The Skies Are Alive

by Peter Jekel

We are living links in a life force that moves and plays around and through us, binding the deepest souls with the farthest stars. ~Alan Chadwick

When Sir Frederick Hoyle, the late world-renowned and often controversial astronomer and science fiction author, wrote The Black Cloud, in 1957, he probably thought that he was writing science fiction. Then again, maybe he knew something that we didn’t. The story centers on the arrival of cloud of gas in the solar system that threatens life on Earth by blocking out the life-giving rays of the Sun. As the story progresses, scientists observe that the cloud does not fit any predictive models of behaviour, thus thwarting any efforts on their part to contain the threat that it poses. Instead, its unpredictable behaviour causes the scientists to come to an unlikely conclusion that the cloud is a living entity. They attempt communications with the cloud and to their surprise receive a response. Ironically, the cloud is just as surprised to find that there are living organisms on a solid surface.

What is special about Hoyle’s cloud? After all, gaseous organisms are highly unlikely in the universe, let alone one with intelligence.

The reason for the unlikelihood of a gaseous organism is simple. Life, as we know it, depends on chemical interactions; in fact, many such reactions have to occur simultaneously in order for an organism to survive. Most reactions also have to occur in isolated regions of the organism as opposed to the organism as a whole. For example, digestion normally takes place in one section of a living organism; in us, it is the digestive tract of our bodies. In a gas, the atoms and molecules are separated by large spaces and randomly distributed, thereby reducing the possibility of a concerted series of chemical reactions, especially in isolated pockets. All life forms that we know of today are solid organisms that utilize a liquid medium, water, in order to carry on the functions of life.

So does Hoyle’s The Black Cloud remain forever embedded in the realms of imaginative aliens? Perhaps not.

In 1879 Sir William Crookes described a state of matter that he found in an invention of his that bears his name, a Crookes tube. A Crookes tube is used to explore phosphorescent effects at a high vacuum. He called this state of matter “radiant matter.” It was Sir Joseph John Thomas, a British physicist, who identified this new state of matter. This “radiant matter” became known as “plasma” when Irving Langmuir, an American physicist and chemist, who in 1928, viewed plasma and concluded that "it was not unlike blood plasma. "

What is plasma? Plasma is often described as the fourth state of matter. It is essentially ionized gas, but is considered distinct from gas because of its unique properties. It is created by raising the temperature of a gas so that its molecules collide with such violence that they are actually broken apart into individual atoms with their electrons ripped away, creating what is known as ions. The plasma state of matter has been reached.

Due to the presence of free electrons, plasma is highly responsive to electromagnetic fields and highly conductive of an electrical current. In fact, an electromagnetic field could be used to create an invisible plasma carrying case, if such a device were ever wished for. We can leave that for the science fiction writers to speculate. Gases, on the other hand, act as insulators, with very low electrical conductivity. In fact, we only have to think about a gas that we are all familiar with, the air that we breathe. It acts as one of Nature’s best insulators.

Gases behave similarly throughout their volume with uniform temperatures and velocities. Plasmas, made up of independent electrons and ions, behave according to their electrical charge, allowing differing velocities and temperatures across its mass.

Gases interact through particle collisions. A plasma, though essentially ionized gas, is organized in waves so that the particles can interact at long ranges through electromagnetic forces.

Even though plasma is a relatively new concept in our scientific arsenal to describe the universe around us, plasma is actually the most common state of matter in the universe. In space, we have the stars which are made of plasmas heated by nuclear fusion, the solar wind which is the stream of charged matter discharged from the outer atmosphere of the sun, the matter in the spaces between the planets, galaxies, accretion discs of black holes and neutron stars and interstellar nebulae.

In the world around us, we can witness plasma in the form of lightning, the ionosphere and the aurorae that periodically envelop polar regions in an eerie curtain of light. John Briscoe, captain of the ship Tula, while on tour of the southern oceans in 1831, remarked that the “southern aurora are without exception the grandest phenomenon of nature that I have ever witnessed.” 

