Under the Sun
One of the world's leading climate scientists has written a work of fiction about his latest blockbuster paper—on the possibility that intelligent life may have preceded humans on Earth.
Today, we have a very special edition of Terraform—esteemed scientists Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank have just published what may prove to be a blockbuster paper about the possibilities that intelligent life forms may have existed on Earth long before humans. To accompany the paper's release, Schmidt wrote a short work of fiction exploring both the process of publishing and the potential ramifications of their nonfictional findings. It's just the sort of experiment we seek to embrace here at Terraform, and we're thrilled to publish the work today, alongside an interview with Gavin about the science itself.
Here's Gavin on why he decided to take a stab at exploring new scientific findings through fiction:
"This story comes from me thinking playfully about the what-if's that arise when you consider the Earth from an astrobiological standpoint. Work that I did in describing the very long term impact of the Anthropocene on the geology of the Earth lead directly to thinking about the potential causes of similarly abrupt changes in the past, or what fingerprints we might eventually look for on Mars, or even Venus—both of which were likely habitable early in Solar System history.
Wouldn't it be interesting if the first non-human civilizations we discover were not extra-terrestrials at all?"
And now for the story. Enjoy. -the eds
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9
Miranda: Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in ’t!
Prospero: 'Tis new to thee. -Shakespeare; The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1
“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18
Stella put down the phone. She breathed in gently and tried to compose herself. Surely not, she thought. Was it inevitable? She remembered to breathe out.
She thought back five months to when this had all started. It had been a standard late shift in the basement lab at the university. She’d been tired, but working at night was more generally productive than trying to get stuff done during the day—less idle chat with the others, no students wondering where the professor was when she was standing right there, no distractions or interruptions. The radio was tuned to the local NPR station and though she wasn’t really listening, the talk had been of the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
There were two projects she was running samples for. The first was what she really wanted to be doing—looking at ocean mud that was millions of years old and trying to piece together the story of what happened during a short segment of time when all the environmental indicators went haywire. It wasn’t as big a deal as the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs and almost everything else, but it was the biggest perturbation since then—at least before humans came along. Scientists had been looking at this event in ever more detail since it was first identified in the 1990s, but the ultimate cause was still mysterious. Something had triggered a massive shift in the global carbon cycle but clues for what that could have been were sparse, though ideas abounded—volcanoes, comets and methane bursts had all been proposed. It seemed like a great target for a young tenure-track hire keen to make a splash with her new top-of-the-line mass spectrometer bought with what seemed at the time a massive start-up grant.
The second project was just to pay the bills. She hadn’t realized when she got her new machine how expensive it would be to run—you had to pay for a full time tech and costs for a seemingly endless series of replacement parts had quickly eroded her initial funding. She had realized that she couldn’t afford to leave the machine idle and so spent a lot of time on industry projects that would pay her to analyze samples. She often likened the process to the voracious appetite of the carnivorous plant in the Little Shop of Horrors, and had consequently nicknamed the mass-spec Audrey III.
It turned out that Audrey III was as well suited to detecting pollution levels in local river mud as she was past climate anomalies. The hangover from the 1970s industrial activity in the region was the unknown amount of PCBs, heavy metals and other toxins that had been dumped, unregulated, in the rivers, over decades. As modern cleanup efforts had gotten underway, and new environmental assessments needed to be done, a healthy market for water and mud testing had evolved. Stella had grown adept at tapping into this. True, she did need to recalibrate the machine every time she switched to these samples from her climate work, but she had honed her technique so that it didn’t take more than about 30 minutes before and after each batch.
That night though, she had been more tired than usual. There’d been a grant deadline and she’d been up late . It was an understandable mistake. She put through the climate samples with Audrey III’s setting still set for PCBs. This had happened before, but something was different that night. The climate samples were registering positive for PCBs.
At first she had just been confused. That couldn’t be right. Had she actually run the modern river samples? No. They were clearly labeled and the mud was even a different color. Maybe the machine was contaminated? No. That wouldn’t give such a distinct and clear result. She slowly came around to the thought that positive values were real.
