Star dust

I see that the Curiosity Rover has been detecting little burps of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Cue the tabloids to announce, “Life on Mars!” Biomethation (methane production by microbes) is one possible explanation of the burps. There are a few hundred known alternative explanations.

Our wee mechanical toy landed on the bed of what was, long ago, a crater-formed Martian lake. There are indications of erosion, down the slopes of Mount Sharp in the middle of this crater, and along the crater walls. Thus, no surprise to find water molecules bound into the fine powdery soil. I gather there are a couple of pints in each cubic foot, though it might cost more than the USA could be sold for, to develop technology that could suck it out.

No fish skeletons, yet.

But let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that life is eventually found on Mars — even traces of the humblest microbes, extinct for a billion years. That would do, to surprise me. I would then expect to find signs of biological life, all over the universe.

That “intelligent life” (i.e. creatures who could appreciate Bach) would still not be found, might go almost without saying. For if life truly “evolves” by happenstance, as the Darwinoids do vainly preach, something approaching to human smarts would have appeared here and there many millions of years before us, wherever conditions were favourable. Indeed, given the speed at which humans suddenly “evolved” here, we could ourselves have appeared on Earth, millions of years before we actually did.

We are extremely recent, in geological terms; have been here less than two seconds, if the history of the planet were scaled down to one day. We’ve come a fair technological distance ourselves, since the last Earth ice age, a mere twelve thousand years ago, and the pace appears to be accelerating. Imagine what we could do given, oh, another million years, or hundred million. I daresay we’d finally figure how to get out and about.

The Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, did this thought experiment before 1950. He realized that we did not need expensive, incredibly sophisticated tools, to detect extraterrestrial life. If it was there, it would already have got here. He reasoned that, even if it could not defeat lightspeed, a sufficiently advanced material culture could send self-reproducing probes to colonize its home galaxy in a blink of exogeological time, then leapfrog galaxy to galaxy in all directions. It would transmit messages that could not be missed.

Any mathematical extrapolation of the number of planets in the universe that could, possibly, “evolve intelligent life,” is reversed by Fermi’s Paradox. The more possibilities there are, the less likely it has ever happened.

But of course, physics advances, and we now have a second indefatigable argument against ET. It developed from the “anthropic principle” in cosmology, which holds, tautologically enough, that the structure or “design” of the universe must be compatible with the existence of the conscious sapient creatures who observe it from within. (We would be they.) Over the last few decades we have come to understand that life on Earth absolutely depends on such an extraordinary number of extremely tight conditions, operating together at levels of coincidence that so stretch the odds, that the chance of finding another Bach-appreciating planet — even within something so large as our universe in space and time — is inconceivably remote.

Or to put this another way, it appears dead obvious that the purpose of the universe was to make us possible.

It would follow that our lives must be in some strange way — beyond any passing subjective enthusiasm — worth living. For, Someone went to a lot of trouble to put us here.

Whether He also planted microbes on Mars for us to find, in our season, is an open question. I can’t see why He would, but then, I am not privy to all of His intentions; only the ones He has told us about.