"Why we might be alone" Public Lecture by Prof David Kipping

Recently I was taken to task for thinking it’s possible we humans could be the only “intelligent” advanced creatures in the universe. Then yesterday I came across this talk by a Prof Kipping that was rather reassuring and a better response than I could muster, so must share.

I used to believe alien life was out there. Of course, looking up at the infinity of the night sky, it was only logical and it was what everyone else was telling me also.

But, then a lifetime of proactively learning about Earth’s Evolution,… how proactive? Well, some 35 years ago, I was able to spend a couple weeks building a timeline with a millimeter equaling a million years. Yeah, some 15 feet worth of continuous computer paper, on two banquet tables. The more recent millions created a mess, calling for additions of scaling change to fit in recent info, which was listed on Post Its. I wanted to taste what deep time was about and to some extent I did and have continued mussing on it since. Also the flood of new finding has been amazing, as it teaches us ever more about the intricacies of Earth’s Evolution and the many times slim freak odds we won, it’s impressive.

On top of that, the more I learned about astronomy, the more I began to appreciate what a totally hostile place the cosmos was for life. Stability wasn’t a thing among star systems, monstrous explosions hurling searing energy beams at everything in the way, and so on.

Somewhere it hit me, nothing is being found, Earth’s Evolution looks more incredible all the time, what the heck, what if we really were the only ones. Why not? It was sort of like that long ago realization, hey there really wasn’t any all seeing personal God out there. It was like a bubble bursting, hmm, maybe we are alone? Well, hot damn. Just might be. And it felt right. No turning back.

Simple life seems much more logical to expect, down closer to the basic physics, components and operating systems of nature all that stuff I expect must exist out there.

But, every level beyond that, becomes exponentially more difficult for lots and lots of reasons. Not that it’s impossible, it would be fun to find something, but an expectation, I just don’t feel it anymore. Would need to see real evidence to change that.


Public Lecture from Nov 18th 2022 held at Columbia University.
YouTube, Cool Worlds Classroom, Dec 8, 2022

Professor Kipping starts with:

0:05 hi good evening everyone so I’m here to crush your Cosmic dreams of life in the universe. No, I’m (I’m kidding, but I will) be trying to add some balance and some fairness and transparency to this discussion. …

0:22 but sometimes that optimism and bias it is a form of bias can lead us astray and so that’s what I talk about today is just trying to keep our feet on the ground and give you an argument or really break down some counter arguments as to why it is that we could actually be the only ones in the Galaxy or maybe even Beyond maybe even in the universe so we’re going to start with some common arguments.

1:00~ The “FL” number …

5:28 The Mediocrity Principle, as per Nicholas Copernicus. …

8:30 The Emotional Appeal …

10:50 The Earth is four and a half billion years old, but as far as we can tell life got started very quickly … Wilde et al 2001, timeline of life.

18:10 *{The moon is mentioned here, though he doesn’t dwell on it that much, here are some details of that totally freak occurrence: at just the right angle to produce our moon, it’s useful size, while also eliminating Earth’s original atmosphere, replacing it with what some scientists believe is a more conducive atmosphere for life. *
*Not to mention the Moon’s enormous geophysical, heck geologic, impact on Earth, from helping stabilizing Earth’s orbit, to created massive tides, to creating internal planetary tidal stresses that helped tectonics get primed, and a bit of a meteor catcher on the side. *
About as random a wild card as it gets.}

18:40 Extremophiles…

21:00 I want to believe… Carl Sagan: ‘Faith is Belief without evidence. Believing when there’s no compelling evidence is a mistake… The idea is to withhold Belief until there is compelling evidence.’

22:00 It’s okay to have a position of faith on that, but it is a position of Faith, it is not a Scientific Belief. … On the other hand, Sagan debating Sagan … The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and that’s also a very good point …

24:30 An amusing aside: Percival Lowell’s excellent eye sight …

@ 17:50, Kipping makes a statement about the specific need for “earthlike” planets with similar histories and dynamic conditions as being necessary for intelligent life.

But given the same dynamical conditions such as existing on many different planets which share the same “chemistry” , then this number increases exponentially.

Moreover, he suggests that we have no clue about the number of chemical reactions that can take place on a planet that is somewhat similar (not identical) in available properties and the earth is an ideal candidate for life.

Does he mean to suggest that earth is an extraordinary planet, whereas all astrologers say that the earth is an average planet with average chemistry, nothing special that would make life impossible on planets that did not have this special “secret ingredient”

Hazen showed in his Carnegie lecture that an Earth-like planet alone can generate some 2 trillion, quadrillion, quadrillion, quadrillion chemical experiments .

