Life in the Balance – And why Earth-like planets may be rare

The video below is a very creative representation of what the day and night sky on Earth would look like if the earth had rings like Saturn. It is well worth a view.

But it puts me in the mind of pondering the delicate balance of life on this earth and, though the artwork in the video is beautiful, I suspect that the presence of rings would dramatically alter life on this earth, perhaps even annihilate it.

By way of disclaimer, let me say I am not a geologist or astronomer. But a number of things concern me about the presence of rings and then cause me, as a Christian and amateur theologian, to once again thank God for the incredible and rare conditions he maintains on this earth, so that we can live. Let me explain.

Rare Earth?? While most people, including most scientists, presume that there may be billions of inhabitable planets out there a lot like earth, there is another theory base (called “rare earth theory”) that is dubious of such a high number.

There are not just a few things that come together to support life on earth, there are many. Here are just a few:

  1. The earth is at just the right distance from the sun so that water is warm enough to melt, but not so hot as to boil and steam away into space. Water is also able in this habitable zone to both evaporate and condense at lower levels in the atmosphere, thus permitting a more even distribution of water, and a cycle of water over dry land known as precipitation.
  2. The earth is in a “habitable zone” in the galaxy too. Closer to the center of galaxies, radiation and the presence of wandering planetoids make life there unlikely.
  3. We have the nearby presence of two “gas giants” (Jupiter and Saturn) that attract and catch many wandering asteroids and comets and keep them form hitting the earth often.
  4. Our molten core and volcanism generate a magnetic field that protects the earth from the most harmful rays of the sun. Volcanism also has a role in helping generate our atmosphere and in cycling rich minerals widely.
  5. Our sun is just the right kind of star, putting out a fairly steady amount of energy. Other types of stars are more variable in their output and this variance can utterly destroy life or cause it to be impossible due to the extremes caused.
  6. The earth’s fairly rapid rotation reduces the daily variation in temperature It also makes photosynthesis viable since there is enough sunlight all over the planet.
  7. The earth’s axis tilt relative to it orbital plane is also just right to allow seasonal variations that help complex life but not so tilted as to make the seasons too extreme.
  8. The moon also has a good effect by causing tides that are just enough to permit tidal zones (a great breading ground for diverse life) and not too severe so as to destroy life by extreme tides.

So life here is in the balance of many fascinating things (and a lot more I don’t have time to mention). Just Google “Rare Earth Theory” to read more.

Now, what would rings do to this balance? I suspect a lot of damaging things. Three particularly come to mind.

  1. Interference with the tides might be significant since I suspect that the gravitational effect of the rings (rings, though they look like thin wafers, are really bands of rocks in fairly close orbit around a planet) would likely pull the ocean water over the area nearest where they orbit. This in turn would likely cause a loss in the ebb and flow of tides in areas further from them, limiting the benefit of the tides in many areas. Many estuaries would likely not exist. Estuaries are wonderful areas where salt and fresh water mix and a variety of life sets up.
  2. I also suspect that, due to gravitational effects on the sea, many sea currents would be interfered with. This too would effect weather and limit the even distribution of heat and cold on the planet, so wonderfully done now by weather and sea currents.
  3. I wonder too if the rings might not interfere with the magnetic field around the earth. This would be more the case if a lot of the rocks that made up the rings were of a significant metallic makeup. Without the proper magnetic field, we all cook. Bye Bye life.
  4. Finally, it seems certain that rocks from the ring would frequently fall out of orbit, to earth. If large enough, these falling rocks could cause extinction level events. Bye Bye life.

So, enjoy the video of the pretty rings and THANK GOD we don’t have them!

Life on this earth may be a far more rare and miraculous reality than we think. The more I learn of life, the more amazed I become at what the Lord has done. If science has done anything for me, (and it has done a lot), it has surely increased my wonder and awe for God. God has done a marvelous thing in creating this universe and an even more marvelous thing in creating and sustaining this earth. An old hymn says:

O tell of God’s might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

The earth with its store of wonders untold,
Almighty, Thy power hath founded of old;
Established it fast by a changeless decree,
And round it hath cast, like a mantle, the sea.

