“Life is not a miracle. It is a natural phenomenon, and can be expected to appear whenever there is a planet whose conditions duplicate those of the Earth.”
-Harold Urey

One of the most exciting investigations going on right now in space is NASA’s Kepler Mission, which is on the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System!

Image credit: Dana Berry / NASA / Kepler Mission.

From high above the Earth’s atmosphere in outer space, Kepler points at a small region of our sky, sensitive to a remarkable 150,000 stars within our galaxy!

Image credit: NASA / Kepler, retrieved from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Kepler has been observing these stars for years, now, monitoring the light coming from them. Stars — much like our Sun — are incredibly stable objects, with only the most minuscule of natural variations in their intrinsic brightness. But these stars do not simply exist in isolation; much like our own Solar System, a great many of these stars are suspected to have planets as well.

And with hundreds of thousands of stars at its disposal, it was suspected that over a thousand of them would have their planets oriented in such a way that, over time, from our point-of-view, these planets would transit in front of their star, temporarily blocking a small portion of their light.

Image credit: NASA / Tim Pyle, retrieved from GizMag.

And based on this, Kepler has not only found over a thousand candidate planets, many of which are comparable in size to Earth, they’ve found a great many star systems with multiple planets orbiting them, as the video below shows!

Video credit: D. Fabrycky / Kepler / NASA.

But you know how we are; we’re not satisfied with finding thousands of new planets, or even with finding hundreds of new complex Solar Systems.

We want to find planets similar to ours, with the capability of housing not only life, but life-as-we-know-it!

Image credit: Kepler mission / NASA, retrieved from cheller.phy.georgiasouthern.edu.

As far as we’re concerned, that means having rocky, Earth-like planets orbiting at the proper distance from their star to have liquid water flowing freely on their surface! In other words, if we plunked our planet down where this newly discovered world is found to orbit its star, would we still be able to sustain life-as-we-know-it?

The entire region around a star for which the answer, hypothetically, is yes defines what we call the habitable zone, which is (of course) different for every star!

Image credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser.

We’ve found planets before that appear to be in their star’s habitable zone, like Gliese 370 b, a rocky world which orbits a slightly cooler, orange star closer than the Earth-Sun distance, placing it right within the Goldilocks zone for habitability.

But we’ve never found a planet that could be considered the Earth’s twin, or even Earth’s cousin, orbiting a Sun-like star at roughly the same distance we orbit ours. That is, until now.

Image credit: NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech.

According to the Kepler mission and NASA themselves, they’ve found exactly that: a rocky planet orbiting a star nearly indistinguishable from our Sun, at practically the same distance that we orbit our home star!

To no one’s surprise, this planet — Kepler-22b — is presently all the rage when it comes to exoplanet news. The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, SETI, has started up again, looking for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos, and is starting here.

But what can we really say about this planet? Forget about intelligent life, how Earth-like is this world, really?

Image credit: NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech.

This image, plastered everywhere on the internet, is simply an artist’s rendition! And yet, Kepler is incapable of measuring whether these features — oceans, clouds, a mostly transparent atmosphere — actually exist on this world. All it can truly tell, at this point, is what the radius and orbital distance of this planet is.

So how would we find out what the details of this planet are?

Image credit: Planets wallpaper, retrieved from hq-wallpapers4.us.

After all, there’s a huge variety among the known, rocky planets even within our Solar System! Does this planet rotate rapidly, like Earth (once a day), or much more slowly, like Mercury (59 days) or even Venus (just once every 243 days, and backwards at that)? Is there a substantial atmosphere like we have, a rarefied one (like Mars), a very hot, thick one (like Venus), or, like Mercury, none at all? And if it does have an atmosphere, what gases compose it?

Video credit: YouTube user universalis25.

Believe it or not, if we want to find these answers, all we need is to image this planet with a telescope, even if we can only get it to appear on camera as one pixel. This is totally doable; it’s something we’ve even done before! All you’d need to do is place a coronagraph — or an opaque piece of equipment to block the light of this planet’s parent star — in front of your telescope, and you’ll be able to image the planet itself!

Say hello to Fomalhaut b, an exoplanet orbiting the bright star Fomalhaut, 25 light years away.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas, J. Graham, E. Chiang, E. Kite, M. Clampin, M. Fitzgerald, K. Stapelfeldt and J. Krist.

Because the brightness of the planet, even if it only takes up one camera pixel, will change over time in an incredibly informative way. Here are some fascinating examples of how:

  • If the planet orbited its star tidally locked in a 1:1 resonance (as the Moon is to Earth), we would see the same face of the planet at the same location in its orbit every single time. But if it isn’t locked, we can determine its period of rotation so long as it isn’t a perfectly bland, uniform planet.
  • The phase of the planet, or how much of the illuminated hemisphere was visible at any given time, is something we can easily account for and understand. But understanding phase and rotation allows us to look for annual variation in planetary brightness, allowing us to detect atmospheric changes and/or catastrophic volcanic activity!
  • If the planet has both oceans and land, then as it rotates, we’ll be able to note periodic fluctuations in the amount of light coming from it, just as the ocean- and land-dominated areas of Earth reflect different amounts of light! This is something we’ll be able to learn, once again, in correspondence with the planet’s rotation.
  • If the planet has clouds, like Earth, we should see extra fluctuations in brightness on top of the planetary phase and rotation signals, dependent on cloud cover and reflectivity relative to the planet’s surface! The only things that can kill these ambitions is if the planet either has a very thick, dense, opaque atmosphere, like Venus, or is completely dead, uniform, bald and featureless, like some scrubbed-down version of Mercury. In these cases, the overall brightness of the illuminated hemisphere of the planet will never change. Practically, the only effect on the planet’s brightness will be its phase as it orbits its star.
  • But whether that’s true or not for our world-in-question, planets — as we well know — can also have moons! If the planet has one or more sufficiently large moons orbiting it, periodic brightness fluctuations corresponding to the lunar transits in front of and behind their host planets will allow us to find them.

