Thursday, March 3, 2016

Seeking New Worlds, New Life - - -

Analyzing what we've been learning about other planetary systems, some scientists say that maybe Earth is unusual, after all: maybe.

Other scientists found another maybe-habitable planet less than 14 light-years away. Maybe planets like Earth are common: again, maybe.
  1. Earth, Copernicus, and "a Preliminary Guess"
  2. Wolf 1061c: Nearby Super-Earth
I like living in a world where last year's list of known planetary systems is obsolete. Some folks don't. I'll talk about Copernicus and Sacred Scripture — right after my usual harangue about using our brains.

Curiosity, Ulysses, and Being Human

Thinking is not a sin.

Neither is wondering what's over the next hill.

Dante didn't put Ulysses in his eighth circle of Hell because being curious is wrong, and I've been over that before. (July 24, 2015)

We're supposed to use our brains. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 159, 1730-1738)

We're rational creatures, created in the image of God, and "little less than a god." Studying this universe, and using that knowledge is part of our job. So is using our power responsibly. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7; Psalms 8:6; Catechism, 35-36, 282-289, , 355-373, 1704, 2292-2295, 2402, 2415-2418, 2456)

"Little less than a god" isn't God. Forgetting that gets us in trouble, and that's another topic. (June 19, 2015; March 29, 2015)

Copernicus: Physician, Mathematician, and — Troublemaker?

Nicolaus Copernicus was a physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, economist, and held a degree in Canon Law.

He's probably best-known these days as a mathematician and astronomer who helped establish that Earth orbits our sun, not the other way around.

Hermann Bondi coined the phrase "Copernican principle" in the 1950s, while discussing the equivalence principle, a working assumption that Earth isn't unique or central in this universe. Another name for that idea is the mediocrity principle, but it's not quite as catchy a name. My opinion.

Anyway, Copernicus knew that Aristarchus of Samos thought the universe centered on our sun, used more epicycles than Ptolemy, and came up with a better theory for predicting how long Earth's year will be.

Copernicus passed "Commentariolus," a 40-page discussion of his heliocentric theory, around his circle of friends and acquaintances in 1514.

Pope Clement VII most likely learned about Copernicus' work from lectures Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter gave in Rome.

Quite a few folks, including the Pope, liked the 'Copernican model.' The Pope really liked what he heard, giving Herr Widmannstetter a gift for explaining the new theory.

Others, not so much. Let's remember that the 16th century was a lively era.

The Protestant Reformation was getting hijacked by northern princes, and Barbary pirates were raiding the French coast. England's Henry VIII set up a national church and started going through wives; and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, said it wasn't his fault when his troops sacked Rome.

Understandably, publication of "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" was put off until just before Copernicus died.

Joshua, Aristotle, and Getting a Grip

Rumors about the book had leaked out, though, prompting Luther's condemnation:
"People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon ... This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth."
(Martin Luther; quoted in Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1957, p. 191; via Wikipedia)
Aristotle's fans were upset, too. I've talked about Thales of Miletus, Aristotle, and the 219 Propositions of 1277, before. (August 21, 2015)

It gets complicated at this point, including reaction to Pope Gregory XIII's Gregorian calendar: which was controversial for centuries.

An enthusiastic Christian told me that our sun goes around Earth a few decades back. He used Luther's 'because the Bible says so' argument, citing the same bit from Joshua. I'm fairly sure that he was sincere: but I'm quite sure that he's wrong.

I take Joshua 10:13, and the rest of Sacred Scripture, seriously. (February 21, 2016)

Since I'm a Catholic, I think the Bible is the Word of God: the entire Bible, not just the bits I like. I'm also expected to read Sacred Scripture: often. (Catechism, 101-133)
"Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely:64
"You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time.65"
(Catechism, 102)

"...The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body....

"...The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the 'excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ' (Phil. 3:8). 'For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.'(5)..."
("Dei Verbum," Pope Blessed Paul VI (November 18, 1965))

"...So convinced indeed was Jerome that familiarity with the Bible was the royal road to the knowledge and love of Christ that he did not hesitate to say: 'Ignorance of the Bible means ignorance of Christ.'[121] And 'what other life can there be without knowledge of the Bible wherein Christ, the life of them that believe, is set before us?'[122]..."
("Spiritus Paraclitus," Benedict XV (September 15, 1915))
I am not, however, required to believe that the Bible was written by metaphor-challenged Industrial Age Americans. (February 21, 2016)

And I'm certainly not obliged to believe that folks living in Mesopotamia, more than two dozen centuries back, knew everything there is to know about this universe.

