The threat of intelligent space dinosaurs


56 Responses to “The threat of intelligent space dinosaurs”

  1. Miss Cellania says:

    So what they’re saying is that any intelligent life on other planets could just as easily be slime molds or trilobites or sea sponges? That feeds into the science fiction we already have!  

  2. Justin Guild says:


    • Mitchell Glaser says:

      It is weird, isn’t it? Missing all its spaces except for one half of one sentence near the end. Do you think that it might be a coded message from… them?

    • morkl says:

      “An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular  polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to  favor the L α‐methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth.  Such  life  forms  could  well  be  advanced  versions  of  dinosaurs,  if  mammals  did  not  have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on  Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.”

      • morkl says:

        Looks like some kind of crazy copy/paste-between-different-character-encodings-and/or-operating-systems-related issue.

  3. ewiebe says:

    Chirality isn’t just like being left or right handed it is the difference between your left and right hands. You just can’t make a right hand into a left hand no matter how many twists and turns you try.

  4. professorpitbull says:

    My God, Chris Hastings tried to warn us.  WHY DIDN’T WE LISTEN?!

    • mindtheink says:

      I came here thinking it was a scientific paper on the Adventures of Dr.McNinja and the techno-dinosaurs. Sadly, it looks like the MAN has suppressed this truth yet again.

      For reference:

  5. Christopher says:

    I, for one, welcome our new intelligent dinosaur overlords.

  6. sean greenwalt says:

    So, are our new dinosaur overlords left or right handed?

  7. So, essentially, that final paragraph states that the Super Mario Bros. movie could be scientifically accurate. This has made my day.

  8. theophrastvs says:

    You tell me where all the anti-matter went and i’ll tell you why your DNA twists to the right. 

    seriously, this is  one of the more fascinating (easy to grasp and twist) mysteries; and thank you for raising it.   (next up:  some flounders have their left eye migrate to their right side and other flounder species are left-eyed and have the right eye migrate to the left …evolutionary advantage or political statement? film at eleven)

  9. bardfinn says:

    The reason for chirality asymmetry is molecular asymmetry. Model a chiral molecule made with particularly handed molecular subunits. Measure the electron spin vectors at various distances from the chiral molecule. Now model the “same” chiral molecule (the opposite chirality) constructed of / with subunits of the opposite chirality. Measure electron spin vectors. (or magnetic polarity vectors. Or any other field force that has an axial directional vector). Note how they differ.
    It’s quantum effects percolating upward into physical/chemical properties. Molecules here are asymmetrically chiral because they engender the necessary chemical / electric / magnetic / van der Waals / physical forces that produce the reactions that build life, here.
    To bake your apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

    • theophrastvs says:

      uhm… i don’t think so.  molecular chirality is an emergent property at the level of tetrahedral molecular binding of distinct moieties.  electrons have spin, to be sure, but that doesn’t promote Tartaric acid to be non-racemic (which it isn’t (which is to say it is racemic (…now where’s my left-handed coffee-cup?)))

  10. desperado says:

 have …Earth.”

    There’s your hidden message fellas. The only space-separated words.

    Edit: there’s also some art going on there. Think of what separates the words, and what separates us from our Tyrannosaurus Overlords.

  11. Jesse Mazer says:

    This reminds me of something I was reading recently. The paleontologist Dale Russell, who specializes in dinosaurs and has a history of speculating about alternate evolution (some of you may have seen his dinosauroid, a model of how he imagined some dinosaur could have evolved into a humanlike form if the extinction hadn’t happened, based partly on a study he’s done of trends in “encephalization” or braininess in evolution), speculates in his book Islands in the Cosmos that a dinosaur-like phase of evolution might be common for alien planets with multicellular life. Go to the amazon page for the book, and use the “search inside” feature to search for the word “vernacular”, and you can see some of his thoughts on convergent evolution and the idea that creatures on alien worlds might evolve to fill similar niches, and thus develop similar body shapes (like icthyosaurs and dolphins), as ones in our history, and that planets might typically go through a “dinosaurian” phase where animals typically have a much larger body size (and smaller brain size) than the typical land animals of today. Of course this is pure speculation, but at least the idea isn’t totally crazy (depends on the degree to which there is a “typical” trajectory for evolution based on convergence, I suppose–most biologists probably wouldn’t imagine the degree of convergence he does, but who knows). I suppose Russell would probably argue that even if the synapsids had ended up dominating the Mesozoic rather than the dinosaurs, the synapsids would have evolved into dinosaur-like forms (super-Dimetrodons and such) rather than forms more similar to modern-day mammals. On the other hand, I suppose Russell still probably wouldn’t agree with the odd little comment at the end of this paper, since he would probably speculate that on a planet where intelligence does evolve, it would most likely happen after the “dinosaurian” phase is over and the trend is more in the direction of larger brains and smaller body size.

