an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

Proxima b

leave a comment »

Quote of the day/week/month/post:

Better to have questions you can’t answer than answers you can’t question – Max Tegmark (and many others)


Jacinta: So while astrophysicists argue over the likelihood of life elsewhere in our tiny but massive universe, some are focusing on our nearest star neighbour. Some wobbling of the red dwarf known as Proxima Centauri has revealed, upon lengthy observation, that it has a closely orbiting planet, which considering the relative coolness of the star – way too dim to be seen with the naked eye – and the proximity of its satellite, is very much in the habitable zone. While it’s too early to say so much for the naysayers, the discovery of a planet in the Goldilocks zone of our nearest star in a galaxy of billions of possibilities must surely raise hopes and expectations of life abundant.

Canto: This closest possible exoplanet was only discovered in August this year, so we’re desperate to find out more about it. Being in the habzone is one thing, habitability is another. Obvious questions we have no current way of answering are: does it have an atmosphere? Any possibility of water? Is it tidally locked? And of course we’d love to know if we could launch some sort of robotic mission to our nearest star neighbour. Meanwhile is there any other way of gleaning more info from this tantalising object?

Jacinta: It’s not likely to be habitable though. Solar winds are estimated to be some 2000 times those experienced on Earth, though we can’t be too sure. Researchers are trying to work out the size of the planet…

Canto: How do they know about those solar winds?

Jacinta: Oooh, that’s a horribly good question. It’s due to the closeness of the orbit, where you would expect the solar winds to be much stronger, as they are in our solar system. It’s believed that Mercury’s magnetic field, which should be stronger than it’s been measured to be because of its heavy metallic core, is dampened massively by our solar wind. So basically they would’ve inferred Proxima Centauri’s wind by our own. As to how they came up with the figure of 2000 times that experienced on Earth, I’ve no idea, but strong solar winds make it hard to maintain an atmosphere, which is vital for life. You’ve also talked about tidal locking, which is a feature of close orbits, such as the Moon’s orbit of the Earth. So you’ll have a permanently hot day side and a permanently cool night side, and this can be problematic for the creation of an atmosphere, according to modelling.

Canto: Now, all of this sounds very negative, but basing exo-planetary activity on what’s been the case, as far as we can work it out, in our solar system, has been really problematic hasn’t it?

Jacinta: Definitely, that’s why we need to go beyond modelling, if we can, and collect some real data. So we’re looking to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the very exciting successor to Hubble to be launched around November 2018, to garner more info, which it’ll be perfectly equipped to do.

Canto: If by some near-miraculous combination of circs there is an atmosphere on Proxima b, or a reasonable quantity of liquid water, that would help distribute the heat around the planet. With no atmosphere, the difference between day side and night side would be stark.

Jacinta: Exactly, and that’s what the JWST should be able to detect, as the best way to detect the atmosphere is to measure the planet’s infrared heat signature. If the JWST finds a decisive and fixed difference between the planet’s day and night sides, it’s a safe bet that no atmosphere is present. The JWST will be equipped to measure this IR signature on both sides of the planet, and if it doesn’t find that stark difference, that’ll be when we can start speculating about an atmosphere and its constituents.

Canto: Though of course they’ve already started with the speculation. But really, whatever they find – and I don’t expect that everything will line up for life – the fact that we’ve found an exoplanet well worth investigating on the nearest star outside our solar system, with billions of stars yet to be homed in on, one by one – doesn’t that say something to those who argue for the Fermi paradox – where are they? Okay, Fermi and Hart were talking about intelligent life, and that may well be orders of magnitude more difficult to develop than life itself, but I’m sure that Fermi would be unsettled in his skepticism, if he was alive today, by the vast numbers of exoplanets, in other words possibilities for life, we’re discovering now, with so many to come in the near future.

Jacinta: Yes, bliss in this time it is to be alive, but to be young, that would be very heaven!




Cosmos issue 71, pp9-10



Read the rest of this entry »

Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2016 at 9:38 pm

Earth before life: more skeptico-romantic chitchat

leave a comment »

The early Earth - more cracks than facade?

The early Earth – more cracks than facade?

Canto: So we’ve talked all too briefly about Earth’s probable formation and how its moon was formed some fifty million years later, and I’m not sure whether I want to go back further in time to try to answer some big questions about the solar system in general or the solar nebula, or forward to consider how life emerged from inanimate matter on this seething-hot, volatile planetary surface…

Jacinta: Well since we’re the blind leading the blind, it doesn’t much matter which direction we go. Let’s choose life.

Canto: Okay, but we’ll have a way to travel before we get there.

Jacinta: Well most of us learned at school that the Earth has a crust, a mantle and a core, and that the core is of iron and it’s really hot down there, and the crust is formed of plates that move around and go under each other, and that the atmosphere above the crust consists of layers, like the stratosphere and the ionosphere, and the atmosphere around us is around three-quarters nitrogen and a quarter oxygen with traces of other gases, and if it wasn’t like that we wouldn’t be here. But it wasn’t anything like that when the first life appeared.

Canto: Yes, it was very different, and it seems there’s more that we don’t know about the period between 4.5 and 4 billion BP than there is that we do know, if you know what I mean.

Jacinta: BP?

Canto: Before the Present. I got that from the excellent Stuff You Should Know podcast, and I’m going to use it from now on.

Jacinta: D’accord. So yes, we know that the early Earth was incredibly hot, reaching temperatures of 2000 celsius or more, but there’s also evidence from ancient amphibolite rocks and banded iron formations that there was water on the Earth, and plenty of it, 4.3 billion years ago. Which suggests an extraordinarily fast cooling down period, and where did all that water come from?

Canto: Yes I think we really need to look at this period, or what we know of it, to try and make sense of it, because it doesn’t quite make sense to me. A hot magma world, melted fom the inside out, but also bombarded from the outside by meteorites, then after the bombardment suddenly cooling from the outside in, and flowing with water. All in a couple of hundred million years?



Jacinta: That’s a long time actually. We’re hoping to live for a hundred years for some strange reason – a two millionth of our time-frame, if we’re very lucky.

Canto: Well it’s all relative, but where did this water come from? Some say it must’ve come from space, because that’s all that happened, meteors from out there crashing into here. Where else could it come from?


Jacinta: How do you trap water here when the surface temperature is so high? Water boils at 100c, right?

Canto: Under ‘normal’ atmospheric pressure. The early Earth was anything but normal.

Jacinta: Anyway it just doesn’t seem possible to get so much water from rocks crashing into us. There’s another alternative – the water was already here. So the original bits and pieces that formed the Earth – carbonaceous chondrites or whatever – contained water and this water somehow made its way to the surface.

Canto: Somehow. Leaving aside the rising-to-the-surface problem, carbon-rich chondrites are found in asteroids today, and they have apparently a similar water-plus-impurities ratio to our oceanic water, and that’s obviously very suggestive.

