If life occurred by chance on Earth, chances are, it could happen elsewhere — so say scientists as they scour the universe for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Forty-some years into the search, however, there is little to report: a few stray cell-phone signals, the remains of a weather balloon, a meteorite fragment contaminated with Earth-borne bacteria, and a lowres photo of a formation on Mars that bears a faint resemblance to a human face.

What’s particularly perplexing, and perhaps an indication of the futility of the search itself, is that the so-called “face on Mars” raised any hopes at all. Scientists hold as fact that living, breathing humans occur naturally in space, rising out of disorder and nothingness; yet they are ready to accept a fuzzy, lifeless image worn into rock as the result of intelligent design.

Now if, instead of a face, the Mars photos revealed geographic features consisting of straight lines, especially in parallel and perpendicular orientations, then we’d have something to get excited about. Orthogonality, after all, is what sets the artificial world apart from the natural. Think about it. Straight lines and right angles are largely man-made, whereas nature, with her brush, uses mostly curved strokes.

Take in a mountain view, seascape, or forest setting and try to find a naturally occurring straight line anywhere. Even the horizon is curved. Nature’s curved mold is also imprinted on all living species — mammals, insects, birds, fish, plants, and so on — from their outer skins to their cellular structure. Humans likewise follow form; life itself is encoded in the double helix of our DNA and experienced within the convolutions of our brains.

It is somewhat ironic that so many linear and planar shapes come from those curvaceous computers of ours. Indeed, orthogonality seems to dominate our homes (windows, walls, doors), offices (desks, bookcases, file cabinets), cities (buildings, billboards, streets), even our playing fields (end zones, baselines, bowling lanes, and basketball courts).

To some extent this is an accommodation to our environment. We’ve learned to work with gravity instead of against it. A coffee cup shaped like an egg, for example, wouldn’t be very practical; nor would a leaning telephone pole. Another reason the man-made world is so flat and linear is that it’s easier for humans to think and work in two dimensions than three. Essentially, the artificial world is a reflection of the relatively simple geometry of a T-square.

There is one exception, however, where nature, too, seems to have applied a straight edge: the crystalline composition of matter itself. The forces that draw atoms, molecules, and ions together — creating elements, compounds, rocks, and minerals — hold them at fixed distances from one another, forming a lattice or grid. Because all matter, ranging from salt to quartz to silicon wafers, assembles along these lines, it is often characterized by preferred orientations and external planar surfaces.

The very soil, in fact, from which plants and animals spring forth is a mixture of sticky microscopic crystals and flat-sided fragments. About the only constituent that differs is humus, the decomposing remains of plants and animals; the stuff that gives soil its life-sustaining properties.

And this gets back to the search for life and why, so far, it’s been a bust. Life as we know it is in the soil, and the vitality of soil is in the decay of life, forming a cycle that doesn’t offer a natural entry or exit point. Forget the faces and intergalactic phone calls. Soil is the key.

Granted there is plenty of order and intelligence in the solid, liquid, and gaseous matter of the universe; enough, in fact, to send out a false alarm every now and then. But the higher-order three dimensional curves of biological systems are not inherent in the lower-order building blocks that make up the planets, moons, and stars. No curves, no humus, no soil, no life.

Time has nothing to do with it. Salt or any other crystalline structure can grow for eternity, but there is no reason to believe it will ever bootstrap itself into the more intelligent geometry of the biological form, let alone the mating pairs of reproducing species.

The opposite process, on the other hand, is not only possible but necessary. The higher-order assembly of all living matter eventually dissociates into its basic components, in effect, recycling the fuel (soil) for the engine of life. What it takes to start and keep that engine running is what we ought to be searching for instead of E.T.

By the way, recent NASA photos clearly show that the “face on Mars” is nothing more than a weathered mound of rock. Perhaps it will make a good place to plant the American flag when we get there — orthogonally, of course.

- Larry Berardinis
lberardinis@penton.com