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So why exactly is the sky blue? SfD tries to investigate

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Canto: Well, Karl Kruszelnicki is one of our best science popularisers as you know, and therefore a hero of ours, but I have to say his explanation of the blueness of our daily sky in his book 50 Shades of Grey  left me scratching my head…

Jacinta: Not dumbed-down enough for you? Do you think we could form a Science for Dummies collaboration to do a better job?

Canto: Well that would really be the blind leading the blind, but at least we’d inch closer to understanding if we put everything in our own words… and that’s what I’m always telling my students to do.

Jacinta: So let’s get down to it. The day-sky is blue (or appears blue to we humans?) because…?

Canto: Well the very brief explanation given by Dr Karl is that it’s about Rayleigh scattering. Named for a J W Strutt, aka Lord Rayleigh, who first worked it out.

Jacinta: So let’s just call it scattering. What’s scattering?

Canto: Or we might call it light scattering. Our atmosphere is full of particles, which interfere with the light coming to us from the sun. Now while these particles are all more or less invisible to the naked eye, they vary greatly in size, and they’re also set at quite large distances from each other, relative to their size. The idea, broadly, is that light hits us from the sun, and that’s white light, which as we know from prisms and rainbows is made up of different wavelengths of light, which we see, in the spectrum that’s visible to us, as Roy G Biv, red orange yellow green blue indigo violet, though there’s more of some wavelengths or colours than others. Red light, because it has a longer wavelength than blue towards the other end of the spectrum, tends to come straight through from the sun without hitting too many of those atmospheric particles, whereas blue light hits a lot more particles and bounces off, often at right angles, and kind of spreads throughout the sky, and that’s what we mean by scattering. The blue light, or photons, bounce around the sky from particle to particle before hitting us in the eye so to speak, and so we see blue light everywhere up there. Now, do you find that a convincing explanation?

Jacinta: Well, partly, though it raises a lot of questions.

Canto: Excellent. That’s science for you.

Jacinta: You say there are lots of particles in the sky. Does the size of the particle matter? I mean, I would assume that the light, or the photons, would be more likely to hit large particles than small ones, but that would depend on just how many large particles there are compared to small ones. Surely our atmosphere is full of molecular nitrogen and oxygen, mostly, and they’d be vastly more numerous than large dust particles. Does size matter? And you say that blue light, or blue photons, tend to hit these particles because of their shorter wavelengths. I don’t quite get that. Why would something with a longer wavelength be more likely to miss? I think of, say, long arrows and short arrows. I see no reason why a longer arrow would tend to miss the target particles – not that they’re aiming for them – while shorter arrows hit and bounce off. And what makes them bounce off anyway?

Canto: OMG what a smart kid you are. And I think I can add more to those questions, such as why do we see different wavelengths of light as colours anyway, and why do we talk sometimes of waves and sometimes of particles called photons? But let’s start with the question of whether size matters. All I can say here is that it certainly does, but a fuller explanation would be beyond my capabilities. For a start, the particles hit by light are not only variable by size but by shape, and so potentially infinite in variability. Selected geometries of particles – for example spherical ones – can yield solutions as to light scattering based on the equations of Maxwell, but that doesn’t help much with random dust and ice particles. Rayleigh scattering deals with particles much smaller than the light’s wavelength but many particles are larger than the wavelength, and don’t forget light is a bunch of different wavelengths, striking a bunch of different sized and shaped particles.

Jacinta: Sounds horribly complex, and yet we get this clear blue sky. Are you ready to give up now?

Canto: Just about, but let me tackle this bouncing off thing. Of course this happens all the time, it’s called reflection. You see your reflection in the mirror because mirrors are designed as highly reflective surfaces.

Jacinta: Highly bounced-off. So what would a highly unreflective surface look like?

Canto: Well that would be something that lets all the light through without reflection or distortion, like the best pane of glass or pair of specs. You see the sky as blue because all these particles are absorbing and reflecting light at particular wavelengths. That’s how you see all colours. As to why things happen this way, OMG I’m getting a headache. The psychologist Thalma Lobel highlights the complexity of it all this way:

A physicist would tell you that colour has to do with the wavelength and frequency of the beams of light reflecting and scattering off a surface. An ophthalmologist would tell you that colour has to do with the anatomy of the perceiving eye and brain, that colour does not exist without a cornea for light to enter and colour-sensitive retinal cones for the light-waves to stimulate. A neurologist might tell you that colour is the electro-chemical result of nervous impulses processed in the occipital lobe in the rear of the brain and translated into optical information…

Jacinta: And none of these perspectives would contradict the others, it would all fit into the coherence theory of truth…

Canto: Not truth so much as explanation, which approaches truth maybe but never gets there, but the above quote gives a glimpse of how complex this matter of light and colour really is…

Jacinta: And just on the physics, I’ve looked at a few explanations online, and they don’t satisfy me.

