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New planets raise old questions

This artist's concept appeared on the February 23rd, 2017 cover of the journal Nature announcing that the TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf, has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. Any of these planets could have liquid water on them. Planets that are farther from the star are more likely to have significant amounts of ice, especially on the side that faces away from the star. Image courtesy of NASA

(RNS) For millennia, people have gazed into the night sky and wondered, “Are we alone?”

Now the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a nearby dwarf star, Trappist-1, has brought us not just a step, but a leap closer to answering that question, according to the scientists who announced it in a Feb. 22 press conference recorded by NASA.

“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

It’s the first time so many Earth-sized planets have been found around one star; three of them, within the so-called “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone where liquid water could form on the surface and support life, according to NASA.

Proof of extraterrestrial life on one of any of the planets orbiting Trappist-1 would answer the big question of whether we are alone in the universe. But it also would raise many more — some, with theological implications.

“I have always seen the search for life elsewhere to be an opportunity to understand basically the way we relate to the universe — sort of our location,” said the Rev. Lucas Mix, an Episcopal priest and astrobiologist who has a doctorate in evolutionary biology.

The TRAPPIST-1 system contains a total of seven planets, all around the size of Earth. Three of them — TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g — dwell in their star’s so-called habitable zone. The habitable zone, or Goldilocks zone, is a band around every star (shown here in green) where astronomers have calculated that temperatures are just right — not too hot, not too cold — for liquid water to pool on the surface of an Earth-like world.  Image courtesy of NASA

“My greatest hope would be that we find life somewhere else because when we find life somewhere else, we can start to talk about what it means to be alive and not what it means to be us.”

Throughout the history of theology, Mix said, Christians have swung between the idea that Earth can be the only inhabited planet because God favors humans, and its counterpart, that to assume Earth is the only inhabited planet is the height of human pride because God is limitless and all-powerful.

The astrobiologist-priest doesn’t see the existence of life on other planets as a challenge to the idea God loves humans and created them on this planet.

Neither do people in other traditions.

A survey of more than 1,300 people of all faiths and no faiths presented at the 2011 Mutual UFO Network Symposium by Ted Peters — research professor emeritus at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. — found  most don’t believe proof of extraterrestrial life would cause them a crisis of faith. That number is highest among Buddhists (94 percent) and lowest among Catholics (83 percent).


RELATED: For UFO enthusiasts at Oregon festival, ‘it’s all extraterrestrial’


“In Islam, the God incarnate issue does not exist, so the existence of such species would not pose fundamental problems,” said Nidhal Guessom, professor and interim head of physics at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, who has spoken about the implications finding extraterrestrial life would have for Muslims.

Astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore Nikole Lewis presents research findings during a TRAPPIST-1 planets briefing on Feb. 22, 2017, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Researchers revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star called TRAPPIST-1. Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls

Muslims interpret Scripture in different ways on that possibility, ranging from believing God created only humans as intelligent and spiritual beings to believing God created other species more intelligent and spiritual than us, said Guessom in an email to RNS. And different questions would be raised by different kinds of life, by bacteria or a super-intelligent species.

But “brief, intriguing, and inconclusive” references in the Quran leave the possibility open, the Algerian astrophysicist said.

As for Jewish and Christian Scriptures, Brother Guy Consalmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, said: “It’s important to realize that Scripture is really clear only about one thing when it comes to creation: that God did it.”

The idea that humans are special came not from Christianity, but from the Enlightenment — from humanists interested in putting humans in God’s place, according to Consalmagno, who addressed questions raised by extraterrestrial life in a book he co-wrote titled “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: … and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.”

This chart shows, on the top row, artist concepts of the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii and masses as compared to those of Earth. On the bottom row, the same numbers are displayed for the bodies of our inner solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The TRAPPIST-1 planets orbit their star extremely closely, with periods ranging from 1.5 to only about 20 days. This is much shorter than the period of Mercury, which orbits our sun in about 88 days. The artist concepts show what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about their diameters, masses and distances from the host star. Image courtesy of NASA

Still, he said, the fact that planets orbiting Trappist-1 could support life isn’t even the most exciting part of their discovery; there probably are a “zillion” planets in the universe that could be habitable.

