Book Review: “Lucky Planet” by David Waltham.

A refreshing look at a thorny ‘scientific’ question.

Book Title: Lucky Planet

Author: David Waltham

Publisher: ICON Books

ISBN: 978-1-84831-832-8

Year of Publication: 2014

Price: £9.99(UK) Paperback(225 pages)

If you are a regular reader of the popular periodicals such as Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Astronomy Now, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Scientific American, etc you’re sure to notice that any articles discussing life on other worlds invariably paint a picture that life is commonplace in the Universe and will be found in many different exoplanetary environments. Very rarely(if ever), will they present articles arguing the opposite; that life in general, and intelligent life in particular, will be rare or even unique to the Earth. The reasons for this bias are many and varied but some of the most important reasons include; (1) the motivations of their authors to promote their own work in astrobiology,(2) to extend methodological naturalism to the Univese as a whole and (3) to dispell the notion that we might in any way be special.

The problem with this approach is that it is not presented in the true spirit of scientific enquiry, which seeks to find truthful answers to big questions.Thus, more often than not, the inability of these periodicals to publish scientific findings that challenge or counter their philosophic positions simply reflects the ingrained prejudice of its editorial.

I encountered this prejudice directly in a recent exchange with the editor of Astronomy Now, a magazine that I have faithfully written for for 25 years. When I wanted to write an article discussing the idea that extraterrestrial life could be rare, citing many up-to-date scientific articles on the subject, the editor turned sour and refused to publish the work. The reason: nothing to do with science, he just didn’t like what I was reporting! A classic case of bigotry methinks. Anyway, we forgive and forget, then move on. So I decided to take my work elsewhere, no sweat. I suspect however, that my story is not unique. Many science writers before me must have experienced something similar and no doubt, it will happen to someone again in the future.

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A Related Aside: Check out the hostility I received here in a recent forum discussion entitled: How many Earths in our Galaxy?  I wonder if Waltham would experience the same hostility were he to post his ideas on that forum? Diagraceful? I’d say so!

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That’s why I was very excited about this recent book, Lucky Planet, written by one of the UK’s most respected geophysicists, David Waltham, who heads a large research team in the Department of Geosciences, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Waltham’s thesis is this; the Earth has enjoyed more or less 4 billion year of “good weather,” and that we owe our existence to an extraordinary sequence of “lucky” happenings that have come about to make and maintain a habitable planet.  Furthermore, this unmerited fortune is very unlikely to occur on the vast majority of worlds that inhabit the observable Universe. Being used to a world teeming over with life all around us, we suffer, Waltham argues, from a severe dose of “observational bias”, which leads many to naturally conclude that life must exist everywhere. He gives some very good examples of how observational bias can lead us to wrong conclusions. For example, Waltham notes that most of the stars visible to us in the night sky are actually larger and more luminous than the vast majority of stars that really exist. But with a telescope, this bias is transformed into something much closer to the truth; that the Universe is filled with innumerable red dawrf stars much fainter and less luminous than the Sun. Indeed, as Waltham reminds us, some 95 per cent of all stars that exist are smaller than the Sun! So looks can deceive!

The principle of mediocrity; the idea that our predicament should not be viewed as special is grounded in the Copernican principle, which Waltham discusses in chapter 2. I was especially impressed with his research on the life and works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who is often cited by science popularizers as a “martyr for science,” and erroneously pedelled by science celebrities such as the late Carl Sagan, and more recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson, not to mention a great many introductory astronomy texts. Waltham convincingly argues that this is largely a scientific myth used to push a certain philosophic agenda(anti-Christian) on an unsuspecting public.

Calling on a great deal of new scientific evidence from astronomy, planetary science and paleoclimate studies, Waltham weaves a very sophisticated scientific picture of the key events in Earth’s deep history that have contributed to maintaining a viable biosphere ever since life took a hold on the young Earth near on 4 billion years ago. Some of the facts he presents are indeed profound:

A warming trend as small as 1 degree C every 100 million years would have been enough to make our world uninhabitable by now, and it would not have been surprising had such a trend occurred.

pp 47

Much of the science in the book derives from Waltham’s own work in theoretical modelling of paleoclimates, as well as geology field work, with many amusing anecdotes along the way. When he was a boy, for example, he lived for a time on the west coast of Scotland, where his love of fossils and geology was nurtured. As a teenager, he became a keen amateur astronomer, with a particular love for the Moon, and even built a few reflecting telescopes, but like myself, drifted away from astronomy for a period to pursue his education in physics, only to return to important astronomical topics later in his career. And though he does not acknowledge the work of a Creator as the explanation for this extraordinary serendipity, he remains respectful of those who do hold religious beliefs.

