Think about Dr. Seuss’ classic book If I Ran The Zoo. Young Gerald McGrew has an active imagination creating heretofore unheard of creatures to make his zoo the most astounding by far. All of Gerald’s inventions are quite interesting. But add them to the long list of different beings humans across time have dreamt up – from the Sphinx to the Griffin – and they still pale in comparison to actual creatures in existence. And yet, says author David Toomey in his new book Weird Life: The Search for Life That is Very, Very Different from Our Own, there are likely countless undiscovered forms of very weird life that we can’t even begin to imagine.
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The very definition of weird involves words such as strikingly odd, strange, and bizarre. David Toomey travels down the strange path of Weird Life starting at the striking discoveries of extremophiles. Extremophile organisms push the boundaries of what conditions we thought life could exist in, thriving in environments too extreme for humans.
Astrobiologists soak up extremophiles because similar environmental conditions in our solar system might correlate with similar extreme life elsewhere. Would life elsewhere look exactly like our cold or acid-loving extremophiles on Earth or would they be even weirder? Vast lakes of liquid methane exist on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Can we find evidence of microscopic life in such an environment? We need to know how to isolate it, what exactly to test for and finance a mission to explore it. The fun part is that Titan is among a handful of strange places we theorize may harbor life in our own solar system. Recent discoveries of planets in other star systems are fodder for speculation of life, familiar to us or what we would deem as weird life.
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My family and I recently visited Roswell, New Mexico. The entire town markets itself on the human notion that life exists elsewhere in a varied form from what we see in the mirror every day. Chapter Seven in Toomey’s book discusses “Intelligent Weird Life”. While some scientists having the thrilling job of searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe, some scientists enjoy the search for life on a much smaller scale on Earth – from the ocean’s bottom to the clouds above. Extremophiles push the boundaries of our beliefs and expectations. We are constantly made aware of what little we actually know. It’s possible a strange brew of exotic life exists here on Earth; we’re just not able to detect it, yet.
If phrases like “shadow biosphere”, “silicon life,” “desert varnish,” and “cloud borne Venusians” don’t pique your interest then perhaps this isn’t the book for you. For those interested in life very, very different from our own, this is right up your alley. Chapters entitled “A Bestiary of Weird Life” and “Weird Life in the Multiverse” certainly made this reviewer turn the pages of Weird Life with a childlike glee. Without a doubt, David Toomey’s book will teach you something you don’t know. Information interspersed with humor, appropriate science bios and anecdotes makes this a well rounded book for your bedside reading.