In our living rooms and offices, we can see plasmas in our everyday lives in plasma television displays and fluorescent lights. If plasmas are hot by creation, how is it that we can use them in our technologies such as the televisions and fluorescent lights? The reason is that the electrons and the ions of a plasma can be at different temperatures due to the fact that electrons contain considerably less mass than the ions, thereby heating more quickly. When the electron temperature is different than the ion temperature, the plasma is defined as cold. When the temperatures of the various particles are equal, the plasma is defined as hot.

Temperature controls the amount of ionization in a plasma. If a plasma is hot, the plasma is said to be fully ionized as in the sun whereas a cold plasma is one where only a small percentage of the molecules are ionized; this is the plasma that is most often used in technologies today.

In fact, though, plasmas may normally be borne by heat, it is also possible to create ultracold plasmas-as low as a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, the temperature where all molecular motion stops-by using lasers to trap and cool atoms while another laser ionizes the atoms by giving the outermost electrons enough energy to escape the electrical attraction of the parent ion.

Due to their unique properties, plasmas can take on a number of complex structures as well. The most common one that people would be familiar with is the filaments which can be seen in lightning bolts, auroras and solar flares. Since they follow an electrical field they are also known as magnetic ropes.

Plasmas can also form narrow sheets which support the rapid changes in plasma properties; they are known as shocks or double layers. Double layers involve localized charge separation which causes a large potential difference across the layer without creating an electrical field outside the layer. The double layers allow for the separation of plasma regions with differing physical characteristics. Donald Scott, a plasma cosmologist, comments that the double layer of a plasma acts much like a cell membrane. In fact, models of plasma double layers are often used to investigate the ion transfers between living biological cells.

Most interestingly plasmas can also form cellular structures due to the nature of plasma's ability to separate regions with different physical properties such as density, temperature and magnetization.

With all of the potential complexity within a plasma system, is it possible that The Black Cloud may have some potential in reality? Certainly many of the heavyweights of hard science fiction have explored the possibility of plasma life forms. Gregory Benford probably has used the plasma organisms the most in his stories. It only makes sense since he is also a plasma physicist as well as an astrophysicist at University of California, San Diego. In his Galactic Center series, though the focus is on machine intelligence, plasma beings play roles in the plots. In Sunborn, Benford’s sequel to his The Martian Race, there are descriptions of some very extraordinary creatures made of plasma. He also uses the theme of plasma life in his book, Eater, a story of Earth’s interaction with an entity that lives in the accretion disk around a mini black hole; the entity turns out to be intelligent.

Other tales involving plasma life forms include Frederick Pohl’s The World at the End of Time where humans and plasma-based intelligent life forms that had lived in the stars around them find themselves the survivors at the end of the universe. David Brin’s Sundiver deals with mission to the sun to find out more about beings that are found in the sun’s chromosphere, called sun-ghosts. Arthur C. Clarke wrote one of his many classic and poetic short stories called, From Out of the Sun,  that describes life on the sun as witnessed from an observatory on Mercury. Hal Clement, in his first published story in 1942, wrote Proof in Astounding Stories  that speculates on the possibility of life on the sun. In his novel Ring, Stephen Baxter has imagined a flock of photino birds, entities that live inside of stars. Charles Sheffield, in his Between the Strokes of Night, describes beings that live in intergalactic space. Wheelers, by mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist, Jack Cohen, not only describes life in the sun called plasmoids, but also gives with the narrative of the story a possible evolutionary process for the plasma-based life. Jack McDevitt’s Pricilla Hutchins’ series finally reveals the true nature of the omega clouds in The Cauldron, in that they are a form of space-based plasma lifeforms.

Science fiction writers are not the only ones that have speculated on the unique properties of plasma. David Bohm (1917-1994), a leading quantum physicist of the twentieth century was very intrigued by the behavior of plasmas. He found that electrons in a plasma ceased to behave like individual particles, but rather as if they were part of a large interconnected whole. This property allowed for the production of complex effects, in a sense like a life form. Plasma could be regenerated and would even enclose impurities not unlike a living cell that encases a foreign body in a vacuole. Bohm, in fact, was so impressed with these lifelike qualities that he concluded that the plasma did indeed possess some of the characteristics of life.

