God of the Aquarium!

cosmos-a-space-time-odysseyI just finished watching an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey for the nth time. It is a warm evening with no beer. I resisted buying one for reasons unknown to me. I went out and had an Egg Burji from the street food vendor, bought a coke bottle and curd and returned to my room. It has now become a routine for me to stand on the terrace in the evening with a soft drink while staring at the stars and pondering existence. Today’s blog post is an idea that I had conceived a while ago. Many people believe that I am in some type of mission to disprove God’s existence. That is far from the truth. My mission through my blog posts is to elucidate my point of view. Atheists are sadly some of the most misunderstood and mistrusted people on planet earth and if I could make a small but significant contribution in clarifying our position, I would consider that a success.

The scale of our universe is enormous. This is a phrase repeated time and again in various TV shows such as Cosmos, The Universe, Through the Wormhole and the like. But how many of us truly stop for a second and let that idea sink in? Most of us simply watch the awe inspiring visuals of these programmes and forget it. We are Homo sapiens ; the thinking beings. Whether you like it or not, faith is not an excuse to stop thinking. It took just 4 centuries for us to move from the Dark Ages to achieving monumental feats like landing a man on the Moon. All thanks to the precision, tenacity and dedication of several visionaries. Brave men and women who were never afraid to question authority and challenge dogma and forge new ideas in the cauldrons of their minds about our understanding of the universe. They were the pioneers; the giants on whose shoulders we stand today.

Antibiotics - Printed Diagnosis with Blurred Text. On Background of Medicaments Composition - Red Pills, Injections and Syringe.

My question is, why then are there a vast majority of people in the world who comfortably embrace the benefits of modern science and yet want to hold onto medieval/pre-medieval superstitions and bronze age myths? If it wasn’t for the scientific method, we wouldn’t have things like antibiotics and organ transplant that is saving millions of lives every year. Often times I encounter people who ask me the question, “Has science been able to create artificial life?” or make statements like, “Science cannot explain everything“. Somehow according to them what science hasn’t yet achieved gives them room for God. The task I give to such people is to study the history of science and technology and see what they can infer from it. It’s not surprising that no one has taken up that task. If they did take up the task, they will find that throughout the history of science there have been people who made questions and statements like the one I just mentioned. And every time they have been proven wrong.

Once upon a time nobody believed that the sound barrier could be broken. I invite them to have a look at the supersonic jets and rockets of today. Heavier than air flying machine was thought to be impossible. Communication without wires was thought to be impossible. Splitting of atom was thought to be impossible. In fact in 1894 the famous physicist Albert Michelson said, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” Perhaps he meant well when he said this. However when we fast forward 3 years in 1897 the electron was discovered by Sir J. J Thompson thereby opening up a whole new world within our world. This is what happens every time in science. People point out at something that hasn’t been achieved by science as proof of science’s inability to do so. And time and again they are proven wrong.

Science requires a certain perspective to understand. Without such a perspective, it is nothing more than a boring set of laws and equations that are meant only for the nerds. Two years ago I had written a post called The Purpose of Life. It was about a question that was posed to me by a colleague of mine. Unlike the “triggers” of the infamous social justice warriors, this trigger was a good one. It prompted me to write a blog post. I will come to the main premise of today’s post which is the God of the Aquarium. It is actually a thought experiment devised by me a few years ago. If anyone is ready to take up the task, they are welcome to think about the following:

amaterske_akvariumImagine you wanted an aquarium in your living room. You can either build one or buy an already built one from a vendor. Let’s assume that you decided to build one. You bought the glass, the cement, sand, pebbles, aquatic plants and most importantly the fancy fishes. In addition, you need a setup for the lighting and filters for the water. By investing several hours or even days you finally build your aquarium with the sand, pebbles and aquatic plants at the bottom and all your beautiful fishes moving around in the water above. A good lighting and filtering system would make it a sight worth seeing and a crown jewel adorning your living room. All that is very nice but I have a simple question for you – “Have you ever thought about the little bacteria, viruses.algae, fungi and other microbial organisms living on the little specks of sand at the bottom of your aquarium?” They are also part of your aquarium and contribute to the biochemical activities of it. They are instrumental in many ways in maintaining the ecological balance of the system. And yet you are not feeding it like you would feed the fishes. You are not even bothered they exist. What difference would it make to you whether the bacteria on a little speck of sand lives or dies?

