Radiation-Based Biology?

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Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Ormurinn » Tue Feb 12, 2013 12:27 pm UTC

Hey all.

I've had a concept for a science-fiction story bouncing around in my head for a while, and was wondering about the feasibility of one of the central concepts, that is, life evolving on a radioactive-material rich but solar-radiation poor world, in which most life is sustained by internal nuclear reactions, whether internal fission (impossible as far as i'm aware) or some sort of biological direct radiation to electrical conversion of the kind used in satellites (the name escapes me.)

How big/complex is life of this sort likely to become, if it is possible (assuming the producer role in the ecosystem is taken by radiotrophes)?

On a related note, are there any bodies in our solar system with sufficient radioactive materials for this form of life to be viable?
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Feb 12, 2013 1:23 pm UTC

Depending on how handwavy you're willing to get, it could get as big as you want it. Keep in mind a planet with lots of surface radioactivity is either going to be terribly massive, volcanically inert, or a moonlet.

Read up on how this organism does it. And mind you, by 'does it', I mean 'survives', not 'utilizes radioactivity'. I think your best bet is an organism that uses the heat from decaying materials, not something that captures escaping particles.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Ormurinn » Tue Feb 12, 2013 1:52 pm UTC

I was hoping to have these buggers evolve on one of the gas-giant moons or an outer system body. Would any be remotely suitable? Why does a planet with a lot of surface radioactivity necessarily have those qualities? I thought the biggest determinant of the number of heavy elements would be the stellar generation the planets involved came from.

Thanks for the link on radiodurans. I'm willing to get pretty handwavy - the human POV will be late 19th - early 20th century, so there will be plenty of stuff the humans of the time won't understand. I'm mainly asking about this out of personal curiosity.

Whatever life evolves I'd like to be advanced enough to build small orion-style spacecraft, so thats the complexity constraint for these guys.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Feb 12, 2013 2:23 pm UTC

Well remember, heavier materials will sink into the forming celestial body; Earths crust is pretty poor for heavier materials compared to Earths core. I suggested a moonlet because it seems plausible to my non-Astronomy educated grasp of things that a planet, like Earth, could have been struck with a larger object, and the resultant, heavy debris gathered around another gas giant in a collection of moonlets.

Honestly, someone else would be better off chiming in with this part of the scenario.

If you're hoping for intelligent, technological using life, you're going to run into two issues, I would say; firstly, an organism that derives energy directly from radioactive materials to me sounds like a primary producer, and the likelihood of intelligence and tool use developing in plants seems pretty low to me. Your ecosystem might, instead, utilize radioactive materials in the primary producers (the plant like things), have herbivores, and also have predators on those herbivores. The predators or MAYBE the herbivores developing said technology makes a little more sense to me.

My second issue is somewhat eliminated depending on the distribution of said radioactive materials. If the planetoid is uniformly just a blob of concentrated heavy materials, any intelligent life that develops on it is going to be very very careful about nuclear technology development. If the distribution of the planets heavy materials is a bit more random, than you're ok, both, I think, in terms of storytelling and practicality.

An oasis of uranium sands in the midst of the mercury oxide desert could be teeming with life.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby idobox » Tue Feb 12, 2013 3:06 pm UTC

Not exactly internal fission, but these guys feed on gamma rays.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiotrophic_fungus

As said, heavy materials sink, so an Earth like planet is unlikely to have large amounts of Uranium on the surface. There might be other plausible sources of radiation, but I can't think of any. A very radioactive planet would have a lot of heat, hence a lot of volcanism.

Possibilities to explain a highly radioactive planet:
-the concentration of Uranium was so high in the nebula that even if a lot sank, there's still plenty on the surface. Big issue, the planet is now a giant reactor/bomb.
-A variation of the previous. Pockets of uranium form deep in the mantel, cause supercritical, and the heat causes the equivalent of a hot spot, with radioactive volcanism. Seems pretty far fetched.
-the planet is small enough for a significant quantity of U to be accessible. If it is small enough, it could have solidified before all the U had time to sink
-the planet was dusted by meteoritic U. Since the U arrived after the crust formed, it could not sink. Another planet being destroyed could be a good source.
-The planet is radioactive because of a (previous?) civilization playing with nukes or using it as a dump.