More exciting to him is the fact the planets are so close to the star they orbit “we have no idea how that’s even stable,” he said. That’s going to tell scientists more about how planets form.

In that way, science and religion are more alike than different.

“People get really, really excited about apparitions of saints and the Virgin Mary or whatever sounds spectacular, but in real life, your ordinary prayer life is frankly much richer and much more important than any presumed apparition that may or may not have occurred,” he said.

“That’s the way it is in science. Really, the everyday, step-by-step progress in the long run is much more exciting.”

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS Logo) (John Templeton Foundation Logo)

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

44 Comments

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  • Well, if there is life on one of these planets, then at least we’ll know that Trappists exist in outer space.

  • I’m hoping we will find the planet Kolob, home of the Mormon God.

    Astronomers estimate that there are 100 billion earth-sized planets in just our own galaxy. That means the probability of a planet having life is at worst 1 in a 100 billion. With the current estimate of at least 200 billion galaxies in our observable universe the number of possible planets is mind boggling and the odds are good that we are not alone. Religion plays no role on this issue.

  • If by “issue” you mean whether there is life on other planets, then you’re correct: religion has no effect on that. But if by “issue” you mean whether we are able to discover whether there is life on other planets, then you’re probably incorrect. Religion has played a role in astronomical investigation and space exploration. One example of the latter is the life of James Fletcher, Mormon and former head of NASA, whose Mormon beliefs were a factor in his vision of space exploration.

  • Well NASA (and MUFON), simply show us the long-awaited empirical proof, (instead of the usual decades-long wishful unproven naturalism-evolutionism presuppositions), and America will surely have itself the Conversation Of The Century.

    Meannwhile, the Muslim physicist Guessom is totally correct on one point: there is this little matter of “the God Incarnate issue” to deal with. It doesn’t go away.

    Especially for Vatican staff who apparently haven’t read their Bibles (either Genesis or Psalms or Gospels) regarding the special, unique nature of humanity.

  • The notion that God incarnated as a man and not as a woman and not more generally as a human is a much more difficult idea to swallow, than the idea that God might be incarnating everyone and everything everywhere, even alien species. But until theology comes up with a reasonable idea of God that explains suffering, not much point to wondering if a god is incarnating or not. If God is incarnating to save us, then God had better pick up the pace. Oh, I forgot. All we have to do is die to experience being saved.

  • The fact that you can lump NASA with a UFO sighting nutterbutter group is enough to demonstrate that there is no reason to take you seriously here.

    “instead of the usual decades-long wishful unproven naturalism-evolutionism presuppositions”

    Which honest, sane people call, the study of biology, and natural sciences in general.

    I believe the need to seek out intelligent life on other planets is vital. There are too many signs that it very difficult to find it here on Earth.

  • “Astronomers estimate that there are 100 billion earth-sized planets in just our own galaxy. That means the probability of a planet having life is at worst 1 in a 100 billion.”

    *Shudders*. That’s not. At all. How probability. Works.

  • I’m talking about religion and religious beliefs in general. Obviously religious individuals and even organizations (Vatican Observatory) can play a role but the discovery process is by the Scientific Method.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but both NASA and MUFON appear in this same story — and neither group is criticized on scientific grounds. You’ll definitely want to take that up with RNS, no?

    Sure, continue to seek out “intelligent life on other planets.” Just be sure to do the scientific confirmation (not hype, not marketing, but confirmation), BEFORE doing the press conference.

    By the way, we’ve been promised “life on Mars” for a very long time Spuds. You got any news on when THAT line will pay off?

  • MUFON is not expected to provide much of anything other than the views of people who are really interested in alien life (in the most concentrated and ridiculous form out there). They are not providing scientific information in the article. Just data on attitudes in reaction.

    As for NASA, there is no need to criticize them on scientific grounds at all. They are simply describing what they found. Planets similar in conditions to this one. Ones which have a distinct probability to being able to support intelligent life as we know it presently.

