Star Trek, Proxima b, Nanovehicles and the Unlikely Appearance of Life
Star Trek turns 50. Wow!
We have likely come to the point where the majority of the American population has been raised on what I call the Star Trek Vision. It's a very positive and optimistic vision that is easy to embrace. It is the vision of humanity traversing the galaxy in a sleek spaceship (more of a space hotel, actually) in search of "new life and new civilizations." And the universe responds to this search by being populated by a whole host of alien races that are largely like humanity or somewhere on the road between becoming like humanity or having evolved beyond humanity. The Star Trek crew has the "Prime Directive" of not interfering with the developing populations, but when it encounters alien civilizations at our level or beyond, the crew aspires to befriend any and all who accept the Federation's vision of universal peace. (Rarely, if ever, has the crew encountered the likes of the aliens in Independence Day, although the Borg are a reasonable comparison.) In the Star Trek Vision, life abounds on virtually every non-gas giant planet that the crew visits.
I expect it is this vision that has been so ingrained in our national psyche that has led us to have great faith in the idea that life must almost certainly be present and abounding in every corner of the universe. I remember when I was in Law School, one of my fellow students told me that his father didn't believe in God because "with all of the planets out there, there has to be more intelligent beings than humanity in the universe, and so that means the Biblical teaching that man was created special is hogwash." (I may not have the exact wording down, but that was the gist of what I was told.) You see, somewhere it became the popular belief that it is inevitable that life somehow bursts into existence if the right conditions exist. And with a million-billion stars in the universe (and that number may be low), there has to be other places in the universe where life exists and therefore life exists elsewhere in the universe. Hence, we spend hours of time searching the galaxy for signs of life - from the SETI project to the search for water on Mars or Titan to (most recently) the search for planets outside of our solar system capable of sustaining life.
And this optimistic expectation that life will spontaneously arise which has led to another phenomenon: the belief that if we can find a nearby planet with something as simple as water, it follows that it is very likely that life exists on that planet. In fact, it happens almost every month - a planet is found which becomes the new "favorite" for finding life outside of Earth. The latest candidate is Proxima b - a planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri a mere 4.2 light years from Earth. Close enough, in cosmic terms, to be like a short drive out of town for dinner. Of course, 4.2 light years is a lot farther than an out of town restaurant, and will take many years to reach in terms of real space travel.
But, of course, the finding of this little rocky world that may have water (note my emphasis on "may") immediately catapults to stardom (no pun intended) Proxima b as the next possible place where life may exist. Immediately, the speculation erupted. According to a story on AmericanBazaarOnline entitled "Astronomers discover new ‘Earth’ planet which may have water, life on it" the assumptions began before the discovery was officially announced.
It is assumed that the planet is in the habitable zone of the star leading to the possibility of having liquid water on its surface. “The still nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface — an important requirement for the emergence of life,” the source said. “Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by,” the source added.
The excitement continued the next day after the discovery was announced. The LA Times reported:
Could life exist on Proxima b? There are several unknowns that make it impossible to say right now, according to scientists. The planet is tidally locked to Proxima Centauri, so one side may permanently face the star while the other remains shrouded in darkness. But if there is an atmosphere, it should redistribute heat across the surface, the researchers said.As an M dwarf, Proxima Centauri is prone to frequent flares and bursts of X-rays that would send down 400 times the X-ray flux that Earth receives from the sun, according to the study. Those X-rays could eat away at the atmosphere, even if one exists.And it’s also not clear whether water could have survived on the planet over the eons. The answer depends on how violent the star was in the past and where the planet originated — both of which remain a mystery.***If there were life on this planet, it probably survived either underground or deep within its hypothetical oceans, said Kaltenegger, the director of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute, which is dedicated to the search for habitable worlds. But there’s a chance that organisms evolved to handle the extreme radiation that may reach the surface, she added, perhaps by using biofluorescence.
It seems that anytime there is the possibility of water on a planet, the speculation immediately cranks up the "this is a possible home for life" meme. Having lived 50 years with the Star Trek Vision, it is perfectly understandable. If the conditions exist that might possibly support life - especially the existence of water which seems to be the single most relevant factor needed to support life - then it must be that life exists there because everyone knows that the universe is simply oozing with life.
Well, yes, the conditions can exist that make it more likely that life can be sustained in a particular location. In fact, I don't have any doubt that there are many earth-like planets in the universe of a million-billion stars which sit in the habitable zone, have water, have an oxygen atmosphere and are not bizarre step-children with characteristics that make them unlikely that they could really support life (like orbiting a brown dwarf star or having no planetary rotation). But the fact that habitable planets exist that could support life does not prove that there is life out there to support.
