Thursday, June 29, 2006

Better Blessed Than Lucky

Fill in the blank:

The mission of _________ is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

If you said The Roman Catholic Church, you're way off. If you said the starship Enterprise, you're wrong, but closer. Here's the answer.

Recently Discover magazine ran an article on the probabilities involved in finding this extraterrestrial life. They referenced the Drake Equation, which was developed in the 60's (that ever fruitful decade) to estimate the likelihood of finding another intelligent civilization. It involves estimating the rate of star creation, the fraction of those stars which have habitable planets, and the ratio of those planets to host the development of amino acids which eventually walk upright, build a radio, and send an electromagnetic signal into space for the good folks at SETI to tune into.

The equation is not without its critics, especially those who hold to the Rare Earth hypothesis. If you're into math, feel free to check them out (especially you, "Anonymous" from two posts down). I'm not going to attempt to debunk the theories myself.

What amazes me in this whole affair is how much the serious scientific hacks trip over themselves hoping to find this hypothetical life. It's like they'd somehow have proven Christianity wrong. "HA!" they'd shout. "God doesn't exist after all! We know this because Zim Floobar has a wife, three kids, a pet slimpet, and a minivan on Alpha Centauri!"

Last November astronomer and Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno published a booklet entitled, "Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life.' The blurb on the publisher's site states:

Humans have always looked at the stars and wondered if there is anybody else out there. This unique booklet, by a Vatican astronomer, explores the likelihood of other intelligent life in the universe and speculates on the questions that such a discovery would raise in matters of Faith. Questions like: Is original sin something that affected all intelligent beings? Is Jesus Christ's redemptive sacrifice sufficient for the whole Universe? Would there be a parallel history of salvation on other planets? This booklet is a fascinating meeting between science and religion.

There is no conflict between the Truth of Catholic teaching and the Truth of science. John Paul II once told a group of scientists, "Truth does not contradict truth." As Brother Consolmagno's booklet says, "What Genesis says about creation is true. God did it; God willed it; and God loves it. When science fills in the details of how God did it, science helps get a flavor of how rich and beautiful and inventive God really is."

So let's say one day a little red light starts blinking in some SETI facility, and we hear a voice from light-years away saying, "Testing, one, two, is this thing on?" What does that mean for the Faith?

No doubt our scientific community would pick up the newspaper that breaks the story, roll it up, and smack the Pope over the head with it, demanding a recantation of all Catholic teaching.

I wonder though, what would be the response of the scientists if the first message they heard from outside the solar system was, "Probatum, unus, duo... In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

Doubtless they'd all convert.

Hey, it could happen. In an infinite universe, everything will eventually happen.

I've always wondered, too: science always debunks the idea that Earth is the centre of the universe. Yet we are told (link is a PDF document, see page 25) that the edge of the visible universe is about 13 billion light years away. Ok... in all directions? Call me simple-minded if you will, but that sounds like we'd be in the middle of a three dimensional object. If it wasn't 13 billion light years in each direction, you'd think they'd tell us. Being in the centre says a lot about our origins, especially if the universe is expanding and we're watching it from a relative stand-still. Almost like something started from this point in space.

But the real question that faces us as a civilization gazing at the stars is, "Are we here because Somebody wanted us to be? Or are we just the unnoticed result of a series of grand cosmic coincidences?" In other words, "Are we blessed, or are we just lucky?"

I've known the embrace of God. You'll never convince me I'm not blessed.


  1. from Robert J BA BSc:

    well boogie howser, any comments about your grammar wisecrack over at SDA?

    and the reason the edge of the universe is the same distance in all directions is that it is staggringly immense, going unimaginable and untold distance beyond what we can see. the extent of the actual physical universe dwarfs the part we can see. which is a sphere 'somewhere' within its true extent. most certainly NOT at the exact centre.

    talk of 'alternate universes' is actually similar 'visible' universes, all overlapping at their edge. ALL part of only ONE universe that exists and ever will exist.

    it is however, FINITE in size and does NOT go on for 'infinity' as the sci fi types tell us. it is distorted by gravity but in a manner of speaking, only THREE dimensional. curiously it is getting bigger every second.

    so, still waiting for your further personal attack on me at SDA.

    and beware.

  2. Doh. Somebody stole my usernanme... :P

  3. Robert,

    First of all, let me opine that my comment at SDA was not a "personal attack" as you called it. It was nothing more than a cheap shot. But even a cheap shot is disrespectful, and further reflection twinges my conscience and I feel I must apologize; I tend to struggle with being charitable in my speech, especially in the ebb and flow of online wit between we tories and grits. I have not been respectful of you as a human being, and for that I am sorry. Looks like I'm already starting a list of my sins for my next confession.

    That being addressed, let me speak to some of your thoughts on the universe's edge. I acknowledge the theory that there is more to the universe than the 13.7 billion years worth of light we can see, and I am aware that this cosmic light horizon concept is somewhat definitive.

    But speaking from a simple 3-dimensional perspective, why have I never seen - and I have looked long and hard - an approximate location of this planet in the expanse of the visible universe? If it's not 13.7 billion light-years from here in all directions, it must be in one direction, for we have certainly measured that distance. So why not look in other corners of the sky for similar readings of distance? Has anybody even tried that?

    Until I know otherwise, I must presume that the scientific community is aware of, but not discussing, our centrality.

    Sure, the distance we're talking about is vast, but that renders a central location even more unlikely, and thus more significant if it's so. Also, we know that there are other objects in the 13.7 billion light-year radius (and I see that term used over and over again, which implies a central point) between us and the visible edge. We know that Abell 1835 IR1916 is about 13.2 billion light-years away. Cluster XMMXCS 2215-1738 is 10 billion. NGC 7318 is 300 million light-years distant. And we know of numerous other objects in much closer proximity, some as close as the galaxy SagDEG at a mere 80,000 light years.

    The estimated radius of the actual universe is around 78 billion light-years. This is estimated by considering that a light-year for a tiny, dense universe covers less distance than does a light-year in a universe which has expanded, and extrapolating the amount of space required for the original light to travel what to us looks like 13.7 billion light-years, but is actually much vaster as space has expanded.

    But nowhere, in all the references to other objects in the universe, do I see mention of THEIR proximity to the edge, which would presumably be offset from ours.

    Perhaps this is something that astronomers have simply never considered before. Or perhaps it's something that they have observed and don't want to consider due to its implications. Or perhaps I'm missing a piece of the puzzle.

    I welcome all knowledge, so I invite anybody to educate me on this matter.

    Oh, and may I counsel that name-calling does not befit a man of your learning?


Comments are welcome, but must be on topic. Spam, hateful/obscene remarks, and shameless self-promotion will be unceremoniously deleted. Well, OK, I might put on a little ceremony when I delete them.