The Spreading of Life Throughout the Universe
(and From Earth to Mars)
The Spreading of Life Throughout the Universe
(and From Earth to Mars)
Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews, 1, 311-328, 2019
(Edited/Reprinted from: Svante Arrhenius, IV, "Worlds in the Making")

The Spreading of Life Throughout the Universe
(and From Earth to Mars)

Nobel Laureate, Svante Arrhenius, IV, Ph.D.

Life may spread throughout the solar system and this galaxy, via solar winds, photons, and radiation pressure from the sun. If organisms were ejected from Earth together with the grains of dust to which they have attached themselves, and pushed out into space by the radiation pressure of our sun, eventually it would enter the orbit of Mars after about 20 days and eventually drift farther into infinite space towards other solar systems. Conversely, life from other solar systems could also drift and eventually come to be deposited on Mars, Earth, and other planets.

Origins of Life

We consider it probable that there circulate about the newly formed suns smaller celestial bodies which cool more rapidly than the central sun. When these satellites have provided themselves with a solid crust, which will partly be covered by water, they may, under favorable conditions, harbor organic life, as the earth and probably also Venus and Mars do. The satellites would thereby gain a greater interest for us than if we had to imagine them as consisting entirely of lifeless matter.

The question naturally arises whether we may believe that life can really originate on a celestial body as soon as circumstances are favorable for its evolution and propagation. This question will occupy us in this last chapter.

Men have been pondering over these problems since the remotest ages. All living beings, past ages recognized, must have been generated and they had to die after a certain shorter or longer life. Somewhat later, and yet still in a very early epoch, experience must have taught men that organisms of one kind can only generate other organisms of the same kind; that the species are invariable, as we now express it. The idea was that all species originally came from the hands of the Creator endowed with their present qualities. This view may still be said to represent the general or "orthodox" doctrine.

This view has also been called the Linnsean thesis, because Linne, in the fifth edition of his Genera Plantarum, adheres to it strictly: "Species tot sunt, quot diversas formas ab initio produxit Infinitum Ens, quae deinde formae secundum generationis inditas leges produxere plures, at sibi semper similes, ut species nunc nobis non sint plures quam fuerunt ab initio." Which we may render: "There are as many different kind of species as the Infinite Being has created different forms in the beginning. These forms have later engendered other beings according to the laws of inheritance, always resembling them, so that we have at the present time not any more species than there were from the beginning." Time was ripe, however, even then for a less rigid conception of nature, more in accordance with our present views.

Cosmic Evolution and Life

The first foundations of the theory of evolution in the biological sciences were laid by Lamarck (in 1794), Treviranus (in 1809), Goethe and Oken (in 1820). But a reaction set in. Cuvier and his authority forced public opinion back to the ancient standpoint. In his view the now extinct species of past geological epochs had been destroyed by natural revolutions, and new species had again been generated by a new act of the Creator.

Within the last few decades, however, the general belief has rapidly been revolutionized, and the theory of evolution, especially since the immortal Charles Darwin came forth with his epoch-making researches, now meets with universal acceptance.

According to this theory the species adapt themselves in the course of time to their surroundings, and the changes may become so great that a new species may be considered to have originated from an old species. The researches of De Vries have, within quite recent times, further accentuated this view, so that we now concede cases to be extant where new species spring forth from old ones under our very eyes. This thesis has become known as the theory of mutation.

At the present time we accordingly imagine that living organisms, such as we see around us, have all descended from older organisms, rather unlike them, of which we still find traces and remnants in the geological strata which have been deposited during past ages. From this standpoint all living organisms might possibly have originated from one single, most simple organism. How that was generated still remains to be explained.

The common view, to which the ancients inclined, is that the lower organisms need not necessarily have originated from seeds. It was noticed that some low-type organisms, larvae, etc., took rise in putrid meat; Vergil describes this in his Georgicas. It was not until the seventeenth century that this belief was disproved by many experiments, among others by those of Swammerdam and Leuwenhoek. The thesis of the so-called "Generatio spontanea" once more blossomed into new life upon the discovery of the so-called infusoria, the small animal organisms which seem to arise spontaneously in infusions and concoctions. Spallanzani, however, demonstrated in 1777 that when the infusions, and the vessel containing them, as well as the air above them, were heated to a sufficiently high temperature to kill all the germs present, the infusions would remain sterile, and no living organisms could develop in them.

