Our Universe: unfit for life?

posted at 3:25 pm on September 21, 2011 by Jazz Shaw

Dartmouth College theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser has an interesting essay this week which deals with the possibility of life around the universe and, more to the point, what such life might be like. It was spurred by the recent discovery of one of the most promising possible Earth-like worlds yet, orbiting in the “Goldilocks zone” of its parent star, where water could exist in liquid form. As more and more of these planets are identified, scientists will be focusing their search for possible forms of intelligent life in those regions of the galaxy.

But if life exists, Gleiser wonders, would it necessarily have advanced to a state of technological intelligence the same way it happened here on Earth? Dr. Gleiser thinks we might not want to get our hopes up too far. Many of his colleagues assume that the Universe is “just right for life” because it happened here, but we may be the exception to the rule.

The assumption here is that if physics and chemistry are the same then biology will develop. When we think alien life we are thinking in terms of Darwinian evolution via natural selection, which is a very good bet. Of course, we will only know for sure once we discover a sample of alien life, study its genetics, etc. But it’s hard to think that the very general principles set forth by Darwin won’t apply to other forms of life. If there are multiple life forms and limited resources, the rest will follow.

Of course, that says nothing of the particulars of possible alien life. A very clear distinction must be made between simple, unicellular life and more complex life forms. It’s hard to doubt that Earth is the only planet where life took hold. After all, we have seen how resilient it is here, with extremophiles defying our previously held assumptions of where life can thrive. However, there is a huge difference between simple life and complex life. Contrary to what many believe, evolution doesn’t lead to complex life forms: evolution leads to well-adapted life forms.

I’ve heard this argument made before and, as depressing as it may be, it carries a lot of weight. Some very well respected biologists have claimed that life on Earth only made the jump from what essentially amounted to little more than pond scum to more complex, multicellular forms through a rather remarkable and stressful series of events.

The theory, in short form, is that simple, unicellular life which thrives in a given climate has absolutely no reason to make the jump to something more complex and unlikely if the prevailing conditions are allowing it to succeed just fine as it is. A drastic change in environmental factors is required to challenge the organism and create the opportunity for something new and improved to adapt. But the catch is, if the environmental change is too drastic and harsh, the life form simply dies off and the process has to begin all over again. (Or have life disappear entirely.)

Should we develop the technology to get a really good look at any of these Goldilocks worlds, will we find ET hard at work building a rocket? Or even something as advanced as a cow? Or is it far more likely, as Dr. Gleiser seems to suspect, that we’ll find worlds covered in green slime which have dominated their environment and never found a need to advance further?

Breaking on Hot Air

Blowback

Note from Hot Air management: This section is for comments from Hot Air's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that Hot Air management agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand. A reminder: Anyone who fails to comply with our terms of use may lose their posting privilege.

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

Comment pages: 1 2

The point is, its really a waste of time to look for life beyond this system. We need to find a way to make travel to the moon/mars practical. Who cares if there is life elsewhere.

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 4:16 PM

This is a good point. Until we have a means of getting there, there’s no point in studying the map for a good place to land.

First, though, I’d like to fly from anywhere to anywhere else without first displaying my genitals. Solve that, then move on to the space/time continuum.

BobMbx on September 21, 2011 at 4:38 PM

1000 years ago, one could not overcome the distances necessary for practical intercontinental travel on this planet. According to our own history, half of the world did not exist for the other half until the middle of the last millennium.

Say hello to order of magnitude.

Granted einstein could be wrong. If he’s wrong, I’ll take it all back. ;)

You are a bit wrong on the second part here, though. They just didn’t realize there was something in between the west side of the world and the “far east”. Vikings knew better though.

And we -do- know how far another star is and that it exists. You’re just not getting the actual point of all this though. We spend so much time wondering about life ‘out there’ when we should be spending time on practical things that are already achievable – moon / mars / etc. Worrying about space aliens is next to pointless – in the near term, at least.

When we have something in orbit that detects acceleration/deceleration on an object on its own power, let’s discuss it. Till then. Nah.

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 4:39 PM

Have my doubts that interstellar travel is even possible.

Pablo Honey on September 21, 2011 at 3:59 PM

It’s clearly possible but very slow. Sublight, clearly do-able, but very likely each trip is one-way.

