The virus that causes COVID-19 offers a teachable moment for thinking beyond our earthly limits
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora (2015, Orbit Books), a starship undertakes a multi-generation voyage to the star Tau Ceti to colonize the moon of one of the planets. The science-fiction book details the challenges the crew and colonists experience living in the controlled and limited environment of the spacecraft. Upon reaching their destination, numbers of colonists disembark for the surface of the moon, named Aurora. At first, the environment on Aurora appears promising, until colonists begin to die from exposure to a previously undetected prion. The colony institutes a strict quarantine, denying people who had gone to the moon’s surface access to the ship. This causes a schism, with some deciding to remain in an attempt to terraform Aurora, and the rest opting to make the long return trip to Earth. One remaining colonist who went to the surface is forced to remain quarantined in his shuttle for the entire voyage back to Earth. During the trip, those on the spacecraft lose contact with those who remained on Aurora.
While not a perfect analog for the current COVID-19 pandemic and the need to quarantine those exposed to the coronavirus, Robinson’s novel does have some parallel themes. I’m referring particularly to the need to quarantine people exposed to a previously unknown and undetected novel infectious agent and the deadly nature of the infection. While prions and viruses are not the same, the characteristic they share is a lack of “normal” cellular structures, which makes them both not fit the standard definition of “living.” (The main difference between them is a prion is a bundle of misfolded proteins, and a virus contains either RNA or DNA.)
We can use this idea of viruses and prions not quite fitting the standard definition of life to investigate interesting questions asked in astrobiology. For example, what is the definition of life? Under what conditions can life exist? Where does life exist? How can we detect life?
The last question is particularly apt in that without normal cellular processes and their waste products, both viruses and prions are potentially undetectable when searching for life on distant worlds. In Aurora, for example, the colonists did not recognize the contagion even though they meticulously screened the environment for any signs of life — a point showing how little we actually know about life and its requirements. We may not have the ability to recognize it when we find it. In many ways, we are stuck in an Earth-centered point of view, where everything has to conform to our human expectations. While viruses and prions push on the boundaries of what we consider life, they can also help us understand the conditions under which life propagates.
Using the coronavirus as a starting point, educators can engage students in interesting and relevant investigations of the nature of life. Since we don’t yet have any examples of life beyond Earth, stories such as Aurora can provide a speculative venue for students to examine in their investigations of living systems. Astrobiology is not a distinct science itself, integrating ideas and methodologies from other fields: chemistry, astrophysics, meteorology, oceanography, geology, biology. This integrated nature of astrobiology lends itself to inclusion in a variety of classes, including cross-curricular efforts as students investigate the nature of societies and migration. Such lessons can enhance students’ ability to communicate effectively, both persuasively and in their descriptions of the science underlying human exploration of space.
As a society, we seem to anticipate our first contact with alien life will take the form of intelligent creatures appearing on Earth, or our making contact with them either through our radio telescopes, or on a first mission beyond our solar system. This anticipation also relates to the ongoing fascination with UFOs, including recent releases of government documents some people suggest confirms the presence of craft not of this planet in our skies. It’s a hubris of sorts to anticipate there are creatures like us flying around the galaxy, and taking special interest in what is taking place on Earth. While the physical geocentric model of the universe was put to rest hundreds of years ago, we maintain a psychological, sociological and spiritual geocentrism where Earth and humanity occupy a privileged position in the greater cosmos.
It is far more likely the first life we discover beyond Earth will bear more similarities to the coronavirus than ET. Microorganisms dominated life on Earth for most of its history, and there is every reason to think distant worlds will have experienced a similar evolutionary history. The coronavirus is teaching us the realm of microorganisms still controls much of what takes place in Earth’s biosphere, including human activities. To place these forms of life, including those on the boundaries of life, in a greater context may take an astrobiologist to explain.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a teachable moment for learners to explore the nature of life, with considerations for human expeditions to distant worlds, all through the lens of astrobiology.
This post originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific