Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Why does God allow so much natural evil from earthquakes?

My friend Eric Chabot of Ratio Christi shared this video with me, which features chemist Fazale Rana.

The video runs under 4 minutes:

Basically, there was an atheist who challenged the idea that nature is designed because there are things in nature which cause suffering, like earthquakes and volcanoes.

Now the first thing to note is that atheists commonly think that God’s job is to make humans happy. If he doesn’t make humans feel happy – regardless of their knowledge of him and relationship with him – then he is a big failure. Many atheists think that, it is one of the most common reasons why people become atheists. But of course anyone who reads the Bible and reads the story of Jesus knows that the purpose of life on God’s view is for humans to know him and to be disciples of a suffering Messiah who sacrifices himself in order to obey God the Father.  So that’s the first thing to say – purpose of life not happiness, but knowledge of God and being a disciple of Jesus. This may involve all kinds of suffering, and that’s to be expected.

Second, there is a response to the problem of evil based on the necessity of natural laws. The argument goes that you can’t have genuine morality without a predictable, knowable system of natural laws.

But I want to talk about something different in this post. In the video, Dr. Rana thinks that many of the things that cause suffering in the natural world are actually necessary for life to exist at all. He provides the example of plate tectonics in his video above, and I want to take that one and add to it the example of heavy element production and the stellar lifecycle. These are both from a book called “Rare Earth”, which is written by two non-Christians – Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, but I’ll link to web sites to make the case.

Plate tectonics.

Here’s an article from Reasons to Believe by Dr. David Rogstad, who has a PhD in physics from Caltech – the top school for experimental science. The article not only goes over the basic plate tectonics to carbonate-silicate cycle connection, but it adds a newer discovery to boot.

Excerpt:

Earthquakes are a byproduct of plate tectonics, a theory in geology developed in recent years for explaining motions near the surface of the Earth. One of the benefits from plate tectonics is that Earth maintains the right levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere to compensate for the Sun’s increasing luminosity. This is accomplished by what is called the carbonate-silicate cycle. CO2 is removed from the atmosphere through weathering. The weathered products are eventually drawn into the Earth’s interior via plate tectonics. Processes inside the Earth’s interior release the CO2 back into the atmosphere via volcanoes. While all aspects of this mechanism are not yet fully understood, it has been instrumental in providing a stable environment for life on the Earth for billions of years.

New research provides yet another component that appears fine-tuned for life. In a letter in the September 27, 2007 issue of Nature together with a corresponding news release from the University of Bonn, Arno Rohrbach and his colleagues have discussed another mechanism similar to the carbonate-silicate cycle. It also depends on plate tectonics but, in this case, the mechanism controls the amount of oxygen on the surface of the Earth.

Oxygen becomes bound up in various oxides which are then drawn into the Earth’s interior, where various processes result in its being incorporated into an exotic mineral called majorite. The results reported in this letter established that majorite functions as a kind of “reservoir” for oxygen, and when the majorite ascends nearer to the surface of the Earth it breaks down and releases its oxygen. Some of this oxygen also binds with hydrogen released from the interior of the Earth to form water. The authors have referred to the whole process as an “oxygen elevator.”

They go on to say that “without the ‘oxygen elevator’ in its mantle the Earth would probably be a barren planet hostile to life. According to our findings, planets below a certain size hardly have any chance of forming a stable atmosphere with a high water content.”

This research confirms the existence of one more finely tuned mechanism that depends on plate tectonics and contributes to an environment that can support life. It also gives humans one more reason to be appreciative rather than dismayed when we experience an earthquake that breaks some precious possessions beyond repair.

Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross who has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Toronto and did a 5-year post-doctoral work at Caltech, adds to this with another discovery.

Excerpt:

In the December 2007 issue of Astrobiology Stanford University geophysicists Norman H. Sleep and Mark D. Zoback note that the higher tectonic activity during Earth’s early history could have played a key role in cycling critically important nutrients and energy sources for life. The production of numerous small faults in the brittle primordial crust released trapped nutrients. Such faults could also release pockets of methane gas and molecular hydrogen. The methane and hydrogen could then provide crucial energy sources for nonphotosynthetic life. Finally, the production of faults could bring water to otherwise arid habitats, such as rocks far below Earth’s surface.

Faulting, generated by active and widespread tectonics, allowed a youthful Earth to support diverse and abundant life. This enhanced diversity and abundance of life quickly transformed Earth’s surface into an environment safe for advanced life. Also, the buildup of biodeposits for the support of human civilization occurred more rapidly due to active tectonics.

The more rapid preparation of Earth for humanity is critical. Without such rapid preparation, humans could not come upon the terrestrial scene before the Sun’s increasing luminosity would make their presence impossible (due to excessive heat).

So that’s the science behind earthquakes. So that’s a brief look at why we need plate tectonics for life, and we just have to buck up and take the earthquakes with it. It’s not God’s job to give us happiness and health. That’s not his plan. People who complain about earthquakes have to show how God could get the life-permitting effects of earthquakes without wrecking his ability to succeed in his plan to make people know him and follow him. But how can an atheist do that? They can’t. I think that people just need to realize that humans are not in charge here and we have to live with that. We have to accept that we didn’t make the universe, and we don’t get to decide what purpose it has. God decides.

On to star formation.

Star formation

Atheists often complain that the universe is too big or too old (which is actually the same thing, since the more time passes, the more it expands). The fact of the matter is that life appeared the earliest it could appear – we needed the universe to be a certain age before it could support life.

Dr. Hugh Ross explains in this article.

Excerpt:

The second parameter of the universe to be measured was its age. For many decades astronomers and others have wondered why, given God exists, He would wait so many billions of years to make life. Why did He not do it right away? The answer is that, given the laws and constants of physics God chose to create, it takes about ten to twelve billion years just to fuse enough heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of several generations of giant stars to make life chemistry possible.

Life could not happen any earlier in the universe than it did on Earth. Nor could it happen much later. As the universe ages, stars like the sun located in the right part of the galaxy for life (see chapter 15) and in a stable nuclear burning phase become increasingly rare. If the universe were just a few billion years older, such stars would no longer exist.

The Rare Earth book explains the details on p. 40-4:

The trick for getting from helium to the generation of planets, and ultimately to life, was the formation of carbon, the key element for the success of life and for the production of heavy elements in stars. Carbon could not form in the early moments following the Big Bang, because the density of the expanding mass was too low for the necessary collisions to occur. Carbon formation had to await the creation of giant red stars, whose dense interiors are massive enough to allow such collisions. Because stars become red giants only in the last 10% of their lifetimes (when they have used up much of the hydrogen in their cores), there was no carbon in the Universe for hundreds of millions to several billion years after the Big Bang—and hence no life as we know it for that interval of time.

[...]The sequence of element production in the Big Bang and in stars provided not only the elements necessary for the formation of Earth and the other terrestrial planets but also all of the elements critical for life—those actually needed to form living organisms and their habitats.

[...]The processes that occurred during the billions of years of Earth’s “prehistory” when its elements were produced are generally well understood. Elements are produced within stars; some are released back into space and are recycled into and out of generations of new stars. When the sun and its planets formed, they were just a random sampling of this generated and reprocessed material. Nevertheless, it is believed that the “cosmic abundance” mix of the chemical elements—the elemental composition of the sun—is representative of the building material of most stars and planets, with the major variation being the ratio of hydrogen to heavy elements.

[...]Many stars are similar in composition, but there is variation, mainly in the abundance of the heavier Earth-forming elements relative to hydrogen and helium. The sun is in fact somewhat peculiar in that it contains about 25% more heavy elements than typical nearby stars of similar mass. In extremely old stars, the abundance of heavy elements, may be as low as a thousandth of that in the sun. Abundance of heavy elements is roughly correlated with age. As time passed, the heavy-element content of the Universe as a whole increased, so newly formed stars are on the average more “enriched” in heavy elements than older ones.

[...]The matter produced in the Big Bang was enriched in heavier elements by cycling in and out of stars. Like biological entities, stars form, evolve, and die. In the process of their death, stars ultimately become compact objects such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, or even black holes. On their evolutionary paths to these ends, they eject matter back into space, where it is recycled and further enriched in heavy elements. New stars rise from the ashes of the old. This is why we say that each of the individual atoms in Earth and in all of its creatures—including us—has occupied the interior of at least a few different stars.

What he’s saying is that heavy elements are created gradually because of the star formation lifecycle. The first generation of stars are metal-poor. The next generation of stars is better. And so on until we get to stars that can support life by providing a steady, stable amount of energy – as well as other benefits like planets with an atmosphere.  Our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and the universe is about 14 billion years old. Simple life appears about 4 billion years ago on Earth. That means we got life practically immediately, given that we had to develop the heavy elements needed to make a life-supporting star, a life-supporting planet and our physical bodies

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scientists discover that tides affect a planet’s habitability

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Science Daily reports on a new factor that affects planetary habitability: tides. Specifically, tides can affect the surface temperature of a planet, which has to be within a certain range in order to support liquid water – a requirement for life of any conceivable kind.

Excerpt:

Tides can render the so-called “habitable zone” around low-mass stars uninhabitable. This is the main result of a recently published study by a team of astronomers led by René Heller of the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam.

[...]Until now, the two main drivers thought to determine a planet’s temperature were the distance to the central star and the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. By studying the tides caused by low-mass stars on their potential earth-like companions, Heller and his colleagues have concluded that tidal effects modify the traditional concept of the habitable zone.

Heller deduced this from three different effects. Firstly, tides can cause the axis of a planet`s rotation to become perpendicular to its orbit in just a few million years. In comparison, Earth’s axis of rotation is inclined by 23.5 degrees — an effect which causes our seasons. Owing to this effect, there would be no seasonal variation on such Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of low-mass stars. These planets would have huge temperature differences between their poles, which would be in perpetual deep freeze, and their hot equators which in the long run would evaporate any atmosphere. This temperature difference would cause extreme winds and storms.

The second effect of these tides would be to heat up the exoplanet, similar to the tidal heating of Io, a moon of Jupiter that shows global vulcanism.

Finally, tides can cause the rotational period of the planet (the planet’s “day”) to synchronize with the orbital period (the planet’s “year”). This situation is identical to the Earth-moon setup: the moon only shows Earth one face, the other side being known as “the dark side of the moon.” As a result one half of the exoplanet receives extreme radiation from the star while the other half freezes in eternal darkness.

The habitable zone around low-mass stars is therefore not very comfortable — it may even be uninhabitable.

Here is my previous post on the factors needed for a habitable planet. Now we just have one more. I actually find this article sort of odd, because my understanding of stars was that only high-mass stars could support life at all. This is because if the mass of the planet was too low, the habitable zone wouldbe very close to the star. Being too close to the star causes tidal locking, which means that the planet doesn’t spin on its axis at all, and the same side faces the star. This is a life killer.

This astrophysicist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin explains it better than me.

Excerpt:

Higher-mass stars tend to be larger and luminous than their lower-mass counterparts. Therefore, their habitable zones are situated further out. In addition, however, their HZs are much broader. As an illustration,

  • a 0.2 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 0.1 to 0.2 AU
  • a 1.0 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 1 to 2 AU
  • a 40 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 350 to 600 AU

On these grounds, it would seem that high-mass starts are the best candidates for finding planets within a habitable zone. However, these stars emit most of their radiation in the far ultraviolet (FUV), which can be highly damaging to life, and also contributes to photodissociation and the loss of water. Furthermore, the lifetimes of these stars is so short (around 10 million years) that there is not enough time for life to begin.

Very low mass stars have the longest lifetimes of all, but their HZs are very close in and very narrow. Therefore, the chances of a planet being formed within the HZ are small. Additionally, even if a planet did form within the HZ, it would become tidally locked, so that the same hemisphere always faced the star. Even though liquid water might exist on such a planet, the climactic conditions would probably be too severe to permit life.

In between the high- and low-mass stars lie those like our own Sun, which make up about 15% percent of the stars in the galaxy. These have reasonably-broad HZs, do not suffer from FUV irradiation, and have lifetimes of the order of 10 billion years. Therefore, they are the best candidates for harbouring planets where life might be able to begin.

This guy is just someone I found through a web search. He has a support-the-unions-sticker on his web page, so he’s a liberal crackpot. But he makes my point, anyway, so that’s good enough for me.

Maybe the new discovery is talking about this now, but I already knew about the tides and habitability, because I watched The Privileged Planet DVD. Actually that whole video is online, and the clip that talks about the habitable zone and water is linked in this blog post I wrote before.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scientists troubled by lack of simple explanation for our life-permitting moon

This entire article from Evolution News is a must-read. It talks about a recent paper by a naturalist named Robin Canup which appeared in Nature, the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journal.

So, there’s too much to quote here. I’ll grab a few snippets to give you the gist of it, then you click through and read the whole thing. 

The moon is important for the existence of a life permitting planet:

Canup knows our moon is important for life:

The Moon is more than just a familiar sight in our skies. It dictates conditions on Earth. The Moon is large enough to stabilize our planet’s rotation, holding Earth’s polar axis steady to within a few degrees. Without it, the current Earth’s tilt would vary chaotically by tens of degrees. Such large variationsmight not preclude life, but would lead to a vastly different climate.

The moon requires an improbable sequence of events:

Canup states that “No current impact model stands out as more compelling than the rest.” All are equally improbable, in other words. Indeed, they are:

It remains troubling that all of the current impact models invoke a process after the impact to effectively erase a primary outcome of the event — either by changing the disk’s composition through mixing for the canonical impact, or by changing Earth’s spin rate for the high-angular-momentum narratives.

Sequences of events do occur in nature, and yet we strive to avoid such complexity in our models. We seek the simplest possible solution, as a matter of scientific aesthetics and because simple solutions are often more probable. As the number of steps increases, the likelihood of a particular sequence decreases. Current impact models are more complex and seem less probable than the original giant-impact concept.

This is a good challenge to naturalism, but it lends support to one part of the habitability argument.

Previously, I blogged about a few of the minimum requirements that a planet must satisfy in order to support complex life.

Here they are:

  • a solar system with a single massive Sun than can serve as a long-lived, stable source of energy
  • a terrestrial planet (non-gaseous)
  • the planet must be the right distance from the sun in order to preserve liquid water at the surface – if it’s too close, the water is burnt off in a runaway greenhouse effect, if it’s too far, the water is permanently frozen in a runaway glaciation
  • the solar system must be placed at the right place in the galaxy – not too near dangerous radiation, but close enough to other stars to be able to absorb heavy elements after neighboring stars die
  • a moon of sufficient mass to stabilize the tilt of the planet’s rotation
  • plate tectonics
  • an oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • a sweeper planet to deflect comets, etc.
  • planetary neighbors must have non-eccentric orbits

This is a good argument, so if you want to learn more about it, get the “The Privileged Planet” DVD, or the book of the same name.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How Earth-like are the 8.8 billion Earth-like planets from a recent estimate?

Previously, I blogged about a few of the minimum requirements that a planet must satisfy in order to support complex life.

Here they are:

  • a solar system with a single massive Sun than can serve as a long-lived, stable source of energy
  • a terrestrial planet (non-gaseous)
  • the planet must be the right distance from the sun in order to preserve liquid water at the surface – if it’s too close, the water is burnt off in a runaway greenhouse effect, if it’s too far, the water is permanently frozen in a runaway glaciation
  • the solar system must be placed at the right place in the galaxy – not too near dangerous radiation, but close enough to other stars to be able to absorb heavy elements after neighboring stars die
  • a moon of sufficient mass to stabilize the tilt of the planet’s rotation
  • plate tectonics
  • an oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • a sweeper planet to deflect comets, etc.
  • planetary neighbors must have non-eccentric orbits

Now what happens if we disregard all of that, and just classify an Earth-like planet as one which only has to potentially support liquid water at the surface? Well, you get a very high estimate of Earth-like planets.

Science journalist Denyse O’Leary responds to a recent estimate based on this questionable criterion, which placed the number of Earth-like planets at 8.8 billion.

Excerpt: (links removed)

A current official definition of habitable planets is “in the zone around the star where liquid water could exist,” but the ones discovered so far are unsuitable in many other ways.

Then a new cosmology term hit the media, “super-Earths.” It means “bigger than Earth,” but smaller than gas giant Neptune. Super-Earths could be the most numerous type of planet, in tight orbits around their star — which is actually bad news for life.Nonetheless, some insist, they may be more attractive to life than Earth is. Indeed, the Copernican Principle allows us to assume that some are inhabited already.

In reality, even the rocky exoplanets (known as of early 2013) that are Earth-sized are not Earth-like. For example, the Kepler mission’s first rocky planet find is described as follows: “Although similar in size to Earth, its orbit lasts just 0.84 days, making it likely that the planet is a scorched, waterless world with a sea of lava on its starlit side.” As space program physicist Rob Sheldon puts it, Earth is a rocky planet but so is a solid chunk of iron at 1300 degrees orbiting a few solar radii above the star. In any event, a planet may look Earth-like but have a very different internal structure and atmosphere.”

David Klinghoffer notes that the study is estimating that 8.8 billion number, but the actual number of Earth-like planets we can see is much lower.

He writes:

The study is supposed to be a major step forward because of its unprecedented accuracy:

For the first time, scientists calculated — not estimated — what percent of stars that are just like our sun have planets similar to Earth: 22 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 8 percentage points.

Oh! You see, they calculated. They didn’t just estimate.

Because there are probably hundreds of planets missed for every one found, the study did intricate extrapolations to come up with the 22 percent figure — a calculation that outside scientists say is fair.

Oh. They calculated in the sense of “extrapolating” to “come up” with a figure. In other words, they estimated. The figure of “8.8 billion stars with Earth-size planets in the habitable temperature zone” comes down a bit too when you talk about actual planets that have been observed instead of being merely conjectured and “calculated.”

Scientists at a Kepler science conference Monday said they have found 833 new candidate planets with the space telescope, bringing the total of planets they’ve spotted to 3,538, but most aren’t candidates for life.

