Friday, May 22, 2020

Loren Eiseley and the Fifth Planet

I here continue to write about Loren Eiseley.

One of the finest pieces of nature writing was Eiseley’s essay, The Fifth Planet. Here is the idea. The asteroid belt used to be a planet, between Mars and Jupiter, a planet usually called Phaeton, that was somehow pulverized. Not being an astronomer, I have no idea if this idea is still taken seriously, though online sources dismiss this theory. But it would explain why meteorites, many of which are stray asteroids, are either metallic, like a planet’s core, or volcanic, like a planet’s surface.

But one astronomer, named Williams, took this theory even further. He believed that this planet would not only have had a core and a volcanic surface but would have had sedimentary rocks and maybe fossils. That is, he believed that a meteorite might fall sometime which contained a fossil bone. He was, therefore, an astronomical bone hunter. Most astronomers dismissed him. After all, on Earth, only an infinitesimally small portion of the rock is sedimentary. To find a meteorite with sedimentary rock, one would have to examine perhaps trillions of meteorites. Williams’s response: let’s get started. And to do so, Williams recruited as many citizen-scientists as possible, to track down these meteorites.

His passion went further. Williams thought that, if the vanished planet had life, then life must be almost everywhere in the universe. This would change our whole view of reality. It would mean that we do not live in a lonely universe.

Eiseley centered his essay on the fate of a rural sheep farmer, one of the citizen-scientists Williams recruited. The dry western deserts and grasslands are among the best places to see and locate meteorites in North America. The farmer absorbed the passion and made it his own. He gathered every bit of information he could about meteorites, filling his farmhouse with disorganized sheets of paper. But he eventually gave up the vision and burned his papers. Perhaps part of the reason was that he finally realized how great the odds were against finding an extraterrestrial bone fossil. But it was also the fact that the nuclear age destroyed his optimism about life in general.

Had Eiseley, or Williams, or the farmer, known about the Mars meteorite discovered in 1984 in Antarctica, and studied a few years later, they might have had more, or less, confidence in extraterrestrial life. The ALH84001 meteorite contained structures that might have been what on Earth would be called bacteria. Life, but not bones. Perhaps, then, complex life is vanishingly rare in the universe, even if there are bacteria-like forms all over the place. Perhaps Simon Conway Morris was right about evolution producing “inevitable humans in a lonely universe”.

This essay was one of the best pieces of science writing largely because it began and ended with the life of the rural farmer, who embraced a theory then had to dismally surrender it. The essay was not about the vanished planet, or the astronomer. It was about an ordinary man to whom science could be a source of inspiration and of pessimism. Readers want to read about the human side of science. As a science writer, I have to keep this in mind.

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