Titan: The Second Genesis

Titan: The Second Genesis

A Story by Justin Fenech
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The discovery of life on Saturn's moon Titan is not what the citizens of 2049 planet earth were expecting - the devil is in the detail.

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Titan: The Second Genesis




The Phoenicia probe has returned to earth. The first ever probe to land on a Saturnian moon: Titan. The controversy around the expedition was ludicrous. It cost NASA an estimated 5 billion dollars to send Phoenicia to Titan. That money could have been used to finalize the cure for cancer. Or to colonize another African country and rid it from poverty and oppression. What is the worth of such exuberant space exploration?

As Phoenicia and its contents are rescued from the cold Atlantic waters, the critics were eating their words. Aboard Phoenicia is the most precious cargo ever known to man: a sample of liquid methane extracted from one of Titan’s methane lakes. A sample, which scientists think may contain life. We could have on earth, for the first time in history, a sample of life that did not originate from our own planet. And it’s only 2049!

The reactions have been varied but for the most part unsurprising. Creationists in Utah are condemning the story as a hoax claiming it sacrilegious. Others were more creative saying that the life found on Titan is God himself, abiding in the heavens as mankind had always believed. Conspiracy theorists don’t believe a single word of the story, claiming it was being fabricated by the US government (the Man as they still refer to it) to save face after squandering so much tax dollars on a failed mission. The Bishop of Rome declared it to be the latest test from God, from which only the truly faithful will emerge victorious.

As the Phoenicia was recovered it was now on its way to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. There it is awaited by a specially selected team, who couldn’t be more privileged than if they had been chosen to meet God himself. The leader of the team was an astrobiologist by the name of Philip Foster from Cornell University. Dr. Foster was a controversial choice for the project �" the fifty three year old was described as a rock star scientist. The title was naturally another case of media sensationism but it was true that he spent as much time in bars as he did in laboratories. But the man had enough celebrity to fit the bill. He was a great science communicator, hosting a series of television programmes about astronomy, extraterrestrial life, physics and even a documentary called: “The Cosmos Of Reproduction”, where he showed, for the first time, shots of uncensored sexual intercourse in a science documentary.

The press conference held at California before the research team set to work on the sample became legendary. Science hadn’t occupied the world’s centre stage to such an extent since the term “cure for cancer” was used in a scientific paper. Dr. Foster was the star of the show.

“Dr. Foster what are you expecting to find in this sample?”

“We don’t know until we find it. That’s the beauty of science.” Dr. Foster replied behind a smoke screen of cigar smoke.

“Do you think that this discovery would justify the over-the-top costs of the expedition itself?”

“I do wish people would stop focusing on the cost of the expedition. Even if we didn’t find life on Titan, we still landed a probe on a moon a billion miles away from the sun. I don’t think mankind has ever come this far. And to keep demeaning it by pointing to the finances is miserly to the extreme. But we did find life. For the first time in human history we know we are not alone in the universe. Biologists can now compare life on earth with a second edition. We can begin to answer some of humanity’s oldest questions. That 5 billion dollars seems like a penny in a pond now, doesn’t it?”

“How unexpected was this discovery?”

“Not as much as you would think. Otherwise we wouldn’t have sent Phoenicia all the way to Titan, would we? We would have sent it to a closer moon, like a Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. But Titan is the only place in the solar system where we found liquid. Whole lakes of liquid at that, five times larger than Hudson Lake. It may not be liquid water, but it’s liquid nonetheless.”

“How can you have liquid if you don’t have water?”

“Is this guy serious? Journalists are too lazy to do homework now.” Dr. Foster laughed charmingly, as if apologizing for the insult. But he meant it. He despised journalists, whose job, as he saw it, was to distort the truth he worked so hard to uncover. “Most gases can have the same forms as water has on earth. Ice, liquid and vapour. And on Titan it’s not water that reigns, its methane. On Titan there are methane lakes, ice and even rain. Phoenicia took some spectacular shots of methane rain on Titan. It’s incredible for it falls far more slowly than it does on earth, you see. It is almost suspended in air. It’s a true wonder.”

“Do you think life on Titan is DNA based?”

“Finally an interesting question! Unfortunately I cannot say as yet. But that is one of the first things we will look into.”

“Thank you for your time gentlemen, unfortunately we have ran out of time.”

Work on the sample began the next day. And the discovery was more astonishing than anyone had anticipated.

“Dr. Foster, you have to see this.” The microbiologist Sam Hooker called Dr. Foster over, one hand on the electric microscope.

