National Catholic Register

Education

Could There Be Life on Other Planets?

BY Rich Rinaldi

June 20-26, 1999 Issue | Posted 6/20/99 at 2:00 PM

 

During his recent trip to Poland, Pope John Paul II spoke at the University of Torun of the tension between faith and reason. Torun is the cradle of Nicholas Copernicus, one of the most important astronomers in history. What questions would Copernicus be asking today, and how would Christians respond? Register Radio News correspondent Rich Rinaldi recently asked Hugh Ross, who serves in the astrophysics department at California Institute of Technology. Ross is also a former pastor at Sierra Madre Congregational Church in California.

Rich Rinaldi: Some say that the Copernicuses of today are asking if there is life on other planets. How can faith and reason together inform this discussion?

Hugh Ross: I really appreciate what the Pope said about the fact that we need to be open to different interpretations on origins and the history of life here on planet Earth: not to simply look at naturalistic explanation but to look at the supernaturalistic explanation and let the evidence lead us where it should go.

I wrote a book on this a few years ago, The Creator and the Cosmos, where I pointed out that there are dozens of different design characteristics both for the universe and [for] the solar system that demonstrate — if we're appealing to the natural process alone — that there isn't the remotest chance of finding a planet like Earth with the capacity to support any kind of life. The odds that we are calculating currently [are] based on 110 different characteristics. ... However, that does not eliminate the possibility that God performed miracles on more than one planet. The point of all these probabilities is that it shows that it can't happen without supernatural input.

What are some of the more pronounced characteristics needed to have life on a planet?

Well, you need water in great abundance in all three states: frozen, liquid and vapor. Which means you have to have a planet at just the right distance from a just-right star.

If you move Earth a half-million miles closer or farther away from the Sun, the water is going to be put into [an exclusively] frozen state or [an exclusively] vapor state and life won't be possible.

Now, probably more fine-tuned is the fact that you have to have a star almost exactly the mass of our star, the Sun, or you simply won't have a stable enough flame to sustain life on a planet orbiting about it. It must be a bachelor star. It has to be what's called a co-rotation distance from the center of our galaxy.

We had Copernicus hundreds of years ago kind of upset the whole Christian community with his announcement that the Earth is not at the center. What we are now realizing is that both the Earth and the Sun, and our galaxy, are at a very special location — unique locations that permit life to be possible. Life's impossible if its location is the center of everything. Life is only possible if the Sun is about half-way up in the center of the galaxy and if our galaxy is in a very sparsely populated part of the universe.

Rich Rinaldi is director of Register Radio News.