Tag Archives: Astrobiology

The connection between our moon, plate tectonics and habitability

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

I found an interview with Peter Ward (atheist) and Donald Brownlee (agnostic) discussing astrobiology in Forbes magazine. They were asked about how important plate tectonics are for a planet to be able to support complex life.

Excerpt:

Astrobiologists often cite the sheer numbers of stars and galaxies as evidence that complex life elsewhere must surely have evolved somewhere. But is probability enough?

Without a moon, we don’t have any idea of how commonly a planet could have the long-term stability needed for complex life. Until we “get” that, going to the sheer numbers argument is useless. Without that moon-forming collision, we wouldn’t have plate tectonics. Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.

What about the rarity of earth’s crustal dichotomy of oceans and continents?

If you can’t make granite, you’re not going to have continents. But granite formation is a consequence of our moon-forming collision. That scrambled the entire density of our crust. Mars doesn’t have granite; all it’s got is this volcanic basalt. To build granite you need a planetary subduction [or plate tectonic] process.

In triggering complex life, how important were plate tectonics’ role in the continual recycling of earth’s atmosphere?

It’s this recycling that allows for a very rich planetary atmosphere with an extended life. Photosynthesis gets you oxygen, but how do you get enough photosynthesis to get oxygen at 10 to 20 percent? You’ve got to have a shoreline next to a rich sea with rocks eroding into it in order to provide the nitrogen and phosphates for [plant] photosynthesis.

This article from Astrobiology explains more about the importance of plate tectonics.

Excerpt:

Plate tectonics is the process of continents on the Earth drifting and colliding, rock grinding and scraping, mountain ranges being formed, and earthquakes tearing land apart. It makes our world dynamic and ever-changing. But should it factor into our search for life elsewhere in the universe?

Tilman Spohn believes so. As director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, and chairman of ESA’s scientific advisory committee, he studies worlds beyond our Earth. When looking into the relationship between habitability and plate tectonics, some fascinating possibilities emerged.

It is thought that the best places to search for life in the Universe are on planets situated in “habitable zones” around other stars. These are orbital paths where the temperature is suitable for liquid water; not so close to the star that it boils away, and not so far that it freezes. Spohn believes that this view may be outdated. He elaborates, “you could have habitats outside those, for instance in the oceans beneath ice covers on the Galilean satellites, like Europa. But not every icy satellite would be habitable. Take Ganymede, where the ocean is trapped between two layers of ice. You are missing a fresh supply of nutrition and energy.”

So planets and moons that lie beyond habitable zones could host life, so long as the habitat, such as an ocean, is not isolated. It needs access to the key ingredients of life, including hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur. These elements support the basic chemistry of life as we know it, and the material, Spohn argues, must be regularly replenished. Nature’s method of achieving this on the Earth appears to be plate tectonics.

Spohn found that the further he delved into the issue, the more important plate tectonics seemed to be for life. For example, it is believed that life developed by moving from the ocean to the kind of strong and stable rock formations that are the result of tectonic action. Plate tectonics is also involved in the generation of a magnetic field by convection of Earth’s partially molten core. This magnetic field protects life on Earth by deflecting the solar wind. Not only would an unimpeded solar wind erode our planet’s atmosphere, but it also carries highly energetic particles that could damage DNA.

Another factor is the recycling of carbon, which is needed to stabilize the temperature here on Earth. Spohn explains, “plate tectonics is known to recycle carbon that is washed out of the atmosphere and digested by bacteria in the soil into the interior of the planet from where it can be outcast through volcanic activity. Now, if you have a planet without plate tectonics, you may have parts of this cycle, but it is broken because you do not have the recycling link.”

It has also been speculated that the lack of tectonic action on Venus contributed to its runaway greenhouse effect, which resulted in the immense temperatures it has today.

Most planets don’t have a moon as massive as ours is, and the collision that formed the moon is very fine-tuned for life. This is just one of the many factors that needs to be present in order to have a planet that supports complex, carbon-based life.

