“Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say “supernatural”) plan.”
Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias
Earth is “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” as Carl Sagan put it. Many scientists believe there is nothing unique about our planet and that there are up to ten trillion advanced civilizations in the universe. Sagan put the number at one million for the Milky Way Galaxy alone.
After all, the forces of nature are so automatic that life is sure to evolve anywhere that water exists. That’s why whenever scientists raise new speculation about liquid water being present on another celestial body – the underground worlds of Jupiter’s frozen moons Europa and Ganymede are currently most fashionable examples – then the automatic assumption is that living organisms must necessarily and inexorably flow.
Strobel puts it this way, “If life can emerge from non life so quickly and efficiently on a planet as undistinguished as ours, they reason, then why not throughout the universe’s hundreds of billions of galaxies? To them, life is like soup mix: just add water!”
The very title of astrobiologist David Darling’s recent book nicely encapsulates this optimistic philosophy: Life Everywhere. He’s enthusiastic about claims that “life may arise inevitably whenever a suitable energy source, a concentrated supply of organic (carbon based) material and water occur together.” These ingredients, he said, “are starting to look ubiquitous in space.” Consequently, he believes microbial life, at least, “is widespread.”
In short, Earth has no privileged status. Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus deflated our oversized ego by putting us in our place long ago – the universe doesn’t revolve around us; instead, we’re just living in a humdrum hamlet off the beaten path in a nondescript suburb of the Milky Way. We have no grand role, no meaning, no significance, no reason for being other than… well just being.
Richard Dawkins says, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
This is the essence of what is taught to students of science today. The personal implications of this of course are staggeringly hopeless. How Dawkins even gets out of bed in the morning is beyond me. Maybe he takes comfort in the thought that even if there is no god, at least there are millions of advances civilizations out there.
Not all scientists agree though. It’s turning out that Earth is anything but ordinary, that our sun is far from average, and that even the position of our planet in the galaxy is eerily fortuitous. The idea that the universe is a flourishing hothouse of advanced civilizations is now being undermined by surprising new scientific discoveries and fresh thinking. In short, new findings are suggesting that we are special. More and more scientists are studying the mind-boggling convergence of scores of extraordinary “coincidences” that make intelligent life possible on Earth and concluding that this can’t possibly be an accident.
It is becoming more evident over time that Earth may be a very rare place and that life may not be abounding throughout the universe. It seems Earth is in the right place at the right time to hold life. Geologist Peter D Ward and astronomer David Brownlee say in their book Rare Earth, “not only intelligent life, but even the simplest animal life, is exceedingly rare in our galaxy and the universe.” Calling their book “carefully reasoned and scientifically astute,” Don Johnson, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, remarked: “In spite of our wishful thinking, there just may not be other Mozarts or Monets.” More and more scientists are observing the stunning ways in which our planet, against all odds, manages to fulfill a large number of the finely tuned, and finely balanced criteria that are crucial to supporting a habitat suitable for mankind. “Rather than being one planet among billions, Earth now appears to be the uncommon Earth,” said science educators Jimmy H. Davis and Harry L. Poe. “The data imply that Earth may be the only planet at ‘the right place at the right time.’”
Earth’s location, its size, its composition, its structure, its atmosphere, its temperature, its internal dynamics, and its many intricate cycles that are essential to life – the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, the sulfur cycle, the calcium cycle, and so on – testify to the degree to which our planet is exquisitely and precariously balanced.
As they begin their influential textbook Earth, Frank Press of the National Academy of Sciences and Raymond Siever of Harvard University write about what they call “the uniqueness of planet Earth.”
They note how its atmosphere filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation while working with the oceans to moderate the climate through the storing and redistributing of solar energy, and how the Earth is just large enough not to keep too many harmful gases. Then they describe the Earth’s interior as…
…a gigantic but delicately balanced heat engine fueled by radioactivity… Were it running more slowly… the continents might not have evolved to their present form… Iron may never have melted and sunk to the liquid core, and the magnetic field would never have developed… If there had been more radioactive fuel, and therefore a faster running engine, volcanic dust would have blotted out the sun, the atmosphere would have been oppressively dense, and the surface would have been racked by daily earthquakes and volcanic explosions.
Press and Silver, while marveling at Earth “is a very special place,” don’t broach the possibility of design. Ward and Brownlee skirt the issue in Rare Earth, preferring instead to occasionally pepper in words like “sheer luck” and “a rare chance happening.”
