Sorry for the sporadic blogging; I’ve been traveling a lot. I missed Sunday’s post, but this one–though related to current events science news–will have obvious religious overtones.
On Facebook Daniel Kuehn shared this HuffPo article about a recent NASA panel telling the general public about the search for extraterrestrial life. Here is the opening of the piece (but the actual hour-long presentation is at the link too):
NASA’s top scientist predicts that we’ll find signs of alien life by 2025, with even stronger evidence for extraterrestrials in the years that follow.
“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said Tuesday during a panel event on water in the universe.
“We know where to look. We know how to look,” Stofan added. “In most cases we have the technology, and we’re on a path to implementing it. And so I think we’re definitely on the road.”
Others at the panel agreed.
“It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when,” said Jeffery Newmark, NASA’s interim director of heliophysics.
When we do find evidence of life, however, it’s likely it won’t be signs of alien civilization but rather something much, much smaller.
“We are not talking about little green men,” Stofan said. “We are talking about little microbes.”
I only watched about half of the video, but here are my quick reactions:
==> They actually don’t have a shred of direct evidence of life outside of Earth, so it’s a bit odd that they think they’re creeping ever closer, and Newmark’s assertions is really odd.
==> What is happening is that these scientists are absolutely confident that life arose on Earth billions of years ago because the necessary ingredients were in place, and this somehow–in a process not nearly understood–yielded the first proto-cell capable of reproduction. That abiogenesis then set in motion standard Darwinian evolution.
==> Because the scientists are sure that that’s how life started on Earth, arising from purely natural causes, they think that when those initial conditions are also present on other planets in the universe, that surely life must arise on them too. So what they are discovering is not actual evidence of life, but evidence of water, numerous planets around distant stars, etc.
==> Obviously this is not my field, but my understanding is that biologists have a lot of evidence to support the claim that “all life on Earth today sure seems like they are descended from a common ancestor.” (Of course people who believe in Biblical creationism would reject even that–but I’m trying to just referee the dispute here.) However, I don’t think there is a good theory at all about abiogenesis–about how that first bona fide life form arose on Earth from the pre-biotic soup. I think most scientists are “sure” that it happened that way, because that’s really the only option they have. (Though some were intellectually honest enough to bite the bullet and posit that aliens seeded life on Earth.)
==> Don’t forget Fermi’s paradox: If the universe is actually teeming with life–as the standard models predict–then why aren’t we being bombarded with radio messages from advanced aliens? It’s weird that NASA scientists are confident they’ll discover the existence of microbes within 20 years, and yet the SETI programs continue to search the heavens for any hint of intelligence.
==> It is typical for atheists to mock Christians for having their self-esteem deflated in the wake of the heliocentric model of the solar system and of course Darwin. “Oh, boo hoo, you poor babies aren’t so special after all! You’re not the center of the universe and you’re no more significant than a slug. Deal with it, Bible thumper.” And yet, I have noticed that many atheists are also very concerned with programs to prolong the human lifespan and who would be devastated if it turns out that humans are really alone in the universe. I won’t bother explaining why this might be, since it’s so obvious.
==> Strictly speaking, even fundamentalist Christians who believe the Bible is the literal word of God do not have a uniform position on alien life. Some are agnostic (“Genesis doesn’t mention it, but it doesn’t explicitly rule it out either”) while others think certain odd passages in the Old Testament refer to aliens. So if the NASA scientists turn out to be correct, that actually wouldn’t matter for Bible believing Christians (despite the haughty comments at that HuffPo article). However, suppose 20 years roll by and there still is no evidence of ET life? Will more and more scientists around the world say, “Maybe our theory of terrestrial abiogenesis is wrong, since the predictions we confidently gleaned from it were falsified?” I doubt it.