To this fact we owe our ordinary methods of making preserves. It is true that objections were raised against this demonstration. The air, it was objected, is so changed by heating that subsequent development of minute organisms is rendered impossible. But this last objection was refuted by the chemists Chevreul and Pasteur, as well as by the physicist Tyndall in the sixties and seventies of the past century. These scientists demonstrated that no organisms are produced in air which is freed from the smallest germs by some other means than heating i.e., by nitration through cotton-wool. The researches of Pasteur, in particular, and the methods of sterilization which are based upon them and which are applied every day in bacteriological laboratories, have more and more forced the conviction upon us that a germ is indispensable for the origination of life.

And yet eminent scientists take up the pen again and again in order to demonstrate the possibility of the "Generatio spontanea." In this they do not rely upon the safe methods of natural science, but they proceed on philosophical lines of argument. Life, they suggest, must once have had a beginning, and we are hence forced to believe that spontaneous generation, even if not realizable under actual conditions, must have once occurred. Considerable interest was excited when the great English physiologist Huxley believed he had discovered in the mud brought up from the very bottom of the sea an albuminoid substance which he called "Bathybius Haeckelii," in honor of the zealous German Darwinist Haeckel. In this bathybius (deep-sea organism) one fancied for a time that the primordial ooze, which had originated from inorganic matter and from which all organisms might have been evolved, and of which Oken had been dreaming, had been discovered. But the more is exact researches of the chemist Buchanan demonstrated that the albuminoid substance in this primordial ooze consisted of flocks of gypsum precipitated by alcohol.

People then had recourse to the most fantastic speculations. Life, it was argued, might possibly have had its origin in the incandescent mass of the interior of the earth. At high temperatures organic compounds of cyanogen and its derivatives might be formed which would be the carriers of life (Pfliiger). There is, however, little need of our entering into any of these speculations until they have been provided with an experimental basis.

Almost every year the statement is repeated in biological literature that we have at last succeeded in producing life from dead matter. Among the most recent assertions of this kind, the discovery claimed by Butler-Burke has provoked much comment. He asserted that he had succeeded, with the aid of the marvellous substance radium, in instilling life into lifeless matter namely, a solution of gelatine. Criticism has, however, relegated this statement, like all similar ones, to the realm of fairy tales.

We fully share the opinion which the great natural philosopher Lord Kelvin has expressed in the following words: "A very ancient speculation, still clung to by many naturalists (so much so that I have a choice of modern terms to quote in expressing it), supposes that, under meterological conditions very different from the present, dead matter may have run together or crystallized or fermented into ' germs of life,' or 'organic cells/ or 'protoplasm.' But science brings a vast mass of inductive evidence against this hypothesis of spontaneous generation. Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation."

The Cosmic Seeds of Life

Although the latter verdict may be a little dogmatic, it yet demonstrates how strongly many scientists feel the necessity of finding another way of solving the problem. The so-called theory of panspermia really shows a way. According to this theory life-giving seeds are drifting about in space. They encounter the plane ts7 and fill their surfaces with life as soon as the necessary conditions for the existence of organic beings are established.

This view was probably foreshadowed long ago. Definite suggestions in this direction we find in the writings of the Frenchman Sales-Guy on de Montlivault (1821), who assumed that seeds from the moon had awakened the first life on the surface of the earth. The German physician H. E. Richter attempted to supplement the doctrine of Darwin by combining the conception of panspermia with it. Flammarion's book on the plurality of inhabited worlds. suggested to Richter the idea that seeds had come from some other inhabited world to our earth. He emphasizes the fact that carbon has been found in meteorites which move in orbits similar to those of the comets which wander about in space ; and in this carbon he sees the rests of organic life. There is no proof at all for this latter opinion....

