Why search for life in outer space?

dawn-at-ceres

Figure 1: A gamma ray and neutron detector on board Dawn was used to determine the elements in the subsurface of the dwarf planet. It found water on the dwarf planet Ceres, located in the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. Ceres. Credit: LA Times

In a recent LA Times news item it was reported that NASA’s Dawn spacecraft mission found life’s building blocks on the dwarf planet Ceres.1  However, the reality is that all that was found are possibly some biochemical molecules, molecules that are pre-cursor molecules to form the more complex chemistry in living cells.

Organic molecules are carbon based molecules and the chemistry of life is a special subset of those but from the spacecraft data no biochemical molecules were identified.  Those would be molecules like carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids.

The news item reports that this new spacecraft

… using its Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer instrument, … has spotted organics lying on the surface.1

That is the only real fact in the report, that organic molecules of some sort have been found on Ceres.

While the scientists aren’t sure exactly what the compounds are, the fingerprint is characteristic of material containing carbon-hydrogen bonds, and may include components like methyl and methylene.(emphasis added)

But they don’t even know what the molecules are, and the research is hyped up in hope that scientists may find life–even just microbes–living on worlds other than our own.

We can now add this dwarf planet Ceres to other ‘space rocks’ that have been so hyped in the past few years in the quest to find life out there in the solar system. Examples are Mars,2 Enceladus (the sixth-largest moon of Saturn),3 Titan (the largest moon of Saturn),4,5 Europa (one of the 4 Galilean moons of Jupiter),6 and the asteroids.7 Continue reading

The movie “Arrival”

arrivalposterRecently I watched the 2016 movie “Arrival“. It depicts the story of the arrival, at twelve separate locations around the earth, of twelve mysterious spacecraft. The key character, a linguistics professor, Louise Banks is seconded by the military to interpret the language of alien visitors.

The movie is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998).1 It was directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

Here is the trailer from Paramount Pictures:

The 7-foot tall aliens, heptapods,2 which look something like octopuses with 7 tentacles and a human hand, are depicted as enormously technologically advanced on humans. Their 7 tentacles each have 7 tendrils, out of the centre of which they eject an ink-like substance. Remember octopuses produce a black ink like substance. (And you might ask why all the 7’s. It’s science fiction after all.)

Alien language and perception of time

These alien heptapods use a vocal communication that is unpronounceable by humans (classified as Heptapod A), but, as professor Banks discovers, they also have a written script (Heptapod B), which can be dissected and interpreted. But strangely enough the vocal and writing components are unrelated, in the sense that Heptapod B does not represent sound. Heptapod B is written with the ink-like substance they eject from their tendrils and they are able to manipulate it in space to form the characters of Heptapod B.

We are told that a deep understanding of their language can induce a non-linear perception of time in those who learn it. This idea is where it really gets crazy.arrival_2016_heptapod_and_doctor

The story introduces the concept of when one learns a new language, one also learns to think the same way that the producers of that language think–the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–because one’s brain is rewired to think that way.

Then, with this new perception of time, time-like loops are introduced (really time paradoxes) where, because the professor experiences (in her thoughts or perception) the future, she gets knowledge (of future events) that she then uses to determine the future events she perceives.

The concept here of our perception of time does have some basis in real physics. It is still an open question of why do we remember the past and not the future. That might sound strange to some but most of the laws of physics are time reversible. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, where entropy never decreases in a closed system, but generally increases, is an exception and the primary reason we always perceive the forward arrow of time.

However, for particle physics (including electromagnetism) there is no preference to which way time flows. Physicists call this a symmetry. And in this movie this is highlighted by the name, Hannah, of the yet to be conceived daughter of Prof. Banks, about whom she experiences future memories. The word “HannaH” is a palindrome–a sequence of letters or characters that can be read either forward or backward and produce the same word.

arrival-movie-symbolsHeptapod B is written in a circular way and is palindromic. At least that is what I understood it was intended to be. Looking at one of the alien sentences (on the right) it does not seem to have reversible symmetry, in the structures that form their words (spiky bits that stick out), though, of course, a circle is not linear in one sense as it is represented on a plane.

Of course, this story is just that, a story and total fiction. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining one.  Continue reading

Materialists believe in dark unseen life

Awhile ago I wrote about Lisa Randall, Professor of Science at Harvard University, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who proposed that the dinosaurs went extinct due to the actions of unseen dark matter.¹ There now appears again an article in the popular science magazine Nautilus with the title “Does Dark Matter Harbor Life? An invisible civilization could be living right under your nose.”² It would appear to be excerpted from Randall’s book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. In the article Randall asserts that we may, in fact, be kind of racist against dark matter, well, at least, we are biased towards ordinary matter, where, she claims, in fact, that dark matter is the stuff that holds galaxies together so it is really important stuff.

The common assumption is that dark matter is the “glue” that holds together galaxies and galaxy clusters, but resides only in amorphous clouds around them. But what if this assumption isn’t true and it is only our prejudice—and ignorance, which is after all the root of most prejudice—that led us down this potentially misleading path?

