Part 2 digs deeper into what makes earth so unique along with what is required to sustain life. Dr. Britt also explains the one source that reveals man's purpose and search for meaning.
[Darris McNeely] Welcome back to Beyond Today Interviews. We're continuing our discussion with Dr. Steven Britt, a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and a former Fulbright Scholar, Tel Aviv University in Israel. Steven, I wanna come back to what you were writing about in the article "Are we alone?" The search for life as scientists look out here. We touched on this briefly in our last program. But what is it about Earth? What are the conditions that make it habitable to sustain life?
[Steven Britt] The further this is studied, the more and more conditions that are found on Earth that are necessary for life. It's like, the more you think about it, the more highly specified our planet is for life than what we could have imagined. I mean, few hundred years ago nobody was even asking any of these questions. Now that we're able to do things with these telescopes to filter out the light from the stars so you can see a planet, we can start to measure things we couldn't measure before, like how far a planet is from the star that it orbits. And that makes a big difference on whether life can be sustained there or not. Because if you're too close to your star, and if your star is, you know, brighter or hotter than the sun, then well, it's gonna heat the planet way too much. On the other hand, if it's too far away from the star, it's not getting enough energy, then there's no way you can get the entropy needed, right, the energy needed to start or sustain any kind of life. So that's one criteria, the proximity to a star, the ability to sustain an orbit that is at a proper distance for heat reasons and also so that the planet doesn't get sucked into the star.
[Darris] Can we call that the Goldilocks phenomenon? Not too hot, not too cold, but just right?
[Steven] It's been called that. But the reality is that there are dozens if not hundreds of parameters that are like that, big ones about the existence of water on a planet. The formation of a planet at some point needs to be able to form an atmosphere to protect these nascent life forms if they were going to spontaneously arise on a planet, which personally I don't believe it's possible. If they were going to, they'd have to be protected by some kind of atmosphere. So all the conditions that go into having an atmosphere on a planet become conditions for life, as we understand it. There are some planets that are what we call tidally locked. Our moon and its orbit around the earth is like this, where we only ever see one side of the moon. That's why we call the other side the dark side because the moon is always facing us. So as it goes around, it's constantly turning exactly in sync with the earth. And some planets do that around their star so that only that one half of the planet is ever facing the sun and the other side of the planet is only ever facing away. So even if it's in the right zone or the right distance away from that star, if one side is always facing the sun, imagine if the sun never set, it would get hotter and hotter and it would be unlivable for most life forms.
[Darris] Let's come back to again, the point of your article that we started with. Your article, spoiler alert, is that we are not alone, that there is a God. So I think we figured out by now we're coming from that point of view. But let's play devil's advocate with a scientist for a moment. Where is everybody? If we've spent all this energy, money and time, looking with SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence programs, and probes and seeking all of this, the obvious question is, where is everybody?
[Steven] Right. And that's actually the question known as the Fermi paradox. Scientists back in the 50s and 60s when they were starting to really unveil through telescopes, the vast scope of the universe and just how big and how many stars there are in it started to do some calculations because they were speculating and philosophizing about these same things, whether there is some other life form out there and reaching out for that. And so for a mathematician or physicist, what do you do? You try to come up with an equation. So not long after... for me it was a physicist, speculated about this and said, "Well, shouldn't we be running into a bunch of other advanced civilizations if the universe is this big, if it has this many billions, even trillions of stars?" At least some of them will have planets and percentage-wise, it doesn't take a large percentage of stars having planets and a large percentage of planets having the right distance from their star and those things in order to still end up with a large number of planets that ought to be sustaining life if things work as they understand them.
[Darris] So scientists are coming to the point where they are admitting that we are alone.
[Steven] In some circles, yes. So famously, the Drake equation was the formal follow up to Fermi's paradox of where is everybody if the universe is so big and it's all just a matter of rolling dice. So the Drake equation was an attempt to formalize that calculation by actually looking at the probabilities, the rate of formation of stars, the percentage of stars that would have planets, the percentage of those planets that would be suitable for life. And even with just very conservative uneducated guesses at those numbers, they came up with the fact that in our galaxy alone, within the Milky Way, there ought to be on the order of millions of advanced civilizations, comparable or more advanced than our own. And so then, once they had done this calculation, they were really like, "Where is everybody? This is not making sense with what we're saying."