Does luck really explain why Earth enjoys this incredible convergence of extremely unlikely circumstances that have allowed human beings to flourish? Christians throughout the ages have always stood by the hypothesis that God created the Earth and the universe, however, with all the new discoveries in modern science in just the last few years means there is much more support today for such a hypothesis than there ever was in ancient times.
The Copernican Principle, which is the main adopted principle in the Astronomy field in reference to Earths significance, states that there is nothing uniquely special or unusual about Earth, its location in the universe, its solar system, or human beings themselves. This principal is very reasonable in the sense that the laws of physics and nature apply to all planets including Earth. Earth is not the at the center of the solar system, or solar system is not at the center of the galaxy, and our galaxy is not at the center of the universe (as far as we know). Since Copernicus, this principle has taken on a metaphysical and philosophical form as well, scientists now use it to say that there is no purpose, and mankind is not in fact special. These assertions are quite simply false. Through the Copernican principle scientists make the assumption that, because the earth is not special, life must abound all over the universe, but the evidence against this is quite to the contrary. Our location in the universe, in our galaxy, in our solar system, as well as the size and rotation of the Earth, the mass of the moon and sun and so forth – a whole range of factors – conspire together in an amazing way to make Earth habitable and beyond that, the same conditions that allow for intelligent life also make it strangely well-suited for viewing and analyzing the universe.
Many scientists assume that if you can just find a place anywhere in the universe where water stays liquid for a long enough period of time, then life will develop, just as it did on Earth. Guillermo Gonzales Phd, and Jay Wesley Richards Phd, an Ivy League philosopher, disagree. In Strobel’s Case for a Creator, Gonzales says about this assumption:
It’s true that in order to have life you need water – which is a universal solvent – for reactions to take place, as well as carbon, which serves as the core atom of the information carrying structural molecules of life. But you also need a lot more. Humans require twenty six essential elements; a bacterium about sixteen. Intermediate life forms are between those two numbers. The problem is that not just any planetary body will be the source of all those chemical ingredients in necessary forms and amounts.
Stobel went on to ask him if it was possible for life to develop under some other radical environment other than a carbon based one such as silicon.
That just won’t work. Chemistry is one of the better understood areas of science. We know that you just can’t get certain atoms to stick together in sufficient number of complexity to give you large molecules like carbon can. You can’t get around it. And you just can’t get other types of liquids to dissolve as many different kinds of chemicals as you can with water. There’s something like half a dozen different properties of both water and carbon that are optimal for life. Nothing else comes close. Silicon falls far short of Carbon.
Unfortunately, people see life as being easy to create. They think that it’s enough to merely have liquid water, because they see life as an epiphenomenon – just a piece of slime mold growing on an inert piece of granite. Actually, the Earth’s geology and biology interact very tightly with each other. You can’t think of life as being independent of the geophysical and meteorological processes of the planet. They interact in a very intimate way. So you need not only the right chemicals for life but also a planetary environment that’s tuned to life.
Strobel asked the two men about the concept of terraforming Mars to make it into a place habitable for life like Earth, and asked if that would be difficult. The fact is, from the magnetic field to the tectonic plates, ongoing life depends on variety of very complicated interactions with the planet. Richards goes on to say:
People generally think that because they plant a seed and it grows that it’s easy to create the right environment for life, but that’s misleading. A good example is the hermetically sealed biosphere that some people constructed in Arizona several years ago. They thought that it would be relatively easy to create a self contained environment conducive to life, but they had a devil of a time trying to make it work.
Astounded by the Earth’s fine tuned physical, chemical, and biological interrelationships, some writers have gone so far as to describe Earth as a “Superorganism” that is quite literally alive. Some have gone on to deify the planet, though that would be like deifying a watch because of it’s amazing properties instead of looking beyond the watch to the one who made it.
There are three basic types of galaxies in our universe, spiral, elliptical, and irregular. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. Could there be other galaxies in the universe which support life? Gonzales gave an explanation:
…our type of galaxy optimizes habitability, because it provides safe zones, and Earth happens to be located in a safe area, which is why life has been able to flourish here.
…galaxies having varying degrees of star formation, where interstellar gases coalesce to form stars, star clusters, and massive stars that blow up as supernovae. Places with active star formation are very dangerous, because that’s where you have supernovae exploding at a fairly high rate. In out galaxy, those dangerous places are primarily in the spiral arms, where there are hazardous giant molecular clouds. Fortunately, though, we happen to be situated safely between the Sagittarius and Perseus spiral arms.