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain

Praise the Lord for Planet earth, and behold, life is in the balance, the perfect balance.

27 Replies to “Life in the Balance – And why Earth-like planets may be rare”

  1. Did you forget today is Friday? I thought we were keeping it light? Just kidding. Great article.

  2. You might consider the entire solarsystem as protective rotating shields, with the moon as the last stance.
    Here you can take a look at the far side of the moon and get an idea of what the earth would look like without this shield.

    Looking at the scars, it looks like it has taken it`s fair share of punches to defend us.

  3. The earth is at just the right distance from the sun so that water is warm enough to melt, but not so hot as to boil and steam away into space.

    Indeed. The global warming crowd informs us that if the temperature of the earth were just a handful of degrees higher or lower, then that would be the end of human civilization.

    Whether you believe the global warming hype or not, that much is right. Life can exist and prosper only within a narrow range of temperatures, a narrower range than even that of liquid water. Change any number of variables — distance from the sun, make-up of the atmosphere, magnetic poles, volcanic activity, and so on — and you alter the temperature by that handful of degrees and soon it is too cold or too hot to sustain life, or at least to sustain civilization.

  4. That was a beautiful Ave Maria, I don’t know about the theories. It would be nice to think we weren’t the only ones. But I really think God would have told us.

  5. The Earth is at the right distance to a point, because it does get nearer to and farther from the Sun throughout the year. Even still, the fact that the Earth is in an unique position is not less of a fact because of that, but, on the contrary, gives more weight to its uniqueness, in light of earthly seasons and earthly weather altogether – unlike the weather on other planets, which are all inhabitable, and, unlike the weather and planets hypothesized by certain scientists, as if hyothesis can, without any tangible evidence, demonstrably correct an observable fact.

      1. You should check out the book Life of Albert Einstein. It talks about Einstein, his views on reason and faith, and gives a concise yet easy-to-understand explanation of Special Relativity and his other scientific accomplishments.

  6. I’m not scientist or an astrophysicist, but I would trust a trained professional with several years of education before i lend credence to a self professed idiot. If someone with a degree in theology would like to explain brand/ concept of religion to me I will listen them before a say a politician. You have a background and several years of religious training, And therefore deserve my respect when listening to your religious spiel. Father before telling us you are smarter please show me the money as it were to your credentials.

    1. Why the hostility? I admit my lack of credentials in said areas and also speak of the Rare Earth Theory as a theory. I am saying what others have said. Take it or leave it. By the way I am not an idiot, just an amateur. As for you Pete McNesbitt chill. By the way, what did you think of the hymn? Pretty Nice huh?

    2. Why did you call him an idiot? Why are you a jerk? Can’t he reveal what he understands from studying science? Can no human study science and teach others what they have learned? So only a scientist can post a blog about science? You don’t need to be a scientist to assert that “random mutation” is JUNK SCIENCE. The Msgr. did not say that he was smarter than all of us. So grow up little man.

  7. Great job, Msgr. The article was thorough, but also concise. It is good to write about topics like this often to remind people to value life and other things we often take for granted. Also, chance cannot explain our existence. Science isn’t everything because the material world is not all that exists. I wrote an article a while ago about all this, too:

  8. The effect of rings on the ocean tides and currents should be nil. The gravitational force of rings would have an effect similar to, but much, much smaller than, the effect of Earth’s rotation on the ocean, which causes them to bulge at the equator to a “height” of about 22 km. The tides and currents do fine with this bulge; they’d do fine if the bulge was a few meters larger.

    We don’t sense the ocean’s surface as sloping for the same reason as the bulge doesn’t drain away: this sloping surface is level with respect to the combined effect of gravitational and centrifugal forces. What we think of as gravity is only mostly gravity.

    For more, google “equatorial bulge” and ignore any diet ads.

