Late last month, astronomers discovered a planet orbiting the nearest star to the sun, Proxima b. The planet is close enough to its star, Proxima Centauri, that liquid water may exist on the planet, leading to speculation of alien life. But there are multiple conditions that have to be just right for life to exist, and only one or two of those are met on this planet. In all the universe, only one planet fits all the conditions, and you’re sitting on it.
“Literally every feature of the universe, our galaxy, our planetary system, every bit of it must be fine-tuned to make possible the existence of human beings at one time,” astronomer and best-selling author Hugh Ross, president and founder of Reasons to Believe, told PJ Media in an interview this week. “The fine-tuning is ubiquitous, nothing is wasted, nothing is superfluous.”
Ross spoke about his new book Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home, which details the nine “habitable zones” around a star which a planet must be in for life to be possible.
The most well known of these zones is the water habitable zone, and about 20 percent of the over 3,000 planets discovered so far fall within this zone. But water is not enough for life. As Ross explained, “Liquid water must be present on a planet’s surface for at least 3.5 billion years for there to be even the remotest possibility of the planet sustaining advanced life.” Many of the planets which have the possibility of liquid water may not be able to sustain it for such a long time.
But another necessary zone for life is the ultraviolet (UV) habitable zone. Naturalistic models use UV radiation as the energy supply required to drive the chemical reactions related to life’s origins, but too much UV radiation destroys the DNA backbone vital to life. In his interview with PJ Media, Ross explained that “for the vast majority of stars, the ultraviolet habitable zone does not overlap with the water habitable zone.”
For stars with temperatures below 4,600 Kelvin, the UV habitable zone is too close to the sun for water to exist on a planet’s surface. For stars hotter than 7,100 K, the UV habitable zone is farther away from the star than the water habitable zone. Requiring a planet to fall in both zones eliminates over 80 percent of stars.
The most important habitable zone for Proxima b is the tidal one — if a planet gets too close to its star, it becomes “tidally locked,” which means that it has one hemisphere pointing permanently toward the star and the other hemisphere pointing permanently away from it. In this way, Proxima b is similar to the moon, but rather than having one side always face another planet, that side always faces the star — or rather, it faces the star for months at a time. This means there is an extremely long day on one side and an extended night on the other.
Earth, by contrast, “is barely far enough away to avoid any tidal locking,” the astronomer explained. The moon plays a surprisingly large role in making the earth fit the tidal habitable zone — “it’s the huge mass of the moon that slowed the earth’s rotation rate down to 24 hours.”
For this and other reasons, Ross said, “I would put ‘habitable’ in quotes” when describing Proxima b. The craze about this “new earth” is caused merely by the “possibility that water might exist somewhere on its surface,” but in reality, the planet cannot possibly sustain life. Indeed, “given how stringent and distinct these eight habitable zones are, I don’t think we’ll find a habitable planet beyond earth,” the astronomer declared.
“Now that we’re studying these planets outside of our solar system, we realize that all eight planets play a role in making life possible on earth,” the astronomer said. He noted that astronomers have been looking for twins of our solar system planets, and they have been unable to discover any. “Everything must be exactly the way it is.”
In his recent article explaining the NINTH habitable zone a planet must be in for life to exist, Ross concluded with an explicit statement of intelligent design: “It seems nothing less than the supernatural handiwork of God will suffice to explain how a planet could meet all these known conditions for habitability.”
Next Page: Why Hugh Ross is still excited about Proxima b.
Despite his conviction that life could never exist on the newly discovered planet, the astronomer insisted that it is still a wonderful discovery. “What’s exciting about this planet, it’s only 4.2 lightyears away, which means there’s a possibility that we could send a micro spacecraft — we can actually visit it with an actual spacecraft,” Ross declared.
He mentioned that there is a private company which intends to send a spacecraft to that planet. The Kickstat Sprite is a tiny printed circuit board — like the one in your phone, tablet, TV, car, or computer — fitted with special modifications, like a sail that catches light to propel the spaceship and sensors to catch data. Ross explained that it is “smaller than ten centimeters across,” and that “if it’s that small, you can send it at 10 to 20 percent the velocity of light, and you could make the trip [to Proxima b] in 20-30 years.”