I also remember a short story by, I think, Asimov, was about life forms living of Uranium in asteroids.

Photographs are quite dumb because they have a low power density, and can't do much with it. Radiotrophs with a proper cooling system might have a better energy density, I'm not sure.

biological direct radiation to electrical conversion of the kind used in satellites (the name escapes me.)

There are two things. Betavoltaic and alphavoltaic batteries use charged radiation to charge a capacitor to a few hundreds kilovolts. Not very efficient and needs vaccum.
The thing used in satellites is a RTg, radiothermal generator. Radiocative stuff is hot, and if you surround it with something heavy, like lead or water, radiation is turned into heat. Glue a few Seebeck effect elements (essentially diodes), and you get current. Biological systems might use the temperature gradient differently though, but that will require some inventive biochemistry.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Feb 12, 2013 3:42 pm UTC

idobox wrote:Not exactly internal fission, but these guys feed on gamma rays.

I've never heard of those guys, and that is ridiculously crazy. Yeesh.

idobox wrote:The planet is radioactive because of a (previous?) civilization playing with nukes or using it as a dump.

This also has a kind of warning message poetry to it I like.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby thoughtfully » Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:55 pm UTC

Billions of years ago, the relative abundances of Uranium isotopes was quite different, with a higher abundance of U235. At least one naturally occurrining reactor site is known:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_nu ... on_reactor

So it's not without precedent,. but making a sustained energy source out of it seems a bit unlikely. But conceivable :)
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby ImagingGeek » Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:58 pm UTC

In theory, any alpha, beta or gamma emitter could be used as an energy source, so long as there is a way to convert their energy into useable chemical energy. The gamma-eater example has already been shown; some beta's are electrons and thus could be used straight-up as a source of free electrons (note: many energy-generating processes - i.e. photosynthesis, krebs cycle - generate energy via electron transfer). Alphas could be used as potent electron acceptors, etc.

The bigger issues I can see are two-fold; firstly, you need a way to harness that energy while avoiding all of the damage it can do to an organism. I'm not sure how you achieve that, especially for higher-energy gammas or betas (weaker ones could be absorbed on "shielding" surfaces, with the rest of the biology behind the "shield"). The second issue is energy density - by default, any potent source of radiation will be a short-lived source (i.e. have a short half-life), while long-lived sources will release small amounts of energy per unit mass (i.e. long half-life). I'm not sure how you'd calculate it, but I'm not certain you could have a radioactive enough substance that would then last long enough for life to evolve.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Ormurinn » Wed Feb 13, 2013 2:22 pm UTC

Ok, timeline I'm currently working on:

600 MYA - Large, Fission-powered von-neumann probes of unknown origin impact Europa. The sudden influx of large quantities of fissile elements (which?) and the resultant hot-spots stimulate the evolution of Europa's nascent thermophillic life.

300 MYA - Complex life has developed on Europa, roughly analogous to Earth's amphibians. The producer cycle is driven partly by natural volcanism, but life clusters around the hot-running and highly radioactive reactors of the alien vessels. Complex biological chemistry evolves based around the accumulation and utilisation of heavy-metal salts. The clustering of life around reactor remnants encourages the development of eusociality.

70 MYA - The earliest developements in the genus that will become the Europans emerges

8 MYA - The ancestors of the modern Europans emerge. Eusocial, semi-aquatic, and intelligent within strict limits, they rise to the position of apex predator. Over the next 60 milion years, their society will advance in complexity

4 MYA - Anotomically modern Europans. A rigid caste system based on capacity for independent thought emerges. Communication and senses are both based on direct electrical stimulation. This period is marked by conscious exploitation of their symbiotic relationship with producer species, and the development of tool usage.