I found many weaknesses and negative assumptions in Kipping’s presentation, where he never even addressed any of the positive qualities that earth shares with many other planets such as “water”. How many known planets contain water?

‘Water Worlds’ Are Common In Milky Way, Says Research. So Why Not In The Solar System?

Many of the 4,000+ planets so far discovered in distant star systems in the Milky Way are “water worlds” according to new research. The study into the distribution of planet sizes in other systems concludes that many planets found that are bigger than Earth, but smaller than Neptune, may be “water worlds”. It comes days after scientists also found [cold gas giant]

(At Last, Scientists Have Found The Galaxy's Missing Exoplanets: Cold Gas Giants) planets.

“Statistically speaking, these water worlds may be more abundant than Earth-like rocky planets,” says Li Zeng, Simons Postdoc Fellow at Harvard University, whose Growth model interpretation of planet size distribution paper was published today in the journal PNAS. Its simulations suggest that sub-Neptune exoplanets, which have radii two to four times that of Earth, likely contain at least 25% ices or fluids. It had been thought they were gas dwarfs with a rocky core surrounded by a gaseous envelope.

“Perhaps every typical sun-like star has one or more of these water-worlds … perhaps our solar system is less typical,” says Zeng.
'Water Worlds' Are Common In Milky Way, Says Research. So Why Not In The Solar System?

Now if Kipping is specifically addressing “intelligent life” at the level of humans, he may have an argument, but to completely discount the probability of life on any planet but earth is no more than an echo of Jacques Monod:

“Man finally knows that he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the Universe, from which he emerged by accident.” — Jacques Monod

Isn’t it amazing how the Robert Hazen lectures (backed by data) completely destroy Kipping’s superficial arguments.

Let’ say that the probability of an intelligent life on any planet is weak. But as there are milliards of planets, the probability that intelligent life exists in the universe is rather high.

Now, given the infinity of time and universe, the probability that we meet them is rather week.

To make a comparison: the probability that any one wins at a national lottery is rather weak, but as millions of people play, there are winners.

Now, to meet them would mean that two neighbors win at the national lottery the same day.

And, if you add that the neighbors live in oasis, in a desert, hundred of kilometers apart, without any efficient way to travel from an oasis to another one.

1 Like

We haven’t even discovered all life on earth.
There are life forms on earth that only a few may get to see.

I do agree that “intelligent” life may be exceedingly rare, but then, once life begins, evolution on other planets is in principle no different than on earth.

As Hazen demonstrates, it is all a matter of probability and not a matter of “chance” vs “necessity” and the range of probabilities is rather wide given the enormous spatial richness and enormous time spans.

And most of all, what Kipping glaringly omitted in his lecture is the way abiogenesis actually occurs. He just cited some vague statistics, without addressing the mathematics and mechanics of chemistry → bio-chemistry → life sequencing orders.

Average in what way?
Please define.
Average size, composition, distance from the sun?
But we’ve learned it’s the amazing ultra small percentage one-off events that formed the conditions for complex evolving life Earth today.
I don’t believe you’ve given it that much thought.

I haven’t read this, but have the feeling I’ve learn most of it’s main points through other means over the past couple decades:

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe is a 2000 popular science book about xenobiology by Peter Ward, a geologist and evolutionary biologist, and Donald E. Brownlee, a cosmologist and astrobiologist.

But to bring it a little more up to date:


Well don’t be misrepresenting Kipping! It’s obvious from the full content of his talk that he is speaking of intelligent life, technological life!!!

Kipping (nor myself) ever stated: “completely discount the probability of life on any planet” - it’s the smug certainty we are questioning! Also he is talking about “intelligent” life.

You really should support such a statement with a detail explanation.

It sounds more like a knee-jerk reaction from someone who superficially rushed through the talk, too busy poopooing on the thoughts discussed, to give them any serious consideration.

I have no argument with Morgan’s assessment.

What’s that got to do with other planets.

Yeah when all the ducks get lined up. Of course, its not a “chance” vs. “necessity” it requires specific conditions, such as very active plate tectonics, and that moon,.

Come on, isn’t that basically what the Drake Equation is?
And fundamentally what you’re doing?
It just has to be.

Oh, and before claiming too much regarding what Hazen thinks, please do a better job of bringing those quotes to the table.

If we live in a mathematically ordered universe where similar self-forming and organizing patterns are common, why should the earth be exceptional?