All of that comes from simply measuring the overall brightness of one trackable pixel as it orbits its star. One pixel gives you all that! And that’s not even demanding the best astronomical equipment. If you can attach a spectrograph to your data-taking telescope, you can go a step further, and determine what fraction of the light comes in from each particular wavelength of light!

Image credit: Mike Brown, retrieved from FIRE for Magellan telescopes / MIT.

And with that data — as we’ve done for objects in our own Kuiper Belt — we can determine whether it has an atmosphere, and if so, just what this planet’s atmosphere is made out of! Want to go looking for oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or, as we’ve found on Pluto (above), methane? This is how you do it!

That’s all well and good, but Kepler-22b isn’t in our Kuiper Belt. It isn’t even at the distance of Fomalhaut; it’s 600 light-years away, orbiting the star Kepler-22! While this particular system is too far away to make these measurements in the near future, we are about to gain that capability for the nearest stars to us! How’s that?

Image credit: NASA / James Webb Space Telescope team.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to make these measurements! In addition to all the other things JWST will do, it’s going to be a huge, spaceborne visible-and-infrared telescope outfitted with the right instruments to make these measurements, at least for the most nearby stars.

Want to look at this planet — Kepler-22b — with the level of detail I just described here? Well, remember what it is we’re looking for when, a decade from now, you hear NASA, the NSF, and the European Space Agency talking about a telescope for the next generation. Because we’re looking for no less than an understanding of our world’s place in the cosmos, and just how common or rare we really are. And to find out, the only thing we need are the right tools to allow us to look and see.

Comments

  1. #1 StevoR
    December 10, 2011

    Great article. Thanks.

    I think, however, that it’s quite likely Kepler 22 b will turn out to be a gas dwarf rather than a rock giant type planet.

    We don’t have anything quite analogous to it in our solar system but it seems to be one of the “SuperEarth” type exoplanets with that term probably being in almost all cases so far a misnomer. The size comparison make it look like Neptune more than Earth – Neptune has 17 tims Earth’s mass but around that radius (perhaps a bit larger but not all that much) and of course neptune is mostly atmosphere above a supercritical fluid nmantle and perhaps a hot rocky core below that.

    Still I could be wrong -and I wonder what any hypothetcial Europa, Titan or Gaymede like moons around this world would be like!

  2. #2 StevoR
    December 10, 2011

    There’s a good discussion here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/12/05/kepler-confirms-first-planet-found-in-the-habitable-zone-of-a-sun-like-star/

    and in the comments from there about this too.

    Hope its okay to link this here – apologies and please let me know if not.

  3. #3 Robert Melia
    December 10, 2011

    when will we possibly have the technology to actually visualise kepler 22?

  4. #4 unknown
    December 10, 2011

    amazing

  5. #5 Schenck
    December 10, 2011

    This post is, as usual, great. But, to throw some water on any excitement, if what Urey was saying was true, then there’d be 4 inhabited planets in our solar system, 3 if you insist on excluding Mercury. Its probably going to be a while before we can distinguish between Venus-twin and Earth-twin at astronomical distances. And as far as life, we’re still not even sure about Mars, and some people STILL debate whether there was water there.

  6. #6 djlactin
    December 10, 2011

    OT, but: do you have any news about the opinion that Fomalhaut b may not actually be a planet? (http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-09-exoplanet-fomalhaut.html)

  7. #7 Brianna
    December 10, 2011

    I really appreciate this blog. It’s very informative, not at all dull. I would be honored to share this work in my blog. Keep it up!

  8. #8 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    December 10, 2011

    I have to agree, the post is covering all the bases.

    If I would nitpick and suggest additions, it would be:

    - “Surface” habitability is defined for, as termed here, (cellular) life and not life-as-we-know-it. I.e. it doesn’t matter what planet it is as long as it can have liquid water on its surface (excludes gas giants, includes water worlds).

    Then you have potential habitability of icy moons, but that is OT here. Sorry, I am an astrobiology student so I have nits to pick here. =D

    - Implied but not detailed in the list of possible observations is that the ocean/land observations makes maps possible according to some preliminary papers. Distorted maps with pole-pole stripes, but maps nevertheless.

    - Other possible observations is of atmosphere profiling (temperature and gases in absorption spectra as the planet transits the star), vegetation detection (photosynthesis absorption in reflectance spectra), and perhaps detecting continental wide forests (polarization information from surface scattering of repeated large surface structures).

    [That list will probably grow other time!]

    - JWST happens to be good enough for some of this, but not optimized. The idea is that Kepler surveys the utility. (And now we know there are many planets out there!)

    But Kepler also pegs the parameter space for deciding which type of instruments would be best to proceed with.

