Life in the Universe
Part 1: The Solar System
It is a virtual certainty that we will discover extraterrestrial life within the next 20 years. There are many places in our solar system that would seem to make good cradles for life. Some of the best prospects include Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.
Mars has been tantalizing us for decades with its prospects for life. We have recovered a meteor blasted off of the surface of Mars that seems to contain fossilized life forms, although not all scientist agree with this premise. There have been experiments conducted by Mars landers that gave ambiguous results on the presence of life. But perhaps the most tantalizing sign comes from the seasonal methane cycles on Mars. Methane can be produced by either biological or geological processes. But there is no geological explanation of seasonal methane cycles. The prospects are good that these seasonal methane cycles are produced by organisms on Mars undergoing seasonal transformations. Methane, that gas from decaying garbage dumps and bovine flatulence is a necessary byproduct of organic life.
Europa has a vast ocean underneath a planetary ice cap. Ice fissures allow the subsurface ocean to leak through to the surface. When we look at the surface of Europa we see a fractured ice cap covered by reddish-brown crud along the fissures. It may be that this surface crud is some sort of life form resembling an algae bloom.
The extraterrestrial life be find in our solar system will be simple, single celled organism.
Life on Earth is a thousand times more diverse than I was taught in high school biology class. In school we were taught that there are plants and animals. The Sun was the source of all biological energy. Plants converted sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. Herbivores ate the plants and carnivores ate the herbivores. All life was beholden to the Sun.
But now we know much more. There is life everywhere on Earth, and much of it totally cut off from the Sun. There are tube worms and shrimp in the deepest ocean trenches, using chemosynthesis to convert sulfur into energy in extreme high temperatures and pressures. There are organisms living in the boiling, caustic paint pots of Yellowstone Park. There are organism living deep underground, drawing their energy from the rocks. There are organism living in frozen glaciers. When glaciers calve, these life forms create a rich biomass in the ocean, a biomass that is the bottom of the food chain for all life in the polar oceans. There is even life forms living in the cooling ponds of nuclear reactors.
Along with plants and animals, there are fungi such as mushrooms, slime molds, algae, protozoa, and these are just our closest relatives. It has been suggested that there is more biomass below ground than there is above ground.
With life on Earth this diverse and abundant, we can expect that life will be prolific throughout vast sections of the Universe. Our own solar system is full of water and organic compounds, the two essential ingredients for life as we know it. Comets and asteroids have both in abundance. Spectroscopy of the Universe suggest that the same chemistry exists everywhere. Water and organic compounds exist throughout the Universe. On Titan there are lakes of liquid methane. On Europa there is more water than exists on Earth.
United Church of Cloverdale
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The Work of God’s Fingers
When I was a small boy I loved to sleep out under the stars. I could spend hours just watching the night sky. There were stars and planets, satellites and meteors, nebulae and galaxies. But the sky was more than just a collection of bright lights against a dark background. To me, the sky was alive. As I lay in my lawn chair looking up, I would wonder who was looking back at me. I would probe with my mind, looking for life in the heavens above, and glorifying God’s most extraordinary creation.
The universe is an extraordinary place. It is the work of God’s hands. It is magnificent beyond our wildest imagination, and a testimony to the greatness of our God.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, believed that one way of knowing God was to study God’s creation. Calvin found divine logos in all of nature. The logos is the word of god. It is God’s fingerprints to be found in every nook and cranny of the universe. The logos represents God’s order, God’s laws, God’s pattern laid down for the universe.
John Calvin gave the theological underpinning to all of modern science. Calvin set the stage for Galileo and all that has followed.
Our planet earth was designed to support life. It is our habitat that we were given to nourish us in every way, to live together in communities and to develop cultures. But the greatest miracle of all is our ability to know God our creator.
According to today’s lesson, God has made us a little lower than the gods, and crowned us with glory and honor. The word used to describe the human condition is elohim, which translates as gods or spiritual beings. Elohim is a plural noun in Hebrew. It is used often in the scriptures to refer to God, meaning Yahweh.
Thus, our position in the universe is only a little lower than the creator. And being close to Yahweh, we are able to be in dialogue with God. God has given us dominion over creation, and put all things under our feet. We are stewards of creation, and co-creators with God.
The world is more amazing than we can even imagine. It is a beautiful blue marble full of life. It is our home and our habitation. And there is life everywhere.