If you want to learn more about this data, I recommend watching “The Privileged Planet” DVD, and someone posted it on YouTube:

If you haven’t seen it, and have 90 minutes, this is time well-spent.

New study: survey of 700 quintillion terrestrial exoplanets suggests Earth is special

The Circumstellar Habitable Zone, where liquid water could potentially exist
The Circumstellar Habitable Zone, where liquid water could potentially exist

This is from Scientific American. (H/T William)

Excerpt:

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.

Discover magazine, which is all in for Darwinism and aliens everywhere, says this about the study:

Zackrisson found that Earth appears to have been dealt a fairly lucky hand. In a galaxy like the Milky Way, for example, most of the planets Zackrisson’s model generated looked very different than Earth — they were larger, older and very unlikely to support life.

[…]Zackrisson’s work suggests an alternative to the commonly held assumption that planets similar to Earth must exist, based on the sheer number of planets out there.

[…]One of the most fundamental requirements for a planet to sustain life is to orbit in the “habitable zone” of a star — the “Goldilocks” region where the temperature is just right and liquid water can exist. Astronomers have, to this point, discovered around 30 exoplanets in the habitable zones of stars. Simply extrapolating that figure based on the known number of stars suggests that there should be about 50 billion such planets in the Milky Way alone. Probability seems to dictate that Earth-twins are out there somewhere.

But according to Zackrisson, most planets in the universe shouldn’t look like Earth. His model indicates that Earth’s existence presents a mild statistical anomaly in the multiplicity of planets. Most of the worlds predicted by his model exist in galaxies larger than the Milky Way and orbit stars with different compositions — an important factor in determining a planet’s characteristics. His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.

Time for me to list out some of the things that are required for a galaxy, solar system and planet to support complex embodied life. Not just life as we know it, but life of any conceivable kind given these laws of physics.

  • a solar system with a single massive Sun than can serve as a long-lived, stable source of energy
  • a terrestrial planet (non-gaseous)
  • the planet must be the right distance from the sun in order to preserve liquid water at the surface – if it’s too close, the water is burnt off in a runaway greenhouse effect, if it’s too far, the water is permanently frozen in a runaway glaciation
  • the solar system must be placed at the right place in the galaxy – not too near dangerous radiation, but close enough to other stars to be able to absorb heavy elements after neighboring stars die
  • a moon of sufficient mass to stabilize the tilt of the planet’s rotation
  • plate tectonics
  • an oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • a sweeper planet to deflect comets, etc.
  • planetary neighbors must have non-eccentric orbits

It’s not easy to make a planet that supports life. For those who are interested in reaching out to God, he has left us an abundance of evidence for his existence – and his attention to detail.

Related posts

How tidal effects improve the habitability of a planet

Circumstellar Habitable Zone
Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Science Daily reports on a new factor that affects planetary habitability: tides. Specifically, tides can affect the surface temperature of a planet, which has to be within a certain range in order to support liquid water – a requirement for life of any conceivable kind.

Excerpt:

Tides can render the so-called “habitable zone” around low-mass stars uninhabitable. This is the main result of a recently published study by a team of astronomers led by René Heller of the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam.

[…]Until now, the two main drivers thought to determine a planet’s temperature were the distance to the central star and the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. By studying the tides caused by low-mass stars on their potential earth-like companions, Heller and his colleagues have concluded that tidal effects modify the traditional concept of the habitable zone.

Heller deduced this from three different effects. Firstly, tides can cause the axis of a planet`s rotation to become perpendicular to its orbit in just a few million years. In comparison, Earth’s axis of rotation is inclined by 23.5 degrees — an effect which causes our seasons. Owing to this effect, there would be no seasonal variation on such Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of low-mass stars. These planets would have huge temperature differences between their poles, which would be in perpetual deep freeze, and their hot equators which in the long run would evaporate any atmosphere. This temperature difference would cause extreme winds and storms.

The second effect of these tides would be to heat up the exoplanet, similar to the tidal heating of Io, a moon of Jupiter that shows global vulcanism.