  9. #9 Joseph Paniaguas
    December 10, 2011

    Great info, except for the quote by Harold Urey. The whole universe is a miracle. I also believe that I am just a little more than star dust. That may account for the chemistry, but the spark inside of my plug is a miracle. B.S. in Astrophysics in 1972. You wouldn’t believe how many things have changed since then, and how many times we have been wrong. I can’t wait until James Webb gets in orbit (that’s if Obama doesn’t cut the spending and give it to his Hawaii or Other cousins)

  10. #10 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    December 10, 2011

    @ StevoR:

    Thanks, I will look at that!

    Meanwhile, you may want to peruse the press conference. The project leader Borucki has a radius vs mass graph where gas giants are just shy of possible. In the Borucki et al paper the claim is:

    “Because only an upper limit to the mass of Kepler-22b is available (36 MÅ,1σ), any density less than 14.7 g/cc is consistent with the observations; i.e., the composition is unconstrained. Several planets with sizes similar or less than that of Kepler-22b have been discovered that have densities too low for a rocky composition (Lissauer et al. 2011). However, others, such as Kepler-18b have a size (Rp = 1.98 RÅ) similar to Kepler 22b and a density (4.9 ± 2.4g/cc) sufficiently high to imply that such planets could have a solid or liquid surface. Further, model studies of planetary structure often consider rocky planets with masses of 100 MÅ or more (Ida and Lin, 2004, Fortney et al., 2007).”

    @ Robert Melia:

    Like never, at a guess. Going beyond some tens of light years to characterize atmospheres and detect life is feasible in the near future.

    The good news is that with Kepler and HARPS η (number of exoplanets/number of stars) of some 30-50 % and the observation of potential habitables, that will suffice to give a statistical sample. Hopefully good enough for questions such as “is there life elsewhere”, “how common is life”, “under what conditions will abiogenesis occur”.

    Maybe technologies will reach beyond 100s of light years in the far future. But 1000s of ly? I wouldn’t bet on it.

    @ Schenk:

    Urea said “whose conditions duplicate those of the Earth”. That is neither Venus nor Mars as regards surface habitability (surface liquid water).

    @ djlactin:

    My impression was that the observations stand because the criticism was tenuous. [No ref at this time, but that analysis was in some of the articles when the criticism was raised.]

  11. #11 Andy H
    December 10, 2011

    When I read the part about about how earth candidate planets may have different rotations, it suddenly occurs to me, how would these rotations affect our equilibrium? Some people cant even handle a tilt -a- whirl.

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    December 10, 2011

    @ Joseph Paniaguas:

    “Great info, except for the quote by Harold Urey. The whole universe is a miracle.”

    Validate that! Urey’s excellent claim will hopefully be tested in full soon. While magical thinking and the “one error invalidates all of science” religious strawman will get you exactly nowhere.

    But we know that the first part is correct already, abiogenesis is a simple process. The speed with which life originated on Earth attest to that. A simple Poisson process model with low delay time (normed delay ~ <= 0.2) happen to be testable with the data we have. Translated to deterministic terms the process is easy (often occurring and fast).

  13. #13 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    December 10, 2011

    Oops. HTML editor fail. Again:

    But we know that the first part is correct already, abiogenesis is a simple process. The speed with which life originated on Earth attest to that. A simple Poisson process model with low delay time (normed delay less than or equal ~ 0.2) is testable, and translated to deterministic terms the process is easy (often occurring and fast).

  14. #14 Pronoein
    December 10, 2011

    Hello Ethan,
    not completely unrelated:
    Imagine a single, multicellular organism covering a whole planetary ocean, living for hundred of millions of years, with no other species, no competitors. Just a planetary entity.
    Science-fiction?
    No, our own past, 3 billions years ago on Earth; it’s our last universal common ancestor.
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228404.300-life-began-with-a-planetary-megaorganism.html

  15. #15 Ben
    December 10, 2011

    Why waste millions of pounds to seek life in other planets when our own planet is in need. We didn’t take good care of our planet, it is no good looking outside of our own universe, let us look on this planet who need our help and support, let us change our life style before we try to find life in other planets. Let us take care the life on this earth, all we have to do is to look around, old.people are made to suffer, abortion is on the increase, broken marriages, young ones are rebelling, nations are rising again nations, countries are suffering with poverty, please let us change our world first.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    December 10, 2011

    But we know that the first part is correct already, abiogenesis is a simple process. Torbjörn Larsson

    Oh? That’s known? How? How did life arise on Earth, what was the first instance of life like, etc. etc. etc.

    Whether or not life arising is miraculous or not is not an idea that can be approached with science, Urey’s declaration is a statement of belief quite unrelated to his professional competence. In the case of the prevalence of life in the universe, it is a belief that is absolutely unfounded in the first bit of evidence. It would require evidence that life was present, not only on one other planet, but on more planets than are likely known to the most seriously cosmopolitan of intelligent species, at least if that old speed of light barrier holds. As of today, we don’t even have the first bit of evidence that there is life elsewhere in the universe.

  17. #17 darkgently
    December 10, 2011

    Can’t resist a minor nitpick, Ethan: it’s Fomalhaut not Formalhaut. ;)

    @Anthony McCarthy #16, most of what you say is wrong. “Whether or not life arising is miraculous or not is not an idea that can be approached with science” is a bizarre claim. Science is the *only* way to approach this question. And once science has the complete picture of abiogenesis – which isn’t too far away – we will be able to answer it conclusively in the negative. Meanwhile the default assumption should be natural causes, not miracles.