“What is it Sam?”

“These microbes...they’re not single-celled! Come look!”

“My God! These things have more cells than my entire hand! How can this be? They are too small to be clumps of cell. These things are more sophisticated than sponges, and yet, they are the size of bacteria. This is going to be more complicated than we thought, gentlemen.”

“I think we better say goodbye to our loved ones for a good few months.”

“Can we set up a bar in here?” Dr. Foster joked, half-serious.

As the weeks passed in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, followed keenly by the media and the world, the team unearthed more questions than answers. They had no idea how the animals (they were now calling them animals due to them being multi-cellular) reproduced, fed, and behaved. They could find no DNA-like structure, nor indeed any genes. The cells that made up the animals were composed of methane and silicon. Which was unsurprising as methane was the most abundant gas on Titan and silicon was one of the most common elements in the cosmos. But how was it that those animals lived?

After the first two weeks of research the only thing the team could announce to the media was the name they had decided on for the animal: Arcanam titanus. ‘The mystery of Titan’. This was the first animal ever named that was not of earthly origin. This lead to great anger from the ICZN, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. They were furious at not being consulted. They wanted a new set of rules to be established about naming extraterrestrial life. They were clutching at straws but you could admire their excitement. They believed the discovery meant the universe was indeed full of life, and they wanted to be consulted as to how to name them.

During those weeks of secretive, unfruitful research, the world went science mad. The news were dominated by biologists, astronomers and physicists. The only documentaries you could see were reruns of the by now ancient ‘Cosmos’ series and Stephen Hawking programmes. Films and novels were all obsessed with Titan. They thought that fiction would unravel the mysteries of life on Titan before scientists could. And it was a valiant, harmless effort.

Surprisingly the discovery of life on Titan, followed by the silence of the research teams, lead to a revival of philosophy. Universal Philosophers, as they now called themselves, were all over the media. They put forward some interesting implications about the discovery.

“Now that we have a life.2 we can begin to calculate the true value of life.”

“If life was created more than once it finally disproves the existence of God. How could the Bible, enlightened by the same God that created life on Titan, not have mentioned it at all?”

“The universe is far less lonesome now. We are not alone. And we never were. The universe, rather than being a dark, lifeless expanse, is now a neighbourhood filled with possibilities.”

“Everything Plato said is now irrelevant.”

One day, in February of 2050, Dr. Foster was taking a rare break from the lab, and was spending a weekend by the beach in California. He needed to get away from the stifling, mechanical environment of the lab to get a new perspective. He was like a writer trying to overcome writer’s block. On the Saturday of his weekend getaway, he was in a bar in California, drinking mojitos by himself by the bar. By now he was a world famous celebrity and it wasn’t long before he was being chatted up by a young, blonde, skimpily dressed woman. His wife was on the other side of America, in Washington, so he indulged his young admirer.

“You must be getting women chatting you up all the time, doctor.” The young Annieke said flirtingly.

“Don’t be fooled. Science is all over the media, but the people still hate us. We’re always destroying someone’s belief, even though we don’t mean to.”

“Well where I’m from people are too stoned to believe in anything. So we like scientists!”

“Where are you from, heaven?”

“Close, Holland.”

“I should have known, Annieke. But I believe you’re just flattering me. I can’t think of any famous scientist from Holland. No offence.”

“I am offended! We had a nobel-prize winner you know! He may not have studied aliens but he was a genius!”

“Who?”

“Niko Tinbergen!”

“Ah right, the ethologist. I do apologize madame. I have been in the lab too long. I can’t think internationally.”

“It’s okay. You just need a break, sweet doctor.” She put her arm around his shoulder.

“Maybe. I shouldn’t have forgotten him. Tinbergen was a wonderful scientist. His experiments with animals were...”

“Doctor? What’s the matter?”

“My God...animals. Those things are animals! I should have known. Thank you my dear, I think you may have saved my career!” He kissed her on the cheeks with the suction of an octopus, and ran out of the bar. He cut his weekend break short and returned to the lab. He arrived on Sunday morning. Sam Hooker was there.

“Sam, Sam, forget the cells! Forget the chemistry! These things are animals. We need to study their behaviour!”

“Their behaviour? Phil, they are a clump of cells, how can we do that?”

“We need to make them act. We need to get reactions from them. We won’t know anything about them until we see them in their natural environment.”

“Are you saying...?”

“That’s right. We need to recreate the chemical elements that make up the methane lakes these things live in. Then we need to play with them!”