Also, we are very far from the nucleus of the galaxy, which is also a dangerous places. We now know there is a massive black whole at the center of our galaxy. In fact, the Hubble space telescope has found that nearly every large nearby galaxy has a giant black hole at its nucleus.
Lots of high energy is released [from black holes] – gamma rays, x-rays, particle radiation – and anything in the inner region of the galaxy would be subjected to high radiation levels. That’s very dangerous for life forms. The center of the galaxy is also dangerous because there are more supernovae exploding in that region.
…the composition of a spiral galaxy changes as you go out from the center. The abundance of heavy elements is greater towards the center, because that is where star formation has been more vigorous over the history of the galaxy. So it has been able to cook more hydrogen and helium into heavy elements more quickly, where as the outer disk of the galaxy, star formation has been going on more slowly over the years and the abundance of heavy elements isn’t quite as high. Consequently, the outer regions of the disk are less likely to have Earth-type planets.
Now put all this together – the inner regions of the galaxy is much more dangerous from radiation and other threats; the outer part of the galaxy isn’t going to be able to form Earth-like planets because the heavy elements are not abundant enough; and I haven’t even mentioned how the thin disk of our galaxy helps our sun stay in its desirable circular orbit. A very eccentric orbit could cause it to cross spiral arms and visit the dangerous inner regions of the galaxy, but being circular, it remains in the safe zone.
It turns out that our Milky Way galaxy is in the top one to two percent of most massive and luminous galaxies. Most galaxies are elliptical or irregular and less massive, meaning their stars are not producing the heavier elements as much as they should and therefore the likely hood of life developing or even Earth-like planets is very low. The odds are, that out of the millions of galaxies out there, the chance of life existing is next to zero.
Gonzales goes on to talk about his opinion of our location in the universe:
In terms of habitability, I think we are in the best possible place. That’s because our location provides enough building blocks to yield an Earth, while providing a low level of threats to life. I
really can’t come up with another place in our galaxy as friendly to life as our location. Sometimes people claim that you can be
in any part of any galaxy. Well, I’ve studied other regions – spiral arms, galactic centers, globular clusters, edge of disks – and no matter where it is, it’s worse for life. I can’t think of any better place than where we are.
Richards comments on the irony of our place, and how it seems to be the opposite of the Copernican Principle:
The propaganda of the Copernican principle has been that the long march of science has shown how common and ordinary our situation is. But the trend is in the opposite direction. The more you pile on the threats we’re discovering in most places in the universe, and you contrast that with the many ways we’re in a cocoon of safety, the more our situation appears special.
Even our own solar system seems designed for us. As we discover more an more planets orbiting other stars, scientists assumptions about what they were going to find are being torn to pieces. Instead of finding planets orbiting in a circle like in our solar system, they are finding gas giants like Jupiter orbiting elliptical patterns which make the existence of smaller rocky habitable planets impossible because of gravity. If Jupiter were to orbit our sun in an elliptical pattern, Earth wouldn’t be able to maintain it’s circular orbit and therefore it’s temperature. Life would be impossible. Scientists are also discovering that the other planets in our system play a part in Earth’s habitability. Large planets like Jupiter, because of their immense gravity, work as shields for our planet sucking in asteroids and comets as they pass by, protecting us from too many impacts. In addition, the other planets protect us from being bombarded by asteroids from the asteroid belt which lies between Mars and Jupiter. Being at the edge of the belt, Mars takes a lot of hits for us. Venus does too.
Another thing essential to the life on a planet, is its position in relation to its sun. Earth is in the Circumstellar Habitable Zone, or the zone where liquid water and an atmosphere can exist. If it were closer to the sun, water would evaporate, if it were farther away, it would all freeze.
There are three possibilities when it comes to the existence of life. First is that there is some natural necessity, like the laws of physics, that inexorable leads to life. However, more and more discoveries are leading scientists to conclude that intelligent life is, at minimum, far rarer than was once thought. In fact, it may very well be unique to Earth. The second possible explanation is chance: life is a fluke. Create enough planets circling enough stars and the odds say at least one of them will have life. Or third: life was created. After studying all the extraordinary rare circumstances that have contributed to life on Earth, and then overlaying the amazing way in which these conditions also open the door to scientific discoveries, Gonzales and Richards have landed in this camp. Richards concluded by saying,
“To find that we have a universe where the very best places where we find observers are also the very best overall places for observing – that’s surprising. I see design not just in the rarity of life in the universe, but also in this very pattern of habitability and measurability.”