Solaris and the Gaia hypothesis

In 1961, Polish Soviet science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem's dark novel "Solaris" took the Iron Curtain by storm. "Solaris" has since been hailed as an international classic of the SF genre. "Solaris" exists in English translation along with two motion pictures inspired by it-a low budget 1972 Russian version and a moody 2002 American edition.

The basic speculative science undergirding Lem's tale is the existence of a sentient, organic ocean covering a distant planet called Solaris; the planet is located hundreds of light years from the Earth and requires months of deep space travel to transit.

The radical notion that entire planets can be giant organisms originated with Lem, and not-as is often quoted in the popular literature-with the controversial Gaia hypothesis. The hypothesis was an early 1970s notion that gave rise to much of the environmental movement's philosophical underpinnings.

Lem's fiction presents an intriguing intellectual idea: can entire planets be alive? And if so, can some of them be intelligent? The idea makes good science fiction, but it really doesn't have much traction in planetary science. For the moment, there is scant scientific evidence for organisms the size of planets (or planets that are organisms).

Bioresearcher Dr. James Lovelock is credited for coming up with the idea that Earth is a single organism while working for NASA in the search for life on Mars during the agency's Gulliver, later Viking, days of the 1960s. Later, Lovelock's book "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" popularized the idea and captured the imagination of New Age gurus and radical environmentalists.

Lovelock looked at the Earth holistically and concluded that our planet is a giant, self-regulating living system-a single, planetary lifeform. Few respectable space scientists bought into the Gaia hypothesis then-or now. They often chided Lovelock for using the name of Gaia, the ancient pagan Greek mother-goddess.

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