    Requiring evidence and scientific confirmation for a point of view be an element of the “naturalism” you derided in the previous post. 🙂

    Your prior posting history has shown a disdain for scientific research and methods in general. Its clear anything which gets in the way of what you consider Biblical Literalism will be ignored or derided for irrational reasons.

    The press conference was done the existence of planets with conditions close to those on earth is a really big deal and rare. Even more exceedingly rare that several are in the same stellar system. It is cause for celebration.

    “By the way, we’ve been promised “life on Mars” for a very long time Spuds. You got any news on when THAT line will pay off?”

    Who has been promising that? SF writers mostly. Do you understand how long it takes just to send something to Mars? Study on that subject will go at a glacial pace just based on technology, budgets and motivations. If you are not satisfied as to how long that takes, talk to your Congressperson about more funding to NASA.

    After the Viking lander, in the 70’s idea of Mars supporting life was pretty much put to rest. Right now the current approach is to find out WAS there life on Mars. There is evidence there was liquid water on the surface of the planet.

  • Still not how that works. The “odds of a planet having life is at worst 1 in a billion” does NOT logically follow from their being “100 billion earth-sized planets in just our own galaxy”

    And… well, no. I don’t want to get into the “ands”. There’s just so much wrong with the weird assertions about odds and probability in the original post to go into.

    What you’d need to do is first get the probability of life being present on a planet (and unfortunately your methodology for calculating such a number is completely and totally flawed), then take the inverse of that (the probability of a planet being lifeless) and take it to a power equal to the amount of planets out there (100 billion times 200 billion).

  • Neither one of us sees each other’s “posting history” as impressive in terms of the scientific method, so I’m not worried about either mine or yours. What matters is what this RNS article tries to on the table.

    Like it or not Spuddie, none of the parties quoted have established the existence of intelligent life on other planets. Trappist stuff is interesting but hasn’t overturned the Scriptures at all.

    Until you, NASA, MUFON or Drs. Mix, Guessom, & Consulmagno actually provide the solid scientific 100% confirmation, we’re left with some interesting human opinions (as always), but NOTHING that overturns what the Bible said about the status and nature of humans.

  • The Trappist planets come close to possible. As for Scripture, mileage always varies about how to interpret it.

  • The “hint” that Thomas Zurbuchen refers to does not necessarily translate into “not if, but when.”

  • Frankly, as a Christian, I am terrified to think that sentient extraterrestrials, believing that they have been given dominion over all creation, will do unto us as we have done unto others on our own planet, believing ourselves to be special and exceptional. And it will be just punishment for us.

  • Both assertions are unfounded. The parts of Genesis before Abraham, and much of it after, consists of campfire tales put to papyrus which were not factual. My Native American Episcopal friend compares it to the storytelling traditions of his tribe which begin with the premise, “Now, this is not a true story, but this is how it happened.” Much of the details of what really occurred are lost to antiquity, just as the children’s nursery rhyme which begins “Hey diddle diddle” contained references to British politicians of the 17th Century CE that everybody but a Ph.D. in a drafty, cluttered office has forgotten. Likewise, reliable scholars regard the books of Ruth, Job,and Jonah to be fiction, albeit with morals. The same with Revelation, a late first century CE indictment of the sins of the Roman Empire resurrected by 19th Century charaltans like Darby and Miller to deceive the public.

  • Then again maybe other planets have societies consisting of entities that have evolved enough that they don’t need to kill or enslave everything in sight to show their manhood or some such drivel. They may be led by women! Wouldn’t that just shake the very stones of the Vatican?

  • I think Mormons would be very open to ET’s on other planets. Their whole religion is based on ET’s giving them their silver pages or some such. Oh yes and their ET legalized pedophilia and stripping women of every civil right away from their women. Some angel! Some religion! They only call themselves a religion so that they can get away with all that other jazz.

  • None of the bible can be said to be fact except it came about in the middle east, at least the New Testament. It is belief, not a fact. Facts you can prove by recreating all the miracles and such. You can, however, believe anything at all. There is even a Christian sect in the southern US that carries pit vipers (rattlers and such) in their so-called services. I read the other day that their leader died from bite of the snake he was carrying around. You can make some people believe anything at all if you attach the title of religion made by God. There are thousands of Christian sects. The one thing they all have in common is that they all think they are the only one true religion. Many of them believe that Catholics are not even Christians.

