Tag Archives: Carbon-based Life

The formation of the elements required for complex embodied life is fine-tuned

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

Some atheists who don’t understand the fine-tuning argument like to assert that the constants and quantities that are fine-tuned to allow for the existence of complex, embodied life can be changed arbitrarily, and life would still exist as it does now. They say that maybe we would have a ridges in our foreheads like Klingons, or maybe we would have longer ears like Vulcans or maybe green skin like Orions. The evidential support for this view seems to be grounded in Star Trek TV shows, not peer-reviewed evidence. Are atheists right to ground their rejection of a cosmic Designer in science fiction television shows? What does the peer-reviewed research say?

The fine-tuning argument

First, let’s review the structure of the fine-tuning argument.

The argument goes like this:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design
  2. It is not due to law or chance
  3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design

Although each permutation of values for the constants and quantities is equally improbable, the vast majority of the permutations will not permit life.

Let’s review:

  • Life has certain minimal requirements; long-term stable source of energy, a large number of different chemical elements, an element that can serve as a hub for joining together other elements into compounds, a universal solvent, etc.
  • In order to meet these minimal requirements, the physical constants, (such as the gravitational constant), and the ratios between physical constants, need to be withing a narrow range of values in order to support the minimal requirements for life of any kind.
  • Slight changes to any of the physical constants, or to the ratios between the constants, will result in a universe inhospitable to life.
  • The range of possible values spans 70 orders of magnitude.
  • The constants are selected by whoever creates the universe. They are not determined by physical laws. And the extreme probabilities involved required put the fine-tuning beyond the reach of chance.
  • Although each individual selection of constants and ratios is as unlikely as any other selection, the vast majority of these possibilities do not support the minimal requirements of life of any kind. (In the same way as any hand of 5 cards that is dealt is as likely as any other, but you are overwhelmingly likely NOT to get a royal flush. In our case, a royal flush is a life-permitting universe).

Now let’s see a specific example: carbon and oxygen formation.

Carbon is that element that can serve as a hub for larger molecules, and oxygen is also a vital element, since it is a component of water, which is required for life (universal solvent). Both are required for complex life of any imaginable kind.

Now for the study.

Here is an article on Science Daily about the fine-tuning argument.

It says:

Life as we know it is based upon the elements of carbon and oxygen. Now a team of physicists, including one from North Carolina State University, is looking at the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements in the universe. They’ve found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error.

Both carbon and oxygen are produced when helium burns inside of giant red stars. Carbon-12, an essential element we’re all made of, can only form when three alpha particles, or helium-4 nuclei, combine in a very specific way. The key to formation is an excited state of carbon-12 known as the Hoyle state, and it has a very specific energy — measured at 379 keV (or 379,000 electron volts) above the energy of three alpha particles. Oxygen is produced by the combination of another alpha particle and carbon.

NC State physicist Dean Lee and German colleagues Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Timo Laehde and Ulf-G. Meissner had previously confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state with a numerical lattice that allowed the researchers to simulate how protons and neutrons interact. These protons and neutrons are made up of elementary particles called quarks. The light quark mass is one of the fundamental parameters of nature, and this mass affects particles’ energies.

In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the physicists found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

[…]The researchers’ findings appear in Physical Review Letters.

There are many, many other examples of fine-tuning of the constants and quantities to permit complex, embodied life. And, as we’ll see below, this evidence is admitted by atheists.

Atheists agree: the fine-tuning is a fact

Let me give you a citation from the best one of all, Martin Rees. Martin Rees is an atheist and a qualified astronomer. He wrote a book called “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe”, (Basic Books: 2001). In it, he discusses 6 numbers that need to be fine-tuned in order to have a life-permitting universe.

In chapter 1, Rees writes:

Mathematical laws underpin the fabric of our universe — not just atoms, but galaxies, stars and people. The properties of atoms — their sizes and masses, how many different kinds there are, and the forces linking them together — determine the chemistry of our everyday world. The very existence of atoms depends on forces and particles deep inside them. The objects that astronomers study — planets, stars and galaxies — are controlled by the force of gravity. And everything takes place in the arena of an expanding universe, whose properties were imprinted into it at the time of the initial Big Bang.

[…]This book describes six numbers that now seem especially significant.

