Saturday, November 25, 2006

Jastrow: `All these numbers are so small that ... the Earth must be the only planet, bearing life'

Kevin Miller at Design Watch's quote from WorldNetDaily's " Ma Earth: The planned accident,"

[Graphic: Robert Jastrow, Tom Magnuson]

has reminded me to post a quote I found the other day while digging deeper into my pile of unclassified photocopies. It is by agnostic Robert Jastrow, founding director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Professor of Geophysics at Columbia University and Director Emeritus of Mount Wilson Observatory":

"Regarding the first question, recent reports of bodies circling other stars confirm the suspicion that planets probably are common in the universe. The evidence is indirect but quite robust, and we can now guess that a billion trillion families of planets - give or take a few powers of 10-exist within the universe. The book then turns to the question of life's origin: What is the probability that life has arisen out of inanimate matter on the trillions of these inferred planets? Opinions diverge widely. Dick cites an estimate by physicist Harold Morowitz that the probability of creating a bacterium - the simplest living organism through random molecular collisions is 1 in 10100,000,000,000. Fred Hoyle raises this chance to a more optimistic 1 in 1040,000. Biochemist Robert Shapiro estimates that the probability of chance formation of a short strand of self-replicating RNA is considerably greater - as `large' as 1 in 10992. All these numbers are so small that, even when multiplied by the vast number of planets probably present in the universe, they force us to conclude that the Earth must be the only planet, bearing life." (Jastrow, R., "What Are the Chances for Life?" Review of The Biological Universe by Steven J. Dick, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Sky & Telescope, Vol. 93, No.6, June 1997, pp.62-63, p.62).

Here is another quote along the same lines, this time a book review in The New York Times of Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee's book, "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe" (2000),

[Graphic: Rare Earth, Dr. Charles Mallery, University of Miami]

which discusses the possibility that "Maybe We Are Alone in the Universe, After All":

"In the last few decades, a growing number of astronomers have promulgated the view that alien civilizations are likely to be scattered among the stars like grains of sand, isolated from one another by the emptiness of interstellar space. Just for Earth's own galaxy, the Milky Way, experts have estimated that there might be up to one million advanced societies. This extraterrestrial credo has fueled not only countless books, movies and television shows -- not to mention hosts of Klingons, Wookies and Romulans -- but a long scientific hunt that uses huge dish antennas to scan the sky for faint radio signals from intelligent aliens. Now, two prominent scientists say the conventional wisdom is wrong. The alien search, they add, is likely to fail. Drawing on new findings in astronomy, geology and paleontology, the two argue that humans might be alone, at least in the stellar neighborhood, and perhaps in the entire cosmos. They say modern science is showing that Earth's composition and stability are extraordinarily rare. Most everywhere else, the radiation levels are too high, the right chemical elements too rare in abundance, the hospitable planets too few in number and the rain of killer rocks too intense for life ever to have evolved into advanced communities. Alien microbes may survive in many places as a kind of cosmic shower scum, they say, but not extraterrestrials civilized enough to be awash in technology. Their book, "Rare Earth" (Springer-Verlag), out last month, is producing whoops of criticism and praise, with some detractors saying that the authors have made their own simplistic assumptions about the adaptability of life forms while others call it `brilliant' and `courageous.' `We have finally said out loud what so many have thought for so long -- that complex life, at least, is rare,' said Dr. Peter D. Ward of the University of Washington, a paleontologist who specializes in mass extinctions ... `And to us, complex life may be a flatworm.' The book's other author is Dr. Donald C. Brownlee of the University of Washington, a noted astronomer, member of the National Academy of Sciences and chief scientist of NASA's $166 million Stardust mission to capture interplanetary and interstellar dust. `People say the Sun is a typical star,' he remarked in an interview. `That's not true.' Dr. Brownlee added: `Almost all environments in the universe are terrible for life. It's only Garden of Eden places like Earth where it can exist.'" (Broad, W.J., "Maybe We Are Alone in the Universe, After All," The New York Times, February 8, 2000).