    (I’m just an atmospheric scientist, so I don’t know whether the other two possible problems you mention would be serious.)

    1. While, I accept your diagnosis that the pull would be minor on the ocean’s height, I suspect there is a typo in your numbers unless I misunderstand something. For 22 kilometers is 13 miles high, or 72,000 feet. Could you clarify?

      1. 21.36 km, to be precise. This is why scientists call the shape of the Earth an oblate spheroid rather than a sphere. You’re that much farther from the center of the Earth if you’re at the equator rather than at one of the Poles.

        This sounds big, but in terms of a departure from sphericity it’s not much. It’s 10,000 km from the Pole to the Equator along the surface of the Earth, so if you travel toward the equator each kilometer of travel only takes you 2.1 meters farther from the center of the Earth.

        This can be tied back to Saturn, by the way. Saturn rotates so fast that its bulge is a tenth of its radius! It’s the bulgiest of the planets. If you think about it, hasn’t Saturn in pictures always seemed just a little out of round? It’s not an optical illusion; it’s real.

  9. Okay pete, I don’t even comment here and doubt you’ll come back to reply either, but stop wasting Msgr. Popes bandwidth on your useless, ugly words. Before telling us you are smarter please show me the money, as it were, to your credentials. Although I will assume you have at least a Masters in Being an Jerk or something.

    It’s like those without degrees are forbidden to privately publish their ideas on the universe. Ugh…

    Great post Msgr. Pope!

  10. What a beautiful post…and such food for thought! I am neither a geologist nor an astro-physicist either, dear
    Monseignor, but we can all appreciate beauty when we see or hear it. Thank you for helping us to appreciate both our universe and that wonderfully rendered Ave Maria…in GERMAN! ACH!

  11. Physicist-theologian Fr. Stanley Jaki, in his very readable booklet, “Maybe Alone in the Universe, After All,” discusses the rare earth theory and other theories at length and comes to the conclusion that the existence of other planets like ours is immensely improbable. He includes a segment from the “Chronicles” of Gervase of Canterbury from June 18, 1178, which details how five or more men saw an event in the moon that appeared to be the results of a huge meteor crashing into the moon instead of earth, and may have been connected with the formation of the crater Giordano Bruno on the dark side of the moon.

  12. Fr. Charles, a few of your queries would be answered negatively, e.g., about rings and tides in the oceans of Earth, but do not worry about that. They are reasonable to ask.

    Whatever Fr. Jaki wrote, go with that! He was on the mark, scientifically speaking. And there are a lot of scientists who are trying to estimate the number of Earth-like planets, based on available data, with some scientists starting to suspect that Earth-like planets might be very rare.

    Now here is some advice that no other commenter has shared: Learn about the Kepler spacecraft, which is designed to look for exoplanets, especially small ones that might be like Earth. So far, no additional Earths, but they are bagging TONS of other types of exoplanets. So it behooves you to do some reading about the Kepler mission, lots of stuff happening there, a real beehive.

  13. America’s Most Biblically-Hostile U. S. President: Barack Hussein Obama

    When one observes President Obama’s unwillingness to accommodate America’s four-century long religious conscience protection through his attempts to require Catholics to go against their own doctrines and beliefs, one is tempted to say that he is anti-Catholic. But that characterization would not be correct. Although he has recently singled out Catholics, he has equally targeted traditional Protestant beliefs over the past four years. So since he has attacked Catholics and Protestants, one is tempted to say that he is anti-Christian. But that, too, would be inaccurate. He has been equally disrespectful in his appalling treatment of religious Jews in general and Israel in particular. So perhaps the most accurate description of his antipathy toward Catholics, Protestants, religious Jews, and the Jewish nation would be to characterize him as anti-Biblical. And then when his hostility toward Biblical people of faith is contrasted with his preferential treatment of Muslims and Muslim nations, it further strengthens the accuracy of the anti-Biblical descriptor. In fact, there have been numerous clearly documented times when his pro-Islam positions have been the cause of his anti-Biblical actions. Listed below in chronological order are (1) numerous records of his attacks on Biblical persons or organizations; (2) examples of the hostility toward Biblical faith that have become evident in the past three years in the Obama-led military; (3) a listing of his open attacks on Biblical values; and finally (4) a listing of numerous incidents of his preferential deference for Islam’s activities and positions, including letting his Islamic advisors guide and influence his hostility toward people of Biblical faith.

