Stanley Jaki, OSB, on Extraterrestrial Life

‘The Ambassadors,’ Hans Holbein the Younger

Father Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (1924-2009) was an Hungarian Benedictine priest and one of the most decorated and well-respected scientists of his generation. For more information on his life and works, please see:

Below are two excerpts from Fr. Jaki on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

Limits of a Limitless Science

Stanley L. Jaki, OSB. “Extraterrestrials, or Better Be Moonstruck?” in: The limits of a limitless science: and other essays. Wilmington, Del: ISI Books, 2000.

“Are we alone? … Statistically, there is every likelihood that life has evolved elsewhere in the universe.” So it was claimed in the “Millennium Notebook” about “questions that stump scientists,” in Newsweek’s January 19 (1998) issue.

When someone proposes the probability of the origin of life in the context of the question, Are we alone? one may shift the issue directly to another question: What is the probability that there are highly developed technological civilizations elsewhere in the universe?

This probability is far from being as favorable to the search for extraterrestrials as is it generally believed. Yet the media takes lightly, or simply ignores, eminent scientists who have expressed scorn for the idea that there are extraterrestrials able to communicate with us. Ernst Mayr, the dean of American biologists, said the federal funding of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was a “deplorable waste of taxpayers’ money.” He had no choice. As a consistent Darwinist he had to regard the emergence and further evolution of life as a chance process. Therefore he had to view it as most improbable that evolution would repeat itself elsewhere and produce intelligent being similar to us.

Such statistical considerations were in the mind of Enrico Fermi who achieved the first controlled nuclear fusion in 1942, as he dismissed the idea of visitors from outer space with the remark: “If they exist, they would have long ago landed on the lawn of the White House.” They would have certainly done what is far easier, namely, awakened us up with their radio signals and removed our cataract with their powerful laser rays.

On a purely Darwinian basis, the Nobel laureate physicist C. N. Yang hit the nail on the head when thirty or so years ago he suggested that we must not try to answer any radio signal from another civilization. No other attitude is reasonable from the viewpoint of Darwinian theory which offers no exception from a remorseless struggle for life with no quarters given. It is only in Isaiah’s eschatological vision that a lamb lies down with a lion and a child plays with a viper.

One need not be an expert in the life sciences or in nuclear physics to realize that instead of “every likelihood” one should talk of an improbability of well-nigh zero. It is enough to ponder the presence of the moon around the earth to be struck by that improbability. This presence is unique in the solar system, although there are scores of moons around the other planets. The mass of the moon relative to the earth, its chemical composition remarkably similar to the chemistry of the earth’s mantle, the moon’s apparent size, its daily and monthly influence that produces the tides – all these make the earth-moon system unique in the solar system. It is sheer science to say that we earthlings live not simply on the earth but on the earth-moon system.

The earth as well as the other planets may have originated in a rotating sun. Again, many moons of other planets may have perhaps originated through the rotation of their respective planet. In that case they may be considered as more or less typical occurrences. But the origin of our moon cannot be explained in this “likely” way.

One of Darwin’ son, George Howard Darwin (1845-1912), an astronomer, showed that the moon gradually recedes from the earth, and therefore, hundreds of millions of years ago must have been very close to it. He could have shown right there and then that the moon had to originate from the mantle of the earth.

Today astronomers dealing with the origin of the moon accept the unlikely scenario of a glancing collision between the earth and a hypothetical celestial body called X. This scenario contains at least five independent factors, all rather unlikely. The body X had to have a mass ten times the mass of Mars (1). The direction (2), the velocity (3), and the plane (4) of the motion of X had to be within very narrow margins so that our moon and our earth-moon system might be the result. Moreover, the collision had to occur within a narrow period of the formation of the Earth itself (5)!

If one now takes the probability of each of those factors for one in ten, or 10-1, which is a most conservative estimate, their combined probability is one hundred thousandth, or 10-5. Actually, it would be more accurate to say one in a million, or 10-6, because factor 5 can hardly be given a greater probability than one in a hundred. The figure 10-6 would alone undermine the likelihood that it is reasonable to look for radio messages sent out from other technological civilizations towards the earth.

Ten thousand, or 104, is the typical figure given by supporters of SETI as the number of technological civilizations in our galaxy. This is the figure which Frank Drake supports in his latest evaluation of the Drake equation which he first proposed in 1961. This figure is based on taking the number of stars similar to our sun in our galaxy. Obviously only a fraction of such stars would have a planetary system around them. Only a fraction of such systems would have an earthlike planet. Only on some of such planets would life evolve and evolve in turn into higher organisms. And only a few types of these would reach high intellectual and technological levels.