What you mean, I think, is the speed of travel necessary for a “Galactic Empire” is unlikely.

Hey, a mere century ago the fastest mode of travel/communication was ~15 MPH. Horseback. Mail by horseback.

I’m not counting anything out over the next century.

Who is John Galt on September 21, 2011 at 4:39 PM

Who cares if there is life elsewhere.

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 4:16 PM

I do! I do!

MJBrutus on September 21, 2011 at 4:39 PM

The Fermi Paradox is a very powerful idea. With a universe so large and so old “where is everyone?” You would think that sooner or later one of the civilizations out there would have made enough noise and pollution to have been noticed by now, won’t you? It’s basically the eerie silence argument. If we are failing to find anything perhaps there simply is nothing to find at the industrial civilization level.

Fred 2 on September 21, 2011 at 4:40 PM

The other side of this is, of course, that life on this planet has only existed for a few million years. We might have missed life elsewhere because we formed late and they are now gone. And when life forms elsewhere, we might be gone as well.

With so many billions of stars, the odds of finding that 1 star at the apex of its life cycle is rather low. And then contacting it successfully? Even lower.

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 4:48 PM

Sarcasm eh? Then where did leprechauns come from ? TELL ME THAT!

It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still that she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time.”

So Aslan says leprechauns pre-date Time. Our secret is out.

Okay, that’s really funny.

You’re very welcome.

URANUS?

catmman on September 21, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Oh, catmman, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and presume that by training you’re a proctologist.

oldleprechaun on September 21, 2011 at 4:48 PM

It was spurred by the recent discovery of one of the most promising possible Earth-like worlds yet, orbiting in the “Goldilocks zone” of its parent star, where water could exist in liquid form.

The amount of heat received by a planet from its star (which depends on the star’s energy output and the distance of the planet) is only one criterion of many.

The Moon is about the same distance from the Sun as the Earth is, and receives about the same amount of heat on average, but Earth is full of life and the Moon is barren. Why?

Since the Moon is much smaller than the Earth, it has much weaker gravity, and cannot prevent gas molecules such as oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor from escaping, so that it has no atmosphere.

Since the same side of the Moon always faces the Earth, its rotational period is about 29 days, meaning that any point on the moon is sunlit for 14 days, then in the dark for 14 days, which leads to much wider day/night temperature swings than on Earth.

Mars is only slightly larger than the Moon, but since it is farther from the Sun and much colder, gas molecules move more slowly and Mars can retain a thin atmosphere. It also has a rotational period close to that of Earth.

Venus is about the same size as Earth, and can hold an atmosphere, but is much closer to the Sun and too hot for liquid water to condense out.

So, in order for liquid water to exist on a planet, it must have be large enough to hold an atmosphere, at an optimum distance from its star, and have a short rotational period to minimize temperature swings between day and night.

If a planet is too large, with a very strong gravity, it will tend to retain hydrogen in its atmosphere, which would produce a “reducing” atmosphere instead of the oxidizing atmosphere needed for Earth-like life.

Since liquid water will evaporate when exposed to sunlight or starlight, the temperature/pressure distribution in the atmosphere needs to be such that water vapor can reach the dewpoint in the atmosphere, form clouds, and rain back to the planet’s surface.

Then there is the problem of the chemical makeup of the planet. Life on Earth is based on carbon, which plants obtain from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So there needs to be an ample supply of carbon dioxide, without a lack of oxygen, which is a lighter molecule and tends to escape more readily. If the planet CAN retain liquid water, but not enough water is available to form an ocean or lake, life will not develop.

If such “Goldilocks” planets do exist, and intelligent life capable of space travel exists on some of them, why would they come to Earth? To colonize it or plunder it? To defend themselves against agression from Earth life? Or to make contact with human beings?

Human beings have only been capable of space flight since 1957 (54 years ago), and have only sent robots beyond our own Moon. Any intelligent life on a planet light-years away has nothing to fear from us, and they may not yet know that intelligent life exists here. They may recognize Earth as a “Goldilocks planet”, but is it too far from them to be worth the trouble of sending an inhabited spaceship?

Steve Z on September 21, 2011 at 4:48 PM

That’s one explanation for the Fermi paradox, which is that Earth is a Petri dish that they are watching. But if there is one such civilization, then there are probably several, and the more successful of them is probably the one that colonizes every place that it visits.

