Arsenic and Possibility

Yesterday, a group of astrobiologists from NASA announced that they have discovered a new life form which can exist even if phosphorus, a compound which until now, was one of the 6 basic building blocks of life, is replaced with arsenic.

This is a highly significant discovery. It means that our understanding of what makes life possible has now changed forever. It means the rewriting of science textbooks everywhere. These tiny microbes might not seem like much – they are microbes, after all – but what they represent is that it is now possible that life can exist in forms different than our own.

Possible. I love that word.

I watched some of the news conference with the scientists that made this remarkable discovery. The team’s lead scientist, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, was delightful. She looked like she’d just won the lottery – and in some ways, she has. She’s done the very thing that many scientists can only dream of – made a groundbreaking discovery that changes the way we look at our very existence in the Universe.

One of her lines has stuck with me. She said, “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”

What else is possible?

I believe that possibility is one of the most powerful things we have in life. It’s also one of the most underused. Often, we are so caught up in just trying to get through our day – our jobs are annoying, the kids are acting up, the dog peed on the carpet, our spouse is grumpy, our car broke down – all of these things cloud possibility. We end up just fumbling along, without any thought to what is actually possible. We spend more time thinking about all the reasons things are not possible, instead of exploring the reasons they are. Here’s how most people talk to themselves:

  • I can’t quit my job, I need the money.
  • I can’t go to marriage counseling, my spouse refuses.
  • I can’t go back to work, my kids will think I’m neglecting them.
  • I can’t lose weight, I’m too stressed.
  • I can’t learn to play the guitar, I’m too busy.
  • I can’t be a public speaker/artist/musician/marathoner, people will laugh at me.

Imagine if Felisa Wolfe-Simon had said “Life forms can’t exist outside of what we know. That’s what I was taught. There’s no other possibility.” Lucky for us, she didn’t say that.

To the point of her discovery, in the world as we knew it, it wasn’t possible that life forms could exist without the 6 basic elements – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Because Dr. Wolfe-Simon decided to focus on what was possible, instead of what wasn’t possible, she was able to change our very perception of life.

So then, I ask you – are you focused on what’s not possible?

Or what is?

[photo credit:]

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  • December 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    You could argue that a lot of our lives are spent focusing on what’s not possible, by default, or at least on limited definitions of what is possible. Kids… they get it the right way around…

  • December 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Absolutely LOVE this post, miss. You’re so on the money – we put enough barriers up every day, because we think that’s the thing to do.

    But guess what. The barriers are the steps to what you really want to do – and it’s more than possible to pull them down or climb them.

    Great stuff, cheers!



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