Just the Bible and Me: and Catherine of Siena, and Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas, and - - -

I don't have to guess what the Bible 'really means.'

I'm a Catholic, so I take my cue from Sacred Scripture, Tradition with a capital "T," and the Magisterium.1 (Matthew 16:16-19; Catechism, 65-95, 2032-2040)

Lower-case tradition, valuing customs and attitudes of a bygone age, can be nice: in moderation. I like some traditions — but don't yearn for the 'good old days' before 1962, 1954, 1933, 1848, or some other imagined golden age. (July 12, 2015; August 3, 2014)

With an upper-case "T," Tradition is the "living transmission" of the "full and living Gospel:" what the Apostles believed, passed down through our bishops, under the Holy Spirit. (Catechism, 77-78)

That is not trying to live as if the Council of Trent never happened.

The Catholic Church is old, ancient: but not old-fashioned. (February 13, 2015)

We've been passing along the best news humanity's ever had for two millennia: God loves us — all of us — and wants to adopt us. (John 1:12-14, 3:17; Romans 8:14-17; Peter 1:3-4; Catechism, 27-30, 52, 1825, 1996)

There's a catch, sort of. I'm expected to act as if what our Lord said matters: so I try to love God, love my neighbors, and see everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1789)

I see treating others the way I want them to treat me as a corollary, and that's yet another topic. (October 18, 2015; May 25, 2014)

Where was I? Copernicus, Joshua, the Council of Trent, Prohibition. Right.

I like being part of an outfit that predates my civilization's current iteration, was global before internationalism was cool, and embraces all cultures. For two millennia, we have been bringing a message of love and hope to the world. (Catechism, 758-776, 816, 1202)

We're not trying to drag the world back to some imagined golden age. Even if we could, our job is moving ahead, not repeating past mistakes. We have a mandate to build a better world. (Catechism, 1928-1942, 2419-2442)

One more thing: there isn't one 'correct' kind of government or culture, so our job is not trying to make everyone into Victorian-era Americans, Renaissance Italians, or Imperial Romans.

We're told to work with what we have, correcting what is unjust, and supporting what is right. (Catechism, 1897-1917, 1928-1942)

1. Earth, Copernicus, and "a Preliminary Guess"

"Exoplanet Census Suggests Earth Is Special after All"
Shannon Hall, Scientific American (February 19, 2016)

"A new tally proposes that roughly 700 quintillion terrestrial exoplanets are likely to exist across the observable universe—most vastly different from Earth

"More than 400 years ago Renaissance scientist Nicolaus Copernicus reduced us to near nothingness by showing that our planet is not the center of the solar system. With every subsequent scientific revolution, most other privileged positions in the universe humans might have held dear have been further degraded, revealing the cold truth that our species is the smallest of specks on a speck of a planet, cosmologically speaking. A new calculation of exoplanets suggests that Earth is just one out of a likely 700 million trillion terrestrial planets in the entire observable universe. But the average age of these planets—well above Earth's age—and their typical locations—in galaxies vastly unlike the Milky Way—just might turn the Copernican principle on its head.

"Astronomer Erik Zackrisson from Uppsala University and his colleagues created a cosmic compendium of all the terrestrial exoplanets likely to exist throughout the observable universe, based on the rocky worlds astronomers have found so far. In a powerful computer simulation, they first created their own mini universe containing models of the earliest galaxies. Then they unleashed the laws of physics—as close as scientists understand them—that describe how galaxies grow, how stars evolve and how planets come to be. Finally, they fast-forwarded through 13.8 billion years of cosmic history. Their results, published to the preprint server arXiv (pdf) and submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, provide a tantalizing trove of probable exoplanet statistics that helps astronomers understand our place in the universe...."
Earth is special: so is North America, and the town I live in, near the top of the Mississippi watershed. It's where I live. It's also where everyone I know lives — plus all of humanity, except for Expedition 46 on the International Space Station.

Granted, they're in Earth orbit: about 400 kilometers/250 miles up, about as far away from Earth's surface as I am from Rochester, Minnesota. But it's a start. (February 5, 2016; January 8, 2016; December 24, 2015)

"...Their results...provide a tantalizing trove of probable exoplanet statistics that helps astronomers understand our place in the universe..." might imply that Shannon Hall wants us to depend exclusively on science for 'meaning of life' questions.

