For all of my life, there have been articles, videos, and public presentations claiming that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. Now that we know there are thousands of planets in the creation, we see attempts to maintain that with so many planets there must be life somewhere. Scientists are even speculating alien life without water.
We need to remember that the Bible doesn’t say that this is the only planet where God created life, so this is not a biblical issue. The latest attempts to expand the window of what life is has rejuvenated the need to show the design built into the development of life. Life on Earth is based on carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The National Science Foundation has just funded a three-year program at Saint Louis University to explore what building blocks might be used to make a different kind of life. The chemicals they are considering are hexane, ethers, and chloroform. There is particular interest in whether these materials can form membranes that could be considered life.
The first problem is the definition of life. Life has traditionally been defined as “that which can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli and reproduce.” An extraordinary chemistry is necessary to meet all of these criteria. Water is the basic substance of life on Earth. The water molecule is polar, meaning that one end of the molecule is negative and the other end is positive. Oxygen is the negative end. Oxygen’s bonding orbitals allow the attachment of two hydrogen atoms making that end positive. This polarity allows water to dissolve other molecules. Salt, for example, is made up of sodium which is positive and chlorine which is negative. When you put salt in water, the sodium is attracted to the oxygen end of the water molecule, and the chlorine is attracted to the hydrogen end of the molecule because unlike charges attract each other. This pulls the salt molecule apart and allows the salt to dissolve. Alien life without water seems impossible.
Hydrocarbons like methane have four hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atom symmetrically. That makes the molecule non-polar and unable to dissolve salt. Numerous experiments are underway to circumvent this problem including the use of vinyl cyanide (also called acrylonitrile) which has been found in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Coming up with a formula for alien life without water will be difficult. How a substitute for oxidation would work has not even been publicized, so respiration would be an equally great challenge.
Chris Butch, a chemist of the Earth Life Institute, says “It’s like trying to build a car in your backyard out of lawnmower parts, versus having the Maserati factory build a supercar.” As science looks for something that can be called life elsewhere in the solar system, we should be impressed with the wisdom involved in the original building of life on planet Earth.
–John N. Clayton © 2019
Reference: Astronomy magazine, February 2019, page 29-35.