10000 YA - The symbiosis between the Europans and their producer species takes on the character of Agriculture. Population expands rapidly.

8000 YA - The first evidence of wars, as expanding populations lead the clans forming around the reactor cores to attempt to subdue one another.

7000 YA - The development of metallurgy, using raw materials and heat derived from the Von-neumann probes, co incides with these probes being explored in earnest by the europans. Wars become more destructive.

5000 YA - Europan science and mathematics confirms that they orbit a gas giant, which itself orbits a central sun.

3000 YA - The number of clans has dropped precipitously, absorbed by stronger neighbors. The Europans first native fission reactors are constructed. The vast energy output engendered leads to an industrial revolution. The development or artificial radio transmission cements the Europan caste structure in place -

2000 YA - A single clan unites Europa, eliminating the last independent ship-holds through the first recorded use of nuclear weaponry.

1000 YA - The Europans become aware of the true purpose of the ship-holds, to enable travel between planets.

600 YA - Stocks of fissile elements on Europa are becoming depleted. slowly, the electromagnetic transmissions of smaller and less central shipholds flicker, and begin to die.

450 YA - The Europan population is half what it was in their golden age, 1200 years ago.

300 YA - The Europans receive radio signals from a planet far more proximate to Sol. This is evidence of technology only possible with the development of nuclear power! Across the gulf of space, minds immeasurable superior to ours, regarded the earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.


1900: Aping the designs of the von neumann probes that kickstarted life on their moon, the Europans dispatch reconnaissance craft to Earth. They are stunned to find no evidence of fission byproducts in the atmosphere - the native life appears to have taken a schizophrenic path through technology. Earths astronomers observe the movements of unusual comets, some spectacularly visible with the naked eye. A brief fad for astronomy develops, but soon dies.

1902: The first colonization fleet departs from Europa.

June 8, 1907: Several 30kt strike the capitals of earths major cities. Our Story begins.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Wed Feb 13, 2013 2:42 pm UTC

Was the persistent 'European race' plug really necessary? We get it; you're writing about white people. Very important to clarify over a 1 billion year timeline that the motherfuckers we're reading about are Europeans.

The life that developed around the radioactive deposits could have been brought there by the original crash, as a sort of pond scum bacteria that thrives in highly radioactive spots, like the two previous ones linked. Given enough time, they evolved, because why not zoidberg?
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Tass » Wed Feb 13, 2013 2:43 pm UTC

Let me first say I liked it very much, so don't take the criticism to hard.

What would 300YA mean in terms of our counting which you switched to in the end? We did make radiosignals 300 years ago.

Why would the Europans attack us? To get fissile material from earth? We hadn't mined it for them at that time. Why not mine from mars or asteroids or other moons?

8 MYA - The ancestors of the modern Europans emerge. Eusocial, semi-aquatic, and intelligent within strict limits, they rise to the position of apex predator. Over the next 60 milion years, their society will advance in complexity


60 million? Does 8MYE not mean 8 million years?

Izawwlgood wrote:Was the persistent 'European race' plug really necessary? We get it; you're writing about white people. Very important to clarify over a 1 billion year timeline that the motherfuckers we're reading about are Europeans.


Dude. Chill.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_(moon)

They're Europans.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Wed Feb 13, 2013 2:54 pm UTC

Epic fail on my part. Apologies Orm.

The time scales required for evolution here might have reduced all radioactive elements inert. You might need to develop some story device for replenishment.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Ormurinn » Wed Feb 13, 2013 4:00 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:The life that developed around the radioactive deposits could have been brought there by the original crash, as a sort of pond scum bacteria that thrives in highly radioactive spots, like the two previous ones linked. Given enough time, they evolved, because why not zoidberg?


That's actually a really cool idea. It probably won't be explained in writing, but I'm a hard sci-fi bug, I hate things not being feasible. I was working on the assumption that life could have already been present on Europa - hell, given its traits I wouldn't be surprised if there were today.