Hmm, maybe one such colony was started and then got zapped by another civilization, and that’s what killed the dinosaurs.

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 4:37 PM

Civilization protects its members from harm and that may damage the process of natural selection enough that expansion is slowed due to reduced birthrates, interest, and technological advancement, and the number of civilizations are greatly reduced.

Maybe there is a blocking starnation that doesn’t allow others to go where they wish? Maybe we live in a poor neighborhood and most go inward where there are more stars and better real estate?

Maybe colonizing planets isn’t that attractive to those who have visited in the past. Maybe they did colonize for a period of several hundred thousand years and it didn’t survive? How much of a 200 million year old civilization would be left?

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 4:49 PM

“It’s a trap!” — Admiral Ackbar

John the Libertarian on September 21, 2011 at 4:50 PM

Maybe space aliens from Klendathu, having traveled to the future and seen the damage we caused, attempted to destroy humanity with 1 great event but missed by a few million years and kill the dinosaurs instead.

The distance that rock covered would have made it damn near impossible to time the exact hit.

The irony is, of course, that their attempt to destroy us, allowed us to evolve and cause the very destruction their foresaw.

Damn space insects.

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 4:54 PM

A drastic change in environmental factors is required to challenge the organism and create the opportunity for something new and improved to adapt.

That isn’t completely true, I think. Competition for limited resources between mutations in life forms is also a powerful evolutionary force, one that needs no environmental factors to change. And resources are never unlimited at any scale you choose to pick.

Socratease on September 21, 2011 at 4:55 PM

Little if any mention is ever given to the part that the moon played in early evolution. Life forms in coastal tidal ponds were forced to adapt by the constant change from being wet to being dry. The genetic adaptation that this created in single cell and small multicellular life forms then carried over to the more complex life forms that crawled out of the water and adapted to life on dry land. Isacc Azimov did a great piece on this some 35 years ago. (He was as much a scientist as a science fiction writer.)

So I’m not going to get too excited about some “potential” earth like planets until they announce they have found one with a proportonally sized moon as well.

LCT688 on September 21, 2011 at 4:56 PM

I vote for this thread to be the topic of the day. Thanks. I needed this and I didn’t even know it.

BrideOfRove on September 21, 2011 at 4:57 PM

Of course they existed before they were discovered…how else would they be discovered?

Just want to know about their creation according to ID theory. What was the intelligent designer thinking when he created the polio virus. It is so complex….the complexity points to a designer.

Teach the controversy!

Pablo Honey on September 21, 2011 at 4:22 PM

So which question are you asking then? How or why?

The original question:

Can you explain how the polio and virus came into existence as well?

Just one day…and poof it is there, odds must be astronomical…

Have the IDer’s figured that one out yet?

Pablo Honey on September 21, 2011 at 4:13 PM

Refers to how, but the last question talks about why. Including your snark about a talking snake.

The how is easy to answer: it was created just like everything else was. Wow…that was hard, I know.

As for the why: this gets into theology and depends on the intelligent designer. ID != Creationism and does not pretend to answer the question of why. Therefore, asking the ID crowd is not practical. It would be like me asking an evolutionist why (not how) things chose to evolve. Why is a question of reason, not process.

For the Christian Creationism answer, you would have to put aside your snark and condescension long enough to actually listen to the answer. This would require an open mind that you have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of. Regardless, I’ll try to put it in the simplest of terms…although I doubt you will even try to understand it.

Why did God create the “evil snake?” In order for their to be free will their had to be choice. If you cannot understand this concept, then you may as well stop here.

Why create choice and give free will? This gets into the purpose of creation itself. Why create something. Most Christian theologians point to God’s nature of love. Love must be shared and therefore God created things to share love with. The full extent of love cannot be experienced unless it is freely returned. In other words, you cannot force someone to love you. Therefore, in order for man to experience love, we had to be able to have choice.

That is a very oversimplified answer…and barely does the argument justice. There simply is not enough space to fully address the subject on Hot Air (not that you would seriously engage the debate in the first place).

Pattosensei on September 21, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Steve Z on September 21, 2011 at 4:48 PM

The moon doesn’t have life because it looks like Neil Goldman’s face.

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 5:04 PM

That isn’t completely true, I think. Competition for limited resources between mutations in life forms is also a powerful evolutionary force, one that needs no environmental factors to change. And resources are never unlimited at any scale you choose to pick.

