Alien Scientist 46: An Alien Kind of Order
Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.
Everywhere we look, we see a familiar mixture of order and disorder. At the widest scale, we see a grand order to the cosmos the uniform blackness of space pinpricked by the white lights of the galaxies, so many spiral swirls of suns. But within these galaxies, there is no local regularity: the scatter of individual stars is so ‘random’ that we have to interpret them arbitrarily as unique, odd-shaped constellations.
More locally, the solar system could be seen as an almost proverbial model of order, the planetary spheres spinning in their orbits round the sun like a clockwork machine with perfectly balanced moving parts. But look closer and we become aware of all sorts of sub-planetary debris and wobbly orbits, and violent flares and surface irregularities. The Earth is more or less spherical overall, yet close up it is wrinkly, crinkly and restless, with all those craggy peaks and rocky canyons and the gushing, frothing, roaring, crashing seas. Meanwhile the Moon is covered by roughly circular craters: circular enough to boast some degree of order, but rough enough and so randomly scattered to suggest the Moon is merely passively bearing the imprint of a chaotic universe, rather than being a giver of order to the cosmos.
At a smaller scale, all the rocks and dust of the planets and moons, however irregular, are made up of familiar substances that speak of some sort of chemical order. We also see order in the symmetry of six-sided snowflakes, but disorder in the uniqueness of each particular crystal. And all that chaotic disordered sea water is ultimately made out of H2O, a precisely orderly troika of atoms, multiplied billions of times over.
On Earth at least, we can recognize the complex order of the living world: the complex carbon chemistry of organisms, and the particular order of DNA – the regular double-helix structure of matching pairs of chemical bases, an intricately interwoven order at the microscopic scale.
And all the chemical elements, however different from each other, are made up of the same constituent particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. These in turn are made up of further smaller things like quarks – things that the smaller they get, the less like ‘things’ they appear to be.
We may take it for granted, then, that we find some kind of order in some circumstances, and some kind of disorder in others. But what does this say about the nature of order? What alternatives might there be to the familiar pattern of order and disorder? What if we found order where we normally expect disorder, and disorder where we normally expect order?
Imagine an alien from a hypothetical reach of the universe where there were no galaxies, but in which suns and planets were arranged in regular crystalline structures, like snowflakes, or in long paired chains, like DNA. An alien from such a place might interpret our galaxies not as signifiers of cosmic structure, but as somewhat arbitrary swirls of leftover debris.
Or one could imagine an alien from a ‘solar system’ where the planets were a mixture of Platonic solids – such as cubes and tetrahedra – moving around in polygonal orbits: a different mix of regularities and irregularities from normal.
If these cases seem too far-fetched, let us imagine things at a more tangible planetary scale, where real environments are known to exhibit substantial departures from what we consider as normality.
What if we found a planet or moon whose surface was not made up of roughly round structures such as craters, formed from heaps of irregular shaped rocks, but instead the structures were precisely straight-sided ones – a mix of squares and rectangles and polygons of different shapes and sizes, each made up of regularly shaped and sized ‘building blocks’? Or, instead of having roughly conic volcanoes or roughly pyramidal mountain peaks, what if a planet featured surface eminences that were precisely proportioned cones and regular pyramids and prisms, domes and spires and turrets?
And what if, instead of creatures made up of carbon-based compounds, we found instead a world of complex moving objects whose intricate parts were made up heterogeneously from lattices of iron, sheets of aluminum, strands of copper, tubes of neon…?
In other words, the more ‘alien’ the pattern of order and disorder is – and the less it resembles the natural world – the more it resembles a different but distinctive kind of order and disorder: that of the world of human artifice.