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Extraterrestrial Life-Forms: A Religious View
When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world.
Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God. The value, meaning and importance of a human life, is not a scientific issue; it is a religious issue.
So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life.
The Zabur of David says, “Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds; and Your dominion is for all generations.” (Zabur-Psalms 145:13); and the Qur’an says, “We have not sent you but as a blessing for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 107). Muslim commentators say this refers to the 18,000 worlds created by Allah. Our world is one of them. (Mir’at-e-Kainat, vol.1, p.77)
A report in Science Daily (6/25/13) relates that a team of astronomers has discovered a close by star system Gliese 667C with at least six planets. A record-breaking three of these planets are large-Earths lying in the zone around the star where liquid water could exist, making them possible candidates for the presence of life. This is the first system found with a fully packed habitable zone.
Gliese 667C, a very well-studied star quite close to us, is just over one third of the mass of the Sun. It is part of a triple star system known as Gliese 667, 22 light-years away in the constellation of Scorpius. Previous studies of Gliese 667C found that the star hosts three planets with one of them in the habitable zone.
Now, a team of astronomers has found evidence for up to seven planets around the star. These planets orbit the third fainter star of the triple star system. Viewed from one of these newly found planets the two other suns would look like a pair of very bright stars visible in the daytime and at night they would provide as much illumination as the full Moon.
The new planets completely fill up the habitable zone of Gliese 667C, as there are no more stable orbits in which a planet could exist at the right distance to it.
Three of these planets are confirmed to be large-Earths — planets more massive than Earth, but less massive than planets like Uranus or Neptune — that are within their star’s habitable zone, a thin shell around a star in which water may be present in liquid form if conditions are right. This is the first time that three such planets have been spotted orbiting in this zone in the same system.
“The number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy is much greater if we can expect to find several of them around each low-mass star — instead of looking at ten stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them,” adds co-author Rory Barnes. Compact systems around Sun-like stars have been found to be abundant in the Milky Way.
Around such stars, planets orbiting close to the parent star are very hot and are unlikely to be habitable. But this is not true for cooler and dimmer stars such as Gliese 667C. In this case the habitable zone lies entirely within an orbit the size of Mercury’s, much closer in than for our Sun. The Gliese 667C system is the first example of a system where such a low-mass star is seen to host several potentially rocky planets in the habitable zone.
Unlike the Italian inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo, no Muslim or Jewish astronomer was ever condemned by a Muslim or Jewish inquisition, because Jews and Muslims never had an institution like the inquisition. Also, because both Muslims and Jews had many philosophers who were critics of Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s science, most medieval Jewish and Muslim religious leaders did not feel they had to prevent new science from disagreeing with Greek science.
For them it was evident that, as it is written in the Zabur of Prophet David, King of Israel; “The heavens declare the glory of God. The universe proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2) And as the Qur’an proclaims over and over again, “Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth exalts Allah” (Qur’an 57:1, 61:1, and 64:1)
New discoveries will always change the scientific understanding of God’s universe; but the religious belief that the whole universe exalts God and reveals God’s glory will always remain the same.
Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com
The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.