Socratease on September 21, 2011 at 4:55 PM

In stable conditions, organisms will compete on which ones do what they already do the best. That will result in local optimization of behavior. To jump to a new realm, such as multi-cellular life or sexual reproduction, you need a repeating process where individuals are separated for a time from the main population until the new mode of survival has become polished enough that it can compete with the dominant form.

A planet with a single deep ocean could probably not do that. You need a mix of land and water to get those pockets of isolation being continuously formed and recombined.

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 5:06 PM

From The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski…

When we put our heads together and tried to list everything we could say with certainty about other civilizations, without having actually met them, all that we knew boiled down to three simple laws of alien behavior:

1. THEIR SURVIVAL WILL BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN OUR SURVIVAL.

If an alien species has to choose between them and us, they won’t choose us. It is difficult to imagine a contrary case; species don’t survive by being self-sacrificing.

2. WIMPS DON’T BECOME TOP DOGS.

No species makes it to the top by being passive. The species in charge of any given planet will be highly intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.

3. THEY WILL ASSUME THAT THE FIRST TWO LAWS APPLY TO US.

We always assume that human will be the violent and uncouth bunch… in fact we may turn out to be one of the more pacifistic races.

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 5:06 PM

Ask Him when you see Him.

Akzed on September 21, 2011 at 4:35 PM

If you see Him!

honsy on September 21, 2011 at 5:06 PM

Some very well respected biologists have claimed that life on Earth only made the jump from what essentially amounted to little more than pond scum to more complex, multicellular forms through a rather remarkable and stressful series of events.

Where did the pond scum come from and just how did it decide to “make the jump”? Did it take a vote? What was the pond scum’s motivation – what was on it’s mind?

whatcat on September 21, 2011 at 5:10 PM

We always assume that human will be the violent and uncouth bunch… in fact we may turn out to be one of the more pacifistic races.

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 5:06 PM

That assumes they want something we have. What would that be? Our women?

Even if they just want the Earth it seems that it would take more time and energy for them to engage in interstellar travel than to take some of many planets out there that are not in their habitable zone and move it farther or closer to its star.

Maybe we are not yet able to see habitable planets, or maybe there just aren’t that many and that would mean that no one is making them.

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 5:15 PM

From my perspective, the only way there’s life on other planets is if God put it there. Period.

RationalIcthus on September 21, 2011 at 5:16 PM

I love science.
I love science fiction.

I am not enamored of endless serious speculation on subjects we essentially have almost complete ignorance of.

We don’t know what most of the universe is like, we don’t know all the rules that may prevent or allow exploration thereof.

When people take themselves seriously on subjects like this, they’re building cloud castles on top of cloud castles.

By all means, make a wild guess. But it’s just a wild guess, and unfortunately a lot of science these days is dominated by wild guesses.

Merovign on September 21, 2011 at 5:18 PM

is it far more likely, as Dr. Gleiser seems to suspect, that we’ll find worlds covered in green slime which have dominated their environment and never found a need to advance further?

Hey, if we can get ourselves out of debt, let’s find out! There’s no need to fear finding out anything about our material universe. We do, however, need to remain solvent while pursuing knowledge.

J.E. Dyer on September 21, 2011 at 5:19 PM

To sum up- It took a remarkable series of stressful events that were “just right” to allow Earth to produce humans. That remarkable series of perfect events was completely random.

To me, this sounds like an experiment that you could repeat a trillion times, and never come up with an advanced civilization. And yet, here we are, the coin that landed on its edge, defying the odds.

hawksruleva on September 21, 2011 at 5:20 PM

Some additional thoughts on the subject here.

Dr. Mercury on September 21, 2011 at 5:25 PM

that we’ll find worlds covered in green slime

And our first inclination will be, “um, can I have sex with it?”

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 5:26 PM

That assumes they want something we have. What would that be? Our women?

Our deaths. An end to any potential threat to them as a species.

If they are more technologically advanced than we are but have a much lower birthrate we are a threat. Or if we advance at a faster rate technologically we will eventually pose a threat. They would be well advised to act proactively.

Even if they just want the Earth it seems that it would take more time and energy for them to engage in interstellar travel than to take some of many planets out there that are not in their habitable zone and move it farther or closer to its star.