But what they suggested was bizarre. Coincident with all the environmental changes 55 million years ago, was a steady increase in the amount of synthetic pollutants. Pollutants that just didn’t exist in natural systems as far as anyone knew. Pollutants that, by all accounts, were created for the first time in history in 1881 in a German laboratory. What were they doing in ancient ocean mud? People suspected that they were long lasting, but no-one had speculated about this kind of timescale.
The discovery set her off to do a series of tests—was this reproducible with additional samples? Yes. Same results. Could it be seen using a different machine? Stella sent a sample to a colleague’s lab asking for the same analysis “for cross-calibration purposes” but without saying where the sample came from. It came back back an almost exact match. For the first two weeks she didn’t mention it to anyone.
She couldn’t silence the little voice in her head that kept questioning the results. Who did she think she was? If PCBs were really there, why hadn’t someone smarter found them already? Maybe it was all some accident, and as soon as it got out, other people would see the problem right away and she’d be humiliated. She thought back to that one time in 6th grade math class when she had been too keen to answer the teacher’s question and how the boys had laughed when she confused quadratic equations with quadrilaterals. She learned a good lesson then: Keep quiet until you were sure.
After a month of checks, she was sure.
Deciding what to do with the information was hard, though. This was a big deal, something buried in a scientific paper (with months of peer review and delays and possible leaks) might not get noticed at all in the current climate. Who was paying attention to deep time geochemistry at a time when multiple military “exercises” in the Yellow Sea and late night sessions in the UN security council were dominating the headlines? But any other route was fraught with danger. “Science by press release” was a calling card for kooks and people who imagined they were Galileo. Remember cold fusion? She had to maintain credibility or she’d be dismissed immediately without a hearing.
Writing up the results in a short paper for Nature was actually quite straightforward, calming even. The middle bits were easy: Here’s what was found, these are the tests that were done to check it, the replication, the uncertainty. It was all very dry. But these papers had to have their wrappers: the provocative claim in the lede, the important implications at the end. Without that, without the part that “would be of interest to the general reader”, they didn’t get past the first hurdle. You had to convince them that this would be huge.
She had to be clear, just like in other breakthrough papers. The ones she remembered didn’t mince their words. But there were many counterexamples where seemingly massive results had unravelled immediately on publication. Consequences that would have been huge, but only if they’d been true.
But how was she going to put it? Did she really have proof that there were polluting reptiles in the Paleocene? Maybe they weren’t reptiles. A kind of bird perhaps? Sounded crazy either way. Surely we’d have seen evidence for this before? But… maybe not. How long were humans around before they started impacting the environment? A few hundred thousand years? Maybe a few million if you went back to Homo Erectus. Complex life on land has been around for 400 million years! Plenty of time for things to develop once, twice or even multiple times. How many of our fossils will be discoverable in 55 million years time?
The email had arrived that morning. “Can I call you? I’ve got some results you need to see”. It was an old friend she’d been in graduate school with, a conference buddy, someone she occasionally emailed and chatted to even though they now lived on different continents. “Sure”, she said. He too had access to a good mass spec. She decided not to speculate about what he was going to say, but she felt a frisson of excitement and nervousness when her phone rang.
They ran through the pleasantries quickly. “So…” he said finally. “Yes?” “I had some additional core samples going through the event in the repository. I’d been saving them for a graduate student to look at using single shell analyses.” “That’d be lot of work!” she sighed, remembering one of her own graduate school projects. “Yeah… but based on your paper, I thought I’d run them myself.”
He paused. “It’s not good”, he said quietly. She steadied herself against the desk in expectation that he’d tell her that he hadn’t been able to replicate her results. Shit. Shit. Shit. “And…?”. Her voice rose and she could feel her throat tighten slightly. He continued, “I ran them for transuranics.”
“What…. sorry, what?”. She was confused. How was that a replication? She had measured a whole different class of pollutants.
“Transuranics—you know, radioactive elements heavier than uranium. Neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium…”.