“Phil, that could be dangerous.”

“We’ll have the right suits and precautions Sam. Don’t worry. This could be the answer we’ve been looking for!”

Dr. Foster’s idea was not an easy one to put into practice. It needed even more funding for the research and a lot of strings had to be pulled. But he got it done. They now had a small, metre-long methane lake, identical to the ones on Titan. They deposited the samples in the lake and began to play the games Dr. Foster had in mind.

As they knew very little about what kind of threats, food, and interactions the animals would have encountered on Titan, they began to experiment with earth-based scenarios. Still inspired by the experiments of Tinbergen, Dr. Foster began by introducing foreign chemicals to their environment. He introduced salt first, and waited to see what they would make of it. For days the animals were unreactive.

But after five days, Dr. Foster noticed something remarkable. The animals had taken apart the salt, and had separated it into its basic components. He saw one of the animals ‘carrying’ the sodium particles. Others ‘carrying’ the chlorine. And so on. This was chemically unheard of! But more interestingly, Dr. Foster noticed that the animals had grouped together. The operation seemed a directed one.

Next they experimented with feeding. At the bottom of our ocean’s food chain was photosynthetic algae. Bearing that in mind they introduced some microscopic quantities of the stuff in the methane pool. Here the team noticed something incredible. The spherical animals now seemed to be producing hair-like tentacles from slits between the cells. They were filter-feeding! They were extracting nutrients from the algae the same way corals and sea-cucumbers did on earth! The mystery of how they fed had seemed to be solved. They had discovered a case of homologous evolution between two different forms of life that evolved on different planets!

When they announced this discovery the question people were most interested in asking was: could this mean that the life on Titan was somehow related to life on earth?

“Absolutely not.” Dr. Foster replied. “But it does mean that evolutionary biologists were right. There is only so many forms life could take. The same way giraffes and brontosaurs took on the same forms, even though one was a mammal and the other a reptile, because they lived in similar terrains, seems to be a universal truth!”

But Dr. Foster was less interested in the animals feeding habits than he was in its intelligence.

“Intelligence? How can a clump of cells have intelligence? It’s like saying a sponge is intelligent.” Dr. Hooker was surprised by Dr. Foster’s hypothesis. Though he knew better than to discredit it too quickly.

“It’s just a hunch. But the experiment with the salt left me thinking. We must try some more experiments along those lines.”

“We don’t have many other lines to take. So I suppose we have no choice.”

Dr. Foster played on a hunch. He wanted to test for aggression, now thinking along the lines of Konrad Lorenz. So he dropped a fly into the methane soup. The fly could hardly move, and would soon suffocate in the deadly concoction. But before it died, the animals did something incredible. As soon as they ‘felt’ its presence in their pond, they surrounded it and using the same tentacles they used for feeding, tore the fly limb from limb. In a few minutes there was nothing left of the fly but its battered thorax.

“This doesn’t prove the animals are intelligent.” Dr. Hooker said with his mouth still wide open.

“Maybe not. But it proves they are not just a bunch of cells. These animals are responsive. So much so I would dare call them social.”

“You mean in the way they clump together to attack? I doubt they’re working together, they might merely be reacting identically, at the same time. The same way an individual goose instinctively falls into its role in a flock.”

“I have my doubts. I want to find out more. Surely you agree this is an astounding discovery, Sam?”

“Absolutely Phil. Only, let’s not be too hasty in going public until we know all the facts, shall we?”

“Agreed.”

That night, when everyone had left the lab, Dr. Foster decided to try a little experiment of his own. He thought the others would make fun of him if he even suggested it. He dropped into the methane pond a fake fly, a toy his kids liked so much to buy. To his amazement the animals didn’t go near it! Could it be that, just as he suspected, the animals could tell the animal was not real? This implied reasoning, which would be too grand a suggestion to even ponder. Yet the evidence was piling up.

The next morning Dr. Foster surprised his entire team by suggesting they stop the behavioural experiments, and focused on the biochemistry of the animals make-up.

“You were the one that suggested the behavioural experiments in the first place Phil,” the biochemist Arthur Stanley remarked. “Now we’re getting exciting results, why stop?”

“I think there is hardly any doubt left in my mind: these animals are alive. They react, they interact, they reason. Now it’s time �" “

“Reason? Excuse me Dr. Foster did I hear you right? Reason.”

“Yes. I’m not saying it’s anything complex, probably at the level of an ant or any social insect. Anyway we need to know what these cells are made of.”

