Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Is silicon-based life a possible alternative for carbon-based life?

In a recent debate, atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg responded to the cosmic fine-tuning argument presented by William Lane Craig by asserting that complex life could be other than it is. He specifically mentioned silicon-based life.

Let’s see what scientists think of his speculation, using this article from Scientific American.


Group IV of the Periodic Table of the Elements contains carbon (C), silicon (Si) and several heavy metals. Carbon, of course, is the building block of life as we know it. So is it possible that a planet exists in some other solar system where silicon substitutes for carbon? Several science fiction stories feature silicon-based life-forms–sentient crystals, gruesome golden grains of sand and even a creature whose spoor or scat was bricks of silica left behind. The novellas are good reading, but there are a few problems with the chemistry.

Indeed, carbon and silicon share many characteristics. Each has a so-called valence of four–meaning that individual atoms make four bonds with other elements in forming chemical compounds. Each element bonds to oxygen. Each forms long chains, called polymers, in which it alternates with oxygen. In the simplest case, carbon yields a polymer called poly-acetal, a plastic used in synthetic fibers and equipment. Silicon yields polymeric silicones, which we use to waterproof cloth or lubricate metal and plastic parts.

But when carbon oxidizes–or unites with oxygen say, during burning–it becomes the gas carbon dioxide; silicon oxidizes to the solid silicon dioxide, called silica. The fact that silicon oxidizes to a solid is one basic reason as to why it cannot support life. Silica, or sand is a solid because silicon likes oxygen all too well, and the silicon dioxide forms a lattice in which one silicon atom is surrounded by four oxygen atoms. Silicate compounds that have SiO4-4 units also exist in such minerals as feldspars, micas, zeolites or talcs. And these solid systems pose disposal problems for a living system.

So, first of all, it makes SAND. Second of all, it is so attracted to oxygen that it can’t easily join to make any other polymers that could be used in the chemistry of the minimal functions of a living system.


Also consider that a life-form needs some way to collect, store and utilize energy. The energy must come from the environment. Once absorbed or ingested, the energy must be released exactly where and when it is needed. Otherwise, all of the energy might liberate its heat at once, incinerating the life-form. In a carbon-based world, the basic storage element is a carbohydrate having the formula Cx(HOH)y. This carbohydrate oxidizes to water and carbon dioxide, which are then exchanged with the air; the carbons are connected by single bonds into a chain, a process called catenation. A carbon-based life-form “burns” this fuel in controlled steps using speed regulators called enzymes.

These large, complicated molecules do their job with great precision only because they have a property called “handedness.” When any one enzyme “mates” with compounds it is helping to react, the two molecular shapes fit together like a lock and key, or a shake of hands. In fact, many carbon-based molecules take advantage of right and left-hand forms. For instance, nature chose the same stable six-carbon carbohydrate to store energy both in our livers (in the form of the polymer called glycogen) and in trees (in the form of the polymer cellulose).

Glycogen and cellulose differ mainly in the handedness of a single carbon atom, which forms when the carbohydrate polymerizes, or forms a chain. Cellulose has the most stable form of the two possibilities; glycogen is the next most stable. Because humans don’t have enzymes to break cellulose down into its basic carbohydrate, we cannot utilize it as food. But many lower life-forms, such as bacteria, can.

In short, handedness is the characteristic that provides a variety of biomolecules with their ability to recognize and regulate sundry biological processes. And silicon doesn’t form many compounds having handedness. Thus, it would be difficult for a silicon-based life-form to achieve all of the wonderful regulating and recognition functions that carbon-based enzymes perform for us.

The troubling thing I find about atheists is that they seem to be under the impression that an alternative speculative explanation is a refutation of an argument that is based in evidence.

So it goes like this:

  • origin of the universe? I can speculate about a naturalistic alternative cosmology which is falsified by observations
  • cosmic fine-tuning? I can speculate about an untestable multiverse
  • origin of life? I can speculate about unobservable aliens who seeded the Earth with life
  • Cambrian explosion? I can speculate about intermediary fossils that have not yet been discovered
  • habitability? I can speculate that habitable planets exist just outside the boundary of the observable universe
  • resurrection of Jesus? I can speculate that Jesus had an unknown, identical twin brother who showed up when he died and took his place

I think that if we are going to make a worldview, we should ground it in the evidence we have today. We should not have faith in speculative theories that we heard about on Star Trek. Seriously.

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

Jupiter deflects comets and asteroids that might otherwise hit Earth

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

This is an older article from Astrobiology magazine, but it shows how important Jupiter is for habitability.


To a biologist, the ingredients needed to form life include water, heat and organic chemicals. But some in the astrophysics and astronomy community argue that life, at least advanced life, may require an additional component: a Jupiter-sized planet in the solar neighborhood.

