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Astrobiology, Hawking, and The Importance of Being Info


I have returned from the annual non-NASA Astrobiology conference, which I attended this year and delivered two papers. After my NASA colleague’s long-delayed paper on the discovery of microfossils in carbonaceous chondrites (meteorites that are widely believed to be extinct comet fragments) was accidentally published in March when Fox News broke the paper embargo that led to 40 million web hits, I had fond hopes that this would be the conference that broke the ice about ET. In fact, my first paper was entitled “More Evidence for Liquid Water on Comets” which recorded the mounting evidence that indeed, comets are natural bio-transporters for moving biology all over the cosmos–sorta like Arthur C. Clarke‘s novel “Rendezvous with Rama“.

Curiously, NASA has been having press conference frenzy about, you guessed it, liquid water again. First there was evidence of past water, then present water found on Mars, then briny liquid water, and soon to be fresh liquid water. Maybe, like the LCROSS impact on the Moon, it will become swimming pools of fresh water. If you recall, the reason given in 1976 for rejecting the evidence for life in Gil Levin’s “Labelled Release” experiment on the Viking Mars lander was because “everyone knows Mars is dry as a bone.” So perhaps Hoover’s paper is having the desired effect: water and gold are exchanging places in the solar system, from rarity to commodity. (If only Levin’s experiment had detected gold we’d be back there already . . . )

But the second paper was far more challenging to write. It was an answer to Stephen Hawking‘s inspired nonsense about M-theory. You can read mathematician Lennox‘s critique (here’s a review of Lennox’s book) but what you won’t get from him is any idea why Hawking, the atavar of British reserve in his 1986 best-seller “A Brief History of Time“, had become a foam-flecked mouthpiece of new atheism.

