Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross (2016)

Improbable Planet by Hugh RossIn Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home, Hugh Ross tells the story of Earth’s four-billion-year history (as scientists currently understand it) from initial chaos to present wonders. But whereas secular scientists often narrate this story as one of random, unplanned chance that just happened to lead to intelligent lifeforms, Ross narrates it as overflowing with intentional purpose through the mind-bogglingly complex cascading of unlikely events, each in their proper place and order, as if someone was thoughtfully preparing a planet to eventually house humans created in his image.

The book’s scope starts with our sun’s favorably formed position in the galaxy, describes the order that emerged from the early solar system’s chaos and the precise formation of the moon, and carries on through the history of Earth from its remarkably early appearance of life on up to the present day. Key themes include:

  • The challenge of the sun’s gradually increasing brightness over billions of years, and how continual shiftings of components in the Earth’s atmosphere and the types of life on Earth just happened to maintain a habitable temperature window for liquid water, from the early methanogens to a later cycle dominated by carbon dioxide, whose levels gradually decreased with the appearances of more efficient oxygen-producing life
  • How life and the planet interacted to change and maintain both – such as life and plate tectonics being necessary to sustain each other, and the role that different life forms played at different points in history to change the atmosphere or influence the development and erosion of continents
  • How successive appearances of creatures affected the planet in ways that not only maintained the temperature zone but also prepared things for future appearances of creatures – such as early bacteria that produced the oxygen which allowed for more efficient aerobic energy processes, or the sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRBs) that transformed minerals from toxic to benign states that proved crucial to future human civilization

Unfortunately, Ross pushes too hard on his claims of specific purpose. For example, surely we are woefully too ignorant at this point to confidently claim that our galaxy’s position in the universe is the only setup that could lead to a habitable environment for intelligent life! And many of his claims would be dismissed by opponents as unimaginatively reversing the cause and effect – if some conditions had turned out differently a couple billion years prior, they say life would simply have adapted to it in a different direction.

While that may be true for some cases, there are also clear physical limits on life’s flexibility, and Ross is right to marvel at life’s remarkable persistence, teetering on the edge of darkness through multiple extinction events and near-snowball events, but never fully snuffing out, and always leading to further progression. And even while trying to restrain my bias with as much skepticism as possible, in my mind many of the unlikely events Ross points out truly do carry whiffs of intention, due to the ordering and timings required to keep the chain of events going.

The moon-forming collision, the Grand Tack, the Late Heavy Bombardment, the late veneer accretion, the “boring billion”, the slushball events – Ross’s narrative of purpose also makes all of this history more memorable and interesting. Why is Earth the only planet to buck the naturally decreasing density of planets from the sun? Why have our orbits just barely avoided destructive resonances and maintained stability for billions of years? How did life arrive so quickly to start the adjustments that completed just in time for intelligent creatures to appear and flourish in the blink of geologic time before the sun gets too bright for decreasing carbon dioxide to maintain the habitable window and the moon gets too far away for those beautiful perfect solar eclipses? Is there Someone watching and even orchestrating all of this?

In some ways the book is an updated and explicitly Christian version of Rare Earth. Ross is an old-earth creationist, and while he sprinkles some critique of evolution, especially around initial abiogenesis and the sudden appearances of new life forms in key places (the Cambrian explosion, of course, but also less familiar junctures), much of the content overlaps peaceably with evolutionary creationist ideas. What young-earth creationists should take away from this book is an appreciation that the old-earth view, whatever their opinions on its doctrinal merits, can hold a much greater – not lesser – wonder and admiration for the perfect plans of an almighty Creator.

Many are familiar with the Earth’s “perfect distance from the Sun,” and maybe some other anthropic characteristics. But if it’s impressive for a God to think up and instantly create a beautiful universe out of nothing, with Mars over there and the Earth and moon over here with all of the useful elements that they have today, perhaps it’s exponentially more impressive for a God to plan and masterfully piece together that same configuration over billions of years, with the laws of physics and distributions of elements interacting in just the right ways for the right supernova to seed the right proportions of iron and aluminum and copper and silver and gold and the right collision to create the right size moon and all the other things that had to happen when and where they did for everything to end up the way that it did.

One of Ross’s interesting theological contributions highlights that Earth’s habitability will not last forever, and in fact has a relatively short amount of time left. I don’t know if all of Ross’s thought-provoking claims are correct – did the perfectly-timed lake-and-fjord-inducing Ice Ages really make the present era the most aesthetically beautiful in all of Earth’s history, just in time for us? – but together they make a strong case for the argument that we are here for a reason. That case will remain relevant and be tested in fascinating ways as we exhilaratingly discover more about exoplanets – and thus also more about the relative uniqueness of our own – in the coming months and years.

What Will Planet Nine Do To Creationism?

Look out, folks. Scientists may be on the verge of discovering another planet in our solar system, a hypothetical “Planet Nine” that could end up replacing that slot left by Pluto in the planetary pantheon.

No, it’s not named Nibiru, and it’s not coming for Earth. That’s a silly tale started in the 1990’s by someone claiming to talk to aliens, and it gets recycled every couple years by conspiracy theorists who attach it to whatever is the latest real dwarf planet or comet or other far-away object that NASA has discovered.

But there really might be another planet orbiting our Sun at the far reaches of the Solar System, so far away that all our telescopes and probes have never seen it.

The Backstory

There’s a bunch of stuff orbiting the sun way beyond Neptune in a region called the Kuiper belt, but most of the objects are too small and far away for us to know much about them yet. We knew about one – Pluto – and we used to call it a planet, until we realized there were a bunch of other objects like it out there, so we demoted it to “dwarf planet.” Outer space is huge, and even our best telescopes can only zoom in on so much of it at a time to hunt down these dim KBO’s (Kuiper belt objects). Thanks to improving technology, including larger and larger ground-based telescopes and the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, we’re starting to learn more and more about these other objects. (We’re up to five official dwarf planets – and counting – including one called Haumea that we just learned has its own ring!)

