Friday, September 20, 2013

Life in the Universe: Learning Where to Look

There's a crosswind in our part of the galaxy, which matters more to astronomers than to most folks; and we still don't know if there's life anywhere except Earth, but scientists are making progress.
  1. Cosmic Winds
  2. Narrowing the Search for Life in the Universe
I don't have a problem with using my head and trying to keep up with science news. I also have the rather counter-cultural attitude that religion and science aren't mutually exclusive.

Faith and Reason

I'm a Catholic, so I don't have to check my brain at the door when I go to church. (August 31, 2011)

The notion that faith and reason don't mix isn't true, but it's deeply ingrained in American culture. I think part of its persistence is that quite a few folks here also seem to believe that faith is all about emotion. It's not.

There's nothing wrong with emotions. They're part of being human. But I'd have trouble with faith if it depended on me feeling 'uplifted' or 'religious' most of the time. (September 8, 2013; April 29, 2012)

Like I said, emotions are part of being human. They're not "right" or "wrong" by themselves. What matters is what we do about them. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1763-1770)
"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth...."
("Fides et Ratio," Encyclical Letter, John Paul II (September 14, 1998))

"Man's faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God's existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason."
(Catechism, 35) [emphasis mine]

"Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life...."
(Catechism, 1804)

Religion and Science

My faith doesn't require that I keep up with what we're learning about this creation: but it's not threatened by knowledge, either. Human beings are designed to learn about this world, and develop new ways of using it: wisely. (Catechism, 2293)

That's a far cry from the sort of 'we've evolved beyond good and evil' goofiness that's popular in vintage 'mad scientist' films like "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes." (July 19, 2013; February 10, 2013)

'Because I can' isn't a reason, or excuse, for behaving badly. Science, like anything else humans do, involves ethics. But as long as we pay attention to ethics, moral principles, science is fine:
"...if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God...."
("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word-Gaudium et Spes," 36 (December 7, 1965))

Other Worlds, 1277

A little over seven centuries back, educated Europeans had realized that the universe might be a whole lot more than just the Earth and our sky.

Some were excited by the possibility that there might be other worlds: others didn't like the idea. Some started insisting that there couldn't be any worlds except the one we're standing on: because Aristotle said so, I gather.

That's when the Catholic Church stepped in. Ever since 1277, Catholics haven't been allowed to say that there can't be other worlds.

I think it's silly, or worse, to assume that God must cater to our preferences. The Almighty seems to have made a creation that's almost unimaginably vast, and may include more than just the space-time continuum we're in. (April 2, 2013)

These days, most folks I've met seem to accept the idea that other planets exist. On the other hand, quite a few aren't comfortable with what we're learning about how life on Earth has developed in the last 3,000,000,000 years.

Some don't want to believe that there can be life anywhere except Earth. I think it'll be exciting if we learn that God decided to plant life elsewhere. In any case, how I feel about it doesn't count. God's God, I'm not: and I'm okay with that.

Life in the Universe?

Some folks might not be able to endure knowledge that human beings aren't the only flesh-and-blood people in the universe. Others, seeing space aliens, might decide that since they exist: God doesn't. That, in my considered opinion, is silly. (January 29, 2012)

I don't think that space aliens, people with physical bodies, live somewhere in the universe. I don't think that they don't. Right now, we don't know.

I think this gives a pretty good idea of what the Catholic Church thinks about the possibility of life beyond Earth:
"Welcome to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences"
Inauguration of the study week on Astrobiology
Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo (November 6, 2009)

"It is with great pleasure that I welcome all the distinguished scientists convened here, at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to discuss a theme that is as new as it is difficult and fascinating: Astrobiology. It is a field which requires a range of all but the most profound of scientific knowledge, as well as highly refined research techniques.

"Because it means often proceeding on the basis of scarce evidence and formulating hypothesis requiring strict verification, which in turn, can be diversely configured....

"...In research we should not fear the truth. Only the error, which lies in ambush, can cause us fear. But the scientist must also be allowed the possibility to walk paths which do not always lead to positive results, otherwise it would not be research. Nonetheless, even such types of errors are never useless, precisely because, being led by the scientific method, they help us test other paths. And it is thus that the sciences are able to progress, and just as they open humanity to new knowledge, they contribute to the fulfilment of man as man...."

People, Yes; Human, No?

Finding single-celled living creatures on another planet, and being certain that they are not related to life on Earth, would be exciting.

Judging by what Hollywood decides will sell movie tickets, the sort of extraterrestrial life that captures our imaginations most is intelligent life.

Again, I don't think we're alone. I don't think we live in a crowded universe. I think that we do not know.

If we do have neighbors, I'd be astonished if we find them by listening for radio signals. This universe is vast and ancient. The odds that people who aren't human are close to our level of development, say within 500,000 years, are - astronomical. (February 8, 2013)

If we have a half-million-year head start, they probably don't have radios yet. If they worked the bugs out of radio communication five hundred millennia back, that technology is probably about as current for them as flint knapping is for us.

As to what we should think about the possibility of people whose bodies aren't like ours, I agree with this monk:
"...Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don't think you'd even have the right to call them aliens."
(Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? "Brother Astronomer," Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))
More of my take on intelligent life on other planets:

1. Cosmic Winds

(NASA/GSFC/UNH, via, used w/o permission.)
"A view from the Earth and Sun from far above the North Pole. As an interstellar wind blows in from the constellation Scorpio, the sun's gravity captures it and forms a tail. The slower wind (dark blue) is bent stronger than its faster counterpart (light blue). As Earth moved into the interstellar wind in February, IBEX observed the slower wind earlier than the faster wind."
"Interstellar Wind Changes Reveal Glimpse of Milky Way's Complexity"
Nola Taylor Redd, (September 5, 2013)

"Shifting cosmic winds suggest that our solar system lives in a surprisingly complex and dynamic part of the Milky Way galaxy, a new study reports.

"Scientists examining four decades' worth of data have discovered that the interstellar gas breezing through the solar system has shifted in direction by 6 degrees, a finding that could affect how we view not only the entire galaxy but the sun itself.

" 'The shift in the wind is evidence that the sun lives in an evolving galactic environment,' study lead author Priscilla Frisch of the University of Chicago told via email...."
This "wind" isn't the sort of thing we could feel. The difference between interstellar gas and a perfect vacuum is slight: but measurable. And on an astronomical scale, it acts a bit like the air we're used to.

Wind and Turbulence

"...Charged particles stream off the sun to form a huge invisible shell around the solar system called the heliosphere. Outside of this shell lies the Local Interstellar Cloud (LIC), a haze of hydrogen and helium approximately 30 light-years across.

"The LIC is wispy, featuring just 0.016 atoms per cubic inch (0.264 per cubic centimeter) on average. LIC gas tends to be blocked by the heliosphere, but a thin stream makes it past the sun's magnetic field at the rate of 0.0009 atoms per cubic inch (0.015 atoms per cubic cm), researchers said.

" 'Right now, the sun is moving through an interstellar cloud at a relative velocity of 52,000 miles per hour (23 kilometers per second),' Frisch said. 'This motion allows neutral atoms from the cloud to flow through the heliosphere - the solar wind bubble - and create an interstellar "wind." '..."
(Nola Taylor Redd,
We don't know why this interstellar "wind" changed direction over four decades. One of the less-unlikely explanations is that we're looking at turbulence on a very large scale.

Our sun moves through the galaxy in the direction of Hercules. The 'local' interstellar wind is coming in from Pegasus, almost at right angles. I gather that the turbulence is sort of like what we experience when driving with a crosswind.

Right now, knowing that there's turbulence in our sun's neighborhood is important to astronomers, and interesting to folks like me: but not particularly important in everyday life.

Decades, centuries, or millennia from now, if folks travel farther than we do now - - - that's another topic.

2. Narrowing the Search for Life in the Universe

"A Super Time for SuperEarths"
Keith Cooper, Astrobiology Magazine (September 5, 2013)

"Summary: A new model could indicate whether an exoplanet has a light but extended atmosphere, or a relatively thin and heavy atmosphere. This knowledge could help refine the targets in the search for planets like Earth capable of sustaining life.

"The headlines have been coming thick and fast – a trio of SuperEarths in the habitable zone of Gliese 667C, two probably rocky planets in the Goldilocks zone around Kepler-62 and possible SuperEarths orbiting Tau Ceti and HD 40307 at just the right distance for liquid water to exist on their surfaces, albeit under certain conditions. These are all just from the past twelve months. Should those exoplanet hunters who are seeking out Earth 2, a planet where life as we know it could possibly exist, start to feel excited?

"Not yet. Our knowledge of these planets is woefully incomplete. However, the times may be changing. While we cannot yet determine whether a planet is hospitable to life, David Kipping of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has led a team of astronomers to develop a new theoretical model that can tell us with one swift glance whether a SuperEarth - a world with two to ten times the mass of our planet and up to twice the diameter - has an atmosphere that might not be suitable for life. Consequently we could rule such worlds out of our search for analogs to Earth. It's all about whether a planet has an atmosphere and how that atmosphere is connected to the relationship between a planet's mass and diameter...."
Planets aren't all alike. Neither are their atmospheres. Of the Solar system's three 'habitable zone' planets, the atmospheres of two are mostly carbon dioxide. Only the third has enough oxygen to support critters like us.

Although I'm the sort of creature that needs oxygenated air, I see oxygen in the atmosphere as a byproduct of life: not a requirement. I think unstable chemical mixes in the atmosphere, like Earth's, might be an effective way to tell if a planet supports life: and that's almost another topic.
Another way that planets differ is what's below the surface. The Solar system's inner planets are mostly rock and metal, from Jupiter outward they're mostly hydrogen and helium, except for Pluto. Whether or not Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet, a Kuiper Belt object, or something else is: yet another topic.

(From Lunar and Planetary Institute, via Astrobiology Magazine, used w/o permission.)
"Cutaway diagram of gas giant Jupiter’s atmosphere and core, compared to Earth's."
(Astrobiology Magazine)

Recipe for Life

I've run across some imaginative speculation about life on, or in, gas giants like Jupiter. My guess is that folks who say there's too much turbulence are right. It's not that life needs peace and quiet, quite. Something floating in Jupiter's atmosphere might be in a habitable part one hour and be pulled up or down into places where it's too hot or too cold the next.

My guess is that some sort of critter might survive in conditions like that. Fish like arctic cod have antifreeze that lets them survive being frozen. But I doubt that life could get started in a maelstrom like Jupiter's atmosphere.

Plausible models for how life began on Earth all assume that it needed an area with water and energy. That may have been hydrothermal vents, tide pools, hot springs, or something else. Wherever it was, the area had to have a fairly stable temperature, pressure, and chemical environment for quite a while. How long "quite a while" is could probably be weeks, years: or millennia. We don't know. Not yet, anyway.

Our sort of life needs liquid water, but it needs a broad range of other material too, and energy. That limits which planets could support it. "Water worlds," planets that are mostly water, could enjoy temperatures like we find in Hawaii, but they almost certainly don't have enough other elements and compounds for life.

Places like Mars may or may not have enough water to support life. It looks like Mars may have been damp enough at one time, though, a very long time ago.

That Astrobiology Magazine article includes a chart showing the relation of mass and radius for planets ranging from all-water to all-iron. The values for mass and radius are Earth = 1.

The lines are curved because gravity compresses matter, and that's yet again another topic.

(From Kipping, Sasselov, and Spiegel, via Astrobiology Magazine, used w/o permission.)
"The mass-radius diagram developed by David Kipping, Dimitar Sasselov and David Spiegel. The blue line is the boundary condition for a 100 percent water-world. The blue dashed line is a planet with 75 percent water and 25 percent silicate rock, while the brown line is 100 percent iron and the brown dashed line is 75 percent iron and 25 percent silicate rock."
(Astrobiology Magazine)

God and Reality

From what I've said about hydrothermal vents, life's origins, and fish with antifreeze, it's probably obvious that I don't think God looks like Charleton Heston in his role as Moses.

I also don't think God created the entire universe about 6,000 years ago, and resents it when we use our brains. Sure, the Almighty could have made a small, unchanging, universe. Maybe He did: but that's not how the one we're in works.

I prefer to accept the universe as it really is: a creation far greater than anything we imagined; and, to paraphrase Haldane, probably greater than we can imagine.

Related posts:


Brigid said...

Stutter: "As to what we should think about about the possibility"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Found it, thanks thanks!

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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