People in foreign relations make a mistake when they lump together another country’s cultures—assuming they don’t exhibit the diversity of societies that is evident in our own. Just as a good negotiator doesn’t assume the primacy of one sector of society over another when attempting to place the different cultures on equal footing, an unbiased scientist shouldn’t assume that dark matter isn’t as interesting as ordinary matter and necessarily lacks a diversity of matter similar to our own.² (emphasis added)

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Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino from Nautilus article, representing (I assume) dark life.

She goes on to promote the possibility of dark life, invisible creatures living on dark planets around dark stars in dark parts of galaxies. She suggests dark matter may be much more than just amorphous matter, but have a rich life with dark forces and therefore this implies a dark invisible universe of creatures we cannot detect. Sure sounds like good material for a sci-fi story.

Partially interacting dark matter certainly makes for fertile ground for speculation and encourages us to consider possibilities we otherwise might not have. Writers and moviegoers especially would find a scenario with such additional forces and consequences in the dark sector very enticing. They would probably even suggest dark life coexisting with our own. In this scenario, rather than the usual animated creatures fighting other animated creatures or on rare occasions cooperating with them, armies of dark matter creatures could march across the screen and monopolize all the action.

But this wouldn’t be too interesting to watch. The problem is that cinematographers would have trouble filming this dark life, which is of course invisible to us—and to them. Even if the dark creatures were there (and maybe they have been) we wouldn’t know. You have no idea how cute dark matter life could be—and you almost certainly never will.

Though it’s entertaining to speculate about the possibility of dark life, it’s a lot harder to figure out a way to observe it—or even detect its existence in more indirect ways. It’s challenging enough to find life made up of the same stuff we are, though extrasolar planet searches are under way and trying hard. But the evidence for dark life, should it exist, would be far more elusive even than the evidence for ordinary life in distant realms.

Dark objects or dark life could be very close—but if the dark stuff’s net mass isn’t very big, we wouldn’t have any way to know. Even with the most current technology, or any technology that we can currently imagine, only some very specialized possibilities might be testable. “Shadow life,” exciting as that would be, won’t necessarily have any visible consequences that we would notice, making it a tantalizing possibility but one immune to observations. In fairness, dark life is a tall order. Science-fiction writers may have no problem creating it, but the universe has a lot more obstacles to overcome. Out of all possible chemistries, it’s very unclear how many could sustain life, and even among those that could, we don’t know the type of environments that would be necessary.² (emphasis added)

Continue reading

Warp drive

Gene Roddenberry’s classic sci-fi drama, Star Trek, made famous the warp drive, a theoretical concept whereby a spacecraft travels Faster Than Light (FTL).

I was once told by a ‘trekky’ enthusiast that the warp speeds they describe on the television shows and in the movies, may be calculated as follows. Warp factor w, from the original Star Trek series, means that the spacecraft travels at w3 times the canonical speed of light (c @ 300,000 km/s or 186,000 miles/s).3 Therefore warp factor w = 7 means the spacecraft travels at 73 = 343 c.  It would be unusual to hear that the starship the USS Enterprise (see Fig. 1) had exceeded warp factor 9, which is about 729 times the speed of light.

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Figure 1: The starship the USS Enterprise, from the original Star Trek TV series, which could travel faster than light by engaging its warp drive.

To travel even around the local neighbourhood of our galaxy warp factor 9 (from the original TV series) just won’t do it. The nearest star to our solar system is about 4 light-years away. So travelling at warp 9, you would take 2 days to get there. Not too bad but what about to other star systems?

To travel 50 light-years, which is a very small distance in the Galaxy and which includes very few stars—only 64 Sun-like stars—would take you 25 days at this speed. Within a distance of 100 light-years from Earth there are known to be only 512 stars of the same spectral class as our sun1 and very few of those might be candidates for a solar system that could potentially support life.2 So it would be much better to be able to travel 100 light-years quite quickly but that would take you 50 days, nearly 2 months. However in the TV shows they often arrive in just a matter of hours. Continue reading

Did aliens hack the Voyager 2 space probe in 2010?

I don’t know how I missed this news item back from 2010! Then NASA reported a single bit-flip error occurred in Voyager 2’s software code used to communicate with Earth. That sounds pretty mundane in today’s IT savvy world where we are all used to software errors and corrupt code.

Artist's concept of Voyager in flight.

Artist’s concept of Voyager 2 in flight.

But sometime the corruption of code is due to deliberate interference. Hackers hack into computers everyday for fun or more nefarious reasons. In this instance several scientists suggested that the on-board computer was hacked by an alien race (from another star system) who were trying to communicate with us.

But note the Voyager 2 space craft at that time was nearly about to cross over into what we would call interstellar space. It was about to leave the solar system in 2010 at a distance of 90 times the distance between the sun and the earth. That is about 8.6 billion miles or about 14 billion kms. That means it takes a light signal nearly 13 hours, travelling at nearly 300,000 km/s, to travel from the space probe to Earth. For NASA to send and receive a signal that would take twice that time, nearly 26 hours. It is certainly at a distance where one can easily discount any Earth based hacker.

The following is excerpted an online news item from 6 years ago and is typical of the several available.1

NASA space probe Voyager 2, which left earth 33 years ago, may have been hijacked by aliens who are now trying to make contact with earth according to a German academic.

