Sciency Words A to Z: Hydrothermal Vents

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, H is for:


In his book All These Worlds Are Yours, Canadian astronomer Jon Willis recounts the story of how hydrothermal (hot water) vents were first discovered here on Earth.  It was 1977.  A scientific research vessel was towing a deep-sea probe along the ocean floor in the Pacific when the probe detected a temperature anomaly.

This was exactly what the crew of that research vessel was hoping to find: a sort of underwater volcano, right where two tectonic plates were moving apart.  But the real surprise came when that research team brought their deep-sea probe back to the surface and developed all its photographs.  They saw the hydrothermal vent they were expecting to see, but they also saw things living—yes, living!—all around it.

Marine microbiologist Holger Jannasch, who was part of a follow-up expedition in 1979, had this to say:

We were struck by the thought, and its fundamental implications, that here solar energy, which is so prevalent in running life on our planet, appears to be largely replaced by terrestrial energy—chemolithoautotrophic bacteria taking over the role of green plants.  This was a powerful new concept and, in my mind, one of the major biological discoveries of the 20th Century.

It’s become fashionable to suppose that, rather than the “warm little pond” that Charles Darwin once wrote about, perhaps life began its conquest of Earth in an environment like this: a place deep under water where heat and chemicals come spewing up out of the planet’s crust.

An Introduction to Astrobiology actually cites science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke as the first to realize what all this might mean for life in our Solar System.  Specifically, Clarke thought of the icy moons of Jupiter.  In his 2001: A Space Odyssey novels, Clarke tells us of a hydrothermal vent on Europa—a “warm oasis” populated by plant-like, slug-like, and crab-like creatures.

The idea of life on Europa (or Saturn’s moon Enceladus) clustered around hydrothermal vents may have started out as science fiction, but it is now a possibility that astrobiologists take very seriously. But we’ll talk about that later this week.     

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, what’s wrong with the I in SETI

Sci Friday – Solar System Monopoly

Space entrepreneurs have a lot of big dreams.  There’s money for space tourism and contracts with NASA, now that the space shuttle program has ended.  There are also valuable resources in space.

One entrepreneur predicts that the 21st Century will become a game of “Solar System Monopoly”—something already envisioned by writers like Ben Bova and Arthur C. Clarke—and warns that the Chinese government is ready to make the first move.  See “China Will Own the Moon” for more on that.

Here are this week’s sciency links.

Also, the world is ending today.

Compressed Carbon is a Girl’s Best Friend

In 2061: Odyssey Three, one of the sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the human race discovers an endless supply of diamonds on Jupiter.  Carbon, being one of the most common elements in the universe, probably is abundant on Jupiter, and Jupiter, along with the other gas giants, would exert such tremendous amounts of pressure on that carbon that it could form diamonds.

By the end of the Space Odyssey series, diamonds are so common that they’re used as an ordinary construction material.  Not for decoration, but for strength.  Diamond windows, for example, are far less breakable than old-fashioned glass.

A recent study has shown that Uranus and Neptune really could produce diamonds.  In fact, these planets have the right internal pressures and temperatures to form vast oceans of liquid diamond, with solidified chunks floating like icebergs on the surface.  Far stranger and more wonderful than what Arthur C. Clark envisioned in his books.

Now we just have to figure out how to get there and how to extract these diamonds safely.  It might even be possible, if these diamond oceans really exist, to collect the liquid, mold it, and produce diamonds in any shape we want.

In other news, scientists have discovered a planet 4000 light years away that is one giant diamond.  This planet was once a star, but all it’s stellar material has burned off, leaving a huge lump of compressed carbon—there for the taking.

One thing is clear: when the day comes that space travel is safe and cheap, diamonds will not be quite as valuable as they are today.  The universe has lots of carbon and lots of places where that carbon is under extreme pressure.  Diamonds are everywhere.