In 2014 some scientists noticed that several of these KBO’s all had a “coincidental” alignment in their orbits that looked just like you might have expected them to look, if, say, a planet the size of Neptune had flown past them. But, of course, they were all too far away for Neptune to have had this effect on them. So began the hunt for “Planet Nine.” Since then, we’ve been finding more and more signs of the gravitational effects of this mysterious hypothetical celestial body. They’ve slowly been narrowing the range of its potential location, and now they think they’ve got a specific orbit figured out to carry out a final search by telescope. It may take a few years, or only a few weeks, but sometime in the near future, this “Planet Nine” will either be found, or confirmed not to exist at all.

This could be a very exciting discovery in the history of space exploration, but there’s one interesting little detail. Neptune goes around the sun every 164 years. Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years. Even though we’ve known about Pluto for less than 100 years, we can calculate its orbital period from Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. But “Planet Nine” is so far away that it has a potential orbital period of…

10,000 to 20,000 years!

This could present an interesting little problem for young-earth creationists, especially those who believe the solar system is only 6,000 years old.

The Potential Conclusions

There are three potential kinds of conclusions, and we are hurtling rather quickly toward one of them.

  1. Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine may not exist. The odds of its existence seem to be increasing with further scientific discoveries, but it still hasn’t been discovered and there could always be alternate explanations for the evidence it has allegedly left behind. This result would present no problems for young-earth creationists.
  2. Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine exists, but its orbit could actually lead to problems with old-earth models. It’s possible that the planet could be discovered, but in such an orbit where calculations showed an apparent impossibility of going back millions of years, due to instabilities it would have caused in the solar system. This result would present no problems for young-earth creationists, and would even bolster their confidence.
  3. Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine exists, with an orbital period of over 10,000 years, and clear evidence in the orientations of other objects that it has completed its orbit at least once. While anything could happen, this currently seems like the most likely option, so it’s worth exploring the potential reactions and repercussions.

The Potential Reactions

If the third option happens, this could be one of the strongest challenges ever to young-earth creationism. Christians who believe in deep time say the universe has not just the “appearance of age” but the “appearance of story,” that is, of specific events occurring in sequence and setting the stage for other events according to God’s perfect plan. A long-orbiting planet that was discovered by the effects of traveling that long orbit would be a clear demonstration of both age and story.

Deep time Christians may believe there is already plenty of evidence for such history, which young-earth creationists have not found convincing, and thus they may be skeptical that a new discovery would be interpreted any differently. But our solar system and its planets are much more familiar to the average person than other more distant and exotic objects, and unlike supernovas or fast radio bursts or even gravitational waves, everyone will hear about this planet and understand its significance very intuitively. If scientific materials start including a ninth planet after Neptune with an explicit number in the orbital column of, say, “14,000 years,” that would lead to obvious questions from Christians who have been taught that such lengths of time are incompatible with a sacred Scripture.

So how might young-earth creationist organizations respond? I can think of a few potential reactions.

  1. Some might question the orbital period, since it would be a calculation that has not been empirically verified. However, this skepticism would come at a cost. Johannes Kepler was a devout Christian of the seventeenth century. His laws of planetary motion have long been seen by Christians as one of many evidences of an orderly universe established by an orderly God with intelligence and purpose. Even secular scientists marvel that the universe has this kind of reliability that lets us discover the way it works. It seems risky to try to save a favored Biblical interpretation by undermining the fundamental laws we believe God established.
  2. Some might question whether the planet has completed an orbit around the sun since creation. If the planet is found from predictions based on its nudging effects on other planets from multiple paths around its orbit, this may not be a very compelling explanation. However, that may depend on how obvious or complicated such effects are, and how much room there is to reasonably doubt that scientists really know what they are talking about regarding such effects. Some may suggest God simply set the objects in “balance” around the sun and it’s only an assumption that they have affected each other. (In my opinion, this may be a likely response by some official organizations like AIG or CMI.)
  3. Some might suggest that within the vastness of space and time, and the mystery of God, and the limited understanding of man, that there is some other way, inexplicable as it may seem, to reconcile these things that scientists focused on the conventional mindset just aren’t making the effort to consider. After all, we cannot be certain that time in the Kuiper belt passes the same way as it does on Earth, or that general relativity or black holes or some other as-yet-undiscovered celestial object or principle might play into this somehow, or that some critical mistake made by the scientists involved will later be discovered. (In my opinion, this may be a likely response by some unofficial groups or laypersons.)

There are many intelligent and creative young-earth creationists, and there may be other responses I cannot anticipate. Much will depend on the specifics of the discovery.

It is also important to recognize that there are many different flavors of young-earth creationism. While there is a general unity about the history of biology, there is a little more variation about geology. “Young Life Creationists” allow for an old earth, interpreting Genesis 1:1 to occur at an indeterminate period before the six days started in verse 3. There is even more flexibility when it comes to cosmology and the history of far-away objects that are not really mentioned in Scripture.

However, most tend to insist on the sun’s appearance on the fourth day of creation, and a long-orbiting Ninth Planet would suggest not just a universe but planets orbiting the sun for at least tens of thousands of years before the creation events described in Genesis. Some followers might be convinced by the above potential explanations, or others that may appear, but some may not be satisfied, and may experience a crisis of faith, or at least embark on some curious searching. It is important for Christians of all beliefs to be prepared for this.