Finally, tides can cause the rotational period of the planet (the planet’s “day”) to synchronize with the orbital period (the planet’s “year”). This situation is identical to the Earth-moon setup: the moon only shows Earth one face, the other side being known as “the dark side of the moon.” As a result one half of the exoplanet receives extreme radiation from the star while the other half freezes in eternal darkness.

The habitable zone around low-mass stars is therefore not very comfortable — it may even be uninhabitable.

Here is my previous post on the factors needed for a habitable planet. Now we just have one more. I actually find this article sort of odd, because my understanding of stars was that only high-mass stars could support life at all. This is because if the mass of the planet was too low, the habitable zone wouldbe very close to the star. Being too close to the star causes tidal locking, which means that the planet doesn’t spin on its axis at all, and the same side faces the star. This is a life killer.

This astrophysicist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin explains it better than me.

Excerpt:

Higher-mass stars tend to be larger and luminous than their lower-mass counterparts. Therefore, their habitable zones are situated further out. In addition, however, their HZs are much broader. As an illustration,

  • a 0.2 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 0.1 to 0.2 AU
  • a 1.0 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 1 to 2 AU
  • a 40 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 350 to 600 AU

On these grounds, it would seem that high-mass starts are the best candidates for finding planets within a habitable zone. However, these stars emit most of their radiation in the far ultraviolet (FUV), which can be highly damaging to life, and also contributes to photodissociation and the loss of water. Furthermore, the lifetimes of these stars is so short (around 10 million years) that there is not enough time for life to begin.

Very low mass stars have the longest lifetimes of all, but their HZs are very close in and very narrow. Therefore, the chances of a planet being formed within the HZ are small. Additionally, even if a planet did form within the HZ, it would become tidally locked, so that the same hemisphere always faced the star. Even though liquid water might exist on such a planet, the climactic conditions would probably be too severe to permit life.

In between the high- and low-mass stars lie those like our own Sun, which make up about 15% percent of the stars in the galaxy. These have reasonably-broad HZs, do not suffer from FUV irradiation, and have lifetimes of the order of 10 billion years. Therefore, they are the best candidates for harbouring planets where life might be able to begin.

This guy is just someone I found through a web search. He has a support-the-unions-sticker on his web page, so he’s a liberal crackpot. But he makes my point, anyway, so that’s good enough for me.

Maybe the new discovery is talking about this now, but I already knew about the tides and habitability, because I watched The Privileged Planet DVD. Actually that whole video is online, and the clip that talks about the habitable zone and water is linked in this blog post I wrote before.

The connection between our moon, plate tectonics and habitability

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

I found an interview with Peter Ward (atheist) and Donald Brownlee (agnostic) discussing astrobiology in Forbes magazine. They were asked about how important plate tectonics are for a planet to be able to support complex life.

Excerpt:

Astrobiologists often cite the sheer numbers of stars and galaxies as evidence that complex life elsewhere must surely have evolved somewhere. But is probability enough?

Without a moon, we don’t have any idea of how commonly a planet could have the long-term stability needed for complex life. Until we “get” that, going to the sheer numbers argument is useless. Without that moon-forming collision, we wouldn’t have plate tectonics. Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.

What about the rarity of earth’s crustal dichotomy of oceans and continents?

If you can’t make granite, you’re not going to have continents. But granite formation is a consequence of our moon-forming collision. That scrambled the entire density of our crust. Mars doesn’t have granite; all it’s got is this volcanic basalt. To build granite you need a planetary subduction [or plate tectonic] process.

In triggering complex life, how important were plate tectonics’ role in the continual recycling of earth’s atmosphere?

It’s this recycling that allows for a very rich planetary atmosphere with an extended life. Photosynthesis gets you oxygen, but how do you get enough photosynthesis to get oxygen at 10 to 20 percent? You’ve got to have a shoreline next to a rich sea with rocks eroding into it in order to provide the nitrogen and phosphates for [plant] photosynthesis.

This article from Astrobiology explains more about the importance of plate tectonics.

