Sunday, June 23, 2019

Is There Life Out There? Another Step Toward Its Improbability

It seems that much of the current research in astrophysics and space science is focused on the search for extraterrestrial life. Whether we are sending probes to Mars, searching for extra-solar planets, or looking for water on moons and planets in our solar system, a major goal of these efforts is discovering environments that are suitable for life, or even finding evidence of life itself. The question of whether or not other life exists is not only an important scientific question, but maybe even a philosophical, sociological, psychological, and theological question as well.

Much of the search for extraterrestrial life has centered on whether or not a planet or moon is in an orbit that permits its surface to retain liquid water. The presence of liquid water is certainly one of the most important requirements for complex life. If a planet's location is too close the star it orbits then it will be too hot and water will boil away, and if a planet is too far from the star, all the water will freeze. The habitable zone is the region in which the planet's orbit is just the right distance from the star to harbor liquid water on its surface.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

God and the Nobel Prize

A religious skeptic recently told a friend of mine, "If someone were to find proof of the existence of God, that person would win a Nobel prize." It is certainly true that proof of God would be a monumental accomplishment worthy of great recognition, though I'm not sure which Nobel prize would be given for such a discovery: chemistry? peace? literature? After thinking about this for a while, it could be argued that there has already been a Nobel prize awarded for a scientific discovery that gave "proof" of God: the Nobel prize in physics in 1978.

Of course, in a scientific context, nothing is ever really proven to be absolutely true. Our theories and hypotheses may be tested and verified to the point that we believe they are most likely universally valid, but we don't say they are absolutely proven because if we were to find any exception in any circumstance to any general law then that law would not be absolutely true. Nevertheless, we certainly have overwhelming evidence that certain ideas seem to be always correct and we can call that "proof" in the context of this discussion about proof of God. With such a definition, we could say that the theory of special relativity is proven or that the principle that energy is always conserved is proven.

The story of the 1978 Nobel prize actually begins in 1927 when the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre proposed that the universe had a beginning, something he called the "primeval atom" or "cosmic egg."1 Lemaitre’s idea was not taken too seriously by most scientists because it was published in a fairly obscure journal and there was no evidence for such a beginning. But that changed in 1929 when the astrophysicist Edwin Hubble published a paper showing that galaxies were moving apart from each other; the universe was expanding.2 The implications of this discovery were recognized by scientists, theologians, and philosophers. If the universe were expanding now it must have started to expand at one point; it likely had a beginning. For many reasons, some philosophical and theological, scientists were reluctant to accept that the universe had a beginning. Many alternatives were proposed and evidence for these alternatives was actively searched for, with no positive results.