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Part-7:-The-Goldilocks-Enigma

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on December 7, 2008 at 5:25:11 pm
 

On the other side of the idea of the principle of plenitude, there is the concept of the Goldilocks Enigma. The Goldilocks Enigma is based on scientific observations showing that if the universe or the planet Earth were any different it would have profound effects on the possibility for the formation of life. It is commonly known as the Goldilocks Enigma because our place in the universe is "just right" similar to the porridge that Goldilocks ate in the fairy tale. Many authors such as William Whewell and Alfred Russel Wallace, and Stephen Webb have written about how unique our place in the universe must be and have all argued, more or less, that it shows how special life is and that we are most likely alone. The Goldilocks Enigma is primarily used as a way to check pluralistic enthusiasim by putting scientific and astronomical findings in the context of the formation of life.

 

This in some ways negates the Principle of Plenitude, which states that things that have a chance of happening eventually will, so life will form on other planets; while the Goldilocks Enigma claims that the origin of life elsewhere is basically not possible. Those who believe that the Enigma rules out any other potential planet as a truly possible form of life would take this concept and use it to counter the idea of plenitude. Thus, if there can be no other planet that can support life, the principle of plenitude is moot. Naturally, on the other hand, those who strongly believe in the principle of plenitude would find the Goldilocks Enigma without value instead, as if there is a chance of life forming somewhere elsewhere, it will eventually happen, and therefore the Earth is not nearly as unique and "just right" at all.

 

The first example of the belief that Earth was unique came from Aristotle about three hundred years before the Common Era.  He argued that the universe rotated around the Earth which was made out of a different material than the rest of the universe.  His universe was very finite and stopped at the end of the solar system.  Aristotle believed that all matter was drawn to the center of the universe and, because matter had a natural tendency to fall towards Earth, we must be at that center. The importance that he placed on Earth and the fact that the claimed that a deity moved the universe made Aristotle very popular with many philosophers and the Christian Church until his theories were pushed aside by Copernicus in the sixteenth century.  Even though his ideas seem completely unfounded now, Aristotle had a profound effect on the way people thought about the universe for a little over a thousand years.

 

In the mid nineteenth century William Whewell revived the idea that the Earth was special.  He began by arguing against the trend of writers who kept asking why the Earth should be different from other planets by turning the question around asking why the Earth shouldn't be special.  He believed that it shouldn't be surprising that one planet would be different from the rest and he saw no reason why that planet couldn't be Earth due to the fact that it has life.  Whewell believed that the Earth was in a very unique position in our universe saying that everything in about our position in the solar system is special: 

"And thus, all these Phenomena concur in making it appear probable, that the Earth is place in that region of the solar system in which the planet-forming powers are most vigorous and potent; between the region of permanent nebulous vapor, and the region of mere shreds and specks of planetary matter, such as are the satellites and the planetoidal group" (Whewell pg. 23).

He continued by arguing that the Earth was in the "temperate zone"(Whewell Ch. 10) of the solar system.  Whewell argued that the Earth was in just the right spot in the solar system to still enjoy the warmth of the Sun while not being burned by it.  He wrote that

"The Earth is really the domestic hearth of the Solar System; adjusted between the hot and fiery haze on one side, the cold and watery vapor on the other.  This region only is fit to be a domestic hearth, a seat of habitation; and in this region is placed the largest solid globe of our system; and on this globe, by a series of creative operations, entirely different from any of those which separated the solid from the vaporous, the cold from the hot, the moist from the dry, have been established, in succession, plants, and animals, and man" (Whewell pg. 23). 

Earth wasn't too cold nor too warm (think of the Goldilocks story).  He also used nature to argue that not every part of existence has to support life and since we have only observed life on Earth it must follow that Earth might be the only life bearing planet.

