Friday, February 7, 2014

Planets, Creation's Afterglow, and Double Stars

Life may have begun nine billion years before Earth was here: if a Harvard astrophysicist is right.
  1. When the Universe was a Habitable Zone
  2. Planets and Double Stars
Science? In a 'religious' blog?? It makes sense.

Both deal with truth, in different ways — Science tells us what things are and how they work. Religion tells us why things are and how we should deal with them. (March 13, 2013)

Life on Earth and, Maybe, Elsewhere

In speculative/science fiction, life on other worlds is limited only by the writer's imagination: and readers' willing suspension of disbelief. Or, for movie producers, talent and budget: not necessarily in that order.

The only place where we know life exists is Earth. Over the last four billion years, critters have flown, crawled, burrowed, and oozed into hot springs, subglacial lakes, and rocks two miles below the surface.

Considering what we're learning about exoplanets, I think it's very likely that we'll find life elsewhere. We've found more than a thousand planets so far, some of which might support life. But right now we don't know if any do.

My opinion puts me in the minority, at least among folks who responded to an informal survey. An article I picked for this week's post asked this question: "Do you believe alien life exists elsewhere in the universe?"

As of Wednesday afternoon (February 6, 2014), 35,393 folks had responded. The results:
  • Yes - We may not have found them yet, but they're out there.
    • 90.19% (31922 votes)
  • No - Aliens are just part of science fiction.
    • 5.06% (1792 votes)
  • I'm not sure
    • 4.74% (1679 votes)
Once in a while I hear someone say that a Catholic shouldn't "believe in" life on other planets. If that means following one of the UFO religions, I agree. Idolatry and my faith don't mix. I'll get back to that. The five percent who claim that "aliens are just part of science fiction" may be reacting to the status of space aliens as celestial saviors in popular culture: or not.

I think assuming that life isn't on other worlds makes as much, or as little, sense as assuming that it does. Whether or not we're alone in the universe is something we'll learn, using science: until we find a better method for studying our world.

My take on space aliens, among other things:

Faith, Reason, and Truth

Seeking truth and seeking God are as compatible as faith and reason.

It's not just my opinion: as a Catholic I must believe that faith is compatible with reason; that God is truth; that truth cannot contradict truth; and that I must seek truth. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 144.159, 2104)

I must also believe that God created and is sustaining everything. (Catechism, 279, 301)

Because the things of the world and the things of faith both come from the same God, It follows that honest study of this world cannot get in the way of faith. (Catechism, 159)

The notion that science and religion are at war is fairly new.

Nine millennia back, folks in Sumer were recording "some observations of the world with numerical data." (Wikipedia) It wasn't science, quite, but it was systematic study of the world: and ancient Sumerians apparently didn't fear that using their brains angered their gods.

Jumping forward to about 1100, European universities evolved from cathedral and monastic schools that had been around since the Roman Empire broke up. Documents from the ancient world, India, and the Middle East arrived at about the same time.

Albertus Magnus, Machiavelli, and All That

Folks like Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Duns Scotus weren't scientists in the contemporary sense: but they saw no conflict between worshiping God and studying God's creation. Other Catholics may have felt that ignorance is next to Godliness, but the Church wasn't worried about folks "thinking too much." Not in general, and that's another topic.

Since I'm Catholic, I recognize Albertus Magnus as a patron saint of scientists. During his life, some folks thought he was a wizard and magician: which I think shows that human nature hasn't changed much.

About five centuries ago, quite a few priests and bishops were abusing their authority and getting excessively creative with Church teachings. The situation wasn't as bad, I think, as what we faced from about 1000 to 1200: but instead of folks like Francis of Assisi, this time we got folks like Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Henry VIII.

While northern princes were encouraging home-grown outfits like the Church of England and Church of Sweden, Protestant leaders were deciding what people in their territories should believe.

What might charitably be called diffidence toward science that threatens their "Biblical" preferences has been with us ever since.

I don't think it helped that some outstanding scientists of the day, like Galileo Galilei and Copernicus were Catholic, and that Europe's first exclusively scientific academy was founded in Rome.

Starting around 1600, the idea that reason and individualism was more important than tradition got started in Europe. There's nothing wrong with reason, and human beings are individuals. The trouble, as I see it, was that reason got elevated to divine status.

Politics was, arguably, involved. Blaming problems on the Catholic Church probably suited national leaders in Europe just fine. A Catholic code of ethics can be troublesome to leaders in their Machiavellian moments.