Excerpt:

Plate tectonics is the process of continents on the Earth drifting and colliding, rock grinding and scraping, mountain ranges being formed, and earthquakes tearing land apart. It makes our world dynamic and ever-changing. But should it factor into our search for life elsewhere in the universe?

Tilman Spohn believes so. As director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, and chairman of ESA’s scientific advisory committee, he studies worlds beyond our Earth. When looking into the relationship between habitability and plate tectonics, some fascinating possibilities emerged.

It is thought that the best places to search for life in the Universe are on planets situated in “habitable zones” around other stars. These are orbital paths where the temperature is suitable for liquid water; not so close to the star that it boils away, and not so far that it freezes. Spohn believes that this view may be outdated. He elaborates, “you could have habitats outside those, for instance in the oceans beneath ice covers on the Galilean satellites, like Europa. But not every icy satellite would be habitable. Take Ganymede, where the ocean is trapped between two layers of ice. You are missing a fresh supply of nutrition and energy.”

So planets and moons that lie beyond habitable zones could host life, so long as the habitat, such as an ocean, is not isolated. It needs access to the key ingredients of life, including hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur. These elements support the basic chemistry of life as we know it, and the material, Spohn argues, must be regularly replenished. Nature’s method of achieving this on the Earth appears to be plate tectonics.

Spohn found that the further he delved into the issue, the more important plate tectonics seemed to be for life. For example, it is believed that life developed by moving from the ocean to the kind of strong and stable rock formations that are the result of tectonic action. Plate tectonics is also involved in the generation of a magnetic field by convection of Earth’s partially molten core. This magnetic field protects life on Earth by deflecting the solar wind. Not only would an unimpeded solar wind erode our planet’s atmosphere, but it also carries highly energetic particles that could damage DNA.

Another factor is the recycling of carbon, which is needed to stabilize the temperature here on Earth. Spohn explains, “plate tectonics is known to recycle carbon that is washed out of the atmosphere and digested by bacteria in the soil into the interior of the planet from where it can be outcast through volcanic activity. Now, if you have a planet without plate tectonics, you may have parts of this cycle, but it is broken because you do not have the recycling link.”

It has also been speculated that the lack of tectonic action on Venus contributed to its runaway greenhouse effect, which resulted in the immense temperatures it has today.

Most planets don’t have a moon as massive as ours is, and the collision that formed the moon is very fine-tuned for life. This is just one of the many factors that needs to be present in order to have a planet that supports complex, carbon-based life.

If you want to learn more about this data, I recommend watching “The Privileged Planet” DVD, and someone posted it on YouTube:

If you haven’t seen it, and have 90 minutes, this is time well-spent.

The importance of having a narrative when confronting the assumption of naturalism

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

How do you present theism as a rational belief to a person who thinks that the progress of science has removed the need for God?

Canadian science writer Denyse O’Leary writes about the history of cosmology at Evolution News.

Excerpt:

What help has materialism been in understanding the universe’s beginnings?

Many in cosmology have never made any secret of their dislike of the Big Bang, the generally accepted start to our universe first suggested by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966).

On the face of it, that is odd. The theory accounts well enough for the evidence. Nothing ever completely accounts for all the evidence, of course, because evidence is always changing a bit. But the Big Bang has enabled accurate prediction.

In which case, its hostile reception might surprise you. British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) gave the theory its name in one of his papers — as a joke. Another noted astronomer, Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), exclaimed in 1933, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.” Why? Because “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”

One team of astrophysicists (1973) opined that it “involves a certain metaphysical aspect which may be either appealing or revolting.” Robert Jastrow (1925-2008), head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, initially remarked, “On both scientific and philosophical grounds, the concept of an eternal Universe seems more acceptable than the concept of a transient Universe that springs into being suddenly, and then fades slowly into darkness.” And Templeton Prize winner (2011) Martin Rees recalls his mentor Dennis Sciama’s dogged commitment to an eternal universe, no-Big Bang model:

For him, as for its inventors, it had a deep philosophical appeal — the universe existed, from everlasting to everlasting, in a uniquely self-consistent state. When conflicting evidence emerged, Sciama therefore sought a loophole (even an unlikely seeming one) rather as a defense lawyer clutches at any argument to rebut the prosecution case.

