when astrobiology goes very, very wrong…
In the wake of the news which must have rocked the scientific world, any by extension, probably yours as well, the Journal of Cosmology, the pet project of cosmologist Rudolph Schild, is going out of business. What pray tell are eccentric scientists on a mission to prove to the world that the aliens are out there and came here on meteorites and comets in ongoing panspermia events, to do now to continue their quest? Apparently, give a little new life to their paper which tries to trace the emergence of life to within a blink of a cosmological eye, a mere several million years after the Big Bang on mysterious planets that apparently litter the universe. And in their minds, they can get more publicity for their work by asking PZ Myers for a review.
One wonders why they didn’t just dive right into a pit of starving lions and cut out the electronic middleman, but answers to questions like this are well outside my area of expertise and I’m digressing here. Suffice it to say that the paper is really not persuasive in the very least, and the authors ramble and jump around from paragraph to paragraph while throwing out random numbers and equations that supposedly prove that the universe was brimming with life which was just peacefully evolving along during an epoch of turbulent galaxy formation and hypernovae.
So where do we start with this premise? How about with the fact that a few million years after it was born, the universe should have been smaller and denser than it is now and after the first flash, entered a dark age that lasted for millions of years? Stars as we know them are thought to have been born only 150 million years after the Big Bang and those Population III stars had to synthesize all the metals and silicates needed to form any future planet which could be home to living things. What this paper basically says is that the first planets were born before the first stars and this happened at the very dawn of the universe. And not only that, but that these planets, which somehow came into existence only 300,000 years after baryogenesis, when the only elements really present in the entire universe were hydrogen, helium, and lithium, spawned living things in 2 million to approximately 20 million years after they were formed.
All right, sure, there’s a good model suggesting that a planet could host life even if it wasn’t orbiting a star, so if they can somehow explain how a planet without a surface or an ocean can spawn living things from the three elements mentioned above, they have an idea we could actually consider. But the authors manage to severely mangle their timeline so we somehow have vast clusters of white dwarfs seeding these mysterious and ill-defined planets with organic compounds at some point in time, and what’s even more bizarre, stars suddenly forming from planetary collisions, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t sound even remotely plausible. Did those planets just slam into each other and start fusion? It’s pretty hard to tell because no mechanism for this alternative hypothesis of star birth is given.
If by now you’re feeling lost and confused, don’t worry. That’s normal because the paper in question is wildly disorienting and spends its bulk looking for traces of planets in nebulae, ancient galactic clusters, and filling various globular clusters throughout space. Every particle that looks spherical is interpreted as being one of these mysterious planets and then further classified as being the culprit behind dark matter. By the end of the paper, you’ve been told that not only were there magical planets at the dawn of the cosmos, but that they’re an incubator for life, that they seeded the universe with primordial bacteria, that they were the progenitors of early stars, and finally, that they’re also dark matter. Ow. My brain. It hurts. After finally reaching the conclusion, I was wondering why I subject myself to this kind of stuff and whether there’s some from of nerdy sadomasochism I might unwittingly be into.
But believe it or not, I’m still not done listing this paper’s doozies. You see, all those amazing planets, which seem to be the answer to every cosmological question asked today, and a complete reversal of solar system formation were invented for a simple reason. One of the co-authors, who worked on the mechanics of panspermia with Hoyle, used his old assertion that life is way too complex to have started in just a billion years or so on Earth, and thus must’ve come from space. We’re now returning to the days of Lord Kelvin, when panspermia offered to explain how a “young” planet like ours had enough time to develop its biosphere since back then, Earth was thought to be 400 million years old at most.
But hold on though, something seems off. Did you catch it yet? Let me give you a hint. According to the author whose convictions underpin this paper, Chandra Wickramasinghe, a billion years or so is just not enough to develop the first life forms, and living things are too complex to arise by abiogenesis. Yet on his planets which populate the universe at its inception, life arises by abiogenesis in two to 20 million years. Huh? What? How can a billion years be too little for life to evolve when the universe is 9 billion years old but when it just begins, a few million years is plenty? But then again, Wickramasinghe is not known for being entirely reasonable and his quest to prove that life got here by extraterrestrial seeding his taken on bizarre forms, like accusing NASA of hiding evidence of life on Mars and claiming that SARS was an alien virus.
Insisting that life is just far too complex to evolve on its own, he’s been trying to grasp at any straw to prove that somehow, in the vacuum of space, or on a world at the dawn of the universe, all the same problems he assigns to life on Earth arising on its own suddenly vanish, then parades this assertion as if he’s solved the problem of abiogenesis. He hasn’t done that at all. All he really did was push it back. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve written about some of the neat science regarding panspermia and research into organic compounds in space quite a bit on this blog. It’s not impossible that some vital ingredients for life came from space. But what’s being offered in this paper simply falls flat on its face, argues absurd things using incredibly unscientific double standards, and shows why few scientists took Schild and his friends’ ramblings seriously enough to contribute to their journals.
See: Carl H. Gibson, Rudolph E. Schild, and N. C. Wickramasinghe (2010). The Origin of Life from Primordial Planets Int. J. of Astrobiology arXiv: 1004.0504v4