Researched and Written by Maddie Williamson, student at the University of Exeter 

It seems to be more and more common that science-fiction books written in the 20th century are being connected to and used as forewarnings to events and discoveries occurring today: Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ predicted the discovery of Mars’ two moons; H. G. Wells’ ‘The World Set Free’ predicted the atomic bomb and John Brunner’s ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ and its prediction of satellite TV and electric cars. In this way, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel ‘Solaris’ is no different. With over 5300 exoplanets (any planet outside of our solar system) having been discovered, the events in Solaris don’t appear to seem that unrealistic. Emma Johanna Puranen, St Leonards’ Interdisciplinary Doctoral Scholar at the University of St Andrews, suggests we take a second look at this novel and consider the novel’s fictional discovery of the exoplanet Solaris as a realistic portrayal of the confusion surrounding a discovery of a new planet and the search for other life in the universe.

In her talk, Emma explained that once astronomers started repeatedly discovering exoplanets, they realised that they needed help to understand them. The astronomers were not properly equipped to do global or climate modelling, they didn’t understand how atmospheres worked or how rocks interacted with atmospheres. Thus, they turned to scientists in other fields for help and the interdisciplinary fields of astrobiology and exoplanet science were formed. But it was not always this way- not so long ago, the idea of interdisciplinary sciences was unheard of. In the 1960s, James Lovelock, a chemist, was working at a laboratory at NASA – involved in a Viking experiment to determine whether there is life on Mars or not. To answer his burning questions of whether there was life on mars and what even ‘life on Mars’ could mean, he decided to prove how life existed on our planet. He stated that our atmosphere, which lives in a constant state of disequilibrium, is a sign of life. At the same time, our atmosphere contains methane and oxygen which constantly oxidise to form carbon dioxide and water. Lovelock stated that if there wasn’t anything replacing the methane and oxygen we would instead have an atmosphere that is in a constant state of equilibrium. As a result, Lovelock worked on a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer which separates the atmosphere into constituent parts. He concluded that Mars was a dead world in his results as he saw no sign of a disequilibrium or, in other words, life. This investigation got him thinking about the way the biosphere reacts with the atmosphere. He published his first paper on the idea in 1969 and named this theory Gaia in the 1970s. The Gaia theory is that the biosphere and environment interact in a self-regulating manner that perpetuates the conditions necessary for life. In an atmosphere of disequilibria, life is constantly changing the atmosphere to keep it as a place that life can exist.

Initially there was a lot of criticism of Gaia theory. This was because Lovelock’s claims stood to falsify Earth scientists’ and biologists’ current ideas and theories about the Earth. His theory looked to combine, at that time, completely siloed departments and fields. Emma explained that it is not possible to understand the Earth from the vantage point of any one discipline – the Earth system only makes sense when seen as an interconnected whole. She went on to explain that since the development of the Gaia theory, there has been a rise of interdisciplinary fields such as climate science, astrobiology and exoplanet science which have contributed to the improved reputation for this theory. These fields all understand the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration to understand the complex systems of the Earth. Emma described how not only anticipating the future, science fiction is often a response to the time it was written in. Lem was frustrated with the lack of discussion between disciplines, so he wrote a book about a very complicated Gaian planet and demonstrated how impossible it was for humanity to understand it if disciplines remained separate. Lovelock saw the same problem in the world around him and came up with Gaia theory. Solaris is the story of a psychologist from Earth called Kelvin who travels to an exoplanet, the living ocean-planet Solaris. A research centre stationed on the planet tries to communicate with the ocean. The ocean on Solaris is not like one of ours – it creates unique structures that form and collapse, eroding over time. Scientists have tried to classify the ocean’s structures but so far they have failed. Solaris is in a binary system. Lem’s fictional ‘Gamov-Shapley hypothesis’ states that life should be impossible in a binary system due to eccentric orbits. But in the novel, scientists determine that Solaris’ orbit is circular – something is pushing its orbit out of the equilibrium, leading scientists to discover that the planet (the ocean) is regulating its own environment to allow its life to prosper. Here, as put by Emma, Solrais can be seen as a truly Gaian world.

The science of studying Solaris was marred with debate and disagreement. Solaristics (those studying Solaris) have failed to understand the planet and its sole inhabitant. The Solaricists are siloed; they have nothing like Gaia theory and are not communicating with each other. As a result, they will never fully understand the planet. Ultimately, Emma explained how Stanislaw’s Solaris acts as a warning. We should take Solaris as a lesson as we throw ourselves into the search for other worlds and life in the universe. Ascribing a search for humanity to an alien world, as a mirror of our own world is fundamentally futile if we have not yet held that mirror up to our own planet. She then posed the critical question: is this what we are doing right now in our search for exoplanets