Earth-like planet kills God dead!

The big news last week was that astronomers (incidentally, some of them colleagues of mine) discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star. The exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-452b, was discovered by the Kepler space telescope and recently announced by its discoverers. It is 1,400 light-years away from Earth and appears in the constellation Cygnus.

It’s exciting news, and probably had more than a few nerds thinking we’re one step closer to the United Federation of Planets, but apparently the really big news is that the discovery of this planet was the death-knell for religious tradition.

In what I suppose is a serious commentary on the discovery Kepler-452b and not satire, Jeff Schweitzer, a scientist and former White House analyst, declares that Earth 2.0 is “bad news for God.” Why? Because Genesis doesn’t mention alien worlds. Of course, Genesis also doesn’t mention bananas, but to my knowledge no one has argued that the existence of bananas rocks religious tradition to its core.

Schweitzer’s first mistake was referring to Kepler-452b as “Earth 2.0.” This newly discovered exoplanet is believed to be Earth-like in terms of its size and proximity to its Sun-like star, and that’s sort of big news, because the majority of known exoplanets are Jupiter-sized or larger and very close to non-Sun-like stars. Kepler-452b is at just the right distance to its Sun-like star to permit liquid water on its surface (a necessary component for life). All this means is that we can’t rule out the existence of liquid water on its surface; it doesn’t mean there is water. And there are known differences between Kepler-452b and Earth: it’s estimated to be 60% larger than Earth (so it’s more like a “Super-Earth”), it’s about 1.5 billion years older than the Earth, it receives 10% more light from its sun than the Earth does from its Sun, its gravity could be anywhere from 80% to 300% of the Earth’s gravity, etc. We don’t know its composition. Is it rocky? Does it have a fluid core that would lead to a dynamo effect? Does it have an atmosphere? Plate tectonics? We currently don’t know the answers to these questions. We therefore have no idea exactly how Earth-like Kepler-452b is or whether it’s suitable for life. And it’s not the only known Earth-like exoplanet, nor is it even the most Earth-like. All good reasons why it’s absurd to call this particular exoplanet “Earth 2.0.”

Nevertheless, Schweitzer goes on to declare that we are coming “ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe.” That’s quite a leap from the discovery of an exoplanet about which we know very little. But never mind. His point here is to preemptively declare that the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would be a big problem for “the world’s major religions.” And by “the world’s major religions” he seems to mean Judaism and Christianity (and probably just the latter), since the Bible is the sole focus of his critique.

He begins his theological discussion thusly: “Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation:”

Let’s look at what the Bible unambiguously claims about creation, according to Schweitzer:

1. “the earth is the center of the universe”

He doesn’t mention which verse says this. Probably because there is no verse, that I’m aware of, that says this. Ancient Greek philosophy held that the Earth is the center of the universe, and this view was eventually adopted by the Church, whose philosophy was heavily influenced by Aristotle.

2. “only humans were made in the image of god”

Of all the creatures mentioned in Genesis, yes, only humans were made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, being made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, not being made in the image of God.

3. “and all life was created in six days”

No, all life was created in four days. Plant life appeared on Day 3, animal life appeared on Day 5, and human life appeared on Day 6.

4. “All life in all the heavens. In six days.”

No, all life on Earth. In four days. (See here for why six creation days are fully compatible with a billions-year-old universe.)

Notice that he does not support any of these claims with the biblical verses that supposedly “unambiguously” say these things. Instead, later in his piece, he quotes the Pope during the trial of Galileo on what the Church believed the Bible claimed at the time.

This is why you should never rely on what an anti-theist says about the Bible. Schweitzer is completely wrong. Which means his conclusion is completely wrong, for he goes on to say:

“So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications. But do not buy the inevitable historical edits: life on another planet is completely incompatible with religious tradition. Any other conclusion is nothing but ex-post facto rationalization to preserve the myth.”

Nonsense. What he’s attempting to do is use false assumptions and specious reasoning to justify his leaping out in front of this discovery before anyone’s had a chance to comment thoughtfully on it, and claim it as a victory for atheism. Dibs, everyone!

Is Schweitzer unaware that Christians have already commented on the topic of alien life in the context of Christian theology? C. S. Lewis not only wrote a well-known essay (“Religion and Rocketry“) on the topic, but wrote a science fiction trilogy exploring it in great depth (The Space Trilogy). (Incidentally, I wrote on this topic a few years ago.)