In one point, however, we must agree with Richter. There is logic in his statement that " The infinite space is filled with, or (more correctly) contains, growing, mature, and dying celestial bodies. By mature worlds we understand those which are capable of sustaining organic life. We regard the existence of organic life in the universe as eternal. Life has always been there; it has always propagated itself in the shape of living organisms, from cells and from individuals composed of cells." Man used to speculate on the origin of matter, but gave that up when experience taught him that matter is indestructible and can only be transformed. For similar reasons we never inquire into the origin of the energy of motion. And we may become accustomed to the idea that life is eternal, and hence that it is useless to inquire into its origin.

The ideas of Richter were taken up again in a popular lecture delivered in 1872 by the famous botanist Ferdinand Cohn. The best-known expression of opinion on the subject, however, is that of Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) in his presidential address to the British Association at Edinburgh in 1871:
"When two great masses come into collision in space, it is certain that a large part of each is melted; but it seems also quite certain that in many cases a large quantity of debris must be shot forth in all directions, much of which may have experienced no greater violence than individual pieces of rock experience in a landslip or in blasting by gunpowder. Should the time when this earth comes into collision with another body, comparable in dimensions to itself, be when it is still clothed as at present with vegetation, many great and small fragments carrying seed and living plants and animals would undoubtedly be scattered through space. Hence, and because we all confidently believe that there are at present, and have been from time immemorial, many worlds of life besides our own, we must regard it as probable in the highest degree that there are countless seed-bearing meteoric stones moving about through space. If at the present instant no life existed upon this earth, one such stone falling upon it might, by what we blindly call natural causes, lead to its becoming covered with vegetation. I am fully conscious of the many objections which may be urged against this hypothesis. I will not tax your patience further by discussing any of them on the present occasion. All I maintain is that I believe them to be all answerable."

Unfortunately we cannot share Lord Kelvin's optimism regarding this point. It is, in the first instance, questionable whether living beings would be able to survive the violent impact of the collision of two worlds. We know, further, that the meteorite in its fall towards the earth becomes incandescent all over its surface, and any seeds on it would therefore be deprived of their germinating power. Meteorites, moreover, show quite a different composition from that of the fragments from the surface of the earth or a similar planet. Plants develop almost exclusively in loose soil, and a lump of earth falling through our atmosphere would, no doubt, be disintegrated into a shower of small particles by the resistance of the atmosphere. Each of these particles would by itself flash up like a shooting-star, and could not reach the earth in any other shape than that of burned dust.

Another difficulty is that such collisions, which, as we presume, are responsible for the flashing-up of so-called new stars, are rather rare phenomena, so that little likelihood remains of small seeds being transported to our earth in this manner.

Solar Radiation Propels Spores in Space

The question has, however, entered into a far more favorable stage since the effects of radiation have become understood.

Bodies which, according to the deductions of Schwarzschild, would undergo the strongest influence of solar radiation must have a diameter of 0.00016 mm., supposing them to be spherical. The first question is, therefore: are there any living seeds of such extraordinary minuteness? The reply of the botanist is that the so-called permanent spores of many bacteria have a size of 0.0003 or 0.0002 mm., and there are, no doubt, much smaller germs which our microscopes fail to disclose. Thus, yellow-fever in man, rabies in dogs, the foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, and the so-called mosaic disease common to the tobacco plant in Netherlandish India, and also observed in other countries are, no doubt, parasitical diseases ; but the respective parasites have not yet been discovered, presumably because they are too minute to be visible under the microscope.

It is, therefore, very probable that there are organisms so small that the radiation pressure of a sun would push them out into space, where they might give rise to life on planets, provided they met with favorable conditions for their development.

We will, in the first instance, make a rough calculation of what would happen if such an organism were detached from the earth and pushed out into space by the radiation pressure of our sun. The organism would, first of all, have to cross the orbit of Mars; then the orbits of the smaller and of the outer planets; and, having passed the last station of our solar system, the orbit of Neptune, it would drift farther into infinite space towards other solar systems. It is not so difficult to estimate the time which the smallest particles would require for this journey. Let their specific gravity be that of water, which will very fairly correspond to the facts. The organisms would cross the orbit of Mars after twenty days, the Jupiter orbit after eighty days, and the orbit of Neptune after fourteen months. Our nearest solar system, Alpha Centauri, would be reached in nine thousand years. These calculations have been made under the supposition that the radiation pressure is four times as strong as gravitation, which would be nearly correct according to the figures of Schwarzschild.

