Friday, April 18, 2014

Life in the Universe: Focusing the Search

Scientists have found at least a dozen planets where life might exist. They're learning more about biosignatures: signs of life.
  1. Understanding Life's Limits
  2. A Growing Catalog of Known Worlds
  3. Earth-Sized Planets: Billions of Them
  4. Searching the Sky: Frustration and Vindication

Life on Other Worlds: Imagined

(From "Quatermass and the Pit," via Tales of Future Past, used w/o permission)
('That's odd: he doesn't look German.')

Some science fiction movies strayed from the man-in-a-rubber-suit style of space alien. But most extraterrestrials in the movies look at least vaguely human.

I don't mind, since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Last Starfighter," and "Spaced Invaders" are entertainment: not documentaries.

If there's life on other worlds, the biggest critters may look like the plants and animals we're familiar with. I think there's something to the argument that there are only so many ways that an animal can swim, crawl, walk, or fly.

On the other hand, we may find places where the locals think we have too few eyes: and too many arms.

(From Nobu Tamura, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)


If we meet intelligent extraterrestrial life: I'm pretty sure that at least a few humans will be very, very upset.

If we do have neighbors, I'm also pretty sure that at least a few folks here on Earth are going to insist that the space aliens are not people.

Judging from the difficulty we've had convincing everyone that loving God, loving our neighbor, and seeing everyone as our neighbor, is a good idea, some may never accept the notion that someone can look different, and be a person. And that's another topic. (Matthew 5:43-44; Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-30; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1825)

We may be alone in the universe. But if we are not, I don't see why a self-aware creature; able to decide whether to act, or not act; and able to communicate; should not be seen as a "person."

Defining "Persons"

The Catechism of the Catholic Church's glossary says that a human person is "a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, capable of knowledge, self–possession, and freedom, who can enter into communion with other persons—and with God."1

As a Catholic, I have to recognize that not all persons are human: which doesn't mean that we "believe in" space aliens.

For starters, God is three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is also one, the Trinity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 189-191, 232-260)

Angels are persons, too: beings of pure spirit, with no bodies. They "are personal and immortal creatures," with "intelligence and will." But angels are not human. Not even close. (Catechism, 328-330)

Would I Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

I'm not authorized to perform baptisms, so: no, I would not. I wouldn't baptize anyone, since I'm not a deacon, priest, or bishop. (Code of Canon Law; Book IV, Part I; Title I; Chapter II; 861-863)

Bear in mind that I speak with the full authority of some guy with a blog. I do not speak for the Church. My speculation about people who are not human is just that: speculation. I don't intend, or want, to anticipate what the Holy See's decisions. I am in solidarity with Rome, and want to stay that way.

However, I don't see why someone whose ancestors lived on another planet couldn't be baptized: provided that the space alien wanted to be baptized, understood what being a Christian involves, and had shown that he/she/it embraced our faith.

Persons and Pangolins

The real question is, who can be baptized? The rules for adults are pretty basic. The person must have shown an intention to be baptized; been taught what being a Christian means; and acted as if what was taught is true. Regretting past misdeeds helps. Canon law puts it a bit more formally.2

Not all adults can be baptized. An adult pangolin can't be baptized: no matter how nice the pangolin is. That's because pangolins are not people

They are also odd-looking critters, and that's yet another topic.

1. Understanding Life's Limits

(From NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech, via, used w/o permission.)
"The artist's concept depicts Kepler-69c, a planet 1.7 times the size of Earth that orbits in the habitable zone of a star like our sun, located about 2,700 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus."
"Studies of Extreme Earth Life Can Aid Search for Alien Lifeforms, Scientists Say"
Elizabeth Howell, (March 27, 2014)

"Until we understand the limits of life, it will be difficult to determine if alien planets can host any living beings, scientists say.

"By studying Earth-bound 'extremophiles' — microbes that survive in harsh conditions, such as hot and acid-filled ocean vents — scientists can understand the limits of temperature, pressure and acidity that support life on Earth more fully. These finding[s] may also be applied to other planets.

