Did Jupiter Have a Greater Hand in the Shape of our Solar System than God?

A few weeks ago, two California scientists published an article that made the headlines on several news sites. The two scientists, Konstantin Batygin of CalTech and Greg Laughlin or UC Santa Cruz, theorized that the structure of our solar system was due, in large part, to the planet Jupiter having roamed through the inner solar system pushing smaller planets into the sun until yanked into a stable orbit by the formation of Saturn. According to the official abstract of the research hosted on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America webpage entitled “Jupiter’s decisive role in the inner Solar System’s early evolution”:  

The statistics of extrasolar planetary systems indicate that the default mode of planet formation generates planets with orbital periods shorter than 100 days and masses substantially exceeding that of the Earth. When viewed in this context, the Solar System is unusual. Here, we present simulations which show that a popular formation scenario for Jupiter and Saturn, in which Jupiter migrates inward from a > 5 astronomical units (AU) to a ≈ 1.5 AU before reversing direction, can explain the low overall mass of the Solar System’s terrestrial planets, as well as the absence of planets with a < 0.4 AU. Jupiter’s inward migration entrained s 10100 km planetesimals into low-order mean motion resonances, shepherding and exciting their orbits. The resulting collisional cascade generated a planetesimal disk that, evolving under gas drag, would have driven any preexisting short-period planets into the Sun. In this scenario, the Solar System’s terrestrial planets formed from gas-starved mass-depleted debris that remained after the primary period of dynamical evolution.

Now, I love this type of article. It takes me back to my boyhood days when I would watch endless re-runs of Star Trek (the original series) or catch new episodes of Space:1999 (possibly never re-run anywhere). It takes me back to reading Isaac Asimov (that self-aggrandizing old atheist/physicist) and Ray Bradbury (the author whose writing employed unique, descriptive metaphors adding unbelievable depth and vibrancy to every work). I love science, and especially space science. In fact, I loved space science so much that I looked into becoming an astronomer as a career at one point. (I know that surprises some secularists who have been trained to believe that any Christian – especially a conservative Christian – is anti-science, but it’s true. I hope that revelation shake up that secular worldview just a bit.) So, when I find an article about the history of our solar system written by an eminent astronomer and an equally eminent planetary scientist, I take notice.

Having said that, over time I have become more jaded about the pronouncements from scientists about origins. Scientists are very good about looking at things and explaining how things work. I rarely doubt when a scientist (not some science writer) tells me that X is the result of Y as demonstrated by experiment Z, where experiment Z is not simply a computer reconstruction. So, while I don’t doubt that Drs. Batygin and Laughlin could tell me thousands of facts about the solar system and Jupiter that I don’t know, when they go back in time and make predictions about something that happened millions of years ago based upon simulations which rely upon assumptions of fact that are really unknown, I take the article as interesting, even possible, but not necessarily correct. After all, if the model starts with speculations (granted, they are reasonable speculations based on other data), you end up with a solution that works only if the speculations are accurate – and no living human being knows or can know if the speculations are accurate. All that is needed for the computer to print out a wrong answer is any part of the data to be inaccurate.

So, while I find the idea of Jupiter running around like Pac-Man devouring some planets while pushing others into the sun like some type of celestial roller derby queen (okay, I know Jupiter would have followed some type of gravitationally induced path and not wandered around, but you get the picture), I find believing the theory to strain credulity. While I certainly don’t doubt that it is possible that they may be right, too much is conjecture to say with any degree of certitude that they are right.

Still, what I found most interesting as a Christian who is interested in apologetics and who loves space is actually found in the introductory language to the study that tell readers what motivated the creation of this simulation. The PNAS website’s material accompanying the abstract reinforces the interesting point in the portion of the page entitled “Significance.” It reads, “The Solar System is an unusual member of the galactic planetary census in that it lacks planets that reside in close proximity to the Sun.” This is similar to the language in the abstract already quoted above that says, “The statistics of extrasolar planetary systems indicate that the default mode of planet formation generates planets with orbital periods shorter than 100 days and masses substantially exceeding that of the Earth. When viewed in this context, the Solar System is unusual.” The CNN article on the paper entitled “Study: Jupiter's journey destroyed 'super-Earths,' laid groundwork for Earth” puts it this way: “The theory attempts to explain why our solar system is a bit of an oddball in our galactic neighborhood.