The rest of Schweitzer’s article is filled with theological analysis and reasoning of similar quality. For instance, he quotes Genesis 1:1 and then makes the following claim:

“Nothing in that mentions alien worlds, which of course the ancients knew nothing about. Man was told to rule over the fish on the earth, not on other planets. But god would have known of these alien worlds, so it is curious he did not instruct the authors to include the language.”

One might reasonably ask how man could possibly rule over the fish on other planets, and therefore why it would be of any concern to him that there might be fish on other planets. (I seriously wondered if Schweitzer was having us all on at this point, but since this was The Huffington Post and not The Onion, I had to assume he was sincere.) (Also, what is it with the childish refusal of some atheists to capitalize the ‘G’ in God? Lower-case ‘g’ god denotes a lesser god. God is the supreme being, the God, which is why ‘God’ is capitalized. Spelling it correctly doesn’t mean you agree God exists, it means you understand the concept of a proper noun. It just makes you look like an idiot to refuse to capitalize the name.)

He then goes on some weird tangent about some verses in Genesis that shows he doesn’t understand that Genesis refers to the entire universe for the first two days, and then specifically the Earth for the remaining days. It was all so contorted and confused that it made my head hurt. He amusingly concludes this word-salad passage with “Let us be perfectly clear…”

Schweitzer ends his piece with the statement that, “none of this will matter upon life’s discovery elsewhere. Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible.” He’s right that this sort of poor understanding of the Bible and lousy reasoning are utterly inconsequential to any possible discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. As for whether the existence of life elsewhere is compatible with, even predicted by, the Bible, consider that the great biblical commentator, Nahmanides, inferred from Genesis that the universe was created with the potential for life built into it. Since he claimed this over 700 years ago, I’d say our side had dibs long before Schweitzer’s.

Replay: Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago [May 2011], I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

For example, Hawking believes the human brain is like a computer that will stop working when its components fail. This is an old and discredited view of the human mind. The brain is not like any known computer. For one thing, computers process serially, while the brain has the wonderful ability to process things in parallel. Hawking simply has the metaphor backwards, as any computer engineer struggling to make computers more like the human brain can tell you.

This simplistic view of humans can also be faulted for his apparent ignorance of the related problems of consciousness and mind/body dualism. Consciousness is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe, and there are no conscious computers except in movies. Since Hawking doesn’t say anything new about consciousness, his statements about the human condition are pretentious.

The dualist/monist debate about whether or not the mind and brain are the same thing has been raging for about 2,500 years. The best philosophers in the world have failed to resolve the question, something of which Hawking seems unaware, since he takes the monist side and simply dismisses the dualist view without argument. When it comes to philosophical arguments, scientists — even great scientists — need to understand that they have no special privileges.

Hawking was also reported to have said, “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” From an uninspired and misleading analogy he leaps into metaphysics with an arrogant disregard for the limitations of science. Science is the study of our material universe, and as such it can have nothing to say about heaven or the afterlife. It is destructive of science for one its best to loudly proclaim scientifically unsupportable and irresponsible conclusions.

Hawking certainly has as much right as any other person to speculate on the great questions of human existence. But, honest inquiry and open communication do not appear to be his intent. Hawking does not acknowledge his lack of expertise in these matters nor does he invite the rest of us to discuss heaven or the after-life as his equals. Instead he engages in a condescending and mean-spirited condemnation of deeply-held religious beliefs. There is no empathy for those who fear the darkness of an existence devoid of genuine love, objective moral truths, and the hope of eternal purpose. His message seems to be ‘here is the way smart people think, and if you think differently, you’re a pathetic dimwit.’