[…]Perhaps there are some connections between these numbers. At the moment, however, we cannot predict any one of them from the values of the others.

[…]These six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator?

There are some atheists who deny the fine-tuning, but these atheists are in firm opposition to the progress of science. The more science has progressed, the more constants, ratios and quantities we have discovered that need to be fine-tuned. Science is going in a theistic direction. Next, let’s see how atheists try to account for the fine-tuning.

Atheistic responses to the fine-tuning evidence

There are two common responses among atheists to this argument.

The first is to speculate that there are actually an infinite number of other universes that are not fine-tuned, (i.e. – the gambler’s fallacy). All these other universes don’t support life. We just happen to be in the one universe is fine-tuned for life. The problem is that there is no way of directly observing these other universes and no independent evidence that they exist.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Discover magazine, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non­religious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

The second response by atheists is that the human observers that exist today, 14 billion years after the universe was created out of nothing, actually caused the fine-tuning by going back in time and causing the universe to be fine-tuned. This solution would mean that although humans did not exist at the time the of the big bang, they are going to be able to reach back in time at some point in the future and manually fine-tune the universe.

Here is an excerpt from and article in the New Scientist, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

…maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation… observers are creating the universe and its entire history right now. If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.

So, there are two choices for atheists. Either an infinite number of unobservable universes that are not fine-tuned, or humans go back in time at some future point and fine-tune the beginning of the universe, billions of years in the past. I think I will prefer the design explanation to those alternatives.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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.


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.


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.

What makes a planet suitable for supporting complex life?

The Circumstellar Habitable Zone (CHZ)

What do you need in order to have a planet that supports complex life? First, you need liquid water at the surface of the planet. But there is only a narrow range of temperatures that can support liquid water. It turns out that the size of the star that your planet orbits around has a lot to do with whether you get liquid water or not. A heavy, metal-rich star allows you to have a habitable planet far enough from the star so  the planet can support liquid water on the planet’s surface while still being able to spin on its axis. The zone where a planet can have liquid water at the surface is called the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ). A metal-rich star like our Sun is very massive, which moves the habitable zone out further away from the star. If our star were smaller, we would have to orbit much closer to the star in order to have liquid water at the surface. Unfortunately, if you go too close to the star, then your planet becomes tidally locked, like the moon is tidally locked to Earth. Tidally locked planets are inhospitable to life.

Circumstellar Habitable Zone
Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Here, watch a clip from The Privileged Planet: (Clip 4 of 12, full playlist here)

But there’s more.

The Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ)

So, where do you get the heavy elements you need for your heavy metal-rich star?

You have to get the heavy elements for your star from supernova explosions – explosions that occur when certain types of stars die. That’s where heavy elements come from. But you can’t be TOO CLOSE to the dying stars, because you will get hit by nasty radiation and explosions. So to get the heavy elements from the dying stars, your solar system needs to be in the galactic habitable zone (GHZ) – the zone where you can pickup the heavy elements you need but not get hit by radiation and explosions. The GHZ lies between the spiral arms of a spiral galaxy. Not only do you have to be in between the arms of the spiral galaxy, but you also cannot be too close to the center of the galaxy. The center of the galaxy is too dense and you will get hit with massive radiation that will break down your life chemistry. But you also can’t be too far from the center, because you won’t get enough heavy elements because there are fewer dying stars the further out you go. You need to be in between the spiral arms, a medium distance from the center of the galaxy.

Like this:

Galactic Habitable Zone
Galactic Habitable Zone and Solar Habitable Zone

Here, watch a clip from The Privileged Planet: (Clip 10 of 12, full playlist here)

The GHZ is based on a discovery made by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, which made the front cover of Scientific American in 2001. That’s right, the cover of Scientific American. I actually stole the image above of the GHZ and CHZ (aka solar habitable zone) from his Scientific American article (linked above).

These are just a few of the things you need in order to get a planet that supports life.

Here are a few of the more well-known ones:

  • 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

By the way, you can watch a lecture with Guillermo Gonzalez explaining his ideas further. This lecture was delivered at UC Davis in 2007. That link has a link to the playlist of the lecture, a bio of the speaker, and a summary of all the topics he discussed in the lecture. An excellent place to learn the requirements for a suitable habitat for life.