  12. soodonim says:

    MKB writes “In fact, given the randomness and chance through which evolution works, it would make more sense for there to be a lot more diversity in orientation.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly wrong. Given the action of heritability, it makes perfect sense that chirality is uniform within any set of creatures with common ancestry. In fact, I’m pretty sure uniform chirality of terrestrial life is one of the strongest indicators of a single origin of life on earth, because uniform chirality is *exactly* what you would expect in any set that evolved from a common ancestor.

    Given the randomness and chance at work when the *first* replicator replicated, chirality could have been left or right. But it makes sense that thereafter there would be *no* diversity in chirality in its decendants. The expectation would be that *independently* originating lineages would have diverse chirality.

    Anyhow, if we find that evil superintelligent warmongering alien dinosaur overlords have the same chirality as us, it would be an indicator of possible common ancestry, but I think that will be the least of our concerns.

    • AngerMonkey says:

      Yes, this. Also, if all random molecular events were equally likely to succeed in a living organism, you would expect infinite diversity, even with a common ancestor. However, I think what the original author is leaving out (or misunderstanding) is that while the genetic changes that lead to evolution are random, which traits are kept or dumped is DEFINITELY not. Death is a pretty strong selective pressure, and it doesn’t matter how awesome the phenotype of a mutation is if it also causes you to, say, not make working ribosomes. Goodbye, random little trait from the existing diversity! Been fun!

      We (as in, living thing here on Earth) do things in similar ways because it’s not usually what works best, it’s what works first.

  13. saurabh says:

    I’m never sure why people want to favor “seeding” as the solution to the problem, as if dumping it off to another planet or point in space/time is anything other than begging the question.

    As to chirality, I think an important piece to remember is that amino-acids are not independent of each other. Many of them are constructed from the same basic precursors, and a lot of the machinery that is used to put them together (handed, like the molecules themselves) has a common evolutionary point of origin. When both the tools you use to make something and the basic materials you make it from are shared, it becomes far less surprising that the end product has a similarity.

  14. daen says:

    Chirality is an interesting concept. The best way to explain it quickly is an analogy to being left-handed or right-handed. Molecules don’t have hands, but they do have an inherent orientation that can be compared to having a dominant hand that you do most of your work with. Sugars are mostly right-handed. Amino acids: Left-handed.

    For the sake of completeness, let me fill in the complexity …

    Chemical chirality (also known as stereochemistry), is determined by which atoms are attached to the four bonds of a carbon atom (known as a stereocentre), and the terminology here is (S) or (R), for Sinistro and Recto, or left and right.  Chemical compounds with the same chemical formula but different stereochemistries are known as stereoisomers, and for each stereocentre, the number of isomers doubles.   Molecules can have zero, one, or more stereocentres, and they can be a mix of (S) and (R). Nearly all biologically relevant amino acids have a single (S) stereochemistry.

    L and D (for Levo and Dextro, or left and right again) refer to the similarity of a molecule to the configuration of one of the two stereoisomers of a reference compound, D-glyceraldehyde or L-glyceraldehyde, of which all biologically relevant amino acids except glycine (see below for why this is) are L. A molecule cannot be both D and L, and cannot be DD or LL, and so on (unlike stereochemistry).

    A further twist (pun intended) is optical chirality, which refers to whether light is polarized either clockwise (+) or anticlockwise (-) when shone through a solution of a compound. Again, this property refers to the stereoisomer of the molecule as a whole, so you can’t have (+)(-), or (+)(+), although if there are multiple stereoisomers, they may well have different polarization properties.

    There is a relation between the R/S system and the (+)/(-) system, but only in that achiral molecules (such as glycine) exhibit no optical polarization.  However, you can’t predict which stereoisomers ((R), (S), or some combination) will yield (+) or (-) optical polarizations – it’s completely empirical (so far).

    For example:

    Glycine has no stereocentre, and is thus neither (S) nor (R), and so shows no optical chirality.
    Alanine is (S) and (+).
    Cysteine is (R) and (-).
    Tyrosine is (S) and (-).

    And all are, as mentioned, L-amino acids (except glycine, being achiral).