Hawking is blind to the wrong he is doing science. He reportedly told Diane Sawyer that “there is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.” There are three parts to this statement, all of which are wrong:

  1. There are at least three relevant definitions of the word ‘authority.’ Hawking is using the word in the following sense:

    The power or right to control, judge, or prohibit the actions of others.This would be a generally accepted definition of religious authority. Hawking certainly has in mind the atheist myth that Christian leaders have over the centuries prohibited scientists in significant ways. The false allegation of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church is a notable example1. The undeniable historic truth is that Christian faith and beliefs were the necessary foundation of modern science.Hawking should keep in mind two other important definitions of authority:An expert in a particular field.The ability to influence or control others.Hawking, as a renowned expert in physics, has significant influence over others — he is a scientific authority. When he uses this sort of authority to make pronouncements that go far beyond the scope of legitimate science, Hawking is the one abusing authority.
  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Hawking that science is largely based on observation and reason. So, what has Hawking observed to lead him to the conclusion there is no afterlife or heaven? Has he teleported to the far reaches of the universe? Has he managed to visit the other seven dimensions that string theory posits to exist? Has he somehow escaped the confines of our universe to see what is outside? Has he at least had a near-death experience? If his beliefs are not based on direct observation, then what exactly does Hawking’s reason tell him that has eluded so many other great thinkers before him?
  3. In what way does science work better than religion? Science gives knowledge of one kind, but it cannot give humankind a viable ethics to live by2or explain the meaning or purpose of life. The Bible does these important things for billions of people. Even for non-Christians, the dominant moral system in the world today has its roots in Christianity, which is the major reason the world has never been safer or more prosperous than it is now.Furthermore, the Bible is arguably superior to science as a source of truth about our universe. Is Hawking aware that the Bible states that the universe had a beginning3, that it was created out of nothing4, and that time in our universe is relative5? Scientists didn’t figure any of this out until the 20th century. Genesis 1 alone makes at least 26 scientifically testable statements about the creation of the universe and the origins of life. All 26 are consistent with current scientific understanding and in the correct order. The inconvenient truth for atheists is that the Bible somehow beat science to important truths by about 3,000 years.

    Science works in an important but very narrow sense — it assists humankind in understanding and controlling much of the natural world. But it also gives people tremendous destructive power. Without religion to give people direction in the choices they make about using that power, humankind could end up destroying itself.Finally, if you compare societies around the world in regard to which works best, science or religion, one fact of supreme importance will jump out at you. Generally speaking, non-religious peoples are not reproducing themselves while religious ones are. This single aspect of a society overrules all others; if a nation doesn’t reproduce itself, it is irrelevant how many other wonderful qualities it may have because they won’t be projected into the future. In the long run, atheist or secular humanist societies, no matter how scientific, don’t work because they lack the power to continue.

Hawking goes on to say that the concept of religion is in constant conflict with his life’s work — science, and understanding the most basic ways in which the universe works — and it’s almost impossible to reconcile the two. The first part of this statement is an old atheist lie: there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science. Hawking either ignores or is ignorant of the historical fact that the Christian faith and beliefs made science possible in the first place. If you doubt this, take a look at when and where modern science developed and flourished, along with the religious beliefs of the great scientists who laid the foundations of science.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been conflict between science and religion, but it’s not the fault of Christianity. From at least the time of Darwin, secular humanists such as Thomas Huxley have misused science and misrepresented Christian beliefs in an effort to undermine the influence of Christian faith. The truth is that some scientists are in constant conflict with religion because of their atheist beliefs, and they betray science as a result.

The report reminds the public of Hawking’s position that it is “not necessary to invoke God … to get the universe going.” He has maintained this position since very early in his career, telling German news-magazine Der Speigel in 1988 that “what I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began.”

He’s not saying that he knows the cause of the Big Bang. He is saying that he has constructed a mathematical model of a possible explanation. To say something is possible is meaningless and useless. It’s possible that somewhere in the universe, blue gooses lay gold coins with Hawking’s likeness on them. Like Hawking’s statement, it’s not scientific, because no one can prove it’s not true. The other weakness of his argument against the necessity of God is that it requires the laws of nature to be eternal. They would have had to ‘predate’ the universe in some manner that can never be scientifically proved, such as the emerging atheist myth of the multiverse.

Hawking continues, “This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.” Hawking is at least aware that science cannot be used to prove that God does not exist. Instead, he engages in the weasel argument that there is effectively no God since anything that is not necessary can be ignored or discarded. It’s like a child denying the necessity of parents. Child to parent: “I’m not saying you don’t exist, you just aren’t necessary. I can live without you, so just give me the keys to the house and the car along with your credit card, and go away and leave me alone.”