“A long-period Jupiter may be a prerequisite for advanced life,” said Dr. Alan Boss, a researcher in planetary formation. Boss, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

In our own solar system, Jupiter, with its enormous gravitational field, plays an important protective role. By deflecting comets and asteroids that might otherwise hit Earth, Jupiter has helped to create a more stable environment for life to evolve here. It’s generally believed that a massive impact was responsible 65 million years ago for wiping out dinosaurs on Earth. If not for Jupiter, it’s possible that many other such impacts would have occurred throughout Earth’s history, preventing advanced life from ever gaining a foothold.

Jupiter is significant not only for its size but also for its location in our solar system, far from the Sun. Because it orbits at slightly more than 5 AU (astronomical units the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 1 AU), there is plenty of room in the inner part of our Solar System to accommodate a range of smaller planets.

Within the inner solar system there exists a region, known as the habitable zone, where liquid water, and therefore life, can potentially exist on a planet’s surface. Without liquid water, life as we know it is not possible. The habitable zone around our Sun stretches roughly from the orbit of Venus to the orbit of Mars. Venus is generally believed to be too hot to support life. Earth, it appears, is just right. And the jury is still out on Mars.

Understanding the role that Jupiter plays in our own Solar System helps astronomers focus their search for habitable planets around other stars. “If,” Boss explains, “a Jupiter-mass planet on a stable, circular orbit [around another star at] around 4 to 5 AU was found, without any evidence for other gas giant planets with shorter period orbits, such a discovery would be like a neon light in the cosmos pointed toward that star, saying ‘Look here!’. That star would be a prime target for looking for a habitable, Earth-like planet.”

Previously, I blogged about how the circular orbit of Saturn and the mass of our star also play a role in making our planet habitable.

People who are not curious about science sort of take these blessings for granted and push away the God who is responsible for the clever life-permitting design of our habitat. In contrast, theists are curious and excited about what science tells us about the Creator. Theists care about science, but naturalists have to sort of keep experimental science at arm’s length – away from the presuppositions and assumptions that allow them to have autonomy to live life without respect, accountability and gratitude. Naturalists take refuge in the relief provided by speculative science and science fiction. They like to listen to their leaders speculate about speculative theories, and willingly buy up books by snarky speculators who think that nothing is really something (Krauss), or who think that the cosmic fine-tuning is not real (Stenger), or who think that silicon-based life is a viable scenario (Rosenberg), etc. But theists prefer actual science. Truth matters to us, and we willingly adjust our behavior to fit the scientific facts.

UPDATE: Rebuttal to me here at The Secular Outpost.

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

New study: invisible shield above the Earth protects us from electron threat

Science Daily reports on a new paper published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature.


A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth that blocks so-called “killer electrons,” which whip around the planet at near-light speed and have been known to threaten astronauts, fry satellites and degrade space systems during intense solar storms.

The barrier to the particle motion was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, two doughnut-shaped rings above Earth that are filled with high-energy electrons and protons, said Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Held in place by Earth’s magnetic field, the Van Allen radiation belts periodically swell and shrink in response to incoming energy disturbances from the sun.

As the first significant discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts were detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen and his team at the University of Iowa and were found to be composed of an inner and outer belt extending up to 25,000 miles above Earth’s surface. In 2013, Baker — who received his doctorate under Van Allen — led a team that used the twin Van Allen Probes launched by NASA in 2012 to discover a third, transient “storage ring” between the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts that seems to come and go with the intensity of space weather.

The latest mystery revolves around an “extremely sharp” boundary at the inner edge of the outer belt at roughly 7,200 miles in altitude that appears to block the ultrafast electrons from breeching the shield and moving deeper towards Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker, the study’s lead author. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”

A paper on the subject was published in the Nov. 27 issue of Nature.

Something for us to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day.

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

New study: gamma ray bursts make life impossible in 90% of galaxies

Galactic Habitable Zone

Galactic Habitable Zone

When you argue for theism from science, you typically use arguments like these:

  • the origin of the universe from nothing (the Big Bang)
  • the fine-tuning of cosmic constants and quantities
  • the origin of the first living cell
  • the sudden origin of animal phyla in the Cambrian explosion
  • the fine-tuning of the galaxy for complex, embodied mind
  • the fine-tuning of the solar system for complex, embodied mind
  • the fine-tuning of the planet (and moon)  for complex, embodied mind

This is a peer-reviewed article from Science, one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It speaks to the fine-tuning of the galaxy for life.

The article says:

Of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, only one in 10 can support complex life like that on Earth, a pair of astrophysicists argues. Everywhere else, stellar explosions known as gamma ray bursts would regularly wipe out any life forms more elaborate than microbes. The detonations also kept the universe lifeless for billions of years after the big bang, the researchers say.

[…]Astrophysicists once thought gamma ray bursts would be most common in regions of galaxies where stars are forming rapidly from gas clouds. But recent data show that the picture is more complex: Long bursts occur mainly in star-forming regions with relatively low levels of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium—low in “metallicity,” in astronomers’ jargon.