These time intervals required for the organisms to reach the different planets of our solar system are not too long for the germs in question to preserve their germinating power. The estimate is more unfavorable in the case of their transference from one planetary system to another, which will require thousands of years. But we shall see further on that the very low temperature of those parts of space (about 220 C.) would suspend the extinction of the germinating power, as it arrests all chemical reactions.

As regards the period during which the germinating power can be preserved at ordinary temperature, we have been told that the so-called " mummy wheat " which had been found in ancient Egyptian tombs was still capable of germination. ' Critics, however, have established that the respective statements of the Arabs concerning the sources of that wheat are very doubtful. The French scientist Baudoin asserts that bacteria capable of germination were found in a Roman tomb which had certainly remained untouched for eighteen hundred years; but this statement is to be received with caution. It is certain, however, that both seeds of some higher plants and spores of certain bacteria e.g., anthrax do maintain their germinating power for several years (say, twenty), and thus for periods which are much longer than those we have estimated as necessary for their transference to our planet.

On the road from the earth the germs would for about a month be exposed to the powerful light of the sun, and it has been demonstrated that the most highly refrangible rays of the sun can kill bacteria and their spores in relatively short periods. As a rule, however, these experiments have been conducted in such a manner that the spores could germinate on the moist surface on which they were deposited (for instance, in Marshall Ward's experiments). That, however, does not at all conform to the conditions prevailing in planetary space. For Roux has shown that anthrax spores, which are readily killed by light when the air has access, remain alive when the air is excluded. Some spores do not suffer from insulation at all. That applies, for instance, according to Duclaux, to Thyrothrix scaber, which occurs in milk and which may live for a full month under the intense light of the sun. All the botanists that I have been able to consult are of the opinion that we can by no means assert with certainty that spores would be killed by the light rays in wandering through infinite space.

It may further be argued that the spores, in their journey through universal space, would be exposed during most of that period to an extreme cold which possibly they might not be able to endure. When the spores have passed the orbit of Neptune, their temperature will have sunk to 220, and farther out it will sink still lower. In recent years experiments have been made in the Jenner Institute, in London, with spores of bacteria which were kept for twenty hours at a temperature of in liquid hydrogen. Their germinating power was not destroyed thereby.

Professor Macfadyen has, indeed, gone still further. He has demonstrated that microorganisms may be kept in liquid air (at 200) for six months without being deprived of their germinating power. According to what I was told on the occasion of my last visit to London, further experiments, continued for still longer periods, have only confirmed this observation.

There is nothing improbable in the idea that the germinating power should be preserved at lower temperatures for longer periods than at our ordinary temperatures. The loss of germinating power is no doubt due to some chemical process, and all chemical processes proceed at slower rates at lower temperatures than they do at higher. The vital functions are intensified in the ratio of 1 : 2.5 when the temperature is raised by 10 C. (18 F.). By the time that the spores reached the orbit of Neptune and their temperature had been lowered to their vital energy would, according to this ratio, react with one thousand millions less intensity than at 10. The germinating power of the spores would hence, at - 220, during the period of three million years, not be diminished to any greater degree than during one day at 10. It is, therefore, not at all unreasonable to assert that the intense cold of space will act like a most effective preservative upon the seeds, and that they will in consequence be able to endure much longer journeys than we could assume if we judged from their behavior at ordinary temperatures.

It is similar with the drying effect which may be so injurious to plant life. In interplanetary space, which is devoid of atmosphere, absolute dryness prevails. An investigation by B. Schrober demonstrates that the green alga Pleurococcus vulgaris, which is so common on the trunks of trees, can be kept in absolute dryness (over concentrated sulphuric acid in a desiccator) for twenty weeks without being killed. Seeds and spores may last still longer in a dry atmosphere.

Now, the tension of water vapor decreases in nearly the same ratio as the speed of the reaction with lower temperatures. The evaporation of water i. e., the drying effect may hence, at a temperature of 220, not proceed further in three million years than it will in one day at 10. We have thus several plausible reasons for concluding that spores which oppose an effective resistance to drying may well be carried from one planet to another and from one planetary system to another without sacrificing their vital energy.