Jacinta: Yes and the isotopic ratios pretty well match, but they don’t for comets. Scientists have been able to measure the isotopic ratios in comets such as Halley and Hale-Bopp, and they don’t have anything like the proportions found in our oceans. I’m talking heavy water here, deuterium, but also protium which is another isotope of hydrogen.

Canto: NASA also launched a spacecraft, Deep Impact, to probe the constituents of a comet, Tempel1, and the results were negatory for its candidature as feeder of the Earth’s water, had it ever landed here, but of course not nugatory for astronomical research generally. But then, what comet is ever typical? Anyway, there’s a just-so story, sort of, that I watched on video recently, which explained the oceans, sort of. It told us that the planetesimals that created the Earth contained water locked inside, and that years of later volcanic activity released that water to the surface as steam, which condensed in the cool upper atmosphere and fell as rain. And the rain it rainèd every day.

Jacinta: So the Bible was right then?

Canto: More than forty days and nights – thousands of years, they claimed. But that made up only half the world’s oceans. The rest came from comets, they said. Now that seems unlikely, but replace comets with the right sorts of asteroids, and the recipe still works.

Jacinta: Well here’s another story, which is meant to explain how that heat-creating heavy bombardment came to an end.  The Earth’s bombarded surface was extremely hot, melting everything, even the rocks, and in this state the heavier elements such as iron sank to the centre, forming our core, which was vital in protecting us from the notorious solar wind – that incredibly strong force that has blown away the atmosphere of Mars.

Canto: Yeah, they say it kind of magnetised the Earth, and that was like a shield of steel.

Jacinta: Aka the magnetosphere, but I’m afraid that electromagnetism was a subject that transformed me into a gibbering mass of incomprehension at school.


Canto: I can’t say I understand it myself, but the magnetosphere works to almost perfectly preserve our atmosphere. We do lose a percentage to the solar wind every year but it’s so tiny that it’s not a problem. Another anthropic circumstance that proves the existence of God.

Jacinta: Hallelujah. So did this magnetosphere form before or after the formation of the moon?

Canto: God knows.

Jacinta: Goddess.

Canto: Sorry princess.

Jacinta: Princess, goddess, actress, countess, diminutives. They diminish.

Canto: Seamstress.

Jacinta: Temptress.

Canto: Watercress. Anyway it probably happened around the same time. The great crash that probably created the moon has been nicely computer-simulated by Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute – it’s well worth a look. The theory goes that this great glancing blow tilted the Earth and gave us our seasons, probably vital to life as we know and love it.

Jacinta: Yes but it would’ve heated up the planet even more, so I’m interested in the problem of the shift from this to our amphibolite rocks under water from nearly 4.3 billion years ago. Where the eff did that water come from? It steamed up from beneath the surface? Not likely. And from asteroids? Really?

Canto: Possibly. But according to this excellent Naked Science video, the best-preserved meteorites ever recovered came from a landfall in British Columbia in 2000. And when they investigated this meteorite material they found that it was made up of 20% water by weight, and that’s pretty significant…

Jacinta: Because water isn’t dense like rock is it, so that sounds like a lot of water. We’re learning a lot from this video, such as that meteorites don’t cause great fireballs or anything like that, because they’ve been tumbling about in cold space for eons, and their entry into the Earth’s atmosphere only heats up a few millimetres of the outer surface, and then only for a very brief period, so they pretty well instantly go cold again.

Canto: Right and maybe that explains something else; that a heavy bombardment of these big wet boulders – and apparently they’ve found that the further they are from us, the more water they contain – would’ve cooled the planet.

Jacinta: Interesting idea, which I’m sure someone’s thought of and maybe even computer modelled. Certainly it would help to explain the apparent speed with which the oceans were formed. So… I’m not really convinced, but in lieu of a better explanation I’ll take it on trust that the oceans were created in little more than a million years or so by a hailstorm of asteroids, together with water steamed up from below the surface. So now we have a somewhat cooler Earth, ready at last for some kind of life, but not as we experience it.

Canto: Right, we’re talking about an atmosphere containing virtually no oxygen. Made up mostly of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.

Jacinta: And how do they know that? I’ve also heard hydrogen sulphide mentioned.

Canto: Yeah, upwellings from volcanic activity I believe.


Jacinta: So the stage is set for some sort of proto-life, with RNA or some precursor. And so the fun begins, if it hasn’t already.

Canto: Indeed it does. So that’s what we’ll be exploring next. I’ve even heard some researchers claim that water isn’t necessary for basic life to get started. Now there’s heresy for you.

Jacinta: That’s the fun of heresy these days, you don’t get burned alive for it, no more than a bit of gentle ribbing. I’m looking forward to the next post.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2016 at 9:34 pm

How on earth? A chat about origins.

leave a comment »

one impression of our proto-sun and solar nebula

one impression of our proto-sun and solar nebula

Jacinta: I’d like to know how we got in this position.

Canto: What position?

Jacinta: Here, on Earth.

Canto: We?

Jacinta: Humans.

Canto: That’s a very long story, which I suspect nobody’s really qualified to tell. But maybe we can report on the best speculations. First, in order to understand how we got here we have to understand how the Earth got here.

Jacinta: And so on, infinitely regressing. So let’s just start with the Earth.

Canto: Needless to say we don’t know all the details and there are doubtless competing theories, and new data is being regularly uncovered, but it obviously has to do with how our entire solar system was formed.

Jacinta: I’ve heard that all the heavy metals like iron and whatnot are forged within stars, like when they go supernova, but our star hasn’t done that, all it seems to produce is light, yet Earth is full of heavy elements. I really don’t get it.

Canto: I recall reading years ago a theory that the Earth was formed from an accretion of planetesimals, little planets…

Jacinta: Planettes?

Canto: Yes, but how those little things came into being themselves I’m not sure.

Jacinta: Well we have lots of rocky bits and bobs called asteroids floating about in the solar system…

Canto: Yes, but not randomly. there’s a whole big asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, where they’re coralled, sort of.

Jacinta: But comets are different, they seem to have their individual eccentric orbits.

Canto: I suppose the point is that they also have heavy elements, and how were those elements formed?

Jacinta: Heat and pressure, I’m guessing, so things must’ve been hugely different in earlier times.

Canto: Well, this BBC site gives us some of the latest speculations. They reckon that the Earth probably formed from planetesimals, so that’s still the best hypothesis it seems, though it’s very light on details:

The Earth is thought to have been formed about 4.6 billion years ago by collisions in the giant disc-shaped cloud of material that also formed the Sun. Gravity slowly gathered this gas and dust together into clumps that became asteroids and small early planets called planetesimals.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s extremely vague. How do they know there was a disc-shaped cloud here? How can they investigate that far back?

Canto: Well don’t forget that looking out over huge distances means looking back in time.

Jacinta: Yes but a huge distance away isn’t here. Is it?

Canto: Well it might be here then.

Jacinta: Effing Einstein. But they’re also searching for extra data on the past, like checking out meteorites, which might contain material older than anything on Earth. Can they reliably date material that’s say, 5 billion years old? The Earth’s only about 4.5 billion years old, right?