    The (R) and (S) designation is assigned according to the atomic number of substituent atoms (and, sometimes, their substituents too) and the order in which they are attached to the carbon stereocentre. Because the sulfur atom in cysteine has such a large atomic number (16) compared to most other biologically relevant atoms like hydrogen (1), carbon (6), oxygen (8) or nitrogen (12), it alters the stereochemical designation from (S) to (R). The rules are complicated, and not even all chemists entirely understand them …

    Isn’t chemistry wonderful?

  15. chenille says:

    I suppose it’s rather hard to argue with the basic thesis that we’d be better off not meeting a hyper-intelligent T. Rex.

    But they can be so charming.

  16. niktemadur says:

    Maybe offtopic, but since it’s mentioned here, Sugars are mostly right-handed.

    Back in the late eighties, Omni Magazine had a short article in the Continuum section about an attempt to create left-handed sugars, which would, in theory, taste the same but would not be absorbed by the body.

    Here we are a 1/4 century later, and that was the last I heard of it.  Anyone know what happened?

    • daen says:

      Splenda is closest …

      • Doctor 13enster says:

        Not really. It has one different stereocenter from sucrose and several alcohols have been replaced by chlorines.

        I doubt that the two enantiomers of any given sugar would taste the same. Does your right shoe fit on your left foot as well as it does on your right foot? There is no way that the enantiomer of a sugar would bind to the correct receptor in the same fashion.

        • daen says:

          Uhh … it’s kind of the point that sucralose is an enantiomer (making it of zero calorific value). And yes, in fact sucralose is about 600 times sweeter. And I said ‘closest’, not ‘exactly what you said’.


          • Doctor 13enster says:

            If sucralose was analogous to the enantiomer of sucrose, then all of the stereocenters would be inverted, instead of just one out of the nine. Sucralose is an analog of a diastereomer, specifically an epimer, of sucrose. They aren’t even close to being mirror images. 
            Furthermore, the reason sucralose is sweeter than sucrose is due to the extensive chlorination of sucralose, which is postulated to make it more hydrophobic than sucrose and thus possessing a stronger binding affinity for the taste receptor.

          • daen says:

            @Dr 13-enster: Apologies – yes, a diasteromer, of course.  I suspect that inverting all the chiral bonds in sucrose while keeping a decent yield is impractical for commercial production.  Interestingly, L-sucrose is sweet, which seems to indicate either that the taste receptor for sucrose is quite promiscuous (given the quite different configurations of L-sucrose, D-sucrose and sucralose), or that different taste receptors are implicated in binding one or more of those compounds.

          • Doctor 13enster says:

            daen – A sweet L-sugar? As in a disaccharide of L-glucose and L-fructose? Shocking! 

            You might be interested to know that the C-4 stereocenter in sucralose is inverted in the chlorination of sucrose using a large excess of SOCl2. This is consistent with your assertion that they only inverted that specific stereocenter for economic reasons. 

            However, given that inverting that stereocenter gives you the stereochemical equivalent of D-galactose tethered to D-fructose (both of which are easy to shunt into the glycolysis pathway), I would argue that the chlorination of C4 is the key feature that borks sucrulose metabolism, not the epimerization of that center. 

            I would suggest doing some experiments to test this, but it’s probably better if we let someone else do the blind taste test… I’m trying to cut back on non-FDA-approved chlorinated organics, myself.

          • daen says:

            Given that so many other receptors are specific for a very small number of naturally occurring ligands, I still find myself wondering why the taste receptors aren’t.

  17. Lucas Green.screen says:

    Anybody else remember the ‘Dinosauroid’? When the Troodon was discovered and conjectured to be the most intelligent of all dinosaurs, Dale Russell extrapolated a bipedal, sentient dino-humanoid descendant that may have evolved from Troodontids if the K/T Extinction had not happened. The result was arguably the creepiest conceptual life form ever created:


    I thought this article would be about the discovery of REAL superintelligent space dinosaurs

    *hopes dashed*

  18. Brainspore says:

    I suppose it’s rather hard to argue with the basic thesis that we’d be better off not meeting a hyper-intelligent T. Rex.

    You ingrate.

  19. Marc Mielke says:

    Anyone who’s played any of the Mass Effect games already knows at least the ‘For Dummies’ version of this: the Turians have a reverse chirality from Humans and the game discusses it a lot. 

    Try the nightclub on the Asari planet in MEII for the most detailed discussion I remember that’s not a long text piece. 

  20. Richard says:

    Someone’s been watching too much Star Trek: Voyager!