Tass wrote:Let me first say I liked it very much, so don't take the criticism to hard.

What would 300YA mean in terms of our counting which you switched to in the end? We did make radiosignals 300 years ago.


Ah, sorry. The MYA/YA is million years ago or years ago from today (13/02/2013). The Point of divergence in this history is 600 MYA, but the divergence in Earth's history begins in 1902.

Tass wrote:Why would the Europans attack us? To get fissile material from earth? We hadn't mined it for them at that time. Why not mine from mars or asteroids or other moons?


The short answer is because I want a conflict between early 20th Century humanity and a colonising force.

From a justification perspective, and perhaps I didn't get this across very well, The Europans don't have much in the way of intelligence or scientific knowledge outside of the very narrow bounds of their environment. They developed agriculture early, but they're physiologically adapted to it. They have a widespread internet-analogue in their direct-to mind radio network, but that again is facilitated by biology and just augments their eusociality. They have (dirty, inefficient) nuclear reactors, but that tech was handed to them on a self-replicating plate. The average europan is pretty stupid, and even the higher castes are rigid in their thinking, and no match for an average human intelectually. The pace of technological development is slow and they're insular, theyve been united under one world government for nearly two milennia, and all the currently living Europans are members of the same "Hive."

They don't know much about the universe, they might not even concieve of the possibility of Fissiles in asteroids - for them Nuclear radiation is synonymous with electricity which is synonymous with life. They're gunning for earth because to them, radio confirms uranium.

Tass wrote:
8 MYA - The ancestors of the modern Europans emerge. Eusocial, semi-aquatic, and intelligent within strict limits, they rise to the position of apex predator. Over the next 60 milion years, their society will advance in complexity


60 million? Does 8MYE not mean 8 million years?


Damn, I got confused. That should have been 4 million years.

Izawwlgood wrote:Epic fail on my part. Apologies Orm.

The time scales required for evolution here might have reduced all radioactive elements inert. You might need to develop some story device for replenishment.


Dont worry about it. Easy mistake to make.

I looked at half lives - Uranium would be fine, but needs enriching, most everything else is out. The von neumann probes could contain breeder reactors perhaps? that continue functioning after the crash?
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Wed Feb 13, 2013 4:52 pm UTC

The Earths core is kept hot by the heat of radioactive fission and decay.
Life around deep-ocean thermal vents is directly sustained by this energy release.
I'd wager that if the sun was not present that there would still be life at the bottom of the ocean, maybe.

The type of generator that you describe as being used in satellites is a "radioisotope thermo-electric" generator, it converts the heat of radioactive decay into electricity (ie: not direct radiation-to-electricity, but near enough). You could imagine organisms living in extreme cold kept alive by the heat of radioactive decay of heavy metals present in their bones (as long as they have adaptions to improve on the point below).

DNA is pretty fragile and is constantly flying apart, the body has many mechanisms by which it repairs this damage in a constant battle of equilibrium. Each cell in your body has to repair up to 1million DNA errors per day (I know, right!), caused by background radiation, UV, cosmic radiation, and just regular thermal disruption etc etc. With a bit of googling you can find out about the cool little proteins that zip up and down the strands, sowing shit back together.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Wed Feb 13, 2013 5:08 pm UTC

Ormurinn wrote:That's actually a really cool idea. It probably won't be explained in writing, but I'm a hard sci-fi bug, I hate things not being feasible. I was working on the assumption that life could have already been present on Europa - hell, given its traits I wouldn't be surprised if there were today.