Scientists such as Hawking and Richard Dawkins start from a bias against God and then play in a child-like way with concepts to justify their prejudice. Just as a child cobbles together some rough approximation of an airplane out of Lego, Hawking imagines that he has constructed a viable worldview that doesn’t rest on the notion of God. But he has explained nothing and ignored almost everything of significance. He has his mathematical model of a godless universe; don’t bother him with the mysteries of what came before the Big Bang, the origins of life, the sudden Cambrian explosion of animal life, the nearly universal human need for spiritual beliefs, or the greatest mystery of all, the origin and meaning of human consciousness. He has his toy and wants to show it off.

Then Hawking says something that gives an important insight into the workings of the atheist mind. The report continues, “And it’s his work that keeps him going — even if there isn’t a heaven.” “I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.” This statement illustrates the most telling and annoying aspect of atheism: atheists seem incapable of taking any of their beliefs and reasoning to necessary and obvious conclusions. They dismiss God and the afterlife, argue that the material world is all that exists, assert that man is the measure of all things, and conclude that people can free themselves of religious restrictions and do whatever they want. If you ask them to continue with this train of thought, they usually make some kind of vague statement about a life in the service of humankind and the possibility of a kind of immortality in the sense that society will remember a person’s good deeds ‘forever.’

The problem, of course, is that it is delusional nonsense. What any good scientist should know is that our material universe is very likely heading toward what is called heat death, a state in which energy no longer exists in a form that can support life. But even before this occurs, the human species will have become extinct anyway. What is the point of doing anything in this life when you will be annihilated in the blink of a cosmic eye followed in short order by the rest of humankind? If atheists really believed this, they would either commit suicide or become Buddhist monks. But the vast majority of them continue to act as if human existence has some kind of meaning greater than that of their material state. If Hawking is right about God and the afterlife, every trace of humanity will be destroyed, all of Hawking’s work will be lost, and every effort he makes will be futile.

What he is really means when he says he is in no hurry to die is that he values his existence and he wants to keep on existing. He feels he has purpose, but he does not wonder where that purpose could possibly come from. He’s not thinking his own position to its logical end, which is that without God his existence is pathetically finite and ultimately meaningless. He says there is no God, but acts as if there is.

Interestingly, Hawking has also made headlines in recent years over his views about the existence of aliens, and what interactions between our races would be like. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Here we detect the pessimism that will always be a result of atheism (as well as a lack of imagination based on what little he thinks he knows about the past). Without God and the hope for the redemption of humankind, he has no reason for optimism, no belief that things will work out better in the future than in the past. Christians believe this because they believe that good is stronger than evil, that by following God’s direction people can always triumph over evil, and that good therefore must be the future of humankind. That’s why, for instance, evangelical Christians, not atheists, put an end to the worldwide slave trade; that’s why Christians, not atheists, marched into horrendous Civil War battles singing, “He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” and ended slavery in America.

In spite of all this, I still believe Stephen Hawking is a hero. He has persevered with a debilitating disease and done tremendous work in theoretical physics. But what do you do when a hero lets you down? There’s a line from the Gordon Lightfoot song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” that goes “The hero would be me. But heroes often fail …” That’s what I think about Stephen Hawking. When it comes to religion and metaphysics, he has failed, but he is still a hero in a way that does not diminish the meaning of the word.

I came to believe in God because of what I learned about the universe. I had the good fortune not to go to Oxford and be saturated with humanist bias against the “God hypothesis.” When I look at the structure of the universe and life on Earth, I see evidence of a great mind at work. I am sorry for Hawking that he can’t.


[1] Dinesh D’Souza provides a succinct reopening of “the Galileo Case” in Chapter 10 of What’s So Great About Christianity.

[2] Not that atheists haven’t tried. See Vox Day’s review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.

[3] Genesis 1:1.

[4] Genesis 1:1. See Gerald Schroeder’s explanation of the significance of the word “create” in The Science of God (pp 143-144).

[5] Psalms 90:4.

Opening scene from Contact

The opening scene for Contact is quite possibly the best opening scene in a movie, ever. (When you watch this clip, it’s recommended that you change the resolution to 720p HD and turn up the volume.)