Potential Repercussions

Christians who accept deep time – whether evolutionary creationists or old-earth creationists – may be tempted to mock young-earth creationists in these situations, but I believe such disrespect is unwarranted and unhelpful. Young-earth creationists get enough mockery from atheists. They are sincerely committed to what they see as the only viable option for devoted Christians believing in the divine authority of Scripture, and thus diatribes about scientific evidence will not be compelling without a matching offer of plausible Biblical interpretation. The metaphorical interpretations and theological challenges of evolutionary theology are not likely to seem any more appealing to these Christians, but this situation could provide an opening for many for old-earth creationism, which tends to reject biological evolution but has few qualms with the long ages of cosmology. (I’m working on related resources at my Creation Explore site here.)

Many young-earth creationists may not be aware that old-earth creationists fully affirm Scriptural inerrancy, or that such a position was extremely common in the United States about a hundred years ago, and that many prominent Christians today have thoughtfully considered such positions and found them convincing, including Dr. William Lane Craig, a philosopher famous for defending the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection, and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaf. Some may find this comforting. As such I would recommend even evolutionary creationists to suggest such a path for any brothers and sisters who might have such questions, especially if they still find evolution fundamentally untenable.

The simplest starting point is the difference between two small Hebrew words: bara and asah. Bara is a powerful active verb usually rendered “create” in English, suggesting, for instance, a deliberate creation out of nothing. Asah is somewhat more passive, often rendered “make” and subject to a variety of possible meanings, including the arrangement or organization of pre-existing materials. The first verse of Genesis barks forth with bara: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Some of the other parts of the story use the more passive asah, including the passage about God “making” the sun, moon, and stars, on the fourth day.

It is on this basis that many Christians have suggested that the light on the first day really came from the sun, created by God at the beginning (Even the ancient father Origen thought something like this made more sense, long before geologists started pushing back the timeline). In this view the fourth day still depicts God’s assignment of the celestial bodies as time-keepers for humanity, but it potentially represents their first appearance in the sky after the clearing of a dim watery haze, and with no less of a reality than the daily “appearance” that the sun “rises” and “sets.”

If this interpretation is viable, it neatly allows for years and years of orbiting planets, including our new potential Planet Nine. We don’t even have to get into animal death before the Fall – though deep time Christians have interpretations for that, too. But that may be a satisfying starting point.

Thus I would encourage young-earth creationists to keep an open mind about all of this. We don’t yet know what we’ll find out there. But we can all rejoice in the wonder of the universe God created and the way he set it up for us to explore it and discover it. In this way, each new discovery further reveals both the “infinite” majesty of God’s creation, as expressed in Genesis 1, and the “intimate” connection of God’s creation to humanity, as expressed in Genesis 2. Whatever we find, God is still Creator. And we are still his children.

Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (2000)

In Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee make a detailed and fascinating case that life may be very common in the universe, but complex or animal or intelligent life may be very uncommon. Given naturalistic assumptions about life’s origin and evolutionary progression on Earth, they explore numerous difficulties for both attaining and maintaining life over millions or billions of years, and the likely uncommon attributes of our planet that have made this possible here.

Attaining Life:

“As early as 3.8 billion years ago… life seems to have appeared simultaneously with the cessation of the heavy bombardment.” (p.61) On progress of abiogenesis theories: “No one has yet discovered how to combine various chemicals in a test tube and arrive at a DNA molecule.” Furthermore, “with an oxygen-free atmosphere the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth’s surface would have been far higher… making delicate chemical reactions on the planet’s surface very difficult.” (p.62) The recent discoveries of “extremophiles” has suggested hydrothermal vents as a possible origin of life, and also enhanced the hopes of finding creatures in extreme conditions elsewhere in the universe. (Although hydrothermal vents are connected to plate tectonics and Earth’s global temperature system, which require a number of parameters to even exist, much less be maintained for billions of years – see below).

However, while single-celled creatures have long been common on Earth, more advanced creatures took longer to arise and may require specific characteristics for their arrival. Additionally, they have a narrower range of habitability; “Complex metazoans tolerate a far narrow range of environmental conditions than do microbes,” (ex. 0-50 degrees C compared to 100+ C) and are “far more susceptible to extinction caused by short-term environmental deterioration.”

External Threats to Maintaining Life

A planet’s star must have a fairly constant energy output, but even the best-case scenario involves a gradually increasing brightness that the planet must compensate. “On Earth, the maintenance of a relatively constant temperature has been attained through a gradual reduction in greenhouse gases as the amount of energy from the sun has increased, thus keeping temperatures in check.” (p.164)

Threats to maintaining life include asteroids, supernovae, and gamma ray bursts.

Some of these factors limit a habitable time window in the history of the universe; some dangers would have been more common in the past. Stars also would not have produced heavier elements in the first generations. On the other hand, radioactive elements, important for regulating temperature, “are produced by supernovae explosions, and their rate of formation is declining with time.” Newer stars “have less of these radioisotopes” than our sun. “It is entirely possible that any true Earth clones now forming around other stars would not have enough radioactive heat to drive plate tectonics.” (p.30)

The book discusses the importance of Jupiter. It’s large enough and close enough to limit the amount of deadly asteroids hitting Earth, but not so large or so close, or too elliptical in orbit, or having too many more similar large objects like itself and Saturn, to threaten the stable orbit of Earth itself.

Additionally, the relatively large, close moon plays an important role in stabilizing Earth’s axis tilt over long periods of time. The moon’s formation appears to have required a very precise collision with a large object at just the right time in Earth’s history for the collision to have distributed the right elements into the right places. If its formation had left it rotating in the opposite direction, its gravitational tidal effects (also important) would have slowly spun it into the Earth, instead of slowly spinning away, which also means there is a time limit to both its tidal and stabilizing properties.