    Urey’s statement was a *prediction* based on his understanding of life on Earth. It will be tested once we find some genuine Earth twins.

  18. #18 Ethan Siegel
    December 10, 2011

    Darkgently,

    You got me. (Fixed, and thank you.) That should teach me to finish a post at 2 AM… but probably not.

  19. #19 Jason Bachand
    December 10, 2011

    Always a pleasure to read your articles, Ethan. But this one captures the excitement of the Kepler mission perfectly. Will we discover an Earth-like planet in our lifetimes? The likelihood appears good!

  20. #20 OKThen
    December 11, 2011

    Yes nice summary Ethan.

    @12 , @16, @17, regarding abiogenesis discussion, watch this video.
    The Origin of Life – Abiogenesis – Dr. Jack Szostak (2009 Nobel prize winner)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6QYDdgP9eg

  21. #21 Anthony McCarthy
    December 11, 2011

    darkgently, what part of scientific methods tests the miraculous character of an event? What is bizarre is that someone who is a practicing scientist of Urey’s stature wouldn’t realize enough about the limits within science works to avoid that kind of statement. Though it is a bizarre state of mind that is all too common these days. Science can show you that evolution happened and life on Earth isn’t the product of a few days of a week, it can’t deal with the question of “miracles” being present in events that actually happen, it isn’t equipped for that.

    Urey’s statement, as quoted, was:

    “Life is not a miracle. It is a natural phenomenon, and can be expected to appear whenever there is a planet whose conditions duplicate those of the Earth.”

    In a total absence of more than the knowledge that life appeared on one planet, Earth, he made a wild speculation about the probability of it arising under similar conditions. He had no idea as to that probability, it could be 100% accurate or it is possible that the probability of that happening is 1 out of how ever many planets in the universe have a similar natural history of the early Earth. The size of that number isn’t known but it is a reasonable assumption that it is a very large number, though even that could be wildly wrong.

    Your statement:

    “Urey’s statement was a *prediction* based on his understanding of life on Earth. It will be tested once we find some genuine Earth twins.”

    Blithely ignores a number of rather serious problems, 1. his statement about probability, in order to test that you would have to have a sufficient sample size to even state the problem intelligently. Given that it’s a matter of planets light years away, in just this galaxy, not to mention that Urey was talking about the whole universe, an expectation for quick answer shouldn’t hold a journal editor from going to press. 2. It assumes that the way life arose on Earth is the only manner in which that happens, that it is typical of a kind of life when that is entirely unknown. It is possible, miraculous or not, that the line of life on Earth is unique in the entire universe in its biology and history. The likelihood of us finding the answer to that problem is even less likely since it would require us to know the genesis of life on other planets, in other word, study of the history other lines of life on other planets to an extent that we have not managed on this planet.

    Your assumption about the state of the knowledge of the origin of life on Earth is widely shared but entirely wrong. Believing in a common ancestor for all of life, as I do, the range of problems to solve in order to understand it – all without the actual fossil record of that event or the life that arose from it for many tens of millions of years, are rather enormous.

    Life arose on Earth in the only way it did, you would have to know how that happened in that one case in order to know about it. It was almost certainly the result of different events, quite likely under different conditions over an unknown length of time. I’d guess quite a long period of time, considering the assumed complexity of that original organism, it was able, in some, one, unknown way, to reproduce successfully. We certainly haven’t seen it happen under present day conditions.

    Like most of those who think science is on the verge of having the enormous number of problems contained in your question licked, you ignore that a real answer to that question couldn’t consist of the theoretical means that a theoretical organism could have assembled in some assumed environment, a theoretical product of probabilistic conjecture wouldn’t tell you anything reliable about the actual organisms that constituted the origin of life on Earth. Science would have to identify THE ONLY WAY THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED. You would have to know the actual organism that constituted the first life on Earth, you would have to know how presumably molecular level events happened in the actual environments those happened in to produce that actual organism which was able to reproduce and to pass that ability on to its descendants. None of which is known, the information necessary to know that is almost certainly lost to all time.

    Urey was overselling his great experiment. Leaving out the time factor, he showed that the chemicals he had in his container would generate amino acids under lab conditions, conditions he represented as similar to those which generated life. Well, that’s not what he did. He did not recreate natural conditions on the early earth, there is no evidence that anyplace outside of his experimental vessel ever had similar conditions. I’d think the probability of that happening naturally to be remarkably low.

  22. #22 Candy
    December 11, 2011

    I did not know tell my mom told me

  23. #23 bo moore
    December 11, 2011

    I confess that as a geolgist I’m not particularily excited by this news, since we’re projecting an awful lot of anthropocentrism here! We’ve locked down LIFE as being defined by what exists on Earth. And who picked a xylophone tune to be the “Music of the Spheres?

  24. #24 Loren
    December 11, 2011

    @ Joseph Paniaguas:

    My take on the Urey quote:

    The world “miracle” doesn’t mean very much. A miracle is just something which makes a human being say “wow”. You say it yourself: “I also believe that I am just a little more than star dust.” Why? Simply because you want it to be so, not because the term “miracle” helps to answer some meaningful question.

    Knowing that we are made of star dust helps explain where life here originated, it provides clues for the general formation of life in this universe and suggests where we might look to find other life, and it helps kill the idea that humans or any subset of humans deserve special privileges because we are different from other life in some fundamental way. Calling ourselves “miraculous” is nothing more than a vanity term, like a vaudeville act billed as “The World’s Greatest”. All show, no substance.

