September 2, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Turning Astrobiology Surprises Into Evolutionary Fiction

There’s never been a surprise that a good astrobiologist hasn’t been able to spin into an evolutionary tale.

For a recent example, see the post “How old are the first planets?” on NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine or the reprint on PhysOrg.  In this article, every surprise or anomaly became fodder for Keith Cooper’s imagination.  Here are a few of the unexpected observations in the article that Cooper worked into the grand scenario of cosmic evolution and the origin of life:

1.  Rocky planets:  The Kepler spacecraft has found rocky worlds around metal-poor stars that were previously thought to lack ingredients for planets.  Solution: “one way of looking at terrestrial planets is to see them as failed gas giant cores.”  Even more exciting, it means (contrary to earlier beliefs) that rocky planets – and maybe life – may abound around metal-poor stars!  “If Earth-sized planets do not require stars with high abundances of heavy elements, then that has huge implications, expanding the possible abodes for life throughout both space and time.”  Cooper even jumped from his imaginary solution to the conclusion that it implies the “Galactic Habitable Zone” might be wider than thought.

2. Fermi Paradox:  Point #1 raises the ghost of the Fermi Paradox: if there are so many rocky worlds with life, how come none have visited the earth by now?  (Their inhabitants, presumably, have had billions of years to evolve advanced technology.)  Solution: Dodge the question with a distracting discussion of how and when gas giants can evolve around low-metal stars.

3.  Heavy metal galaxies:  The evolutionary scenario predicted heavy elements would gradually increase over time; early galaxies, therefore, should be depleted in heavy elements.  “Twelve billion years ago the chemistry of galaxies should have been fairly primitive,” Cooper confessed, yet a distant galaxy matched the sun in heavy elements.  Solution: “The best explanation so far is that a starburst – a ferociously rapid bout of star formation – within the inner regions of the galaxy has blown the heavy elements into the galactic outlands.”  In philosophy of science, this is known as a post hoc rationalization.

4. Planet billiards:  Gas giants should wreak havoc with rocky planets, sending them careening out of a star’s planetary system as the gas giants migrate inward, but Kepler has found rocky planets interspersed between gas giants. Solution: claim that “what difficulties gas giants can cause for habitable planets, they don’t necessarily have to be a show-stopper“.  But if they are, it only takes one to stop the show.

5. Impoverished gas giants:  Gas giants were thought to require an abundance of heavy elements to form cores for accretion of gas, but some have been found around metal-poor stars.  Solution: “it must have formed very early in the history of the Universe,” or, “Why gas giants have been able to form around these heavy-metal deficient stars is unknown, perhaps hinting at an alternative process for gas planet formation.

These and other anomalies, failed expectations and surprises are dealt with accordingly by Cooper and his astronomer interviewees.  Given a lively imagination, no problem is too damning to falsify biological evolution, planetary evolution, stellar evolution, galactic evolution and cosmic evolution.  Here’s how Cooper roused his readers’ imaginations in a sweeping set of glittering generalities (after dodging the 4th point above about planet billiards, and while dodging example #2 about the Fermi Paradox):

Regardless, one thing is becoming clear: that sufficient raw materials for building terrestrial planets were available very soon after the Big Bang, raising the possibility that there could be life in the Universe far older than we. Perhaps they reside around long-lived red dwarf stars, or have moved on from their home system after their star expired. Or, perhaps, we really are the first, which means that if life has happened just once throughout the entire history of the Universe, our existence must be a fluke and our planet very, very special indeed.

Such a conclusion would allow for any eventuality: even the uniqueness of life on earth would fit an evolutionary scenario.

In another article on PhysOrg, planetary theorist Alan Boss came up with a novel way to get refractory compounds into comets, where they were previously thought not to exist: cook them near the sun, then send them out to the fringes by special delivery.  “Their meandering trips back and forth could help explain the different compositions of their rims.”  This, along with a discussion of calcium-aluminum inclusions (CAIs) in meteorites, was touted as solving two solar system puzzles at one blow.  “It’s nice to solve two problems at once,” said Boss. “But there are still many more puzzles about meteorites for us to work on.”  Incidentally, his theory of disk instability for the formation of gas giants runs counter to the core accretion model Keith Cooper assumed in his article.

Astronomer Stephen Weinberg once defined an expert as “a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.”  In this case, Cooper and his Darwin Party experts don’t avoid any errors: they actually use the large errors to sweep on to the grand fallacy.  We might also recall that an expert (ex-spurt) used to be a spurt, but is now just a drip.  Oh, their empirical observations are doing fine: the Kepler spacecraft, the spectrometers, the equations – all built using intelligent design – are pulling the scientific load.  But the scenario, the play, the imaginary story they repeat in spite of the observations – these are what illustrate the skill of evolutionist gumbies to twist any falsification into a celebration of their gnostic powers.  Historical noteJohannes Kepler, for whom the planet-hunting spacecraft was named, was a creationist.




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