Canto: I think 4.6 billion, give or take a few minutes. About a third of the age of the universe. And here’s the thing, we’ve dated all the meteorites and asteroids we can get to and they’re all round the same age, within a narrow range of a few hundred million years. So our date for the beginnings of the solar system is the oldest date for these floating and landing rocks, which is also our date for the Earth, about 4.6 billion.

Jacinta: So is our dating system completely accurate, and what by the way are carbonaceous chondrites?

Canto: Well, yes, radioactive decay provides a very accurate clock, and these meteorites have radioactive material in them, just as the core of our planet does. All the evidence so far suggests that things happened very quickly, in terms of accretion and formation of planets, once all this heavy and radioactive material was created. Carbonaceous chondrites are a type of meteorite. They’re amongst the oldest meteorites but relatively rare – they make up less than 5% of our meteorites. I mean the ones that land here. Why do you ask?

Jacinta: I’ve heard about them as being somehow important for research, and maybe dating?

Canto: Well there are different types of C chondrites as they’re called, and some of them, most interesting to us of course, are rich in organic compounds and water. This fact apparently shows that they haven’t been subjected to high temperatures, unlike for example the early Earth. But let me return to that BBC quote above. The theory goes that a supernova explosion, or maybe more than one, created all the heavy elements we have now – iron, carbon, silver, gold, uranium and all the rest, heat and pressure as you say, and these elements swirled around but were gravitationally attracted to a centre, which evolved into our sun. This was the spinning disc-shaped cloud mentioned above, known as the solar nebula.

Jacinta: Would you call that a theory, or a hypothesis, or wild desperate speculation?

Canto: I’d call it ‘the best we can do at the present moment’. But be patient, it’s a great time to be young in astronomy today. What we need is data, data, data, and we’re just starting to collect more data than we can rightly deal with on planets within and especially outside our solar system. Kepler’s just the beginning, girlie.

Jacinta: Je suis tout à fait d’accord, boyo. I think many of the astrophysicists are looking forward to having their cherished models swept aside by all the new telescopes and spectroscopes and what else and the data they spew back to Earth.

Canto: Uhh, well anyway let’s get back to our ‘best scenario for the moment’ scenario. So you have all this matter spinning around and the force of gravity causes accretion. It’s a messy scenario actually because everything’s moving at different velocities and angular momentums if that’s a thing, upwards, forwards, sideways down, and sometimes there’s accretion, sometimes fragmentation, but overall the movement is towards coalescence due to gravity. Particles grow to the size of monuments and then different sized planetesimals, fewer and bigger and farther between. And the smaller, gaseous elements are swept out by the solar wind into the great beyond, where they accrete into gas giants.

Jacinta: Right, but isn’t the data from Kepler and elsewhere already starting to play havoc with this scenario? Gas giants within spitting distance of their suns and the like?

Canto: Well, you need liquid to spit, but maybe you have a point, but I think it’s wise not to be too distracted by exoplanets and their systems at this stage. I think we need to find an internally coherent and consistent account of our own system.

Jacinta: What about the Juno probe, will that help?

Canto: Well I’m sure it will help us learn more about gas giants, but let’s just focus on the Earth now.

Jacinta: Okay, stay focussed.

Canto: These larger planetesimals became bigger gravitational attractors, each accumulating matter until we had four rocky planets in different, sufficiently distant orbits around their sun.

Jacinta: Oh yes, and what about the moons? Why didn’t they coalesce as neatly as all the other minor rocky bits?

Canto: Mmmm, well there’s nothing neat about all this, but mmmm…

Jacinta: How many moons are there?

Canto: For the inner planets? Only three, ours and two for Mars. So the question is, how come some of those rocks, or at least three, didn’t get stuck to the bigger rocks i.e. planets, via gravity, but instead started circling those planets, also due to gravity.

Jacinta: Yes, which might be the same question as why do the planets orbit around this massive gravitational attractor, the sun, instead of getting sucked into it, like what happens with those supermassive supersucking black holes?

Canto: Well first let me talk about our moon, because the most currently accepted theory about how our moon came into existence might surprise you.

Jacinta: It was a lot closer to the Earth at the beginning, wasn’t it? So it’s slowly spiralling away from us?

schematic of tial forces affecting moon's orbit and earth's rotation

schematic of tidal forces affecting moon’s orbit and earth’s rotation

Canto: Yes. Tidal forces. The moon’s tidally locked to the Earth, it’s the same face she shows us always, but let’s keep on track, it was formed in the very early days, when things were still very chaotic. A pretty large planetesimal, or planetoid, slammed into Earth, which was somewhat smaller then, and it stuck to it and coalesced with it – the Earth was pretty-well molten in those days – and a lot of debris was thrown out into space, but this debris didn’t quite escape Earth’s gravitational field, instead it coalesced to form our moon. This theory was first put forward a few decades ago, after moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions were found to be younger than the oldest Earth rocks, and composed of much the same stuff, which came as a great surprise. But now the theory is well accepted, as it accounts for a number of other factors in the relationship between the two bodies.

the hypothesised Thea impact, which enlarged the Earth and created the Moon

the hypothesised Thea impact, which enlarged the Earth and created the Moon

Jacinta: Okay, so is that it on how the Earth was formed?

Canto: Well, yes, but the bigger question is your original one – how did we get here. And that means we have to look at how life got started here. Because we’re only up to about 4.5 billion years ago – with the moon being formed about 50 million years after the Earth. And at that point the Earth was like a sea of hot magma, hot from all the collisions on the surface, and hot from the radiation bursting out from its core. Hardly great conditions for life.

Jacinta: Well there might’ve been life, but not as we know it boyo.

Canto: I’m skeptical, but we’ll talk about that next time.

Some sources:

on the relation between moon and earth

formation of the moon

the solar nebula theory and its problems



Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2016 at 8:45 am

more on Einstein, black holes and other cosmic stuff

leave a comment »

Einstein in 1931 staring at a wee bit of the universe, with Edwin Hubble

Einstein at Mount Wilson in 1931, staring at a wee bit of the universe, with Edwin Hubble

Jacinta: Well Canto I’d like to get back to Einstein and space and time and the cosmos, just because it’s such a fascinating field to inhabit and explore.

Canto: Rather a big one.

Jacinta: I’ve read, or heard, that Einstein’s theory, or one of them, predicted black holes, though he didn’t necessarily think that such entities really existed, but now black holes are at the centre of everything, it seems.

Canto: Including our own galaxy, and most others.

Jacinta: Yes, and there appears to be a correlation between the mass of these supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies and the mass of the galaxies themselves, indicating that they appear to be the generators of galaxies. Can you expand on that?

Canto: Well the universe seems to be able to expand on that better than I can, but I’ll try. Black holes were first so named in the 1960s, but Einstein’s theory of general relativity recast gravity as a distortion of space and time rather than as a Newtonian force, with the distortion being caused by massive objects. The greater the mass, the greater the distortion, or the ‘geodetic effect’, as it’s called. The more massive a particular object, given a fixed radius, the greater is the velocity required for an orbiting object to escape its orbit, what we call its escape velocity. That escape velocity will of course, approacher closer and closer to the speed of light, as the object being orbited becomes more massive. So what happens when it reaches the speed of light? Then there’s no escape, and that’s where we enter black hole territory.