This is a wonderful illustration of the principle that distance (and motion) is equivalent to time. The speed of any signal, whether light or sound or carrier pigeon, is always finite. It takes time for a signal to travel the distance between the source and the receiver, so this means the signal is always telling us something about the past. Back in the days when people communicated with each other using letters, it took a week or two to receive them, depending on how far they had to travel; when the recipients read those letters, they were always reading about something that was recent to the sender, but already one or two weeks in the past for the recipient. Similarly, when we look at the star Betelgeuse, the light that we see has taken time to travel the distance between Betelgeuse and the Earth, and so we are seeing it as it was in the past (at a distance of 400 trillion miles and with light traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per hour, we are seeing Betelgeuse as it was 640 years in the past). Conveniently, such vast distances are often expressed in units of light-years (the distance light travels in a year), which also tell us at what point in cosmic history we are observing something.

In the opening scene of Contact, the further away we travel from Earth, the older the radio transmissions become. We first hear contemporary (for 1997) music, then the soundtrack gradually shifts to music and news from further and further in our past. Once we get beyond a certain point we hear static, then silence.

But sounds don’t travel through space, I hear some of you saying. True. However, radio signals are light waves, not sound waves. The radio waves, which carry information, are transmitted in all directions and are picked up by a receiver with an antenna (say, an AM/FM radio) that converts the radio signal into the sound you hear. So, in principle, anyone who might be not too far out in space could pick up our terrestrial radio and television signals and learn all kinds of interesting things about the inhabitants of Earth.

Perhaps you are wondering from how far out in space someone could receive intelligent signals from Earth. The scale of the Contact sequence isn’t quite right—it was fudged a bit for creative/dramatic purposes. The truth is, if aliens are zipping past Pluto at this moment, they would receive transmissions from Earth that are from only five and a half hours in the past. Little Green Men near our closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, would receive transmissions from the year 2009. Civilizations on a planet orbiting the star Alpha Mensae (33 light-years away), however, might catch old episodes of Dallas. Someone passing close to the star 51 Pegasi (50 light-years away) might be aware that someone named John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in a place called Dallas. An alien near the star Regulus (77 light-years away) could be watching images of Hitler opening the Olympic Games in Berlin. Further still, near the star Eta Herculis (112 light-years away), curious beings might just now be detecting Marconi’s radio transmissions. Beyond this distance, the Earth is silent. Considering that our Milky Way galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, we’ve barely announced our existence to the neighbors down the street. Not that this is entirely lamentable. Personally, I find it comforting that so little of the universe is aware of the Kardashians.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 8

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6; Part 7

What is the most important piece of knowledge you have come to learn about evolution since becoming a believer?

Darwin was a great scientist and pioneer in the field of biology. In that regard he is similar to Copernicus in the field of physics. Physicists honor Copernicus, but they also recognize and readily admit his shortcomings. He helped accomplish the first great paradigm shift that set science on its present course of discovery. What a great thing to do! But he was wrong about some important things; the Sun is not the center of the universe, and planets do not travel in perfectly circular orbits. We forgive Copernicus for his mistakes, because he did his work before the basic tools and higher mathematics of astronomy were developed. How could he be expected to get everything right four hundred years ago?

Darwin worked under similar limitations decades before the revolutionary discoveries of the Burgess Shale fossils and genes. So, once again, how could the great pioneer in the field of biology have gotten everything right all the way back in the mid 1860s? That would not be a fair expectation on the part of either supporters or detractors of Darwin.

The main principles of Darwinism are common descent, random mutation, natural selection, and gradualism. Each of these components is a necessary part of current evolutionary theory, which is important because people often confuse evolution theory for just one of these parts—the common descent of all animal life. It is true that common descent has all but been ‘proven,’ about as well as any scientific belief can be proven, and there can be little remaining doubt about it. But, the massive evidence in favor of common descent neither establishes the truth of evolution theory as a whole nor undercuts Christian beliefs. The most that can be said is that Darwin’s championing of this principle counts as a great success of the same magnitude as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.

But, Darwin, just like Copernicus, got some things wrong. The fossil evidence does not support gradualism. In the words of one of the most respected biologists of modern times, Niles Eldredge, curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City: “The fossil record we were told to find for the past 120 years does not exist.”

It was Darwin who told biologists what to expect in the fossil record, and this mistake was a significant failure on his part.