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Ah, one of the top flight Christians who followed the Emperor to Constantinople, not a descendent of the dregs left behind in Rome. Congratulations. I think a very old universe is pretty well established. The earth-moon system is ~ four billion years old and changing that age would mean changing several radioactive half-lives, which is very unlikely. There might be some room to play with the 14 billion year age of the universe. If some supernovas turned out to have a different brightness than we think they have it could be older or younger. And the newly discovered expansion of the universe might change things too. But I think the 4 billion year age of the earth is very secure and the universe is certainly older than that. When reading the various combinatorial criticisms coming from ID and creationist sources, bear in mind that those figures are only as good as the author’s understanding of what they’re trying to “mathify” and none of the ID/Creationist stars that I’ve read seem to be very good at story problems. e.g. Dembski and his search spaces that evolution doesn’t actually search. For that matter, he doesn’t seem to realize that every living thing is already in one of the spaces life is supposedly searching for. It looks to me like the greatest delay in getting really complex life on earth was waiting for the oxygen levels to build up to where they were possible. dmullenix
DMullenix "Are you a YEC by any chance?" I am an Orthodox Christian priest and a scientist. I have recently become quite interested in theories that challenge Darwinism. I earn my living by doing R&D in combinatorial optimisation. Looking at Darwinism from optimisation perspective alone, I can see it is a highly unlikely scenario. Moreover, there are pretty strong information theoretic challenges to Darwinism which make it clear to me that it is ridiculously implausible to have Mozart spontaneously out of mud in 10^17 seconds. Now, as to philosophical implications of extraterrestrial (rudimentary) life, it is no threat to religious beliefs maintaining that the Earth is a metaphisical center of creation. Generally speaking, I belive the idea of there being fundamental contradictions between Christianity and science per se is a meme. Eugene S
Robert, NASA doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to fossils in meteorites. Remember the fossils in the Martian meteorite? How about the arsenic in the DNA in bacteria in Mono lake? Those claims didn't stand up very well. But as I say, I hope Hoover turns out to be right because life everwhere is more or less what I expect and desire. Regarding common life - if life is everywhere then I see three possibilities: A: Life is easy. This agrees well with Ward and Brownlee. If you have liquid water for a few million years, you're likely to have single celled organisms develop in it. And if they developed in comets and meteors and asteroids, then life can form under very harsh conditions. B: Life is hard, but it started in some corner of the universe sometime in the ten billion years before the earth was formed and spread to this solar system. C: Somehow an unbelievably, incredibly unlikely intelligence formed before life and then created life. The first self reproducer would have been so much simpler than intelligence that I don't have the math to describe how much more unlikely "intelligence first" is. The Microsoft calculator doesn't work too well when you try to put a googleplex into the exponent. As for the JOC, nature has printed a whole lot more articles than them so we would expect more retractions. Also, articles are retracted when a reader spots a fraud or the writers confess. I don't think many people even read the JOC. Here's an article that mentions it - http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/08/science/la-sci-alien-life-20110308 Here's what they say: "The Journal of Cosmology is a 2-year-old publication developed by Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that has unabashedly promoted the thesis that life exists throughout the universe and was brought to Earth from elsewhere. The journal has published just 13 issues and, in a news release Monday, said it would cease publication in May, "killed by thieves and crooks" at the journal Science and other subscription-based periodicals, whom it has accused of stifling its ability to distribute news." I think it's a shame they've ceased publishing. I think that all scientific journals should be free or available for the costs of manufacturing each issue. I also hate to see it go because I'm entirely sympathetic with Dr. Schild. I too would like to find life everywhere. But I fail to see how the "thieves and crooks" at "Science and other subscription-based periodicals" have stifled its ability to distribute news when it does its distribution on a web site. And I stand by Mullenix's law: “If a publication says it’s a ‘Prestigious Scientific Journal’, it’s not." You have to earn prestige, you can't just claim it. dmullenix
Eugene, if we have bacteria in meteors and comets, then it's eather VERY easy to start life or life permeates the universe and we got it from somewhere beyond the solar system. Or maybe The Designer aimed his OOL ray at earth and hit a bunch of comets and meteors too. Are you a YEC by any chance? dmullenix
Hoover talks about features that are "consistent with" such and such an organism. To jump from there to "Of course they had the same genetic code! We know the genus and specie of the dozen or so cyanobacterial filaments represented in these fossils." is a giant leap. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that these are real fossils of real organisms. That would suit me just fine. It would also vindicate Francis Crick and everybody else who's ever held the panspermia theory and Ward and Brownlee's prediction in "Rare Earth" of single-celled organisms almost everywhere there's water and very rare multicelled organisms where there's water for billions of years. Now how exactly does that kill evolution? It looks to me like everything just got a lot simpler. About the only serious unknown in physicalist biology is the origin of life. Well, if we find it in meteorites that would indicate that life is VERY easy to start under really lousy conditions OR that life really does permeate the universe and it's not surprising to find it on earth. The Designer doesn't seem to have much to do when it comes to OOL. And are you implying that trilobites come from meteorites? dmullenix
dmullenix is sooo confused. If living organisms are common in the universe is does not mean ID is dead. It just means that the designer(s) were busier than we thought. And as a matter of fact, under the design scenario, I would expect more planets with living organisms. Joseph