Jacinta: So, let me get this. Einstein’s theory is about distortions of space-time (and I’m not going to pretend that I understand this), or geodetic effects, and so it has to account for extreme geodetic effects, where the distortion is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape, and everything kind of gets sucked in… But how do these massive, or super-massive objects come into being, and won’t they eventually swallow all matter, so that all is just one ginormous black hole?

Canto: Okay I don’t really get this either but shortly after Einstein published his theory it was worked out by an ingenious astrophysicist, Karl Schwarzschild – as a result of sorting out Einstein’s complex field equations –  that if matter is severely compressed it will have weird effects on gravity and energy. I was talking a minute ago about increasing the mass, but think instead of decreasing the radius while maintaining the mass as a constant…

Jacinta: The same effect?

Karl Schwarzschild

Karl Schwarzschild

Canto: Well, maybe, but you’ll again reach a point where there’s zero escape, so to speak. In fact, what you have is a singularity. Nothing can escape from the object’s surface, whether matter or radiation, but also you’ll have a kind of internal collapse, in which the forces that keep atoms and sub-atomic particles apart are overcome. It collapses into an infinitesimal point – a singularity. It was Schwarzschild too who described the ‘event horizon’, and provided a formula for it.

Jacinta: That’s a kind of boundary layer, isn’t it? A point of no return?

Canto: Yes, a spherical boundary that sort of defines the black hole.

Jacinta: So why haven’t I heard of this Schwarzschild guy?

Canto: He died in 1916, shortly after writing a paper which solved Einstein’s equations and considered the idea of ‘point mass’ – what we today would call a singularity. But both he and Einstein, together with anyone else in the know, would’ve considered this stuff entirely theoretical. It has only become significant, and very significant, in the last few decades.

Jacinta: And doesnt this pose a problem for Einstein’s theory? I recall reading that this issue of ‘point mass’, or a situation where gravity is kind of absolute, like with black holes and the big bang, or the ‘pre-big bang’ if that makes sense, is where everything breaks down, because it seems to bring in the mathematical impossibility of infinity, something that just can’t be dealt with mathematically. And Einstein wasn’t worried about it in his time because black holes were purely theoretical, and the universe was thought to be constant, not expanding or contracting, just there.

Canto: Well I’ve read – and I dont know if it’s true – that Einstein believed, at least for a time, that black holes couldn’t actually exist because of an upper limit imposed on the gravitational energy any mass can produce – preventing any kind of ‘infinity’ or singularity.

Jacinta: Well if that’s true he was surely wrong, as the existence of black holes has been thoroughly confirmed, as has the big bang, right?

Canto: Well of course knowledge was building about that in Einstein’s lifetime, as Edwin Hubble and others provided conclusive evidence that the universe was expanding in 1929, so if this expansion was uniform and extended back in time, it points to an early much-contracted universe, and ultimately a singularity. And in fact Einstein’s general relativity equations were telling him that the universe wasn’t static, but he chose to ignore them, apparently being influenced by the overwhelming thinking of the time – this was 1917 – and he introduced his infamous or famous cosmological constant, aka lambda.

Jacinta: And of course 1917 was an early day in the history of modern astronomy, we hardly knew anything beyond our own galaxy.

Canto: Or within it. One of the great astrophysicists of the era, Sir Arthur Eddington, believed at the time that the sun was at the centre of the universe, while admitting his calculations were ‘subject to large uncertainties’.

Jacinta: Reminds me of Lord Kelvin on the age of the Earth only a few generations before.

Canto: Yes, how quickly our best speculations can become obsolete, but that’s one of the thrills of science. And it’s worth noting that the work of Hubble and others on the expansion of the universe depended entirely on improved technology, namely the 100-inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson, California.

Jacinta: Just as the age of the Earth problem was solved through radiometric dating, which depended on all the early twentieth century work on molecular structure and isotopes and such.

Canto: Right, but now this lambda (λ) – which Einstein saw as a description of some binding force in gravity to counteract the expansion predicted by his equations – is very much back in the astrophysical frame. The surprising discovery made in 1998 that the universe’s expansion is accelerating rather than slowing has, for reasons I can’t possibly explain, brought Einstein’s lambda in from the cold as an explanatory factor in that discovery, which is also somehow linked to dark energy.

Jacinta: So his concept, which he simply invented as a ‘fix-it’ sort of thing, might’ve had more utility than he knew?

Canto: Well the argument goes, among some, that Einstein was a scientist of such uncanny insight that even his mistakes have proved more fruitful than others’ discoveries. Maybe that’s hero worship, maybe not.

Jacinta: So how does lambda relate to dark energy, and how does dark energy relate to dark matter, if you please?

Canto: Well the standard model of cosmology (which is currently under great pressure, but let’s leave that aside) has been unsuccessful in trying to iron out inconsistent observations and finding with regard to the energy density of the universe, and so dark energy and what they call cold dark matter (CDM) have been posited as intellectual placeholders, so to speak, to make the observations and equations come out right.

Jacinta: Sounds a bit dodgy.

Canto: Well, time will tell how dodgy it is but I don’t think anyone’s trying to be dodgy, there’s a great deal of intense calculation and measurement involved, with so many astrophysicists looking at the issue from many angles and with different methods. Anyway, to quickly summarise CDM and dark energy, they together make up some 96% of the mass-energy density of our universe according to the most currently accepted calculations, with dark energy accounting for some 69% and CDM accounting for about 27%.

Jacinta: Duhh, that does sound like a headachey problem for the standard model. I mean, I know I’m only a dilettanty lay-person, but a model of universal mass-energy that only accounts for about 4% of the stuff, that doesn’t sound like much of a model.

Canto: Well I can assure they’re working on it…

Jacinta: Or working to replace it.

Canto: That too, but let me try to explain the difference between CDM and dark energy. Dark energy is associated with lambda, because it’s the ‘missing energy’ that accounts for the expansion of the universe, against the binding effects of gravity. As it happens, Einstein’s cosmological constant pretty well perfectly counters this expansive energy, so that if he hadn’t added it to his equations he would’ve been found to have predicted an expanding universe decades before this was confirmed by observation. That’s why it was only in the thirties that he came to regret what he called the greatest mistake of his career. Cold dark matter, on the other hand, has been introduced to account for a range of gravitational effects which require lots more matter than we find in the observed (rather than observable) universe. These effects include the flat shapes of galaxies, gravitational lensing and the tight clustering of galaxies. It’s described as cold because its velocity is considerably less than light-speed.


the lambda- cold dark matter model

Jacinta: Okay, so far so bad, but let’s get back to black holes. Why are they so central?