I actually find it more feasible; if life was already present on Europa, chances are the introduction of intense radioactive materials is simply going to eradicate it. If you start with something that is already not just radiation resistant, but radiation RELIANT, you're already a step ahead.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby selfassembled » Wed Feb 13, 2013 5:31 pm UTC

I always thought that if life on Earth had somehow evolved the secret of nuclear energy (which it can't, just as it could never evolve the wheel), we would never need to eat, could jump over mountains, and run at the speed of sound.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Wed Feb 13, 2013 6:35 pm UTC

What makes you say that? The world isn't exactly teeming with accessible fissile materials.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Wed Feb 13, 2013 7:43 pm UTC

selfassembled wrote:I always thought that if life on Earth had somehow evolved the secret of nuclear energy (which it can't, just as it could never evolve the wheel), we would never need to eat, could jump over mountains, and run at the speed of sound.


We are dealing with ridiculously hypothetical hypotheticals here, so what makes you so sure that the impossibility is absolute? After all, there are bacteria that have rotating armatures that power their flagella, which isn't too far removed from the wheel concept.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Diadem » Wed Feb 13, 2013 7:54 pm UTC

The reason animals haven't evolved wheels is not because wheels are unevolveable, but because wheels aren't terrible useful for an animal.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Ormurinn » Wed Feb 13, 2013 8:16 pm UTC

Diadem wrote:The reason animals haven't evolved wheels is not because wheels are unevolveable, but because wheels aren't terrible useful for an animal.


I'm not sure thats the case. You might see some kind of symbiosis between two creatures that leads to an independent bearing and axle, but that's no more an animal evolving wheels than horseback-riding is humans evolving quadrepedalism.

The complexity of any living wheeled axle that develops in one piece in an embryo, i.e the wheel and chassis have connected circulatory and nervous systems, seems to strongly favour other forms of locomotion. If the animal IS the wheel, its possible, and extant on earth in some caterpillars.

The Mulefa in His Dark Materials are a good example of a way wheeled animals might develop, IMO.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Wed Feb 13, 2013 8:25 pm UTC

Diadem wrote:The reason animals haven't evolved wheels is not because wheels are unevolveable, but because wheels aren't terrible useful for an animal.


...on Earth, that is. Much more useful on a planet with vast salt flats, for example. And back to the bacterium example, a rotational bearing has its uses in aquatic environments as well. A wheel, or wheel-analougue, can be used for things other than locomotion as well, like making noise (communication) or even a weapon of some sort. All super imaginary of course, but I don't see it being literally impossible. Same goes for the utilisation of fissile materials.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby idobox » Thu Feb 14, 2013 3:09 am UTC

First of all, alien nukes on 1902 London and Paris, steam trains and Zeppelins against steam punk ant-colony nuclear spaceships. That's going to be extremely cool.
I just love the idea of Tesla or Marconi playing with early radios and hearing alien signals/noise.

Out of curiosity: how can a human civilisation that doesn't really master flight or radio yet pose a challenge to a space faring race with nukes?

But you want to go hard sci-fi, so here are a few suggestions.

On the nuclear aspect:
ImagingGeek wrote:In theory, any alpha, beta or gamma emitter could be used as an energy source, so long as there is a way to convert their energy into useable chemical energy. The gamma-eater example has already been shown; some beta's are electrons and thus could be used straight-up as a source of free electrons (note: many energy-generating processes - i.e. photosynthesis, krebs cycle - generate energy via electron transfer). Alphas could be used as potent electron acceptors, etc.

Using beta and alpha particles as electron donors or acceptors is going to be difficult. These things have a lot of kinetic energy, much more than electrostatic energy.
The radiotrophes apparently use melanin, which is excited by gamma rays, and produce usable energy when going back to its ground state. The same mechanism could work for other types of particles.

Ormurinn wrote:I looked at half lives - Uranium would be fine, but needs enriching, most everything else is out. The von neumann probes could contain breeder reactors perhaps? that continue functioning after the crash?