The destructive effect of light is, according to the experiments of Roux, no doubt due to the fact that the rays of light call forth an oxidation by the intermediation of the surrounding air. This possibility is excluded in interplanetary space. Moreover, the radiation of the sun is nine hundred times fainter in the orbit of Neptune than in the orbit of the earth, and halfway to the nearest fixed star, Alpha Centauri, twenty million times feebler. Light, therefore, will not do much harm to the spores during their transference.

The Transfer of Life From Earth to Mars and Other Planets

If, therefore, spores of the most minute organisms could escape from the earth, they might travel in all directions, and the whole universe might, so to say, be sown with them. But now comes the question: how can they escape from the earth against the effect of gravitation? Corpuscles of such small weight would naturally be carried away by any aerial current. A small raindrop, ^V mm. in diameter, falls, at ordinary air pressure, about 4 cm. per second. We can calculate from this observation that a bacteria spore 0.00016 mm. in diameter would only fall 83 m. in the course of a year. It is obvious that particles of this minuteness would be swept away by every air current they met until they reached the most diluted air of the highest strata. An air current of a velocity of 2 m. per second would take them to a height where the air pressure is only 0.001 mm. i.e., to a height of about 100 km. (60 miles). But the air currents can never push the particle outside of our atmosphere.

In order to raise the spores to still higher levels we must have recourse to other forces, and we know that electrical forces can help us out of almost any difficulty. At heights of 100 km. the phenomena of the radiating aurora take place. We believe that the aurorse are produced by the discharge of large quantities of negatively charged dust coming from the sun. If, therefore, the spore in question should take up negative electricity from the solar dust during an electric discharge, it may be driven out into the sea of ether by the repulsive charges of the other particles.

-We suppose, now, that the electrical charges like matter cannot be subdivided without limit. We must finally come to a minimum charge, and this charge has been calculated at about 3.5.10"" 10 electrostatic unit.

We can, without difficulty, calculate the intensity of an electric field capable of urging the charged spore of 0.00016 mm. upward against the force of gravity. The required field-strength is only 200 volts per metre. Such fields are often observed on the surface of the earth with a clear sky, and they are, indeed, almost normal. The electric field of a region in which an auroral display takes place is probably much more intense, and would, without doubt, be of sufficient intensity to urge the small electrically charged spores which convection currents had carried up to these strata, farther out into space against the force of gravity.

It is thus probable that germs of the lowest organisms known to us are continually being carried away from the earth and the other planets upon which they exist. As seeds in general, so most of these spores, thus carried away, will no doubt meet death in the cold infinite space of the universe. Yet a small number of spores will fall on some other world, and may there be able to spread life if the conditions be suitable. In many cases conditions will not be suitable. Occasionally, however, the spores will fall on favorable soil. It may take one million or several millions of years from the age at which a planet could possibly begin to sustain life to the time when the first seed falls upon it and germinates, and when organic life is thus originated. This period is of little significance in comparison with the time during which life will afterwards flourish on the planet.'

The germs which in this way escape from the planets on which their ancestors had found abode, may either wander unobstructed through space, or they may, as we have indicated, reach outer planet?, or planets moving about other suns, or they may meet with larger particles of dust rushing towards the sun.

We have spoken of the Zodiacal Light and that part of it which has been designated the counter-glow. This latter glow is regularly seen in the tropics and occasionally in that portion of our heavens which is just opposite the sun. Astronomers ascribe the counter-glow to streams of fine dust which are drawn towards the sun (compare page 147). Let us assume that a seed of the diameter of 0.00016 mm. strikes against a grain of dust which is a thousand times as large (0.0016 mm. diameter), and attaches itself to its surface. This spore will be carried by the grain of dust towards the sun; it will cross the orbits of the inner planets, and it may descend in their atmospheres. Those grains of dust do not, by any means, require very long spaces of time to pass from one planetary orbit to another. If we assume that the spore starts with zero velocity near Neptune (in which case the seed might originate from the moon of Neptune; for Neptune itself, like Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter, is not yet sufficiently cooled to sustain life), the spore would reach the orbit of Uranus in twenty-one years, and of Mercury in twenty-nine years. With the same initial velocity such particles would be twelve years in passing between the orbits of Uranus and Saturn, four years between Saturn and Jupiter, two years between Jupiter and Mars, eighty-four days between Mars and the earth, forty days between the earth and Venus, and twenty-eight days between Venus and Mercury.

