Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I just read an article about some exciting new research into Panspermia; alien bacteria, and red rain, and the origins of life. The researchers claim that this phenomenon points to the possibility of life here on Earth having extraterrestrial origins. Well, I'm sorry to say it, but I'm here to rain on that parade...

This idea, like a number of others, smacks of a kind of neo-creationism. These ideas are gaining currency with some otherwise well-meaning folks who simply don't have a good foundation in the sciences. I'm guessing that they are more enamored by science that religion, but are still looking for that awe-inspiring revelation about the meaning of life. But even this idea is a bit far-fetched.

Take the whole pyramids-built-by-aliens-theory. They say that cultures all over the world were building pyramids at roughly the same time, so they must have been connected, or inspired by the same culture. Ever make a pile of
stones? High as you could make it? Was it cone or pyramid shaped? The similarity is just based on having to obey the same laws of physics with similar levels of technology.

Similarly, while it's theoretically possible that life evolved elswhere in the universe and somehow survived in space to germinate life here, it strikes me as VERY unlikely. Space is a highly volatile environment. Life is much more probable in a homeo-rythmic environment, like the ones found on planets or moons with relatively stable orbits. Read me carefully here, Those conditions may be extreme compared to what humans need, hot, cold or what-have-you, but they are almost always within a stable set of cyclic conditions. The odds are much greater that life on Earth evolved right here, in just such an environment.

More to the point, even if it were true, it doesn't change anything. The search for the origin of life, on Earth or in the Universe, will still be important for all the same reasons. Finding life on the moons of Jupiter or some other forbidding place in the galaxy will teach us about our own origins, and the potential for life elsewhere in the universe, whether we are related or not. Four billion years ago, when life first appeared on Earth, this planet was no more hospitable than Venus, Mars or any of a handful of Jovian moons. The same laws of physics apply. So anywhere we find life surviving, or thriving, teaches us about the parameters of life. So much of our planet's condition today is regulated by the presence of life, it's difficult to imagine it as just another planet.

In any event, the actual answers to the origin of life here will probably also remain equally elusive. We may find many clues, but never have a solid answer. So why does matter? That's easier to answer. In a world where science education is suffering the set-backs of budget-cuts and attacks by the proponents of Intelligent Design, I think it's important to have some focus. Popular science is a fantastic tool for educating and rallying support for research, but I think it works best when not watered down.