Of Comets and Cosmological Presumption

Ian Wright, the lead scientist on the Ptolemy instrument, describes the organics found on the comet as a “frozen primordial soup”, but concedes some colleagues might not agree. “Potentially, that is what we are talking about, but I’ll get pilloried for saying so,” he added.

“If you were to put these materials on the surface of a primitive body like Earth, and give them the right amount of heat and whatever else is required, conceivably, you could form life,” he said.

Rosetta probe studies released, revealing fullest picture of comet yet, The Guardian

Now, whatever Mr. Wright’s credentials, he should be pilloried for the last statement, as should the reporter who reported it without question. If you put anything, or even nothing, together with the right amount of heat (whatever “right” means) and whatever else is required, you can form anything whatsoever, since the latter is completely indefinite.

The compounds found by the Philae lander on the comet in question may be “organic” compounds, but organic in this sense simply means they contain carbon. Methane, one of the most common gases found on other bodies within the solar system, is itself considered an organic compound in this sense, although it’s one of the simplest compounds to be considered organic. The distinction between organic and inorganic carbon compounds itself, while it may be useful in organizing research in chemistry, is completely arbitrary.

The blurring of such lines leads to the equivocations and unwarranted assumptions found in the thinking of researchers involved in this kind of research, since in common terms organic means “arising from life”. The analogical trope underlying the thought process is quite obviously sperm and egg, a simple visual metaphor, yet Mr. Wright and Mr. Goessman appear to be completely oblivious to this underlying analogy guiding their thinking in a heuristic sense.

At the same time, they miss what should be an obvious inferral from the active nature of the comet’s surface and what can be determined of its interior, which is that a comet is in some sense systemic, dynamic. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since materially comets are not largely distinct from asteroids, yet observationally they are very distinctive. The distinctive features and behaviour of comets can only be accounted for structurally and systemically in some way. This not only invalidates current material theories of comets, but makes the current theory of comet formation much more problematic. Simple accretion would, by itself, only generate a larger clump of ice, rock and dust. It cannot account for whatever systemic processes are producing the gas spewing from the sinkholes. Not unusually, theories prove to be massive oversimplifications.

Instead, though, what we get from these researchers is a vast, unwarranted jump from a comet being a “dirty snowball” (or, for other theorists, a “snowy dirtball”), to a comet being some sort of interstellular sperm fertilizing unsuspecting planets without even so much as a by your leave.

Of course, while cosmology posits rocky planets such as this one, apparently now prime for fertilization, as having initially been in a liquid state (why they only go as far as liquid rather than gaseous is one of those mysteries of cosmological presumption), it then proceeds to treat such planets, once they have formed a crust as they cooled, as if they were a simple rock in space with sufficient gravity to post facto attract sufficient gases to form an atmosphere. That the initial atmosphere is largely a function of the systemic nature of the planet, which remains far more active in every aspect than inactive, appears to escape notice. That the actual atmosphere on this planet is largely a function of far more complex processes of life is even further beyond cosmology’s conceptual reach. In the case of planetary formation the theory is quite literally half-baked, while the theory of comet formation is insufficiently defrosted.


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