Trappist-1 and the (desperate) search for alien life

By Subby Szterszky | April 25, 2017

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes, said picture can distort facts and draw people to hasty conclusions that they’re predisposed to make.

Witness the breathtaking imagery, courtesy of NASA, to mark the discovery of a planetary system circling a nearby star named Trappist-1. The most widely publicized of these images shows a red-orange sun with its seven planets lined up in a row like multicoloured marbles. The three middle planets look rather hospitable, having wisps of clouds along with oceans and land masses.

Of course, it’s all the product of an artist’s visualization. In reality, the planets of the Trappist system are much too small and distant to be seen. They can only be detected by measuring the tiny dip in their star’s brightness as they pass in front of it. Other than their approximate size and orbital radius, almost nothing can be observed about them.

None of that stopped NASA’s pretty pictures from going viral and stirring up much enthusiastic speculation. Media sources jumped on board, calling the planets “seven alien Earths” that “could be teeming with ‘exotic’ alien lifeforms,” and claiming that “the universe looks less lonely” all of a sudden.

Before long, however, calmer scientific voices put a damper on the party. A closer look at the data, together with some computer modelling, revealed a far less welcoming picture of the Trappist system.

It’s true that the seven planets are roughly Earth-size, and perhaps three of them may occupy the habitable zone around their sun. However, the planets are also tidally locked, with one side always facing the sun, and the other side always facing away. The sunny sides would be hellish blast furnaces baked under constant heat and radiation, while the far sides would be frozen wastes, plunged into perpetual night. In addition, Trappist-1 is a red dwarf star, prone to solar flares that scour its planets with magnetic storms thousands of times more intense than anything on Earth. If these planets ever had atmospheres or oceans, there’s a strong likelihood they would have boiled away long ago.

In short, appearances suggest that this latest fervent hope of finding extraterrestrial life has come crashing back down to Earth.

But the question remains: Why was this hope so fervent in the first place? Why are intelligent people so quick to jump to conclusions that may not be borne out by the data?

Materialist science has been searching for alien life for decades now. Finding it would constitute hard evidence – so it is believed – that life on Earth is nothing special and could evolve anywhere by random natural processes. For materialists, this would be the domino that topples the theistic worldview and finally proves materialism to be true. And so the desperate search continues.

However, there’s more to it than simply being proven right. As Eric Metaxas argues, the hunt for alien life in science fact and fiction is driven by a sense of loneliness, an existential dread of being alone in an uncaring universe. For those with eyes of faith, of course, the universe isn’t a lonely place at all. It’s designed and governed by a glorious Creator who seeks relationship with His creatures. Tragically, divine companionship is not a thing materialists care to pursue.

To be fair, the quest for alien life isn’t all about dread and desperation. There’s a far more positive aspect to it, a sense of awe and wonder, a desire to explore the mysteries of creation. That’s an urge common to all scientists, whether they’re people of faith or not.

For too many Christians, stories like Trappist-1 arouse feelings of suspicion and skepticism. It’s almost as if they’re afraid scientists will find something that will challenge the Christian faith. When that doesn’t pan out, they breathe a sigh of relief mingled with self-satisfaction. Silly secularists. Didn’t they know there was nothing out there? Can’t they see their efforts are in vain?

Needless to say, such attitudes are not the best way to testify to the truth, much less to the God of Truth. Christians should approach scientific discovery with confidence and humility, coupled with their own sense of awe and wonder.

God is in control of His universe. He created untold trillions of stars, determining their number and giving each their name (Psalm 147:4). There’s nothing to be found in all of space and time that would contradict or undermine His Word. Believers are free to explore His creation, precisely because it is His creation and thus worth exploring.

At the same time, people of faith have to avoid jumping to their own conclusions about what may or may not be out there. They need to stand in humble awe before creation and acknowledge how little they understand its mysteries, and how much there is to know. As Shakespeare remarked in Hamlet, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

A discovery such as Trappist-1 mustn’t be met with indifference or suspicion. It should fire the imagination and ignite a sense of wonder, especially among Christians. More than anyone, they have reason to be eager to see what’s out there, to encounter the beauty and majesty of what God has made.

Three millennia ago, when people could only see a few thousand stars in the night sky, King David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) With the advent of modern astronomy, there’s an opportunity like never before to observe ever-expanding vistas of that glory. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Sources and further reading

Henry Bodkin, “Nasa discovers new solar system Trappist-1 - where life may have evolved on three planets,” The Telegraph, February 23, 2017.

Richard Chirgwin, “Trappist-1’s planets are quiet. Quiet as the grave, in fact,” The Register, March 23, 2017.

Nadia Drake, “Seven alien ‘Earths’ found orbiting nearby star,” National Geographic, February 22, 2017.

Andrew Griffin, “NASA’s ‘Holy Grail’: Solar system that could support alien life discovered,” The Independent, February 22, 2017.

Guardian editorial, “The storm-lashed worlds of Trappist-1,” The Guardian, April 9, 2017.

Jasper Hamill, “NASA says Trappist-1 solar system could be teeming with ‘exotic’ alien lifeforms,” The Sun, February 24, 2017.

Russell Hope, “Scientists find three new planets where life could have evolved,” Sky News, February 23, 2017.

Nicole Kiefert, “Kepler provides more information about Trappist-1,” Astronomy, March 8, 2017.

David Klinghoffer, “Remember those exciting ‘Earth-like’ planets of the Trappist-1 system? The honeymoon is over,” Evolution News, March 21, 2017.

Andrew Masterson, “Trappist-1: Hopes for life dwindle,” Cosmos, March 22, 2017.

Eric Metaxas and G. Shane Morris, “Red dwarf and the seven planets: Fairytales of alien life,” BreakPoint, March 8, 2017.

Nicole Mortillaro, “7 Earth-like planets found orbiting star 39 light-years away,” CBC News, March 03, 2017.

Karen Northon, editor, “NASA telescope reveals largest batch of Earth-size, habitable-zone planets around single star,” NASA, February 23, 2017.

Rae Paoletta, “Here’s our first glorious view of the Trappist-1 star system,” Gizmodo, March 10, 2017.

Ivan Semeniuk, “Red dwarf and the seven worlds: Astronomers excited by bonanza of Earth-sized planets nearby,” Globe and Mail, February 23, 2017.

Toronto Star editorial, “After the Trappist-1 discovery, the universe looks less lonely,” Toronto Star, February 23, 2017.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus Insights.


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