Canto: Okay, I’m going to end with another quote, which I’m hoping may give you a little more satisfaction. This is from Live Science.

The blueness of the sky is the result of a particular type of scattering called Rayleigh scattering, which refers to the selective scattering of light off of particles that are no bigger than one-tenth the wavelength of the light.

Importantly, Rayleigh scattering is heavily dependent on the wavelength of light, with lower wavelength light being scattered most. In the lower atmosphere, tiny oxygen and nitrogen molecules scatter short-wavelength light, such as blue and violet light, to a far greater degree than long-wavelength light, such as red and yellow. In fact, the scattering of 400-nanometer light (violet) is 9.4 times greater than the scattering of 700-nm light (red).

Though the atmospheric particles scatter violet more than blue (450-nm light), the sky appears blue, because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light and because some of the violet light is absorbed in the upper atmosphere.

Jacinta: Yeah so that partially answers some of my questions… ‘selective scattering’, there’s something that needs unpacking for a start…

Canto: Well, keep asking questions, smart ones as well as dumb ones…

Jacinta: Hey, there are no dumb questions. Especially from me. Remember this is supposed to be science for dummies, not science by dummies

Canto: Okay then. So maybe we should quit now, before we’re found out…


‘Why is the sky blue?’, from 50 shades of grey matter, Karl Kruszelnicki, pp15-19

‘Blue skies smiling at me: why the sky is blue’, from Bad astronomy, Philip Plait, pp39-47

Written by stewart henderson

December 15, 2016 at 4:35 am

Proxima b

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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



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Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2016 at 9:38 pm

the renewable energy juggernaut

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There is more global investment in solar power today than there is in fossil fuels. We’re talking about hard-headed investment for profit by business and governments worldwide, not greenies or special interest groups. And another interesting factoid: China today is generating more energy from wind power than the whole of Australia’s energy production. Not to mention the Chinese government’s massive investment in other renewables. That’s info I got from a recent ABC Science Show podcast. Renewable energy really is making inroads, and this is most encouraging for those around the world fighting the damaging environmental effects of mining and fracking in their regions, though it’s clear that such operations are dying hard.

I remember some time ago at a meeting of skeptics (not climate change ‘skeptics’, just regular sciencey anti-quackery, anti-UFO-type skeptics), when I was spruiking the virtues of wind power, so successfully taken up here in South Australia, being told dismissively that it was too expensive to be really viable. However, wind-power only really has establishment costs. Ongoing costs are quite minimal. Furthermore, a research group conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Global Ecology Department has recently conducted the most wide-ranging expert survey on wind (or any other) energy. Sure, it was a survey of those already heavily invested in wind, but that does make them the experts in the field. Predictions about the cost of wind energy into the future were based on two approachess. First, a projection into the future of falling costs over the past three decades or so – what they call the ‘learning curve’. One would assume those projections would vary from ‘most optimistic’ to ‘most pessimistic’, with consensus somewhere in between. The second approach involved a ‘bottom-up engineering assessment’, looking at the costs of individual turbine components into the future. Science Daily has summarised the findings:

On average, the participants expected wind power costs to continue falling for the next several decades, for three major classes of wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, with prices falling by 24-30% by 2030, and 35-41% by 2050.

Meanwhile governments worldwide are getting on board in a determined effort to drive down the cost of solar. Vox Energy & Environment reports on the US target:

…the US Department of Energy has a program, the SunShot Initiative, devoted entirely to driving down the cost of electricity generated by solar panels — the target is solar power with $1 per watt installed costs by 2020, a 75 percent reduction in costs from 2010.

It’s hard to get the head around the growth of solar energy worldwide since about 2007. It’s been a whirlwind ride, but starting from an extremely low level. And in the US since 2012, large or utility-scale solar has been growing faster than domestic, rooftop solar, and with falling prices and increasing module efficiency, the growth trend in big and small solar should continue well into the future. Yes, there’s government stimulus, but solar is being seen more and more as a sound investment on its own terms. Solar’s steady growth also makes for sound investment against the high volatility of the natural gas market. And this of course is just as relevant for many regions outside the US.

I’ll be taking another look at Australia’s situation, while many of our governments bicker and focus elsewhere, in an upcoming post.