    1. Acts of hostility toward people of Biblical faith:

    • April 2008 – Obama speaks disrespectfully of Christians, saying they “cling to guns or religion” and have an “antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” 1
    • February 2009 – Obama announces plans to revoke conscience protection for health workers who refuse to participate in medical activities that go against their beliefs, and fully implements the plan in February 2011. 2
    • April 2009 – When speaking at Georgetown University, Obama orders that a monogram symbolizing Jesus’ name be covered when he is making his speech. 3
    • May 2009 – Obama declines to host services for the National Prayer Day (a day established by federal law) at the White House. 4
    • April 2009 – In a deliberate act of disrespect, Obama nominated three pro-abortion ambassadors to the Vatican; of course, the pro-life Vatican rejected all three. 5
    • October 19, 2010 – Obama begins deliberately omitting the phrase about “the Creator” when quoting the Declaration of Independence – an omission he has made on no less than seven occasions. 6
    • November 2010 – Obama misquotes the National Motto, saying it is “E pluribus unum” rather than “In God We Trust” as established by federal law. 7
    • January 2011 – After a federal law was passed to transfer a WWI Memorial in the Mojave Desert to private ownership, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the cross in the memorial could continue to stand, but the Obama administration refused to allow the land to be transferred as required by law, and refused to allow the cross to be re-erected as ordered by the Court. 8
    • February 2011 – Although he filled posts in the State Department, for more than two years Obama did not fill the post of religious freedom ambassador, an official that works against religious persecution across the world; he filled it only after heavy pressure from the public and from Congress. 9
    • April 2011 – For the first time in American history, Obama urges passage of a non-discrimination law that does not contain hiring protections for religious groups, forcing religious organizations to hire according to federal mandates without regard to the dictates of their own faith, thus eliminating conscience protection in hiring. 10
    • August 2011 – The Obama administration releases its new health care rules that override religious conscience protections for medical workers in the areas of abortion and contraception. 11
    • November 2011 – Obama opposes inclusion of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous D-Day Prayer in the WWII Memorial. 12
    • November 2011 – Unlike previous presidents, Obama studiously avoids any religious references in his Thanksgiving speech. 13
    • December 2011 – The Obama administration denigrates other countries’ religious beliefs as an obstacle to radical homosexual rights. 14
    • January 2012 – The Obama administration argues that the First Amendment provides no protection for churches and synagogues in hiring their pastors and rabbis. 15
    • February 2012 – The Obama administration forgives student loans in exchange for public service, but announces it will no longer forgive student loans if the public service is related to religion. 16

    2. Acts of hostility from the Obama-led military toward people of Biblical faith:
    • June 2011 – The Department of Veterans Affairs forbids references to God and Jesus during burial ceremonies at Houston National Cemetery. 17
    • August 2011 – The Air Force stops teaching the Just War theory to officers in California because the course is taught by chaplains and is based on a philosophy introduced by St. Augustine in the third century AD – a theory long taught by civilized nations across the world (except America). 18
    • September 2011 – Air Force Chief of Staff prohibits commanders from notifying airmen of programs and services available to them from chaplains. 19
    • September 2011 – The Army issues guidelines for Walter Reed Medical Center stipulating that “No religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading materials and/or facts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.” 20
    • November 2011 – The Air Force Academy rescinds support for Operation Christmas Child, a program to send holiday gifts to impoverished children across the world, because the program is run by a Christian charity. 21
    • November 2011 – The Air Force Academy pays $80,000 to add a Stonehenge-like worship center for pagans, druids, witches and Wiccans. 22
    • February 2012 – The U. S. Military Academy at West Point disinvites three star Army general and decorated war hero Lieutenant General William G. (“Jerry”) Boykin (retired) from speaking at an event because he is an outspoken Christian. 23
    • February 2012 – The Air Force removes “God” from the patch of Rapid Capabilities Office (the word on the patch was in Latin: Dei). 24 • February 2012 – The Army orders Catholic chaplains not to read a letter to parishioners that their archbishop asked them to read. 25