All elements exhibit the same relational properties throughout the universe. It is impossible that bio-chemistry follows different interactive mechanics in similar environments.

Just look at all the different environments have come and gone on earth and the variety of differently capable living organisms it has spawned.
The earth has formed organisms that are almost indestructible, albeit very simple.

As I said, intelligent life may be very rare, but I am willing to bet that life itself is common throughout the universe.

And once life starts and must compete for resources, evolution via natural selection follows the same universal probabilistic processes.

The universe is more the same than it is different!

In what way could the earth be different from any of the other 700 quintillion planets, each capable of performing say 2 trillion, quadrillion, quadrillion, quadrillion chemical experiments over their lifetimes, with many planets being older than earth and having had more time for Peabody chemistry at planetary scales.

Note that bio-molecules are already being formed in interstellar clouds. Planets are not even necessary for biochemistry to occur.

The point is that the Table of elements from which all physics originate is the same throughout the universe.

We are dealing with probabilities spread out over an astronomical range of environments. The earth is not exceptionally different from other planets and from examples on earth alone, there is no indication that only a very specific and narrow ecology is required for life to originate.

How many biochemical proto-life forms have originated on earth? No one knows. They have faded into the mist of time without leaving a trace.

Anybody that claims the earth is unique does not understand the concept of a dynamic universe and is still stuck on the concept of earth as the center of EVERYTHING, including life. i.e. a religious interpretation.

[quote=“citizenschallengev4, post:5, topic:10034”] ,… it requires specific conditions such as very active plate tectonics, and that moon,.
[/quote]

Who says it is required? We know that these conditions do in fact produce a variety of chemicals , some which are biochemicals. But then again, such surface dynamics are very common throughout the universe. Many planets have dynamic surface environments and moons. Nothing special there.

No one has claimed those properties are different.
It’s not the Earth’s starting condition,
it’s the series of improbable events and circumstances, that you keep leaving out.

For instance, Earth by itself could not have evolved complex life -
it required our moon, and even that impact had to arrive during a specific window of opportunity. Plus, with a slight deviation in angle of impact producing totally different results for the two.

All those living organisms were “spawned” from the same genesis event of atomic exchange and lining up into the Krebs cycle. With extremophiles probably the most genetically advanced, so don’t see what the point in that sentence is.

No one is arguing against that. But don’t forget those “probabilistic processes” have only limited ‘windows of opportunity’ - so timing is also big complicating factor in your equation.

No one is arguing against that!

WHAT!?!
So tell me, how many different origins of life do you think occurred on this planet?

There is a big difference between requirements for abiogenesis to occur, and requirements for established biology to continue evolving.
You do appreciate the difference between the two, I know you do, why ignore that with this sort of muddling of facts?

Besides, we aren’t talking about abiogenesis! We’re not talking about biological slime. We’re talking about evolved intelligent life capable of technology.

What we do know is there was one, and every other life for that we are aware of, evolved out of that one class of events that created the first biology.

And you don’t think anyone trying to write off Earth as just another lump of rock spinning around just another star, isn’t being every bit as delusional, philosophical and ‘religious’?

For that you need to get serious about studying Evolution.
But I sense the mystic of math has your imagination captured.

Some dedication google searching will show you the facts behind my claims.

Okay, examples please.

Oh heck here’s a jump start:

https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=how+the+moon+made+life+on+earth+possible&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Why+is+earth's+moon+special+compared+to+other+observed+moons&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

Have you truly watched the Hazen lecture? He argued that in view of the astronomical number of chemical reactions, if we reduced the chance for abiogenesis to a factor of 10^50, we might have some ten thousand origins of life. That does not mean they all survived! Remember Natural Selection?

Don’t forget that about 50% of the chemicals involved are already present and a deterministic aspect of abiogenesis. Carbon, water, clay, heat, pressure, electrical sparks (lightning) are all very common raw materials throughout the universe.

Cell formation is easy. Pattern formation of compatible chemicals is easy. A planet does not need a helping hand to do trillions of chemical experiments every minute of the day.

I believe you underestimate the natural experimental power inherent in planetary dynamic potentials.

Consider that every single nook and cranny on earth has some form of life. How did all that life get so dispersed and completely different in evolutionary features, unless there were several origination sites? I can see wind borne pollen or flying insects, but how did life begin in the ocean, on land , in the arctic ice, in volcanic pools, In acid environments, 2 miles deep in the earth’s crust?