Now hold these thoughts for a moment. In the second paragraph I said that the scale of the universe is enormous. The observable universe is almost 93 billion light years in diameter (yes, it is a billion with a b!). That is just the observable part. The light from beyond that cosmic horizon hasn’t reached us yet and therefore we do not know what lies beyond. And even in the observable part of the universe there is so much yet to be discovered. In this humongous universe of ours, where is planet Earth? We live in a planet that revolves around an average star that resides in just one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, which is one of the galaxies in a Local Group of about 54 galaxies including our Milky Way and Andromeda. And our Local Group is part of something called the Virgo Supercluster which contains over 100 such galaxy groups. The Virgo Supercluster is part of an even bigger supercluster called the Laniakea which consists of three other superclusters namely Hydra-Centaurus, Pavo-Indus and the Southern Supercluster. It has an estimated 100,000 galaxies in it. Scientists have calculated that there are roughly 10 million superclusters in the observable universe. These 10 million superclusters give a mesh-like appearance to our universe at very large scales.

exoplanet20151006-16The first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star was discovered in 1995. It was named 51 Pegasi b. It is a hot Jupiter which takes about 4.2 earth days to orbit its parent star. Since then planetary scientists have discovered thousands of them. As of September 2016, there have been 3,518 confirmed discoveries in 2,635 planetary systems and 595 multiple planetary systems. That’s a huge number of planets within 21 years. It is safe to assume now that most stars do have planets orbiting them thereby making planets outnumber the stars. This means that there must be billions of planets out there in the observable universe. The recent discovery of Proxima Centauri b added another planet in the list of potentially habitable planets which you can see here. There is every likelihood that there are billions of intelligent civilizations in the universe. And our earth is just one speck of sand in the vast cosmic ocean.

Now think about your aquarium. Just as you don’t care much about the bacteria living on a speck of sand at the bottom of your aquarium, do you really think that a God or Supreme Being or Intelligent Designer who created a universe the scale of which blows our imagination would have any special preference to a particular species of creatures on planet earth? Why would he/she/it have kind of “soft corner” for our species at all? We are just living in a planet that is totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Is there any logical reason God could care about us more than any other intelligent alien civilization which is most likely out there? So what conclusion can you draw from this thought experiment?

Think about it!

Image Courtesy:

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey – https://fanart.tv/fanart/tv/260586/tvposter/cosmos-a-space-time-odyssey-531e9d1f246dd.jpg
Antibiotics – http://www.iran-daily.com/content/imgcache/file/147167/0/image_650_365.jpg
Aquarium – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Amaterske_akvarium.jpg
51 Pegasi b – http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/exoplanet/20151006/exoplanet20151006-16.jpg

The Dubai Reasoning!

It is surprising how misunderstood atheists are. Most people really do not know why atheists become atheists. There are popular misconceptions such as atheists do not believe in God because they think that something that cannot be seen cannot be believed. Another misconception is that atheists are messengers of evil or the devil. Yet another misconception is that atheists believe in evolution which states humans came from monkeys. All of these arguments against atheism are ignorant and straw-man to say the least.

Mohanlal in Kilichundan Mampazham

Mohanlal in Kilichundan Mampazham

There is a popular Malayalam film named Kilichundan Mampazham. In that Mohanlal talks about belief. He says that just because one has not seen Dubai, doesn’t mean Dubai doesn’t exist. So far two close friends of mine have used the same logic to me while talking about atheism. They say that if I haven’t seen God, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Well, first of all I must tell everyone that it is not because we can’t see God that we don’t believe in God’s existence. This argument stems from the lack of understanding of what evidence means. People are yet not clear with the concepts of direct and indirect evidence.