Evidence forced theorists to abandon their preferred eternal-universe model. From the mid 1940s, Hoyle attempted to disprove the theory he named. Until 1964, when his preferred theory, the Steady State, lost an evidence test.

Here is a quick summary of some of the experimental evidence that emerged in the last few decades that caused naturalists to abandon the eternal universe that they loved so much when they were younger.

The importance of having a narrative

Now I want to make a very, very important point about Christianity and the progress of science. And that point is that it is very important that Christians present the evidence in exactly the way that Denyse presented it in that article – in its historical context, featuring the conflict between naturalists and the experimental evidence.

All Christians should be familiar with the following basic pieces of evidence which fit the war between science and naturalism narrative:

  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The cosmic fine-tuning
  3. The origin of life (biological information)
  4. The sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla
  5. The habitability/observability correlation

When you talk about these evidences as a Christian theist to non-Christians, you have to have cultivated a genuine interest in reconciling your beliefs with science. You have to accept that there are two books that reveal God’s character and attributes. The book of nature, and the book of Scripture. And you need to be flexible about getting these two books to fit together. The book of nature gives us natural theology (see Romans 1). It tells us that God is Creator and Designer. The book of Scripture tells us that God stepped into history as a man to save us by taking the punishment for our headlong rush away from God, which the Bible calls sin. Science is one way that humans can recover some of basic knowledge about God. Knowledge that is only possible because God created and designed the universe (and us) in such a way that we are capable of making discoveries, and that the universe is capable of being explored and understood.

It’s very important to present these five basic evidences to non-Christians in the historical context. And here is the story you must tell: “In the beginning, there was the naturalism, and the naturalism tried to argue from ignorance that God was not Creator and God was not Designer. And then came the science, and now people have to give up their naturalism in order to not be crazy and irrational”. That’s the narrative you use when talking to non-Christians about science.

In the beginning was the naturalism:

  1. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the universe was eternal
  2. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that a life-permitting universe was as likely as a life-prohibiting universe
  3. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the cell was a simple blob of jello that could spontaneously emerge in some warm pond
  4. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla would be explained by subsequent fossil discoveries
  5. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that there was nothing special about our galaxy, solar system, planet or moon

But then science progressed by doing experiments and making observations:

  1. Scientists discovered redshift and the cosmic microwave background radiation (evidence for a cosmic beginning) and more!
  2. Scientists discovered the fine-tuning of gravity and of the cosmological constant and more!
  3. Scientists discovered protein sequencing and exposed the myth of “junk DNA” and more!
  4. Scientists discovered an even shorter Cambrian explosion period and the absence of precursor fossils and more!
  5. Scientists discovered galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones and more!

And now rational people – people who want to have true beliefs about reality – need to abandon a false religion (naturalism).

Now naturally, science is in a state of flux and things change. But you have to look at the trend of discoveries, and those trends are clearly going against naturalism, and in favor of Christian theism. No one is arguing for a deductive proof here, we are simply looking at the evidence we have today and proportioning our belief to the concrete evidence we have today. People who are guided by reason should not seek to construct a worldview by leveraging speculations about future discoveries and mere possibilities. We should instead believe what is more probable than not. That’s what a rational seeker of truth ought to do. Proportion belief to probabilities based on current, concrete knowledge.

Atheism, as a worldview, is not rooted in an honest assessment about what science tells us about reality. Atheism is rooted in a religion: naturalism. And the troubling thing we learn from looking at the history of science is that this religion of naturalism is insulated from correction from the progress of science. Nothing that science reveals about nature seems to be able to put a dent in the religion of naturalism, at least for most atheists.

It falls to us Christian theists, then, to hold them accountable for their abuse and misrepresentation of science. And that means telling the story of the progress of science accurately, and accurately calling out the religion of naturalism for what it is – a religion rooted in blind faith and ignorance that has been repeatedly and convincingly falsified by the progress of science in the modern era.

Positive arguments for Christian theism