Canto: Well, that’s perhaps the story of supermassive black holes in particular, but I suppose I should try to tell the story of how astronomers found black holes to be real. As I’ve said, the term was first used in the sixties, 1967 to be precise, by John Wheeler, at a time when their actual existence was being considered increasingly likely, and the first more or less confirmed discovery was made in 1971 with Cygnus x-1. You can read all about it here. It’s very much a story of developing technology leading to increasingly precise observational data, largely in the detecting and measuring of X-ray emissions, stuff that was undetectable to us with just optical instruments.

Jacinta: Okay, go no further, I accept that there’s been a lot of data from a variety of sources that have pretty well thoroughly confirmed their existence, but what about these supermassive black holes? Could they actually be the creators of matter in the galaxies they’re central to? That’s what I’ve heard, but my reception was likely faulty.

Canto: Well astrophysicists have been struggling with the question of this relationship – there clearly is a relationship between supermassive black holes and their galaxies, but which came first? Now supermassive black holes can vary a lot – our own ‘local’ one is about 4 million solar masses, but we’ve discovered some with billions of solar masses. But it was found almost a decade ago that there is correlation between the mass of these beasties and the mass of the inner part of the galaxies that host them – what they call the galactic bulge. The ratio is always about 1 to 700. Obviously this is highly suggestive, but it requires more research. There are some very interesting examples of active super-feeding black holes emitting vast amounts of energy and radiation, which is both destructive and productive in a sense, creating an active galaxy. Our own Milky Way, or the black hole at its centre, is currently quiescent, which is just as well.

Jacinta: You mean if it starts suddenly feeding, we’re all gonna die?

Canto: No probably not, the hole’s effects are quite localised, relatively speaking, and we’re a long way from the centre.

Jacinta: Okay thanks for that, that’s about as much about black holes as I can stand for now.

Canto: Well I’m hoping that in some future posts we can focus on the technology, the ground-based and space-based telescopes and instruments like Hubble and Kepler and James Webb and so many others that have been enhancing our knowledge of black holes, other galaxies, exoplanets, all the stuff that makes astrophysics so rewarding these days.

Jacinta: You’re never out of work if you’re an astrophysicist nowadays, so I’ve heard. Halcyon days.

an x-ray burst from a supermassive black hole - artist's impression

an x-ray burst from a supermassive black hole – artist’s impression

Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

Einstein, science and the natural world: a rabid discourse

leave a comment »

Einstein around 1915

Einstein around 1915

Canto: Well, we’re celebrating this month what is surely the greatest achievement by a single person in the history of science, the general theory of relativity. I thought it might be a good time to reflect on that achievement, on science generally, and on the impetus that drives us to explore and understand as fully as possible the world around us.

Jacinta: The world that made us.

Canto: Précisément.

Jacinta: Well, first can I speak of Einstein as a political animal, because that has influenced me, or rather, his political views seem to chime with mine. He’s been described as a supra-nationalist, which to me is a kind of political humanism. We’re moving very gradually towards this supra-nationalism, with the European Union, the African Union, and various intergovernmental and international organisations whose goals are largely political. Einstein also saw the intellectual venture that is science as an international community venture, science as an international language, and an international community undertaking. And with the development of nuclear weapons, which clearly troubled him very deeply, he recognised more forcefully than ever the need for us to take international responsibility for our rapidly developing and potentially world-threatening technology. In his day it was nuclear weapons. Today, they’re still a threat – you’ll never get that genie back in the bottle – but there are so many other threats posed by a whole range of technologies, and we need to recognise them, inform ourselves about them, and co-operate to reduce the harm, and where possible find less destructive but still effective alternatives.

Canto: A great little speech Jas, suitable for the UN general assembly…

Jacinta: That great sinkhole of fine and fruitless speeches. So let’s get back to general relativity, what marks it off from special relativity?

Canto: Well I’m not a physicist, and I’m certainly no mathematician, but broadly speaking, general relativity is a theory of gravity. Basically, after developing special relativity, which dealt with the concepts of space and time, in 1905, he felt that he needed a more comprehensive relativistic theory incorporating gravity.

Jacinta: But hang on, was there really anything wrong with space and time before he got his hands on them? Why couldn’t he leave them alone?

Canto: OMG, you’re taking me right back to basics, aren’t you? If I had world enough, and time…

Jacinta: Actually the special theory was essentially an attempt – monumentally successful – to square Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations with the laws of Newton, a squaring up which involved enormous consequences for our understanding of space and time, which have ever since been connected in the concept – well, more than a concept, since it has been verified to the utmost – of the fourth, spacetime, dimension.

Canto: Well done, and there were other vital implications too, as expressed in E = mc², equivalating mass and energy.

Jacinta: Is that a word?

Canto: It is now.

Jacinta: So when can we stop pretending that we understand any of this shite?

Canto: Not for a while yet. The relevance of relativity goes back to Galileo and Newton. It all has to do with frames of reference. At the turn of the century, when Einstein was starting to really focus on this stuff, there was a lot of controversy about whether ‘ether’ existed – a postulated quasi-magical invisible medium through which electromagnetic and light waves propagated. This ether was supposed to provide an absolute frame of reference, but it had some contradictory properties, and seemed designed to explain away some intractable problems of physics. In any case, some important experimental work effectively quashed the ether hypothesis, and Einstein sought to reconcile the problems by deriving special relativity from two essential postulates, constant light speed and a ‘principle of relativity’, under which physical laws are the same regardless of the inertial frame of reference.

the general theory - get it?

the general theory – get it?

Jacinta: What do you mean, ‘the initial frame of reference’?

Canto: No, I said ‘the inertial frame of reference’. That’s one that describes all parameters homogenously, in such a way that any such frame is in a constant motion with respect to other such frames. But I won’t go into the mathematics of it all here.

Jacinta: As if you could.

Canto: Okay. Okay. I won’t go any further in trying to elucidate Einstein’s work, to myself, you or anyone else. At the end of it all I wanted to celebrate the heart of Einstein’s genius, which I think represents the best and most exciting element in our civilisation.

Jacinta: Drumroll. Now, expose this heart to us.

Canto: Well we’ve barely touched on the general theory, but what Einstein’s work on gravity teaches us is that by not leaving things well alone, as you put it, we can make enormous strides. Of course it took insight, hard work, and a full and deep understanding of the issues at stake, and of the work that had already been done to resolve those issues. And I don’t think Einstein was intending to be a revolutionary. He was simply exercised by the problems posed in trying to understand, dare I say, the very nature of reality. And he rose to that challenge and transformed our understanding of reality more than any other person in human history. It’s unlikely that anything so transformative will ever come again – from the mind of a single human being.

Jacinta: Yes it’s an interesting point, and it takes a particular development of culture to allow that kind of transformative thinking. It took Europe centuries to emerge from a sort of hegemony of dogmatism and orthodoxy. During the so-called dark ages, when warfare was an everyday phenomenon, and later too, right through to the Thirty Years War and beyond, one thing that could never be disputed amongst all that disputation was that the Bible was the word of God. Nowadays, few people believe that, and that’s a positive development in the evolution of culture. It frees us to look at morality from a broader, richer, extra-Biblical perspective..

