In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don't think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Edward O. Wilson, known academically as E. O. Wilson, Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, Pellegrino Research Professor Emeritus and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

The idea: "A full vertical map of life on, above and below the planet," Wilson suggests.

One would first start by recording instances of life forms "from the ground up through the atmosphere and beyond, well into space," he notes. "We could deploy orbiting nets made very finely porous or solid surfaces that would catch microorganisms — I predict these will be found to exist. The nets could be immense in size, deployed upon arrival in orbit from a small volume of space in the vehicle and withdrawn to it before departing orbit."

One would then do the same "from the surface of the Earth, including the ocean bottom, downward for as deep as organisms can be found," Wilson says. "We need a core that starts, say, 10 meters below the surface and descends to a depth of several kilometers, where temperatures become too high to support life."

The idea with such delves would be to fully explore "the SLIMES — Subterranean Lithoautotrophic Microbial Ecosystems — known to abound kilometer deep there," Wilson says, full of organisms "not dependent on materials and energy from the surface."

"Why do this?" Wilson asks. "To learn about realms of life at the margins, with the prospect of many surprising discoveries, including extreme forms of microbial life, leading to who can say what?"

The problem: Although doable and important, it is "perhaps out of reach technologically, for the time being," Wilson says.

The solution? Instead of a nets dropped from outer space, researchers have proposed deploying swarms of thousands or even millions of chip-sized satellites each only the size of a dime, which could flutter down from low Earth orbit to the ground without burning up from friction upon reentry, due to the relatively slow speeds they would be traveling. These "space-chips" might conceivably be used to sample the high atmosphere. Three prototype versions of these satellites each the size of crackers have just flown up on NASA's next-to-last space shuttle mission.

"I'm not suggesting a complete biodiversity map," Wilson stresses. Research could proceed one exploratory project at a time.

Image of E.O. Wilson from Harvard's Web page (Staff file photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)


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About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.