Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Can Life Be Merely an Accident?

“Can Life Be Merely an Accident?” That was the title of a talk I went to yesterday at Loma Linda University which featured Dr. Robert Piccioni, a cosmologist and author of “Atoms, Einstein and the Universe.” Basically his talk today was a variation of the Fine-Tuning argument except that Dr. Piccioni did not mention God even once in his talk until the question and answer period which I will describe later. So here is my summary of the talk.

Dr. Piccioni started stating, “Modern science has discovered that the conditions necessary for life are extraordinarily improbable. Let’s divide the requirements into four categories, all of which are essential for the existence of life: a viable universe, the right atoms, a habitable environment, and an effective genetic code.”

He stated that the universe has about 20 “knobs” or “dials” that must be precisely tuned to the right values to allow for life to exist and flourish. For whatever reason, the planet we call home happens to have all the dials set to these right values. I’m sure those of you who are reading this are familiar with the Fine-Tuning argument but I’ll give you a few of the examples he gave us at the talk.

First, he brought up how important even the smallest things are in the universe. He stated that the mass of a proton was one of the 20 knobs that are precisely “tuned” to the appropriate value.  If the proton’s mass was ¼ of a % either heavier or lighter no life could exist. For example, if the mass was heavier free neutrons would fail to decay to form protons resulting in a universe full of neutronium and no other elements (hydrogen, carbon, oxygen) could exist.

Secondly, he talked about how everything in the universe appears somewhat symmetrical except for the ratio of matter to ant-matter. If matter and anti-matter were in equal proportions they would cancel each other out and we would be left with a big universe full of nothing.

Thirdly, he talked about stars and their role in dark matter, gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the weak force. Stars are basically necessary for the formation of the elements of life. I did not quite catch all he said on stars so this will have to do.

Fourthly, he mentioned how the expansion of the universe is set to just the right speed that any faster or slower would have resulted in a “Big Crunch” after the Big Bang and again nothing would be able to live in the universe.

He then began taking about how “good planets are hard to find.” He stated that the majority of observable planets in the universe orbit 1 or 2 stars in an elliptical orbit. Earth is in the minority in that its orbit is more circular. Because of this, earth is able to stay within what is called the “Goldilocks Zone.” This allows for earth to have liquid water all year long. If the orbit was elliptical earth would pass between having a completely frozen surface and a barren desert. He also mentioned that if the sun was heavier or lighter in mass it would affect the earth in such a way that no life could survive. The outer planets, like Jupiter, provide protection from large space debris and so does the moon. Earth’s moon is also the only moon in our solar system that affects the axis of its planet. The moon actually acts to balance the earth in such a way as to allow for life. Also when the moon was formed (after breaking off of earth, possibly in an asteroid collision) it left earth with its high iron core that thus acts to protect the earth from the sun’s particles. He mentioned that the mass of the earth was just right to capture and hold the right gases needed for life (unlike Jupiter for example which captures too much helium). He also stated that the surface of the earth is renewed by plate tectonics to control the balance of carbon in the atmosphere. Without this renewing no life would be able to exist on earth. Carbon acts as a shield to protect the earth from things like meteorites and radiation.  Of course this is all just a very brief summary of his talk without a lot of the details. 

Then he began talking about the genetic code. He stated that human DNA consists of about 3.2 base pairs, or about 100 million atoms, and is 99.9% the same throughout all of humanity. He began talking about research being done titled “The Minimal Genome Project.” This research aimed to discover the minimal number of DNA base pairs that needed to assemble in order to create/sustain life. They found that the absolute shortest that DNA could be for a living organism was still an astounding 460,000 base pairs. He proceeded to show everyone how the maximum number of DNA base pairs that could possibly come together at one time, and in one place, was only 230 base pairs. A far cry from the 460,000 needed for life.

After his talk he opened the floor to some questions and answers with the audience. Some fellow came up to the front and asked him. “Do you believe God created evolution?”

His response was simple, to the point, and I thought was very appropriate. He said, “I am here simply to represent science and only scientific facts. My goal is only to increase interest in science. I am not here to tell anyone what to believe about God. I have my personal beliefs and I am not here to share them. I am just here to talk about the science behind the universe.”

So then that is my VERY brief summary of Dr. Piccioni’s talk. He went in to a little more depth in his actual presentation. I thought it was very interesting to hear him speak on the universe and its apparent fine-tuning without mentioning God once. He simply stuck to the facts accepted by scientists.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Sounds like a great presentation. Thanks for sharing it!