Written by stewart henderson

September 16, 2016 at 8:57 am

bonobo society, sex and females

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sexual dimorphism - a difference on average, but massive individual variation

sexual dimorphism – a difference on average, but massive individual variation

Men are bigger than women, slightly. That’s how things evolved. It’s called sexual dimorphism. It happens with many species, the genders are different in size, shape, coloration, whatever. With humans there’s a size difference, and something of a shape difference, in breasts and hips, but really these aren’t significant. Compare, say, the deep-water triplewort seadevil, a type of anglerfish, in which the female is around 30 cms long, and the male a little over a centimetre. The difference in mass would be too embarrassing to relate.

Among our primate cousins the greatest sexual dimorphism, in size as well as other features, is found in the mandrills, with the male being two to three times the size of the females. In some gorillas there’s a substantial size difference too in favour of the males, and in fact in all of the primate species the male has a size advantage. But size isn’t everything, and the bigger doesn’t have to always dominate.

Female bonobos are smaller than the males, even more so than in humans, yet they enjoy a higher social status than in any other primate society, probably including humans, though it’s hard to compare, since humanity’s many societies vary considerably on the roles and status of women. So how have females attained this exalted status within one of the most highly socialised primate species?

Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally our closest living relatives. It isn’t clear when exactly they separated from each other, but some experts claim it may have been less than a million years ago. Enough time for them to become quite distinct physically, according to the ethologist Franz De Waal. Bonobos are more gracile with longer limbs and a smaller head, and they have a distinctive hairstyle, with a neat parting down the middle. They’re also more easily individuated by their facial features, being in this sense more like humans. And there are also major differences in their social behaviour. Male chimps are dominant in the troupe, often brutally so, whereas bonobo society is less clearly hierarchical, and considerably less violent overall. De Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on both primates, became interested in bonobos primarily through studies on aggression. He noted that sometimes, after a violent clash, two chimps would come together to hug and kiss. Being interested in such apparent reconciliations and their implications, he decided to look at reconciling behaviours in other primates. What he discovered in bonobos (at San Diego Zoo, which in 1983 housed the world’s largest captive colony) was rather ‘shocking’; their social life was profoundly mediated by sex. Not that he was the first to discover this; other primatologists had written about it, noting also that bonobo sex was far more human-like than chimp sex, but their observations were obscurely worded and not well disseminated. There are other aspects of the physical nature of sexual relations in bonobos that favour females, such as female sexual receptivity, indicated by swelling and a reddening of the genital area, which pertains for a much longer period than in chimps. Female bonobos, like humans and unlike other primates, are sexually receptive more or less all the time.

This isn’t to say that bonobos are oversexed, whatever that may mean. Sexual relations are far from constant, they are casual, sporadic and quickly done with. Often they’re associated with finding food, and it seems likely that sexual relations are used to reconcile tensions related to food availability and other potential causes of conflict.

So how does this use of sex relate to the status of females in bonobo society. I’ll explore this further in the next post.

bonobo relations - more than just sex

bonobo relations – more than just sex

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm

a statement of intent: blogging on patriarchy

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Okay I’ve recently become a bit depressed that my blog is heading south, comme on dit, being read by nobody, due largely to my personality. A recent SBS program on the celebrated Dunedin longitudinal study of human behaviour and personality told us that there were five essential personality types. Three were considered ‘normal’, and they were the well-adjusted (40% of the population) the confident (28%), and the reserved (15%). In case you can’t add, this makes up some 83% of the population. The other 17% can be divided into two rather more dysfunctional types, the under-controlled (10%) and the inhibited (7%). You’re more than welcome to be healthily skeptical of these categories, but I’m prepared to take them as granted.

I’m not sure if I’m fully in the reserved category or the inhibited one, but I’m quite certain that most of the problems or failings of my life have been due to inhibition. For example, I live alone, have very few friends and no family connections and I visit and am visited by nobody. I have no sex life but a strong sex drive – make of that what you will – and I like other people very much and have many heroes and heroines, and I believe strongly that humans have gotten where they are through communication and collaboration. We’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. I love children and would love to have been a father…

Enough, I hope you get the picture. What’s interesting is that, in accord with Dunedin’s personality types, my character seems to have been fixed in early childhood, which I spent largely enjoying my own company, but also being fascinated by the world, soliloquising on it at delightful length. And sometimes, as I grew older, falling to despair, weeping at night over a projected future of loveless isolation. Oh dear.