Being reasonable is a good idea. Honoring and revering reason as if it's a god? That's a very bad idea. Acting as if anything or anyone other that God is divine is idolatry, and strictly against the rules. (Catechism, 2097, 2112-2114)

The Anthropic Principle: Stating the Obvious

If the universe couldn't support conscious life, nobody could observe the universe. The name of this rather obvious conclusion is the anthropic principle.

It's a bit like saying "I see the bird, therefore I exist." Or "I think, therefore I am."

Descartes pointed out that being reasonably certain of one's own existence is important from a philosopher's point of view. I'm inclined to agree that self-awareness is important.

However, although it's important to me, certainty that I exist almost certainly isn't the most important aspect of reality: and that's yet another topic.

One of the scientists whose work I picked for this week's post mentioned the anthropic principle. It's a newish phrase, first used in 1973, although the idea goes back to 1904.

More about life, the universe, and the anthropic principle:
"Anthropic principle"

"In astrophysics and cosmology, the anthropic principle (from Greek anthropos, meaning 'human') is the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Some proponents of the anthropic principle reason that it explains why the Universe has the age and the fundamental physical constants necessary to accommodate conscious life. As a result, they believe it is unremarkable that the universe's fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life...."
I'm on about the same page as folks who think "it is unremarkable that the universe's fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life."

Someone's probably tried using the anthropic principle to prove that God exists: or doesn't. That makes about as much sense to me as saying "two and two equals four, therefore God exists:" or doesn't exist, for that matter. (January 5, 2014)

God and the Universe, Faith and Science

I am certain that God exists, created everything, and is constantly sustaining this creation. (Genesis 1:1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1, 279, 301)

I also recognize that the universe isn't static. It is changing. Since I know about secondary causes, knowing that change happens doesn't interfere with my faith. (Catechism, 302-308)

When I think about my own existence, what we are learning about this vast creation, and the beauty that surrounds us, I see very strong indications of God's existence. These aren't "proofs" in the scientific sense, though. (Catechism, 31-35)

As I've said before, faith does not depend on science, but faith and science can work together.
"...'Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.' "
(Catechism, 159)
Some folks look at the universe and decide that God doesn't exist. Some even imply that because the universe is vast and ancient, God cannot exist. I don't see it that way but I also think that God is eternal and infinite: with all that goes along with those adjectives.

1. When the Universe was a Habitable Zone

(From Erik A. Petigura, via, used w/o permission.)
"An artist's representation of the 'habitable zone,' the range of orbits around a star where liquid water may exist on the surface of a planet. A new study unveiled Nov. 4, 2013 suggests one in five sunlike stars seen by NASA's Kepler spacecraft has potentially habitable Earth-size planets."
"Did Alien Life Evolve Just After the Big Bang?"
Katia Moskvitch, (January 31, 2014)

"Earthlings may be extreme latecomers to a universe full of life, with alien microbes possibly teeming on exoplanets beginning just 15 million years after the Big Bang, new research suggests.

"Traditionally, astrobiologists keen on solving the mystery of the origin of life in the universe look for planets in habitable zones around stars. Also known as Goldilocks zones, these regions are considered to be just the right distance away from stars for liquid water, a pre-requisite for life as we know it, to exist.

"But even exoplanets that orbit far beyond the habitable zone may have been able to support life in the distant past, warmed by the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang that created the universe 13.8 billion years ago, says Harvard astrophysicist Abraham Loeb...."
I'm an American, with my culture's somewhat frantic view of time. For me, one year can be a very long time: for everyday matters, at least.

15,000,000 years is a very long time: when compared to the span of recorded history. Looking at it another way, it's very roughly 1/1000th the age of the universe.

We've learned that the universe is about 13,790,000,000 years old. It's been expanding and cooling ever since. Loeb says it was around room temperature 13,775,000,000 years back.

The Solar system didn't start forming until roughly 4,600,000,000 years ago: 9,175,000,000 years after Loeb's room-temperature universe. Unless current models are wildly wrong, Earth has been around about 4,540,000,000 years.

Life of our sort needs liquid water and, probably, a planet made of something other than hydrogen and helium to hold the water. Those elements weren't formed until after the universe was at a comfortable temperature: probably.