If you need a lot of power for a long time, the best solution is to bring a bunch of thorium with you, because it's rather stable and can be converted to uranium on demand. The thing is, one of the intermediary stages is a neutron absorber, that needs to be taken out of the reactor to let it decay to Uranium. A crashed breeder reactor would be pretty terrible.
On the other hand, more classical U235-U238 fuel is fertile, which means it turns U238 into plutonium. Bars or such fuel outside a reactor would be weakly radioactive, and last for very long, because as the U235 decays, it creates plutonium which, even if it has a shorter half-life, will in turn breed more of itself.

Now, about the story itself.
Europans will be aquatic creatures, likely living on the bottom of the ocean where the probes fell. For them to discover astronomy, they will need to be curious about what's up, and dedicate a lot of resources to go through the thick ice sheet.
Also, being aquatic, their technological development will be a nightmare.

TItan is a very good candidate too: it has ice, maybe even liquid water, and lots of hydrocarbons. Life that gets out of the water/ice would have a significant atmosphere to walk in, unlike Europa.
If important life develops there, it can use the atmospheric methane, and after a few millions years, make the atmosphere transparent.

About invading Earth. There is a lot of easier to access and ship back uranium in the asteroid belt, but Earth has something that could be very valuable to a species that dies because it's power source is running out of fuel. Earth can sustain life. Simple spectrometry will show Earth has massive amounts of atmospheric oxygen, and a host of complex organic molecules.
Europans could decide to send probes/explorations missions to Earth because it looks like it can support life when their own world is dying, without having a strong opinion on what fuels it (maybe volcanism, maybe radioactivity, maybe this strange electrical activity in the clouds).
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Feb 14, 2013 6:19 am UTC

One thing to consider for the Europans that popped up in another biological discussion thread is that because they are aquatic, they are going to have a hard time with a lot of chemistry and mechanics. To this end, perhaps they have developed biotechnology that is very advanced. For example, if they can't smelt ores, maybe they can produce (directly or indirectly?) some kind of bio-ceramic that is very tough.

Spaceships made of ice and ablative bioceramide weaves, cruising the stars with superconducting plasma gas filled loops of space whale capillaries! Spawn more overlords!
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby tomandlu » Thu Feb 14, 2013 4:54 pm UTC

Tass wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Was the persistent 'European race' plug really necessary? We get it; you're writing about white people. Very important to clarify over a 1 billion year timeline that the motherfuckers we're reading about are Europeans.


Dude. Chill.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_(moon)

They're Europans.


Sorry, but that was hysterical... tzawwlgood, one day your shame will fade...
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Feb 14, 2013 6:56 pm UTC

When I saw there was no 'e' after the 'p' in 'Europan':
Spoiler:
doh.jpg


Again, sorry Orm, that was totes premature of me.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Thu Feb 14, 2013 7:39 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:...because they are aquatic, they are going to have a hard time with a lot of chemistry and mechanics.


Why should we assume that?

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Feb 14, 2013 7:44 pm UTC

Underwater chemistry isn't impossible, just harder. It requires more steps securing the safety of the chemist.

Also, think about how many advances are combustion related, and try and translate that to being underwater. Think about the steps it took to get there, and doing those underwater.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Ormurinn » Thu Feb 14, 2013 7:49 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Underwater chemistry isn't impossible, just harder. It requires more steps securing the safety of the chemist.

Also, think about how many advances are combustion related, and try and translate that to being underwater. Think about the steps it took to get there, and doing those underwater.


Could using reactors as a heat source compensate for the combustion difficulties?
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Feb 14, 2013 7:53 pm UTC

I woooould imagine yes? An aquatic species might have an easier time dealing with radioactivity, as they're environment naturally carries better resistance to the radiation itself.

That however also means that mining said material is probably way more dangerous, as uranium mud is now in your gills.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby thoughtfully » Thu Feb 14, 2013 8:23 pm UTC

It seems likely to me that a sufficiently advanced aquatic species would have the ability to work at the surface if the need is sufficient. Well, maybe not on Europa :)

But there are cracks and fissures in the icy surface.. sounds like it would be quite the adventure :)
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby tms » Thu Feb 14, 2013 10:46 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:That however also means that mining said material is probably way more dangerous, as uranium mud is now in your gills.