The book continues with excellent, well-informed chapters on Big Bang cosmology, a spectacularly successful scientific model for the origin and evolution of the Universe, the stabilising effects of the Earth’s Moon, the role of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory in attempting to explain the many inter-related factors that maintain a complex biosphere, and how it fares in comparison to his own ‘Goldilocks’ view of Earth, where luck was the pre-eminent factor in our planet’s success. He appeals to the anthropic principle quite a bit in the book and its usefulness in explaining why the Universe as a whole appears fine-tuned for life.

That said, the book does display a few significant shortcomings. In a biological context, he uses the word “evolution” more like a magic wand than a proper scientific tool. Stars, planets and galaxies evolve because we can model their evolution with a fair degree of precision. But the same has not been demonstrated for the most complex things we know about; living systems. All we hear is ‘this evolved into that,’ with no explanation as to how it happened. And details are very important when trying to convey scientific truths. He rates Charles Darwin as a significant scientific figure, whereas I do not. There is little discussion on the details of how life arose except the usual handwaving about some mysterious ocean floor vent,  and a ‘just so’ story of how replicating RNA models were miraculously encapsulated into a fully viable lipid membrane and the like. I got the distinct impression that Waltham did so in a rather tongue in cheek manner, as if he were toying with his readers. Later in the book he alludes to this shortcoming in the context of computer modelling:

It may seem surprising that the Moon could provide the best evidence of the Earth’s life-friendliness when other factors, such as biological evolution, have had a much more direct and significant impact on our planet’s developing environment. There are several reasons why the Moon tells a more convincing story of our good fortune than many other, apparently more promising, facets of our world. For a start, the behaviour of the Earth-Moon system is reasonably well understood one, controlled by the relatively simple equations of celestial mechanics. I say ‘relatively simple,’ because the details are still a bit of a nightmare. Isaac Newton himself complained that thinking about the motions of the Moon made his head ache! Nevertheless, unlike climate evolution or the evolution of animals and plants, the changing behaviour of our satellite through time can be mathematically modelled with reasonable precision.

pp 184

I applaud the intellectual honesty of Waltham in an age where many inflated scientific egos assert that we have nearly everything figured out. Science itself is evolving; it never ceases so long as inquisitive minds keep seeking answers. What may be true today may not be true tomorrow. He writes;

I should in all honesty admit that experts would argue over almost every one of the details in the story I have just given…..

pp 61

I was also surprised by his avoidance of providing an in-depth discussion on the Cambrian Explosion, which occurred about 541 million years ago and which led to 80 per cent of extant animal body plans suddenly appearing within a short span of 10 million years, and with no credible evolutionary antecedents. Indeed, we now know the fossil record as a whole does not support an evolutionary narrative, with vast periods of stasis interspersed with mass extinctions followed by equally rapid appearances of new species and ecosystems. Waltham would have also benefitted from the work of the world-renowned synthetic organic chemist, Professor James Tour, who has recently weighed in to expose the shocking degree to which human intervention is needed to reproduce even the very first steps toward the simplest of lifeforms. Suddenly, Waltham would have to thank his lucky stars many times over again for all the other convenient happenings in Earth history!

How I wish Waltham were as enthusiastic about the details of living systems as he clearly is about rocks!

Having said all that, Waltham does concede that the origin of life will be a very unlikely event anywhere;

I believe that the origin of life, like all the major steps leading to the emergence of intelligence, is a rare occurrence.

pp 208

I think that’s quite an understatement!

In addition, Waltham hopes that future robotic or human explorers will one day uncover evidence that Mars has (or had) microbial life but offers this very sensible qualification:

My hope is that we will soon find microscopic life living beneath the surface of Mars and my expectation is that its biochemistry will show it to be similar to Earth life. This will generate some interesting discussions as we debate whether the evidence that there is only one way to make life or evidence for cross-contamination between the worlds. I expect a consensus to eventually emerge that the similarities are too great to be explained by a separate origin…

pp 208

As you can see from the internet thread I linked to above, I got lampooned for asserting that the question of whether life is commonplace in the Universe is not really scientific in the sense that we should not expect it to be commonplace in the Cosmos. In other words, it is scientifically naive to assume so. Professor Waltham affirms the same general conclusion in stating that the scientific consensus will very likely fall on the side of extreme rarity rather than ubiquity. He writes;

The scientifically conservative position should be that life is rare and intelligence even more so.

pp 186.

