Choose life

Let’s just pause a moment and consider how astonishing it is that 229 extrasolar planets are currently known, all of them discovered since 1992. Our six-year old is (like I was at that age) fascinated by astronomy, and this has to be one of the most striking changes in astronomical knowledge compared with when I was his age. One of the great scientific revolutions of the past quarter-century.

And now we have news of a “Goldilocks” planet – one whose distance from its star makes it neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right for liquid water to be found on its surface. How long, I find myself wondering, before the Big One: the first detection of free oxygen – a strong indicator of life – in an exoplanet’s atmosphere?

I wonder how ready Christians are, intellectually and emotionally, for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Because we can be sure that the likes of Richard Dawkins are ready for it, and in particular to claim it as Christianity’s death-knell. It would be nothing of the sort, of course, but this claim would be aggressively made and in many quarters would rapidly become an unquestioned, self-evident truth.

If and when this happens (and personally I think we are talking when, and we’re talking sooner rather than later), we need to be ready to respond, not defensively, but singing:

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

– bearing in mind that, in biblical terms, “the earth” can refer to the whole visible realm “under heaven”.

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9 Responses to Choose life

  1. JR Hermeneut says:

    Unless they turn out to be Daleks, in which case perhaps we should best be singing:

    O my God, make them like whirling dust,
    like chaff before the wind.
    As fire consumes the forest,
    as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,

    or something like that.

  2. John H says:

    Well, as long as it involves Anglican chant somewhere along the line, I’m cool.

  3. Chris Williams says:

    Something I’ve wondered about for a while is if we’ll get to explore the rest of creation sometime after the current age.

    It’s pure fanciful imagination, but a nice one at that.

  4. Phil Walker says:

    One of the reasons I’ve always liked “The Lord is King! lift up your voice” is because I so want it to be the case that “from world to world the joy shall ring: the Lord Omnipotent is King!” ‘Course, that’ll probably mean putting humans on the Moon, or at a pinch, Mars, rather than Gliese 581 C (which really needs a rebranding exercise, pronto).

    Incidentally, while I’m very keen on the idea of finding alien plant and animal life, I’m not sure I’d be prepared for the discovery of intelligent, self-aware life. That’d throw up all sorts of horrendous questions about the Incarnation and the atonement.

  5. Devona says:

    Lemme tell you, It wouldn’t shake my faith in our God, but I am not looking forward to learning about an alien planet with intelligent life.

    Though I do know that as soon as we are able to fly ourselves out there, we will be doing so. And I doubt we’d be coming in peace. We’ll probably be abducting and probing them, just like we fear they’d do to us.

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  7. Josh S says:

    I am curious how anyone is able to say that water and oxygen on a planet can be a “strong indicator of life.” We have exactly one data point to make that claim. One. One data point is absolutely insufficient to draw a conclusion.

    As far as we know, water and oxygen are necessary conditions for life. That does not mean they are sufficient conditions, nor does it mean they establish the probability of life.

    I’m not saying there can’t be life there. I’m just saying people should stop embedding such crappy mathematics in their probabilistic language.

  8. John H says:

    Josh: water certainly isn’t an indicator of life in itself, though it certainly indicates a good place to start looking for life.

    Oxygen is a different matter, because free oxygen can’t survive long in an atmosphere unless it is being regenerated by some means. And while some other means could (I gather) do this, such as release of the gas from subterranean rocks, or interactions in the upper atmosphere to create ozone, the consensus seems to be that earthlike levels of oxygen could not be sustained without life.

    To put it another way, we have lots of data points to make that claim, as we know of a number of planetary atmospheres, but the only one which contains significant quantities of free oxygen is the one that contains life. And no alternative models have been proposed, other than life, that could produce earthlike levels of oxygen for sustained periods.

    OTOH my understanding is that the detection of oxygen would not be regarded as an absolute sign of life in the absence of other indicators. But the discovery of high levels of oxygen in a planetary atmosphere would still be enormously significant.

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