There’s an old joke about Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Watson.
“Let’s go camping,” Holmes says to Watson one day. “Jolly good!” replies Watson. So the two pack up their gear, head into the woods, set up their tent and by nightfall, are sound asleep. Hours later, Watson is awakened by a nudge from Holmes.
“Watson!” says the detective, “look up! What do you see?” “I see the sky, full of stars,” says Watson, a little annoyed. “And what do you deduce from that?” asks Holmes. Watson thinks for a moment, and replies, “Well, given the thousands of stars, it’s improbable that ours is the only planet capable of sustaining life. Therefore, other beings like ourselves are likely out there somewhere, looking back at us. Is that what it means?”
“No, you nincompoop,” replies Holmes. “It means someone has stolen our tent!”
Well, Watson may have missed an obvious clue, but scientists have long shared his conclusion about the stars. According to the famous Drake equation
, a probabilistic argument designed by SETI pioneer, Frank Drake, there could be as many as 100 million thriving, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy—many of them more advanced than our own.
But decades later, scientists no longer share Sagan’s confidence. As one astrophysicist argues in a forthcoming paper
, the old estimates vastly inflated the number of potential alien civilizations. Eric Zackrisson at Sweden’s Uppsala University suggests that modern research points not to a galaxy “throbbing and humming” with life, but to one in which Earth-like planets are exceedingly rare.
It turns out that Drake’s equation failed to take into account factors that we now know to be essential to life. For example, scientists once believed that planets orbiting a certain distance from their host stars in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” were prime real estate for creatures like us.
But not anymore. It turns out that the size and chemical composition of the host stars matters just as much as planetary orbits. And according to Zackrisson, most planets in the universe likely orbit stars that bear little resemblance to our sun. These stars are either much bigger, much smaller, or just made of the wrong stuff.
And just how alone? Zackrisson estimates that given all the factors that make Earth what it is, our planet may be one in 700 quintillion to host intelligent life. That’s one out of seven followed by twenty zeros, or the estimated number of planets in the entire universe.
Nathaniel Scharping at Discover Magazine writes with a straight face that Earth appears to have been dealt “a fairly lucky hand.” He makes up for this understatement later, concluding that, “from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.”
And yet, here we are.
Of course, for those who believe in the God Who, as Isaiah wrote, “spreads [the heavens] like a tent,” it’s no surprise. In fact you might say it’s “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: March 11, 2016