RENDERING_7: Of Science and Fiction: Jean Painlevé’s L’Hippocampe (1932)

•March 16, 2010 • 4 Comments

Stefan Helmreich opens Alien Ocean with his 2003 experience as a participant-observer onboard a small oceanographic boat called Point Lobos. An interesting moment finds Helmreich in screen-filled control room, charged with monitoring and capturing footage sent back from a 2.5 ton remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The vehicle can descend 1,500 meters below the surface, and is equipped with video cameras and, for this mission, plastic tubes for collecting ‘pushcores’ of “methane-infused ooze” from the ocean floor off the coast of California. (Helmreich, 36)

Describing different modes of sensing an underwater environment, Helmreich contrasts the control room’s rendering of the ROV’s video feed with the films of French director Jean Painlevé (1902-1989):

“… an aesthetic of realism is sternly enforced for the screens delivering images from the Ventana. We are meant to be watching a sort of real-time documentary about extraordinary things, not, say, a high-definition version of the bizarre works of Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon, twentieth century French filmmakers famous for their far-out movies of sea creatures, in which the viewer is constantly reminded of how much cinematic prodding it takes to make human eyes get their bearing in the refracting realm of the sea.” (Helmreich, 47)

This reference to Painlevé jumped out at me because just last fall the title of a newly-reissued (Criterion) collection of his underwater films, Science Is Fiction, caught my STS-eye while I was trolling the shelves of my local video rental store. I watched it and was really impressed by the early underwater cinematography, and the haunting—dare-I-say-alien quality?—of the filmic renderings of underwater life.

While Helmreich uses Painlevé as an arty foil for the empirically-figured ROV feed (on page 33 Helmreich even notes that the ROV’s name, Ventana, is Spanish for “window”—implying an unobstructed, realistic representation of the world) there is more to Painlevé’s story than his brush with surrealism.

In fact, Painlevé, who was the son of French prime minister Paul Painlevé, trained as a biologist at Laboratoire d’Anatomie et d’Histologie Comparée in Sorbonne. Here he met Geneviève Hamon his collaborator and life partner. Through her anarchist father, Painlevé was able to meet a number of influential surrealist artists (Alexander Calder, Eli Lotar)—who were active on both sides of the Atlantic starting in the early 1920s. Painlevé made his first film in 1927, and soon took great interest in underwater images.

While certainly influenced by his surrealist connections, Painlevé also had strong ties to the world of science that Helmreich evokes him in contrast with. Painlevé founded the Institut de Cinematographie Scientifique, and, as Marina McDougall notes in her survey of Painlevé, Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé (2001), “Painlevé kept one foot planted in the biology laboratory, the other in murky waters teeming with aquatic life.” (McDougall, xii)

In 1930 Painlevé began work on what would become his most iconic (and only financially successful) film, L’Hippocampe—“The Seahorse”—(1932). In accordance with surrealism’s call to render the everyday bizarre and disturbing, Painlevé chose to conduct a filmic study of seahorses in order to highlight their “alien” sex roles; female seahorses produce eggs, while the male seahorse gives birth to the offspring.

To make the film, Painlevé had a special airtight box constructed that would house his Sept camera. A transparent glass window pane allowed the camera a view outside the box, which interestingly, anticipates MBARI’s Ventana. Painlevé shot parts of the film by submerging his box in the Bay of Arcachon, off the west coast of France. To catch the birth of a baby seahorse (integral to his themes of gender and reproduction) Painlevé’s also took footage in a Paris basement studio which housed massive seawater aquariums filled with seahorses.

To catch the special moment of birth (film was quite expensive and couldn’t be wasted) Painlevé constructed an apparatus to keep him awake as he monitored the action in the tank for hours on end. He designed a special hat, which, if its metal sensor made contact with a surrounding wire frame (i.e. if he started to nod off) would electrocute him back to wakefulness (I could totally use this invention, actually).

