Our planet is infested with life

In this essay for our free exhibition LIFE AT THE EDGES, Andy Wheeler, professor of geology at University College Cork, talks about putting the exhibition together, and our collective fascination with the unknown.

Our planet is infested with life. We are very familiar with it on land and in the surface ocean, but it also thrives way up into our upper atmosphere, throughout the oceans to the greatest depths, and deep below ground; not just in the soils, but also down into the rocks themselves. In fact, the more we look at extreme environments, the more we seem to find evidence for life (often microbial) adapted to push the boundaries of our inhabited world. Not only does life exist, but crucially, it has function and forms an integral part of how all Earth systems work.

Life controls the composition of our atmosphere (with 50% of the air you are now breathing coming from oceanic plankton), and therefore, along with volcanoes, life controls our climatic global heat balance. Many chemical processes we see happening on our planet we now recognise as being microbially mediated; life dictates or influences nearly everything that happens on our planet.

But what are its limits, where do we draw the boundaries and how does life cope and innovate on the frontiers of our biosphere? These are fascinating questions that prick our human imagination. Humans are an adaptable organism. We have pushed ourselves from a comfortable hominid existence in the Tropics to habitation across the globe, from the polar wastes to arid deserts and recently, to our deepest ocean and beyond our planet into space. We have ventured into the extreme, we strived to live at the edge. But other organisms have adapted before us and we now wonder if other ‘organisms’ or living entities may exist on other worlds, elsewhere in our universe.

I am a marine geologist and like many humans, I’m fascinated by the unknown. I study the environment of our deep ocean seabed and my curiosity has led me to explore hitherto unvisited parts of our deep remote seafloor. As life thrives here, I’m curious about what conditions in these deep ocean realms, and what part these environments play in how the wide ocean functions and their role in the interconnectedness of our living planet. I’m interested in boundary conditions and tipping points where environmental and climate changes alter our definition of the ‘edge of life’.

It has been exciting, helping to pull this exhibition together. The exhibits play to our curiosity, imagination and to humanity’s relentless quest to venture to the outer boundaries of where existence is possible. From the heroic adventures of historic polar explorers to our obsession with the discovery of the extraterrestrial, the public has long held a fascination with extreme environments. Through the medium of art, this collection invokes a diversity of perspectives, challenging us to engage differently with our inquisitiveness.

As a scientist, I operate in the realm of facts and reasoned concepts. This exhibition offers many different takes and has perhaps helped to re-expand my sense of wonder and excitement in engaging with the limits of where life is possible. LIFE AT THE EDGES does this through a variety of ways and mediums — some through playful experimentation, some more whimsical, and others through a focusing of the aesthetic. All are thought-provoking and the many takes on the theme provide us with opportunities to re-evaluate what we consider as life on the edge.

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