Recently, science writer Marcus Chown reviewed a series of books discussing extraterrestrial life, From Dust to Life: The origin and evolution of our solar system, Life Beyond Earth: The search for habitable worlds in the universe, and Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial life in our minds and in the cosmos which, he says, “bring us up to speed on extraterrestrial life, its prospects and possible forms – but it remains ‘queerer than we can suppose.’” He is quoting Darwinian biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964):
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. – Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286
THERE are some 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, with about 100 billion stars in each of those galaxies. And in recent years, we have discovered that there are probably more planets than there are stars. In fact, there are more planets in the universe than there are sand grains on all the beaches of all the coastlines of all the continents. Yet, in all this immensity, there is only one place where we know there is life – the tiny, fragile “blue dot” we call Earth.
This rather handicaps our speculations about life elsewhere. Not that you would know it, to judge by the hundreds of books published every year about extraterrestrial life, its prospects and possible forms. Some are exuberant and ambitious in scope, other pure entertainment, and still others modest and fact-based.
Actually, lack of information has not handicapped speculation at all. The barest possibility of a fact immediately spawns hundreds of speculations. Even if no exoplanet turns out to be fertile, the human imagination will readily supply the need.
The good news is that many of us might never care to know that phosphorus is one of the CHNOPS, the six elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur) most important for life, except that NASA researchers recently claimed that microbes could be got to metabolize arsenic instead (a claim widely dismissed). If so, we were told, life could arise from unexpected chemicals in other parts of the universe.
It’s possible that many people have learned more basic chemistry from following speculations about the origin of life and extraterrestrial life than they ever did in high school chemistry class. So yes, there’s that. The problem is, they also learn an attitude to evidence that skews their thinking about science in general. That is the subject of my Science Fictions series, a light-hearted but deadly serious look at the way in which assertions and assumptions stand in for evidence in cosmology and astrobiology (study of proposals about extraterrestrial life).
In the latest installment, “Multiverse cosmology: Assuming that evidence still matters, what does it say?”, readers will see that the fact that the tide of evidence is decidedly against multiverse cosmology, does not prompt re-examination of basic premises but defensiveness and searches for loopholes:
So the faithful remain. String theory could be tested, we are told, by black holes orbited by pulsars, revealing extra dimensions. In a new bubble universe proposed at Stanford, featuring new laws of physics and a new conception of science, “problems with string theory unification have magically vanished.” Meanwhile, one physicist has proposed abandoning string theory in favor of knot theory, “to delve into the deep recesses of mathematical research” and explain things in “down-to-earth terms that everyone can understand.”
M-theory (the multiverse): Proponent Brian Greene has admitted (2012) that there is no evidence for it: “As of today, we are far from crossing this threshold.” Colleague Roger Penrose sums up, “What is referred to as M-Theory isn’t even a theory, it’s a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations.”
And what are do we learn by accepting it all anyway? Alan Lightman tells us in Harper’s:
If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles — to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are — is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here.
So the multiverse has little or no explanatory value. But we are told we mustn’t go back either. Leading philosopher of cosmology Tim Maudlin assured us in 2012 that if there is no multiverse, it would be a “terrible mistake” to think that an intelligent designer is the only remaining option. We can adjust our notions of probability instead.
Always, the war on probability. Many of us have hit on a simpler and more reasonable approach by now … More.
Chown concludes, repeating,
But here the fact that we only know about terrestrial biology – and have no idea what is special or general about it – is an enormous handicap. Our speculations inevitably come up against the truth highlighted by the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane: “The universe is not queerer than we suppose,” he said, “it is queerer than we can suppose.” And that is one problem no Star Trek or Star Wars movie can ever seem to escape, even at warp speed.
But is it true?
Think about what the claim means for a moment: No matter how queer something you or I can think up is, the universe is queerer still? Despite the fact that whatever can actually exist in the universe is constrained by various facts and laws that our imaginations can simply dispense with? The claim may be true, but it should not be greeted by so many nods of recognition of a self-evident truth. The claim, after all, may also be false.
Most of what is going wrong in cosmology and astrobiology right now is the multiple protection rackets around ideas that proponents cannot live without even IF they are false. They are too afraid of what they fear to be true.
(See also: Former Canadian defense minister says: Stop wars and space aliens will share technology)
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