Still, Painlevé is able to transcend the realistic. His use of voiceover helps anthropomorphize the seahorses—to highlight the contrast with human reproduction roles he is hoping to defamiliarize—and the surreal qualities evoked imprint a personal mark on the images created. This was consistant with the French-surrealist notion that a documentary filmmaker should not subordinate themselves to their subject matter, but rather imbue their own sensibility and personal style into the rendering. As such, Painlevé’s approach contrasted with more familiar British and Canadian realistic trends in social documentary films (see John Grierson, for example), which laboured to present ‘realistic’ pictures of the world ‘as it is’.

Below I’ve included a 10 minute edit of L’Hippocampe (the original is 14 minutes), which my filmmaker-roommate certainly did NOT rip from the DVD.

I’m interested in how Painlevé’s camera-in-a-glass-box way of sensing the sea compares to and anticipates the ROV’s. How does Painlevé’s double stance as scientist and artist (which Helmreich doesn’t fully convey) affect his rendering of seahorse life? Above I’ve tried to sketch both sides: Painlevé as both a (over-regulated/techno-regulated) self-regulating subject (sitting awake for hours making observations under pain of electrocution), and as an artist with a specific political point to make. Does this dichotomy come across in this film? Is Helmreich oversimplifying or glossing Painlevé here?

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RENDERING_6: Wojtek the soldier bear

•March 10, 2010 • 5 Comments

The recommended reading for this week is “Value-Added Dogs and Lively Capital” by Donna Haraway from her book When Species Meet (2007), which is book number 3 in the Posthumanities series (edited by Cary Wolfe) that Animal Capital is also from.

In this chapter Haraway argues that dogs, like humans, are subjects of biopolitics. She wants to move past human exceptionalism and include the labours of all fleshy beings in the story of “capitalist technoculture.” This complicates the traditional humanist doctrine that only humans can have valuable histories. As she notes, “Foucault’s own species chauvinism had fooled me into forgetting that dogs too might live in the domains of technobiopower.” (Haraway, 60)

She describes dogs as workers, patients, human simulates in experiments, consumers of 38.4 billions dollars’ worth of products annually in America alone, as model citizen-subjects to help discipline prisoners—even as technologies themselves (as bits of their DNA are copied and reused). More generally, she is interested in “matters when the kin-making beings are not all human.” She wants to affirm cross-species subject making, get rid of “categories for subjects,” and forget “all the names of human kin” commonly bestowed upon companion animals, especially “children.” (Haraway, 66-67)

This week, for my rendering, I offer up the story of a historical cross-species encounter that I think fits nicely with Haraway’s article, and Animal Capital where species distinction becomes an issue for Shukin with the “humanist philosophies” of Marx and Negri, where she see “little room… for the material labors and lives of other species”. (Shukin, 79)

This story is about a bear that was “adopted” by the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps from somewhere in Iran, during World War Two. The soldiers named the bear “Wojtek” (roughly translated: “happy soldier”) and when the regimen received orders to move to the allied front lines in 1944, they took an extraordinary step to bring Wojtek with them. To allow the bear to travel with the soldiers and draw food (and apparently also beer and cigarette) rations, Wojtek was officially enlisted in the Polish Army and given the rank of Private. Colloquially he is known as “Wojtek the soldier bear”.

As the story goes, during the Battle of Monte Cassino (actually four battles in the first half of 1944) Private Wojtek “helped” unload trucks packed with heavy artillery boxes. After victory in Europe he, along with roughly 2,000 other Polish troops were transported to Scotland while central Europe worked to recover from the devastation. In 1947, when the Polish troops returned home, they put Wojtek in the Edinburgh zoo, where he lived as animal capital until his death in 1963. His story has continued to circulate, and he has even been made into an emblem of wartime camaraderie. A statue of him (lowered on all fours, under the steady hand of a mindful human soldier) was unveiled in Scotland in 2009.
Below, I’ve transcribed three  “provocative”/evocative quotes from Scottish “Wojtek experts” interviewed in this short news feature (starts at 0:35).

1: “He lived like a soldier, he ate like a soldier, he slept in a tent with the men, he was one of the men, he would share a beer with the men, he even liked a cigarette.”

2: “The story about Wojtek is a story of comradeship, Wojtek didn’t know he was a bear, Wojtek thought he was a soldier.”

