Richter Scaling: Is Funding for Astrobiology and SETI Justified?
Should the government fleece taxpayers again for a project with almost zero chance for success? Consider two “Richter scales” that should inform hopes.
NASA has gritted its teeth ever since SETI went on the government-funding chopping block in the 1990s. They keep titillating the public with hopes for finding their invisible friends in space. Microbes are not enough, even though NASA gets loads of money for “astrobiology,” the big-tent search for even one-celled life. They want someone to talk to. Let’s see how they express their motivations:
We need to keep looking for aliens, scientists tell senators (Space.com via Fox News; report duplicated by Live Science). When conservative Senator Ted Cruz asked a panel flat-out why we should look for life on other worlds, the scientists (only one from NASA) appealed to “symbolism and inspiration rather than science directly.”
“I believe it’s one of the big questions of all of humanity. This is how great nations make a mark — it’s by what they do for their citizens but also how they move history forward,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said. “This will be one of those questions, if answered, that will be remembered forever, because it will be a leap in not only understanding more about nature but a leap in understanding ourselves at a level we’ve never had in the past.”
Some of the panelists made pragmatic appeals. The search would spin off new technologies, some said. Others argued that it would help the United States keep the lead in space science. One quoted John Adams about his belief in space aliens. Much of the discussion focused on astrobiology (search for microbes), because the panelists seemed sheepish about bringing up SETI:
While most of the hearing’s conversation focused on microbial life, the discussion did touch briefly on technologically advanced civilizations beyond our solar system. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan referenced the theoretical possibility of billion-year-old civilizations and asked whether we are even searching for life in the right way. Stofan elegantly directed the conversation back to exoplanet science and surveying our own neighborhood first.
But what if the search has high cost and low chance of success? Even microbial life is extremely complicated. The likelihood of finding life depends on which “Richter Scale” one puts confidence in.
The Charles Richter Scale
SETI Researchers Want to End the Alien-Detection Hype (Space.com). In order to keep their scientific respectability, the serious SETI researchers have to distance themselves from the kooks. To help with that, they concocted a “Rio scale” by which to evaluate how earth-shaking claims of life detection should be judged. Reporter Meghan Bartels calls this a kind of “alien equivalent of the Richter scale,” referring to Caltech geophysicist Charles Richter (1900-1985), who devised the famous scale of earthquake magnitudes.
The Rio scale, devised in 2000 (Rio 1.0) but updated this year (Rio 2.0), goes from 0 to 10, with zero indicating a claim of no importance to 10 indicating a claim of great importance. But how is importance judged? The paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology indicates that the “scientific consensus” judges how to rank a detection claim. This gives announcements a more official look, an improvement on “close encounters of the third kind” perhaps. Reporters who trust the experts can all use the same talking points, using an integer value that confers an air of scientific legitimacy on groupthink conclusions:
In this paper, we revise the Rio scale, with the aim of (i) achieving consensus across academic disciplines on a scheme for classifying signals potentially indicating the existence of advanced extraterrestrial life, (ii) supplying a pedagogical tool to help inform the public about the process scientists go through to develop an understanding of a signal and (iii) providing a means of calibrating the expectations of the world at large when signals are discussed in the media. We also present (and encourage the SETI community to adopt) a single set of consistent terminology for discussing signals.
The Henry Richter Scale
If intelligent aliens exist, why haven’t we seen them? (Phys.org). Kaylie Zacharias of Purdue University puzzles over the never-solved Fermi Paradox. After considering only a couple of requirements for habitability, and possible answers to the paradox, she looks to Mars investigator Brioni Horgan for hope, but possible answers for them both only lie within the Darwinian worldview.
“How does life evolve? How unique are we? How critical is it that humanity makes it off this planet? Our quest to find life outside Earth brings us back to those very fundamental questions,” Horgan said. “I think life is the most incredible thing the universe has ever produced, so if we are the only life in the universe, that to me is a huge motivating factor for moving beyond our Earth.”
9 Strange, Scientific Excuses for Why Humans Haven’t Found Aliens Yet (Live Science). This is a funny slideshow by Brandon Specktor of proposed answers to the Fermi Paradox. It’s a little odd to link the words “strange” and “excuses” to “scientific,” when science is supposed to deal in observable, testable evidence. Perhaps “strange excuses” would suffice. Take your pick: maybe the aliens are hiding in plain sight. Maybe they’ve quarantined Earth. Maybe they live underground and don’t use radios. Maybe aliens always evolve to kill off other aliens. Maybe they died of climate change. Maybe they can’t evolve fast enough. Maybe dark energy is ripping them apart. There’s always one more possibility Specktor didn’t bother to consider: maybe they don’t exist.
Life Needs Sunlight — and That Could Change Where We Look for Aliens (Live Science). Assuming they get funding, where should astrobiologists look? This article correctly notes that being in the habitable zone where water can subsist as a liquid is not enough. Habitable planets need to avoid intense flares and excessive UV radiation, for instance. And yet for the RNA World theory to work, there has to be sufficient UV radiation to overcome the energy barriers and get the building blocks to link up. Cambridge astrophysicist Paul Rimmer has done a “thought experiment” to estimate the minimum energy required from a star, and then ran some experiments to see how sulfur-rich compounds behaved under different UV energy levels. He did not get RNA, of course. Another astrobiologist was not particularly impressed.
Others may not be so convinced by the new experiments: Frances Westall, an astrobiologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France who was not involved with the study, called the paper more of an “interesting thought experiment” in an email to Space.com. She said she’s particularly concerned that one of the two initial sulfur mixes the team used didn’t create RNA under Earth-like conditions — and, after all, we’re positive life started here somehow.
“One of my problems with many prebiotic chemistry experiments run by chemists is that they do not consider what the early Earth really was like,” she wrote, mentioning that the team used what she considers an outdated recipe of gases to represent our planet’s early atmosphere. “[Chemists] use spurious concepts simply because they can get good results under certain physicochemical conditions,” Westall wrote.
Westall’s complaint can be expanded. Not only did Rimmer omit plausible Earth-like conditions, he omitted numerous other factors required for habitability. These were listed by another Caltech geophysicist, Dr Henry Richter, whose recent article here at Creation-Evolution Headlines listed a dozen factors that must be just right for habitability (6 July 2018). Inserting reasonable estimates into his “Richter scale” pretty much rules out life existing anywhere in the universe by chance, considering habitability requirements alone. But he agrees with Westall, “we’re positive life started here,” so there’s at least one success.
As a Christian, Henry would argue with Westall’s extra word “somehow,” which presumes the Stuff Happens Law. He would argue instead that the evidence points to intelligent causation: i.e., creation. If evolutionists weren’t so closed-minded and bigoted, they would realize that good, observational science and sound logic actually support creation as the only rational cause for life, especially human life. But with hard hearts, stiff necks and closed minds, the astrobiologists and SETI believers plod on, making even more irrational excuses for the lack of evidence. Arbitrary rules like methodological naturalism that presuppose atheistic causes and hinder understanding should be jettisoned in favor of following the evidence where it leads.