Again you assume Einstein is right and you further assume that if he is right that’s all there is to it, without any possible workaround.

Maybe we are not yet able to see habitable planets, or maybe there just aren’t that many and that would mean that no one is making them.

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 5:15 PM

You don’t actually need habitable planets to colonize a star system. You just need in system resources. I suspect there may be life on a lot of planets out there but I also think intelligent would be much less likely.

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Finally a physicist explains sea monkeys.

Dr Evil on September 21, 2011 at 5:20 PM

Seamonkeys plus seamen = sea-ciety!

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Can you explain how the polio and virus came into existence as well?

Just one day…and poof it is there, odds must be astronomical…

Have the IDer’s figured that one out yet?

Pablo Honey on September 21, 2011 at 4:13 PM

According to Wikipedia, polio’s been around for most of human history. It reached epidemic levels in the late 1800′s.

As for why that happened, ID’ers have never precluded the possibility of genetic mutation. We just happen to believe that micro-evolution is an insufficient explanation for Neo-Darwinian intra-species evolution.

RationalIcthus on September 21, 2011 at 5:28 PM

Why would any one suspect that we are alone? Yes, the earth is quite extraordinary. If I was some outer-space individual I would certainly eye us. But people, you’ve got to accept that there are billions of planets among billions universes. The very idea that we are some exceptional race because we rose above all other is
both fairy-tale and nonsense. We only saw “flight” in the last hundred years, and there are still mistakes and pit-falls.

betsyz on September 21, 2011 at 5:37 PM

We just happen to believe that micro-evolution is an insufficient explanation for Neo-Darwinian intra-species evolution.

RationalIcthus on September 21, 2011 at 5:28 PM

How do you explain the fact that DNA evidence shows that mutations and retro-viruses are passed between species in a family-tree pattern?

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 5:47 PM

If only this f*cking idiot realized that god only created one earth, he’d save everyone a whole bunch of time and money. You can’t have life without GOD, asshole!

ernesto on September 21, 2011 at 5:53 PM

If there is intelligent life out there, they have proven they are indeed intelligent by staying as far from us as possible.

pilamaye on September 21, 2011 at 3:32 PM

.
KA-BOOOOOOOOM !!!!!

ExpressoBold on September 21, 2011 at 6:00 PM

According to Wikipedia, polio’s been around for most of human history. It reached epidemic levels in the late 1800′s.

As for why that happened, ID’ers have never precluded the possibility of genetic mutation. We just happen to believe that micro-evolution is an insufficient explanation for Neo-Darwinian intra-species evolution.

What does ID theory have to say about virus creation? Virus are not really alive, so did they pop into existence by themselves or were they intelligently designed along with ducks, ants, maple trees and T-Rex’s?

Pablo Honey on September 21, 2011 at 6:03 PM

I vote for this thread to be the topic of the day. Thanks. I needed this and I didn’t even know it.

BrideOfRove on September 21, 2011 at 4:57 PM

Me too, +100

Who is John Galt on September 21, 2011 at 6:04 PM

How do you explain the fact that DNA evidence shows that mutations and retro-viruses are passed between species in a family-tree pattern?

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 5:47 PM

That would be new information to me. I’m open to investigating it. Can you provide me with a link to a credible source?

RationalIcthus on September 21, 2011 at 6:14 PM

There is life elsewhere. Why would God create a universe with trillions of planets and only populate one of them?

scotash on September 21, 2011 at 6:31 PM

Curiosity is fine. But we ain’t getting from here to there any time soon.

GarandFan on September 21, 2011 at 6:34 PM

RationalIcthus on September 21, 2011 at 6:14 PM

I haven’t read these carefully yet, but they turned up in a quick google search:

http://www.evolutionarymodel.com/ervs.htm
http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/480302.pdf

pedestrian on September 21, 2011 at 6:35 PM

lorien1973 on September 21, 2011 at 4:54 PM

“The only good bug, is a dead bug.”

catmman on September 21, 2011 at 6:45 PM

Developing into something that inherently coexists to generate a larger being is very, very strange, especially when you consider this coexistence benefits neither of the separate cells but instead a being as a whole.

So this suggests that life does exist but it operates in situations that defy thermodynamics as much as they can.

Nethicus on September 21, 2011 at 4:11 PM

Another set of natural rules. But I’m not holding my breath for them. I would swear people are getting stupider. Is that possible?

