Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Was early Earth’s atmosphere suitable for creating the building blocks of life?

Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?

The Miller-Urey experiments

Biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe offers some evidence.


Today, the Miller-Urey experiment is considered to be irrelevant to the origin-of-life question. Current understanding of the composition of early Earth’s atmosphere differs significantly from the gas mix used by Miller. Most planetary scientists now think that the Earth’s primeval atmosphere consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. Laboratory experiments indicate that this gas mixture is incapable of yielding organic materials in Miller-Urey-type experiments.

In May 2003 origin-of-life researchers Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano, long-time associates of Miller, wrote an essay for Science (May 2, 2003, pp. 745-746)commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Miller’s initial results.They pointed out that the Miller-Urey experiment has historical significance, but not scientific importance in contemporary origin-of-life thought. Bada and Lazcano wrote:

Is the “prebiotic soup” theory a reasonable explanation for the emergence of life? Contemporary geoscientists tend to doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition used by Miller in 1953.

In his book Biogenesis, origin-of-life researcher Noam Lahav passes similar judgment:

The prebiotic conditions assumed by Miller and Urey were essentially those of a reducing atmosphere. Under slightly reducing conditions, the Miller-Urey reaction does not produce amino acids, nor does it produce the chemicals that may serve as the predecessors of other important biopolymer building blocks. Thus, by challenging the assumption of a reducing atmosphere, we challenge the very existence of the “prebiotic soup”, with its richness of biologically important organic compounds.

For many people, the generation of amino acids from simple chemical compounds thought to be present in early Earth’s atmosphere meant that life could originate all on its own without the need for a Creator. Work done on the early planetary conditions of Earth in the intervening decades between Miller’s famous experiment and his death, however, have invalidated this famous experiment and its support for an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin, in spite of what textbooks report.

The IDEA Center has a nice summary of origin-of-life research that explains why scientists no longer accept the idea that the building blocks of life can be formed by sparking the gasses that were present on the early Earth.

Miler and Urey used the wrong gasses:

Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere, however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing). The only amino acid produced in a such an atmosphere is glycine (and only when the hydrogen content is unreasonably high), and could not form the necessary building blocks of life.

Miller and Urey didn’t account for UV of molecular instability:

Not only would UV radiation destroy any molecules that were made, but their own short lifespans would also greatly limit their numbers. For example, at 100ºC (boiling point of water), the half lives of the nucleic acids Adenine and Guanine are 1 year, uracil is 12 years, and cytozine is 19 days (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments).

Miller and Urey didn’t account for molecular oxygen:

We all have know ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life from harmful UV radiation. However, ozone is composed of oxygen which is the very gas that Stanley Miller-type experiments avoided, for it prevents the synthesis of organic molecules like the ones obtained from the experiments! Pre-biotic synthesis is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The chemistry does not work if there is oxygen because the atmosphere would be non-reducing, but if there is no UV-light-blocking oxygen (i.e. ozone – O3) in the atmosphere, the amino acids would be quickly destroyed by extremely high amounts of UV light (which would have been 100 times stronger than today on the early earth).This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years, and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.

And there were three other problems too:

At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,” destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years. This severely limits the time available to create pre-biotic chemicals and allow for the OOL.

Chemically speaking, life uses only “left-handed” (“L”) amino acids and “right-handed” (“R)” genetic molecules. This is called “chirality,” and any account of the origin of life must somehow explain the origin of chirality. Nearly all chemical reactions produce “racemic” mixtures–mixtures with products that are 50% L and 50% R.

Two more problems are not mentioned in the article. A non-peptide bond anywhere in the chain will ruin the chain. You need around 200 amino acids to make a protein. If any of the bonds is not a peptide bond, the chain will not work in a living system. Additionally, the article does not mention the need for the experimenter to intervene in order to prevent interfering cross-reactions that would prevent the amino acids from forming. That’s another problem with the origin of life – experiments show that getting the building blocks requires an intelligence to intervene.

Now keep in mind that even if you get the building blocks, you are left with the sequencing problem – but that’s another topic for another day.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , ,

Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez lectures on intelligent design and habitability

The 5 video clips that make up the full lecture.

The playlist for all 5 clips is here.