So what does this mean for my blog? Writing a blog that’s sent out into the public domain is surely not an inhibited act, and craving attention for it is arguably not what a reserved person does. It’s a puzzlement. In any case, I will try harder to expand my readership by writing shorter pieces and narrowing my focus. I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to confine my attention to a subject I’ve long been bothered by: patriarchy. I want to critique it, to analyse it, to examine what the sciences say about it, to shine lights on every aspect of this, to my mind, benighted way of thinking and being-in-the-world. I’ll take a look at bonobos, the Catholic Church, homophobia, the effects of religion and culture, male and female neurophysiology, history, sex, workplaces, business, politics, whatever I can relate to the main subject, which surely will provide me with a rich, open field. And I’ll try, really try to communicate with other bloggers and commentators on the subject. Maybe I’ll become just a little less reserved before it’s too late. It’ll be a cheaper way of getting myself out of a rut than visiting a psychiatrist, of whom I would be healthily if self-servingly skeptical.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2016 at 5:01 pm

Abiogenesis – LUCA, gradients, amino acids, chemical evolution, ATP and the RNA world

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Jacinta: So now we’re thinking of the Earth 4 billion years BP, with an atmosphere we’re not quite sure of, and we want to explore the what and when of the first life forms. Haven’t we talked about this before?

Canto: Yeah we talked about the RNA world and viroids and abiogenesis, the gap between chemistry and biology, inter alia. This time we’re going to look more closely at the hunt for the earliest living things, and the environments they might’ve lived in.

Jacinta: And it started with one, it must have. LUA, or LUCA, the last universal common ancestor. Or the first, after a number of not-quite LUCAs, failed or only partially successful attempts. And finding LUCA would be much tougher than finding a viroid in a haystack, because you’re searching through an immensity of space and time.

Canto: But we’re much closer to finding it than in the past because we know so much more about what is common to all life forms.

Jacinta: Yes so are we looking definitely at the first DNA-based life form or are we probing the RNA world again?

Canto: I think we’ll set aside the world of viroids and viruses for now, because we want to look at the ancestor of all independently-existing life forms, and they’re all DNA-based. And we also know that LUCA used ATP. So now I’m going to quote from an essay by Michael Le Page in the volume of the New Scientist Collection called ‘Origin, Evolution, Extinction’:

How did LUCA make its ATP? Anyone designing life from scratch would probably make ATP using chemical reactions inside the cell. But that’s not how it is done. Instead energy from food or sunlight is used to power a protein ‘pump’ that shunts hydrogen ions – protons – out of the cell. This creates a difference in proton concentration, or a gradient, across the cell membrane. Protons then flow back into the cell through another protein embedded in the membrane, which uses the energy to produce ATP.

Jacinta: You understand that?

Canto: Sort of.

Jacinta: ‘Energy from food or sunlight is used..’ that’s a bit of a leap. What food? The food we eat is organic, made from living or formerly living stuff, but LUCA is the first living thing, its food must be purely chemical, not biological.

Canto: Of course, not a problem. I believe the microbes at hydrothermal vents live largely on hydrogen sulphide, and of course sunlight is energy for photosynthesising oganisms such as cyanobacteria.

Jacinta: Okay, so your simplest living organisms, or the simplest ones we know, get their energy by chemosynthesis, or photosynthesis. Its energy, or fuel, not food.

Canto: Semantics.

Jacinta: But there are other problems with this quote re abiogenesis. For example, it’s talking about pre-existent cells and cell membranes. So assuming that cells had to precede ATP.

Canto: No, he’s telling us how cells make ATP today. So we have to find, or synthesise, all the essential ingredients that make up the most basic life forms that we know cell membranes, proteins, ATP and the like. And people are working towards this.

Jacinta: Yes and first of all they created these ‘building blocks of life’, as they always like to call them, amino acids, in the Miller-Urey experiments, since replicated many times over, but what exactly are nucleic acids? Are they the same things as nucleic acids?

Canto: Amino acids are about the simplest forms of organic compounds. It’s probably better to call them the building blocks of proteins. There are many different kinds, but generally each contain amine and carboxyl groups, that’s -NH2 and -COOH, together with a side chain, called an R group, which determines the type of amino acid. There’s a whole complicated lot of them and you could easily spend a whole lifetime fruitfully studying them. They’re important in cell structure and transport, all sorts of things. We’ve not only been able to create amino acids, but to combine them together into longer peptide chains. And we’ve also found large quantities of amino acids in meteorites such as the Murchison – as well as simple sugars and nitrogenous bases. In fact I think we’re gradually firming up the life-came from-space hypothesis.