We see from these time estimates that the germs, together with the grains of dust to which they have attached themselves, might move towards the sun with much smaller velocity (from ten to twenty times smaller) without our having to fear any loss of their germinating powers during the transit. In other words, if these seeds adhere to the particles, ninety or ninety -five per cent, of whose weight is balanced by the radiation pressure, they may soon fall into the atmosphere of some inner planet with the moderate velocity of a few kilometres per second. It is easy to calculate that if such a particle should, in falling, be arrested in its motion after the first second, it would yet, thanks to the strong heat radiation from it, not be heated by more than 100 Cent. (212 F.) above the temperature of its surroundings. Such a temperature can be borne by the spores of bacteria without fatal effects for much more than one second. After the particles, together with the seed adhering to them, have once been stopped, they will slowly descend, or will be carried down to the surface of the nearest planet by descending convection currents.

In this way life would be transferred from one point of a planetary system, on which it had taken root, to other locations in the same planetary system which favor the development of life.

Seeds of Life May Contaminate Other Solar Systems

The seeds not caught by such particles of dust may be taken over to other solar systems, and finally be stopped by the radiation pressure of their suns. They cannot penetrate any farther than to spots at which the radiation pressure is as strong as at their starting-points. Consequently, germs from the earth, which is five times as near the sun as Jupiter, could approach another sun within a fifth of the distance at which germs from Jupiter would be stopped.

Somewhere near the suns, where the seeds are arrested by the radiation pressure to be turned back into space, there will evidently be accumulations of these seeds. The planets which circulate around their suns have therefore more chance of meeting them than if they were not in the vicinity of a sun. The germs will have lost the great velocity with which they wandered from one solar system to another, and they will not be heated so greatly in falling through the atmospheres of the planets which they meet.

The seeds which are turned back into space when coming near a sun will there perhaps meet with particles whose weight is somewhat greater than the repelling power of the radiation pressure. They would, therefore, turn back to the suns. Like the germs, and for similar reasons, these particles would consequently be concentrated about the sun. The small seeds have, therefore, a comparatively better chance of being arrested before their return to space by contact with such particles, and of being carried to the planets near that sun.

In this manner life may have been transplanted for eternal ages from solar system to solar system and from planet to planet of the same system. But as among the billions of grains of pollen which the wind carries away from a large tree a fir tree, for instance only one may on an average give birth to a new tree, thus of the billions, or perhaps trillions, of germs which the radiation pressure drives out into space, only one may really bring life to a foreign planet on which life had not yet arisen, and become the originator of living beings on that planet.

Finally, we perceive that, according to this version of the theory of panspermia, all organic beings in the whole universe should be related to one another, and should consist of cells which are built up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The imagined existence of living beings in other worlds in whose constitution carbon is supposed to be replaced by silicon or titanium must be relegated to the realm of improbability. Life on other inhabited planets has probably developed along lines which are closely related to those of our earth, and this implies the conclusion that life must always recommence from its very lowest type, just as every individual, however highly developed it may be, has by itself passed through all the stages of evolution from the single cell upward.

All these conclusions are in beautiful harmony with the general properties characteristic of life on our earth. It cannot be denied that this interpretation of the theory of panspermia is distinguished by perfect consistency, which is the most important criterion of the probability of a cosmogonical theory.

There is little probability, though, of our ever being able to demonstrate the correctness of this view by an examination of seeds falling down upon our earth. For the number of germs which reach us from other worlds will be extremely limited not more, perhaps, than a few within a year all over the earth's surface ; and those, moreover, will presumably strongly resemble the single-cell spores with which the winds play in our atmosphere. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove the celestial origin of any such germs if they should be found contrary to our assumption.