Life Is Precious, Life Is Cheap

Life is precious. From humans to microbes, each organism arranges itself to energize itself, repair itself, avoid danger, resist death. A tomato plant defies death by its very persistence in living and by living beyond itself through its seeds. Life must be precious, for living is what organisms do at almost any price. Love is real, even with its roots in biology. A cancer survivor I know travels to the ocean once a year to celebrate her life. We search other planets for signs of it.

Life is cheap. The number of all organisms on this planet, from humans to microbes, is beyond counting. Life must be cheap, for living is what all these organisms do. Every body is vulnerable, dependent on the right heat, light, and water, built from ordinary materials, prone to breakage. Big fish eat little fish, and humans eat big fish. Fear, depression, hunger, illness, disability, poverty, discrimination, or fatigue cramp many of our days. Love seems real but is only biology. A healthy, fortunate man asked me last week, “Is this all there is?” I said “Yes.”

Lives are precious and cheap, one-of-a-kind and a dime a dozen, self-perpetuating and ephemeral.


Escher’s “Ascending and Descending”

Searching For Almost-But-Not-Exactly-Living Things On Other Planets

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?

Mars (


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.