Archive for the ‘origins’ Tag

Life in the Universe III   13 comments

Isn't it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

Isn’t it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

At one time I thought God created everything, but I can’t remember ever truly believing it was during 6 very busy days.  I do remember giving serious consideration to whether or not Purgatory would be an interesting place to stop before going to Heaven, even if there was a small chance I could be sent instead to Hell by mistake.  Then soon after I seriously began studying science, I put my inner religious beliefs into a little box and went on, unencumbered, to feed my curiosity.  I didn’t throw my beliefs away.  I believe that as you go through life, you should try not to throw things away unless you really need to.  We already lose too much as we grow older.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

I learned that it’s likely life emerged from non-life by a trick of chemistry, and that was that.  I had bigger fish to fry – how the Earth and other planets formed.  I knew scientists didn’t really know exactly how life began, but I figured they would find out soon enough.  It wasn’t for me an important question for a long time.

(An aside: I sometimes wonder whether I would have become obsessed with life’s origins, had I went further in the direction I explored my senior year in college.  I was good at chemistry in college, and I took a class called Thermodynamic Geochemistry, which sounds a lot tougher than it actually was – but it would have gotten very tough if I had pursued it.)

Probably the world's oldest religion.

Probably the world’s oldest religion: Judaism.

Meanwhile, for the scientists who work on it, the origin of life has been an unusually thorny problem.  There have been many side-tracks along the way, from primordial soup to deep sea vents to extra-terrestrial origins (panspermia).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle for life: shallows of the sea.

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle of life: shallows of the sea.

 

The State of Our Knowledge of Life’s Origin

We don’t really know what kind of environment hosted the first life.  It could have been in a thermal area, or in ice, or even in solid rock.  It could have been on Mars.  But wherever it was, water very likely was the dominant substance surrounding the primitive beings.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

Perhaps a non-living compound underwent some chemical transformation into RNA.  RNA can do the work of forming proteins (as it’s doing right now inside you) but it can also reproduce, like DNA.   Then it’s just a matter of finding itself in the right place at the right time (pre-cells), to be put to work in an entirely novel way in something we would now call alive.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Or perhaps non-living structures similar to our body’s cells first started to form in high-energy environments (like deep sea vents) and they began to process energy (it’s thermodynamically favorable).  Then they began to reproduce (via RNA).  Most scientists believe that RNA is an important key.

Life was born because chemical compounds were formed at great odds.  Here salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Life was born because chemical compounds formed at great odds. Salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Perhaps you know of Craig Venter.  He’s the guy who led the team who first decoded the human genome.  He’s at work now on trying to create a living organism with no biological parents (actually a computer takes the parents’ place).  Many believe that creating life ourselves is necessary before we can understand how it arose.  As Richard Feynman once said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

You can see there is some uncertainty here, and every good chemist knows these transformations are not at all easy.  But it happened.  Stuff happens after all, and given a lot of time and the right environment, perhaps life has been emerging  everywhere, throughout the history of the universe.  So what if we can’t explain the moment of life’s creation.  Does it matter?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth's lifeless oceans?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth’s lifeless oceans?

I tend to think that life in this solar system evolved on Earth first, but I wouldn’t bee too surprised if it started on Mars first and was transported to Earth riding on a meteor.  I also believe that this question: how did life start, is an important one.  I think it will take us a big step forward in figuring out how life emerged in the universe.  How we got here is one thing, but it will take much more insight to discover why we are here.

This story will continue, so stay tuned…

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

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Life and the Universe I   8 comments

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

How is that for a title?  Perhaps a bit too broad for a blog post, ya think?  I know, I’ll spread it out over 2 or 3 posts, that should do it.

Actually I have been thinking about this subject in a different way off and on for a few years now.  It can be boiled down to this: does the universe show a consciousness?