So much for the way Drake and others have reduced the figure ten billion (the number of stars in our galaxy) to a mere ten thousand. But they have invariably disregarded the unlikelihood of the earth-moon system. Had they done so, they would have arrived at 10-2, the product of 10-4 and 106. This would mean that the likelihood of there being a single technological civilization other than ours in our galaxy is one in a hundred. This in itself would be a far cry from “every likelihood,” even if one does not take a lower improbability for all those five factors. Communication with civilizations of extraterrestrials in other galaxies, let alone a visit from them, certainly belongs to the cover of cereal boxes, where E. Purcell, a Nobel-laureate physicist, put the idea of interstellar travel almost four decades ago.

The moon played a crucial role not only in the evolution of purely organic life by producing the tidal basins, but also in the development of man’s intellectual life. Suffice it to recall Aristarchus’ measurement of the relative and absolute distances among the earth, the moon, and the sun. Without this measurement there would not have been a Ptolemaic astronomy. Without Ptolemaic astronomy there would have been no Copernican astronomy, and without Copernicus no Newton.

Yet Aristarchus’ feat would not have been possible if the moon’s apparent diameter in historic times had not been equal to that of the sun. Without the moon being where it is - no nearer and no farther from the earth - Newton could not have convinced himself that the celestial bodies obeyed the same laws of motion as did the freely falling bodies on earth. In view of this, the accidental fall of an apple on young Newton’s head takes on a new significance.

In other words, before one waxes enthusiastic about extraterrestrials, one had better be ready to be a bit struck by what the moon means to the earth. This would have been, of course, the duty of astronomers like Drake and others who are spreading the gospel of “every likelihood.” They assume without further ado that once there is life, there is intelligence, and once there is intelligence, there is science and advanced technology.

The history of science shows exactly the opposite. Science suffered a monumental stillbirth in all great ancient cultures such as China, India, Egypt, Babylon - and Greece as well. None of them turned out to be the matrix for the formulation of Newton’s three laws, the very foundation of exact science and technology.

Of those three laws Newton formulated only the third, the force law. The second law (action equals reaction) he borrowed from Descartes. The first, the most fundamental, the law of inertial motion, was formulated by John Buridan, more than three hundred years before Newton. And he formulated it in the context of his Christian belief of creation out of nothing and in time.

Christian faith, a unique reality on earth, is, of course, inconceivable without the Incarnation, another unique event. Let us consider here improbabilities unrelated to religion. Buridan might have perished in the Black Death of 1349 that claimed one third of Europe’s population and ravaged Paris too. There would have been no Kepler’s laws, the very foundation of Newtonian physics, if Tycho Brahe had lost not only his nose in a duel, but also his very eyes. There would have been no Newtonian system, if young Horrocks, the author of the first readable account of Kepler’s laws, had died not at the age of 21 but at the age of 18. Geniuses, let us not forget, cannot be had on order, like so many take-out lunches.

So much for some very narrow escapes for science, which had many more such escapes as can be seen by any non-triumphalistic account of the history of science. Their combined improbability might easily reduce the one-hundreth probability to one millionth, or to perhaps a billionth or even less. ln other words, instead of talking blithely of “every likelihood,” one might say that the probability of finding at least one group of technologically accomplished extraterrestrials in our galaxy is utterly minimal on the basis of what we know, rather than what we may imagine in brazen disregard of facts.

But this is not yet the whole of the advisability of letting oneself be a bit moonstruck first, before speculating about extraterrestrials. The moon, as anyone can find out with good binoculars, is pockmarked all over. Even more so on its far side. There one of the largest craters - about 12 miles in diameter - is called Giordano Bruno. It now seems certain that it was caused by the impact of a huge comet or meteor.

Furthermore it is possible to date that event with fair certainty. It is known that the longitudinal free librations of the moon are slowing down (being dampened). Since they could not have a starting magnitude above a certain maximum value, the past duration of those librations can be estimated. This work was done by the astronomer J. B. Hartung in 1976, and further refined by O. Calame and J. D. Mulholland, who utilized the data obtained by the Luna 24 mission and by laser range observation. Their conclusion was that those librations could not have started much earlier than about eight hundred years ago. They also pointed out that the impact of a huge meteor just beyond the edge of the moon must have started those librations and that the fiery explosion produced by the impact might have been seen from the earth.

