Sunday, March 19, 2017

Exoplanet Science Fiction

Exuberant optimism abounds when certain popular ideas are proposed. One example is the idea by Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute that “…the universe is replete with real estate on which biology could both arise and flourish.” Shostak calls this idea “a growing conviction.” Many scientists claim mankind needs a new mission such as discovering habitable planets and demonstrating that intelligent life actually exists on these planets.

Rod Serling became famous as an imaginative science fiction writer and television producer of The Twilight Zone during the mid 20th century. This weekend program even captivated my parents and me for a time in the early 60s. Serling stated “Fantasy is the impossible made probable…..Science fiction is the improbable made probable.” The recent discovery of seven earth-sized planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star system thought to be in the “habitable zone” where temperatures could be fitting for humans may be in the category of “fantasy.” Saying “improbable made probable” is enough for many observers to mentally shift from “improbable” to “possible” and even to “certain” based on astronomers’ confidence that billions of exoplanets lurk in our Milky Way galaxy. Adding to the exuberance of many people are fiction writers such as Annalee Newitz who claims, “Science fiction lags way behind science.” Newitz's statement means the achievements of science sometimes exceed the speculative musings of science fiction.

Belief in the existence of innumerable inhabited worlds, or even belief in innumerable habitable worlds may be an exuberant stretch of reality. With the disclaimer that these worlds are at least possible, we posit that the existence of both inhabited and habitable worlds outside our Solar System may be ideas “remote beyond comprehension.”

We cite two examples of ideas we consider “remote beyond comprehension” currently gripping the belief system of many scientists: (1) The naturalistic origin of life. No one has ever explained how life on Planet Earth originated short of a supernatural miracle. Popular biology textbooks such as the Seventh Edition AP text Biology by Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reese, described as “the most successful biology majors text in the world” speculates how conditions on early earth may have generated life on earth. After proposing possible favorable scenarios already existing on the planet, the authors then generously supply phrases like could have formed, can discharge, if…then, probably, can make, provided that, may have occurred, perhaps, might have, would have, and could have. (2) The multiverse theory hypothesizes an infinite number of existing universes: One of them, our own, just by chance possessed every one of the hundreds of precise conditions necessary for existence of Earth’s complex life according to this theory.

Astrophysicist Hugh Ross on February 23, 2017 questioned, “Earth’s Seven Sisters: Are They Really Similar?” His answer: They are thoroughly uninhabitable. Among many reasons, Ross stated (1) TRAPPIST-1 is a fast-rotating star with huge solar flares accompanied by strong X-ray and ultraviolet radiation, (2) the seven planets are tidally locked to their star, meaning that (3) each planet’s side facing the star is perpetually illuminated and blazing hot while the opposite side is perpetually dark and extremely cold, (4) the presence of liquid water is hypothesized but extremely unlikely, and (5) gravitational influences from one planet to another are harmful.

In contrast, Seth Shostak’s “growing conviction” that biology could arise and flourish on these nearby planetary worlds is the product of unabashed, unrealistic optimism. Hugh Ross’s careful analyses of favorable technical conditions on our planet seem more realistic. He propounds these ideas about our familiar Earth: “The number and complexity of the astronomical and geological, chemical, and biological features recognized as essential to human existence have exploded within the past decade.” His recently published volume Improbable Planet, Baker Books, 2016, details his claims and is well worth our effort to read and understand.

We argue that Planet Earth is absolutely unique in its ability to sustain life. We also propose that other planets, including all the newly discovered exoplanets, do not come close to fulfilling the requirements for intelligent life possessed by Earth. If future discoveries show this to be in error, we will amend our proposal. Our Creator could choose to create life on other planets. Currently Planet Earth seems to be unique in harboring its marvelous life forms and the conditions supporting life. Our “growing conviction” consists of increased certainty about the uniqueness of conditions on Earth and life on our home planet.