Internal Requirements to Maintaining and Progressing Life

The inter-connected role of plate tectonics, water, and carbon dioxide seems crucial to maintaining complex life on planet Earth.

“For complex life to be attained (and then maintained), a planet’s water supply (1) must be large enough to sustain a sizable ocean… (2) must have migrated to the surface from the planet’s interior, (3) must not be lost to space, and (4) must exist largely in liquid form. Plate tectonics plays a role in all four of these criteria” (p.208)

There is some mystery to the source of Earth’s water, given planetary formation theories, but somehow “the volume of water was sufficiently large to buffer global temperatures, but small enough so that shallow seas could be formed by the uplifting of continents,” which are “necessary for limestone formation” and “continental weathering.” (p.264) “The violent events” of early Earth “may have determined the final abundance of water and carbon dioxide… If Earth had had just a little more water, continents would not extend above sea level. Had there been more CO2, Earth would probably have remained too hot to host life.” (p.51)

Some planets in our solar system have volcanoes but Earth is the only known with “linear mountain ranges,” caused by plate tectonics. This cycle involves subduction zones in the ocean. Due to comparative density, “continents cannot be destroyed (though they can be eroded)… Since the formation of our planet, the total area of oceanic plates has gradually diminished as the area of continental plates has grown” (p.201) Volume of continents is still increasing, but if it had been higher earlier in Earth’s history, its affects on atmospheric climate would have been more hostile to life.

“The average temperature of the Moon is -18 degree C.. because it has no appreciable atmosphere.” Without ours, Earth’s temperature “would be about the same as that of the Moon,” below the freezing point of water. (p.207) Plate tectonics maintain the “tiny fraction” of important greenhouse gases, acting as a “global thermostat” through CO2 cycles with volcanoes / weathering / limestone, that require shallow surface water and other factors to work. (p.208)

Some Curious Details Regarding Evolutionary History

Prokaryotes to eukaryotes: “It appears that attaining the eukaryotic grade was the single most important step in the evolutionary process that culminated in animals on planet Earth.” (p.88) “Eukaryotes… have repeatedly evolved multicellular forms.” (p.89) “Some species of bacteria… seem indistinguishable from fossil forms… 3 billion years old… The majority of eukaryotic species… seem to persists for… 5 million years or less.” (p.89)

“The jump from single-celled.. to organisms of multiple cells requires numerous evolutionary steps.” A “brave (or lucky) morphological change,” an organism “shed its external cell wall,” its protective “tough outer coating,” so “individual cells could begin exchanging material”. (this apparently initially harmful event happened multiple times?) (p.101)

The book discusses evidence of iron-banded formations and the “oxygen revolution”. This is one example of many in the book where there is evidence that changes happened over a long periods of time, but unknown or unconvincing explanations as to how or why these changes occurred naturally or by chance.

Cambrian Explosion: Genetics shows diversification “must” have taken place before the Cambrian explosion, but paleontologists are “stymied by an almost complete lack of fossils” (p.103) “It is clear that the evolution of animals occurred not as a gradual process but as a series of long periods of little change, punctuated by great advances.” Of the Cambrian Explosion: “In this single, approximately 40-million-year interval, all major animal phyla (all of the basic body plans found on our planet) appeared… Although the number of species… has been increasing through time, the number of higher taxa, such as phyla, has been decreasing.” (p.140-142)

Inertial interchange event: “Much of this continental drift happened during the Cambrian evolutionary explosion… no more than 10 to 15 million years. The continental shifts were quite dramatic.” (p.145) Seems to be connected to periods of Snowball Earth followed by lush green: “Both of the two great episodes of Snowball Earth nearly ended life on Earth, as we know it. But each, ultimately, may have been crucial in stimulating the great biological breakthroughs necessary for animal life: the evolution of the eukaryotic cell and the diversification of animal phyla.” (p.121) Not just oxygen but continent formations and phosphorous levels also correlate with rise of large/complex “animals.”


God and Aliens and Outer Space: Are We Still Special In The Universe?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers
The moon and the stars, which you have set in place
What is man that you are mindful of him?
And the son of man, that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels
And crowned him with glory and honor
– Psalm 8

There have been two particularly interesting developments in astronomy in the last few decades. The first is the discovery of exosolar planets – that is, planets outside our solar system. The second is the discovery of liquid water on planets and moons inside our solar system. Both developments have accelerated in recent years and show no signs of stopping. Both have fascinating implications for our understanding of our place in the universe.

Humans are the most dominant living creatures on a little round ball that teems with life, from the deepest hydrothermal vents to the coldest poles and highest mountaintops. This fertile sphere exists in a mind-boggling vast universe that, as far as we know, has no other life in it. There are numerous ways to make sense of all this, but they tend to fall into two broad camps: Special and Not-So-Special.

Source: NASA
The Earth rising, as viewed from the Moon (Source: NASA)

Special Or Not So Special, That Is The Question

The Special camp says that we appear to be alone in the universe because we are special. A representative sample of this kind of philosophy can be found in the “Rare Earth hypothesis,” which says that the origin of life and any progression to intelligence require such “an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances” that extraterrestrial life, especially the complex or intelligent variety, is likely to be extremely rare, if it exists at all. The hypothesis emphasizes how our planet is in the right location in the right kind of galaxy, orbiting at the right distance from the right type of star, with the right arrangement of planets, in a continuously stable orbit, with a solid surface and an atmosphere and plate tectonics and a large moon, and so on, and so forth.