Yes, science notes and confirms that the solar system appears much different than the other planetary systems we have observed. In fact, it is “unusual” or “oddball.” I prefer “unique” although I am not certain that the authors would necessarily go that far. This unusual, oddball and unique nature of the solar system is quite in line with the theorists who believe that the earth has been especially suited to the creation of life – especially human life. In other words, whether Drs. Batygin and Laughlin recognized it or not, their study/simulation was motivated by the Anthropic Principle. For those unfamiliar with the Anthropic Principle, the principle is defined on the Reasons to Believe website in an article entitled “Anthropic Principle: A Precise Plan for Humanity” as follows:

The anthropic principle says that the universe appears "designed" for the sake of human life. More than a century of astronomy and physics research yields this unexpected observation: the emergence of humans and human civilization requires physical constants, laws, and properties that fall within certain narrow ranges—and this truth applies not only to the cosmos as a whole but also to the galaxy, planetary system, and planet humans occupy. To state the principle more dramatically, a preponderance of physical evidence points to humanity as the central theme of the cosmos.

As the abstract point out, in looking around our cosmic neighborhood the evidence points to the fact that our solar system is, once again, different, oddball, unusual…unique. This can be understood by Jupiter running loose kicking planets out of their orbits (certainly a possibility), but also by a God who created the universe and the solar system to host human life (a more likely scenario, in my opinion). And while I feel confident that the authors are good evolutionists who are seeking a way to explain the universe without God, I find it fascinating that their research appears motivated to explain the solar system’s uniqueness without God by unconsciously acknowledging that the solar system is different -- evidence which supports the idea that the universe was created for man by God.


Jason Pratt said…

This reminds me topically of some electrical-universe theories (most of which seem quite good to me, but this one seems quite spotty both on the science and on the folk anthropology often attached to it), to the effect that Saturn was the gas giant wandering around in the early days of our solar system -- WHICH HAPPENED TO BE DURING RELATIVELY RECENT HUMAN HISTORY! Like, not many centuries prior to the Christian (cough I mean "Common" {g}) Era.

Not that the usual proponents of this theory actually think humanity and the Earth are only six to ten thousand years old. And I can't for the life of me figure out how the astromechanics could have possibly worked. But while their anthropological argument has lots of holes large enough to through Mars and Venus through (M&V were supposed to be being dragged along behind Saturn, between it and Earth which was also being dragged along), it does have some curious data at least a little in its favor. Enough so that I'm not rejecting the idea completely.

Anyway, obviously the two notions are connected: almost always gas giants form a lot closer to the sun than ours, and the rocky planets (if any) out where our ggs currently are, so why is our system different?

So I thought I'd ping to see if you'd heard about the Saturn theory, too.

BK said…
Jason, I have to admit to not recalling hearing that before. But I am not as up-to-date on my planetary science as in former days. I will have to look that up. Thanks for sharing.
edwardtbabinski said…
Jupiter giveth and taketh away. It gives us protection from some comets and asteroids, but also disrupts otherwise stable orbits of same in the outer solar system, sending them our way:

"Jupiter... definitely sends asteroids and comets our way and, in any given year, more than 90 percent of all objects crossing Earth's orbit are asteroids, so the protection Jupiter provides us from long period comets, or by eventually removing short period comets, is of lesser importance. Hence Jupiter is not the friend that it has been perceived to be." http://www.space.com/14919-jupiter-comet-impacts-earth.html
edwardtbabinski said…
When discussing probabilities it looks to me like any number of other persons other than me could have arrived on the scene (judging by the numbers of sperm, eggs, different genetics, different upbringings, different circumstances possible). The same thought occurs to me concerning the particular species of which I happen to be a member, and what other species might have arisen other than homo sapiens. It doesn't look like a particular plan, but more like the cosmos is the result of tinkering around.

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