Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Methane Causes Space Aliens?

Photo: Surface of Mars as seen from the Curiosity rover, by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Science is supposed to overrule imagination by means of rigorous testing of observational evidence via controlled experiments. Textbooks today illustrate lack of empirical rigor with Van Helmont’s 17th-century recipe for creating mice out of wheat and a dirty shirt, and a contemporary belief that rotting meat produces maggots. Macro spontaneous generation quickly withered after Francesco Redi ran controlled experiments in 1668 that prevented flies from landing on the meat, but belief in microbial spontaneous generation persisted for two more centuries until Louis Pasteur in 1864 ran his famous experiments with swan-necked flasks. “Never again shall the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow that this one simple experiment has dealt it,” he proudly announced. 

Though familiar with Darwinism, Pasteur underestimated the power of imagination among the Darwinians. Spontaneous generation roared back in the 20th century under the banner of “chemical evolution.” A century later, despite monumental problems with chemistry and mathematics, it remains the consensus today at almost all elite scientific labs and institutions around the world. Under the spell of images of warm little ponds dancing in their heads, Darwinians claim that chemical evolution is different than the old belief in spontaneous generation. But is it, really? Instead of a recipe for mice, they have a recipe for cells: simple gases turning into life.

Jonathan Bartlett wrote last month at Mind Matters, “Twenty Years On, Aliens Still Cause Global Warming.” Bartlett’s title, in turn, is a take-off on Michael Crichton’s famous speech to Caltech students in 2001, “Aliens Cause Global Warming.” It was a punchy rebuke to scientists who let their imaginations run wild with quasi-scientific claims that garner the support of the consensus. To show that imagination without rigor still reigns in some quarters of academia, let these recent headlines about life in the solar system offer proof. 

Methane Causes Space Aliens

The chain of causality seems backward in this statement, but it makes sense when augmented to, “methane causes belief in space aliens.” The space aliens emerge in the imaginations of the evolutionists when triggered by detections of methane. 

For years, planetary scientists have been puzzled by detections of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Trace amounts of the gas seem to wax and wane over time. Since the primary source of methane on Earth is biological (such as microbes at hydrothermal vents and cow flatulence), some of the researchers have leaped to the suggestion that methane on Mars may be a signature of microbial life.

The reaction continues today. Jonathan O’Callaghan wrote in New Scientist, “Microbes burping methane on Mars may be right next to NASA rover.” The Curiosity rover, on the Martian surface since 2012, has measured a background level of methane less than one part per billion. On six occasions, though, the level has spiked tenfold, and scientists haven’t figured out why.

We aren’t yet any closer to that, but with methane on Mars expected to have a detectable lifespan of no more than 300 years or so, its continued presence on Mars “indicates that something is producing methane today”, says Moores. It is possible the source is geological, connected perhaps to asteroids or comets hitting Mars, but the prospect of a biological origin remains a possibility. [Emphasis added.]

Evolutionary planetologists support diversity and inclusion. They allow methane to cause space aliens on other bodies, too. As the University of Arizona teases in bold print, “Methane in the Plumes of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus: Possible Signs of Life?” 

Giant water plumes erupting from Enceladus have long fascinated scientists and the public alike, inspiring research and speculation about the vast ocean that is believed to be sandwiched between the moon’s rocky core and its icy shell. Flying through the plumes and sampling their chemical makeup, the Cassini spacecraft detected a relatively high concentration of certain molecules associated with hydrothermal vents on the bottom of Earth’s oceans, specifically dihydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. The amount of methane found in the plumes was particularly unexpected.

“We wanted to know: Could Earthlike microbes that ‘eat’ the dihydrogen and produce methane explain the surprisingly large amount of methane detected by Cassini?” said Régis Ferrière, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and one of the study’s two lead authors.

Noteworthy in their leap to life is their acknowledgement that “On Earth, methane can be produced through hydrothermal activity, but at a slow rate.” The inferential leap depends, therefore, on the rate of methane production. But other abiotic factors could affect the rate, such as the initial methane concentration in the moon, and differences in gravity, pH, temperature and unknown chemical or geophysical processes unique to Enceladus.

It should be recalled, too, that methane (CH4) is a simple molecule (the simplest hydrocarbon) that is common in the solar system, such as in the gas giants. It is the second most abundant gas in the atmosphere of Titan. The same planetary scientists believe that methane was present in the planetary disk that formed the solar system. The leap to a microbial explanation now, therefore, seems stretched.

Phosphine Causes Space Aliens 

Last September, breathless headlines announced a strong likelihood of life on Venus, one of the most inhospitable planets in the entire solar system. The evidence? Phosphine was detected in the clouds in the spectra of two radio telescopes. Phosphine (PH3) is a toxic, smelly gas that on Earth is only known to be produced biologically. At The Conversation, planetary scientist Monica Grady joined a parade of reporters leaping into imagination wonderland. “Venus: could it really harbour life?” she wrote. “New study springs a surprise.”

It [phosphine] is present in Earth’s atmosphere in only trace quantities — less than around a few parts per trillion — because it is rapidly destroyed by the process of oxidation. The fact that this molecule is nevertheless present in our oxidising atmosphere is because it is continuously produced by microbes. So phosphine in the atmosphere of a rocky planet is proposed to be a strong signature for life.

Grady trusted scientists who claimed to have ruled out any other molecule.

So to find a global concentration of the molcule [sic] around 1,000 times higher than that of Earth was something of a surprise. In fact, it caused the authors to conduct one of the most detailed forensic dissections of their own data that I’ve seen.

Forensics, as reported here, is a form of intelligent design science in action. Grady plays Sherlock Holmes: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” The question here is whether the probability study in this forensic exercise was detailed enough. There is an astronomical difference between a four-atom molecule and a living cell.

Alas, the biological explanation is fading. Scientists at the University of Washington had said in January that it wasn’t phosphine anyway. “Purported phosphine on Venus more likely to be ordinary sulfur dioxide, new study shows.” Scientists knew long ago that “Sulfur dioxide is the third-most-common chemical compound in Venus’ atmosphere, and it is not considered a sign of life.”

Apparently not all agree, and some still cling to the phosphine interpretation of the spectra. But even if there is phosphine on Venus, Leah Crane wrote at New Scientist that last year’s detection “may be a sign of volcanoes, not life.” Two Cornell scientists, Jonathan Lunine and Ngoc Truong, write that phosphine is “not telling us about the biology of Venus. It’s telling us about the geology.”

“Volcanism could supply enough phosphide to produce phosphine,” Truong said. “The chemistry implies that phosphine derives from explosive volcanoes on Venus, not biological sources.

It was a stretch anyway. The UW team admits, “Phosphine on Venus generated buzz that the planet, often succinctly touted as a ‘hellscape,’ could somehow harbor life within its acidic clouds.” Science needs to be more rigorous than buzz.

Inference to the Best Explanation

The scientists who leaped to suggestions of life seem to have forgotten Carl Sagan’s dictum, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” Indeed, the design inference requires the elimination of natural causes first. As Casey Luskin wrote here, intelligent design can be measured by comparing probabilities against a universal probability bound. If that bound for the Earth is 232 bits of information, but the probability for one simple protein is at least 245 bits, then chance can be ruled out. Since Mars, Venus, and Enceladus have even fewer probabilistic resources than Earth, eliminating biological causes for methane and phosphine should have been straightforward. Unfortunately, overactive imaginations and wishful thinking can get in the way of a sound inference.