Dmullenix, Gee. If we don't find life, then OOL is hard, and Darwin is right, and if we do find life, then OOL is easy and Darwin is right. What observation exactly would disprove Darwin in your mind? Anything? But the point is, the life we find is identical! And save me the "Where's the DNA" schtick. We have 1.8 million species cataloged in the taxonomy book, and just how many of them have had their DNA transcribed? Oh, and what about the taxonomy of fossils? How do we know that a mastadon or a sabre-toothed cat was a specie? Do you really want to have Darwin so badly you will throw out the fossils? (And the bumper sticker!) Confidence in the author's identification??? Open your eyes! Did you notice any microbiologists blogging about how these were something other than cyanobacterial fossils? No, you didn't, because in point of fact, they've all seen the pictures and to quote the Russian expert on cyanobacteria (who died last month) "Of course these are cyanobacteria, why are you asking me how I am sure?" "Because the pictures come from a meteorite." "Well, that is deadly." You too can be an expert. You get the field guide to cyanobacteria out of your local library. You open to the front page, and there's a checklist: filamentous? branching? Cell size? Hormogonia? Sheath size? Apical cells? Tapering? ... and when you get to the end of the list you will know the specie as well as the experts. I know you aren't a microbiologist, but it really doesn't take an expert to know when the potato salad in the fridge is bad. Well, what about life being so common we don't need an intelligent designer. So let's try that logic out -- cars are so common they don't need a designer. Cell phones are getting so common they don't need a designer. Oh I get it, stupidity is so common it doesn't need a idiot typist to create it. Yeah, the converse does look like it might be true. What about the reputation of JOC? Not too great, but then, the reputation only helps if you have no independent means of verifying the content. Like reading the paper, for example, but then you will have to use your own brain cells for that. And in that respect, JOC is far better than Nature, because Nature will charge you for the privilege of reading the paper, and JOC provides it free. And as I might point out, the greatest reputation in the universe is no protection from fraud--Nature has retracted a whole lot more papers than JOC. If there is one thing you should have learned from Climategate and the East Anglia fiasco, it is that journals are a hopelessly corrupted medium in which reputations mean nothing. Mullenix's corollary: People invoking Mullenix' Law are themselves desperately seeking prestige. Robert Sheldon
Unfortunately, judging from you comment # 1 up here, I must admit I made a double mistake interpreting your point of view :( I was mislead by your being cynical. So I should really retract my comment # 4.2, sadly. Eugene S
Sorry DM, I did not get your point :) Eugene S
DMullenix, "If they really are bacteria, then life is so common in the universe that we don’t need an intelligent designer to account for it. R.I.P. ID" Hmm, it is already a second time I see you trying to bury ID. Wishful thinking. In my opinion, 10^17 seconds would be a hard bound for chance/necessity even if bacretia were found to live everywhere. And what if they come tomorrow and say the big bang is rubbish? Will we have even that amount of time for (combinations of) chance and necessity? Eugene S
Finding a sample of two doesn't necessarily mean life is terribly common in the universe, but for sake of argument I'm willing to grant that we might infer life is common due to the fact of finding two samples in a relatively small space and time. However, and this is the key, being common *does not* mean that natural processes are adequate. We see evidence of intelligent activity around us all the time. Does that mean it is really coming about by some kind of materialistic process, rather than being produced by intelligence? Of course not. ID *does not* posit that because life is rare in the universe, therefore it must have been designed. Not sure what your comment about a Jesus on every planet is meant to accomplish (although I do have to admit I got a good laugh, so thanks), except that perhaps you need to review Christianity a bit more broadly. But that is OT . . . Eric Anderson
"Of course they had the same genetic code! We know the genus and specie of the dozen or so cyanobacterial filamets represennted in these fossils. Read the paper. Where in the paper does it say anything about DNA? And are you saying you have confidence in the author's identification? "And what does this mean for ID?" If they really are bacteria, then life is so common in the universe that we don't need an intelligent designer to account for it. R.I.P. ID Did anybody else get a look at the "Journal of Cosmology" and think it's a totally untrustworthy production? It's sure not "Science" or "Natural History"! You can call this Mullenix's law if you wish: "If a publication says it's a 'Prestigious Scientific Journal', it's not. dmullenix
Eric, if life is found in comets, then it is so common in the universe that it doesn't need any kind of intelligence to produce it. I should have also mentioned that if life is that common, there had better be a Jesus on every inhabited planet or R.I.P. Christianity. dmullenix
Thanks snelldl! Link fixed. Robert Sheldon
Roberto: This is the actual url: http://procrustes.blogtownhall.com/2011/09/19/astrobiology,_hawking,_and_the_importance_of_being_info.thtml Here's what the link above has: http://procrustes.blogtownhall.com/2011/09/19/the_importance_of_being_info.thtml snelldl
Of course they had the same genetic code! We know the genus and specie of the dozen or so cyanobacterial filaments represented in these fossils. Read the paper. And what does this mean for ID? Uhhh. The Designer likes comets? You bet! Check out Genesis 1:2. Or for that matter, Genesis 1:1. But what it really means is that Darwinism is dead. Totally. Let me ask you which is more probable. Be honest now. When the old whitehaired gentleman down the street stopped walking by your house, and instead three tricycles, a bicycle and a minivan appeared in his driveway, along with a new coat of paint on the house, which is the most likely: a) The elderly couple mutated into a young family with kids b) The elderly couple moved out and a young family moved in. So when the fossils on earth, say, 550 million years ago show 24 different body plans that had never been seen before, is it more likely that: a) worms mutated into trilobites b) worms moved out and trilobites moved in I'll let you work out the implications. Robert Sheldon
How so? Are intelligent designers limited to earth? What if the bioforms on a meteorite had the same genetic code? Are you 12? mike1962
dmullenix, your statement shows that you do not understand ID. ID *does not* posit that life only arose on our fair planet. Eric Anderson
If we've found real fossils in a meteorite and they are extraterrestreal and not an earthly contaminent then ID is dead. R.I.P. ID. dmullenix

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