  21. Greg says:

    Didn’t some prehistoric species survive the dinosaur mass-extinction? Wouldn’t beetles or crocodiles, whose evolutionary lineage stretches further back than homo-sapiens, be the ones who should’ve become Earth’s super intelligent heirs? I don’t know enough about these things to ask this question correctly, but I guess what I want to know is what is the correlation between evolution and intelligence, and why would a species’ intelligence continue  unchanged for eons, like sharks, while relative latecomers like ourselves seem to have gone through more iterations? I’d like to think our ancestors threw down with a race of crocodile men for the right to one day land on the moon, but that probably never happened, right?

    • chenille says:

      Our lineage stretches exactly as far back as anything else; it’s only that we have become quite different from our early ancestors, while sharks are still recognizably sharks. This is because sharking for a living still works very well, so there’s no pressure for them to change so much.

      There’s no particular drive for intelligence on the whole. Beetles are a tremendous success story, but this comes from other sorts of adaptations. Mammals, on the other hand, often rely on more complex learning as part of what makes them competitive.

  22. What, you guys never seen an intelligent dinosaur?  OK, here’s a recent photograph of one:

    Considering that dinosaurs don’t even look like dinosaurs anymore on Earth, why in the hell would they look like dinosaurs on some other planet? The whole thing is completely ridiculous.

  23. Mr.Lamont says:

    There is actually some life on earth that goes “the other way” but one of the reasons for the predominance of left handed amino acids is that the way energy is chemically stored and released.

    All life is an information process, and all information processes are driven by energy. That energy is stored in particular ways – sugars and fats – but chemicals that spin the wrong way are effectively indigestible.

    When chemical compounds are synthesized, it can create mirror images of compounds. The company that had the patent the antidepressant citalopram (celexa) extended their patent with a new version of the drug that had the non- working isomer removed.

    There are a couple of funny ideas here – one is of parallel evolution, when evolution is all about being adapted to the organism’s environment. On a planet where life sugars and amino acids are ran the other way, humans might not be able to eat or digest anything properly, and the smart dinosaurs wouldn’t find us nutritious.

    The final weirdness is something I thinks of as a fallacy, which looks for an external cause or trigger for life – germ-laden meteorites from Mars – instead of considering that the properties of the atoms and molecules are he selves sufficient, given an energy or source or metabolism to make up the beginnings o f life.

  24. humanresource says:

    Well, at least we know where all the dubstep is coming from.

  25. Kaleberg says:

    That seems the right answer to me. There may have been some point early in the evolution of life where there were reproducing systems with various chiralities, but as soon as one of them started to develop a “package” of reactions and outcompeting the others, it would dominate. By the time we got to the RNA world, all the handedness had been sorted out. Some of the old reproductive mechanisms with varied handedness might still exist, but we’d hardly recognize them as alive.

  26. Considering the extreme vastness of interstellar space, doesn’t it seem a little unlikely that a life-bearing space rock (which itself would be a pretty rare thing) would manage to find its way not just to another solar system, but one with a planet capable of supporting life, and then actually manage to smash into that exact planet? 

    • Jesse Mazer says:

      The theory is that some of the basic molecular building blocks of life came from space, not actual alien organisms. These molecules would have formed in other regions of our own solar system, I believe.

      • Well that much I can appreciate. Like maybe the conditions necessary for these molecules to form couldn’t exist on our planet but could in an asteroid belt within our solar system or something. Granted. But then that doesn’t support the implication that we either received this material from another system or that another system received it’s material from ours (i.e. paying it forward), which I think the odds are just incredibly against.

        • Jesse Mazer says:

          Ah, now I realize you weren’t talking about the interstellar-dinosaur paper by Breslow but rather about the other paper mentioned in the paragraph “In fact, in related news, there’s another paper out suggesting that Earth could have paid that gift of life forward, with potentially microbe-and-molecule-laden rocks from here traveling far into interstellar space.” At first glance that does sound implausible, but who knows how many rocks have been knocked off by meteors over billions of years, and how many of those escaped the solar system, and how many of those might have been pulled into the gravity of other systems, perhaps flying around in eccentric orbits for billions of years until eventually colliding with one of the planets of those systems. The article at the link suggests the authors at least did some back-of-the envelope calculations about how many Earth rocks would have Gliese 581 which may have an Earth-like exoplanet, although it doesn’t say if their calculations included the likelihood that any of those rocks that ended up in that system would have actually hit the planet (but gravity does effect the odds, for example the article says that as many Earth rocks from the dinosaur impact probably wound up hitting Europa as hitting our moon, presumably because of Jupiter’s gravity)

  27. teapot says:

    Ah, chirality… curse of uneducated meth cooks everywhere.

Leave a Reply