One of the great things about teaching the Planets part of Imperial’s Sun Stars and Planets course is that it gives me an excuse to read scientific reports I would be reading anyway from the science fictional perspective. But the way stories have come out over the last several weeks that have been so well timed for lectures I’m delivering has been more than a little uncanny.
Before I started we had, of course, the landing of Curiosity on Mars, Messenger’s results from Mercury and Dawn’s results from the asteroid belt. Then, just before I started the course, the possibility of two naked eye comets this year emerged. And once I started we had the Russian meteor, and a few days ago a report about the nature of supermassive planet cores around evolved stars, suggesting that they are the remains of evaporated gas giants.
It seems that suboceanic basalt, a layer several kilometres thick and covering 60% of the planet, may contain a large number of chemosynthetic bacteria using hydrogen, carbon dioxide and reactions with iron to produce their energy, rather than any of this new fangled photosynthesis stuff. This suboceanic biosphere could be bigger than the biosphere we know on the surface.
The science fictional connections are obvious – the ‘shadow biosphere’ discussed in novels by people like Peter Watts – comes a step closer.
And of course with the company I keep the first comment I hear when I mention this is ‘are you sure they’re not shoggoths’?