  25. #25 Loren
    December 11, 2011

    @Ben, #15:

    Many important things that we know about this planet were only discovered using data which were gathered from our study of other planets. For example, the threat posed to our ozone layer by CFCs was discovered by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of UC Irvine, who were studying the chlorine and fluorine chemistry of Venus.

    Stratospheric sink for chlorofluoromethanes: chlorine atom-catalysed destruction of ozone

    Or the phenomenon of nuclear winter: it was conceived during study of the surface of Mars, which was appreciably cooled during a global dust storm. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, Ch. 14).

    Mars and Venus are quite similar to the Earth, but both are devoid of life. If we wish to stay alive on this planet, it behooves us to understand what differences permit life here and prevent it on planets so close to us.

  26. #26 Richard Simons
    December 11, 2011

    I still find it amazing that a planet of another star can be photographed as I grew up understanding that it would never be possible. When I showed the first photos to my Adult Ed students I worked out that it was equivalent to photographing a period at the end of a sentence from a distance of 500km (IIRC).

    I had wondered about the possibility of spectroscopic analysis but presumed that the critical factor was the amount of light that could be captured. It’s all interesting stuff, but something I don’t know enough about – thanks for the post.

  27. #27 Childermass
    December 11, 2011

    Kepler-22b seems to be very close to the inner edge of the habitable zone. It certainly is massive and thus could hold a very heavy atmosphere. Could it be a Super-Venus?

  28. #28 g725
    December 12, 2011

    The more concise answer to Ben is: You go first. Quit your job, sell all of your belongings, donate the proceeds to charity. Then join a monastery that’s devoted to selfless service, take a vow of poverty, roll up your sleeves, and start helping desperate humans here and now. If you’re not willing to do that, you have no right to complain about expenditures for basic science.

    “Miracle / miraculous:” I take that as a metaphor for “awe-inspiring,” and that’s how the human brain appears to be wired. The right temporal lobe appears to be the seat of “the deeply-felt sense of meaning in relation to something larger than self.” (M. Persinger, numerous papers in _Perception and Motor Skills_) Thence comes the core inspiration for religion, and also the awe we feel when we reflect on the latest findings in fields such as physics and astrophysics.

    One pixel: That strikes me as awesome. But I’m concerned we may have a political struggle on our hands to get to that point.

    Assume the wildest case for a moment, that SETI succeeded, and the signals were easily decoded to actual video of an advanced civilization inhabited by recognizably human-like creatures. Now consider what that would do to established religions and political ideologies. Any that were predicated on assertions of the uniqueness or supremacy of this or that group of humans, would be instantly overthrown by this new blunt fact of life elsewhere.

    Now consider the steps between “here” and “there.”

    First we find evidence of exoplanets (done).

    Next we find evidence that some exoplanets are Earth-like (in progress).

    Next, clear evidence of biological processes: life elsewhere.

    After that, clear evidence of technologies (for example light spectra that are characteristic of artificial lighting on the dark side of a planet, or RF emissions that appear to be information-bearing).

    Finally, enough examples of each, to enable making rough estimates of the number of stars in our galaxy that have life-bearing planets, and the number that have intelligent life with technology.

    To the extent that intelligent life exists elsewhere, the steps above are arguably a foregone conclusion. As a result, the ultimate defeat of group-supremacist ideologies on Earth, is also a foregone conclusion.

    Thus it is strongly in the interest of those whose power rests upon group-supremacist ideologies (example: dominionism; keyword search it and read up), to block any further progress that may lead to that outcome.

    If for example, politically connected dominionists had the slightest degree of foresight, they would oppose the space telescope missions with all their might. They would cloak their opposition in budgetary terms, to avoid exposing themselves as the ultimate xenophobes and obscurantists.

    It’s highly likely that we will face these issues in the next election cycle and the next administration. If Obama wins a second term, we’ll still face opposition in Congress. For our own information, we should find out if the opponents of the space telescope program are involved with ideologies such as dominionism that have deeper and more obnoxious motives.

    But the question is, do we fight this battle on the surface level of budgets and consumer technology spinoffs? Or do we throw down the proverbial gauntlet and call out the deep structure of it where we find it, and where the facts support it, make the accusation that opponents are actually seeking to protect their ideological beliefs in the supremacy of their own groups?

    And the reason I ask is, I’m moderately influential on another site that’s a hub of progressive political activism, where science issues are frequently discussed. I’m willing to follow the consensus of the science community as to the best way to fight for the funding to preserve the space telescope programs. It seems to me that calling out the ideological issues of space opponents is a useful strategy, but I’ll refrain from doing that if it may raise more trouble than it’s worth. Feedback, anyone?

  29. #29 g725
    December 12, 2011

    Going back to the August 2011 post you linked here, on the quantum vacuum, specifically the Casimir effect: when I first read about this it occurred to me that it may have two practical applications.

    One, measurement of extremely small masses under conditions of attenuated gravity. Envision a “scale” for “weighing” small quantities of materials onboard a space station, for example as may be used in the process of developing new materials that (for whatever reason) are more economically produced in attenuated gravity conditions than in Earth gravity.

    Two, measurement of position, derived from acceleration, of objects such as powered and guided probes used to explore planets and their satellites. In this case, Casimir effect plates could potentially detect subtle changes in velocity of the probe, such as might occur due to encounters with clouds or other phenomena that affect atmospheric density. This information could be useful in determining the location of the probe more accurately than otherwise.