Canto: Yes we no longer have to even pretend that our morality comes from such sources.

Jacinta: Yes and I’m thinking of other parts of the world that are locked in to this submissive way of thinking. A teaching colleague, an otherwise very liberal Moslem, told me the other day that he didn’t believe in gay marriage, because the Qu-ran laid down the law on homosexuals, and the Qu-ran, because written by God, is perfect. Of course I had to call BS on that, which made me quite sad, because I get on very well with him, on a professional and personal basis. It just highlights to me the crushing nature of culture, how it blinds even the best people to the nature of reality.

Canto: Not being capable of questioning, not even being aware of that incapability, that seems to me the most horrible blight, and yet as you say, it wasn’t so long ago that our forebears weren’t capable of questioning the legitimacy of Christianity’s ‘sacred texts’, in spite of interpreting those remarkably fluid texts in myriad ways.

Jacinta: And yet out of that bound-in world, modern science had its birth. Some modern atheists might claim the likes of Galileo and Francis Bacon as one of their own, but none of our scientific pioneers were atheists in the modern sense. Yet the principles they laid down led inevitably to the questioning of sacred texts and the gods described in them.

Canto: Of course, and the phenomenal success of the tightened epistemology that has produced the scientific and technological revolution we’re enjoying now, with exoplanets abounding, and the revelations of Homo floresiensis, Homo naledi and the Denisovan hominin, and our unique microbiome, and recent work on the interoreceptive tract leading to to the anterior insular cortex, and so on and on and on, and the constant shaking up of old certainties and opening up of new pathways, all happening at a giddying accelerating rate, all of this leaves the ‘certainty of faith’ looking embarrassingly silly and feeble.

Jacinta: And you know why ‘I fucking love science’, to steal someone else’s great line? It’s not because of science itself, that’s only a means. It’s what it reveals about our world that’s amazing. It’s the world of stuff – animate and inanimate – that’s amazing. The fact that this solid table we’re sitting at is made of mostly empty space – a solidity consisting entirely of electrochemical bonds, if that’s the right term, between particles we can’t see but whose existence has been proven a zillion times over, and the fact that as we sit here on a still, springtime day, with a slight breeze tickling our faces, we’re completely oblivious of the fact that we hurtling around on the surface of this earth, making a full circle every 24 hours, at a speed of nearly 1700 kms per hour. And at the same time we’re revolving around the sun at a far greater speed, 100,000 kms per hour. And not only that, we’re in a solar system that’s spinning around in the outer regions of our galaxy at around 800,000 kilometres an hour. And not only that… well, we don’t feel an effing thing. It’s the counter-intuitive facts about the natural world that our current methods of investigation reveal – these are just mind-blowing. And if your mind doesn’t get blown by it, then you haven’t a mind worth blowing.

Canto: And we have two metres of DNA packed into each nucleus of the trillions of cells in our body. Who’d’ve thunkit?



Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2015 at 11:33 pm

exoplanets – an introduction of sorts

leave a comment »


Jacinta: So do you think we’ve hauled ourselves out of ignorance sufficiently to have a halfway stimulating discussion on exoplanets?

Canto: I think we should try, since it’s one of the most exciting and rapidly developing fields of inquiry at the moment.

Jacinta: And that’s saying something, what with microbiomes, homo naledi, nanobots and quantum biology…

Canto: Yes, enough to keep us chatting semi-ignorantly to the end of days. But let’s try to enlighten each other on exoplanets…

Jacinta: Extra solar planets, planets orbiting other stars, the first of which was discovered just over 20 years ago, and now, thanks largely to the Kepler Space Observatory, we’ve discovered thousands, and future missions, using TESS and the James Webb telescope, will uncover megatonnes more.

Canto: Yes, and you know, about the Kepler scope, l was blown away – this might be veering off topic a bit, but I was blown away in researching this by the fact that Kepler orbits the sun. I mean, I knew it was a space telescope, but I just assumed it was in orbit around earth, probably at a great distance to avoid interference from our atmosphere, but that we can position satellites in orbit around the sun, that really sort of stunned me, more I think than the exoplanet discoveries. Am I being naive?

Jacinta: No, not at all. Well, yes and no. Everything is stunning if you haven’t followed the incremental steps along the knowledge pathway. I mean, if you think, hey the sun’s a way away, and it’s really big and dangerous, best not go there, or something like that, you might be shocked, but think about it, we’ve been sending satellites around the earth for a long time now, and we know how to do it because we know about earth’s gravitational field and can calculate precisely how to harness it for satellite navigation. We’ve currently got a couple of thousand human-made satellites orbiting the earth and trying more or less successfully to avoid colliding with each other. So the sun also has a gravitational field and we’ve known the mathematics of gravitational fields since Newton. It’s the same formula for a star, a planet or whatever, all you need to know is its mass and its radius. And look at all the natural objects orbiting the sun without a problem. Can’t be that hard.

Canto: Okay… so how do we know the mass of the sun? Okay, forget it, let’s get back to exoplanets. What’s the big fuss here? Why are we so dead keen on exploring exoplanets?

Jacinta: Well the most obvious reason for the fuss is SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, but to me it’s just satisfying a general curiosity, or you might say a many-faceted curiosity. And it’s all about us mostly. For example, is the solar system that we inhabit typical? We’ve mostly thought it was but we didn’t have anything to compare it with, but now we’re discovering all sorts of weird and wonderful planetary systems, and star systems, with gas giants like Jupiter orbiting incredibly close to their stars – it’s completely overturned our understanding of how planets exist and are formed, and that’s fantastically exciting.

Canto: So you say we discovered the first exoplanet about 20 years ago, and now we know about thousands – that’s a pretty huge expansion of our knowledge, so how come things have changed so fast? You’ve mentioned new technologies, new space probes, why have they suddenly become so successful?

Jacinta: Well I suppose it’s been a convergence of developments, but let’s go back to that first discovery, back in 1992. Two planets, the first ever discovered, were found orbiting a pulsar – a rapidly rotating neutron star. First discovery, first surprise. Pulsars with planets orbiting them, who would’ve thought? Pulsars are the remnants of supernovae – how could planets have survived that? But that first discovery was largely a consequence of our ability to measure, and the fact that pulsars pulse with extreme regularity. Any anomaly in the pulsing would be cause for further investigation, and that’s how the planets were found, and later independently confirmed. Now this was big news, in a field that was already becoming alert to the possibility of exoplanets, so you could say it opened the floodgates.

Canto: Really? But they didn’t discover any more for two or three years.

Jacinta: Well, okay it opened the gates but it didn’t start the flood, that really happened with the second discovery, the first discovery of a planet orbiting a main-sequence star like ours.

Canto: Main sequence? Please explain?