In fact, the fossil evidence contradicts Darwin so badly, it compelled Eldridge and his more famous partner, Stephen Jay Gould, to offer something they called ‘punctuated equilibrium’ as an alternative to strict Darwinism. There are other serious problems with Darwinism (the mathematics of random mutations doesn’t work and there is a fatal lack of empirical evidence for natural selection), but, for the sake of brevity, it is enough to say that without gradualism Darwinism is seriously undone. In other words, Darwin was wrong about at least one major thing.

In light of this, the most important thing any scientist can come to learn about evolution is that biologists are generally incapable of saying the following words: “Darwin was wrong.”

Physicists can say without hesitation that there were times when “Galileo was wrong, Newton was wrong, and Einstein was wrong.” In spite of their mistakes, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein are still considered giants in the field of physics. Why can’t biologists make the same and obviously true statement about Darwin? I believe it is because strict Darwinism has become anti-Christian gospel, and many biologists are betraying science by promoting and defending this dogma.

Would the discovery of intelligent life on another planet disprove the existence of God?

Why would God be limited to creating one group of beings with souls in just one part of a vast universe? While the Bible is addressed to and concerned about the conscious beings inhabiting the Earth, there is nothing in the Bible that says that life was created only on Earth. “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2). See here and here for further discussion.

SETI is once again listening for E.T.

Dr. Frank Drake, author of the famous Drake Equation, estimates there are at least 10,000 advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Drake came up with this equation more than 50 years ago, at a time when astronomers weren’t even sure there were planets beyond our solar system. Now that we have observational evidence of more than a thousand planets orbiting other stars — and there is reason to believe that most of the 200 billion or more stars in the Milky Way host planetary systems — Drake’s estimate doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

However, contact with any advanced civilizations that may be out there may depend on whether we here on Earth are listening. One group that’s been listening for decades is SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but their efforts were halted last year due to a lack of funding. Thanks to donations solicited through its website — including a sizable donation from actress Jodie Foster — SETI is now back up and running at the Allen Array in Hat Creek, California, and it plans to keep listening for as long as funding holds out. Negotiations are currently underway for the U.S. Air Force to share the array for tracking satellites and space junk, which would give the SETI program the financial stability it needs to continue for the foreseeable future.

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Astronomers find several new “Super-Earths”

Is our planet alone in its ability to host life? So far, it’s unique in the Solar System, which is dominated by apparently lifeless bodies, but it may not be unique in the universe. Astronomers have long speculated about the presence of extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the cosmos, but thanks to two planet-searching projects — ESO’s HARPS project and NASA’s Kepler mission — they are closer than ever to finding suitable candidate hosts orbiting other stars. Teams for both have announced intriguing discoveries in the last year, the latest of which includes detection by HARPS of a planet that is only 3.6 times the mass of Earth.

While Kepler is a space-based mission that searches for planetary transits — planets periodically passing in front of their host stars — HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) is part of the land-based La Silla telescope located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The HARPS spectrograph looks for periodic shifts in the light from stars, tell-tale signs of gravitational tugs by orbiting planets. Most of the planets discovered by Kepler are orbiting distant stars; the planets discovered by HARPS, however, are orbiting nearby stars, and will be much easier to observe in follow-up projects to detect, for instance, spectral signs of water and other substances necessary for life as we know it.

The HARPS team at ESO recently announced the discovery of 50 new extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, including 16 planets designated as “Super-Earths.” A Super-Earth is a planet 2-10 times the mass of the Earth, but not necessarily rocky in composition; such planets could also be gas dwarfs without any discernible solid surface. One of the recently-discovered Super-Earths, designated HD 85512 b, is a rocky planet located just within the habitable zone around its parent star. The habitable zone is the orbital proximity to a parent star that allows the presence of liquid water on a planet’s surface. The holy grail, as it were, of planet searches is an Earth-like planet with the presence of liquid water — the essential ingredient for life as we know it. The mass of HD 85512 b is tantalizingly close to that of Earth — about 3.6 times greater. Professor Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at Harvard University (and the scientist who coined the term “Super-Earth”), speculates that such planets may be even better suited for life than our own Earth due to increased tectonic activity and stable rotation.

