Some truths about human life beyond earth
WHATS IN THIS BLOG:
• Arguments for life beyond earth
• The spacecraft Kepler’s search for other planets
• The beginnings of life
• Implications for Biblical faith
This blog is excerpted from an article in Time Magazine entitled The Perfectly Sane Case for Life in Space (by Jeffrey Kluger, April 2016).
ARGUMENTS FOR LIFE BEYOND EARTH:
• Scott Sandford works at NASA Ames Research Center in California. In his lab he swirls together the gas and dust of interstellar space and chills it to -388°F. Then he blasts the mix with the kinds of radiation that exist in space. The result is thousands of chemical products, including molecules like amino acids – stuff that life uses.
• There is a growing belief that life does exist out there. Water (indispensable for biology as we know it) is one of the most common compounds in the cosmos. Amino acids turn up in meteorites. Thousands of possible or confirmed planets have been found circling other stars.
• The Drake predictor (1961) is an equation that multiplies different terms: A x B x C x D x etc. A = rate of star formation that could support habitable planets. B = fraction of those planets that are suitable for life. C = fraction of those planets where life actually appears. D = share of appearing life that becomes intelligent. It’s a subjective calculation, but Drake came up with an answer of 10,000 planets like ours which could support life (Carl Sagan estimated 1 million).
THE SPACECRAFT KEPLER’S SEARCH FOR OTHER PLANETS:
• The spacecraft was launched in 2009.
• Looked for the minute dimming of light from a star when a planet crossed in front of it….a change of only 1 in 10,000. If a skyscraper has 10,000 light bulbs turned on at Christmas, this would be the equivalent of observing when one bulb is turned off.
• In just a few years Kepler has discovered 4,706 candidate planets and 1,039 of these have been confirmed.
• And this is just a tiny patch of the night sky: only 3% of the total depth of the Milky Way galaxy (our galaxy), and an area only 10 degrees by 10 degrees. How small an area is this? Hold your open palm at arm’s length up toward the sky. That’s how small is the fraction of the total sky that has been surveyed. This means there must be hundreds of thousands of planets circling suns out in the universe.
THE GOLDILOCKS ENIGMA: ***
• There are other restrictions on planets that can support life.
• A planet needs to orbit its sun at a distance where it’s not too hot and not too cold, so that liquid water can exist.
• The planet has to be small: between 1 earth radius and 2 earth radii so that it can have a rocky surface, and gravity strong enough to hold onto an atmosphere.
THE BEGINNINGS OF LIFE:
• Life started very quickly according to astronomer Seth Shostak. Like walking into a casino, pulling the handle and winning the jackpot. Either you are very lucky, or someone has re-programmed the machine to win lots of jackpots. ***
• Part I is gas and dust of interstellar space hit by radiation, and producing amino acids, etc. Ongoing research by Sandford includes hydrocarbon chains called amphiphiles which make up our cell walls. One end of the chain attracts water, the other end hates water but attracts fat. The chains link arms and gather into membranes with ends that like water on the outside, and ends that like fat on the inside. Then must add to this molecules that resist ultraviolet radiation and can survive in a range of acidities. It’s not life but it’s a good start.
• Part II however, is the big one: an incipient organism must develop an information-storage system, called DNA and RNA. This is vastly more complicated than forming a membrane. The organism has to remember what it’s doing or how it’s changed, and pass these improvements on. Scientists have only hazy ideas about how this could happen.***
COULD LIFE HAVE A DIFFERENT CHEMISTRY BASE?
• Our life is carbon-based.
• But life could be silicon-based. The trouble is silicon doesn’t play well with water. However, it plays better with methane. Saturn’s moon, Titan, has lakes of methane, but these are very cold (-258°F) and life would have to be happy living at that awful low temperature.
• Conclusion: it’s hard to come up with a life better than that which is warm, watery, and carbon-based, because this is the simplest route to an elegant solution like life on earth.***
THE ZERO-ONE-INFINITY RULE:
• Applies in a lot of scientific theories, but especially biology.
• For example, the ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct after 1950 (Zero). But one was discovered about ten years ago by a guy canoeing in Arkansas (One). Since then many others have been identified (Infinity).
• The number of planets with life in the universe is not zero. We know that so far the number is at least one. If we do find one other, making two, then there is every reason to predict many more than two — perhaps even a very large number of planets that sustain life.
• Dr Fred Hoyle, the doyenne of British astronomers, calculated in about 1970 the probability that life evolved on earth by itself. He concluded that the probability was far too low, and that life must have come to earth via meteorites.
• I am a physicist, not a biologist, but I agree with Dr Hoyle that it takes a great deal of faith to believe life evolved on earth by itself. I think it’s much easier to believe that God guided and directed it.
• A quote from the Time article: “New research suggests cosmic biology is not just possible; it’s inevitable.” I’m unsure the quote refers to life, or just biologic chemicals. Either way, the new evidence summarized above does suggest extraterrestrial life is a lot more possible than was thought twenty years ago.
• For those of us who believe in God as the creator of the universe, the passages above marked by *** would seem to point to God.
• Would extraterrestrial human life contradict the Biblical record? The clockmaker psalm, quoted below, seems to suggest that humans on earth are unique. But is this because the writers of the Bible hadn’t ever thought about humans living out there among the stars (except perhaps for heaven)?
• In particular, if there were another human life-form in the star Alpha Centauri, would they have been given the same love and redemption plan via Jesus that we have received?
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The Gray Nomad
Probing the practice of Christian believers……
When I view and consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; What is man, that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him but little lower than God, and you have crowned him with glory and honor. You made him to have dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet. [Book of Psalms, chapter 8].