. . . but, this part:

coexists to generate a larger being is very, very strange

– touches the philosophical divide between Aristotle and Epicurus, between ID and Darwin. Aristotle (and Christianity) assumes form exists independent of the instances of that form, that “class” exists in the universe as something other than an extrapolation. Ex: There is a kind, it is called Dog. It has properties that define it. These individuals in evidence, they are instances of that form. And Epicurus, the other side: These are discrete things with similar properties. We assume, create, invent a generalization for them as a convenient way to refer to them all at once, Dog. There is no larger frame of reference; there is no form.

It is an interesting place to go romp, if you are interested and have yet to romp there. I am mentioning it because this may be the only time in my life I have the opportunity :) It’s not like this “comes up.”

There is an ID apologetic that is really good; it certainly takes a side, but it is peculiar in its structure and a great diving board. I actually read it in another context, but I would recommend it. Moral Darwinism.

Anyway, “very, very strange” indeed.

Axe on September 21, 2011 at 6:46 PM

I love science.
I love science fiction.

I am not enamored of endless serious speculation on subjects we essentially have almost complete ignorance of.

We don’t know what most of the universe is like, we don’t know all the rules that may prevent or allow exploration thereof.

When people take themselves seriously on subjects like this, they’re building cloud castles on top of cloud castles.

By all means, make a wild guess. But it’s just a wild guess, and unfortunately a lot of science these days is dominated by wild guesses.

Merovign on September 21, 2011 at 5:18 PM

You got room at your table for one more? I’ll keep a low profile, and I’ll pay the bill.

Axe on September 21, 2011 at 6:51 PM

It is not a question of what life we could find on worlds in the Goldilocks zone, but when the aliens will lets us off this world in the first place…

Friendly21 on September 21, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Or is it far more likely, as Dr. Gleiser seems to suspect, that we’ll find worlds covered in green slime which have dominated their environment and never found a need to advance further?

E.g. Washington D.C.

andycanuck on September 21, 2011 at 7:31 PM

andy,

Correct, even down to the color of the slime.

unclesmrgol on September 21, 2011 at 7:43 PM

For those stating that we don’t need to consider the stability of the sun for a few billion years, you are arguing with your head in the sand. We don’t have anywhere near that long to get off this rock. We’re long overdue for a serious ice age and more than a few stellar neighbors looking to make trouble for us in just a few thousand years. We know that these stellar approaches will send significant amounts of material into the system center and it won’t take all that unusual an event to slough off enough solar material to make Earth a pretty hellish place.

It’s happened before and will happen again. If humanity wants to hang around on cosmological timescales we have to make ourselves independent of both our little rock and our little Sun.

As for Einstein, you cherry picked me. I said that you were discounting things like Einstein-Rosen bridges, and other work.

We will break the light speed barrier just as we did the sound barrier. We probably won’t do it directly through brute force, but we will find ways around the perceived barrier.

As for the Vikings, go and find me some Viking poetry that mentions Australia or South America and you might have a valid point.

If only for population reasons alone, humanity must colonize this solar system and then move onto our nearer stellar neighbors. Just because we don’t have the technology today does not mean we’ll never be able to do it. Our history shows we have a remarkable ability to overcome what our ignorance tells us we cannot.

Our ancestors 5k years ago would look at our world today as magical, humans today can barely perceive what we will be capable of 500 years.

Math doesn’t prevent us from visiting and colonizing the stars by any means. The only thing s holding us back is our ignorance of what is to come and our will to takes the risks associated with expansion.

The “it’s too far” argument is just as invalid as it was in Columbus’ day.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 7:46 PM

Little if any mention is ever given to the part that the moon played in early evolution.
LCT688 on September 21, 2011 at 4:56 PM

The earth and the moon are much, much closer together in size than any other known satellite. And recent theories suggest this is because another planet-sized object collided with the earth billions of years ago, throwing off a chunk large enough to form a co-planet that achieved a stable orbit.

There’s no way to even know what the odds of THAT happening were, let alone the hundreds of other factors we know are required for life — let alone the uncountable number of factors we don’t even know about yet….

