Oct 23 2023

Panspermia Again

Recently I was asked what I thought about this video, which suggests it is possible that life formed in the early universe, shortly after the Big Bang. Although no mentioned specifically in the video, the ideas presents are essentially panspermia – the idea that life formed in the early universe and then spread as “seeds” throughout the universe, taking root in suitable environments like the early Earth. While the narrator admits these ideas are “speculative”, he presents what I feel is an extremely biased favorable take on the ideas being presented.

The video starts by arguing that life on Earth arose very quickly, perhaps implausibly quickly. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and it likely cooled sufficiently to be compatible with life around 4.3 billion years ago. The oldest fossils are 3.7 billion years old, which leaves a 600 million year window in which life could have developed from prebiotic molecules. When during that time did these complex molecules cross the line to be considered life is unknown, but it seems like there was probably 1-2 hundred million years for this to happen. The video argues that this was simply not enough time – so perhaps life already existed and seeded the Earth. But this argument is not valid. We do not have any information that would indicate something on the order of 100 million years was not enough time for the simplest type of life to form. So they set up a fake problem in order to introduce their unnecessary “solution”.

But the argument gets worse from there. Most of the video is spent speculating about the fact that between 10 million and 17 million years ago the temperature of the universe would have been between 100 C and 0 C, the temperature range of liquid water. During this time, life could have formed everywhere in the universe. But there is a glaring problem with this argument, that the video hand-waves away with a giant “may”.

At 380,000 years after the Big Bang and universe cooled enough for atoms to form. Prior to that the universe was a plasma of charged particles, opaque to light. After cooling enough to form atoms the universe became transparent, but there were no light sources because the first stars had not yet formed. This was the dark ages of the universe – which lasted until the first clump of hydrogen gas collapsed into a sufficiently massive body to ignite nuclear fusion at its core. When did this happen? Current estimates put the age of the first stars at 400 million years after the Big Bang. Until then there would have been no heavier elements – no carbon, nitrogen, or oxygen, out of which life could form. The universe was mostly hydrogen, some helium, and trace lithium. By 400 million years, the universe would have cooled to extremely low temperatures, far below freezing.

This is where the giant “may” comes in – the video claims that during this 7 million year window early giant stars “may” have formed and quickly gone supernova, spilling heavy elements across the early universe. There is current speculative evidence for early massive stars – going back to 100 million years after the Big Bang. That is still far too late. In order for these panspermia claims to pan out we would need massive stars to have formed very quickly after atoms formed, and be massive enough to go supernova very quickly, all within 10-17 million year.

How long would these early stars have lived? That is unknown. It is speculated that there may have been very massive stars, 300 solar masses, in the early universe. But we don’t know how long such stars would have lived before going supernova, because they behave differently that main sequence stars. It’s possible they would live only 100,000 years, but might live several million years. The lifespan of these stars is therefore not a big problem for this version of panspermia, but the earliest time at which they would form is still a deal-killer – 100 million years misses the window. The video just refers to the “early universe” without getting specific about exact times (although the pictures have some time labels). This is probably for a reason, because the numbers simply don’t match what would be necessary for life to have formed in the early warm universe.

I also take exception to the argument that 1-2 hundred million years was somehow not enough time for life on Earth to from from prebiotic molecules, while a maximum of 7 million years was more than enough for life to form in the early universe. The environments are very different, so it’s difficult to make any sort of direct comparison. The video relies on the notion that even the early universe was big, so there was lots of opportunity for life to arise. But this does not really rescue this idea from serious problems. First, life would have had to form in many places, in order for life to seed all over the universe (including Earth). This offsets the “universe was big” argument. The formation of life would still have to happen quickly and commonly in order to be everywhere.

Also, conditions on the early Earth would likely have been much better than the early universe. The Earth had an ocean of water to concentrate prebiotic molecules, and energy to power chemical reactions. Life forming in clouds is very different. The video does mention rocks and planets, but now we also need time for planets to have formed? Planet formation takes millions of years. So within a 17 million year window we need supermassive early stars to form, go supernova, seed clouds of gas with heavier elements, which then need to form rocky planets and have life evolve. This is somehow more plausible than life evolving on Earth over a 200 million year window? And again, if you resort to the argument that the universe is big so there would have been lots of opportunities for rare events to happen, that fails for at least two reasons. The first, as I stated, is that in order for panspermia to work, life would have to have formed in many places (as the video explicitly states) so life-forming would not have been rare, but common. Second, there may be a certain minimum amount of time required for a sequence of events to occur that results in life. We don’t know what this minimum time is, but it may be more than 7 million years.

The scenario laid out in the video is beyond speculative. A series of speculations would all have to break in favor of the theory in order to remain plausible, all to explain a non-problem that is far more plausible (that life simply formed on Earth). The primary theory-killer, however, is the fact that we do not have evidence for stars existing prior to 100 million years after the Big Bang, outside the window for life formation.

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