    Question: has there been any experiment performed with three plates as distinct from two? What I’m looking for here is a finding to the effect that one can balance the attraction between plates A and B by adding a plate C, such that the distance A – B is equivalent to the distance B – C. This setup should produce an outcome whereby plate B remains in a stable position relative to A and C unless some other force acts on plate B or on the entire system. If the positions of A and C were fixed, and B was movable, then the presence of acceleration or gravity would cause B to move relative to A and C.

    None of this is particularly different to what would occur with other types of systems, such as with two or three magnets, or springs, or whatever. The advantage of using Casimir effect plates is that they have very small mass and would be highly sensitive to small inputs of force. That’s what led to the idea of using this as a means of measuring small masses and small changes in velocity.

    I’m not attached to my ideas, so if this is “not even wrong” or complete BS, feel free to say so. But if it has any potential of working, someone should pursue development.

  30. #30 Anthony McCarthy
    December 12, 2011

    Assume the wildest case for a moment, that SETI succeeded, and the signals were easily decoded to actual video of an advanced civilization inhabited by recognizably human-like creatures. Now consider what that would do to established religions and political ideologies. Any that were predicated on assertions of the uniqueness or supremacy of this or that group of humans, would be instantly overthrown by this new blunt fact of life elsewhere. g725

    The effects of that would be unknowable in advance. I strongly suspect, based on history, that religion would prove far more adaptable than its enemies believe.

    A lot of ideological materialists would instantly claim it as nailing down their argument against a creator god, in fact a number of them have prematurely crowed to that effect in the complete absence of evidence. But their assumptions aren’t logical, to start with. The idea that there is a God who went to the considerable trouble of creating life could only be enhanced by its discovery elsewhere in the vast presumably, otherwise, lifeless universe.

    As with the promissory-materialist note of abiogenesis, there is a rather large fact about belief in a creator God that goes ignored by the materialists. Virtually every religion that believes in a creator God believes that the entire universe, from its largest structures and greatest forces to its most minute objects and most subtle movements, was intentionally created by that God. Any natural process that is statistically significant enough in our ability to collect and process data to constitute a “natural law” would be believed to be the product of the intention of that God. That it doesn’t make sense to us why a God would do it the way it happens doesn’t much matter any more than the unanswerable question of why things are they way they are within a presumed materialist scheme of things. That is how most of the people who have accepted science, including the fact of evolution, have been religious.

    Materialism is an ideology, it’s not anymore a part of science than “intelligent design” is. Though some of the believers of both pretend that their faith is compatible with science, today it’s the materialist ideologues that have, actually, had a major influence in distorting the culture of science in a way that could be destructive within science, the ID ideologues have had more success in posing a political danger to it.

  31. #31 bo moore
    December 12, 2011

    FYI all miracle seekers: A MIRACLE is actually defined as an event that DEFIES physical law; ie, it’s supernatural, outside science, physics, common sense. By definition, unless you are speaking in a supernatural-religious-superstitious context, there are no “miracles.”

  32. #32 Anthony McCarthy
    December 12, 2011

    bo moore, is an outlier in the data a “miracle”?

    Joseph Weizenbaum said: “Hence all empirical science is an elaborate structure built on piles that are anchored, not on the bedrock as is commonly supposed, but on the shifting sand of fallible human judgement, conjecture, and intuition. It is not even true, again contrary to common belief, that a single purported counter-instance that, if accepted as genuine would certainly falsify a specific science theory, generally leads to the immediate abandonment of that theory. Probably all scientific theories currently accepted by scientists themselves (excepting only those purely formal theories claiming no relation to the empirical world) are today confronted with contradicting evidence of more than negligible weight that, again if fully credited would logically invalidate them.”

    So even within the regular order of the natural world there are many events which contradict accepted theories of science, each of which “DEFIES physical law” as it is set out, by people, by the way. The choice to not believe them is a conscious decision of the ones who disregard them in the interest of scientific discourse. Yet science seems to manage to go on.

  33. #33 Jesse
    December 13, 2011

    @g275,

    I honestly don’t think that even if we got aliens landing on the White House lawn most religions would be affected all that much. Bigger things have hit them before, and they keep on keepin’ on. Most people just don’t think about it that deeply.

    @Anthony McCarthy — we know life formed in at least one place. While Urey might have oversold his experiment, the fact is there has been a lot of work since then. And it points to all kinds of ways that living things can arise spontaneously.

    Like any historical science, you can’t know exactly what happened, but we can’t know exactly what happened in every detail at the battle of Gettysburg either. To put it in perspective, there are still soldiers missing in action from the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean that there is anything particularly mysterious going on. I mean, you aren’t going to say that the missing guy is still alive somewhere.

    Going further back, we don’t know the exact details of who built the Pyramids either, or the exact methods used — we don’t have the names of every single guy who worked on them. But they exist and I don’t think it likely that aliens built them, and it’s pretty clear they weren’t levitating the blocks with psychokinesis or whatever.

    Similarly, biology without evolution makes no sense whatsoever. (It would mess up the reasoning behind antibiotic resistance, for one).

    Physical science works. Materialist explanations seem to work. Would you rather take antibiotics or pray when you get strep? The former I would think.

    Which means that no, nobody will ever know exactly what the first organism was in detail but you can say what’s likely and what’s not. We’re made of CHON, phosphorus and sulfur, so it isn’t too likely that the first organism was made of gallium or neodymium or lithium. DNA can be made in several configurations, but only the helical structure self-replicates so far, though there are other molecular configurations that carry information.