Airborne uranium dust isn't so great either. So the rational thing to do would be to have protection, Earth & Europa alike.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Fri Feb 15, 2013 9:42 am UTC

Ormurinn wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Underwater chemistry isn't impossible, just harder. It requires more steps securing the safety of the chemist.

Also, think about how many advances are combustion related, and try and translate that to being underwater. Think about the steps it took to get there, and doing those underwater.


There is also a lot of chemistry that doesn't involve combustion (not to mention the fact that fires are now less of a risk), but you can still heat and burn things under water. There are also benefits to a fluid-filled, high pressure environment - there's plenty of give and take if you use your imagination.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby idobox » Fri Feb 15, 2013 5:05 pm UTC

Salt water is a good electricity and heat conductor, an excellent solvent and is corrosive. That's about the worst environment for human technology.

You can stand pretty close to a gas burner, but try to put your hand in a large tank of water over that same burner...
How do you propose to smelt iron or aluminium under water? it might be possible, but it isn't easy to figure out.

Chemistry? Do you realize the difficulty of manipulating liquids in a liquid environment? Many compounds are water soluble, and as such cannot be used in solid form. Many gases will pose such problems. Then you have all the chemicals that react with water. Once again, not impossible, but it's going to require some amazing problem solving abilities.

Electricity? How can you even discover the existence of electricity and magnetism if you live underwater?

So: can an underwater species develop cool technology? given the number of sentient marine species we know, and of other technological species, we have exactly no idea. But if it is, it is going to look very different from ours, and describing a fictional one realistically is going to be pretty challenging.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Feb 15, 2013 5:10 pm UTC

A lot of primitive tool use is going to be much trickier given the resistance of an aqueous medium. It's one thing for a land based critter to discover flinknapping, it's probably much a trickier feat underwater. I'm not saying an aquatic organism couldn't develop interesting technologies, but I think it does overall present more hindrances than benefits.

I think this is probably why a lot of sci fi has had aquatic sentient races as being masters of biotech. If you're surrounded by a greater diversity of biology, you may start domesticating things before you start making tools.

/handwavy!
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:37 pm UTC

idobox wrote:Salt water is a good electricity and heat conductor, an excellent solvent and is corrosive. That's about the worst environment for human technology.


Thats a good one actually, but do we actually know the composition of Europa's oaceans? What is the liklihood that is the same as ours? Whatever the content though I suppose it will still present problems. Consider a human "clean room", an equivalent might be a container of de-ionised water.

idobox wrote:Chemistry? Do you realize the difficulty of manipulating liquids in a liquid environment?


Probably about as hard as manipulating gases in a gaseous environment, which we can do quite well.

idobox wrote:How do you propose to smelt iron or aluminium under water? it might be possible, but it isn't easy to figure out.

Electricity? How can you even discover the existence of electricity and magnetism if you live underwater?


I don't really see the discovery of these things as being dependent of a gaseous environment - the hardest thing about smelting is getting it hot enough, which granted will be tougher underwater. Another thing comes to mind is the abundance of metals in Earth's oceans which can be harvested by electrolysis [Which could be obtained in abundance from tidal power stations].
And what is the problem with magnetism? Europa's magnetic field is due to an interaction of Jupiter's field with what is supposedly the conductive layer of ocean beneath Europa's ice. The presence of this interaction might even lead to the discovery of electricity of magnetism being easier (as there will be some current flowing through the very water they breathe, they may even have evolved to sense it - ooh topic crossover!). I might even suggest that they may do quite well with electricity as you can control corrosion with it.


Of course an extra-terrestrial technology will look very different but I don't see any reason to assume they will be deficient in any one area to the point where they cant build metallic spacecraft, utilise electricity in day-to-day applications or do math in the same way we do. IMO it will, at a base level be fairly analogous to ours, consider the question of "How do we build a spacecraft?" The answer is the same no matter what your culture or environment. Its a fun thought experiment though. I've lost track, are these hypothetical Europans the ones that have evolved the use of nuclear energy?