All that from a single cell? Why should that be necessary, unless it is just ine more excuse to make life a single “miracle”?

I don’t think it fair to consider chemical reactions = origins of life

I sure wish you’d give specific Hazen quotes, you telling me what you hear Hazen say or write doesn’t cut it.

That’s missing the point. Life didn’t form there, life figured out how to survive there. From my reading seems like extremophiles contain some of the most complex genetic material and machinery.

Yes there were 10^50 rolls of the dice, only one had the stability and the hook to last. Then it took over, with no evidence of any other interference. This is what we know, how far other dice rolls might have gotten is all conjecture.

That’s another thing about evolving systems, there are windows of opportunity, that open and close, timing matters, just as much as location.

It first had to get there to figure out how to survive there. Life did not just magically spring up everywhere or spread across the oceans and rivers and from the ocean floor to the surface all at once.

If life started in 1 location it must have migrated all over the earth, somehow.

Earliest known life forms - Wikipedia

Life, just like humans migrated from its place of origin. So how did ice worms get from 400 C hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans to -1C at the polar icecaps 6000 miles away? Did they sprout up or wiggled their way there?

What is the origin of life on Earth?

The concept that life may have spontaneously generated is called abiogenesis. In the remote past precursors to life like amino acids and proteins arose from a primordial soup and managed to arrange themselves into self-replication precellular life forms. This beginning of life eventually composed and transcribed the DNA that forms the basis of the genetic code of life processes today. It’s a fantastic idea – and one that many inside and outside of the scientific community criticize.

In the other corner is abiogenesis’ main – and equally fantastic – rival as explanation for the origin of life on Earth. This concept, panspermia, says that life didn’t begin here on Earth, but elsewhere in the universe or solar system.

Life was carried here, in a vehicle like an asteroid from another planet, and took hold in much the same way that a seed does in fertile soil. Probably more accurately, life would’ve spread like an epidemic disease in a form very similar to the germs that Pasteur uncovered.

No one can be sure which one adequately explains the origin of life on Earth, but amazingly, both have been shown to be possible. In this article, we’ll look at the case each makes. First, we’ll look at a common problem that both theories share.
What is the origin of life on Earth? | HowStuffWorks

Suppose panspermia is correct? That would immediately answer the question if there is life elsewhere in the universe.

question; Why did Tardigrades evolve the ability to survive in space? What natural selective process caused them to acquire the ability to survive 20 years without water by becoming perfectly dormant? Did they ever need this ability and survived the test?
Tardigrades deep in the crust of a comet might well have come from far away.
But even more probable is the the survival of bacteria in or on the icy environment of asteroids.
The constant bombardments of asteroids all over the world would also explain the evolution of different species in different parts (environments) of the world.

That’s not how the scientists frame it.
More like a specific set of conditions
that enabled certain molecular reactions, but it’s not for me to explain

And that roll started with the Kerbs cycle getting established.

https://www.scripps.edu/news-and-events/press-room/2020/20201012-krishnamurthy-tcacycle.html

Aug 4, 2022

What process animates cells and gives life to lifeless matter? What brings our own lives to an end? The Krebs cycle is the answer - and it could turn our picture of life on Earth upside down. Watch the Q&A here: https://youtu.be/UqsqJM8g604 Nick’s book ‘Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death’ is out now: https://geni.us/X1cOOL8 Subscribe for regular science videos: http://bit.ly/RiSubscRibe For decades, biology has been dominated by information – the power of genes. Yet there is no difference in the information content between a living cell and one that died a moment ago.
Nick Lane takes us on a journey which turns the standard view upside down, capturing an extraordinary scientific renaissance that is hiding in plain sight. At its core is an amazing cycle of reactions that uses energy to transform inorganic molecules into the building blocks of life – and the reverse. To understand this cycle is to fathom the deep coherence of the living world. It connects the origin of life with the devastation of cancer, the first photosynthetic bacteria with our own mitochondria, sulfurous sludges with the emergence of consciousness, and the trivial differences between ourselves with the large-scale history of our planet. This talk was recorded at the Royal Institution on 20 May 2022.

What’s going on here?
Where did I say life doesn’t migrate throughout this planet?

Lets not suppose that, until you show some evidence, it remains a pointless pipe dream.

Come on, you know how evolution works, those skills were acquired to survive extreme challenges that happen right here on Earth.
So that enable them to survive for a while in space.
It’s not magic.

That would require Hollywood Magic.
In the sequel you can explain how they got inside the comet.