He even advises that others should have a similar frame of mind about the Earth:

I certainly believe that the possibility that the Earth is special should be taken seriously by everyone and for all sorts of reasons, but in conclusion, I’d like to finish with the most important justification of all for considering this idea. It’s probably true.

pp 212

Waltham is a very engaging and likeable intellect; a deep thinker, who kicks back hard against the goads.

Clearly, our Dave put lot of thought into this book. But I sense he is searching for something. He is deeply intrigued by the perfect solar eclipses we experience, whether it is merely a highly unlikely coincidence or whether it points to something far greater, and even describes his trip along with a few chums, to Germany to get a good view of the August 1999 apparition. He often gives thanks to the powers that be (let’s call it the goddess Fortuna) for how lucky he feels to have existed at all! He even ends with a surprising comment; and this from a man who cannot, by his own admission, believe in miracles:

I will not finish on a negative note. Earth and countless other inhabited worlds scattered thinly throughout an unimaginably immense multiverse has given rise to a fragile wonder of life. On Earth we have laughed, loved and wondered at the beauty of the world and the Universe around us. We are part of an extraordinary miracle and I, for one, feel very lucky.

pp 214.

So although Waltham’s goddess – Fortuna – allows for life bearing planets but only so rarely that one or two might exist in each galaxy at the most, or galaxy cluster, he also plays mind games with himself. I was particularly intrigued by these comments:

Acceptance that the Earth is a very odd planet, and that this was necessary for the emergence of humans, also has a very obvious impact on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Quite bluntly, if there is significant anthropic selection for Earth properties, then we are effectively alone in the Universe. As I discussed earlier, the nearest extraterrestrial civilization could easily lie beyond the edge of the visible Universe and so be uncontactable. This is quite a disappointing conclusion for many. Indeed, one prominent, well-informed critic of the anthropic ideas has admitted that his views may be coloured by having grown up watching the original ‘Star Trek’ series. Maybe my own views have been coloured by slightly more recent films. I’ve thought for a long time that ‘Alien’ was more plausible than ‘Mr. Spock’, so it’s quite possible that my subconscious doesn’t want aliens to exist.

pp 211

I can empathise with the author here, as my own position is that we are alone.

And there’s a good reason for that!

On my sojourn through this extraordinary labrynth we call life, I have lost my faith in Fortuna; for she acts blindly, with no foresight and cannot create; always fumbling in the dark.

Neither does she care.

But, 20 centuries ago, an extraordinary human being walked the dirt roads of the Galilee, bringing Light to the world, a manchild born in a manger, who grew in wisdom and stature, healed the sick and the infirmed, fed the masses with little more than a morsel of food and even commanded the winds to die down. By turning water into choice wine at a wedding, He gladdened the human heart. He raised the dead, walked on water, and after suffering a horrific execution on a Roman cross; rose triumphantly from the dead and appeared to more than 500 believers before ascending on the clouds to Heaven. In the Holy books written concerning Him we read:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.

Colossians 1:16-17

This Person chose to enter His own creation and cared Himself to death.

His name is Yeshua of Nazareth, and He promised to return to this Earth, which He created, to bring an end to all evil, suffering and death. The same holy books say that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.

I joyfully await His return, and would encourage Dr. Waltham to research His truth claims. He brings joy and meaning to my life; Yeshua; the eternally Living God, who will not share His glory with another.

So, to end this review, and despite the few reservations I have with it, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone wishing to get an up-to-date and scientifically accurate picture of how we got here. It is a very well written work, full of joy, wonder, humour and optimism; a book that will help you appreciate just how wonderful every human life is!

Errata:

pp 49 the author says the Orion Nebula is a few hundred light years away. It’s actually about 1,350 light years distant.

pp 54 The author says that Banded Iron Formations(BIFs) cannot form in the presence of oxygen.

BIFs are formed when aqueous iron ions combine with oxygen forming insoluble oxides which form precipitates known as BIFs.

 

 

Neil English regularly kicks against the goads, and is author of a new historical work; Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, published by Springer-Nature.

 

De Fideli.

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