3: “They wonderful thing about Wojtek was although he had the body of a bear, he had the heart of a man.”

Clearly, Wojtek’s story is both transnational (he was picked up in Iran, enlisted in the Polish Army, taken to fight in Italy, and memorialized in Scotland) and trans-species. While a subject of Polish Army discipline he contributed immaterially (the figure of a bear was featured on the regimen’s patch) and materially (helping get bullets to guns at the front) to the war effort, before becoming a capital-generating attraction at the Edinburgh Zoo.

Obviously, Wojtek was not actually considered fully-human, or totally non-bear; he is always pictured chained and was “moved” to a zoo when the regimen was ordered to return to Poland. However, this is an interesting case of flexible boundaries.

Towards the end of “Value-Added dogs” Haraway laments a dearth of ways “to specify these matters in non-humanist terms”. (Haraway, 67) Is that what the Polish Wojtek experts are ham-handedly trying to do? They seem to simply “elevate” Wojtek to the privileged level of human (“one of the men”), in spite of his having an implicitly de-valued “body of a bear”. How can we retell this animal history in non-humanist terms?

RENDERING_5: America’s National Donor Memorial: Organs, politics, and memory

•March 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

For my rendering this week, I’ll begin with the image to the right. It’s an image of the “Wall of Names” at the National Donor Memorial in Richmond Virginia. While not an image of “life itself” the names on this wall represent the transfer of life from one body to another; from a dead body to a different body that would likely be dead otherwise. A trade, or extraction of life is codified, memorialized, glorified, and presented publicly here.

While there is a history of attempted human-to-human limb and organ transplants in Chinese and Roman Catholic literature, it was during the post-war period when the medical practice of organ transfer began to stabilize, after American doctor Joseph Murray completed the first successful human kidney transplant in 1955. In this case both the donor and recipient survived. The National Donor Memorial was constructed to commemorate those whose act of donation was predicated by their death.

Constructed between 2003 and 2006, at a cost of 1.2 million dollars, the 10,000 square foot memorial was funded by professionals working in the organ transfer economy, pharmaceutical companies, Richmond residents, and national procurement organizations. (Sharp, 101) The memorial is divided into four areas: The Wall of Tears, The Wall of Names, The Butterfly Garden, and The Grove. According the their official website “The memorial symbolizes the emotional journey experienced by donor families during the donation process. It’s a journey of hope, renewal and transformation.”

In her anthropology of donor recipients and the kin of deceased donors, Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self (2006) Lesley A. Sharp notes the similarities between this national monument honouring deceased donors and national monuments commemorating America’s war dead (the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and its wall of names being the most striking in similarity).

This similarity in design and function (to labour against the loss of the identities of these “heroes”—an inscription on the Donor Memorial reads “America’s heroes—organ and tissue donors”) ties together the deceased soldier and the deceased organ donor as being types of people crucial to the survival of the nation. (Sharp, 134)

(As an aside, I should note that the main difference between the Vietnam War Memorial and the National Donor Memorial is that the NDM omits last names; revealing the full identity of a deceased donor has been figured as potentially damaging information for the living recipient by psychologists, despite a persistent trend amongst donor kin to have the full identities of their loved ones known and remembered.)

This similarity between the nationalization of the dead soldier and dead organ donor speaks to one of the central themes in Melinda Cooper’s Life As Surplus (2008) which is the neoliberal drawing together of nationalism, military, and biological interests in the contemporary United States

Depending on how you view the National Donor Memorial, it can be seen either to signal or to mask the hidden aspects of the economy of organ transfer. First, as Sharp points out, it functions as a normalizing “public relations tool,” and hides the transfer of money required to have these procedures performed, behind a veil of self-sacrifice and altruism.

It also serves to elevate the practice of organ transfer to the stature of a “national project,” which, in turn masks the fact that many organ transplants are the products of illegal, black-market, transnational acts of violence and exploitation in which organs are harvested from desperate, coerced, or unwitting people in the global south for the biological benefit of indiscriminant buyers in the global north.