The craft, which is 8.6 billion miles from earth on the very edge of the solar system, has been sending back data ever since it was launched – until last month when it briefly stopped transmitting before starting to send strange messages that scientists cannot decipher.

German academic Hartwig Hausdorf believes the change could be down to extraterrestrials. He says that because the rest of the spacecraft is still working normally there may be more to the cryptic messages than meets the eye.

“It seems almost as if someone has reprogrammed or hijacked the probe,” he told German newspaper Bild. “Thus perhaps we do not yet know the whole truth.”

NASA was much more circumspect stating that they believe it was due to this one corrupt bit of code. That may have occurred due to radiation in space or impact by a highly energetic particle which flipped the bit. Continue reading

The problem with science is that so much of it simply isn’t

This is the opening sentence in an article titled “Scientific Regress” by William Wilson.The article is about science and the repeatability of scientific results in the published literature. (Indented paragraphs are quoted from this article, unless otherwise referenced.)

Scientific claims rest on the idea that experiments repeated under nearly identical conditions ought to yield approximately the same results, but until very recently, very few had bothered to check in a systematic way whether this was actually the case.

A group called Open Science Collaboration (OSC) tried to check claims by replicating results of certain science experiments. They checked one hundred published psychology experiments and found 65% failed to show any statistical significance on replication, and many of the remainder showed greatly reduced effect sizes. The OSC group even used original experimental materials, and sometimes performed the experiments under the guidance of the original researchers.

They found though that the problem was not just in the area of psychology, which I don’t even consider hard science anyway.

In 2011 a group of researchers at Bayer decided looked at 67 recent drug discovery projects based on preclinical cancer biology research. They found that in more than 75% of cases they could not replicate the published data. And these data were published in reputable journals including Science, Nature, and Cell.nature

The author suggested that the reason many new drugs were ineffective may possibly be because the research on which they were based was invalid.  This was considered the reason for the failure–the original findings are false.

Then there is the issue of fraud.

In a survey of two thousand research psychologists conducted in 2011, over half of those surveyed admitted outright to selectively reporting those experiments which gave the result they were after.

This involves experimenter bias. The success of a research program might be all that is required for success in the next funding round. So, what might start as just a character weakness in the experimenter ends up being outright fraud. The article states that many have no qualms in

… reporting that a result was statistically significant when it was not, or deciding between two different data analysis techniques after looking at the results of each and choosing the more favorable.

Continue reading

Big bang birthed from Cosmic Egg

–a pagan story of origins

In 1927 Roman Catholic priest Georges Lemaîtredeveloped his theory of the expanding Universe and published a paper describing his theory,2 which envisioned a universe with all galaxies moving away from all other galaxies. At that time the Universe was considered to be static. Lemaître solved the gravitational field equations of Einstein’s General Relativity theory for the Universe, taking into account the work of Alexander Friedmann, who published in 1922 (but died in 1925). From that he concluded the Universe must be expanding or contracting.  Nowadays that formalism for the family of models they produced is called the Friedmann-Lemaître solution describing the big bang universe. From that Lemaître developed the idea of the Universe having a unique origin at some past moment of time.

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Figure 1: Belgian priest Reverence Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (17 July 1894 – 20 June 1966) was an astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1931, Lemaître described the Universe as exploding from a ‘Cosmic Egg’, which was like a giant atom, with all the mass of the Universe. His idea was that the myriads of galaxies of stars in the Universe formed out of and expanded out from that initial state of the ‘Cosmic Egg’.  Lemaître imagined that the Universe started from a fluctuation of his first quantum of energy (his ‘Cosmic Egg’) when space and time were not yet defined.3

You might think that Lemaitre looked to the Scriptures, to Genesis, for a clue here (for an origin in time) but his reasoning was man’s not God’s. His assumption was a finite unbounded universe, having no centre nor edge–that is, there are no preferred points in his universe. And by winding time backward one could imagine that all points would come to a common point at a finite period of time in the past. Thus he reasoned that this must mean that the Universe had a beginning in time—hence a creation at a moment in the past. Apparently Sir Arthur Eddington, a Quaker, found Lemaître’s idea of creation philosophically repugnant, as there was a prior belief among cosmologists at the time of the Universe eternally existing.

From his quantum of energy—which he called a “primeval atom”4—his theory predicted that this was the material from which all matter—the stars and galaxies—was derived. He predicted that some form of background radiation, even cosmic rays, would be found, the leftovers of that initial explosion of matter into all the Universe.5 That is not accepted by big bang astronomers today.

Eventually from his theory the origin of the Universe was formalised not from a ‘Cosmic Egg’ but from a singularity of zero dimensions with the Universe smoothly expanding out of it, and beginning in an intensely hot fireball stage. It wasn’t until 1949 that this was, in derision, called a ‘big bang’ on a BBC radio program by Sir Fred Hoyle, while discussing what his opponents believed. Hoyle was very much against any idea of a big bang universe, as he firmly believed in the steady state model.

Now the story so far, many people know. But do they know that Lemaître was cheated out of his claim to fame?6 Continue reading