In 1961, Polish Soviet science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem's dark novel "Solaris" took the Iron Curtain by storm. "Solaris" has since been hailed as an international classic of the SF genre. "Solaris" exists in English translation along with two motion pictures inspired by it-a low budget 1972 Russian version and a moody 2002 American edition.
The basic speculative science undergirding Lem's tale is the existence of a sentient, organic ocean covering a distant planet called Solaris; the planet is located hundreds of light years from the Earth and requires months of deep space travel to transit.
The radical notion that entire planets can be giant organisms originated with Lem, and not-as is often quoted in the popular literature-with the controversial Gaia hypothesis. The hypothesis was an early 1970s notion that gave rise to much of the environmental movement's philosophical underpinnings.
Lem's fiction presents an intriguing intellectual idea: can entire planets be alive? And if so, can some of them be intelligent? The idea makes good science fiction, but it really doesn't have much traction in planetary science. For the moment, there is scant scientific evidence for organisms the size of planets (or planets that are organisms).
Bioresearcher Dr. James Lovelock is credited for coming up with the idea that Earth is a single organism while working for NASA in the search for life on Mars during the agency's Gulliver, later Viking, days of the 1960s. Later, Lovelock's book "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" popularized the idea and captured the imagination of New Age gurus and radical environmentalists.
Lovelock looked at the Earth holistically and concluded that our planet is a giant, self-regulating living system-a single, planetary lifeform. Few respectable space scientists bought into the Gaia hypothesis then-or now. They often chided Lovelock for using the name of Gaia, the ancient pagan Greek mother-goddess.
Canadian biochemist Dr. W. Ford Doolittle became one of Gaia's loudest critics. He believes that there is nothing in our terrestrial "genome pool" which could trigger the bio-eco feedback mechanisms Lovelock described. And Doolittle wasn't to remain Gaia's only critic. Many derided the hypothesis as "an unscientific theory of a maternal type".
British biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins loudly complained that Gaia was bunk, too. Dawkins remains a controversial figure; he is an outspoken critic of Gaia, the Intelligent Design movement, and the pseudosciences.
"Organisms cannot act in concert as this would require foresight and planning from them," Dawkins said of the Gaia hypothesis. "There was no way for evolution by natural selection to lead to altruism on a global scale."
Even paleontologist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould criticized Gaia as being "nothing more than a metaphorical description (for Earth's biosphere)."
Lem's imaginary planetwide ocean is intelligent and composed of strange, seminal organic colloids; it is the source of the various ghostlike human appearances aboard the Solaris space station (the dead girlfriend of the novel's central character, Kris Kelvin, appears in-the-flesh to haunt him; the resurrected woman's death back on Earth was blamed on Kelvin). It is impossible for Lem's cosmonaut characters to understand what the Solaris organism is communicating. Ultimately, the author presents a bleak view of communications between alien species.
Regarding Lovelock's Gaia: it's a zoomorphic idea that we don't see many mainstream geologists embracing for obvious reasons. Except for fragile living things, at or below the surface, terrestrial worlds such as Earth are just lumps composed of various rocks and minerals, fluids, gases and ice(s)-inanimate planetary bodies. In Earth's case, it consists largely of magnesium-iron based minerals such as olivine: (Mg,Fe)2 SiO4. Any self awareness involved is likely to be at the handle end of a rock hammer.
What's in the Sky: This weekend look to the northwest for the Milky Way's anticenter just before sunrise; it is located about 3.5 degrees east of Beta Aurigae. This marks the opposite location of our galactic core. Open star clusters M36, M37 and M38 are visible in binoculars this week. This week's sky map is courtesy of amateur astronomer J. Kirk Edwards.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. He is involved with the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program.