As Sharp points out, the memorial also displaces issues like unequal access to healthcare, the loneliness of hospital deaths, and also paints a too-rosy picture of post-transplant-life for recipients who are often unable to rejoin the workforce because their bodies are now deemed “risky”. (Sharp, 118, 135)

In this sense the National Donor Memorial can be seen a monument (loaded with deceptive tricks) to the neoliberal investment in the commoditization, nationalization, and trade in life itself. A monument to project of maintaining the nation through medical intervention, the vampiric transfer of life between bodies, and the elevation of victims of this trade to a simplistic and obfuscating “hero” status.

RENDERING_4: SimLife vs. Alien Planet

•February 25, 2010 • 3 Comments

In section 3, “Pragmatics,” Donna Haraway begins her discussion of genome mapping by describing the computer game SimLife, which was released in 1992 by the Maxis Corporation, and challenged users to build a functioning ecosystem by manipulating the “genetics” of virtual plants and animals.

As the game’s cover artwork—depicting a hybrid lizard/kangaroo/toucan creature perched in front of a tiger/rhinoceros—suggests, one of the big attractions of SimLife was the god-like task of designing an alternate (virtual) nature, and then watching over it as a self-sustaining equilibrium emerges—or doesn’t. Slider controls let users define various environmental parameters (temperature, terrain, precipitation, weather variation) and then design animals by combining sections of three existing animals (using a triptych of  “flip cards” which evokes a casino slot machine-like feeling) in the “Animal Lab” or “get closer still!” by making adjustments on the “genomic” level.

YouTube has a video of a non-playable demo here.

Haraway points out that this video game promotes “world-making” through a kind of cartographic practice enacted from a Judeo-Christian god’s-eye perspective, that she calls a “seamless part of becoming a normal subject in this region of technoscience.” (Haraway, 132)

Her description of SimLife reminded me of a fictional “documentary” produced by the Discovery Channel in 2005 called Alien Planet. Based on the speculative sci-fi book Expedition by Wayne Douglas Barlow, the film is also an exercise in god-like world-making, that imagines the actions of series of robotic probes, launched from earth, as they explore, record, and transmit back the first details of an inhabited extra-solar planet (which is embarrassingly called “Darwin IV”).

A compilation of scenes from Alien Planet featuring these “alien” creatures can be seen here (but with terrible backing music, so mute the sound).

Despite speculating on the form and function of future explorer robots, one of the main goals of this CGI-heavy movie is to imagine and then render visible alien animals. What would the products of independent evolution look like? How would they act? Would they be anything like anything we know about from our earth-bound experiences with life?

The film includes interviews with scientists Stephan Hawking, Michio Katu, and Jack Horner in an attempt to lend creditability to the choices made by the show’s producers,  designers, and scientific consultants.

What struck me while watching this speculative fiction of this fantastic world is how earth-like all the creatures on Darwin IV look. Recalling SimLife, most of them appear to be conceived as obvious combinations of existing earth animals (chicken+bat+goat, elephant+ankylosaurus, etc.). This struck me as a major let-down. In stead of being shocked by these novel configurations, I found myself asking “could alien life be this familiar?”

It is interesting to think (in Haraway’s terms) of these AliensTM, as fetishes of technoscience, rendering something (alien life) which has the potential—at least I think—to be radically different (even jarring or perhaps unobservable) compared to life on earth in form, function, even presence, knowable and conveniently familiar for viewers. Everything seems too familiar, like our earthly categories have hardened, resulting in a failure, or a dramatic scaling back, of imagination.

Instead of seeing these “aliens” as they are presented as “things in themselves” (more or less), we should remember that they are actually “corporealizations” or the results of “the interactions of humans and non-humans”… “the distributed, heterogeneous work processes of technoscience.” (Haraway, 141)

Presented as “art and science’s best educated guess” of how alien life will look and act, these CGI creatures are really nodes where humans (scientists, graphic artists, TV executives) and non-humans (the results of ‘scientific’ astronomical astrobiology labours, the animals of earth, computers, and the politics and economics of film and television production) connect to produce these ‘virtual cyborgs.’