If that statement comes as a surprise or if you find it to be a flight of fancy it is because you have been immersed in the Star Trek Vision. The simple fact is that scientists cannot give an explanation as to how life began. Oh certainly some scientists propose theories about life forming around deep water vents, but these remain pretty tenuous theories without much more than a hope that they are truthful. And if we don't know how life began we have no real basis for saying that life could begin in other places simply because the conditions necessary to support life exist.
Consider this: those with the Star Trek Vision believe have become convinced that life is so amazingly part and parcel of the universe that it will almost certainly spontaneously arise under the right conditions. Well, if life was so easily created that there must be thousands or even millions of planets with life because life arises so easily, why is it that scientists have been unable to create life in a controlled environment like a laboratory? Perhaps, life does not spring into existence as easily as those with this Vision believe.
Moreover, there are some well-respected scientists who appear to be 100% believers in the natural occurrence of life who, through year's of research, arrived at the same conclusion. Over at the under-appreciated Proslogion blog, Jay L. Wile, Ph.D. (Nuclear Chemistry) recently published a post entitled "Dr. James Tour Tells Us How Little We Know About the Origin of Life." Dr. Tour, it turns out, is a very accomplished scientist. According to Dr. Wile:
Dr. Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry. For example, he is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. For those who aren’t familiar with the academic structure of universities, only the most elite professors are appointed to a position that is named in honor of someone else. This is called an “endowed professorship,” and anyone who holds such a position is in the upper echelon of academia. He has won several awards for his outstanding research accomplishments, including being named by Thomson Reuters as one of the top ten chemists in the world in 2009. Not only is his research outstanding, but he is also an excellent teacher, having earned the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching at Rice University in both 2007 and 2012.
In the post, Dr. Wile reviewed an article written by Dr. Tour entitled "Animadversions of a Synthetic Chemist" (you know he must be bright to use the word "animadversions" in a sentence and not mean some new character or feature in an Anime movie) and a related video of a lecture on the same subject entitled "The Origin of Life: An Inside Story - 2016 Lectures (with James Tour)." In both the video and the article, Dr. Tabor takes a step by step walk through biochemistry and concludes that scientists who believe that we are even close to understanding abiogenesis (how life began) don't have a clue what they are talking about. As stated by Dr. Wile, Dr. Tours is saying "We have no idea how some of the most basic molecules necessary for life could have been produced by unguided processes."
Dr. Wile's article (which is much shorter and distills down the points of the lecture to just a few paragraphs) points out the Dr. Tours discusses the fact that he, as a synthetic organic chemist, managed to create a nanovehicle (a vehicle made from a very few molecules). The creation of this nanovehicle was a very involved process. According to Dr. Wile:
If you want to get an idea of how complicated it all is, he gives the details on how he made one of the many chemicals that he needed (episulfide 37). It involved starting with a pristinely-cleaned flask, a chemical that had been made and purified in a previous step, an organic solvent (not water), and two simple chemicals. Since the reaction produces heat that would destroy the process, the flask was soaked in a very cold bath so that it wouldn’t get too hot. After that, it was cooled even more. The solution was then filtered, and the resulting liquid went through another chemical reaction that produced a solid, which was (once again) filtered. The filtered solid was then washed with alcohol and dried under vacuum.
That was how they made just one of the many chemicals they had to make in order to produce a nanocar. Temperature had to be carefully regulated throughout the process, and to make that single chemical, two separate filtering steps had to be performed. Finally, to get rid of all traces of liquid, the solid had to be dried under a vacuum.
As you can see, the process to create this single nanovehicle was extremely difficult. And here's the point: According to Dr. Tours, "Designing nanoncars is child’s play in comparison to the complexity involved in the synthesis of proteins, enzymes, DNA, RNA, and polysaccharides, let alone their assembly into complex functional macroscopic systems." In his Animadversions article, Dr. Tours concludes:
THOSE WHO THINK scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer—and possibly a radically different—scientific theory. The basis upon which we as scientists are relying is so shaky that we must openly state the situation for what it is: it is a mystery.
While I do agree that it is possible that there is some simple mechanism that today's scientists with all of their equipment, supplies and grants have overlooked, it certainly appears that abiogenesis is not something that readily or easily happens. Even if abiogenesis did happen through natural processes on Earth, that act may be a unique event in the history of the universe, and unlike the Star Trek Vision, all that we may discover out there are planets that may have water and oxygen atmospheres, but are otherwise barren, lifeless rocks. Maybe that's all that our future in space holds.
It may be the case - despite protests from the naturalistic purists -- that we not only are presently not able to piece together how life arises naturally without a designer, but it may be that the creation of life is something so incredibly complex which requires such perfect circumstances to occur that it cannot possibly happen without a designer. Maybe the idea of a God who created life isn't that far-fetched after all.