Basically the “mathematical estimates” of the probability of life on other planets are not simply innacurate; they are utterly foolish. People are trying to come up with a theory anticipating the probabilities and interrelationship of an incredibly large number of completely unknown variables, when the only actual evidence we have to go on is ONE emperical example.

logis on September 21, 2011 at 8:02 PM

We actually have more than one example. We have more than one tree of life on the planet. There’s our carbon based system we are all familiar with, and then the sulfur based biological system centered around undersea hydrothwemal events.

It is now pretty well accepted among those studying them that they are independent of the taxonomic tree we’ve been using and while there is overlap in geographic systems, these critters do not share any of our DNA.

In a very real sense they are aliens in our midst.

No! I’m not talking about the organisms announced earlier this year that used arsenic in their biochem.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 8:10 PM

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 8:10 PM

There are no sulfur based life forms on Earth. All life on Earth is carbon based. Some organisms can metabolize sulfur though.

NotCoach on September 21, 2011 at 8:59 PM

We can hash out what constitutes carbon versus sulphur based life if you’d like, but I’m pretty sure you’re basing your response on the discoveries of 1977.

A lot has happened since then, namely in the scope of DNA research which shows that the organisms collected in the decadal survey do not share common dna with us.

I’m going to also point out that an organism that doesn’t take in any carbon, doesn’t have a mouth or digestive tract and relies on hydrogen sulfide for it’s processes is suphur based rather than carbon based.

The science for this is being written and researched now, we’re less than a few years into these discoveries, but these critters are nothing like us and have no connection to us.

Furthermore, we have fossils of suphur based bacteria that came before our predecessors.

On this planet alone we’ve got at least three empirical examples of life systems unrelated to each other.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 9:19 PM

A lot has happened since then, namely in the scope of DNA research which shows that the organisms collected in the decadal survey do not share common dna with us.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 9:19 PM

That is very interesting. There must be a primordial connection at some point if they are using DNA, or at least I would assume so. DNA arising separately would also be rather startling.

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 9:23 PM

The author is the one in a Goldilocks zone. Or some other fairy-tale place. He refers to “the principles set forth by Darwin” as though commenting on Scripture. Darwin’s principles were guesses made with no knowledge of DNA or the intricacies of cellular process. But he was indeed a brilliant scientist, and had he known then what we know now, he wouldn’t have postulated his series of suppositions that for some stupid reason a substantial portion of the world accepts as fact.

Freelancer on September 21, 2011 at 9:24 PM

Our Universe: unfit for life?

Trekkies and Dennis Kucinich hardest hit.

44Magnum on September 21, 2011 at 9:29 PM

That is very interesting. There must be a primordial connection at some point if they are using DNA, or at least I would assume so. DNA arising separately would also be rather startling.

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 9:23 PM

I would suggest that the phrase “life as we know it” means life with DNA. In that very specific sense, I would further define DNA to include not only the double helix DNA but also triple helix DNA found in vivo of at least one bacterium, RNA (and uracil) and using the DNA precursors like guanine, adenine, cytosine and thynine.

Rather than being alarmed or looking at these arising separately, rather I’d be looking at is as just how things work. We wouldn’t be surprised to find similar geologic processes on an alien world, likewise it wouldn’t be unusual to find the same biologic processes on an alien world as well.

That’s not to say that a life could not develop completely outside the bounds we see here on Earth, but I think that if these processes work here, they probably can and woould work anywhere that’s similar.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 9:53 PM

Rather rather. Sorry for not previewing.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 9:54 PM

Rather than being alarmed or looking at these arising separately, rather I’d be looking at is as just how things work. We wouldn’t be surprised to find similar geologic processes on an alien world, likewise it wouldn’t be unusual to find the same biologic processes on an alien world as well.

I suppose that the study of organics within meteorites will tell us a lot about the potential for convergent development. If the amino acids used are similar we could conclude that they may have seeded Earth with life. Even that would tell us a lot.

I guess the only way to find out is to get outside the solar system and look for ourselves.

That’s not to say that a life could not develop completely outside the bounds we see here on Earth, but I think that if these processes work here, they probably can and woould work anywhere that’s similar.

Jason Coleman on September 21, 2011 at 9:53 PM

That would certainly suggest that basic life is very common. Technological civilization may be something else entirely. God what I wouldn’t give to be on one of the first ships exploring another system.

sharrukin on September 21, 2011 at 10:06 PM

The theory, in short form, is that simple, unicellular life which thrives in a given climate has absolutely no reason to make the jump to something more complex and unlikely if the prevailing conditions are allowing it to succeed just fine as it is.