To me, these fabulous and strange creatures are simply not fabulous or strange enough!

RENDERING_3: Missing LIFE

•February 4, 2010 • 4 Comments

This week I’ll start off my rendering post by situating my knowledge within a sick, panicky, stressed-out body—so my apologies if this rendering is unclear/way off base, offensive to Ian Hacking fans, etc.

Given my not-so-secret obsession with trolling through old issues of LIFE magazine, I thought I’d investigate the edition that Ian Hacking makes reference to in his chapter “Microscopes” in Representing And Intervening (1983). He mentions it on page 204-205, while making his case for upholding scientific realism while spying tiny details (or are they artifacts?) through multiple microscopes.

He writes, “In a recent lecture the molecular biologist G.S. Stent recalled that in the late forties Life magazine had a full colour cover of an electron micrograph, labelled, excitedly, ‘the first photograph of the gene’ (March 17, 1947).” (Hacking, 204-205)

Using Google’s online archive of LIFE magazine back issues, I set out to track down this colourful cover and its trumpeted ‘photograph of a gene.’

Here’s what I found: The issue of LIFE from March 17, 1947 did not feature a colour cover about genetics. Instead the cover features a black and white photograph of a Florida youth center worker standing on a beach.

However, a scan through the table of contents does reveal the promise of a photographic essay on the subject of genetics by Herbert Gehr, as part of the magazine’s recurring section called, “Photographs For Life.” But it’s on page 83, not the cover.

The article that accompanies the photographs is titled “Young science studies continuity of Life,” but nowhere in the piece does Gehr feature a photograph of a gene or even use the phrase “the first photograph of the gene,” as Hacking quotes Stent as stating in the lecture.

The article does contain a few neat-looking micrograph images, but these are of plant and animal cells. The closest we get is a fruit fly chromosome on page 89. This article is positioned to introduce readers to the idea of genetic mutation and the functioning of heredity, and is not in anyway framed as introducing “first photographs” of anything. The doctors depicted looking through microscopes are mundanely said to be “observing their work.” No special attention to the microscopes or micrographs or observation is given.

After feeling let-down (and wondering how Hacking could have trusted Stent without at least following-up to see if the guy’s story checked out) I decided to see if Hacking had later caught this slip up, and in fact, he appears to have.

In Images Of Science (1985) Hacking’s chapter “Do We See through a Microscope?” is basically a slightly re-worked version of “Mircoscopes”—not an uncommon practice. However, when he gets to the anecdote about Stent and the LIFE ‘photograph of a gene,’ a new footnote appears: “16. I think Stent must have been referring to LIFE, 17 March 1947, p. 83.”

A ha! But, this marginal mea culpa is ineffective since Hacking continues his point about Stent—who is still quoted as noting that “the title did not make any sense”—which in itself makes no sense because the title never existed in the magazine to begin with.

I realize that I’m probably lost in the details here, but I think this is important to point out. While trying to determine what’s really there/what’s really not under a microscope, Hacking has forgotten to do the same with his sources.

As with nearly all editions of LIFE, the advertisements offer more to think about than the articles themselves. In this case, Hacking might have been better off turning to page 3, and writing about an advert for American Optical that offers “Fallacies and Facts about Seeing,” and then asks, “Are railroad men’s eyes better than others?”

The answer: a resounding, boldfaced “No! But railroad men observe many things that escape the notice of others. This ability of enginemen and trainmen to see and interpret signals instantly, and to spot dangerous or unusual conditions along the right of way, has played an important part in establishing the outstanding records or railroads for safe transportation of the traveling public. Railroad men owe their seeing ability not to ‘better eyes,’ but to their training and experience—with the help of regular visual tests and professional eye care.” (LIFE, March 17, 1947, 3)

While this late 40s ad copy doesn’t relate to microscopes, it does have two advantages:

1) it illustrates Hacking’s argument about philosophers and microscopes and how “you learn to see… by doing, not just by looking,” and that philosophers “will certainly not see through a microscope until he has learned to use several of them”. (Hacking, 189)

2) it’s actually there in the magazine.