A Special Earth does not demand that it was created by God, nor does belief in God demand a Special Earth, but they generally tend to suggest each other. (See “The Privileged Planet“.) If our existence within this universe is sufficiently improbable, it’s rather compelling to suggest that Something – or Someone – outside our universe intentionally set it up with that outcome in mind. Of course, such a Someone could have set up our universe with intelligent life teeming across other stars and galaxies as well. But many religions tend to assume some centrality to humanity and planet Earth. The Christian’s Bible does not (in my opinion) explicitly rule out life on other planets, but it certainly portrays God as more interested in humanity than anything else of his creation, from the beginning of this universe to its end.

By contrast, the Non-Special camp claims Earth is “a typical rocky planet in a typical planetary system, located in a non-exceptional region of a common barred-spiral galaxy.” This “mediocrity principle” tends to view the universe’s contents as spread out along fairly uninteresting statistical distributions. Wherever life does arise, it might think of itself as special due to its own selection bias, lack of imagination, and circular reasoning, but Non-Specialists see no objective reason to posit such a thing. Earth appears to exist under finely-tuned circumstances, but they view that as reversed logic and see no reason to assume that life couldn’t have simply developed differently, with a similar appearance of fine-tuning, if any given parameter had been different.

With the variety and vast quantities of stars and galaxies, Non-Specialists believe the universe is overwhelmingly abundant in life. The fact that we have not yet discovered any of that life is known as the Fermi Paradox. WaitButWhy has an entertaining and informative post that describes many of the speculative explanations for this paradox. After all, most stars are pretty far away and our technology is still pretty limited.

A Non-Special Earth does not demand atheistic origins, nor do atheistic beliefs demand a Non-Special Earth, but they generally tend to go together as well (see Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, etc). If the unfolding of the universe was not guided by any intelligent purpose, it tends to follow that there is nothing special about our existence. If we are simply one of billions of life forms across the galaxies, that doesn’t disprove God as creator of it all, but it certainly makes such views less compelling than the idea that everything was specially designed just for us. For Christians, if intelligent life – if the very image of God – isn’t special to humanity, it introduces sticky questions about sin and salvation and the whole theology of God becoming Man.

The Story Thus Far

It might be natural to think of the arc of scientific progress as bending from Special to Non-Special for a long time. The ancients assumed the sun and the planets all went around the Earth. Now we know our planet orbits the sun just like the others. We used to think of the sun as a distinct object in the sky. Now we know it’s a giant nuclear fusion factory orbiting a black hole like all the other stars in our galaxy. We used to think all stars were part of our galactic system. Now we know there are about as many galaxies out there as stars in the Milky Way, spreading across a universe that is far vaster than we had ever imagined.

Yet in that vastness we have reclaimed our significance. We ooh and aah over the Hubble Space Telescope’s images of vibrant galaxies as demonstrations of God’s power and creativity. The heavens declare the glory of God, like never before.

We contrast the hostility of the vast dark and cold and radiation and black holes and gamma ray bursts with the charming comfort of our planet. Its protective ozone layer and magnetic fields and our large neighbor to scoop up deadly asteroids and all those other properties make our home feel so safe and Special in the context of all that outer death and darkness.

Guillermo Gonzalez argues in The Case For A Creator that our inconspicuous off-center position in the galaxy puts us in an excellent position to observe and discover the rest of the universe. Intriguingly, the relative sizes and distances of our sun and moon create perfect solar eclipses that have helped us learn about the contents of stars and confirm general relativity. “The very time and place where perfect solar eclipses appear in our universe also corresponds to the one time and place where there are observers to see them.”

In other words, it’s not just that it seems special that we are here at all to comprehend our own existence. It takes even more specialness – being in the right place to discover the vastness of the universe – to be able to comprehend that our existence is special! Special upon Special…

In that sense, nothing has really changed since David penned his psalm under the spiral arm of the Milky Way in the night sky three thousand years ago. Modern discovery has exponentially amplified the dynamics, but it’s the same story: God’s created universe is amazing, and what a mystery that humanity is so Special within it!

The New Kids In The Universe

Exoplanet discoveries per year (Source: Wiki)
Exoplanet discoveries per year (Source: Wiki)

Yet the very progress of astronomy that has enhanced our Special place for so long is now threatening to undo it.

Ever since science revealed our sun to be one of the stars, humans have speculated that other stars might have planets, too, but the technology wasn’t there to verify it. When I was born in the late 1980’s, scientists still had not confirmed a single exoplanet. We were just beginning to uncover possibilities – looking for the brief but regular dimming of stars being transited by giant planets whose orbital plane happened to cross our line of sight, or the subtle but regular shift in a star’s radial velocity from the gravitational effect of a near, giant orbiting planet.

The first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992. More planets trickled in as we grew up. Technology improved, new detection methods were found, smaller and smaller planets became observable. The trickle became a stream, and then a torrent – at the beginning of this year (2015) NASA announced confirmation of the 1000th exoplanet. Nine months later the number has already almost doubled, with thousands more candidates waiting for the due diligence of confirmation. Direct imaging is now within our limits. Further technological advances will only increase all of this.

We have just entered a golden age of discovery. Every few months now, it seems, NASA announces a new milestone crossed in the search for planets: new candidates of “near-Earth” size in the “habitable zone”; the closest rocky planet yet found! Each announcement serves to underscore the huge gap still separating Earth from all the others, yet at the same time increasing the confidence that more of the gap will be filled by the relentless mathematics of astronomical numbers. (See the wiki “exoplanet” article for much more.)

How special is a one-in-a-million property if there are 200 billion planets in the Milky Way? Is Earth the only one with a tilt-stabilizing moon in a circular-enough orbit in the habitable zone for liquid water?

Speaking of liquid water, this brings us to the other accelerating major development in astronomy: the detection and confirmation of water throughout the solid bodies of our own solar system.