The speculation and observations of Bohm turned to actual experimentation in the early twenty first century. In 2003, physicists Erzilla Lozeneanu and Mircea Sanduloviciu of Cuzca University in Rumania described how they were able to create plasma spheres in the laboratory that had all of the properties of life including the ability to grow, replicate and even communicate. The experiment involved the insertion of two electrodes into a chamber of low temperature polarized plasma of argon, a gas that was present in early Earth’s atmosphere. They then applied a high voltage to the electrodes, thus producing an arc of electricity that bridged the gap between the electrodes. The result was the spontaneous formation of spheres at the positive electrode. The spheres were self-contained, layered and luminous. The scientists even speculated that their plasma spheres may even have served as a template for biological evolution on earth. Perhaps this is one of the missing links between non-life forms and life as we know it. Only further research and hypothesizing will reveal the answer.

Even if this discovery does not prove to be the holy grail of life on earth (and perhaps other worlds), the description sounds a lot like the orbs and will-o-the wisps in paranormal literature. Perhaps plasma organisms do very much exist right here in our own atmosphere. At the very least, we may have a scientific explanation of the endless tales of hauntings and other paranormal phenomena.

Ball lightning is a phenomenon in our atmosphere that currently evades explanation. There are theories of matter-antimatter interactions or that it is the result of the fact that powerful thunderstorms can act as particle accelerators thus possibly creating minor nuclear reactions. The most likely cause, though, is that ball lightning is made up of plasma that is held together by electromagnetic fields. What makes ball lightning so intriguing is its unpredictable behaviour. There are stories of ball lightning coming into houses, moving around erratically before moving out. Some eyewitnesses have even stated that the balls appear to be looking for something, a sign of curiousity or intelligence? Or just coincidence? There are also stories of ball lightning following people before moving away. In one instance there is the story of ball lightning entering the cockpit of an aircraft during a thunderstorm. It divided into two crescents before remerging and vacating the plane. Could ball lightning be alive?

In a 2007, scientists from the Russian Academy of Science, Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of Sydney, applied a computer simulation of molecular motion to interstellar dust. They were dismayed by what they found. Up until then, interstellar clouds did not appear to have any organization. However, with the computer simulation, it was found that the plasma particles undergo a self-organization as the charges become separated. The result was most bizarre. Results showed the formation of microscopic strands of inorganic dust that twisted into a helical structure, much like that of nucleic acids in biological life forms. As the program progressed, the new structures divided to form two copies of the original structure and further even induced changes on neighbouring structures. Further to that, the less stable structures were replaced by more stable ones, a form of natural selection, perhaps. Certainly well beyond the realm of what Darwin thought when he came up with his theory of evolution through natural selection, but it does add more authority to the universality of the concept.

Perhaps there are plasma based life forms. However, is intelligence possible as speculated by Fred Hoyle in The Black Cloud? Arvidas Tamulis  and his colleagues have modeled an interstellar cloud and come up with a remarkable observation. The cloud drawing energy from the electromagnetic field of space, and moving via radiation pressure can actually become a form of quantum computer. A quantum computer in order to exist would require the presence of long-lasting quantum states. Such conditions are present in the low temperatures found in interstellar dust clouds. Therefore, there may be intelligent life in the cold reaches of outer space.

Alien life at our doorstep is indeed a possibility. In fact, plasma aliens go well beyond exchanging chemical elements that make up the biological makings of life on earth such as switching carbon for silicon. It truly humbles us when we see this possibility before us. It makes us rethink our place in the universe. The universe, it would appear, is potentially full of life, but not life as we had expected. It opens up new vistas of scientific exploration. In fact, the possibility of plasma-based lifeforms, intelligent or otherwise, goes even beyond science into a realm of philosophy and even potentially religion. Humans would certainly have to rethink their place in the universal order. In the interim, the debate of what is life will go on and in this instance, science fiction can serve as a guideline of what to expect in our quest for the truth.

Lozneanu, E. and Sanduloviciu, M.  2003.  Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. Vol. 18. 
Scott, Donald, 2000. American Journal of Physics. Vol. 68. No. 5. 
Tamulis, A., Tamuliene, J. and Tamulis, V. Abstract Collection of First Workshop of the COST Chemistry Action D27 on Origins of Life and Early Evolution
Tsytovich, V., Morfill, G.E. et al. 2007. New Journal of Physics. Vol. 263. No. 9.

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