Jacinta: Well these are stars in a stable state, a state of balance or equilibrium, fusioning hydrogen – basically stars not too different from our own, within much the same range in terms of mass and luminosity. So 51 pegasus b was the first planet to be discovered by the radial velocity method, and radial velocity means the speed at which a star is moving towards or away from us. We can measure this, and whether the star is accelerating or decelerating in its movement, by means of the Doppler effect – waves bunch up when the object emitting them is moving towards us, they spread out when the object is receding from us, and the degree of the bunching or the spreading is a measure of their speed and whether it’s accelerating or decelerating. Now we can measure this with extreme accuracy using spectrometers, and that includes any perturbations in the star’s movement caused by orbiting bodies. That’s how 51 pegasus b was discovered.

Canto: So… how long have we had these spectrometers? Were they first developed in the nineties, or to the level of accuracy that they could detect these perturbations?

Jacinta: Well I don’t have a precise answer to that apart from the general observation that spectroscopes are getting better, and more carefully targeted for specific purposes. The French ELODIE spectrograph, for example, which was used to find 51 pegasus b, was first deployed in 1993 specifically for exoplanet searching, and since then it’s been replaced by another improved instrument, but of the same type. So it’s a kind of non-vicious circle, research leads to new technology which leads to new research and so on.


Canto: So – we’ve gotten very good at measuring perturbations in a star’s regular movements…

Jacinta: Regular perturbations.

Canto: And we know somehow that these are caused by planets orbiting around them? How do we know this?

Jacinta: Well we will know from the size of the perturbation and its regularity that it’s an orbiting body, and we know it’s not a star because it’s not emitting any light (though it may be a low-mass star whose light isn’t easily separated from its parent star). We also know – we knew from the results that it was a massive planet orbiting very close to its star – a hot Jupiter as they  call it. And that was another surprise, but we’ve developed different techniques for discovering these things and we often use them to back each other up, to confirm or disconfirm previous findings. The ELODIE observation of 51 pegasus b was confirmed within a week of its announcement by another instrument, the Hamilton spectrograph in California. So there’s a lot of confirmation going on to weed out false positives.

Canto: So radial velocity is one technique, and obviously a very successful one as it got everyone excited about exoplanets, but what others are there, and which are the most successful and promising?

Jacinta: Well the radial velocity method was initially the most successful as you say, and hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered that way, but this method actually led to a kind of bias in the findings, because it was only able to detect perturbations above a certain level, so it was best for finding large planets close to their stars. But of course that was good too because we had never imagined that large gassy planets could exist so close to their stars. It’s opened up the whole field of planet formation. Then again, if the main aim is to find earth-like planets, this method is less effective than other methods. So let’s move on to the Kepler project. Kepler was launched in 2009, and since then you could say it has blitzed the field in terms of exoplanet detection. It uses transit photometry, which means that it measures the dimming of the light from a star when an orbiting planet passes between it and the Kepler detector.

Canto: So I get the idea of transit, as in the transit of venus, which we can see pretty clearly, but it’s amazing that we can detect transiting planets attached to stars so many light years away.

Jacinta: Well this is how we’ve expanded our world, from the infinitesimally small to the unfathomably large, from multiple billions of years to femtoseconds and beyond, through continuously refining technology, but let’s get back to Kepler. It orbits around the sun, and has collected data from around 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view – stars that are generally around the same distance from that dirty big black hole at the centre of our galaxy as our sun is.

Canto: Is that significant – that we’re focusing on stars in that range?

Jacinta: Apparently so, at least according to the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which puts all sorts of unimaginative limits on the likelihood of earth-like planets, IMHO, but no matter, it’s still a vast selection of stars, and we’ve reaped a grand harvest of planets from them – some 3000-odd, with over 1000 confirmed.

Canto: So… promising earth-like planets?

Jacinta: Yes, but I must point out that earth-like planets are difficult to detect. You see, Kepler was a kind of experiment, and we’ve learned from it, so that our next project will be much improved. For various reasons due to the photometric precision of the instrument, and inaccurate estimates of the variability of the stars in the field of view, we found that we needed to observe more transits to be sure we’d detected something. In other words we needed a longer mission than we’d planned for. And of course, Kepler has suffered serious technical problems, especially the failure of two reaction wheels, which have affected our ability to repoint the instrument. Having said that, we’ve been more than happy with its success.

Canto: Okay I just want to talk about these exoplanets. Can you summarise the most interesting discoveries?

Jacinta: Well, Kepler has certainly corrected the view we might’ve gotten from the earlier radial velocity method that large Jupiter-like planets are more common than smaller ones. We’ve had a number of reports from the Kepler group over the years, and over time they’ve adjusted downwards the average mass of the planets detected. And yes, they’ve discovered a number of planets in the ‘habzone’ as they call it. But that’s not all – only this year NASA confirmed the existence of five rocky planets, smaller than earth, orbiting a star that’s over 11 billion years old. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the explosion of findings, whether or not these planets contain life. And we’ve only just begun our hunt, and the refinement of instruments. It’s surely a great time to study astrophysics. It’s not just SETI, it’s about the incredible diversity of star systems, and working out where we fit into all this diversity.


Canto: Okay, I can see this an appropriately massive subject. Maybe we can revisit it from time to time?

Jacinta: Absolutely.

Some very useful sites:


Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2015 at 10:05 pm

how did life begin?: part 2 – RNA, panspermia, viroids and reviving the blob

leave a comment »


Jacinta: So you’re going to talk about RNA, I know that stands for ribonucleic acid, and DNA is deoxy-ribonucleic acid, so – RNA is DNA without the oxygen?

Canto: Uhhh, you mean DNA is RNA without the oxygen.

Jacinta: Whatever, they’re big complex molecules aren’t they, but RNA is simpler, and less stable I think.

Canto: Okay, I’ll take it from here. We haven’t really known for very long that DNA is the essential material for coding and replicating life, and it’s a very complex molecule made up of four chemical bases, adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine, better known as A, G, T and C. They connect to form base pairs, A always pairing with T and C with G.

Jacinta: What the hell are chemical bases? Do you mean bases as opposed to acids?

Canto: Well, yes. These bases, also called nucleobases, accept hydrogen ions, which have a positive charge. It’s all about pair bonding. The nucleobases – A, G, C and T, as well as uracil, found in RNA – are nitrogen-containing compounds which are attached to sugars… but let’s not get bogged down too much. The point is that DNA and RNA are nucleic acids that code for life, and most of the researchers chasing down the origin of life believe that RNA is a precursor of DNA in the process of replication.

Jacinta: And presumably there are precursors to RNA and so on.

Canto: Well presumably, but let’s just look at RNA, because we have a fair amount of evidence that this molecule preceded DNA as a ‘life-engine’, so to speak, and really no solid evidence, that I know of, of anything before RNA.

Jacinta: Okay so what is this evidence, and why did DNA take over?

Canto: Right, now the subject we’re entering into here is abiogenesis, the process by which life emerged from the inanimate. RNA is probably well down the chain from this emergence, but better to start with it than to dive into speculation. Now as you probably know, RNA has a single helical structure, and today it’s heavily involved in the process whereby DNA ‘creates’ proteins. In fact, all current life forms involve the action and interaction of three types of macromolecule, DNA, RNA and proteins…

Jacinta: But of course these complex molecules didn’t spring from nowhere.