This left me wondering: are there photographs of genes? A quick GIS for “photograph of a gene” only turned up a series of photos of old guys named Gene (most of them Gene Simmons).

RENDERING_2: Cross-linguistic animal onomatopoeias

•January 27, 2010 • 1 Comment

How to render non-human liveliness into text?

One way is to encode an emulation of the sounds produced by living things into vocalizations or letters—animal onomatopoeia. In the English language, we’re all familiar with the yearning “meow,” of a hungry cat, or the throaty “hiss,”  of one that feels threatened, or just wants to be left alone.

But if I was ever to collect the autobiography of the cat I live with, it would be filled with strange vocalizations which I might render as “rhet,” “furrip,” or “meip,” and so on. No doubt the tome would be far less engaging than Murr’s romp to the print shop.

In The Order of Things Foucault touches briefly on the subject of onomatopoeia during his discussion of the origin of language, namely while unraveling the relation between the language of action (“sounds, gestures, grimaces”) and the theory of roots (“those rudimentary words that are to be found… in a great number of languages”). (pg. 118)

Foucault goes on to argue that onomatopoeia is one way that roots can be formed—as “involuntary cries spontaneously employed by the language of action.” (pg. 118) However, these cries cannot in themselves form an agreed-upon language, because agreement presupposes a language through which to form the agreement.

Instead, “Man receives from nature the material to make signs, and those signs serve him first of all as a means of reaching agreement with other men as to the choice of those that shall be retained, and the values that they shall be recognized as possessing.” (pg. 117)

Foucault notes that onomatopoeia is not a reflex-like vocalization, but rather “the deliberate articulation of a sign that is also a resemblance.” (pg. 119) This being the result of the pre-modern episteme which operated on perceived resemblance, and similarity.

He narrates the process by which an onomatopoeia comes into being as “imposing movements upon the organs of the voice analogous to those one wishes to signify: ‘so that the sound resulting from the form and natural movement of the organ when placed in this state becomes the name of the object.’ It is a resemblance meant to mimic experience.

Aside from my stated focus on animal onomatopoeia, it is interesting to wonder what the first instance of humans using this might have been. Wind? Footsteps? Cats?

It is also interesting to note that the category of onomatopoeia is populated disproportionately with animal sounds—renderings of liveliness. Did humans first communicate the representation of a certain animal to one another by emulating the sound they once heard it make? It seems that this would rely on both the sender and receiver having both directly experienced the animal making this sound in advance. Just as Foucault notes that nothing in a cry resembles “fear,” nothing in “meow” really resembles a cat.

In keeping with Foucault’s overarching argument that systems of thought constrain and shape discourse, I’ve become fascinated, not with the diverse array of animal sounds rendered into various languages and text, but why certain versions become stable in each tongue. Why “meow” and not “mrow?

Here is a breakdown of how different languages render their most popular form of cat sound: (I was surprised how many begin with the letter “m”–my cat makes lots of noises which wouldn’t start with the “m”-sound were I to render them into text or language)

In Arabic: miao

In Bengali: miu miu

In Bulgarian: miau (мяу)

In Catalan: mèu [mɛu]

In Czech: mňau

In Chinese, Cantonese: mēu-mēu (喵喵)

In Chinese, Mandarin: miāo miāo (喵喵)

In Danish: mjau, mjav, miau, miav

In Dutch: miauw, mauw

In English: meow

In Estonian: mäu, näu

In Filipino: ngyaw

In Finnish: miau, mau, nau, kurnau

In French: miaou [mja.u]

In German: miau

In Greek: niau, (νιάου)

In Hebrew: miaw (מיאו)

In Hungarian: miaú, nyau

In Japanese: nyaanyaa (ニャーニャー)

In Korean: yah-ong (야옹)

In Norwegian: mjau

In Hindi: Myaau, Myaaoo

In Icelandic: mjá

In Italian: miao miao

In Indonesian: meong

In Japanese: nyā (ニャー)

In Korean: yaong (야옹)

In Lithuanian: miau

In Macedonian: myau (мјау)

In Malayalam: “myaoo myaoo”