She cut him off. “Yes, yes, I know. But why?”
“I was just curious.”
Intrigued again, she asked, “So what did you see?”
“Nothing for neptunium, or americium—their half-lives are too short. They are just a test for modern contaminants.” He paused again. She didn’t see where he was going with this.
“There wasn’t anything for the others either, at the beginning, you know, where your PCBs are”. Now she was puzzled. “I’m not getting it.”
He spoke faster now. “Not at the beginning… but at the end! I'm seeing significant amounts of curium-247 spiking near the peak, just before the event starts to reverse”.
In the end, the paper was pitched just right. “Evidence of pre-human artificial chemo-synthesis in the Paleocene” it said. She laid out the evidence for a synthetic source of the pollutants, the very low odds on any natural sources, even in the (then) much warmer climate, and all the efforts they had made to rule out modern contamination. It was a short author list. Her and her lab tech. MacIver and Mikhaev. It had a nice ring to it. The implications were deliberately coy and kept short—she wanted to leave something for the popular science articles and maybe a book.
The editors sent it out to selected reviewers immediately. Three senior researchers; each expert in one of the aspects of the paper, and each sworn to confidentiality. They tried hard to find a flaw. They asked for the raw data readings from Audrey III. They made inquiries about the replicated samples. They even checked the code that translated the raw signals to the peaks and identification of specific molecules. It was solid. Within six weeks, she had polished the text to everyone’s satisfaction and the paper was accepted for expedited publication.
The first paragraph is the one that everyone reads, and that was rewritten by the editor to enhance the clarity of the result but leaving just enough jargon to sound authoritative. She had stood her ground on not letting them say there was proof of a prior industrial civilization. Just evidence that was impossible to explain any other way.
While she was going over the final version, the calls had started. One of the reviewers (at least) had not been as reliably confidential as they should have been. Science twitter and other social media started to buzz with rumors of an impending big result. The more sensible voices had tried to damp down rampant speculation. “It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens,” said one of the more weary observers. Stella thought that was funny.
She didn’t take any of the calls. The public relations people at the university wanted to include an artist’s impression of a bipedal Paleocene reptile in the press release. She vetoed that. The calls were now continuous and her voicemail full. There was spillover to the rest of the department who kept being called to see if they knew anything. They didn’t and some of the more senior staff did not hide their annoyance. Whether that was just because of the nuisance calls, or whether it was tinged with a little professional jealousy was unclear.
A week before it was due to be published, the press releases and the embargoed copy of the paper went live. She barely slept - partly from excitement, partly from just dealing with the media requests from every time-zone. They set up a temporary studio area for all the TV crews outside the lab and while they were setting up, she’d find time to squeeze in a call to print journalist or two. She was as well dressed as she had ever been for the whole week, and with more make-up than ever too. It added to the nagging feeling, still, that this wasn’t real and she was just playing a scientist on TV.
Stella was incredulous.
“You’re kidding me. Curium-247 is a byproduct of nuclear fission. How is that possible?”
“It has a half-life of 15 million years. So if any was created 55 million years ago, there’s still about 8% of it left.”
“Oh my god. Nuclear power?”
“You were right - I am interested. Holy moly! But wait, you said it wasn’t good. I don’t get it, this is great.”
“There’s something else.”
“What else could there be? You’ve just discovered that a prior terrestrial non-human species made use of nuclear power!”
“There’s another spike. Right at the cusp.”
“Yes, a little. But…”
He trailed off.
There was silence on the line for a second or two.
“Plutonium.” He said finally. “Plutonium-244”.
Her mind was racing now… plutonium, plutonium, created as a by product from the fission of uranium, right? No. That was Plutonium-241. This was the isotope with atomic mass 244 and a half-life of 80 million years. Where had she heard of that before? Supernovas, that’s right. It was made in supernovas.
The radio was still on in the background. Something about hostile action near Incheon and talk of “robust responses” from the President. She didn’t have time for that just now.