Source: NASA
Source: NASA

Jupiter’s moon Europa was suspected for decades to have liquid water under its icy surface. Gravitational and magnetic measurements in the late 90’s from the Galilean missions strengthened such theories. In 2013 plumes of water eruptions venting from the subsurface ocean were announced by Hubble. In 2014, active plate tectonics were confirmed.

Source: NASA

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft spotted geysers venting from Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Last year, scientists detected signs of a subsurface ocean near the southern pole. Last month, they announced signs that the ocean is global.


Source: NASA
Source: NASA

Magnetic readings in 2000 suggested the possibility of an ocean on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Spring 2015 saw the announcement of even stronger aurora-based indications of a global saltwater ocean with more water volume than Earth’s.

Source: NASA
Source: NASA

Mars has seen a steady stream of water-related discoveries in the last few decades, from indications of liquid water under the polar ice caps to evidence of powerful streams and vast oceans in the past to moisture in the present soil to last month’s headline of patterns of salty brine emerging just under the surface.

Potential candidates for future headlines include Callisto, Titan, Triton, and more. (See the wiki “extraterrestial liquid water” article for more information and a cool infographic.)

What’s the big deal with liquid water? Water is a special property, a sort of “Earth among chemicals,” with its ability to dissolve almost anything and allow other substances to play around with each other. Its solid form expands and floats on top, protecting instead of crushing what lies below. As far as we know it is utterly necessary not only to sustain life, but to allow life to arise from non-life at all (assuming that such a thing is actually possible, that is).

We used to think it was only possible for liquid water to consistently exist within a pretty narrow “habitable range” of a star on a rocky planet with a proper atmosphere and rotation. Too close: boiled. Too far: frozen. Locked in orbit with the same side facing the sun: both. Earth was only object in our solar system that was even close to qualifying.

But now: Earth. Mars. Jupiter. Saturn. Fully half the planetary bodies seem to be qualifiers, either themselves or through their moons. We wrote off gas giants as totally inhospitable to life! But what does that matter if their moons have liquid oceans hiding under the surface of that protective ice?

We haven’t even begun to detect exosolar moons. Jupiter alone oversees two oceans – at least! This potentially expands not just one major limiting factor of the rare Earth hypothesis, but several: maybe you don’t need an atmosphere or magnetic field to protect whatever might develop under ice, either.

Does this bump up the odds of life by an order of magnitude by itself? Is the Special theory too narrow after all?

Many Non-Specialists seem to think so. There are corners of the Internet practically giddy in anticipation at finding life hiding under every dihydrogen-monoxide collection in the cosmos. Some seem to have an overwhelming confidence that given the right time and conditions, well, “life finds a way,” and we’re finding the conditions everywhere!

In my opinion, such confidence springs more from Hollywood than science. Liquid water could exist on every moon and planet in the galaxy and still leave far longer odds than many seem to realize. But if the aforementioned factors can be bested by such unanticipated discoveries, who knows what other possibilities may exist out there that we haven’t imagined, either?

But there is still a fundamental mystery. We don’t know whether or not we’re going to find life. For the first time in the history of humanity, we’re on the verge of being able to quantify how special the Earth really is as a planet in the universe. As the reports of new planets keep rolling in, with candidates of ever-increasing similarities to Earth – just as you’d expect from a random statistical distribution – our home seems to be on the verge of finally losing its Special thunder.

Yet as we continue to fail to discover life despite a continual increase in potential habitability, the Not-So-Special Fermi Paradox only deepens. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop of life?! Just as the vastness of a hostile universe made Earth seem more Special than ever, the emptiness of a habitable universe makes life on Earth seem more Special than ever. Maybe time plus conditions can’t equal life on its own. Maybe life doesn’t just “find a way.”

What If…?

But what if we do discover life out there one day?

If the history of astronomy is any indication, I predict it won’t come in the form of an alien spaceship or a poem on a distant radio wave. If it comes, it will come in fits and hints and pieces. Instrument readings of oxygen and carbon dioxide on some distant planet, or microscopic fossils on an outer moon that aren’t quite conclusive, or bacteria on a rover that just might have hitched a ride from Earth, until more evidence trickles in and skepticism starts to diminish and finally it becomes apparent after years and years that, yes, life has, at least once, maybe in the past, undeniably lived somewhere besides Earth.

It would be the most stunning scientific discovery in history. And we will ask ourselves again: Are we still Special?

The answer in large part will depend on what we find, and how much of it. Perhaps the Special line will simply move up to complex life or intelligent life, with the Not-So-Specialers continuing to expect it to one day vanish altogether. Will that life have the same kind of DNA? Would that suggest a Universal Programmer? Or more outlandish theories of panspermia?

Let’s consider the worst case scenario for the Special camp: we discover intelligent life abundant in the universe. Earth, life, even humans become unequivocally Not Special. Maybe not even the most dominant creature of all creation. What would that mean for theology?

Such prospects are exceedingly speculative. Nevertheless, I predict that many atheists would see this as vindication of their ever more compelling worldview. (Though I think they should be careful what they wish for; we very well may find ourselves asking why a blind universe seems programmed to develop so much life.)

But I predict that theism would not go quietly into the night. Christians who previously insisted that the Bible ruled out alien life would reinterpret it as not speaking to the issue one way or another. And through the intergalactic crowds and chatter, we would reclaim the mystery of Special once again. If God answers prayers and performs miracles, if Jesus rose from the dead, if the Holy Spirit transforms the lives of men and women from depravity to glory – these are truths that are unaffected by the existence or non-existence of life on other worlds, intelligent or not, just as they are and always have been unaffected by the shape of the Earth, or its age, or its position in the universe. The existence of other life would simply elevate these truths of God’s interest in man to another level of wonder, and we would cry out yet again, with a deeper emotion than ever before,

What is man, that you are mindful of him?

