J. Craig Venter was Probaway Person of the Year 2011, and could well be chosen again for this year, he has done so many memorable things. His new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, illustrates what a genius in the old sense of the word (someone who had done remarkably creative things) can do when given support by his society. Fortunately, he has been able to garner the resources, and the teams, to make life-shaking progress in the understanding of the forces of life itself. He was the one responsible for creating the techniques for decoding DNA, and gained fame for doing the human DNA, and then doing the genome of many more species, and then he created living DNA out of four bottles of nonliving chemicals, and then he has developed new life forms from computer programs, and he has collected the DNA of millions of living creatures of the world’s oceans, and much more.
His book gives an overview of the history of research into the double helix of DNA and of the progress, much of it personally his work, of the last few decades for understanding and manipulating that DNA to do new things. He is now able to code life into a cell, and because that technology is digital he can transmit the code for that life, or any life, over unlimited time or distance. With an appropriate replicator sent to Mars he could develop appropriate life forms, here on Earth, and transmit them to that remotely located device and create positive-feedback, intelligence-driven, designer life forms to fit that local environment. This is obviously beyond the leading edge of what can be done at this moment, but the technology is almost ready to design equipment that would be capable of doing these things.
These nascent abilities of humanity are the reason for the title. Projecting life across the cosmos at the speed of light is one of the goals. First send information on how to build the appropriate machines to some distant civilization in the galaxy, and then send the DNA code for how to construct the living cells, and how to maintain those cells and grow others. In a short time a complex biological greenhouse could be constructed in that distant world, and the things we have here on Earth could be had on that distant planet. Or, the reverse, find some other planet’s intelligent life that is transmitting to us, how to grow their life forms and make them function. We grow those extra-planetary individuals right here. Hm? This technology has moved out of the world of pure fantasy and on to the technology for doing these things in physical reality.
Venter’s book doesn’t state quite so explicitly those goals, but the implication is that he values life, and wants to propagate it throughout the Universe. Physically moving a few humans into space colonies and supporting them there would be millions of times more expensive than his plan. Even the United States doesn’t seem willing to support the low orbit Space Station it built, and it is now being kept operational by the Russians. Perhaps even now a radio broadcast, or a dedicated laser aimed in exactly the right direction, could carry the information needed to create a human colony to a distant civilization. Those technologies could be had at present for the price of a used car.
Venter is the most authoritative person on Earth to be writing about the subject of life, and he is a clear presenter of the information. The technical chapters will prove thick going for the average person, but they are worth slogging through, because they give the background information that makes the other easily accessible chapters exciting reading. This book is an opportunity to see into the thoughts of a human being who will be renowned for the rest of human history, and perhaps well beyond.
The Universe created the Earth, Eveish women created humanity, Venter is creating Universal life.