The equation was encapsulated by physicist Frank Drake in the 1960s as a way to think about the number of civilizations in the galaxy that we might be able to communicate with. It has terms for the number of planets in the habitable zones of stars, the fraction of them where life appears, the fraction that evolve intelligence, and the fraction that develop technically advanced civilizations. Some of the terms can be estimated using direct observations of planets around other stars. Others are totally speculative or based purely on the one example (so far) that we know about. Recent discoveries have shown that planets around stars are ubiquitous, so maybe aliens are too?
But where are they? This is the Fermi paradox. If there are that many civilizations out there, why haven’t we heard from them yet? Embedded within the Drake equation is one term that makes all the difference. What is the average lifetime of an industrial civilizations? If it can be measured in millions of years, the galaxy should be full of them. If they are much more ephemeral, we could well be alone.
The day of publication was a whirl. She did back to back live interviews for breakfast TV, two news channels, the different hosts on the news channels, the BBC, with interviewers that spoke French, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. A couple of outlets commissioned artists’ impressions of bipedal Paleocene reptiles. The study was high profile (at least for a science story) almost everywhere - with the notable exception of the newspapers in South Korea which had stayed focused on the troop movements near the DMZ. The comments from other scientists (mostly the usual suspects) were guarded. No-one was willing to say this was proof of a prior civilization - “more analysis” and “replication” would be needed before they were willing to commit to an identifiable position. Everyone was certainly “intrigued” though. One of the British tabloids made it front page news by linking it to an old episode of Doctor Who and running a photo of his nubile assistant confronting the “Silurians” - prehistoric, bipedal, reptiles, of course.
The media circus moved on after a week or so, but while the calls and emails didn’t let up for another month, the topic and the ‘hot takes’ disappeared from public view. Scientifically, it was another story. Stella was asked by dozens of labs for samples they could analyze, and for her advice on other measurements that might be useful. Had she looked at the Permian-Triassic extinction event? Had anyone found plastics? Or synthetic steroids? It was amazing to think about the longevity of the by-products of civilization.
There was of course some hostility and ridicule. When National Enquirer did a cover on the work with “Earthlings or Aliens?” emblazoned across the photo of her and (inevitably) a prehistoric, bipedal reptile, there was a big spike in anonymous offensive emails (was that a tautology she wondered). Oddly, there was also a spike in email requests asking her out. People, it appeared, were interested in only two things: data or dates.
Her colleagues in the department were surprisingly good. A little of the reflected glory fell on them - many more people started claiming mentorship roles than she ever remembered giving useful advice. Even the old fool who’d once asked her whether one could even ever make a career out of paleo-climate, was now pretending to have guided her research approach.
Mainly she settled down to wait for the replications (or not). Her tech still needed to be paid, and the river mud samples still needed prepping and analyzing. There was lots of work to do. That had been two months ago.
“Wait, so you’re saying there was a super-nova somewhere in the vicinity of the solar system, at exactly the same time that we have evidence of an industrial civilization starting to use nuclear power. What are the odds?” It made no sense.
He was still on the line. “No. I don’t think it was a super-nova. There’d be other astronomical traces.”
“Well then… what?”
“You need to have absolutely massive energies to produce Plutonium-244. Nuclear power generation just doesn’t cut it - not enough neutrons flying around.” He paused again.
“Right. You need to generate really large numbers of free and energetic neutrons. Like in a bomb. Oh…, oh, I see…” Stella’s heart sank. She’d of course wondered what had happened to them. Vaguely she’d imagined that they progressively developed more sophisticated technology and slowly reduced their footprint on the geology before eventually becoming quietly extinct. She realized that she hadn’t really thought that through.
Paradoxically, a small number of people in Pyongyang, Washington, Beijing and Moscow, none of whom had ever heard of Fermi, continued to work towards a clear demonstration of a solution to his paradox. Again.
Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist living in New York, where he studies past, present and possible future climates. He is the co-author of "Climate Change: Picturing the Science", and an award-winning science communicator. He is an adjunct senior researcher at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.