And in the time since then, and we talked about the different special conditions here on Earth, and they find more and more of these limiting conditions on life and just how special our situation is here. And some scientists are starting to agree with the evidence, which is that we are alone, that there's not other civilizations out there. And then they try to explain for one reason or another why that is, whether intelligent civilizations have arisen, but they simply destroy themselves when they get to a certain level of advancement, all kinds of other postulating, but all of it's meaningless. The evidence is that so far, we haven't seen any trace of anyone out there. Whereas from the probability standpoint, if they believe life to be so easily to arise as they explain evolution happened here on Earth and all those things, if that were true, we ought to be bumping into these other alien species everywhere we look nowhere.
[Darris] Reality is as they come to greater knowledge about the universe, the cosmos, it's mostly space.
[Steven] Yeah, yeah. And that's another good point that if we go out looking for life, you quickly realize that the range of places in the universe you might even find it, you're not gonna find it in the empty space, which is most of everything. You're not gonna find it in the black holes. You're not gonna find it on or in the stars. You might find it on these few handful of rocky planets that are in the Goldilocks distance from their planet. But even then it just gets so refined and all the things that are needed. If you look at the possible habitable zones out there, even off current understanding, it's minuscule compared to the size of the universe. Look at all the space between us and the sun right now, that tells you something about it. We only have life on this little ball, the earth, but the space even in our solar system is vastly, vastly bigger than that. So the overall space that life inhabits is extremely small, and we would expect it to be that way on the scale of the entire universe.
[Darris] You know, when I get in an airplane and fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, that's a long way and a long time in the plane. But when I read these estimates of distance and what it would take for us with our technology to travel, it's impossible. We really, for all the talk of going to Mars, or to other places for humans to go, we don't have the technology to do it, do we?
[Steven] No, absolutely not. So to that end, I think you mentioned some of the current projects out there. One of those are the breakthrough initiatives. They're all funded by a Russian billionaire. He's kind of set up these different funds for projects listening for extraterrestrial signals. That was Breakthrough Listen. Another one is Breakthrough Starshot where they're trying to design these small craft, you know, probably about, no bigger than your hand, that would be able to travel at 20% the speed of light, and the goal is to propel them by firing a bunch of focus laser beams at them to give them the energy to accelerate to that point, and then they would go to the nearest star to us, Proxima Centauri, which is I believe it's four, five light-years away, four light-years away, if I remember right. Because, at 20% the speed of light, four light-years will take you 20 years to get there. Okay, once they get there if they're able to measure anything, they could send the signal back, and it would take four years for the signal.
So these things are under development, not even done. And even if it all works out perfectly, we're talking about maybe getting something back, maybe, if nothing goes wrong, 25 years after the thing is launched. And so much of the way this is talked about is as though we're on the verge of discovering alien civilizations, and the very edge of being able to do something really significant to that end, but really, the most conservative efforts are very far in the future.
[Darris] So if we believe that on Earth is the only form of intelligent life, sentient life as human beings are, and as we look at science and what they've discovered, we read the scriptures, we come to that conclusion with people of faith. What if, Steven, some bacteria were discovered on some distant body? Some type of proto life. What would that do for a person of faith? How should a person of faith consider that?
[Steven] That's a good question. I mean, so first to quantify a little bit, the only places where we're capable of finding that in the near term, that's not on the order of decades would be either the moon or Mars. The problem with both of those sites is we've already been there, and our germs go everywhere we go. And the life that we do see here on Earth is so tenacious that it would stand to reason you'd really have to rule out the possibility of contamination first, even if something were found here, closer to home.
But in that long term, if we'd send a probe out to Proxima Centauri and 25 years from now get this answer back and it looks like they have found something that's indigenous to the place, should that invalidate our faith? I would think not. I mean, the fact of the matter is the Bible never explicitly tells us. You know, God never comes from the mountain and says, "I never created life anywhere in this whole universe, except right here on Earth." We're only told about life here on Earth. And you know, the way things are presented, God certainly gives a lot of special care and attention to us here on Earth. What is man, that you're mindful of him? We see how great the universe is, and understand if God made that then God's much greater, infinitely greater, yet he's mindful of us. So in terms of what it would do to my faith, personally, if suddenly there was a verifiable alien microbe out there, I wouldn't let it bother me. I would still want to live my life the same way according to that book.
[Darris] I would agree with you. I'd wanna know as much as I could about that microbe.