I don't think that is the case, since the "place in the universe" being discussed is whether or not Earth is exceptional: apart from it being where we live.

I'm fascinated by our expanding knowledge of the universe, but don't look to science for all the answers. Discovering why the universe, planets, and humanity, exist isn't what natural sciences study. (Catechism, 284)

"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: 'It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.'121"
(Catechism, 283 [emphasis mine])
As I keep saying, studying this universe and using what we learn is part of being human: it's part of our job. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 3071730, 2292-2295, 2415-2418)

I figure we'll see more studies like this, as scientists start sifting through data they're collecting about planets circling other stars.
"...'It's kind of mind-boggling that we're actually at a point where we can begin to do this,' says co-author Andrew Benson from the Carnegie Observatories in California. Until recently, he says, so few exoplanets were known that reasonable extrapolations to the rest of the universe were impossible. Still, his team’s findings are a preliminary guess at what the cosmos might hold. 'It's certainly the case that there are a lot of uncertainties in a calculation like this. Our knowledge of all of these pieces is imperfect,' he adds...."
(Shannon Hall, Scientific American)

Life in the Universe: Eventually

(From PlanetQuest, NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Illustrations of our neighborhood in the Milky Way Galaxy, and the Milky Way's position in the Local Galactic Group.)
"...'Whenever you find something that sticks out…' Zackrisson says, '…that means that either we are the result of a very improbable lottery draw or we don't understand how the lottery works.'

"But Max Tegmark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who also was not part of the research, thinks Earth is a colossal violation of the Copernican principle—not because of its location but because of its young age. 'If you have these civilizations that had a 3.5-billion-year head start on us, why haven't they colonized our galaxy?' asks Tegmark. 'To me, the most likely explanation is that if the planets are a dime a dozen, then highly intelligent life evolves only rarely.' So should we feel insignificant? Should we be reduced to near nothingness? Not at all, he says. 'It might be that one day in the distant future much of our universe will be teeming with life because of what we did here.' "
(Shannon Hall, Scientific American)
I'm quite sure that Earth is the only place in the universe that supports life: or that we'll find life on millions of worlds in this galaxy. Right now, we don't know.

As I've said before, often, finding an extraterrestrial equivalent of bacteria would be a monumental discovery. Finding life like ourselves, self-willed intelligent creatures: I'd be delighted at news that we've got neighbors, others probably not so much. (August 2, 2015; November 7, 2014)

As for what MIT's Max Tegmark said: it's nice to see someone who looks at the universe and doesn't feel "reduced to near nothingness." As I've said before, humility isn't being delusional. (March 29, 2015; August 10, 2014)

On the other hand, I'm not so sure that "the most likely explanation is that if the planets are a dime a dozen, then highly intelligent life evolves only rarely."

Space Aliens Might Not be Human

If humans represent the only possible form that intelligence can take — any neighbors we meet will be as incurably chatty as we are, with the same wanderlust that started us seeing what's over the next hill at least 1,900,000 years ago.

If that's the case, maybe intelligent life is rare.

I don't know whether we have neighbors, or whether we're the only folks in this universe.

But if we do have neighbors, I'd be more than a little surprised if they were just like us: physically or psychologically.

For all I know, dozens of billion-year-old civilizations exist within a few hundred light-years of us: most of them serenely unscrewing the inscrutable and meditating on the whichness of what, safely anchored to the ocean floor of their home. (July 18, 2014)


2. Wolf 1061c: Nearby Super-Earth

(From "The Aladin Sky Atlas," developed at CDS, Strasbourg Observatory, France; via CNN; used w/o permission.)
(Wolf 1061, seen from the Solar System.)
"Wolf 1061 exoplanet: 'Super-Earth' discovered only 14 light-years away"
Will Heilpern, CNN (December 17, 2015)

"Alien life could be closer to us than previously thought. Scientists have just discovered the nearest habitable planet to Earth.

"The new world is one of three surrounding a red dwarf star called Wolf 1061, which is just 14 light years away. It was detected by scientists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

"All three planets have the potential to be solid and rocky, but only Wolf 1061c exists within the 'Goldilocks zone' -- a distance from the star (much smaller and cooler than our sun) that is not too hot and not too cold for liquid water.