  • Actually, if you run into a scholar that denies the historicity of Ruth, Job, or Jonah, just drop him or her — preferably on the spot — and simply find a scholar that still affirms that those books relate accurate history. Not difficult, trust me.

    Even Jesus affirmed Jonah’s historicity, for example. So why waste time with skeptics at all?

    P.S. Same situation with Genesis. You have reliable scholars who still believe Genesis to be historically true (if Jesus’ own affirmation ain’t sufficient for you.) So choose *them* instead. Buy their textbooks, visit their websites.

  • Not a single “Biblical scholar” can or ever has provided evidence of the historicity of ”
    the Bible. They simply assume it and rely on belief to foreclose inquiry on the subject.

    You can’t even affirm Jesus’s historical existence except indirectly and by assumption. One does not read his writings. Only the accounts of him from the Gospel writers.

    Not one expert in history, archaeology or forensic sciences has ever provided evidence of Biblical historicity. Even geography mentioned in the Bible appears to be at odds with evidence known of the regions discussed.

    “You have reliable scholars who still believe Genesis to be historically true”

    None of them are historians and none of them come from a point of view of objectivity. They are invariably Protestant Fundamentalist believers using confirmation bias.

  • As you can see, this thread is apparently about to drop off the screen, so hopefully you’re reading this right now.

    As for Jesus’s historical existence, right now you’ve got flat-out skeptics like Bart Ehrman and Dominic Crossan, saying that there’s at least enough evidence to confirm that the historical Jesus existed. Slam-dunk.

    As for the historicity of Genesis, yes sir it IS so, and you’re given reasons. Is the Garden of Eden a fable? Nope, because you’re given two major rivers that you can Google right now (Gen. 2:14). Tigris and Euphrates. Draw a big circle that touches both rivers, and you’ve nailed the *general* location of Eden. So there’s no reason to blindly assume, as you do, that Eden never existed in history.

    Plus archaeology has already defeated the skeptics on Gen. chap 23. (Snippet from Paul L. Maier, Christian Research Journal, vol. 27, # 2 (2004)

    “Genesis 23 reports that Abraham buried Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah, which he purchased from Ephron the Hittite. Second Samuel 11 tells of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. A century ago the Hittites were unknown outside of the Old Testament, and critics claimed that they were a figment of biblical imagination. In 1906, however, archaeologists digging east of Ankara, Turkey, discovered the ruins of Hattusas, the ancient Hittite capital at what is today called Boghazkoy, as well as its vast collection of Hittite historical records, which showed an empire flourishing in the mid-second millennium BC. This critical challenge, among many others, was immediately proved worthless — a pattern that would often be repeated in the decades to come.”

  • ” Draw a big circle that touches both rivers, and you’ve nailed the
    *general* location of Eden. So there’s no reason to blindly assume, as
    you do, that Eden never existed in history.”

    Confirmation bias, as expected. There is no reason to consider “The Fertile Crescent” to be the garden of Eden other than looking to confirm one’s existing belief. At no point does none have to take the Genesis story at face value given the mythical elements of it.

    As for the Hittites, no serious scholar makes the claim they were only known from Biblical references prior to evidence being found of them. The first reference to them came pre-Bible. Paul Meir is not a reliable or objective source. Your quote is a perfect example of confirmation bias. Proof of the existence of the Hittites is not proof that the Biblical stories referring to them are true or accurate. Especially more mythical and implausible elements.

    Actually nobody confirms historical Jesus, they just don’t find enough evidence to rule him out. He is assumed to have existed. There is no evidence of his existence and a high likelihood none will ever be found.

    What we know is “Biblical Archaeology” is not a study taken seriously by actual archaeologists.
    https://badarchaeology.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/this-ought-to-be-the-first-rule-of-biblical-archaeology/

    A great deal of what is presented to the public as “Biblical Archaeology” bears little relation to what other archaeologists recognise as archaeology. The spinning of data to push a particular and tendentious interpretation, the outright forgery of artefacts and the naïve belief that certain objects ought to survive to the present day are not characteristics of scientific archaeology but
    are typical of pseudoscience.

