Are we alone in the universe? Inquiring minds want to know.
Scientists are hailing the recent discovery of three new planets outside our solar system that, they hope, will provide new clues in our ever-expanding search for other life in the universe. In one case, they found two Earth-sized planets orbiting a sun-like star fewer than a thousand light-years away. In astronomical terms, that’s over on the next block. In the other case, a planet is going around its star at about the same distance that we are going around the sun—which brings it within the so-called “habitable zone.”
However, these three planets are not believed to have life. The two Earth-sized bodies are too close to the star they orbit, and thus much too hot, for Earth-like life to be present. The planet revolving around its sun at just the right distance is too large, probably more like gaseous Jupiter than like Earth.
According to National Geographic, so far 370 so-called “exoplanets” have been found—worlds going around stars other than the sun. To date, none has been shown to have life, intelligent or otherwise. The magazine describes a few of these exoplanets thusly:
There’s an Icarus-like “hot Saturn” 260 light-years from Earth, whirling around its parent star so rapidly that a year there lasts less than three days. Circling another star 150 light-years out is a scorched “hot Jupiter,” whose upper atmosphere is being blasted off to form a gigantic, comet-like tail. Three benighted planets have been found orbiting a pulsar—the remains of a once mighty star shrunk into a spinning atomic nucleus the size of a city—while untold numbers of worlds have evidently fallen into their suns or been flung out of their systems to become “floaters” that wander in eternal darkness.
The fact that no life has yet been found on other worlds is no surprise to scientists and others who take the existence of a phenomenon called fine tuning seriously. The physical laws and initial conditions of the universe appear to be so exquisitely balanced—in other words, fine tuned—that a minor change in any one of them would make life, and especially, intelligent life, impossible on this planet.
In others words, tinker with the force of gravity or the freezing properties of water or the composition of a star’s interior or the creation and existence of the moon or the precise location of our solar system on the Milky Way’s spiral arm, and life would not exist on Earth. Thus, a planet that would closely match the myriad conditions we enjoy would be rare indeed—if not nonexistent.
A corollary to fine tuning, the Anthropic Principle, holds that the universe appears to have been created for the existence of humanity—that we are not here by mere chance. “The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture,” physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson has noted, “the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”
Many scientists, however, say that the Anthropic Principle sounds too much like religion. So they seek some sort of escape clause that would explain fine tuning without recourse to a Creator.
Some simply assert that the mere fact that we are here at all means that we are simply extremely lucky. Out of all the possible universes that might have emerged from the primordial nothingness, the one that we inhabit, complete with all its improbable necessities for life, “just happened.” The theory seems to be something like, “If anything can go right, it will.” However, many scientists are uncomfortable taking refuge in odds that seem even less likely than for the existence of God, so they are continuing to seek alternatives.
One such alternative, called M-theory, is championed by scientific heavyweights such as Stephen Hawking. M-theory posits a nearly infinite number of universes, making the one we inhabit not only possible, but pretty much necessary. Yet we possess no direct evidence of other universes, nor are such data likely to ever be forthcoming. M-theory, despite the backing from champions such as Hawking, is little more than medieval metaphysics dressed up in scientific garb.
But the real probability that life outside the earth is extremely rare has not deterred scientists from continuing their search. Why do so many scientifically minded people—who would accuse Christians of using religion as the proverbial crutch—hope so fervently to find evidence that we are not “alone in the universe”? Why do those who disparage Christians as being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good” look so frequently for signs of something beyond us?
Columnist Charles Krauthammer (see my first link, above) puts his finger on it, I think: “For all the excitement . . . the search betrays a profound melancholy—a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.”
Scientific advancement is wonderful. Modern science was spearheaded, by and large, by believing Christians. If today’s scientists were to find life on other worlds, my faith would not be shaken. After all, God has already proven his genius as a Creator of all kinds of life here, even in areas inhospitable to human life. But it seems that the faith of many scientists depends on finding something that may, or may not, be out there.
Their search to relieve their existential human aloneness tells us something. Without God, people still desire meaning and relationship, something outside themselves. If they don’t get it from heaven, they will look for it in the heavens.
We naturally recoil at the thought of living in a merciless, silent universe, but we don’t have to. A biblical worldview tells us that the universe is full of Life and Love. Are we Christians prepared to tell our neighbors on this lonely outpost of air, rock, and water that, whatever turns up outside our solar system, we truly are not alone? Earth, after all, is the visited planet.
Stan Guthrie is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.