And here are two more quotes from reviews of Rare Earth by IDists Guillermo Gonzalez and Ben Wiker which make the point that Ward and Brownlee's "rare Earth hypothesis goes directly against the Copernican Principle" (or Principle of Mediocrity):

"In their final chapter, `Messengers from the Stars,' Ward and Brownlee try to put their hypothesis within a broader historical and philosophical context. They rightly note that the rare Earth hypothesis goes directly against the Copernican Principle. The Copernican Principle had its origin in the simple hypothesis put forth by Nicholas Copernicus that the structure of the solar system is heliocentric as opposed to geocentric. This physical understanding of the universe, in which the Earth is not the center of anything, has been extrapolated and inflated into a general metaphysical doctrine that asserts a complete lack of `specialness' for the Earth or its inhabitants. True, the physical form of the Copernican Principle has been proven true, as we have been moved into an average-looking place in the universe, but at the same time, Earth has been shown to be quite special in its ability to support living things. This first became evident in 1973 with the introduction of the Anthropic Principle into cosmological discussions by Brandon Carter, and it was reinforced by the publication of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler in 1986. Barrow and Tipler amassed a huge collection of examples from astrophysics and chemistry showing just how finely tuned many constants of nature have to be for us to exist. It appears the universe was designed with the goal of producing us. This is the central theme of the Anthropic Principle, and it goes directly against the philosophical form of the Copernican Principle. Surprisingly, most popular science writers and many professional astronomers have continued to interpret new discoveries in astronomy within the Copernican framework. For example, over the last four years many magazine articles and over half a dozen books have been written about the new extrasolar planet discoveries, all interpreting them as furthering the Copernican revolution. But any open-minded person looking at the new discoveries objectively will see that they demonstrate just the opposite-the solar system is far from typical. Ward and Brownlee are among the first secular scientists to admit to this obvious fact. Their hypothesis also goes directly against the religious dogma of the SETI Institute, which has enjoyed a love-fest with the public during the last decade or two. The movie Contact was a masterpiece of propaganda, which most of the public seems to have accepted. Even astronomers have been suckered into swallowing the SETI misinformation. Ward and Brownlee are to be thanked for going against such a powerful opinion-setting institution. Theirs is the first significant critique of the SETI position since Frank Tipler opined against SETI and openly criticized Carl Sagan in the early 1980s." (Gonzalez, G., "No Other Eden."' Review of Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, Copernicus: New York, 2000)

which had been a major plank of anti-Christian "propaganda".

That is, "This conjectured plurality of worlds and intelligent creatures seemed to" (and did) "threaten the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation" but "In regard to Christian theology, the most helpful thing about the arguments of Ward and Brownlee is that they are not trying to be helpful at all. ... No one can accuse them of stacking the deck in our favor. The cards are dealt by nature itself" (my emphasis)!:

"First, our planet was ousted from the center of the universe, then our sun was found to be only one of many suns in an immense galaxy; next came the discovery that our galaxy is just one of countless stellar systems in the cosmos. Following upon these findings, one of the longstanding assumptions of modern science has been that, given the billions of stars in our galaxy and the billions of galaxies in the universe, there must be countless other planets out there teeming not just with life, but intelligent life at that. Human beings, on this assumption, would be nothing special. Carl Sagan once conjectured that, in our own humble galaxy alone, there must be a million civilizations of creatures intelligent enough for interstellar communication. This conjectured plurality of worlds and intelligent creatures seemed to threaten the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. If God himself is united to human nature in our world, how is he dealing with other intelligent creatures elsewhere in the cosmos? Does the Incarnation apply to them? ... Now along come Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee to upset scientific orthodoxy and reinvigorate us monotheists. Earth, they claim, is no run-of-the-mill planet. We are `not so ordinary as Western science has made us out to be .... Our global inferiority complex may be unwarranted.' Against the common view that we are all too common, they offer the rare-earth hypothesis - the paradox that life may be nearly everywhere in the universe, but complex life almost nowhere. By `complex,' they mean anything above the microbe. Furthermore, since the rarity increases as the complexity increases, `intelligent animal life must be rarer still.' Earth, then, is not ordinary at all; indeed, it is quite extraordinary, and even more exceptional is the existence of intelligent life. If the rare-earth hypothesis is right, human beings may be the most unlikely phenomenon in the universe. `If some god-like being could be given the opportunity to plan a sequence of events with the express goal of duplicating our 'Garden of Eden,' that power would face a formidable task,' declare Ward and Brownlee. `With the best intentions, but limited by natural laws and materials, it is unlikely that Earth could ever be truly replicated. Too many processes in its formation involved sheer luck . ... [T]he physical events that led to the formation and evolution of the physical Earth ... required an intricate set of nearly irreproducible circumstances.' How so? Well, if you want any kind of life on a planet, you've got to have a sun, and not just any sun will do. It has to be the right distance from the center of the galaxy. If it's too close to the star-dense center, it will likely be sterilized by a supernova, an exploding star. If it's too far away, it will be too poor in heavy elements, the building blocks of a habitable planet. Your sun will also have to have the just right mass; otherwise, the planets orbiting it will be too close or too far away to sustain life. For these and other reasons, Ward and Brownlee declare, our rare earth required a rare sun. Shall we add the presence of Jupiter? If you don't want your planet to be bombarded by comets and asteroids, you'd better have a `sweeper.' Because of its great mass, Jupiter cleans interstellar debris from our solar system. Without it, the Earth would likely be continually pummeled - and therefore lifeless. Let's also add that, if Jupiter were any closer to its sun, as other Jovian-type planets generally are, it would have crushed the Earth. Another happy accident! We have a glimpse of how rare the conditions surrounding our planet are, but the conditions of Earth itself are rarer still. According to the authors, getting life, microbial life, might be relatively easy. Therefore, such non-complex life may very well be abundant in the universe. But complex life is both difficult to attain and maintain. To begin with, you need an atmosphere, surface water and a constant but narrow range of temperature. Attaining and maintaining these require an immensely complex dance of factors - the right amount of initial carbon available, a molten core of the right elements and temperature, the presence of a sufficient magnetic field and other factors too numerous to mention. In addition, if you want to maintain the conditions of life over sufficiently long periods of time, say, multiple millions of years, you have to avoid all kinds of catastrophes all too common on other planets. Earth, unlike many other planets, has managed to escape such destruction. On top of all this, we, the Earth, actually have complex life, the existence of which is far, far more unlikely than the conditions which allow it. When we string together the list of all these improbable conditions and events, the authors claim, the probability of creating a planet with complex life approaches zero. The actual presence of Earth, given the extremely complex and interrelated conditions which allowed its birth and continuation, is near miraculous. Science, it would seem, is leaning back toward faith: We really may be the only rational animal in the universe after all. In regard to Christian theology, the most helpful thing about the arguments of Ward and Brownlee is that they are not trying to be helpful at all. They show no evidence of being Christian, or even being vaguely theistic, but argue from the perspective of evolutionary-based scientific materialism. No one can accuse them of stacking the deck in our favor. The cards are dealt by nature itself." (Wiker, B.D., "Billions of Planets, But Only One Earth." Review of "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe," by Peter Ward and Donald C. Brownlee, Copernicus: New York, 2000. National Catholic Register, September 10-16, 2000)

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).

Genesis 12:17-19. 17But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai. 18So Pharaoh summoned Abram. "What have you done to me?" he said. "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? 19Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!"


Endoplasmic Messenger said...

I could never understand how Peter Ward, being such a defender of the Rare Earth, would be so strongly against ID.

One of his more famous debates is here:

Could it be that there is more than one Peter Ward at the University of Washinton???

Stephen E. Jones said...

>I could never understand how Peter Ward, being such a defender of the Rare Earth, would be so strongly against ID.

Ward is a scientific materialist/naturalist (i.e. he believes that matter/nature is all there is), so his problem is not with intelligent design but with the Intelligent Designer.

While the identity of the Designer is beyond the scope of ID, according to Romans 1:18-20, humans intuitively infer from the design in nature that there is a Designer who is God, but they then try to suppress that uncomfortable inference.

The more sophisticated forms of suppression include the erection of philosophical systems, like the so-called Copernican Principle (aka Principle of Mediocrity), which makes a Designer superfluous.

However when that fails (as it has for Ward & Brownlee), there are other erected lines of defence, like the "Science" (objective fact) vs "Religion" (subjective fantasy), dichotomy.

Presumably Ward and Brownlee regard "ID" as "Religion" and therefore, by definition, *inherently* false.

Even if that should fall (e.g. they discovered that ID is based *solely* on the evidence of nature, and some leading IDists like David Berlinski and Michael Denton are agnostics) there is always the final line of defence for scientific materlialist/naturalists.

That is, if materialism/naturalism is true, then by definition there *cannot* be a Designer beyond matter/nature (since matter/nature is *all* there is), so somehow matter/nature *must* have done its own designing and creating, *irrespective of the evidence*!


Stephen E. Jones