Alone in the Universe

Published 7-14-2018

Once again, we recall childhood thoughts about our cosmos. This time, we need to advance our early childhood ideas of the Sumerian cosmic dome to our contemporary concept of the cosmos. Science teachers now use models of globes even in early grades to establish the concept of Planet Earth as a sphere. Students now envision the Earth surrounded by space. The Sun and other planets of the Solar System are also spheres surrounded by empty space. We now model the planets moving around the Sun—the essence of a heliocentric (sun-centered) planetary system.

When young children look out at the stars they observe beautiful points of light most of which “twinkle” due to atmospheric effects. (We only hope our children are blessed with neighborhood dark skies.) A few bright “stars” do not twinkle. Rather, they shine brightly with a steady light—the signature of a planet similar to our Earth. Planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and sometimes Mars are outstanding examples.

Thoughtful parents and children may pose the possibility of the existence of people on other planets of our Solar System. For particularly astute children, especially when they become Middle Schoolers or High Schoolers, it may occur to them that other stars—really other “suns” in space may also possess planets similar to ours. Do those planets have life like ours, or similar to ours?

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is a star system with 100 to 400 billion stars. Some reliable astronomers speculate that our galaxy may possess 100 billion planets. One or more planets frequently accompany stars. The idea that a significant number of Milky Way planets have physical conditions similar to Earth is fascinating, optimistic, and imaginative. If we carefully analyze the possibility that any of our galactic neighbors could possess conditions even remotely resembling the unique and beautiful complexity of our Solar System family, especially the conditions manifest on Planet Earth, we may not be so optimistic and imaginative. The foregoing points do not include mention of existence of the plethora of Earth life—millions of prokaryotes (single-celled organisms such as bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotes (multi-celled organisms such as plants and animals)—or how these life forms originated.

A majority of scientists believe the term “evolution” and its theorized processes not only explains how general physical conditions on Earth changed and developed, but more significantly, how life itself originated and developed. We agree that the term “evolution” may be appropriate for long-term development of the universe since the origin of time, space, matter and energy in the beginning when “God created the heavens and the Earth.” But intoning the term “evolution” does not explain the origin of life or the sudden appearances of multiple novel animal and plant phyla at the onset of the Cambrian Explosion and in the millions of years subsequent to the Cambrian period.

Many media resources have been devoted to promoting the hypothesized evolution of life forms on planets surrounding stars in 100 or 200 billion (or more) other galaxies sprinkled around our vast universe. It is estimated there are sextillions of stars inhabiting these galaxies. It is conceivable that there may be sextillions of planets far distant from our own Milky Way! The likelihood of human or human-like life is not increased, however, by stating larger and larger estimates of planets in our universe.

Even secular scientists have acknowledged the highly unlikely origin of life by natural evolutionary processes. Curiously, these scientists are not creationists. For example, Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) felt that life arrived on Earth from outside of our Solar System by panspermia. He also believed in the Steady-state theory—that there was no beginning to the universe and that things would always continue as they are now. His observations on the unlikelihood of a naturalistic origin for life excite some proponents of intelligent design who assume he was something other than an atheist. We quote two of Hoyle’s most interesting proposals: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” He went on to compare “the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by a chance combination of amino acids to a solar system full of blind men solving a Rubik’s Cube simultaneously.”

As a teacher of astronomy, I disappointed many students by expressing doubt that Earth life could arise here or on any other of sextillions of planets by pure chance without the input of a “superintellect.” When asked if I believed in God, I responded, “I certainly do.”

In the past few weeks there has been an uptick in commentary about whether or not humanity is Alone in the Universe. The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) published some of their recent research in June. Their findings that humans are alone has depressed many folks who thought we should have discovered, or will discover, many cosmic neighbors. In the future, we deal with this relevant issue and its theological implications.

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