    The debate is not whether abiogenesis occurred but how the chemical steps worked, and that is discoverable. Just like we knew in 1900 that radioactivity occurred and that gold was yellowish. Both phenomena were explained (at least in part) by relativity.

  34. #34 Anthony McCarthy
    December 13, 2011

    Jesse, first, evolution is as close to a fact as anything science has produced, I don’t know how many times I have to say that before someone notices.

    “And it points to all kinds of ways that living things can arise spontaneously.”

    It might give some hints as to ways it MIGHT have happened, thought it has yet to demonstrate that any of them would actually result in a living, reproducing being.

    Your argument from Gettysburg and the Pyramids only reinforces the primary problem with knowing how the line of life we are part of came about THERE IS NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE that indicates what that original life was like or the one and only way in which it came about. The earliest indications of life in the physical record come from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years after the event, representing who knows how many generations of evolving life removed from the event. Without that physical evidence needed to even focus the attention of would-be researchers, they are guessing. The physical evidence that supports the fact of evolution, not to mention Gettysburg and questions about the Pyramids is entirely missing in the far different and far more speculative question of how life actually originated. When it is a question about a specific organism or even species of organisms, the questions surrounding its characteristics are far different from those about far simpler, non-living objects of study.

    You also said:

    “Which means that no, nobody will ever know exactly what the first organism was in detail but you can say what’s likely and what’s not.”

    You might be able to rule some things out but there is no way to rule things in, there isn’t any way of knowing what is more probably true of an unknown organism that arose by unknown means never observed by science in nature. Without an actual subject to study you will not know which of your conjectures match physical evidence but you will also entirely lack the subject that could put you on the previously unknown correct track to learning more about it.

    And even if you had the actual specimen to look at, if you had figured out a plausible and supported means that it came into being, messing things up with claims that it supported materialism would be as unsupported as any claims that it was evidence of intelligent design. That is a discussion that science is unequipped to address.

    Though, just on a political level, based on the reaction to that artificial DNA experiment a couple of years back, be prepared for ID proponents to point out that anything like that produced in a laboratory would be the product of an intelligent design by scientists.

  35. #35 Anthony McCarthy
    December 13, 2011

    Jesse, I should also point out that the original organism would be unlike even its direct descendants in that, unlike them, it would not have been the product of biological reproduction, that would make it rather unique and unlike any organism we have ever observed in nature or, so far, produced artificially. It’s possible that anything we believe we can intuit from observed life is misleading.

  36. #36 dave w.
    December 14, 2011

    Great, informative post as always.

    I always feel a little smarter after reading you.

  37. #37 bomoore
    December 14, 2011

    RE: MIRACLES – This is the problem with Americans – each believes that whatever he or she thinks (opinion) is a DEFINITION! Language has its rules, which arise within the brain. Words have definitions, otherwise conversation is meaningless.Too much American conversation is pointless babble between people who are convinced that they are somehow “right.” The proof is that we can’t seem to agree on anything or accomplish much. For language to be effective there has to be some agreement as to what words mean; instead, the world has been politicized, words purposely “spun” into meaningless garbage, human exchange reduced to ideologic anger.

    Also! If aliens ever show up it’s unlikely they will be biological creatures. Machines / robots would survive millions of years of space travel, not ephemeral biologic creatures.

  38. #38 Jesse
    December 14, 2011

    Anthony — then how do we have any idea how the sun formed? Nobody has ever observed that directly either. We just make inferences based on seeing various astronomical objects behave.

    Nobody has ever directly observed the beginning of the universe, or a host of other things, including what the last common ancestor of chimps and humans was.

    It seems you’re saying that the OOL has some special problem that to me doesn’t seem any different from any other area of science. And ruling things out IS a pretty powerful mechanism. After all, we know a stack of things that, say, cancer is NOT caused by — that’s why we tell people to avoid smoking and not bike riding, you know? The parameter space isn’t infinite.

    I mean, we can’t say much about the unknown body that probably smacked into the Earth to create the moon either. But there are lots of lines of evidence that make that a tenable hypothesis.

    To come up with a viable model for OOL, you don’t need to know everything in every detail any more than you need to for evolution. We don’t have the slightest idea what the “first” reptile was like, but we can say quite a bit from the reptiles that follow. We know they didn’t have six legs, for instance. We know they had teeth.

    With life, you can say that you know some pretty solid stuff:

    – the first life on Earth was likely formed from a very specific set of elements. CHON, P, S. It s less likely that you got any self-replicating molecule with anything too much more exotic.

    – We can infer quite a bit about the early conditions on Earth. Given that, you can come up with some likely chemical reactions.

    – Several experiments have demonstrated that chemicals, relatively simple ones at that, can self-catalyze.

    – odds are whatever reactions happened did so in a liquid. Water is a good candidate because it doesn’t straight-up dissolve organic molecules.

    – other “four-bonding” chemicals like Silicon, Gallium and lead, to name three, in the periodic table aren’t abundant enough in the crust or don’t make the right shapes for self-catalyzing reactions, so carbon, at least in the conditions you get on early Earth, wins.

    With just these pieces of information you can get a lot about the characteristics of early life. And there have been lab experiments to confirm a lot of this stuff.

    No, you can’t say “it was exactly like this.” But you can for sure “rule things in” as it were.