I have not seen my brain yet. In fact most humans have not seen their own brain. However, we know that it exists. We are aware of its existence from various indirect evidences that we can verify. For instance, we can perform an EEG or a PET scan and verify that we have a brain. Other indirect evidences would be the cognitive processes that goes on inside our head all the time. We think therefore, we do have a brain. We really don’t need to cut open the head to verify its existence but if we do, we can be sure that will see our brain. When a crime happens, the detective doesn’t see the crime directly in most cases. He collects evidences such as fingerprints, footprints, blood samples, video and audio recordings, letters and emails, chat scripts, witness testimonies and many other things before drawing his conclusions as to who might be the culprit.

Similarly, we know that Dubai exists from a variety of indirect evidences such as personal descriptions of people who visited that place, photographs and documentaries and news related to that place among others. All these convince us that Dubai exists even though we haven’t visited it. Hence the argument that atheists reject God because they haven’t seen God is meaningless. It is not just the direct evidence that we verify but also indirect evidence. There hasn’t been any testable way to prove that God exists both directly or indirectly. Which is one of the main reasons why we don’t believe in a God.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence“. However, we must use that statement carefully in any context. Or rather, we shouldn’t misuse that statement. When I speak about aliens, some people ask me how am I so sure about their existence. Of course I am not fully sure about their existence. However, the indirect evidence is so overwhelming. At the time I am writing this, scientists have discovered over 700 planets and over two dozen of them are in the habitable zone around their parent stars, which means they can harbor life as we know it.

Now, life as we know it alludes to the carbon based life form. Carbon as you might have studied in high school, has a property called catenation. It can form long chains of molecules that form “backbone” for other molecules and atoms to attach. Our DNA is one such molecule which can self replicate and therefore form the base for life to evolve. DNA may not be the base for life in other planets but still it is highly likely that it will be a carbon based self replicating molecule. When scientists search for life in other planets, they look for signatures of life such as oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, presence of organic molecules, presence of moisture in the atmosphere etc. And intelligent or industrialized life form would have further signatures such industrial waste gases, radiation, presence of radio waves artificial light sources etc. These are prominent indirect evidences that scientists are looking for all the time in the planets that are being discovered.

exoplanet artists impression

Exoplanet (Artist’s Impression)

We haven’t found direct evidence for aliens because we have barely started looking. It’s been just over 110 years since we invented radio. Which means, the farthest those early signals have gone is 110 light years. Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across and have an estimated 400 billion stars. And there are roughly a hundred billion such galaxies in the observable universe (give or take a few billion). In the last 20 years since the first discovery of an exoplanet, we have found over 700 confirmed planets. Hence, the discovery rate is quite high and in the coming years, the number of planets we find will be truly mind blowing. Thus, the day is not far before we find the first clues for a life form that is truly alien. And when that happens, our civilization will be changed forever.

Coming back to the main topic of discussion, evidence can be direct or indirect. In science, a theory can be verified through experiment, through observation or through mathematics. In addition, there is a rigorous process of peer-review. It is only when such a verification occurs that a theory gets accepted in the scientific community. Scientific community is hence very rigid because there is no room for error there. Therefore, any Tom, Dick and Harry cannot come up with a theory and say, “Hey, this is my new theory, accept it.”

God, is a concept invented at a time when there wasn’t an understanding about what was going on in the world. To be more specific, the God in our culture(s) is basically the “God of the gaps”. People tried to plug in the various holes in their knowledge about the world using God(s). Religion was a political and cultural construct invented in order to keep people in control by exploiting this ignorance. However, today we know so much about the world around us that we can start pulling out the plugs from many such holes and put our scientific understanding in place. For example, we didn’t know how things fall in the past, but we do today. So, we pulled out the corresponding plug and put theory of gravity in. We didn’t know why there was a retrograde motion for Mars and other planets, but we do today. So, we pulled out the plug and put Heliocentric theory in. We didn’t know why diseases occur, but we do today. So, we pulled out the plug and put germ theory in. So as and when we learn a new thing about this world, one God disappears or as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.