About the speaker

Guillermo Gonzalez is an Associate Professor of Physics at Grove City College. He received his Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1993 from the University of Washington. He has done post-doctoral work at the University of Texas, Austin and at the University of Washington and has received fellowships, grants and awards from such institutions as NASA, the University of Washington, the Templeton Foundation, Sigma Xi (scientific research society) and the National Science Foundation.

Learn more about the speaker here.

The lecture

Here’s part 1 of 5:

And the rest are here:


  • What is the Copernican Principle?
  • Is the Earth’s suitability for hosting life rare in the universe?
  • Does the Earth have to be the center of the universe to be special?
  • How similar to the Earth does a planet have to be to support life?
  • What is the definition of life?
  • What are the three minimal requirements for life of any kind?
  • Requirement 1: A molecule that can store information (carbon)
  • Requirement 2: A medium in which chemicals can interact (liquid water)
  • Requirement 3: A diverse set of chemical elements
  • What is the best environment for life to exist?
  • Our place in the solar system: the circumstellar habitable zone
  • Our place in the galaxy: the galactic habitable zones
  • Our time in the universe’s history: the cosmic habitable age
  • Other habitability requirements (e.g. – metal-rich star, massive moon, etc.)
  • The orchestration needed to create a habitable planet
  • How different factors depend on one another through time
  • How tweaking one factor can adversely affect other factors
  • How many possible places are there in the universe where life could emerge?
  • Given these probabilistic resources, should we expect that there is life elsewhere?
  • How to calculate probabilities using the “Product Rule”
  • Can we infer that there is a Designer just because life is rare? Or do we need more?

The corelation between habitability and measurability.

  • Are the habitable places in the universe also the best places to do science?
  • Do the factors that make Earth habitable also make it good for doing science?
  • Some places and times in the history of the universe are more habitable than others
  • Those exact places and times also allow us to make scientific discoveries
  • Observing solar eclipses and structure of our star, the Sun
  • Observing stars and galaxies
  • Observing the cosmic microwave background radiation
  • Observing the acceleration of the universe caused by dark matter and energy
  • Observing the abundances of light elements like helium of hydrogen
  • These observations support the big bang and fine-tuning arguments for God’s existence
  • It is exactly like placing observatories on the tops of mountains
  • There are observers existing in the best places to observe things
  • This is EXACTLY how the universe has been designed for making scientific discoveries

This lecture was delivered by Guillermo Gonzalez in 2007 at the University of California at Davis.

Filed under: Videos, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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: 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, , , , , , , , ,

How likely is it for blind forces to sequence a functional protein by chance?

How likely is it that you could swish together amino acids randomly and come up with a sequence that would fold up into a functional protein?

Evolution News reports on research performed by Doug Axe at Cambridge University, and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Molecular Biology.


Doug Axe’s research likewise studies genes that it turns out show great evidence of design. Axe studied the sensitivities of protein function to mutations. In these “mutational sensitivity” tests, Dr. Axe mutated certain amino acids in various proteins, or studied the differences between similar proteins, to see how mutations or changes affected their ability to function properly.10 He found that protein function was highly sensitive to mutation, and that proteins are not very tolerant to changes in their amino acid sequences. In other words, when you mutate, tweak, or change these proteins slightly, they stopped working. In one of his papers, he thus concludes that “functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences,” and that functional protein folds “may be as low as 1 in 10^77.”11 The extreme unlikelihood of finding functional proteins has important implications for intelligent design.

Just so you know, those footnotes say this:

[10.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004); Douglas D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol. 301:585-595 (2000).

[11.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004).

And remember, you need a lot more than just 1 protein in order to create even the simplest living system. Can you generate that many proteins in the short time between when the Earth cools and the first living cells appear? Even if we spot the naturalist a prebiotic soup as big as the universe, and try to make sequences as fast as possible, it’s unlikely to generate even one protein in the time before first life appears.

Here’s Doug Axe to explain his research:

If you are building a protein for the FIRST TIME, you have to get it right all at once – not by building up to it gradually using supposed Darwinian mechanisms. That’s because there is no replication before you have the first replicator. The first replicator cannot rely on explanations that require replication to already be in place.

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