Kepler has identified only 10 planets that are about Earth’s size circling sun-like stars and are in the habitable zone, including one called Kepler 69-c.

Ah hah. So from the initial, trumpets-blaring figure of 8.8 billion we’re down more realistically to 10. Not 10 billion, just 10. Meanwhile the silence from space continues absolutely unabated.

That’s the way it tends to go with stories like this, the blaring headline and the inevitable letdown.

One part of the AP press release makes the point that the estimate does not include all the minimum requirements for life. For example, you need an atmosphere, as I stated above. Do the estimated 8.8 billion Earth-like planets have an Earth-like atmosphere? How about an oxygen-rich atmosphere, do the 8.8 billion Earth-like planets have that?

NO:

The next step, scientists say, is to look for atmospheres on these planets with powerful space telescopes that have yet to be launched. That would yield further clues to whether any of these planets do, in fact, harbor life.

You know, after the whole global warming hoax, you would think that these headline writers would have learned their lesson about sensationalizing wild-assed guesses in order to scare up more research money. But a lot of true-believing naturalists are just going to read the headline and not the rest of the article, and they will never know that they’ve been had. Again. I love experimental science, but I don’t love the politicization of science. 

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What makes a planet suitable for supporting complex life?

The Circumstellar Habitable Zone (CHZ)

What do you need in order to have a planet that supports complex life? First, you need liquid water at the surface of the planet. But there is only a narrow range of temperatures that can support liquid water. It turns out that the size of the star that your planet orbits around has a lot to do with whether you get liquid water or not. A heavy, metal-rich star allows you to have a habitable planet far enough from the star so  the planet can support liquid water on the planet’s surface while still being able to spin on its axis. The zone where a planet can have liquid water at the surface is called the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ). A metal-rich star like our Sun is very massive, which moves the habitable zone out further away from the star. If our star were smaller, we would have to orbit much closer to the star in order to have liquid water at the surface. Unfortunately, if you go too close to the star, then your planet becomes tidally locked, like the moon is tidally locked to Earth. Tidally locked planets are inhospitable to life.

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Here, watch a clip from The Privileged Planet: (Clip 4 of 12, full playlist here)

But there’s more.

The Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ)

So, where do you get the heavy elements you need for your heavy metal-rich star?

You have to get the heavy elements for your star from supernova explosions – explosions that occur when certain types of stars die. That’s where heavy elements come from. But you can’t be TOO CLOSE to the dying stars, because you will get hit by nasty radiation and explosions. So to get the heavy elements from the dying stars, your solar system needs to be in the galactic habitable zone (GHZ) – the zone where you can pickup the heavy elements you need but not get hit by radiation and explosions. The GHZ lies between the spiral arms of a spiral galaxy. Not only do you have to be in between the arms of the spiral galaxy, but you also cannot be too close to the center of the galaxy. The center of the galaxy is too dense and you will get hit with massive radiation that will break down your life chemistry. But you also can’t be too far from the center, because you won’t get enough heavy elements because there are fewer dying stars the further out you go. You need to be in between the spiral arms, a medium distance from the center of the galaxy.

Like this:

Galactic Habitable Zone

Galactic Habitable Zone and Solar Habitable Zone

Here, watch a clip from The Privileged Planet: (Clip 10 of 12, full playlist here)

The GHZ is based on a discovery made by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, which made the front cover of Scientific American in 2001. That’s right, the cover of Scientific American. I actually stole the image above of the GHZ and CHZ (aka solar habitable zone) from his Scientific American article (linked above).

These are just a few of the things you need in order to get a planet that supports life.

Here are a few of the more well-known ones:

  • a solar system with a single massive Sun than can serve as a long-lived, stable source of energy
  • a terrestrial planet (non-gaseous)
  • the planet must be the right distance from the sun in order to preserve liquid water at the surface – if it’s too close, the water is burnt off in a runaway greenhouse effect, if it’s too far, the water is permanently frozen in a runaway glaciation
  • the solar system must be placed at the right place in the galaxy – not too near dangerous radiation, but close enough to other stars to be able to absorb heavy elements after neighboring stars die
  • a moon of sufficient mass to stabilize the tilt of the planet’s rotation
  • plate tectonics
  • an oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • a sweeper planet to deflect comets, etc.
  • planetary neighbors must have non-eccentric orbits

By the way, you can watch a lecture with Guillermo Gonzalez explaining his ideas further. This lecture was delivered at UC Davis in 2007. That link has a link to the playlist of the lecture, a bio of the speaker, and a summary of all the topics he discussed in the lecture. An excellent place to learn the requirements for a suitable habitat for life.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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