    A great deal of what passes for “Biblical archaeology” consists of a search for sites and artefacts that ‘confirm’ what the Bible says; indeed, this was one of the inspirations behind the development of archaeological excavation. Following the questioning attitudes to religious certainty inculcated by Enlightenment writers, the faithful wanted to demonstrate that their beliefs could not be shaken by rational inquiry but, rather, would be confirmed through it. Unfortunately, the reverse has tended to happen. Archaeology has not confirmed the glories of the Davidic kingdom, has failed to produce evidence for Noah’s flood, has not revealed the location of Jesus’s crucifixion, has not identified a Pharaoh of the Exodus. And it probably never will.

    A great many of its practitioners start out from a particular religious viewpoint (usually orthodox Judaism or aChristian sect) and aim to find evidence that backs up their literalist interpretation of the sacred texts. This seems to have been at least part of the motivation behind the forgery of the ‘James the Just ossuary’ and other dubious artefacts traced back to Oded Golan (the
    other being financial, of course).”

  • In 1975, I had just graduated High School and the Viking 1 Probe was launched, and there was
    speculation as to what would it mean if it found life on Mars.
    That summer I was having a conversation with a BSU minister and the subject of the Mars probe
    came up, and he asked my “THE QUESTION”, “Did I believe there could be life on
    Mars?”
    I said “if God is the ‘Great Creator’ than yes, God could have put life on other planets like mars.”
    And we should not put limits on God.
    The minister then asked me, “but what of the Christ Event?” my answer was “maybe their Adam &
    Eve did not mess up, so maybe they would not have needed a Christ Event.”
    And that was the end of our conversation, Me leaving the BSU minister thinking about life elsewhere
    not having a “Christ Event” because they did not mess up and need one.

  • That does assume the myth that evolution moves to a more “humane” creature, for which I don’t think we have any evidence.

  • Quite true. However, we have no evidence that they have taken our path. Again, we are using ourselves as the only way all entities have to evolve. We are perpetuating the myth that our way is the only way. If ET’s have evolved enough not to have destroyed themselves and any inhabitable planet they may have come from, it is a good supposition that they have not taken our evolutionary path. Otherwise they could have destroyed us and planet Earth a thousand times over. Ergo, since that has not happened (at least to date), I have to assume they are not as destructive as homo sapiens.

  • I feel like the “question” on extraterrestrial life is really skirted over here. This notion that there has to be life out there is practically a confession of faith itself, given that it relies on so many things that can’t possibly be known.

    I remain convinced it’s all a moot question. Communicating with planets outside our solar system remains the purview of science fiction, much less visiting them. Arguments to the contrary rely on the assumption that we’ll make “astronomical” leaps in technology and our understanding of the laws of physics, which can basically be summed up as, “And then a miracle happened.”

  • You know, so much of what you said is fiction, that I don’t know where to begin. I blame our educational system which doesn’t teach religion and so people have no idea how to read ancient scriptures and assume that ancient peoples were literalists. So the snake handlers are literalists, that doesn’t mean that you have to be.

  • come on, how many scholars would assert that the story of Jonah is history? Probably the same number that declare that global warming is a myth.

  • Ah well, we may disagree but since we have no way of knowing what is really out there, we have no way of knowing which of us are the seer. I hope I am right, but that is just my opinion. Good discussion though.

  • Oh my goodness, I hope not. It would be a very lonely universe. For all we know we are merely one part of any number of alternate universes. Now there’s a thought!

  • I would like to know what you consider to be fiction. Could it be the difference between a fact or what one knows and belief? Or could it be that there are over 2000 different sects which call themselves Christian? Or is it that there are a group of people in the US south that carry around snakes in their worship? Or maybe it is that their pastor died from a snakebite. I would assume you know how to read ancient scriptures. The great thing about our culture is that we can have a difference of opinion. That, however does mean that you are right and I am wrong. It only means we differ.

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