The Oddest Little Planet in the Galaxy?
Peter Ward has been active in Paleontology, Biology, and more recently, Astrobiology for more than 40 years. Since his Ph.D. in 1976, Ward has published more than 140 scientific papers dealing with paleontological, zoological, and astronomical topics.
He is an acknowledged world expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. Ward was the Principal Investigator of the University of Washington node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2001-2006, and in that capacity led a team of over 40 scientists and students. His career was profiled by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter William Dietrich in The Seattle Times article "Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science."
Peter has written a memoir of his research on the Nautilus for Nautilus magazine's "Ingenious" feature entitled "Nautilus and me. My wonderful, dangerous life with the amazing Nautilus."
His books include the best-selling "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" (2007), and "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (2009).
Question: Why do you believe life may be exceptionally rare in the universe?
Peter Ward: Well, when we thought up the Rare Earth Hypothesis, it was simply taking a look at what happened on this planet that allowed us to have multi-cellularity. Part of it was that we had conditions allowing habitability for billions of years. It took a long time to get to something as simple as a two-celled creature; a long time.
How do you get a long time? You do it because system of temperature, systems of oxygen, systems of all the gasses and the carbon movement remains stable. If you get too hot, too cold and only a little bit to hot and a little bit too cold on a planetary sense, you can kiss it all good-bye. So, what is it about the earth that allowed those things to continue for such long periods of time? The most important is plate tectonics. This is the movement of the surface of the earth over the top of a mobile softer rock substrate beneath it. So, the continents skate around like bumper cars. The part of that process is a continental and ocean recycling. And that recycling system is inherently – is the absolutely necessity to keep a long term temperature constancy. We have this feedback system, a thermostat system. What makes the earth warmer is carbon dioxide, what makes the earth cooler, interesting enough is the removal of that carbon dioxide. Volcanoes put it in the air, but weathering removes it. If you take a granite, or any rock that had a volcanic material in it and let it chemically weather, one of the byproducts takes Co2 out of the atmosphere. The warmer it gets, the faster that process works. So, the warmer it gets the faster the breakdown removes Co2. If you get down to an area, or a level at which you can no longer chemically weather the volcanoes refill you up. Now that bang, bang feedback system has been in service for over 3 ½ billion years or more. That has kept us at a stable temperature. How often does a planet have plate tectonics? By looking at the nature of the rock, we barely have it. If you want to think about the end of the world; the end of the world is going to happen when the co-efficiency of sliding rock, when the friction co-efficiency over exceed the type of rock we have, we no longer have these subduction zones. The end of the world is also going to be when our core, we have this liquid molten core. It’s going to freeze because the earth is slowly dying and cooling. When that freezes, we lose our magnetic field. So we also have consequences for plate tectonics, losing magnetic field, losing plate tectonics is – will definitely be the end of life on this planet. So, those two things are geologically produced. How often do you find both of them on the same planet? Theoretical studies say, not very often.
Question: Do the outer planets in the solar system affect these calculations also?
Peter Ward: Oh there’s just so many things. The gas giants outside of you. What if we had, not a Jupiter-sized, where Jupiter is, but a Saturn-sized. Would the impact rate have been higher? Probably.
What if we didn’t have a good Jupiter, but had a bad Jupiter. Well, then you could; really kiss it all good-bye. A highly elliptical Jupiter ends up either causing the inner planets, the rocky earth-like planets, to be ejected into space or pushed into the starts itself. I mean, obviously that’s a death sentence either way. You’ve got to have a good Jupiter. The other complete unknown is, how much ocean do you get from asteroids coming in? The oceans we have on this planet are a byproduct, no just of water on the earth when it was formed, but lots of comets that came in earlier with history. Now, if we have too much water, let’s say we had an additional ocean, to the point that we don’t have land sticking out of the water, then this feedback system, the temperature system doesn’t work. You’ve got to have – what’s really scary is that you might have to have ocean land mixes of this two-third, one-third, or even have half to make this whole system work. You have to have rock out; you have to have oceans to have water, but how much of each? And the model is just starting, and it’s a little spooky. And it really does look like there’s not going to be a lot of earth-like planets.
Let’s take the last part, our moon. Here’s a scary deal. So in Cal Tech new calculations, let’s say we have no moon, and obviously looking at this solar system, Venus doesn’t have a moon like ours. Mars doesn’t, Mercury doesn’t. We’re the only one that has an earth-like planet with a moon that’s an appreciable size to the planet itself. If that moon is not here, our day is four hours long; two hours of daylight, two hours of dark, two hours of daylight. Our spin rating increases so much, the moon is a break on our spin. What happens to climate when you have a spinning earth that has a four-hour day instead of a 24-hour day? The entire climate system is radically different. Would it sustain life as it does now? Well, the models are just kicking in, but this one itself might have actually been something hugely important in allowing that there to be as much complex life as there is now.
Question: What further research could confirm or disconfirm the Rare Earth hypothesis?
Peter Ward: Well, the Kepler missions, the satellites that are going to go out there will tell us how many earth-like planets there are by blotting out images of the stars that are near so that we could actually see discs. What’s interesting now is for an earth-like planet, it looks like earth is on the small end of what we now call earth-like planets. We’re seeing far more, what we call super earths, which are about two times earth, but they have a lot more gravity. There’s going to be no way you would have complex life of our shapes in much higher gravity. You’re certainly not going to have things flying around as we have. You’d probably have different shapes of fish. You could get complex life, but it would certainly not look like the stuff we have now just from the physics, the differences in water and air.
Recorded on January 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Why Earth may be exceptional, and life exceptionally rare in the universe.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
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Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
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