New planets, God, and tuna casserole

Science
by Jeff Koch
Posted 7/31/15, 09:45 am

The scientific and media communities launched into frenzied excitement last week over NASA’s discovery of Kepler 452b, a new earth-like exoplanet. Although NASA has catalogued many such planets over the last few years, Kepler 452b is the first to occupy the “habitable zone” of a sun-like star, allowing greater likelihood for the development of liquid water.

Headlines everywhere heralded “Earth 2.0,” conjuring up visions of interstellar travel, interplanetary colonization and, of course, meeting and greeting our ET friends. It seemed almost a done deal, especially in light of planetary images showing a ball as blue and beautiful as Earth. Of course, the fine print underneath the pictures, denoting them as artist renderings, turns out to be important. As does the articles’ abundant use of qualifiers such as if, could, and might.

In fact, almost everything about Kepler 452b is shrouded in mystery. Scientists appear confident about its size, age, and orbit, but NASA admits the planet’s “mass and composition are not yet determined.” It couldbe “potentially rocky,” according to Wikipedia, or it might be a dwarfish gas planet with no solid surface at all.

All this might easily be resolved by a quick pop-by for tea, of course, but the visit may have to wait awhile. At a distance of 1,400 light years, making the trip with current technology will take about 26 million years, according to Wikipedia. So for now, 452b remains a mystery.

That didn’t stop the Huffington Post from confidently proclaiming, “Earth 2.0: Bad News for God.” Author Jeff Schweitzer argues its sheer existence, in tandem with the overall volume of stars, demonstrates “there are likely thousands or millions or even billions of such earth-like planets in the universe.” Therefore, the discovery of Kepler 452b brings us “ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe.”

This annihilates the religious proposition altogether, according to Schweitzer. He quotes extensively from Genesis to prove the Bible never mentions life outside Earth. And since the Bible is silent on alien life, it therefore does not allow for it, according to the writer. Schweitzer also quotes from Galileo’s heresy trial as proof the Bible necessarily leads to false scientific conclusions, such as the claim Earth sits at the center of the universe.

Although the discovery of life should instantly eliminate religion, Schweitzer ruefully predicts it will not. Instead, religionists will make a desperate effort “to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications … don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

But before believers get their concession speeches and sheepish faces ready, Discovery Institute fellow David Klinghoffer notes it takes much more to create life than raw materials. Assembling those materials into life—and building new varieties of life—is an exorbitantly complex process driven by information.

To illustrate, he proposes the example of a tuna casserole. First, line up all the ingredients carefully on the counter.

“Now sit back and relax,” he writes. “How long before these items assemble themselves into a tuna casserole? Pour yourself a glass of wine and watch what happens.”

Klinghoffer imagines an earthquake to help the process along: “The cheese collides with the grater. A tuna can knocks into the can opener. The water sloshes in the pot and some gets on the unopened bag of pasta. … Ridiculous? No more so than stories that are a regular feature of science news that expect incomparably greater wonders to follow automatically when the ‘ingredients’ of life, or some of them, appear to be in place—whether on a distant, Earth-like exoplanet or on the early Earth itself.”

Jeff Koch

Jeff is a mortgage lender and graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. He lives with his wife and their eight children in the Chicago area.

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