X-Risk, 127–200


3. Earth Systems: Geoscience


In 1964, in a lecture delivered at the University of Washington, Fred Hoyle—with his characteristic thick spectacles and irreverent attitude— treated his audience to a throwaway speculation. Hoyle would subsequently achieve scientific infamy as an intransigent and an iconoclast: for example, he later accused the well-known feathered dinosaur specimen Archaeopteryx of being a brazen fossil forgery—largely because it got in the way of his own theory that dinosaurs had transmogrified into birds because of mutations wrought by extraterrestrial viruses arriving from outer space on an asteroid. Avian space-flu aside, no one could accuse Hoyle of pedestrian thinking. Indeed, in this 1964 lecture before a rapt audience in Seattle, he casually suggested that we will ‘find in the larger universe’ not ‘only creatures very much like ourselves but widely different ways of doing things, [perhaps] even “inorganic” collections of matter endowed with a sense of “justice”, for example’. The same year saw the publication of Stanisław Lem’s The Invincible, a science fiction novel exploring the potential for natural selection to kickstart itself in inorganic matter, evolving into self-organising and quasi-intelligent clouds of microscopic automata in the atmosphere of an alien planet. Lem called this idea ‘necroevolution’. Hoyle himself, however, had already anticipated Lem’s budding ‘necrosphere’ of inorganic life in a novel entitled The Black Cloud, published seven years previously, in which he imagined a hyper-intelligent dust cloud arriving in our Solar System and threatening humanity with extinction.

Yet, as we saw in the last chapter, the idea of inorganic aliens was older than this.…