" 'This rare discovery is incredibly exciting,' UNSW's Duncan Wright, who led the study, told CNN.

" 'Other planets found that are habitable are not nearly this close to Earth. Because of the close proximity of this planet to us, there is good opportunity to find out more about it.'..."
At 13.8 light-years, Wolf 1061 is "close:" compared to most stars in our galaxy. As Duncan Wright said, the Wolf 1061 planetary system will be much easier to study than most.

We won't be sending probes there any time soon, though. One light-year is roughly 9,000,000,000,000 kilometers, 6,000,000,000,000 miles. That's a lot of zeroes.

Guy Ottewell's 'make a scale model of the Solar System' page ("THE THOUSAND-YARD MODEL/or, The Earth as a Peppercorn") gives an idea of how far away the closest stars are.

In this model, our sun is a ball eight inches across: like a bowling ball. Earth is a peppercorn 26 yards from the bowling ball. Pluto is about a thousand yards out.

At this scale, one light-year is about a thousand miles: so Wolf 1061 would be 13,800 miles from the bowling ball: going in a straight line, that's roughly halfway to satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Habitable: Maybe

(From, via CNN, used w/o permission.)
("The planets have orbits of 4.9 days, 17.9 days and 67.2 days."
"...'The close proximity of the planets around Wolf 1061 means there is a good chance these planets may pass across the face of the star,' UNSW team member Rob Wittenmyer said in an earlier statement. 'If they do, then it may be possible to study the atmospheres of these planets in future to see whether they would be conducive to life.' ..."
(Will Heilpern, CNN)
Studying light shining through another planet's atmosphere is sort of like looking through a glass of water to see what's dissolved in it. (February 19, 2016; August 21, 2015; October 3, 2014)

'Habitable' doesn't mean 'inhabited,' and I've said that before. (January 2, 2015; June 27, 2014)

Again, we don't know if there's life anywhere except Earth. Not yet.

My guess, based on how many potentially habitable exoplanets we've found so far, and how common life's chemical components are, is that we'll eventually find life-as-we-know-it on another world. (October 3, 2014)

I put a link list of 'exoplanet' resources at the end of this post.2

Life as We Know It: and Maybe Otherwise

Speaking of life-as-we-know-it, defining "life" has become increasingly tricky. By one definition, NASA's Mars rovers are "alive." I try to be open-minded, but that seems silly. (November 28, 2014)

More of my take on vitalism, robots, and space vampires —
— and that's yet again another topic. Topics.

As if this post wasn't weird enough already — in the '60s, a former professor at Boston University put together a pretty good argument for life chemistries that might plausibly work in temperatures ranging from near red-hot to near absolute zero:
  • Fluorosilicone in fluorosilicone
  • Fluorocarbon in sulfur
  • Nucleic acid/protein (O) in water
  • Nucleic acid/protein (N) in ammonia
  • Lipid in methane
  • Lipid in hydrogen
    ("View from a Height" Isaac Asimov (1963), Lancer Books (p. 63))
Isaac Asimov's grasp of ecology and physics was a trifle shaky, at least in his fiction: but this time he was speculating in his professional field, chemistry.

Life-as-we-know-it may not be the only sort. We're #3 on that list, by the way. (Adapted from Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 24, 2010))

Like Haldane said, "....the Universe is ... queerer than we can suppose..." (July 31, 2015)

More; mostly about humanity's search for new worlds:

1 Definitions:
  • "BIBLE: Sacred Scripture: the books which contain the truth of God's Revelation and were composed by human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit (105). The Bible contains both the forty-six books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (120). See Old Testament; New Testament."
  • "MAGISTERIUM: The living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of Tradition. The Magisterium ensures the Church's fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals (85, 890, 2033)."
  • "TRADITION: The living transmission of the message of the Gospel in the Church. The oral preaching of the Apostles, and the written message of salvation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Bible), are conserved and handed on as the deposit of faith through the apostolic succession in the Church. Both the living Tradition and the written Scriptures have their common source in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (75-82). The theological, liturgical, disciplinary, and devotional traditions of the local churches both contain and can be distinguished from this apostolic Tradition (83)."
And see Catechism, 95, 113, 174, and 126.

2 A serious search for new worlds and life in this universe, resource link list:


Brigid said...

Stutter: "more epicycles epicycles than Ptolemy, and"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Oops! Fixed - - - and thanks, Brigid!

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

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.