Canto: Well we don’t know how they were built up, and many pundits think they may have been seeded here from elsewhere during the late heavy bombardment, which came to an end about 3.8 billion years ago, around the time that those Greenland rocks, with their heavy load of organic carbon, have been dated to. It seems plausible considering how quickly life seems to have taken off here.

Jacinta: Okay so tell us about RNA, how does it relate to the other two macromolecules?

Canto: Well, RNA is able to store genetic information, like DNA, and in fact it’s the genetic material for some of our scariest viruses, such as ebola, SARS, hep C, polio – not to mention influenza.

Jacinta: Wow, I didn’t know that. But one thing I do know about viruses is that they can’t exist independently of a host, so is RNA the basis of any truly independent life forms?

Canto: Not currently, on our planet, as far as we know, but the evidence is fairly strong that RNA has been central to life here from the very beginning, as it is still key to the most basic components of cells such as ribosomes, ATP and other co-enzymes. This suggests that RNA was once even more central, but in some areas it’s been subordinated to, and harnessed to, the more complex and recent DNA molecule. But, yes, since we can’t look at RNA coding for independent life-forms, we need to wind the clock back still further to look at precursors and other constituents of life, such as amino acids and peptides.

Jacinta: Which are chemical molecules, not biological ones. It seems to me we’re still a long way from working out the leap from chemistry to biology.

a peptide or amide bond - a covalent bond between two amino acid molecules

a peptide or amide bond – a covalent bond between two amino acid molecules

Canto: Yes, yes but we’re bridging various gaps. Peptides are created from amino acids, as you know. They are chains of amino acids linked by peptide bonds, and proteins are only distinguished from peptides in that they’re bigger versions of them, and bonded in a particular biologically useful way. You’ll notice when you read about this stuff that the terms ‘chemistry’ and ‘biology’ are used rather arbitrarily – a chemical compound can be referred to as a biological compound and vice versa. But various experiments have cast light on how increasingly ‘biological’ constituents are formed from simpler elements. For example, you may know that meteorites and comets, which bombarded the early earth in great numbers, contained plenty of amino acids – we’ve counted more than 70 different amino acids derived from meteorites, such as the Murchison meteorite that landed in Victoria in 1969. Another probable source of these amino acids, and even more complex and ‘biological’ molecules is comets, which also contain a lot of water in frozen form, but this has raised the question of how these molecules could have survived the impact of these colossal objects, which released enormous energy, some of them partially vaporising the earth’s crust. But an ingenious experiment, described in this video, and elsewhere, was able to simulate a comet’s impact, creating pressures many times greater than that experienced in our deepest oceans, to see what would happen to the amino acids. It was expected that they would barely survive the impact, but surprisingly they not only survived but forged bonds that created complex peptides.

a fragment of Murchison meteorite - of which there are many. This carbonaceous chondrite is still being analysed for organic compounds. Up to 70 amino acids identified so far

a fragment of Murchison meteorite – of which there are many. This carbonaceous chondrite is still being analysed for organic compounds. Up to 70 amino acids identified so far

Jacinta: Mmmm, that is interesting. So, the gap between peptides, or proteins, and RNA, what do we know about that?

Canto: Well, now you’re getting into highly speculative territory, but it’s certainly worth speculating about. Firstly, though, in trying to solve this origin of life problem, we have to note that the earth’s atmosphere was incredibly different from what it is now. In fact it was probably quite different from the way Haldane and Oparin and later Miller and Urey envisaged it. It was predominantly carbon dioxide, with hydrogen sulphide, methane and other unpleasant gases – unpleasant to us, that is. That, together with the continual bombardment from outer space has led some scientists to suggest that the place to find the earliest life forms isn’t the open surface but in hidden nooks and crannies or deep underground, in more protected environments.

Jacinta: Yeah the discoveries of so-called extremophiles has made that idea fashionable, no doubt, but presumably these extremophiles are all DNA-based, so I don’t see how investigating them will answer my question.

Canto: Okay, so it’s back to RNA. The thing is, I don’t want to go into the properties of RNA here, it’s just too complicated.

Jacinta: I believe it was Richard Feynman who said something like ‘to fully understand a thing you have to build it’. So there’s still this leap from polypeptides or proteins, which don’t code for anything, they’re just built by ribosomes – RNA structures – from DNA instructions, to sophisticated coded replicators. We have no idea how DNA or RNA came into being, and nobody has successfully created life apart from Doktor Frankenstein. So it’s all a bit disappointing.

Canto: You must surely be joking, or just playing devil’s advocate. You know very well that this is an incredibly difficult nut to crack, and we’ve made huge progress, new discoveries are being made all the time in this field.

Jacinta: Okay, impress me.

Canto: Well, only this year NASA scientists have reported that the nucleobases uracil, thymine and cytosine, essential ingredients of DNA and RNA, have been created in the laboratory, from ingredients found only in outer space – for example pyramidine, which they’ve hypothesised was first created in giant red stars – and they’ve found pyrimidine in meteors. So, another step towards creating life, and further evidence that life here may have been seeded from elsewhere. And if that doesn’t impress you, what about viroids?

Jacinta: Uhhh… what are they, viral androids? Which reminds me, what about the artificial intelligence route to creating life? Intelligent life, what’s more exciting.

Canto: Another time. Viroids are described as ‘sub viral pathogens’. We were talking about viruses before, as a kind of halfway house between the living and the lifeless, but really they’re much more on the side of the living. The smallest known pathogenic virus is over 2000 nucleobases long, and the biggest – well, a megavirus was famously identified just last year and revived after being frozen in Siberian permafrost for something like 35,000 years…

Jacinta: An ancient megavirus has been revived…? WTF? Who thought that was a great idea? Wait a minute, the Siberian permafrost, wasn’t that where Steve MacQueen and his mates dropped The Blob? Megadeath, not just a shite band! We’re doomed!

Canto: Well, strictly speaking it’s a virion, a virus without a host, which means it’s in a kind of dormant phase, like a seed. But I don’t want to talk about megaviruses, fascinating though they are – and very new discoveries. I want to talk about viroids, which are plant pathogens. They consist of short strands of RNA, only a few hundred nucleases long, without the protein coat that characterises viruses, and their existence tends to support the ‘RNA world hypothesis’. It was the discoverer and namer of viroids, Theodor Diener, who pointed out that they were vitally important macromolecules for explaining essential steps in the evolution of life from inanimate matter. That was back in 1989, but his remarks were ignored, and only rediscovered in 2014. So viroids are now a big focus in abiogenesis. They’ve even been called living relics of the pre-cellular RNA world.


Jacinta: Okay, I’m more or less impressed. We’ll have to do more on abiogenesis in the future, it’s an intriguing topic, with more breakthroughs in the offing it seems. ..



Written by stewart henderson

September 28, 2015 at 11:23 pm