[Steven] Yeah, I'd be really interested. And I would be skeptical. I mean, that's a point that's often thrown in the face of Christians by atheists is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
[Darris] There's a scripture in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that says that God has put eternity in man's hearts. Is that why we even have a discussion like this and ask these questions, and seek these answers?
[Steven] Yeah, I think absolutely. I think that's really the Bible's way of expressing what we've also said here in these interviews about there's that natural longing where we look out into the heavens and into space and the more we look, there's a longing for connection to it, a longing for understanding of who we are and what we are in a way that no other creature on Earth experiences. No other creature we know of has that same kind of longing for understanding that we do. So that's how I've understood those words and actually found it to be a source of truth and a validation of this book as being something divine in origin, that it could penetrate to that level of the human psyche to help us step back and see ourselves. It's like, "Well, yes, I do, I want there to be something bigger. Why am I like that?" That's because there's a God who put it there that way. In fact, it reminds me of a scripture that I'd like to read from, in Acts 17, when Paul was in Athens and speaking with...
[Darris] A group of very smart people.
[Steven] Yeah, a group of philosophers, no doubt, from the Areopagus. He said the following. So he was talking to them about this unknown god they had an altar to and explaining that really the god they hadn't known, that they had speculated about, for them was more of an insurance policy, "In case there's a god out there we don't know about, we might as well sacrifice to him, make him happy." Well, it turns out there was a god they didn't know about. And Paul described him this way. And I think it encapsulates a lot of the message of the Bible here in a very short package. So Acts 17:26 says that this god, he made from one man, every nation of mankind. So right there, you've got the statement of this God is a creator of mankind with intention and purpose. "And he made them to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place."
So this is also a god who is involved in history that's being described. Who is, you know, intricately connected to the affairs of man on the earth at the level of human governments, and we read about how God sets up kings and takes down kings. But verse 27, he's done this, Why? "That they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him." And I think that gets to the heart of what Ecclesiastes 3 points out, and God put this in us to seek Him out so that we could find Him. And the best part of all is very end of this, it says, "Yet He's actually not far from each one of us." And that is just one of the most comforting realities that not only is there something out there but that something is not some amorphous blob that we can't understand. It is a God who loves us, who designed us this way for a purpose for us to grow into something like him. And that's the ultimate destiny of mankind. That's what it's all about. That's why we follow the laws that this God gave us.
[Darris] You know, I think that is very comforting when you consider the fact that as we said earlier, most of what we see is empty black space. There's nothing there, material. But that scripture shows that God is near and we can find Him, have a relationship with Him. He's not as far away as we might think.
[Steven] Right, right. If you look at the man hours and the money that has been invested towards looking out into this void, where nothing's been found, and just think about what if people were desperately searching for God in that way, how much different would the world be if that were the case?
[Darris] You know, Steven, I think when you look at the "National Geographic" magazine that kind of inspired your article, or your title of your article, the "National Geographic" said, "We are not alone." And then you raise the question, "Are we alone?" And the reality is we're not.
[Darris] And for all of our learning and all of our knowledge, we don't have to climb a mountain to find philosophers. It's right there in the Scripture. And a relationship can be established with God that can bring him very close to us and also into a relationship with Him. I think your article is a good starting point for study, not just of the field, this field of science, but a deeper study of Scripture, to really find out how the two work together to present a holistic picture of God.
[Steven] Yeah, right. And, you know, if we wanna talk about that whole process that a person would go through, like I went through, that first step is coming to understand that there is a God out there, that all of this didn't just happen this way, that it was designed. It bears the marks of that design. When you start to open your mind to the possibility that there was a God, that becomes the glaringly obvious conclusion, the only one that makes any kind of real sense, once you're open to it. And beyond that, it's following what Paul said there in Acts 17 that this is a God who's been involved with history, a God who created man. And we can look back at history and compare it to what we're told in the Bible, which tells us itself that it's a book given to us by God. And that these are the words of God we're reading. And we can evaluate whether those words stand up to history as recorded by men apart from God. And anyone who does that with an open mind and who can look at it objectively will see that, especially something like the Gospel accounts, it lines up perfectly with what Roman historians tell us from that time period. And the best verifiable histories that we have, the Bible lines up with them.
[Darris] Dr. Steven Britt, we appreciate you being with us on our Beyond Today Interviews and we look forward to having you back with additional discussions on future articles that you write. Thanks for watching us. You're gonna want to stay tuned to future interviews that we do with people who have an insight into what it means to live beyond today and to write and to help people seek a relationship with God. Thanks for watching.