In the ancient epochs of astronomy, it was tightly bound to social superstition, and there was little to set it apart from the religion of the day. The celestial sphere was perceived to be nearby, and charmingly benign. It was as if the stars in the sky were merely a backdrop to a world that existed entirely to nurture and benefit people. The self-importance that resulted from this myopic view is staggering. I’m trying to stay away from religion as much as I possibly can in telling this story, but gosh it’s a circus! We have in this day and age a popular conception of the creator of the Universe who is proudly male! Good grief! If there’s any one thing that persuades me that a literal take on biblical philosophy is incredibly naïve, it’s that God looks like a human male, and even more astoundingly, behaves like one, stereotypically. I’m not given to mocking the faith of others, but the conception of a patriarchal, sexist, chauvinist God is surely the most flabbergasting facet of a monumentally incredible belief system.
Science and religion eventually split, thankfully, and astronomy divorced itself at long last from astrology and fortune-telling for the rich and lazy. The development of the telescope in the 17th century gave the art a huge leg-up, and with it came revelation—the scale of the Universe was undoubtedly vast on the terrestrial scale, and there were other systems out there that emulated our own. Galileo saw planets in detail, and saw how they too had moons in orbit. He saw the phases of Venus, thereby verifying Copernicus’ model. Isaac Newton invented the reflecting telescope, published his cathartic, watershed Principia Mathematica, followed it with his Opticks in 1704, and we took off into a brave new world.
Discoveries in optics and the formulation of the concept of electromagnetism brought with them the stark realisation that much—perhaps most—of the cosmos is not perceptible to the human eye, and that the gentle, cocooning sky worshipped by our forefathers masked a Universe characterised by the most awesome violence. The revelation of invisible, high-energy radiation like X-rays and gamma rays, and later, the invention of instruments with which to detect them and transpose the images to optical wavebands, brought and still brings the most astounding discoveries about the large-scale environment. We began to get a glimmer of understanding of the overwhelmingly inhospitable world in which we have fortuitously found ourselves the tiniest speck of eco-friendliness. We are indeed in that sliver of “just-rightness” that we charmingly call the Goldilocks Zone.
The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy of average size, about 100,000 light years in diameter, and containing somewhere between 100 billion and 400 billion stars (we are stymied by the fact that we can’t look at it from outside). Some daring astronomers have estimated that it has about 50 billion planets, of which about 500 million are in the habitable zone, like the Earth is. Wow!
It would be easy to make too much of this. Especially in the Greco-Roman world of the last two millennia, patriarchal, monotheistic religion dominated and ruled with a heavy hand. The importance of our own species in the scheme of things was fertile ground for the propagation of a cosmology that was gloriously homo-centric. Quite honestly, I don’t have too much of a problem with that. We are at the centre of our own universe. This is the place that we look from. Apart from that though, the Earth’s address is not special. What is fairly obvious to the trained eye is that whatever we are part of, it is the outcome of these violent processes. Out of the strong came forth sweetness; from the fires of hell came the Earth, in all her sublime glory.
The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and things like the Drake equation that are used to encourage that pursuit, are based on a fundamental assumption that is not only puzzling but indeed also tacitly misleading. The notion is that life is the product of a chemical reaction—given the right ambient chemistry, something lifeless can become a living thing. What on Earth is that based upon? Life as we observe it is a relay race. The ephemeral spirit of living things is passed on through procreation, from one living thing to another, and although the terms and conditions of such a process are carried in a specifically coded molecule called DNA, life itself is quite another phenomenon. Living things always eventually become dead, but nowhere do we have an instance where something properly dead has been made alive again. We can recreate the chemical conditions pretty much exactly, but sorry, no cigar. We might want life to be a purely chemical process, but such a wishful supposition has not a single empirical precedent. Nowhere. I don’t care whether you’re an atheist, the Pope’s cousin, or a bionic meter maid, there is nothing in all the vast body of scientific observation and experiment that you could use to prop up the idea.
I have on my bookshelf a publication by Hoyle and Wickramasingh called “Lifecloud”, in which they put forward their hypothesis of panspermia. Simply put, their idea was that life could have been brought to Earth from other stars by comets. On one hand, it’s an appealing notion because it avoids the dubious premise that biological life could be created from sterile ingredients in a test tube or some particular “primordial stew”. Indeed, panspermia sidesteps the issue of a creation point for life altogether. In an infinite Universe, life could have existed always, and may of course migrate from place to place in living organisms. That brings us to the Achilles heel of panspermia: How would these living things stay alive during the rigours of the journey, from temperatures of minus 270 degrees C in interstellar space to a fiery descent in a planet’s atmosphere? Can’t see it myself. It answers some questions but raises others. Pity…
The proposal that life evolved from some prior lifeless state, given, say, organic compounds, water, and just the right temperature and pressure is utterly without basis in science. That we could spend millions of dollars building models over so fragile a foundation is typical of the way science is going, I’m afraid.