Oh my god.
All coming from the same direction? Or from all over?
That’s the scariest thing you’ve said yet.

Please tell me I’m just don’t get your humor, the way you miss mine.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56965-z?utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=commission_junction&utm_campaign=CONR_PF018_ECOM_GL_PHSS_ALWYS_DEEPLINK&utm_content=textlink&utm_term=PID100052172&CJEVENT=d5480f8e7e6e11ed815704950a1c0e13

Oh and I appreciate that old stories say that Tardigrade evolution is a mystery, those gaps have been filled in:

… contemplative coloring, and data searches, which can be enhanced with microscopy wet labs. Students gain insight into the invertebrate world of the highly adaptable, ubiquitous microorganisms known colloquially as “water bears,” generating a microevolutionary and macroevolutionary perspective through a narrative that includes an introduction to the TimeTree database."

Caryn Babaian and Sudhir Kumar

http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2008/shifflet_bran/phylotree.htm

And can we do that in a lab or does it take a whole planet to make that self-replicating chemical cycle?

I can cite several other somewhat similar self-replicating processes.

When a chlorine molecule destroys an ozone molecule the process releases a new chlorine molecule which then can destroy another ozone molecule, etc. This is why it took 30 years after chlorine-based propellants were prohibited, for the atmosphere to cleanse itself from these destructive ozone-depleting chemicals.

In a way that is almost like a destructive self-replicating cycle.

And at what point do you believe abiogenesis happened? Something magical or something natural?

I have been wondering if mitosis is a self-replicating process like the Krebs cycle. It is a faithful copying of DNA, which is a polymer of non-living bio-chemicals, and the process results in a self-replication of the mother cell, no?

In effect you did say life migrated throughout the planet. My question is, given the radically different environments on earth how do you get a worm to migrate from a deep ocean 400C black smoker to a sub-zero polar ice pack without killing it? Did it want to go north and adapt or did it have no choice. In that case what was causal for that 6000 mile migration from one deadly environment to another totally opposite deadly environment?

As to Tardigrades, I can see how they migrated via rivers, hitching a ride on flotsam in the oceans, via rivers, and possible even via storms.

But that organism must have already had extraordinary survival properties to be spread so widely.

Another Tardigrade Fossil Discovered

Another interesting application lies in biogeography. “Because this is such an ancient group, tardigrades can be used to understand how organisms move over the plant over periods of time,” added Barden.

I’m no professor, but fundamentally I think so, and I’ve read about how Earth actually could be looked at as a sort of battery, another one of those goldilocks things, without that prerequisite condition, the whole energy gradient dance of electron transfer that drove the development of the Kreb cycle, would have been dead in the water.

If you’re seriously curious, have I got the book for you to read:

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life David Quammen Simon & Schuster (2018)

In The Tangled Tree, celebrated science writer David Quammen tells perhaps the grandest tale in biology: how scientists used gene sequencing to elucidate the evolutionary relationships between living beings. Charles Darwin called it the ‘great Tree of Life’. But as Quammen reveals, at the molecular level, life’s history is more accurately depicted as a network, a tangled web through which organisms have been exchanging genes for more than 3 billion years. This perspective is indeed radical, and he presents the science — and the scientists involved — with patience, candour and flair.

That and some of Nick Lane’s books, talks.

so what?


Nick also points out the urea cycle, but none of those, take up the center stage of essential metabolism the way the Kreb cycle does.

How could it be?
For one, the Krebs cycle is down there in the quantum realm, mitosis is organized biology.
The Kreb cycle is basically all about electron transfer, driving reactions between hydrogen and oxygen, and spitting out ATP in the process (about a billion are within a single cell.)
The foundation of life’s metabolism. For details watch that video up there.

Not even,

watch Nick Lanes talk up there.

Migrated, that’s an interesting way of looking at it.
But keep in mind single cell life in the ocean can’t help but be swept around by currents.
What about the continents themselves?
Everything was migrating relative to everything else, conditions changed, which drove evolutionary changes and survivors made babies and those that didn’t, well, they didn’t leave babies behind. While the beat goes on.

Oh yeah, I’ll bet there’s a fascinating life story to be uncovered.

Their research also gave more insight into the genes responsible for the near-invincibility of tardigrades. By monitoring which genes were activated during desiccation, Yoshida and colleagues found out which proteins are made to fill space normally occupied by water, and how that process happens. Additionally, they identified proteins that may help shield DNA from radiation.


Now try figuring out why they might need radiation shielding. :slight_smile: