Goldilocks Planet: What Makes Earth So Special?

Many people marvel at all the special things that make life possible on earth, and wonder if there could be any other “just right” planets like this Goldilocks planet of ours — a term used by Clara Moskowitz in “What Makes Earth Special Compared to Other Planets?” She discusses several unique aspects about earth. The importance of tectonic plates and the role water plays with that mechanism is something I hadn’t really considered before. Here’s what she says:

Goldilocks planet

Earth’s water is also special in that it has remained liquid for so long. How has Earth been able to hold on to its oceans while those on other planets freeze or fry?

“Many details as to why Earth is the only planet with liquid water in our solar system need to be worked out,” said Diana Valencia, a graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. “Certainly the distance to the sun has made it possible. A planet much farther in would receive too much energy from the sun, and a planet too far out would quickly freeze.”

Our planet’s Goldilocks-like “just right” location in the solar system has helped, as has its system of plate tectonics — the slip-sliding movements of Earth’s crust that are thought to have created the planet’s towering mountain ranges and plummeting ocean depths.

“The fact that Earth has plate tectonics allows for the carbon-silicate cycle to operate over geological timescales,” Valencia said. “With the carbon-silicate cycle, the levels of carbon in the atmosphere get regulated to keep the surface temperature around that of liquid water.”

Plate tectonics and water are inextricably linked. Not only does plate tectonics enable liquid water to exist by way of regulating the temperature, but many scientists have argued water enables plate tectonics to happen.

“Without water the planet would be geologically dead,” said Caltech’s Mike Brown, discoverer of the newly reclassified “plutoid” object named Eris, which lies beyond Pluto in our solar system. “Water is what lubricates plate tectonics, which is what leads to the extreme difference between continents and seafloors, the large amount of earthquakes and volcanoes, fresh mountain-building. Venus has no water, no plate tectonics, no deep sea floor, no steep mountains, no continents, probably few earthquakes or volcanoes. A much less geologically interesting place!”

Another “just-right” aspect of Earth is its size: If it was much smaller, it wouldn’t be able to hold on to our precious atmosphere, but much larger and it might be a gas giant too hot for life.

The presence of our big brother planet, Jupiter, farther out in the solar system blocking Earth from much of the incoming debris, has also helped Earth become a safe haven for life. Jupiter acts like a giant broom, sweeping the solar system of debris — rocks as small as cars and as huge as moons — that could snuff out life in one fatal blow. This protective effect was particularly helpful in the solar system’s early years, when Earth still got pummeled but, scientists say, not nearly as bad as would have been the case without Jupiter.

Yes, earth is an incredible and amazing place. How did we get so lucky? Various forms of the anthropic principle can be invoked to take the worshipful edge away from our contemplation of earth’s majestic match to the improbable requirements for life (“Don’t marvel that everything has worked out just right for life – if those coincidence hadn’t occurred, we wouldn’t be here to ask why”). However, I prefer gratitude to a kind and brilliant God who crafted this place for us. Latter-day Saints go a step further by believing that the universe has millions upon millions of earths similar to this one where other sons and daughters of God dwell. We know almost nothing about that, so don’t press me for answers! But the wonder of all those galaxies and marvelous creations across the cosmos is not there just for us and our telescopes. There may even be intelligent life on hundreds of other places like this right here in our own galaxy, not to mention the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), Bode’s Galaxy (M81), the Black Eye Galaxy (M64), the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), and even the Los Angeles Galaxy (MLS).


Author: Jeff Lindsay

15 thoughts on “Goldilocks Planet: What Makes Earth So Special?

  1. No, no no… it’s all just a freak accident. Praise Random Chance! Remember?

    Or we’re the only ones! God isn’t allowed to have any other planets with people, just us!

    Seriously, I stand in awesome wonder of this planet, from the largest things to the tiny bugs that are so intricately and marvelously engineered.

    Small ps – you spelled what, waht in your title of the post. We are allowed to misspell words in the comments, but you aren’t allowed in the titles.. :op

  2. I can’t help it, I can’t Jeff, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but immediately, this came to mind sorry I know it’s long. You can oust me if thou wishest.