Here's another question I just thought of - Earth has an abundance of hydrocarbons which has shaped a great deal of our modern technology. Will there even be any on Europa? There might not even be much in the way of carbon at all!Silicon might be a reasonable alternative which may be present in the crust at a decent level for mining.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:54 pm UTC

I think you're jumping around in terms of technological breakthroughs; it's easy to control a liquid environment when you've developed pumps. Developing pumps is hard to do if you don't have access to tools, which is hard to do if your efforts are hampered by the drag of water.

Smelting is doable underwater if you can control heat (I mean, if you insulate your sample sufficiently, water being a better conductor of heat than air, of course), but we didn't go from zero to smelting, we had fire in the interim. Being underwater doesn't make technological progress impossible with current day technology, but it makes getting there less feasible.

The funny thing is biologically there are solutions to many of these issues. Conductance has been observed in chains of bacteria that extend into different sediment layers, 'refining of metals' has been observed in a range of mollusks, etc.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby p1t1o » Fri Feb 15, 2013 8:46 pm UTC

The resistance of the water makes tools harder to use, but then there is also buoyancy, which makes heavier, stronger materials easier to use.

Just out of curiosity, would people consider the use of shells by hermit crabs the use of tools? Considering how primitive they are, I think they have done pretty well!

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby idobox » Fri Feb 15, 2013 11:35 pm UTC

If life developed on Europa, it means there is a bunch of stuff dissolved in the water. It might not be salt, but it apparently conducts electricity.

In this conditions, figuring out electricity will be awfully difficult. Electrostatics cannot happen, as the charges will leak. Batteries won't work either, as they will be shorted. You can have some kind of bio-electricity at hand, but figuring out what's happening when you are submerged in a conductive medium will be very difficult.
Magnetism would be easier to detect, as magnetite would work underwater (I think)

The chemistry of gas developed a looong time after people started mixing and heating stuff. Granted, underwater people might understand the concept of gas earlier.
But gas chemistry is difficult and dangerous on Earth, because gas doesn't stay in an opened container, and is difficult to detect. The same will apply for liquids underwater. But first, you will need someone to have the idea to confine liquids, and to find a way to mix those confined liquids. Also some basic techniques won't be applicable, like distillation, drying, chromatography. Once again, not impossible, just a lot more difficult to come up with.

Metallurgy is going to be the most difficult. Water is a good thermal conductor, meaning that it will be difficult to heat stuff, it will also be very hot in a large zone. Fire is impossible, so you need another source of heat. If you're using a nuclear reactor, you are limited by the fusion temperature of whatever it's made of.
And then you have the simple chemistry of it. How do you reduce oxides underwater? If you heat up some iron oxide and coal in a wet environment, what happens (seriously, I have no idea).
Electrolysis is a solution, but how do you discover and understand electricity before you have metal?

A species with human knowledge and technology could probably find solutions, but a naive one would have huge difficulties developing bronze age technology (bronze, pottery, paint). So much of our technology until very recently is linked to fire (heat, light, cooking, ceramics, metallurgy, glass, steam engines), a species that cannot have it would develop in a very different way. The same way, there might be a bunch of things we cannot even think of as non-aquatic creatures, that Europans would find obvious, and that would be the base of their technology.
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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby 4=5 » Sat Feb 16, 2013 2:46 am UTC

Gas is really easy to control in a liquid environment because it stays in downward facing open containers. If they filled a container with methane and let dissolved oxygen undissolve into it they can discover fire by heating it up. And considering that their life basically runs of hot vents they would find fire wonderfully useful. There will probably be at least one creature that produces interesting amounts of electricity which can lead then to using it.

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Re: Radiation-Based Biology?

Postby tms » Sat Feb 16, 2013 10:02 pm UTC

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