Astronomers point out that the frequency of exoplanet discoveries is increasing, and we seem to be on the verge of discovering that the universe is awash in potential hosts for life. So what does all this mean for Christians? Personally, I do not rely on the uniqueness of Earth to bolster my belief in a Creator. It may well be that many planets suitable for advanced life exist elsewhere in the universe, and such planets and life would be part of God’s purpose, as the many different continents and the variety of life on Earth are undoubtedly part of God’s purpose. Furthermore, the existence of many potentially life-supporting planets in the vast universe in no way diminishes the power of the fine-tuning argument, which says that the many physical constants and parameters that permit the existence of life as we know it — nearly 100 characteristics as identified by Hugh Ross — are so finely tuned that even the ostensibly atheist astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, concluded “the universe looks like a put-up job.”

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SETI is okay to go

The search for alien intelligence in the cosmos is back on, thanks in part to a donation by actress Jodie Foster. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI, was forced to halt its operations in April after losing government funding.

Foster portrayed an astrophysicist who searched for radio signals from intelligent beings in the 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. I recommend both highly, as they portray the interrelation of science and faith in an intelligent and balanced way.

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New Mars rover will look for signs of liquid water

An enhanced-color image of the Gale crater (Credit: NASA/Steven Hobbs)

Scientists at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory have selected the crater ‘Gale’ as the landing site of the rover, Curiosity, when it visits the Red Planet next year to search for signs of historical liquid water.

This will mark the 15th time the U.S. has visited Mars since it was first photographed by the Mariner 4 orbiter in 19651. Mars is of great interest to scientists, not only because of its proximity to Earth (it’s our second-closest planetary neighbor after Venus), but because the Red Planet has been the subject of intense speculation about the presence of alien life for over 200 years.

Speculation about Martian life started in the late 1700s with German-British astronomers and siblings, William and Caroline Herschel, who observed the Red Planet and noticed that it had some features in common with Earth, including axis tilt, length of day, and seasonal changes in its appearance. Moved by these similarities, William speculated that Mars had inhabitants. From his address to the Royal Society in 1784:

It appears that this planet is not without considerable atmosphere; for besides the permanent spots on the surface, I have often noticed occasional changes of partial bright belts; and also once a darkish one… These alterations we can hardly ascribe to any other cause than the variable disposition of clouds and vapors floating in the atmosphere of the planet… Mars has a considerable but modest atmosphere, so that its inhabitants probably enjoy a situation in many respects similar to our own.

In the late 1800s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli added to this speculation when he observed what he thought were canals on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli’s observations inspired the construction of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to further study the phenomena. Astronomer Percival Lowell, who founded the observatory, became convinced that the canals were signs of advanced, intelligent life on Mars. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to science fiction stories about Martian life, including H. G. Wells’ dark tale, The War of the Worlds, and C. S. Lewis’ Christian-themed Out of the Silent Planet.

Despite the fervor over possible Martian life, there were astronomers who questioned whether there was any credible visual evidence for the canals. These questions persisted until Mariner 4 was sent to Mars and failed to detect any signs of the infamous canals. Since then, the focus on the search for life on Mars has shifted to evidence for historical, probably much more primitive, forms of life. If such life ever existed on Mars, it would have required the presence of liquid water, which is why scientists are so eager to find signs of the stuff.

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Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Please excuse the inactivity of the last few weeks. I was busy with extensive travel and work, but am now back to posting on a regular basis. The biggest story to emerge while I was away concerned Stephen Hawking’s comments about the non-existence of heaven and the nature of the human brain. I asked Surak to write a response to this, since he has a particular interest in the monist vs. dualist argument. – Ed.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago, I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

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Space missions for the next decade

Photo of the Jovian moon, Europa, taken by the Galileo spacecraft

To infinity and beyond! Well, to the middle-outer reaches of the solar system, anyway. If we can afford it. The National Research Council’s top recommendations for big space missions in the next decade:

  • visit Mars to determine if it ever had life
  • visit Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which likely has a liquid ocean underneath its icy surface that may harbor life
  • check out the atmosphere of ice giant, Uranus

I got a little excited when I saw the title of the TechNewsWorld article, thinking we were planning manned visits to Mars and Europa, but alas these visits would all be carried out with unmanned probes. Still, these missions would bring back important information about our nearest neighbors and the potential for life beyond Earth.

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