  39. #39 Anthony McCarthy
    December 14, 2011

    bomoore, if you meant my question, it was a question based on the definition you gave, not a definition.

    I’d recommend you look up the concept of “physical law” in a few sources that go into a bit more detail and cover the real problems of what that means. I especially like Eddington’s discussion of it in The Philosophy of Physical Science and The Nature of the Physical World, though there are plenty of other eminent scientists, especially in physics, who have shown it is hardly as cut and dry a situation as you might imagine. I’m struck by how even many who should know better in the 21st century stick by an 18th century concept of knowledge except for when dealing with specialized topics in physics. It’s as if they didn’t really believe that what they’ve learned from the past century was really real. Eddington was a Brit, by the way, if you’ve got a prejudice against Americans.

    On a very important and practical level:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer?printable=true

    You might look at the letters and Lehrer’s follow up in January of this year.

  40. #40 Anthony McCarthy
    December 14, 2011

    “It seems you’re saying that the OOL has some special problem that to me doesn’t seem any different from any other area of science.”

    No, I am merely pointing out that science absolutely depends on there being some kind of physical evidence to study. It’s rather stunning that point would have to be pointed out to the side that believes and never ceases to claim that its position is validated by evidence.

    Jesse, the sun is there to be observed today, there is physical evidence of some kind to do science with. You may as well go back to the pyramids as the sun because there is PHYSICAL EVIDENCE to begin a study on and to continue studying. There is NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE of the first living organism that, somehow, came into being from nonliving matter. There is no physical evidence of that organism, there is no physical evidence of its immediate descendants, there is no physical evidence of any kind that can yield information for countless generations after the original event, not for tens to hundreds of millions of years after that event. The earliest fossil evidence of life cannot tell you what the entirely unknown way that first organism came to life was or how it successfully reproduced. It can’t tell you anything about the various combinations of molecules that combined to form that organism actually was, it can’t tell you under what physical conditions that happened and why those molecules weren’t destroyed by physical action instead of, eventually, assembling into a living organism.

    It really, really does matter, especially when biology is the topic, that you have physical evidence to study. If you have no knowledge of that organism to start with you have nothing to go in to determine if your conclusions about it are accurate. When you are talking about physical structures and processes as complex and possibly variable as organisms, and not only organisms but ORGANISMS IN THEIR ENVIRONMENT on which they absolutely depend to exist, you are talking about some of the most subtle and specific problems in science. In order to talk about that organism you have to talk about that organism, in order to understand it you have to understand it in its environment.

    In the case of the original ancestor of life on Earth, you are, actually, talking about an organism that is unlike any known organism, certainly when you are talking about how it came to be alive. As I pointed out even its direct descendants would have come from biological reproduction, the original parent organism didn’t. It came from non-biological production, a process that we have never seen, not artificially in a laboratory, not in nature. And in order to understand that event you would have to have physical evidence of that, singular, actual, unique event, in order to understand how that happened. Anything that is not based in known physical evidence of that event would be of unknowable accuracy, it could not produce reliable information of that event.

    I fully believe that, no matter how much materialists or ID creationists want to know the answer to that question it will never be known BECAUSE THE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE NECESSARY TO KNOW IT IS LOST FOR ALL TIME, IS IRRETRIEVABLE AND IT CANNOT BE RELIABLY SIMULATED. Forgive me for taking the claims of science and the most basic facts about how science can claim validity seriously, but I always have and I still do.

  41. #41 mary
    December 14, 2011

    okay… so its clear to me that they found a planet… and there might be life on it. what will religion people say??? Even if they do find other life on this new planet and even if they prove it how many (reigion) people will be crushed by this news… didnt it say in the bible that there is only one Earth in the whole World… This news cruses me… is there realy god out there???

  42. #42 Anthony McCarthy
    December 14, 2011

    Mary, What if “other life” turns out to be as or even more religious than human beings are? What if they’re both more religious and more scientifically accomplished?

    Until we find out if it’s even there any speculation is just wishful thinking.

  43. #43 Ed
    December 15, 2011

    Interesting article, but way too many exclamation points !
    You should let the reader get excited on his/her own, rather than throwing lots of italics and exclamations at us. Pretend for a moment that the readers can think for themselves, please! (that would be sarcasm)

  44. #44 Scott
    December 22, 2011

    A.McCarthy, just replace “first organism” with “The God” and you’ll see both sides have no proof…YET. Religion needs science to validate it’s Faith, and with actual proof too. But if God appeared to all today, we would no longer need faith. Science is teaching us math theory to actual discovery of proof “euphorically”, almost every day like Kepler 22B, in this Golden age of Astronomy and discovery. If Science is true and God is real then God gave us science, which never sets out to prove there is no God, only how he did it. So were both right?……

  45. #45 kushalappa
    December 22, 2011

    check

  46. #46 Manish
    December 28, 2011

    Why Hubble telescope can’t take pictures of Kepler 22b ?

  47. #47 Dan
    Kenya
    June 26, 2012

    I think the astronants are doing a very good job

  48. #48 JimWell RiNt
    Philippines
    July 5, 2012

    Is there is land,oxygen,carbondioxyde in Kleper-22b?

  49. #49 Naeem Arshad
    Pakistan
    April 19, 2014

    Great article.
    Dear All,

    Please share more information when you get from any where.
    any one have know about Keler 186b.. please share your knowledge..

    Thanks in advance.