God of the Gaps

When science can’t explain something, some people attribute it to the work of God, and later sometimes science figures out how to explain it. This “God of the gaps” has been discussed all over the Internet, including in this interesting talk between atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and Mormon pseudo-libertarian Glenn Beck (at about 22:40):

“Atheists often refer to the ‘God of the margins’, which is, as time goes on, we put less and less on God, and more and more on things that we find out.”

The idea is that science keeps explaining more things, disproving primitives who used to believe that there had to be supernatural explanations for them. “Galileo and Newton undid the idea that planetary motion was accomplished through the efforts of angels.”

Some theologians think such “gaps” should never have been attributed to God in the first place. Some say the advance of science has actually vindicated theists on some things, or that such advancement simply portrays the laws of nature God invented. Meanwhile, atheists such as Richard Dawkins seem to mock theists for having small imaginations that are continuously being assaulted by science’s advance.

Whatever the case, the entire discussion seems to revolve around the assumption that the gaps in scientific knowledge are shrinking, and whether or not this helps or hurts the arguments for God.

But I think this assumption is false. The gaps in scientific knowledge are not shrinking. In fact, they are growing faster than ever.

Yes, we are constantly discovering new things, but I think people sometimes get the impression that science is like an unknown land, where every discovery uncovers a new bit of ground and leaves that much less ground still to uncover. But reality is a lot messier than that.

First, a lot of new scientific knowledge merely overturns previously discovered knowledge. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food details the abrupt reversals in nutrition recommendations over the last century. Matt Ridley has discussed some of the scientific “consensus” that has changed over the ages: “There was once widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of which proved false.” It seems like every couple of decades the experts change their minds about whether back sleeping or stomach sleeping is safest for babies. Samuel Arbesman has actually tried to measure “how long it takes for half of the knowledge” in various scientific fields “to be overturned.” Often, new discoveries simply reveal that old discoveries were based on wrong assumptions or  misinterpreted data or inadequate studies that have been replaced with (hopefully more accurate) new ones – or rather, refilling gaps we thought we had already filled.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that all science is like this. Science is supposed to correct its earlier mistakes, of course, but there is also plenty of real advancement! Sometimes these “corrections” are actually tweaks that get us continually closer and closer to the truth. Newton had his physics that explained the movements of most of our everyday objects, and then Einstein came along and tweaked the equations with weird quantum stuff that explained the movement of everyday objects and the weird stuff that Newton couldn’t explain. (Pardon any oversimplifications or technical errors… I’m a little rusty on my physics.) Newton was right, but Einstein was more right.  He filled in a little more gap, making the gap smaller. Right?

Well, not exactly. This leads me to my second point: even when science fills a gap, it often does it with new understandings that reveal bigger gaps that we didn’t even known about before. Sure, we don’t have to invoke angels to explain the movements of the planets anymore. But the equations of gravity left us with an even bigger problem; we can explain how planets move around their stars, but we can’t explain why the stars all stick together in galaxies (there doesn’t seem to be enough stuff at that level) or why the galaxies are all flying away from each other (there seems to be too much stuff at that level).

So scientists have come up with “dark matter” that holds the stars together and “dark energy” that pulls galaxies apart. Our current, best understanding of the universe requires a whole bunch of invisible, unobservable stuff that is said to be 19 times greater than all the stuff we’ve ever observed in the entire universe! And you mean to tell me that’s a smaller gap than a few angels pushing four or five planets around?

The more questions we answer, the more questions we get. And this isn’t just true for outer space. It’s happening in health, where we’re learning that understanding the human body requires understanding the trillions of bacteria that coexist within it. It’s happening in particle physics, where accelerators discover more tiny things like neutrinos and leptons, and most recently the Higgs boson, but not always exactly in the way we expected. It’s happening in mathematics, where old conjectures are proved with whole new fields of study that lead to new conjectures. It’s trivial to find scientists saying things like “For every question we answer, as scientists, there are ten more questions that arise from the knowledge that we gained.”

And that’s why I can’t help finding God in the gaps, though perhaps not in the primitive manner of the ancients. I’m not suggesting we move the angels from the planets to dark matter. But I do disagree with the general idea that the continuing discoveries of science leave less room for God, as if they’re somehow mutually exclusive. Every scientific advance creates more room for appreciating the wonder of the universe God created.

When I read books about outer space (like Space Atlas) I marvel at the incredible variety of all the things we’ve found, and I marvel at the mystery of all the new details we can’t explain. When I read books about mathematics (like Visions of Infinity) I marvel at the sheer elegance of the way numbers behave across seemingly disparate fields and forms, and I marvel at the mystery of all the theorems that we haven’t proved and don’t even know whether or not they can be! Whether science is explaining something new or discovering something it can’t explain – both things make me think “God is awesome!” God is God of both the gaps and the non-gaps, and they’re both growing faster than ever.

Reactions To Hubble

hubble-space-telescopeWe walked into the St. Louis Science Center at 7:26. We thought the Hubble film at the Omnimax started at 8:30, and we had leisurely driven into the city, gotten dinner, visited the Apple Store, made a wrong turn between the Galleria and the Science Center, and casually walked from the car to the entrance.

The film actually started at 7:30.

With barely a minute to spare, we chose our seats in the mostly empty theater. It had been a long time since I had last been in this room, and I feared vertigo from the massive curved canvas in front of me – especially with a film about outer space. But the motion picture started without upsetting my internal gyroscopes in the slightest, and I calmly observed the display set before me in a state of wonder.