    “And then Alma said unto him: believest thou that there is a God?
    38 And he answered, Nay.
    39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.
    40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.
    41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
    42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.
    43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
    44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and call things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.
    45 And yet do ye go about, leading away the hearts of this people, testifying unto them there is no God? And yet will ye deny against all these witnesses? And he said: Yea, I will deny, except ye shall show me a sign.”

  3. Very appropriate comment, Darion. Thanks! And thanks to Jayleen as well. Nice to have a few readers ’round here.

    I could get a lot more comments, of course by saying something about Prop. 8, Big Love, and the like, but – yawn – the universe is so much more interesting. (Or I could write more interesting material, but then I’d confuse the people who are drawn to whatever it is I dish out here. ;))

  4. Joseph Smith had some interesting comments about how the Earth was much smaller than it used to be, so not everything is necessarily in an ideal condition.

    Nevertheless, the whole geological oxygen cycle is hard to overappreciate. It is frankly one of the biggest problems with trying to terraform Mars. Personally, I think with a bit more time and effort, Venus could be better,but that is another topic for another day. Again the major problem there is water. Venus has absolutely none.

  5. Well, if you have to choose between atheist and Mormon tenants it’s either praise Chance for the Earth existing or praise Chance for God existing. Is there a difference? I’ll put my money on Chance (bad pun): I see it doing its thing every day.

    I might say all things testify to the presence of Chance.

    Poor Alma…he so badly wanted for some classical training in logic. You could almost say he was like an uneducated farm-boy.

  6. Not everyone has the opportunity to get classical training in logic as I am sure Alma was more concerned with daily substinence agriculture than the rigors of a classical education. But, it sounds like you have a good idea of what sort of chances are involved in making all the pieces come together.

  7. Jeff – I may not comment as much as I’d like due to my hands becoming more crippled by the day, but I always read your posts.

    It sure is nice to have posts like these in between the Prop 8 ones to provide some respite from the broohahas… ;o)

  8. Prop 8…Big Love…I always found it odd that a non-LDS, produces a show about polygamy in Utah, only to dis the Church for being against the marriage…union…whatever it’s called between members of the same gender….hmmm….maybe he needs some classical education…

  9. One more comment. I think a lot of this line of thought is essentially the Gaia Hypothesis. And while that is a comforting thought, there is another contrary – the Medea Hypothesis. The idea is that not all of Earth’s feedbacks are positive and at earlier times in the earth’s history, feedback loops have created conditions of methane poisoning, oxygen poisoning (thankful for that one), multiple hydrogen Sulfide poisonings, and periods where the earth experienced severe Ice Ages.

    So, while Nature inspires me (and it is meant to!) it also reminds me not to put faith in the environment itself, because it is perfectly capable of destroying itself, by itself.

  10. Hi Jeff! Interesting post about plate tectonics. Thought it was going to lead up to one of the unique properties of water, the fact that it expands when transitioning into a solid (i.e. ice).

    So another amazing thing about water… Life on this planet would be drastically affected if water behaved like almost all other molecules when phase transitioning to a solid. If the ocean floor was instead covered with underwater glaciers (some possibly miles thick), I wonder if that would also affect plate tectonics, not just sea life.

    On a side note, I’m also fascinated by the moon and the fact that it’s too big for our planet. Earth’s gravity alone could not capture the moon into an orbit. Astros-physicists’ speculate the moon’s orbit is the result of some celestial body collision with earth. Without the stabilizing affect of the moon’s gravity keeping the earth at a 23.5 degree tilt, the seasons would not exist as we know them. Life would also be drastically affected.

    Lots of woulda, coulda, shoulda’s that actually happened. ☺


  11. Another interesting and more recent theory about the Moon’s origin is that a run-away nuclear reaction in the Earth’s core split it off from the Earth.

  12. Okay, Ujlapana, I’ll bite. What’s the difference between a Mormon tenant and an atheist tenant? I think they both pay their rent when it’s due, so that can’t be it. [Try “tenet” next time.]

    Seriously, I don’t have any idea why you would say there’s chance involved in the existence of God. Where does that come from? The LDS doctrine is that gods have always existed and always will. There wasn’t a beginning, so chance isn’t involved.

  13. And with what Pops said, then how do you define chance? Where does the definition come from? Who arrived at the conclusion that all is chance? Coincidence? Timely affair? Just happened to be so? Is chance even scientific?

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