“That won’t be easy.”

“Damn it Artie if we can detect the elements stars are made of we can detect the elements in a small bunch of cells!”

Everyone went quiet, feeling Dr. Foster was right. Off the mark, perhaps, but right nonetheless. They began the experiments to try to analyze the chemical make-up of the animals. But for weeks they kept turning up the same results. The cells were made of methane and silicon. That was unimpressive. Too unimpressive for Dr. Foster’s likings.

So after weeks of barren results he decided to take a new approach. Once more inspired by a night at a Californian bar, he decided to combine the behavioural experiments with the biochemical ones. His wife would have been pleased with his idea. Only because she thought it might make him more successful. She didn’t appreciate the creativity scientists required. And she was a doctor, you would think she understood. But he hadn’t felt close to her for years. The sparks had gone.

And sparks were to be behind Dr. Foster’s next ground-breaking discovery. He went back to the lab and repeated the experiment with the fly. He dropped it in, like before, and the animals duly attacked it. But this time he was more prepared. He had an electro sensor ready for when the deed was done. And he wasn’t surprised. As soon as the animals turned on the fly, he noted a fluctuation in the electricity reading. It was just as Dr. Foster thought: the animals were communicating using electric signals. The same way our brain communicates with the rest of our body. Could it be those microscopic animals had brains?

Dr. Foster was cautious in handling this new possibility. He ran it by his team and they spent a good month trying every experiment they could think of to confirm the possibility. They placed algae on one side of the pond, and the animal closest produced electric signals which lead the others to the food. They moved the fly in the pond and as soon as it approached another animal the others signalled as if to warn it to move away. All in all the evidence seemed conclusive.

“After several weeks of studying the sample from Titan, we have reason to believe that life on Titan not only evolved to be multi-cellular, but it has also evolved intelligence.” Dr. Foster announced at a press conference after five months of research. “The animals seem to be able to communicate with each other, warn each other, protect themselves, and even form in-groups with a dominant individual. We don’t know how they do this exactly but we suspect that the animals themselves are mostly made up of brain tissue. The clumps of cells are not random, they seem to make up a central nervous system. Their bodies are dedicated to brain activity leaving little room for their tentacles which they use for filter-feeding. Digestion is done through the brain as well.”

“Dr. Foster does this mean these animals can be dangerous?”

“We have no reason to believe so, no.”

“How is it possible that microscopic cells can be intelligent? Doesn’t that fly in the face of all biology?”

“All earth bound biology, yes. But don’t forget this is a life form that has evolved a billion miles away from earth.”

“Do they have emotions?”

“About as much as ants do.”

“What are the implications of this?”

“The implications are that we are not alone in the cosmos. We now have a unique opportunity to study a new life form. It will take years before we can fully understand it, but we are at the start of a new era in science. Nothing, ladies and gentlemen, will ever be the same from now on.”

“Dr. Foster you spoke about the animal’s behaviour and feeding. But you have not said anything about reproduction. As far as we know intelligence has to evolve over time. If there is no reproduction, not even asexual, how can it evolve?”

“It is too early to say. We are keeping our minds open. These animals are already breaking all the rules we know. We have to be patient and see what more we can learn.”

The question from that astute journalist continued to plague Dr. Foster’s mind. Even after a year of observing them, there had been no reproduction nor any behaviour related to it. But one thing did stand out over time. Not only were the animals still alive, they had not shown any signs of ageing. Their longevity might have something to do with their survival, but how could longevity be linked with reproduction?

A possibility dawned on Dr. Foster that filled him with more excitement than he had ever known in his entire life. He didn’t know. And he couldn’t know. At least, not by sampling those caged samples. Just as Tinbergen carried out his studies in the wild, the only way to know about the evolution of Titan’s animals is to study them in their natural environment. Biology and astronomy were now forever wed. And it wasn’t insane to imagine a solar system filled with animals. The solar system is the greatest zoo ever discovered. And it was waiting for us.


© 2014 Justin Fenech


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Interesting story, Rock star scienist. Good concept and good read

Posted 8 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.


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Added on February 10, 2014
Last Updated on February 10, 2014
Tags: science-fiction, alien, future, time, Saturn, moon, Titan, life

Author

Justin Fenech
Justin Fenech

Hamrun , Malta



About
I am a 25 year old writer from the Mediterranean Island of Malta. I see writing as a civilizng force that plays a vital role in a democratic, enlightened society. I read and idolize Hemingway, Fitz.. more..

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