I often try to appreciate the vastness of Planet Earth, with its thousands of miles of length and depth in the context of my six-foot frame. When we walk a few miles I think about how much land we’re traversing and how many people and objects there are and how all of that is but a minuscule sliver of all that exists on just the surface of Planet Earth. When we drive a few hundred miles I think about how much more land we’re traversing and how many more people and objects we’re passing and how everything that is happening on Planet Earth is happening in a real place in the same plane of existence, as if the atrocities committed in a foreign country are occurring just on the other side of that yonder hill. And when we fly over a thousand miles I look out at the specks below and try to simultaneously comprehend both how much man has transformed the surface of this planet – and how little.

And yet even as I am but one tiny speck on the surface of the giant Earth, the Earth and I make up but one layer of vastness in a mind-boggling array of almost never-ending layers. Last night I learned that the Hubble film is very good at revealing these layers of vastness.

Layer 1 is the Earth. There are shots of astronauts working on the Hubble telescope a few hundred miles above the surface of the Earth, with the occasional continent or ocean in the background. At one point, the astronauts pause to look down on Hawaii. The state was quite likely packed with the 1.4 million Hawaiian residents and any number of bustling tourists, but from 300 miles in the air the islands looked entirely uninhabited – merely colorful shades of green and brown carved against the blue. And from even farther away – say, the moon – the entire planet looks just as serene. Sure, they say you can see the wall of China from space, and I suppose at night you can see the glows of cities. I’m sure there are other things too if you know where to look for them. But it is fascinating that despite the billions of people who have lived on this planet and the thousands of years we have been living on it, despite all the forests we’ve cut down or the record billions of tons of carbon dioxide that we pumped into the air last year, despite all the resources we’ve harvested to build our giant buildings and bridges and airports and ship docks, from a few thousand miles away all you can still see is green and brown, surrounded by blue, overlaid with wisps of white, as if we’re not even here at all.

And that is just our planet. Layer 2 is the Sun and our solar system. The Hubble film kind of jumps past this layer, sparing us the details about the huge distance between the Earth and the Sun and the even larger distances to the other planets, because that has all been well-explored, and the general purpose of the Hubble space telescope was to capture layers far beyond it. Through the giant lens of that telescope we learn that our sun star is but a tiny speck in Layer 3, our Milky Way galaxy. We learn that the Milky Way galaxy is but a tiny speck in Layer 4, a little village of a couple dozen or so galaxies (known as the “Local Group”) where even our galaxy neighbors, such as Andromeda, are millions of light-years away. And even that galaxy village is but a tiny speck in Layer 5 which contains other cities of galaxies in clusters and super-clusters that stretch out across the expanse of the observable universe. It’s one thing to simply know that “space is huge.” It’s quite another thing to visually experience the magnitude of several layers of vastness, each of which are as incredibly huge to the one below it as itself is to the one above it.

In addition to enhancing my appreciation for the vastness of space, the Hubble film also enhanced my appreciation of the efforts of man to comprehend it. Maybe it was just that the film and the giant theater had hurtled me into a state of childlike wonder, but I was marveling as I never had before at the way the space shuttle fired its glorious rockets and smoothly wrested itself free of the Earth’s gravitational pull on its journey into orbit to connect with the telescope. And of course there is the telescope itself, this enormous machine that mankind created (requiring a decade of work from thousands of people), enabling us to capture the depths of the universe as never before.

The array of blinking white dots, visible to the naked eye in the night sky, is beautiful enough, but it is nothing compared to the magnificence of what the sky reveals when you zoom in. The Eye of God, the Pillars of Creation, the Mice – wonderful vortexes of cloud-like masses of endless shapes and colors. It almost seems to me as if God was reveling in his creative glory, painting stars and galaxies into beautiful designs on a limitless canvas, and then decided to create life on the tiniest speck of tiny specks of tiny specks, life that was itself so creative that it could fill us with wonder even if we were completely unaware of the vast creation beyond us. My wife said she likes to think that God made the universe so vast and filled with wonder because he knew that by creating us in his image, we would be creative ourselves and would desire to comprehend the universe that he had made. He knew we would discover and invent things that would enable us to unravel and peek into the layers of vastness, and so he made the universe so vast that no matter how much our technology advanced we could never run out of things to discover.

I don’t know how to reconcile the Bible, which I believe to be true, with the sheer depths of space and time and what appears to be light that is billions of years old traveling from objects that are very, very far away, although it is not difficult for me to consider the vastness of the layers beyond us and conclude that perhaps we do not understand space, or time, or both, quite as well as we think we do. But I thought it was interesting that even the timing of our arrival at the Science Center last night seemed to fit into a cosmic plan. We had the wrong time in our heads, thinking we had an extra hour, and any change in any of the number of leisurely choices we made or the circumstances we encountered that evening could have made us late for the film – from the time we left the house, to the number of questions I asked of Siri at the Apple Store, to the unplanned route we took through the crowded interstate and side roads, to the number of people in line to purchase tickets for the Star Trek exhibition. Yet entirely unbeknownst to us, we arrived at the theater just in time. We were learning about the incredible vastness of space and our own comparative insignificance, but due to the timing of how we got there, it was as if God wanted us to know we were important enough to learn about our unimportance. Such is the great paradox of life.

It is very stimulating to learn about the creative efforts of man to understand the creative efforts of God. It makes one extremely excited about the future. The Science Center has other interesting (though far less stimulating) exhibits and displays about orbital aviation contests and the latest information about plans to return to the moon. In only twenty days NASA is scheduled to launch a new rover to Mars, named Curiosity, to learn more about the planet than we ever have before. What will mankind discover next? What will mankind invent next that will enable us to discover even more? The future is unknown. The future is exciting. Here it comes…