’ episode. Late? Surely I mean ‘early’, when I’m talking about pre-Cambrian period.

No, it’s late. That happened just 600 million years ago. Earth’s been around for 4.5 billion.

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice what's wrong with it?
Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice what’s wrong with it?

And for the majority of that time, it seems, we had nothing more complex than basic bacteria, then single-celled life – plants. Algae. Pond scum, floating there in a hostile atmosphere – no oxygen – riven by volcanic activity.

Exactly why and how that exploded into the vast diversity of life found in the pre-Cambrian oceans is still debated among paleo-biologists. The ‘snowball Earth’ episode prior to that time has been a suspect. Nor do we know exactly what all of it consisted of.

What’s more, it wasn’t like modern life. Fossils from that period are rare – so rare and incomplete that we couldn’t even decide which way up one particular creature was meant to be. It was only after a ‘great death’ and the onset of the next geological age – the Cambrian – that anything approaching the body plan we all know emerged – you know, the one with a head at one end, tail at the other, and four limbs between.

This logic is what drove my picture of alien life in my novella ‘Missionary’, published in the Endless Worlds Vol. 1 compilation.

I figured that the explorers would find slime. Alien slime. Just like our slime, but floating around in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant planet orbiting inside the ‘Goldilocks’ zone of its star. And it comes with a twist. For that? Well, no spoilers here – you’ll need to read the story…obviously.

It’s on a price count-down this weekend – here.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


3 thoughts on “I’m convinced that the first aliens we find will be bacteria…

  1. As a kid, when scientists talked about finding life in the universe, I always thought they meant aliens. Years later, I realized they were including single-celled organisms and bacteria in their definition of “life” — and that those things were more likely what they were talking about, a bit of a let down. I’m very curious to see what other kinds of earth-like planets are found in our lifetimes.

    1. Me too. I think we’re not too far off finding some. We might have, already, except we can’t tell the difference at the moment between an ‘exo-Earth’ and an ‘exo-Venus’. I guess the arbiter will be the funding.

Comments are closed.