Indeed, the model being produced by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and inventor Zac Manchester does exactly that: it can withstand 30,000 Gs of acceleration and travel at 20 percent the speed of light.
While the Kickstat Sprite is unlikely to find alien life at Proxima b, it would still be exciting to hear the results of such a mission, in less than 30 years!
But the discover of Proxima b also provides an opportunity to talk about how closely related faith and science can be. Ross argued that Romans 1 tells Christians that the majority will reject what they know to be true, and he interpreted the text to mean that the majority of the scientific community will never see the hand of God in nature, but he predicted that as much as a third of scientists will be able to understand Intelligent Design.
With Reasons to Believe, Ross said, he is “already seeing a huge impact. We found nobel laureates in chemistry come to faith in Christ after being exposed to our books.” Specifically, he mentioned Richard Smalley, who one the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996.
Nevertheless, he said he has to explain that faith and science are compatible. “I’m typically addressing audiences who think that science and the Christian faith contradict one another,” and “often it has to do with people’s misconceptions about what the Bible teaches.”
Next Page: Why the Bible does not conflict with science.
Ross has written many books about how science bolsters faith and how faith is compatible with science. In particular, he mentioned Navigating Genesis: A Scientist’s Journey Through Genesis 1-11. In that book, he argued that “the scientific content in Genesis accurately predicted future scientific discoveries” about the slow development of the planet and the order of new species of life. For instance, the Bible explains why “we see so many speciation events before humanity, and so few after,” because God stopped creating on the seventh day.
Ross even argued (against the Young Earth Creationist community) that there is biblical evidence backing up the scientific evidence that the universe is over 10,000 years old. He explained that “this is predominantly an English language controversy,” generated from the attempt to “take a 3,000 word vocabulary [Hebrew] and trying to translate it into a 4 million word vocabulary [English].” The only word for “epoch” that Hebrew has is “yom,” which has been simplistically translated “day.”
The astronomer cited Psalm 95, Hebrews 4, and John 5 to suggest that the seventh day of creation has continued until now. Also, God created humans on creation day six, but the text in Genesis 2 presents a time in between the creation of Adam and the creation of Eve which “leads up to many months,” so day six must also have been long.
“If the sixth and seventh days are long periods, then the grammatical structure must tell you they all must be,” Ross concluded.
Reasons to Believe does not support a Christian version of evolution, but the organization’s president said he would be working with the BioLogos foundation (a group that does) to produce a “Two Views” book on the subject. “The history of life testifies directly of God’s miraculous interventions in ways that we can measure and see,” Ross argued. “The history of life is an evangelistic tool, it’s not neutral.”
When asked about the danger of uniting faith with a changing understanding of science, Ross responded that while there is a danger there, Intelligent Design is a successful theory. He said that over the past 30 years, the anomalies in the theory have been getting “smaller and less problematic.” The test of science is not if a theory solves every problem, but if it answers the big problems. Sometimes the answers create new problems, but if these are smaller that the original problem, the theory is solid.
“Anomalies will always exist, but it’s what happens to those gaps that determines whether your model is true,” the astronomer said. As astronomers continue to unveil more evidence for the fine-tuning of the earth, the solar system, and the universe at large, that demonstrates the scientific power of Intelligent Design. He quoted an 2013 article from the scientific journal Nature, which candidly admitted that recent discoveries involving fine-tuning of the moon were “causing philosophical disquiet.”
Intelligent Design is not a “God of the gaps” argument, it is a “God behind the evidence” argument that blends science and scripture. While faith should not be dependent upon science, it has long been a central Christian tenet that the book of nature and the book of scripture should both tell God’s truth. If we misunderstand them, the fault lies with our interpretation, not the Bible or the evidence. Let us always be humble in finding the truth, and confident that it is there for us to find.