Jacinta: But amino acids and proteins aren’t living entities, no matter how significant they are to living entities. We’ve never found living entities in space or beyond Earth. Your quote above suggests some of what we need. A boundary between outside and inside, a lipid or phospho-lipid boundary as I’ve heard it called, which must be semi-permeable to allow chemicals in on a very selective basis, as food or fuel.

Canto: I believe fatty acids formed the first membranes, not phospho-lipids. That’s important because we’ve found that fatty acids, which are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms joined together in a regular way, aren’t just built inside cells. There’s a very interesting video called What is Chemical Evolution?, produced by the Center for Chemical Evolution in the USA, that tells about this. Experimenters have heated up carbon monoxide and hydrogen along with many minerals common in the Earth’s crust and produced various carbon compounds including fatty acids. Obviously this could have and can still happen naturally on Earth, for example in the hot regions maybe below or certainly within the crust. It’s been found that large concentrations of fatty acids aggregate in warm water, creating a stable, ball-like configuration. This has to do with the attraction between the oxygen-carrying heads of fatty acids and the water molecules, and the repulsion of the carbon-carrying tails. The tails are forced together into a ball due to this repulsion, as the video shows.

fatty acids, with hydrophobic and hydrophilic ends, aggregating in solution

Jacinta: Yes it’s an intriguing video, and I’m almost feeling converted, especially as it goes further than aggregation due to these essentially electrical forces, but tries to find ways in which chemical structures evolve, so it tries to create a bridge between one type of evolution and another – the natural-selection type of evolution that operates upon reproducing organisms via mutation and selection, and the type of evolution that builds more complex and varied chemical structures from simpler compounds.

Canto: Yes but it’s not just the video that’s doing it, it’s the whole discipline or sub-branch of science called chemical evolution.

Jacinta: That’s right, it’s opening a window into that grey area between life and non-life and showing there’s a kind of space in our knowledge there that it would be exciting to try and fill, through observation and experimentation and testable hypotheses and the like. So the video, or the discipline, suggests that in chemical evolution, the highly complex process of reproduction through mitosis in eukaryotic cells or binary fission in prokaryotes is replaced by repetitive production, a simpler process that only takes place under certain limited conditions.

Canto: So under the right conditions the balls of fatty acids grow in number and themselves accumulate to form skins, and further forces – I think they’re hydrostatic forces – can cause the edges of these skins to fuse together to create ‘containers’, like vesicles inside cells.

Jacinta: So we’re talking about the creation of membranes, impermeable or semi-permeable, that can provide a safe haven for, whatever…

Canto: Yes, and at the end of the video, other self-assembling systems, such as proto-RNA, are intriguingly mentioned, so we might want to find out what’s known about that.

Jacinta: I think we’ll be doing a lot of reading and posting on this subject. I find it really fascinating. These limited conditions I mentioned – limited on today’s Earth surface, but not so much four billion years ago, include a reducing atmosphere lacking in free oxygen, and high temperatures, as well as a gradient – both a temperature gradient and a sort of molecular or chemical gradient, from more reducing to more oxidising you might say. These conditions exist today at hydrothermal vents, where archaebacteria are found, so researchers are naturally very interested in such environments, and in trying to replicate or simulate them.

Canto: And they’re interested in the boundary between chemical and biological evolution, and reproduction. There are so many interesting lines of inquiry, with RNA, with cell membranes….

Jacinta: Researchers are particularly interested in alkaline thermal vents, where alkaline fluids well up from beneath  the sea floor at high temperatures. When this fluid hits the ocean water, minerals precipitate out and gradually create porous chimneys up to 60 metres high. They would’ve been rich in iron and sulphide, good for catalysing complex organic reactions, according to Le Page. The temperature gradients created would’ve favoured organic compounds and would’ve likely encouraged the building of complexity, so they may have been the sites in which the RNA world began, if it ever did.

a hydrothermal vent off the coast of New Zealand. Image from NOAA

a hydrothermal vent off the coast of New Zealand. Image from NOAA

Canto: So I think we should pursue this further. There are a lot of researchers homing in on this area, so I suspect further progress will be made soon.

Jacinta: Yes, we need to explore the exploitation of proton gradients, the development  of proton pumps and the production of ATP, leaky membranes and a whole lot of other fun stuff.

Canto: I think we need to get our heads around ATP and its production too, because that looks pretty damn complex.

Jacinta: Next time maybe.


Written by stewart henderson

July 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

Earth before life: more skeptico-romantic chitchat

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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