    3. Acts of hostility toward Biblical values: • January 2009 – Obama lifts restrictions on U.S. government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad, forcing taxpayers to fund pro-abortion groups that either promote or perform abortions in other nations. 26
    • January 2009 – President Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of state asserts that American taxpayers are required to pay for abortions and that limits on abortion funding are unconstitutional. 27
    • March 2009 – The Obama administration shut out pro-life groups from attending a White House-sponsored health care summit. 28
    • March 2009 – Obama orders taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research. 29
    • March 2009 – Obama gave $50 million for the UNFPA, the UN population agency that promotes abortion and works closely with Chinese population control officials who use forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations. 30
    • May 2009 – The White House budget eliminates all funding for abstinence-only education and replaces it with “comprehensive” sexual education, repeatedly proven to increase teen pregnancies and abortions. 31 He continues the deletion in subsequent budgets. 32
    • May 2009 – Obama officials assemble a terrorism dictionary calling pro-life advocates violent and charging that they use racism in their “criminal” activities. 33
    • July 2009 – The Obama administration illegally extends federal benefits to same-sex partners of Foreign Service and Executive Branch employees, in direction violation of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. 34
    • September 16, 2009 – The Obama administration appoints as EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, who asserts that society should “not tolerate” any “private beliefs,” including religious beliefs, if they may negatively affect homosexual “equality.” 35
    • July 2010 – The Obama administration uses federal funds in violation of federal law to get Kenya to change its constitution to include abortion. 36
    • August 2010 – The Obama administration Cuts funding for 176 abstinence education programs. 37
    • September 2010 – The Obama administration tells researchers to ignore a judge’s decision striking down federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. 38
    • February 2011 – Obama directs the Justice Department to stop defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act. 39
    -• March 2011 – The Obama administration refuses to investigate videos showing Planned Parenthood helping alleged sex traffickers get abortions for victimized underage girls. 40
    • July 2011 – Obama allows homosexuals to serve openly in the military, reversing a policy originally instituted by George Washington in March 1778. 41
    • September 2011 – The Pentagon directs that military chaplains may perform same-sex marriages at military facilities in violation of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. 42
    • October 2011 – The Obama administration eliminates federal grants to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for their extensive programs that aid victims of human trafficking because the Catholic Church is anti-abortion. 43

    4. Acts of preferentialism for Islam:
    • May 2009 – While Obama does not host any National Day of Prayer event at the White House, he does host White House Iftar dinners in honor of Ramadan. 44
    • April 2010 – Christian leader Franklin Graham is disinvited from the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer Event because of complaints from the Muslim community. 45

    • April 2010 – The Obama administration requires rewriting of government documents and a change in administration vocabulary to remove terms that are deemed offensive to Muslims, including jihad, jihadists, terrorists, radical Islamic, etc. 46

    • August 2010 – Obama speaks with great praise of Islam and condescendingly of Christianity. 47
    • August 2010 – Obama went to great lengths to speak out on multiple occasions on behalf of building an Islamic mosque at Ground Zero, while at the same time he was silent about a Christian church being denied permission to rebuild at that location. 48
    • 2010 – While every White House traditionally issues hundreds of official proclamations and statements on numerous occasions, this White House avoids traditional Biblical holidays and events but regularly recognizes major Muslim holidays, as evidenced by its 2010 statements on Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hajj, and Eid-ul-Adha. 49
    • October 2011 – Obama’s Muslim advisers block Middle Eastern Christians’ access to the White House. 50
    • February 2012 – The Obama administration makes effulgent apologies for Korans being burned by the U. S. military, 51 but when Bibles were burned by the military, numerous reasons were offered why it was the right thing to do. 52

    1. I’ve approved this comment though it has nothing to do with the post. Perhaps I’ll make use of some of this material in a future post. owever, I would need to credit the source. Perhaps Milt you could send your info and include sources of this list, whether you or another.