This was a simple article about the atheistic viewpoint. If this doesn’t provoke thought in a religious person and helps him understand why atheist reject God, then I am not sure what will. Any questions on the content of this post is welcome. Thanks for your time.

Earth’s Twins Found! – Yet Another Exoplanet Milestone!

Image of Habitable Zone

There are three fundamental ingredients that a planet must have if LAKI (Life As we Know It) should exist on it and they are organic molecules, sufficient energy for these molecules to react and liquid water as a medium for these reactions. Though it sounds simple, only planets with very close resemblance to Earth in all aspects might harbor these three ingredients. The planets closer to their start are too hot for liquid water and the ones farther are too cold. Similarly the ones too large are gaseous and the ones too small cannot have an atmosphere. That is where finding Earth-like planets become very important.

Liquid water is the main component of the primordial soup where organic molecules react and form complex self replicating structures like our DNA which eventually lead to formation of LAKI. There is of course a remote possibility of formation of exotic life forms in planets with extreme conditions like the extremophiles we observe in certain areas on Earth but generally we are on the lookout for planets where normal life forms like our own can exist and flourish. This is in the light of possible colonization of future worlds by humans.

Image of Kepler Space Telescope

After years of hunting, astronomers have finally detected, the first Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star quite similar to our Sun, located 950 light years from Earth thereby taking exoplanet research to the next level. These two planets are among five orbiting the G-type parent star Kepler-20. Entitled “Earth-Twins”, they are by far the most important exoplanets discovered. Scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Dr. François Fressin led the research and according to him, this marks the dawn of an exciting new era of planetary discovery.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope used the transit method to detect these planets in which it notices tiny dips in the parent star apparent brightness when planets passed in front of it. The scientists then use ground based observatories to confirm that they have found a planet by measuring the minute wobbles of the parent star’s position caused by gravitational tugs from its planets.

Image of Planets size comparison

The larger of the two planets named Kepler 20f, is 1.03 times the size of Earth while Kepler 20e is slightly smaller with 0.87 times the radius of Earth and orbits closer to its parent star. Their masses are 3 times and 1.7 times the mass of Earth respectively. Their orbital periods are 6.1 Earth days for 20e and 19.6 Earth days for 20f at distances of days at a distance of 7.6 million kilometers and 16.6 million kilometers respectively. These sizes are gravitationally good enough to form rocky interiors. According to Dr. Fressin’s team, the planets have Earth-like compositions consisting of a third of iron core with a silicate mantle. The outer planet, Kepler 20f might have a thicker, water vapor atmosphere according to Dr. Fressin.

Due to their current close proximity to their parent star, both planets could be too hot to support life. 20e is at 760 degrees Celsius while 20f is at 430 degrees Celsius. Dr. Fressin noted that in the past, they may have had favorable conditions similar to Earth before they drifted closer to their star. The reason he says is that the rocky materials required to form the planets this close to the star is scarce. Hence, they could have been formed farther out and later migrated in. Another curious aspect of the system is that the rocky planets alternate between their gaseous sisters unlike our solar system where terrestrial planets are inside and gas giants are out.

Though we have discovered over 700 exoplanets since 1996, this particular discovery is important since this is the first time we received positive confirmation that Earth sized and smaller planets exist outside our solar system. It also is a demonstration of the capability of the Kepler Space Telescope in detecting small planets located at extreme distances. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler alone has discovered 28 definite planets and 2,326 planet candidates. Of these, all are larger than Earth except 20e and 20f.

So far the most significant discovery in planet hunting, also made by Dr. Fressin’s team was a planet named Kepler 22b, 2.4 times the size of Earth, located within the habitable zone (the region of space around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot) of its parent star, which implies the planet could harbor liquid water and probably life. According to Dr. Fressin the discovery of Kepler 20f and 20e is the latest most significant of all planet discoveries.

