The black cloud - A plausible gaseous lifeform?

What’s that you say? Science? What is this thing you call science?

Science is a pesky little critter isn’t it. It gets in the way of so many otherwise genius ideas. I can already hear some of you grumbling that we shouldn’t worry too much about science when writing science fiction. But science is your friend! Science helps us separate the plausible from the implausible science fiction from fantasy. I believe that science and logic should force us to place gaseous lifeforms into the category of the implausible and the fantastic. Here’s why.

The thing about space – the main thing about space – is that it’s mostly empty. It’s true that there’s a surprising amount of gas in space (primarily hydrogen), even in the places we like to think of as vacuum, but this gas is incredibly thin and widely dispersed. Even in nebulas gases usually will not form the thick, soupy clouds we see in Star Trek. The exception being in those small areas where star formation is about to occur. You see, the thing about gas – the main thing about gas – is that it’s made up of small disassociated molecules. These molecules rarely interact except to bounce off one another, causing them to disperse over an even wider area. The moment these gas molecules cease to be dissociated and begin behaving in more interesting ways, that’s the moment they cease being gas and enter another another state of matter, such as liquid or plasma.

Gases, then, are simple, chaotic, and sparse. Life, on the other hand, is complex, organised, and dense. These two things do not seem to be ideal bedfellows.

So how can such a thing as a gaseous lifeform exist? Much of the justification Star Trek gives for its nebulous beings is contained in the word ‘energy’. In fact, these beings are often portrayed as ‘energy beings’ who merely inhabit gaseous environments. Is this more plausible?

‘Energy’ is a big word which caries a lot of connotations, and it’s often misused. There’s a popular understanding that energy is a big part of what makes us alive. Not only do all lifeforms greedily consume and use energy, electrical energy also plays a vital role in the way our brains work. Some people even hold strange notions that the essence of who and what we are is some form of energy, and that when our bodies die this energy – be it electrical or spiritual – may somehow be able to live on. It’s therefore a natural conclusion to these people that there may be beings out there which exist only as energy. But this is religious thinking, it’s not scientific thinking.

It’s important to recognise that without the physical architecture of our brains, through which electrical impulses flow, our intelligence would cease to function. Without the physical means through which we collect, store, and use energy, we would not function at all and could not be considered alive.

If you remove all the physical elements from your computer, its ability to compute does not continue, nor does its actual existence. All you’re left with is raw electrons refusing to budge from the power socket, or perhaps zapping at your stupid fingers as you probe the socket to see where all the clever went.

“But computers are machines, and therefore they don’t have souls!”

Neither do you, so shut up. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but spiritual energy doesn’t exist. Even if it did, it would require a physical entity with which to interact, and air, nebula gases, and the tears of your loved ones are inadequate mediums for anything so complex as a thinking or feeling mind.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for living creatures to evolve in deep space gas clouds, or to use nebula gases as an environmental medium. It just means that for a lifeform to be composed entirely of gas, and nothing but gas, is deeply implausible.

Interestingly, however, a space-dwelling lifeform might carry a large quantity of gas around with itself as an energy store, perhaps as a provision for a long trip between nebulas. The gas would probably have to be stored in some kind of bladder within the creature. In such a case, it would be a matter of perspective whether this gas could be identified as part of the creature, in the same way that our own energy reserves – stored as fat – are part of our bodies. (Personally, I think that’s a stretch.)

A lifefrom might also use gases in the way that our bodies use liquids (remember that you are a bag of mostly water) but the core elements of the creature would still have to be solid.

Do you disagree with my dismissal of gaseous lifefroms? Can you think of any plausible examples of gaseous lifeforms in fiction? Can you use science to explain how such a creature might actually exist?

Article by Mark Ball.