Several cosmologists out there have written books where this idea is implied if not outright stated.  And these are scientists, so please don’t think I’m off my rocker!   Paul Davies is one scientist who has influenced my thinking.  He wrote a book in 2007 called Cosmic Jackpot where he discusses some of the theories behind modern cosmology, including the idea of the Multiverse.  He doesn’t stop, however, with yet another layman’s explanation of relativity or string theory.  He goes further and tackles quasi-religious “why” questions, such as:

  • Why is the universe so dang perfect for the emergence of life, when it could have been so easily hostile to life?
  • Why are we here, and why are we conscious?
  • Does the Universe itself have a consciousness?  If so, why?
The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

Davies isn’t the only cosmologist who is exploring these questions, but most scientists don’t go so far into speculation about the purpose for and meaning of life in this universe. My ideas as summarized in this post aren’t exact copies of Davies’, and they don’t use these cosmological ideas to springboard into fantasy land.  I’m not saying the ideas could not be the basis of a very good, and very bizarre, science fiction novel.  But in a way I am a good little scientist who doesn’t stray too far from what can be tested and established by observation and other lines of evidence.

I think the fact that our universe is so finely tuned to the emergence of life begs to be explained.  I also think that life is too often regarded as a sort of passive feature in the universe.  You have gas clouds, dust, rocks, and other stuff…and oh yeah, you also have life.  I really think it’s possible that it is much more than that.  It is now obvious that life has influenced everything on Earth from climate to the oceans, even minerals (whose incredible diversity on this planet is very likely because of life).

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

Just one example: a little over two billion years ago the atmosphere was infused with oxygen by micro-organisms who bloomed fantastically in the ancient oceans.  Mostly the changes that life has wrought on Earth have served to make the planet much more hospitable to…you guessed it, life!  In the example above, the oxygen in the atmosphere allowed the evolution of energy-hungry complex life.   Oxygen supplies enormous energy within your body’s cells, much more than any other element could.  There are many other examples; ask any good paleontologist and they’ll tell you.  Is all of this mere coincidence?

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won't be repeated for over 100 years.

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won’t be repeated for over 100 years.

Now Earth is the only model we have thus far to explore the tight inter-relationships between non-living matter, energy and life.  But looking out into the galaxy, we are finding more and more planets that are looking more and more like they might also harbor life.  When you consider the numbers involved, life might actually be quite common in the galaxy, and by extension the entire universe.  If we can find some of the same types of connections between life and the history of the cosmos that we have found on Earth, then we might be looking at something very profound indeed.

You might have heard that in astronomy, time starts with the Big Bang.  Nothing existed before this but a singularity, which takes up no space.  So what happened before the Big Bang?  That question is nonsensical, or unanswerable, or blah blah blah.   This is utter nonsense of course.  We might not be able to answer these questions about our origins right now, but they are certainly legitimate (and very important) scientific questions.  Next lecture you go to where the Big Bang is discussed, make sure and raise your hand to ask the question, what came before?  If the speaker is good, while probably not being able to answer definitively, she will never brush this question off with a lame excuse.

Storm clouds gather.

Storm clouds gather.

If we live in just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, of universes, in other words a Multiverse, then it is impossible to ignore the startling consequences.  And it goes beyond the admittedly bizarre fact that there could be another person virtually identical to you in a parallel universe.  If we are part of a Multiverse and begin to understand how it works, we could discover some mind-blowing things.  We might actually find out in the not-too-distant future how we got here, how all of this got going in the first place, and crucially, WHY.  Why are we here?

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it's alive.

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it’s alive.

Never let anybody tell you this isn’t a legitimate scientific question, that it’s outside the purview of science.  But I’ll excuse you for being selective regarding whom you get into a discussion of these matters with.  After all, religion tackles the same sorts of questions, and things can get emotional and personal real quick!  Science and religion mix much like water and oil do, and sometimes they mix more like pure sodium and water!

Next up: let’s dive into some real arm-waving speculation on these questions.  I welcome any and all comments and contributions, no matter how wacky you might think they are.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

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