 

Alfred Russel Wallace also contemplated the Goldilocks Enigma in his 1903 book Man's Place In the Universe. In his book Wallace wrote that 

"All the evidence at our command goes to assure us that our earth alone in the Solar System has been from its very origin adapted to be the theatre for the development of organised and intelligent life.  Our position within that system is, therefore, as central and unique as that of our Sun in the whole stellar universe" (Wallace pg. 409).

 Similar to Whewell, Wallace argued that the Earth was placed in such a way that it was just warm enough to form life but not so warn as to make life impossible.  He believed that the atmosphere on Earth was very different from those on other planets because it was capable of producing a ciculation of gases that fueled the water cycle.  He also placed a large emphasis on the ocean claiming that the tides were essential in maintaining the temperature of the Earth.  Wallace believed that the Moon played a large role because it regulates the tides that maintain the circulation of warm water into cold climates and cold water into warm climates.  The depth of the Earth's oceans are also important because they suggest that the presence of water is permanent meaning that Earth is unlikely dry up like other planets seem to have.  Wallace pointed out that even the levels of atmospheric dust are important since they give water something to form on in our atmosphere.  In this light, even the Earth's deserts and other dry areas are important because they supply the dust that is essential in the precipitation phase of the water cycle.  Finally, Whewell argued that if the Earth must be in the center of the Milky Way because there is an even distribution of starts surrounding us and because the weak gravity on the edges of the galaxy would make life unlikely due to the possibilility of planets flying off into the void of dark space.

 

Another man to discuss the "perfect placement" of the Earth in the galaxy was Paleontologist, Peter Ward. He was recently interviewed and discussed the Earth's seemingly ideal real-estate position. He said that if Earth was any closer or any further from the sun, life would most likely not have emerged here. Also he speaks of the universe being a very dangerous place and because of our position in relation to Jupiter, the gas giant, we do not get hit by near as many meteorites as other planets do. He says that our positions like ours are so rare in the universe that he predicts life only once at most per galaxy.

 

Stephen Webb also briefly looked at the Goldilocks Enigma in his book Where is Everybody? in which he discussed possible answers to the Fermi Paradox.  He referenced the possibility that the habitable zones of the universe might not exist long enough to produce life.  We know that life took a very long time to develop on Earth and it might take just as long on other planets.  If the habitable zones of the universe are wiped out by a super nova or a planet is hit by an asteroid life may not have enough time to fully develop.  He continued by stressing the importance of Jupiter in our solar system.  He argued that Jupiter's uniquely elliptical orbit and imense gravity help to maintain the orbits of other celestial bodies.  Other systems may not have a planet that can cover all of the jobs that Jupiter can accomplish making it difficult for life to form on a planet.  Finally, plate tectonics form the continents on Earth, replenish the crust, help maintain a constant temperature, and produce the magnetic field that protects the Earth from dangerous solar radiation but scientists cannot be sure if other planets have plate tectonics. 

 

This paper only looks at a few writers who have argued for the Goldilocks Enigma but the list goes on and on. The Goldilocks Enigma as argued by Whewell and Wallace was one of the first really good arguments against plurality.  As science advances, it seemed to show how unique the Earth might be, ironically supporting a concept that was generally ruled out hundreds of years ago.  The Goldilocks Enigma has proven so resilient because the implications of such a theory are fairly straightforward. If the Earth is the only planet in the right zone, with the right solar system and the right geological makeup, then it would rule out the idea that there could be life forming or had formed elsewhere. The belief that the Earth is utterly unique and special in this capacity would mean that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy--answering the questions raised for thousands of years. However, despite the fact that there is plenty of astronomical study that shows us that Earth is fairly unique, it is not completely unique. Recent advances in astrophysical technology have extended our view and understanding of other planets in the galaxy. We have found other planets that have a situation similar to Earth. The Goldilocks Enigma is still a possibility, but in the modern science age, it is a much less convincing solution to the question of extraterrestrial life.

 

(Previous Page): Part 6: The Principle of Plenitude                                                                                                     (Next Page): Final Essay Conclusion


Cool Website On A Book Review For The Goldilocks Enigma:

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20875880-5003900,00.html

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