  14. Msgr. thanks for this! There is a compelling DVD on this subject as well: “The Privileged Planet” available at Amazon that speaks to this subject from the intelligent design (secular) perspective.

  15. This is slightly off topic, but while we are discussing how the “Heavens proclaim the glory of God” let me just share a nifty insight I have had about how the Eucharist we receive on Sunday is the same Eucharist that Jesus celebrated at the Last Supper! Time bows before Light ! And the “proof” if you will, lies in the theory of relativity! (This is actually very simple to understand. Even my kid who has not yet taken physics understand it – Let me explain –it is really a fun idea to think about).

    1. Remember that at ordinary speeds, speeds add or subtract.
    2. Imagine you are driving a car on the highway at 40 mph and you toss a bag of peanuts over your shoulder to your kid in the back seat. You are tossing it nice and slow at 4 miles an hour, however despite the fact that the car is going forward at 40 mph and the bag is going back at 4mph, the bag is not “overtaken by the car.” Meaning the rear window (or your kids head) does not contact the bag at 40-4 = 36 mph causing serious damage. That is because everything in the car including your child and the bag of peanuts is going 40 mph forward, compared to the road, and so when you toss the bag behind you the movement of the bag is perceived as traveling at 4 mph in reverse by your child, even though an outside observer standing by the side of the road would clock the bag of peanuts as travelling forward at 36 mph.
    3. In the same way, imagine you are seated in an aisle seat of a jumbo jet in flight. You toss a bag of peanuts to your kid, who is seated in an aisle seat across and slightly in front of you, with the plane going 500 miles/hour and you throwing the bag at 4 miles/hour. Once more, your kid has no trouble catching the bag. An outside observer would clock the bag as travelling 504 miles forward, but your child would only perceive the bag as travelling 4 mph.
    4. Similarly, if you were to imagine flying in a military jet at mach one (750 mph) shooting bullets also at 750 mph, the bullet would reach its target at 750 + 750 mph or 1500 mph. This is because at ordinary speeds, speeds add or subtract, depending on whether the missile being fired is travelling in the same or the opposite direction of the vehicle conveying the missile. Very simple.
    5. Not so as we approach the speed of light. There have been numerous experiments involving high speed aircraft, clocking light emitted from cathode ray tubes using incredibly precise atomic clocks. The speed of light, whether from the sun, or your penlight, or a cathode ray tube is always constant at about 700 million mph. Thus, if we were flying in the Starship Enterprise at warp one (the speed of light – or 700 million mph), shooting photon torpedoes (also traveling at 700 million mph) past the planet Vulcan, we, in the Starship Enterprise would clock our photon torpedo as travelling at the speed of light. However, an observer watching from the planet surface would NOT clock the photon torpedo at twice the speed of light. Instead that observer would say that the photon torpedo just approached but did not reach the speed of light. How can that be? Speed is distance/time. If speed is constant (and the speed of light is experimentally measurable and is most definitely constant) then however inconceivable this might be to those of us to live within Time and Space, either distance must shorten or time must expand. Time bows before Light, and Light is faithful! Just as at the Eucharist!

  16. I am just catching up on this column from Saturday. It is Monday, but I was just thinking yesterday as I was driving home about what a miracle our lives are and how God created all of this just perfectly so we could survive and flourish. It prompted me to re-read the first chapter of Genesis. There is a quote from someone that says one only has to look at nature to see that Providence is Good, and I am reminded that nature only reflects the glory of its creator.

  17. Found this browsing around for Earth videos. God has nothing to do with it. It’s all science bro!

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