In Polish: miau

In Portuguese: miau

In Romanian: miau

In Russian: myau (мяу)

In Sinhalese: ñāvu

In Slovene: mijav

In Spanish: miau [mjaʊ]

In Swedish: mjau or mjao

In Tagalog: meyaw,”ngiyaw”

In Thai: miaw (เมี๊ยว)

In Turkish: miyav

In Telugu: miao(m)

In Tamil: miaow(m)

In Urdu: meow

In Vietnamese: meo

[Source]

RENDERING_1: Spectral lines

•January 14, 2010 • 7 Comments

What is the most abstract rendering of life you can think of? How far removed can we get from life while still purporting to somehow represent it?

The detection of extraterrestrial life, it is often suggested, would amount to one of the greatest scientific achievements of human civilization. While fiction and conspiracy theories (maybe not redundant?) relate narratives of direct, “close encounters,” with alien life or artifacts, astronomers and astrobiologists purport to be preparing for a different, long-distance form of revelation.

In What Is Life? (1995), Margulis and Sagan recall the work of English atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock, who in 1967 believed he had settled the debate of whether or not there was life on Mars. As part of his famous “Gaia Hypothesis,” Lovelock proposed that the earth’s biosphere and atmosphere were part of a complex system which through interacting forms of feedback maintained certain favourable conditions for life. By analyzing data from light reflected off the surface of Mars to Earth, Lovelock concluded that there is no life on Mars.

Lovelock argued that by “reading” the atmospheres of other planets for certain effects, the presence or absence of life could be determined without even going there. “In principle, life on any planet could be detected by the chemical markers left in that planet’s air.” (1995; 12)

Beginning in the 1990s, astronomers began to announce the detection of “exoplanets”—planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. Through a variety of methods centered around locating patterns in starlight (like a “wobble,” or a periodic dip in light emitted), certain stars could be inferred to harbour solar systems.

On July 11, 2007, results from the first spectral analysis of a pair of exoplanets (HD 189733 b and HD 209458 b) were revealed to the public. A team of scientists stated that data indicated the presence, and composition, of their atmospheres.

Spectral star analysis is a process where absences of certain wavelengths of a spectrum of starlight are matched up with certain elements. Different gaseous elements the light passes through will strip away certain wavelengths from the light, thereby leaving a unique “signature” of missing lines from the spectrum which are interpreted by experts.

As HD 189733 b passed in front of its parent star (HD 189733 A) in 1942, light from the star traveled through the exoplanet’s atmosphere and then propagated for 63 light-years where some later encountered the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope in 2005. After analyzing the light’s spectrum, astronomers declared that the pattern of absorption lines they observed indicated that the light had passed through water vapor and organic compounds, including methane.

Thinking back to Lovelock, as these methods are refined and repeated, scientists could detect an atmosphere with the “signature” of an earth-like biosphere, which could be interpreted as proof that so form of extraterrestrial life existed on that planet in the past.

In this form, life would be rendered as a particular pattern of grey absorption lines in the spectrum of light emitted long ago, and far away, which is an extremely indirect and convoluted rendering.

Currently, a number of space telescope projects (COROT, Kepler, New Worlds Mission, Terrestrial Planet Finder, and Darwin) are already in place or being readied to detect these patterns.

It’s certainly a far cry from aliens exploding The White House, like they did in Independence Day, but the detection of certain atmospheric properties in exoplanets could very shortly be held up by scientists as “proof” of the existence of extraterrestrial life in the universe. This extremely abstract rendering of life would have the odd effect (counter to most contact narratives where widespread public consensus is achieved by direct observation of the aliens or their artifacts) where some will trust the abstract evidence as “proof,” while others will consider the question unsettled.

Later, it might be discovered that some non-living phenomenon has been mistaken for the “signature of life,” or maybe the method of detection itself will be called into question, and the “scientific” conclusions rescinded.

Either way, this abstract rendering of life at-a-distance will probably not settle the debate over the existence of extraterrestrial life “once-and-for-all” (as is so often depicted happening in fiction and late-night paranormal radio talk shows), but we may be confronted with this controversial rendering of life in just a few years.