This discovery will cause planetary scientists to revise their existing theories on planet formation. Other planets in the system are Kepler 20b, 20c, and 20d with diameters of 24,000 km, 40,000 km, and 35,000 km respectively with orbital periods of 3.7, 10.9, and 77.6 Earth days. Kepler-20d, weighs roughly 20 times Earth’s mass, while 20c and 20b weigh 16.1 and 8.7 times Earth.

We live in an era where it is impossible to say whether we are alone in the universe or not. The telescope is currently scanning 150,000 stars and one of the greatest dreams of planet hunters is to discover and Earth sized planet residing in the habitable zone of its star. That would be marked one of the greatest discoveries in all history where we know that an exact replica of our planet exists that could possibly support life. It is only a matter of time before this “holy grail” in exoplanet research is found.

Bibliography

  1. Ghosh, P. “First Earth-sized planets spotted.” BBC News – Science & Environment. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16268950 (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  2. Moskowitz, C. “Found! 2 Earth-Size Alien Planets, the Smallest Exoplanets Yet.” Space. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.space.com/13990-2-earth-size-alien-planets-kepler-smallest-worlds.html (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  3. Wolchover, N. “Could There Be Life on the New Earth-Size Planets?” Life’s Little Mysteries. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/life-earth-size-planets-2256/ (accessed Dec 21, 2011).

New planet discovered in trinary system – Another milestone in exoplanet research!

Image of Hot Jupiter
Most exoplanets are Hot Jupiters

Though the number of extrasolar planets continued to grow over the years, exoplanet researchers were sceptical about existence of planets around multiple star systems since it was suspected that if the stars are not sufficiently farther apart, the constantly varying gravitational force would eventually tug the planet out of orbit. However, recent discoveries of planets in such star systems have proven this hypothesis otherwise.

Planetary scientists last week announced the discovery of a new planet in the HD 132563 trinary star system in the constellation Auriga after a 10-year long study of the system which also made several other discoveries. The system consists of two stars with masses equivalent to the mass of our sun orbiting around each other at 400 AU. The main star of the system called HD 132563A is itself a binary star making it a trinary star system. According to the team led by Silvano Desidera of the Astronomical Observatory in Padova, Italy, this fact was not previously known about the system which was initially considered to be a binary.

Image of HD188753 Orbit
Orbit of HD188753 – Courtesy NASA

This new planet orbits the secondary star in the system called HD 132563B and was discovered spectroscopically using the SARG (Spettrografo Alta Risoluzione Galileo) at Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo or TNG. It is estimated that the planet is at least 1.3 times the mass of Jupiter and orbits around its parent star at a mean distance of 2.6 AU with a moderately high eccentricity of 0.22. The team has tried to image the planet directly using adaptive optics  since they could not initially rule out the detection as an instrument effect in the star’s glare.

This discovery brings the total number of planets discovered in multiple star systems to eight. Though the number is small, it seems planets can be commonly found orbiting around more remote members of trinary star systems for good periods of time. The age of the H132563 system is estimated to be between 1-3 billion years in the shorter end and up to 5 billion years. The two estimates have been drawn by measuring the amount of stellar activity and lithium (which decreases with time) and fitting the mass and luminosity onto isochrones respectively. Either way, the planetary system is dynamically stable.

Image of Gliese 667 C
The “Super-Earth” Gliese 667 C – Artist’s Impression

The team has suggested that based on these eight discoveries, it is possible that the occurrence of planets on remote members of multiple star systems may be just as common as planets around wide binaries or even single stars. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia thus received its 565th member. The HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), the spectrographic component of the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 meter telescope in 2009 discovered a “Super-Earth” in orbit around Gliese 667C, the third star in multiple system located in the constellation Scorpius. This earthlike planet is 5.7 times the mass of Earth and revolves around its parent star, a red dwarf, every seven days.