We get a steady trickle of news about evidence that some planet—one of our own or a newly discovered one—might support or has supported organic life. Such a search is exciting, of course. But is there nothing on such planets short of life itself that would be interesting and even inspiring to the layperson, other than dramatic landscapes?
What if there are entities out there that, even though they aren’t DNA-based, do have boundaries (“skins” of sorts), organized innards, an energy flow, and perhaps some interaction with others of their kind? They would not be “alive” in our sense of the word, but they might be a different version of it.
Here is an example of such a naturally occurring and non-living but life-like entity. This is a fictional creature, fathered only by my speculation, and I’m sure scientists as well as science fiction writers could supply more likely ones, or already have.
Let’s say that on a planet that has an atmosphere, the winds have swirled the sands and the dust around for millions of years in such a way that every so often, the dust forms cone-shaped structures a few feet high, structures that become compacted and hardened sufficiently to last for many years. Let’s say that the layers of such cones sometimes include nickel, zinc, or other components in an arrangement that produces an electromagnetic flux. In some cases, the flux is strong enough to interact with the flux from other nearby cones. Sometimes the interaction repels and damages the cones, sometimes it appears to strengthen them. Earth scientists dub these structures GERFs, Geologic Electromagnetic Radiation Formations.
GERFs would be life-like in some ways: their autonomy, energy use, and interaction. But more importantly they would be interesting in their own right as self-contained, self-sustaining systems of matter and energy on a modest scale. Mini, autonomous systems in a huge universe. A second set, along with Earth’s.
I hope we look for GERFs or their cousins out there. If we don’t, I think we limit our appreciation of our own quite beautiful, enduring and possibly unique version of life.