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].
Hi Ian, good article. I have for many years believed that life, as we know it, does exist on unnumbered planets. Then I found a statement in the scriptures Moses 1:33 that stated the same. Of course we can believe what we want to believe, but that won’t change the truth; the world won’t go flat because we believe it is flat. Your argument makes very good sense, and is well supported. Jesus said in John 10:16, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring.” This statement is up for interpretation, but may be relevant to this discussion. At any rate it is there to be reckoned with, and not just set aside. I guess some may say this has nothing to do with our eternal salvation, but then maybe it does. If we believe our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ will fulfill all they have promised us, then we must not limit our faith in and vision of the Powers They possess.
Hi Don, the quote by Jesus about sheep from another fold is a fascinating mystery, to me. I wish Jesus had explained it. But I had never thought about its possible application to life beyond earth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I am a physical chemist (Molecular spectroscopy) teaching at ORU in chemistry. Origins of life studies are basically physical chemistry with dash of geology, probability theory, biochemistry, and thermodynamics thrown in. Hence I got drawn into this area as a Christian when I took a Statistical Mechanics class in graduate school from an information theory approach, way back in 1978-79. I realized something big was involved in that information stuff and resolved to figure it out someday. I was beat out by Walter Bradley, Steven Meyers, and Michael Behe. A few books to clear the air in this area. THE MYSTERY OF LIFE’S ORIGIN: Reassessing Current Theories by Bradley, Thaxton, Olsen; SIGNATURE IN THE CELL by Steven Meyers; ORIGINS: A skeptic’s guide to the creation of life on Earth by Robert Shaperio.
After seeing the arguments in these books it will be very hard to take any origin of life study seriously from a scientific viewpoint. The first critical experiment to form amino acids in a reducing atmosphere was done by Urey and Miller in 1953 to much fanfare. Since then the field has been one constant string of flops, failures, and ain’t gonna happen to the point that even today they cannot come up with a credible method of hooking two amino acids together to form a dipeptide under any realistic early earth condition. I have a news article of ten years ago where two scientists were bragging about getting two amino acids to couple by placing them in a metal pellet and shooting them from the world’s fastest gun (simulates meteor impacts) into a stone wall. As such is the smashing successes of a field that has to resort to 5000 mph meteor impacts to try to create life. Any other scientific endeavor would have been given up as hopeless and the money directed to better avenues of research decades ago; but too much is on the line for some philosophical views.
I tell my students that any time you want to discuss materialism, evolutionism with someone who disagrees with a creation viewpoint always go for a discussion on the origin of life, and chemical evolution. If you know your chemistry, thermo, and biochemistry, you will win or get your point across every time. The case is that bad for the evolutionist.
Personally as a star trek fan I like the idea of extraterrestrial civilizations, and I don’t think they pose any critical issue for Christianity if they exist (See C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy books), but the scientific evidence there is also building to a very large degree that the roadblocks to life and special conditions needed are so enormous that we are most likely alone in the universe, unless God decides to “create” life elsewhere. The factors in the Drake equation are so vague and undetermined that you can get whatever answer you want by fudging the factors as you wish. THE PRIVILEGED PLANET by G. Gonzales is a great book to explore in that area.
Sorry for the monologue, but you hit a favorite area of mine, and one that almost no-one talks about because of its technical nature, because it cuts across the spirit of our age so much. But its a great way to silence the vocal pushy atheist, and cause the thoughtful ones to reexamine their data a bit more. It is great stuff for a Christian physical scientist to play around in, the ramifications are profound and play very much into the hands of the theist and Christian.
Bill, thank you for a thoughtful comment, and I appreciate you taking the time to add important information to a topic that was only touched on in the blog.
Life can exist somewhere beyond Earth but I don’t believe Human Life exists out there. If people were created other than here, then Jesus would have to be crucified again for them. Or if there were people out there and God didn’t bother to let us know, they could have been experiencing everything as it happened on Earth. That doesn’t seem likely to me. I believe God would have made it known to us. The scriptures don’t seem to point to any other human creation and it really doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I guess we will know when we see Him Face to Face.
In answer to the sheep of another fold, Jesus was speaking to Jews who believed they were the only ones God cared about. He was talking about the Gentiles that were going to be brought into His Kingdom.
Barbara, your interpretation about Jesus’ sheep from another fold does seem reasonable, and I confess I’ve never heard it before. Thanks for sharing.
We tend to forget to look at the setting of the scriptures. They weren’t written in the western world to Christians. An excellent book that helps us read them is Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes” by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.