The Three Bears
When astronomers sweep the cosmos in search of systems hosting planets amenable to life, they consider distance from the home star because radiation expends energy with every inch of travel. Relative distance to the source plays a big role in determining planet surface temperatures. Too far and the star can’t deliver the heat necessary to help warm the planet. Think Minnesota. In September. Too close and the constant exposure to blasting radiation and planet-swallowing solar flares would be like living in a brick pizza oven. Axial spin rates and orbit shapes are important too, but let’s keep this simple. Scientists searching for potential habitable planets consider any planet falling inside certain extremes in distance to be a Goldilocks planet, paying homage to the part in the fairy tale when the blonde girl breaks into the nice house and trashes it. A Goldilocks planet is guaranteed to not be Hell or Hell frozen over. And that’s all anyone is sure of. It could be covered from pole to pole in broken glass. It could be made entirely of iron nails, all pointing outward. But, you could be confident that weather wouldn’t be the biggest obstacle to tourism. Hey, you have to start somewhere.
Here’s where we should start, by showing some sympathy towards those poor bears. They were the ones who were violated. It’s no surprise that the blonde gets top-billing, but at least the bears weren’t typecast. We tend to prejudge eight-foot tall, territorial and omnivorous bipods since they can be moody, as well as fast and hungry. But these bears are portrayed as beneficent souls, a family unit with a home that had chairs and beds. And Mama could cook. But, Goldilocks gets the bulk of the attention. The bears represent what we should aspire to. They acted responsibly. They didn’t eat the girl, even though it would’ve been legal in some states to do so. Most important for us, there were three of them. Three points of reference are the minimum for determining any number of conditions and proving all kinds of points.
Venus and Mars were deemed “suspicious” from the moment earthly creatures first turned their eyes skyward. The red one looked like a bloodshot eye and the other resembled a perfectly round cloud. Closer looks revealed channels and mountains, dry sea beds and polar ice caps on Mars. As for Venus, what people saw helped to fine-tune their description to a less-than-perfectly-round cloud. Nothing about any of the planets or major moons (No, Arthur Clarke, I say no to Europa) in the rest of our solar system shows promise as a cradle of life, but even at our advanced stage of interplanetary savvy, the sister and brother planets continue to infect human dreams. There must be a reason, beyond just being relatively handy. But, maybe that’s all it is — we happen to live in the same neighborhood. The funny thing is, the measuring stick used to determine if a planet falls into the Goldilocks category would dub thee, Venus, and thee, Mars high enough up the scale for further investigation of life. The reality is different, of course, but that’s only because both planets have been probed more than a demonstration dummy at a latex glove convention.
Tectonically-speaking, Mars is dead. And you wouldn’t wish exposure to the Venusian surface environment on the worst person who ever lived. It’s that bad. As for the reference to The Three Bears, it gets a little fuzzy (sorry) when we try to match characteristics too exactly. Regarding the porridge, Mars is Mama Bear. It’s too cold. Venus is Papa Bear … too hot. As for the beds, they get to switch roles, at least in terms of perception, with Mars being too hard and Venus too soft. But, it doesn’t matter if the metaphor works consistently, except that Baby Bear is always Earth.
It would appear that the planetary engine powering Earth and supplying the elements necessary to keep the utilities running (and all of its inhabitants alive) was at least jumpstarted at some point in both neighboring worlds. The proof? There is evidence of an evaporative water system operating on both planets at some point in their respective lives. Water molecules are present throughout the universe, traveling through space in gaseous clouds and crashing into whatever intervenes like ballistic water balloons. Most of the time, they make an initial splash and then evaporate like last year’s reality stars. Conditions have to be ideal for water to begin the regenerative life cycle that takes place here on Earth, including sufficient gravity, tectonic activity and an atmosphere that stores water vapor through residual electromagnetism. On Mars presently, the remaining water takes the form of ice crystals near the poles, along with a number of big puddles of refreshingly cold surface and subsurface liquid nearer the equator. There are plenty of topographical clues that great, churning seas once covered the Martian surface. It definitely experienced a period of volcanic activity, and even sported a robust atmosphere. But, not for long. Mars went from red hot-rod to rusted clunker. When its engine finally seized, the atmosphere thinned, the seas evaporated into space and the show was cancelled.
On Venus, surface temperatures now exceed the boiling point of water by over 500 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving a miniscule vaporous presence in the ionosphere, mixed inside a gas shroud dominated by carbon dioxide, with some sulfuric acid and nitrogen. The cyclonic nature of the Venusian weather pattern, along with a perpetually-charged electromagnetic generator in its upper ionosphere, makes it difficult for water molecules to reach the surface anyway. The crust of Venus is a poster child for Earth’s environmentalists, if any of them had an actual clue. The second planet from the Sun is the cautionary tale of runaway greenhouse gas effects. Before those took hold, it is likely that vast bodies of water covered the Venusian surface. Habitable or not, it had to be a lot nicer then than it is now.
That makes three planets moving in three consecutive solar orbits inside one system, each operating an active hydration system and nearly non-toxic atmosphere during at least one portion of its evolutionary history, out of how many possibilities? Did we say billions? Are there any other examples of such a triad of more or less habitable worlds anywhere else that anyone knows of? What does it mean? Other than that we may just be both blind and stupid. If we add “stubborn” we can at least maintain the theme of Three. It apparently doesn’t seem possible except to a meager few that The Three Bears were terraformed, each individually and exclusively, respective to the conditions present at a particular moment in galactic history.
Long ago, a younger Sun burned approximately 25% cooler than it does today. Conditions on Venus during such a period would offer reasonable expectations for cultivation, if that’s an appropriate term for what we’re talking about. As the Sun grew hotter, conditions evolved and the weather became predatory, eventually turning the surface septic. A global eco-failure. On Mars, volcanic activity from below its crust provided enough of everything, (water vapor, nitrogen, carbon ash and heat) to form a rudimentary atmosphere, along with invertible polar magnetism. With all that came the potential of perpetual regeneration. It’s hard to say what went wrong. Perhaps its spin degraded over time, reducing subsurface friction to the point where it could no longer generate the energy necessary to melt rock. Magma is the yeast in the planetary bakeshop. Once it stops flowing, major planetary chemical reactions come to a complete halt. Mars went from healthy loaf to matzo and never rose again.
Enter Baby Bear, whose development may have benefited from lessons learned in the failures of both Mars and Venus, presenting an opportunity to get conditions just right here on Earth. The thing is, any entity possessing the capability to box three rounds with Special Relativity should have a pretty good idea going in about how complex systems progress and decay over time and under varying conditions. Unless that entity isn’t from this physical universe and had to learn the rules the same way we do, by breaking stuff. In Douglas Addams’ telling by way of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the role of other-dimensional infiltrators was played by the mice who contracted with Slartibartfast to build a replacement Earth and use Arthur Dent’s resected brain to reseed it. Be honest — doesn’t this rendition sound slightly less ridiculous? After all, who would pick mice as a cover? They’re so squishable. This is someone’s idea of a superior being? Out of respect for the dead, I will move on to the conclusion.
The Three Bears Theory reinforces the point made in previous essays, that life generating out of the ether is patently impossible. There must be conscious external influences, not just to get the fire started, but to keep it stoked. And what form does that external influence adopt? It is none other than Goldilocks herself. She touches and breaks things. She is entropic and wears matter out, converting it back into energy. She provides a positive from the negative and keeps the story moving. She is not from here, but she didn’t arrive empty-handed like the bimbo in the story. We’re getting closer to a substantive question whose answer has been in front of us for ages. The search for life in the cosmos, though pointless, will reveal our true nature in time. As in every search, what we uncover will not match expectations.