By the way, I think referring to "relic radiation from the Big Bang" as creation's afterglow, as I did in this post's title, is an attractive metaphor. It's also a bit parochial, since the Big Bang theory applies to the space time continuum I live in: and that's yet again another topic. (May 30, 2013)

Heavy Elements, Liquid Water, and Lots of "Ifs"

(From ESA and the Planck Collaboration, via, used w/o permission.)
"A 2013 map of the background radiation left over from the Big Bang, taken by the ESA's Planck spacecraft, captured the oldest light in the universe. This information helps astronomers determine the age of the universe."
"...According to the standard cosmological model, the very first stars started to form out of hydrogen and helium tens of millions of years after the Big Bang. No heavy elements, which are necessary for planet formation, were around yet.

"But Loeb says that rare 'islands' packed with denser matter may have existed in the early universe, and massive, short-lived stars could have formed in them earlier than expected. Explosions of these stars could have seeded the cosmos with heavy elements, and the very first rocky planets would have been born.

"These first planets would have been bathed in the warm CMB radiation, and thus, Loeb argues, it would have been possible for them to have liquid water on their surface for several million years...."
(Katia Moskvitch,
Loeb says we can test his theory by looking for planets circling stars with a very low percentage of heavy elements. If we find dense planets around those stars, they'd be similar to his early planets.

If Loeb is right about those rare islands of fast-track element synthesis, and if planets formed from the heavier elements, and if those planets had the right mix of elements: that's a lot of "ifs."

But it's barely possible that life could have started on a planet circling very far from its star: or drifting between stars. There was a brief time when, as far as temperature was concerned, the entire universe was a "Goldilocks zone."

That's an exciting possibility.

"A" Equals "A:" True, but So What?

"...Anthropic reasoning suggests that there might be different values for this parameter in different regions of the multiverse — but our universe has been set up with just the right cosmological constant to allow our existence and to enable us to observe the cosmos around us.

"He [Loeb] says that life could have emerged in the early universe even if the cosmological constant was a million times bigger than observed, adding that 'the anthropic argument has a problem in explaining the observed value of the cosmological constant.'..."
(Katia Moskvitch,
My son-in-law and daughter, knowing my interests, gave me "The Book of Useless Information" for Christmas. I keep it near my desk, and occasionally dive in, resurfacing with gems like "the infinity character on the keyboard is called a lemniscate" and "the name for fungal remains found in coal is sclerotinite."

Playing with trivia is fun, as demonstrated by sales of Trivial Pursuit. Interest in comparatively unimportant facets of reality is not new. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, asked "can several angels be in the same place?" I'd be astonished if scholars in 1270 were, on the whole, any sillier than today's lot, and I'm getting a little off-topic.

I think there's no harm in discussing whether the existence of a universe which sustains the life of observers is explained by the existence of observers. Provided that the discussion doesn't get in the way of more important matters: like cleaning the coffee maker.

I also think that philosophical insights from physicists may be regarded as seriously as the opinion of film celebrities on international diplomacy.

Their insights and opinions are, I'm sure, important to those individuals: but I am not at all convinced that competence in one field implies competence in another.

2. Planets and Double Stars

(From NASA / G. Bacon, STScI; via; used w/o permission.)
"This artist's impression shows an extrasolar gas giant orbiting a binary star system."
"Kepler-34b Helps Explain How Circumbinary Exoplanets Form" (January 31, 2014)

"Researchers reporting in the Astrophysical Journal Letters have found that the majority of circumbinary planets – planets that orbit two stars – were actually formed much further away from their binary stars and then migrated to their current locations.

"There are few environments more extreme than a binary star system in which planet formation can occur.

"Powerful gravitational perturbations from the two stars on the rocky building blocks of planets lead to destructive collisions that grind down the material...."
Models of planetary development which predicted that binary stars in a close orbit wouldn't have planets were fine: until we started finding planets in orbit around close binaries, like the Kepler-47 system. Those planets weren't a complete surprise, since scientists had already realized that the early Solar system was much livelier than they'd first thought.

Even so, the more we learn about this universe, the more we find that we have to learn. I like living in a world where we're not likely to run out of surprises.
"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
(J. B. S. Haldane, via Wikiquote)
Related posts:


Brigid said...

Tense problems? "What might charitably be called diffidence towards science that threatens their "Biblical" preferences has been with us ever since."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


Not so much, but I did lapse into a colloquialism there. On review, it seems awkward. Changed, and thanks.

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.