Somehow those two astronomers learned about a strange detail in the famed Chronicles of Gervase of Canterbury, concerning the night of June 18, 1178. They quickly saw that 800 years lead one back more or less to that year. On that night, Gervase (the best medieval chronicler of England) and at least five others saw that

the upper horn of the New Moon suddenly split in two and from the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out fire, hot coals and sparks to a considerable distance. Meanwhile the rest of the moon’s body became, so to speak, anxiously twisted, and convulsed as if it were. a snake, to use the words of those who reported this to me as something which they saw with their own eyes. After that the moon returned to its normal state. This vicissitude was shown by the moon more than a dozen times, namely, that it sustained, as if drunken, various fiery torments and returned again to its normal shape. After these vicissitudes the moon became sort of blackish from horn to horn. These things, which I am writing, those men, who saw them with their very eyes, were ready to confirm under oath, namely, that they added nothing false to the details given above. (1)

But suppose that the comet had arrived a bit later and instead of hitting the moon it had crashed into the earth. Had it hit the earth somewhere in Western Europe, it would have extinguished the nascent university system and would have snuffed out the very medieval beginnings of modern science.

Only those who are able to see the hand of Providence behind the moon’s posing as a shield for the earth have nothing to fear. The immensity of outer space opening up in the 17th century frightened, as Pascal well put it, only the libertines, the “freethinkers” of his time. The terribly catastrophic character of cosmic spaces, as it is coming into view today, should seem hopelessly terrifying only for those who have nothing to see beyond those cosmic vistas. Today they dream about extraterrestrials, because they are afraid to be alone. Rather they should be ready to be a bit moonstruck, and to do so in the name not so much of religion, but of plain science. They might then even notice that beyond science revealed religion looms large as its saving grace.

(1) See the 1879 English edition, vol. 1, p. 276.

The Savior of Science

Stanley L. Jaki, OSB. The savior of science. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.

Biological evolution is widely assumed to result ultimately in the formation of intelligent organic beings such as man. No less widespread is the assumption that a planet with an environmental fitness similar to that of earth is a most likely occurrence in planetary systems that are expected to arise around a certain class of stars.

This is not to suggest that recognition, through the anthropic principle, of the fitness of the cosmos for intelligent life prompted in the first place the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The confidence of the promoters of that search had its chief source in what should be called – and right at the outset – integral Darwinism. According to this, life and intelligence are the necessary and inevitable outcome in a world in which particles of matter and their physical characteristics (forces) are producing ever new situations and configurations in immense varities whose succession is a limitless flux. Within this strictly materialistic perspective nothing is more natural than to claim that “we are not alone”3 and to look, if not for advanced civilizations, at least for evidences of lower forms of life even in our own planetary backyard. Contrary to the preliminary assurances given by a blue-ribbon committee of the National Academy of Sciences, no lichens and no mosses were afterwards found on Mars. Its surface-soil was found to contain not even the traces of death. (4) The quarantining of astronauts for three days after their first return from the moon, lest they release “lunar” bacteria with a possible threat to all life on earth, proved to be wholly unnecessary.

Although only a few diehards are still looking for traces of life outside the earth within our planetary system, the prospect of detecting radio messages from other planetary systems still exhilarates many. One source of their undisguised joy is that the mere likelihood, to say nothing of a concrete sign, of SETI would discredit more than anything else the most concrete form of belief in purpose, which is the belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God on this very earth. It was in a context relating to the history of SETI that the image of a planet-hopping savior was evoked, and with an ill-concealed grin, to be sure. (5) Addicts of SETI research hardly ever think of the dark lining behind the silvery façade of their expectations. The most frightful of those dark hues is not that, instead of distant cousins ready to fraternize with us, we might contact an alien species that would take our bodies for a convenient protein reservoir and live up thereby to the Darwinian principle of universal struggle. Fortunately, all good physics supports so far that Nobel Laureate E. Purcell, who in 1961 concluded that space travel would forever remain in its hallowed place: the cover of cereal boxes. (6)

(3) W. Sullivan, We are Not Alone: The Search for Intelligent Life on Other Worlds (New York: McGraw Gill, 1964).

(4) Biology and the Exploration of Mars, ed. C. S. Pittendrigh and others (Washington DC: National Academic of Sciences Research Council, 1966), p. 8 and Time Sept. 20, 1976, p. 87.

(5) S. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of Extraterrestrial Life: Debate from Democritus to Kant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 89.

(6) E. Purcell, “Radioastronomy and Communication through Space” (Brookhaven Lecture Series, Number 1, November 16, 1960), p. 11.

Sharon Kabel
Sharon Kabel
Librarian; Nuisance

I like Catholic newspapers, amateur data visualizations, and walls of text.