Liberalism is not a theory.

percysunshine on September 21, 2011 at 10:19 PM

will we find ET hard at work building a rocket? Or even something as advanced as a cow? Or is it far more likely, as Dr. Gleiser seems to suspect, that we’ll find worlds covered in green slime which have dominated their environment and never found a need to advance further?

Why not both? The planets in our universe are like grains of sand on a beach. It is theorized that our universe too is just a grain of sand on an endless beach. With the possibility for an infinite amount of combinations, it is rather naive to assert we are an exception that is unique.

paulsur on September 22, 2011 at 12:08 AM

There are so many billions of star systems in just this galaxy the idea that the rather unique conditions and processes that lead to us or at least life haven’t happened elsewhere is ridiculous.

On the other hand, life/intelligent life is far rarer than depicted in science fiction. There’s much more to the evolution of life on Earth than just being on a rocky planet the right distance from the sun. For example, if there wasn’t a Jupiter out there sweeping up debris Earth would have been blasted by far more dinosaur-killing asteroids than it has been. The Earth has a vigorous magnetic field deflecting a lot of stellar radiation that our “earth-like” neighbors Mars and Venus lack. A slightly less stable Sun would have (or could) overwhelm even it on occasion, causing more mass extinctions. Etc.

John Reece
http://www.johnreece.com/

kd6rxl on September 22, 2011 at 2:23 AM

quite a bit of our universe is, in our concept of time, much older than our solar system, with the amount of space and number of stars and planets involved its inconceivable to me that we could possibly be alone.

Speakup on September 22, 2011 at 3:12 AM

A few comments mention all the variables that make it difficult for life to exist or evolve. Some mentioned were distance from sun, planet size, gravity, the moon, atmosphere, etc. I would like to point back to the point made on extremophiles. We should not assume that life requires what life on earth requires. Trees take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, we do the opposite. Fish may take in oxygen, but they use a different system that takes it from water instead of the atmosphere. We assume water is required, but certain extremophiles thrive in volcanoes and extreme heat with minimal water. Why couldn’t a life form evolve to breath another element? What about an energy form instead of matter? NASA found life here in a bacteria that instead of using phosphorus for its building blocks, uses arsenic! There are other microbes that breath arsenic. I’m just saying there are too many assumptions and too much we don’t know to make truly educated guesses on the possibility of other life out there….especially in assuming it is unlikely.

Jay on September 22, 2011 at 2:36 PM

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/E/EU_BREAKING_LIGHT_SPEED?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

GENEVA (AP) — A fundamental pillar of physics – that nothing can go faster than the speed of light – appears to be smashed by an oddball subatomic particle that has apparently made a giant end run around Albert Einstein’s theories.

Scientists at the world’s largest physics lab said Thursday they have clocked neutrinos traveling faster than light. That’s something that according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity – the famous E (equals) mc2 equation – just doesn’t happen.

sharrukin on September 22, 2011 at 3:19 PM

Having a science degree, I have long believed in the law of large numbers. With soooo many galaxies filled with soooo many stars, of COURSE there was life out there, certainly many, many planets teaming with intelligent life.

Recently, though, as I looked at the fragility of life (ok, many forms are robust, but only with a narrow set of circumstances), it began to occur to me that the multiple sets of overlapping conditions, all of which much intersect with their own narrow Goldie Locks band, it seemed less and less likely that all of them made that intersection on a frequent basis.

On top of that, given the mind boggling distances involved, it is probably a moot point. We may never learn of another intelligent life form, we certainly will never meet them. Pooh pooh me for being “small minded” but I remind all that it’ll take 4 years, at the speed of light which we cannot hope to approach, just to reach the nearest star, nevermind another galaxy. The question is interesting, but academic at best.

NeoCon_1 on September 22, 2011 at 5:28 PM

I think Newt might make a fantastic VP.

jhffmn on September 22, 2011 at 11:36 PM

oops, wrong thread ^^

jhffmn on September 22, 2011 at 11:37 PM

And today, we hear that CERN has found a particle that travels faster than light. What do scientists really know for sure?

flataffect on September 23, 2011 at 1:10 AM

Comment pages: 1 2