"These life-supporting parameters could be revised, however, if a new extremophile is discovered or biology is different on another world, John Baross, a researcher at the University of Washington who focuses on these microbes said March 17...."
Scientists have found life 'as we know it' in very unexpected places, including near-boiling water around hydrothermal vents and under glaciers. One microcritter, Deinococcus radiodurans, endures cold, dehydration, vacuum, acid, and extreme radiation.

I've mentioned speculation about life 'not as we know it' before. It's possible, although perhaps unlikely, that we'll find critters whose biochemistry is fluorocarbon in sulfur, lipid in  hydrogen, or something else. (March 7, 2014)

"...An Enormous Quantity of Creatures of Every Kind..."

This article dragged in the weary old 'religion against science' shibboleth: with the inevitable mention of Galileo.

It's true that Galileo was placed under house arrest: but the issue wasn't his assertion that Earth went around the Sun.

What got Galileo in trouble was his refusal to present the heliocentric theory as an interesting idea: not a fact.

As it turns out, Galileo was right about Earth going around the Sun: but it was a new, and unproven, idea. It didn't help that Galileo took St. Augustine's position, that poetry isn't science. Not that science as we know it existed in the fourth century, and that's yet again another topic.

Someone with a less abrasive personality than Galileo's might have received a lighter sentence, and I've been over this before. (October 26, 2009)

The good news is that Elizabeth Howell paid attention to what happened at the convention.
"...The Vatican Observatory has made its own contributions to astronomy, pointed out José Funes, its current director. The 19th-century director Angelo Secchi was one of the first scientists to authoritatively say that the sun is a star, Funes said.

"Secchi, like scientists today, also mused on the possibility of life beyond Earth, a theme that Vatican scientists discussed at the conference, Funes added, putting a passage from Secchi's 1870 book, 'Le Soleil' (The Sun) on the screen.

" 'What to think of these stars without any doubt similar to our sun,' the passage read, 'destined like the sun to keep alive an enormous quantity of creatures of every kind?'..."
(Elizabeth Howell

"...So Much We Still Don't Understand"

(From, used w/o permission.)
"One extreme species, the Thermococcus microbe, can survive on so little energy that until now the chemical reaction it uses wasn't thought able to sustain life. These organisms were found living near deep-sea hydrothermal vents...."
"...'This is very much a discovery-based science, and there is so much we still don't understand,' Baross said during the Search for Life Beyond the Solar System conference in Tucson, Ariz.

"One emerging field of research examines microbes living in a low carbon and energy environment, like the parts of the ocean below where sunlight can reach through the waters. Considering slower evolution over millions of years in these reaches is a 'totally new ballgame' for alien planet researchers, Baross said....

"...Finding alien life will be a complex task, other scientists pointed out. Perhaps extraterrestrials will require a 'wet' planet like Earth and a 'dry' planet like Mars to pass material back and forth, biochemist Steven Benner of The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in Florida said.

"Benner suggested that it might be easier for organisms to come alive in a dry environment, but that it would take water to make sustained life possible.

"Other researchers, meanwhile, are trying to better understand the parameters of life by creating synthetic lifeforms to see how they will behave in different environments...."
(Elizabeth Howell
"Creating synthetic organisms" does not end well, in the movies: as demonstrated in "Son of Frankenstein," "Eve of Destruction," and "Splice."

'Tampering with things man was not supposed to know' is what we're supposed to do, though. Pursuing truth isn't the problem: being stupid, greedy, or careless, is. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

Making "synthetic organisms" goes back a long way. Somewhere between 15,000 and 33,000 years back, we decided that wolves would make good hunting companions: after a few modifications.

Not long after that, we started tweaking plants. All that's changed over the millennia are details in how we modify organisms:

2. A Growing Catalog of Known Worlds

(From PHL @ UPR Arecibo, via, used w/o permission.)
(July 29, 2013)
"Exoplanet tally soars above 1,000"
Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News (October 22, 2013)

"The number of observed exoplanets - worlds circling distant stars - has passed 1,000.

"Of these, 12 could be habitable - orbiting at a distance where it is neither 'too hot' nor 'too cold' for water to be liquid on the surface.

"The planets are given away by tiny dips in light as they pass in front of their stars or through gravitational 'tugs' on the star from an orbiting world.

"These new worlds are listed in the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia.

