There was nothing. Followed by everything.
After the release of Infinity #2 last week, Jonathan Hickman’s sprawling galactic epic is in full swing, and Reality Check is here to address the fantastic science therein with several installments throughout the story’s duration. It began before the war. Before the fall. It began with an idea.
The Spark that Started the Fire
It began in Avengers #1 when Ex Nihilo hurled his interplanetary “origin bombs” earthward, hoping to remake the terrestrial inhabitants to his liking.
“Ex nihilo” is a Latin phrase meaning “from nothing,” and is often used in creation myths that aim to explain the appearance of life in general and human beings in particular. The lines here are not quite parallel, as the godly gardener intends to modify existing creatures rather than materialize new ones from the ether, but it speaks tangentially to another notion. Could life on Earth have been delivered from an extraterrestrial source?
The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras coined the term “panspermia” in the 5th Century BC, and the idea was hammered into a more scientific shape by the likes of Lord Kelvin and Hermann Von Helmholtz in the mid-1800’s. Panspermia can be used as a pseudo-solution to the dilemma of how something as complex as life coalesced on Earth so quickly after the environmental conditions became suitable. Perhaps our first organisms weren’t homegrown after all, but instead hearty microbes (so-called “extremophiles) that hitched a ride here on asteroids or other vastness-spanning interlopers?
A wild concept with a lot of speculation and not much evidence, the simple, haphazard version of panspermia goes further down the rabbit hole with the suggestion that it may be aimed, just as Ex Nihilo targeted the nearest solar neighbor from his Martian perch.
Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure, was one of the first to introduce the concept of directed panspermia, although he later softened his support after reconsidering the probability of primordial protein synthesis.
Jerome Opeña’s depiction of directed panspermia
If intelligent extraterrestrials do exist however (and that’s quite a big if), is it so strange to think they might set their seeding sites on other young planetary systems to keep their lineage alive in the face of extinction or, more playfully, just to see what happens, as Ex Nihilo does? We’ve thought about it ourselves, and calculations show it may not be as daunting a task as it seems prima facie.
Directed panspermia is still more science fiction than fact, so it’s not likely there were ever cosmic caretakers on Mars, but new research suggests the idea that earthly life originated on the red planet may not be so crazy after all!
Chemist Steven Benner of Florida’s Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology spoke on August 29th about his work showing that boron and oxidized molybdenum, important building blocks of the catalysts that could have prodded along the creation of RNA, the first self-replicating organic molecule, were probably present in greater abundance on the Martian surface 4 billion years ago than they were here on Earth.
A paper published in Nature Geoscience three days later additionally argues that RNA’s phosphate compounds were also more available next door, whereas most of ours were locked up in terrestrial rocks.
A synthetic version of whitlockite, a relative of the Martian phosphate-containing mineral merrrillite. From space.com
Even if those assertions are true, that doesn’t mean life definitely took hold on Mars, as no confirmatory fossil or chemical evidence has ever been uncovered, and it certainly doesn’t prove that any hypothetical Martian life found its way down here to terra firma.
Astronomer and astrobioligist Caleb Scharf also points out that early RNA reactions could have been catalyzed by more prevalent manganese or magnesium compounds. Scharf further notes the assumptions that Mars was only “kind of” wet back then, which would be necessary to keep the proposed boron compounds from dissolving, even though other evidence implies the presence of flowing and standing water on the Martian surface during that time period. So we probably shouldn’t look to the heavens for all our answers just yet.
We don’t know if the red planet was ever green, but we’re pretty sure it was pretty wet at some point in the distant past.
Call for Questions
As Infinity forges ahead, we’ll continue to examine particular pages to see what we can learn from them about current science. But not every week; that’s where you come in!
I’m a man of limited time and budget (aren’t we all?), so there’s a lot out there in the land of comics and media that I miss. If you see something in current pop culture you’re dying to know more about, e-mail me! Be specific as possible about the scene and let’s leave out general “science of superhero” questions, like how does the Flash run that fast, as there are many popular books out there with the answers already served up! Send me questions at rdobler46 and we’ll get to the bottom of today’s fantastic science!