Using the average metallicity and the rough distribution of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, Piran and Jimenez estimate the rates for long and short bursts across the galaxy. They find that the more-energetic long bursts are the real killers and that the chance Earth has been exposed to a lethal blast in the past billion years is about 50%. Some astrophysicists have suggested a gamma ray burst may have caused the Ordovician extinction, a global cataclysm about 450 million years ago that wiped out 80% of Earth’s species, Piran notes.

The researchers then estimate how badly a planet would get fried in different parts of the galaxy. The sheer density of stars in the middle of the galaxy ensures that planets within about 6500 light-years of the galactic center have a greater than 95% chance of having suffered a lethal gamma ray blast in the last billion years, they find. Generally, they conclude, life is possible only in the outer regions of large galaxies. (Our own solar system is about 27,000 light-years from the center.)

Things are even bleaker in other galaxies, the researchers report. Compared with the Milky Way, most galaxies are small and low in metallicity. As a result, 90% of them should have too many long gamma ray bursts to sustain life, they argue. What’s more, for about 5 billion years after the big bang, all galaxies were like that, so long gamma ray bursts would have made life impossible anywhere.

But are 90% of the galaxies barren? That may be going too far, Thomas says. The radiation exposures Piran and Jimenez talk about would do great damage, but they likely wouldn’t snuff out every microbe, he contends. “Completely wiping out life?” he says. “Maybe not.” But Piran says the real issue is the existence of life with the potential for intelligence. “It’s almost certain that bacteria and lower forms of life could survive such an event,” he acknowledges. “But [for more complex life] it would be like hitting a reset button. You’d have to start over from scratch.”

The analysis could have practical implications for the search for life on other planets, Piran says. For decades, scientists with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, have used radio telescopes to search for signals from intelligent life on planets around distant stars. But SETI researchers are looking mostly toward the center of the Milky Way, where the stars are more abundant, Piran says. That’s precisely where gamma ray bursts may make intelligent life impossible, he says: “We are saying maybe you should look in the exact opposite direction.”

You need to be able to pick up enough heavy elements from surrounding supernovae to make a metal-rich star, but you have to be far enough away from other stars to avoid getting blasted with gamma rays. The metal-rich star is needed to be able to support the circumstellar habitable zone, which is the zone where liquid water exists on the planet’s surface.

It’s important to understand that this factor in the study just a few of the things you need in order to get a planet that supports life. The more factors you add, the more unexpected complex, embodied life of any kind becomes.

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

There’s a good video on the galactic habitable zone for you to watch right here:

It takes a lot to make just one planet that can support complex, embodied life of any kind.

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

New study: Saturn’s orbit keeps Earth in the circumstellar habitable zone

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

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. So we need a star massive enough to give us a nice wide habitable zone far away from the Sun itself.

But even with the right size star, which we have in our solar sytem, we still have CHZ problems. Just because a planet starts off in the circumstellar habitable zone, it doesn’t mean that it will stay there.

Jay Richards tweeted about this new article from the New Scientist, which talks about that very problem.

Excerpt: (links removed)

Earth’s comfortable temperatures may be thanks to Saturn’s good behaviour. If the ringed giant’s orbit had been slightly different, Earth’s orbit could have been wildly elongated, like that of a long-period comet.

Our solar system is a tidy sort of place: planetary orbits here tend to be circular and lie in the same plane, unlike the highly eccentric orbits of many exoplanets. Elke Pilat-Lohinger of the University of Vienna, Austria, was interested in the idea that the combined influence of Jupiter and Saturn – the solar system’s heavyweights – could have shaped other planets’ orbits. She used computer models to study how changing the orbits of these two giant planets might affect the Earth.

Earth’s orbit is so nearly circular that its distance from the sun only varies between 147 and 152 million kilometres, or around 2 per cent about the average. Moving Saturn’s orbit just 10 percent closer in would disrupt that by creating a resonance – essentially a periodic tug – that would stretch out the Earth’s orbit by tens of millions of kilometres. That would result in the Earth spending part of each year outside the habitable zone, the ring around the sun where temperatures are right for liquid water.

Tilting Saturn’s orbit would also stretch out Earth’s orbit. According to a simple model that did not include other inner planets, the greater the tilt, the more the elongation increased. Adding Venus and Mars to the model stabilised the orbits of all three planets, but the elongation nonetheless rose as Saturn’s orbit got more tilted. Pilat-Lohinger says a 20-degree tilt would bring the innermost part of Earth’s orbit closer to the sun than Venus.

So the evidence for a out solar system being fine-tuned for life keeps piling up. It’s just another factor that has to be just right so that complex, embodied life could exist here. All of these factors need to be just right, not just the orbits of any other massive planets. And you need at least one massive planet to attract comets and other such unwelcome intruders away from the life-permitting planets.

Here’s a good clip explaining the circumstellar habitable zone:

The factor I blogged about today is just one 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

Here is a study that I wrote about recently about galactic habitable zones.

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

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