"The tally now stands at 1,010 new exoplanets, bolstered by 11 new finds from the UK's Wide Angle Search for Planets (Wasp).

"Abel Mendez of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, said that although the number has rapidly increased in recent years, due to a lack of funding this figure is much lower than it could be...."
What impresses me isn't that more than a thousand planets exist. It's that we have, so far, found more than a thousand in the tiny fraction of the Milky Way galaxy we've checked out.

More will almost certainly be confirmed. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia added another 702 'possibles' to its list on March 6, 2014.

3. Earth-Sized Planets: Billions of Them

"At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-sized Planet"
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (January 7, 2013)

"...A new analysis of Kepler data shows that about 17 percent of stars have an Earth-sized planet in an orbit closer than Mercury. Since the Milky Way has about 100 billion stars, there are at least 17 billion Earth-sized worlds out there.

"Francois Fressin, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), presented the analysis today in a press conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif. A paper detailing the research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal....

"...They found that 17 percent of stars have a planet 0.8 - 1.25 times the size of Earth in an orbit of 85 days or less. About one-fourth of stars have a super-Earth (1.25 - 2 times the size of Earth) in an orbit of 150 days or less. (Larger planets can be detected at greater distances more easily.) The same fraction of stars has a mini-Neptune (2 - 4 times Earth) in orbits up to 250 days long...."
Divvying up this galaxy's 17,000,000,000 Earth-sized planets, everyone living today would get roughly two and a half worlds. That's a lot of real estate.

Earth-size doesn't mean Earth-like. Venus is almost exactly the size of Earth, 94.99% Earth's diameter, but is hot as a self-cleaning oven at the surface, with a crushing atmosphere and clouds of sulfuric acid.

Even so, a few of the Earth-sized planets we've discovered are in their star's Goldilocks zone, warm enough for liquid water: but not too hot.

There's more to life than liquid water, of course. We need a particular set of chemicals: which are nowhere near as unique to Earth as some thought.

We've found adenine and guanine in a meteorite. Maybe the Solar system is the only place in the universe where these chemical modules in DNA drift through space: but that doesn't seem likely.

We've learned that our sun is brighter than about 85% of the Milky Way's stars: but apart from that isn't unusual. There are millions of other stars like it. Make that billions.

Earth may be the only planet where life exists: today. But it looks like we'll find places with everything we need to plant life throughout the galaxy.

4. Searching the Sky: Frustration and Vindication

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
"Artist's concepts of Terrestral Planet Finder-Coronograph (left) and Terrestrial Planet Finder-Interferometer missions."
"In Hunt for Alien Planets, Frustration Lingers Over Canceled Missions"
Leslie Mullen, (June 6, 2011)

"Geoff Marcy is mad.

"Not mad as in 'crazy,' although many scientists thought he was nuts when he first started hunting for planets orbiting far-distant stars over 20 years ago.

"Now that over 500 exoplanets have been detected and the Kepler space telescope has over 1,200 candidate planets waiting to be confirmed, Marcy's dedication and hard work (and his sanity) have been vindicated...."
Like Geoff Marcy, I'm frustrated that the Terrestrial Planet Finder missions were cancelled. But NASA launched the Kepler observatory, and CNES/ESA's CoRoT mission found exoplanets. I'm confident that there will be more: and we're still going through data gathered in these missions.

Maybe now that folks know there are destinations in the stars, research and development of a practical Alcubierre warp drive will speed up. And that's — another topic. (May 24, 2013)

Related posts:

1 Definition of a human person:
"PERSON, HUMAN: The human individual, made in the image of God; not some thing but some one, a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, capable of knowledge, self–possession, and freedom, who can enter into communion with other persons—and with God (357, 362; cf. 1700). The human person needs to live in society, which is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them (1879)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary)
2 Requirements for adult baptism:
"For an adult to be baptized, the person must have manifested the intention to receive baptism, have been instructed sufficiently about the truths of the faith and Christian obligations, and have been tested in the Christian life through the catechumenate. The adult is also to be urged to have sorrow for personal sins."
(Code of Canon Law; Book IV, Part I, The Sacraments; Title I, Baptism; Chapter III, Those to be Baptized; 865)

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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.