When I was in high school, I was taught that all life on earth is solar powered. Plant use sunlight to produce food through photosynthesis. Herbivorous animals eat the plants, and carnivorous animals eat the herbivores.
But now we know of life forms that are not solar powered. There are many life forms that live in the ocean depths, such as tube worms. They live in depths of the sea where no light can penetrate, under enormous pressure and extreme heat. They live beside volcanic vents in the ocean bottom. They live by chemosynthesis, or the production of food from the chemicals spewed out by the volcanic vents.
There are living organisms in the geysers and paint pots of Yellowstone Park. These organisms can survive in boiling water full of caustic minerals. There are organisms that live in rocks, deep underground where the sun never shines, digesting rock for food.
There are microorganisms that live in ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic. And, when the ice sheets break off into the ocean, they provide nutrients that are the bottom of the food chain, supporting many species.
There are life forms that can survive the hottest deserts, the coldest frozen ice sheets, the most intense radiation, and the most extreme environments imaginable. It is now believed that there are even life forms in magma, the melted rock that forms volcanoes.
And as we continue to find new forms of life on earth, we are better equipped to find life beyond the earth.
Mars almost certainly had life at one point. I say this because a meteorite of Martian origin was found in the Antarctic. When this Martian space rock was cut open there appeared to be fossilized, primitive life forms. The scientific community has not officially embraced this development as “proof” of past life on Mars.
We may even find life living on Mars now. We cannot expect to find much more than a few bacteria, or perhaps some lichen on a rock. But finding even the smallest and insignificant life-forms on Mars would be perhaps the greatest discovery in human history.
But there are other bodies in our solar system that have a much greater chance of harboring life, and perhaps much more complicated life forms. In searching for extraterrestrial life, the guiding rubric is to “Follow the water.” And there are several bodies in our solar system that are believed to have even more liquid water than does the earth.
- Europa: 2.9 times earth’s water and ice
- Callisto: 27 times earth’s water and ice
- Ganymede: 36 times earth’s water and ice
- Titan: 29 times earth’s water and ice and a significant atmosphere
Tidal forces on these moons provide enough heat to create oceans of liquid water. Europa is covered with an ice cap, similar to the Arctic Ocean on earth. But below that ice cap there is an ocean of liquid water. One day we will land on Europa. We will then release a heated probe that will melt its way through the ice and into that liquid ocean. On moons such as these we may discover animals as sophisticated and intelligent as squids on earth.
But looking beyond our solar system there is a virtual certainty that we will discover other life forms.
When I was in high school, we were told that every person on earth could have his or her own star. But this was wildly inaccurate. In truth there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one with hundreds of billions of stars. This means that everyone now living on earth, along with everyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, could be given her or his own galaxy, each with hundreds of billions of stars.
Space is vast beyond all comprehension. The closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri. Light from that star takes over four years to reach the earth. If we were to travel to that star, it would take us 80,000 years at space shuttle speeds.
With that much real estate in the universe it is a virtual certainty that there is extraterrestrial life. There may also be intelligent life that is technologically advanced. Functionally, we would define an intelligent, technological society as one that has radio telescopes. Through such radio telescopes it might be possible to send and receive signals, although it might take decades, centuries or even longer for these messages to pass between worlds at the speed of light.
We live in a time when the latest scientific discoveries are accessible to us all. Anyone who would characterize television as a vast wasteland does not watch the channels that I watch. There are some exceptional TV channels that provide windows into all of science. These channels include:
- The Science Channel
- The History Channel
- National Geographic
The Internet also provides an awesome window on science and nature. Everything imaginable can be found with ease on the Internet. For example, did you know that LICHEN, which I mentioned earlier, is a symbiotic organism made up of a FUNGUS and photosynthetic partner that can be either a green algae or a cyanobacterium?
Or did you know that in 1977, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), received a radio transmission that was believed to be of intelligent origin? Unfortunately this signal was never heard again.
I found both of these bits of trivia with just a few minutes search on the Internet.
The universe is an amazing place. God’s fingerprints are everywhere. And now we have access to know everything that is happening in the scientific realms. When we study nature and science we are studying the creator, and learning his ways. We were made a little lower than God, and we were created to know God and to explore and understand God’s creation.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?