Saturday, March 28, 2009

Extraterrestrial life? Well, maybe, but I am not putting any money on it

Apparently, Alan Boss thinks that the Kepler mission will find planets crowded with life:
I'm a bit skeptical myself, much as I would like it to be true. A vacation in another solar system would be just the thing, but ...

The thing is, Boss cannot promise more than bacteria (or - this might be wiser - archaea?), and the difficulty is (this much should be obvious): Extraterrestrialists tend to agree that bacteria (or at least archaea) could travel on asteroids.

So they might all tend to look somewhat like this. Maybe the started on Earth ...

Somewhat disappointing for a person of my "Take me to your leader" generation.

Bill Dembski blogged on this here ("Cook the primeval soup for billions of years and voila!").

Here's the YouTube:

Science fiction: The latest fun reads from The Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy

Here's Colonel Spitfire and the 7th Brigade Part One and Colonel Spitfire and the 7th Brigade Part Two.

Jason Rennie, who does not look like the graphic here, writes,

This weeks installment of Sci Phi Journal is the first two part story and is written by Dr Chris Drohan. It is quite a weird story, but I also quite like it. I’d be interested to see what others think. Warning, there is a bit of reasonably graphic violence in this week's story.

Relearning Touch

This weeks installment of Sci Phi Journal is a story called Relearning Touch by up and coming author Melvin Cartegena, and it is read by podiobooks author Arlene Radasky.

You are invited to send feedback to or post in the comments section or on the forum.
Rennie makes these stories available as sound files as well as text files in various formats, for your listening or reading pleasure.

You can also discuss the stories on an online forum, if you wish. But if you are up all night, don't blame me. I only provided a link. You did all the rest.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Plasma theory: An alternative to the Big Bang?

A friend writes to say,
Timothy Eastman advocates plasma theory as the most promising alternative to a big bang cosmogony. A good book on this subject is by Eric Lerner Ph.D., a science journalist who titled it The Big Bang Never Happened. It's a fascinating study, because if the Big Bang is abandoned, some of the biggest stars in our firmament (Hubble, Lemaitre, Guth, Dirac, Hawking, Rees, and more) will have to start from scratch.
I think the Big Bang probably did happen, and I am not threatened by people who think otherwise, so I suggest reading what these people have to say.

Cosmology: If the universe has free will, where do I go to file a claim for damages?

In "The Strong Free Will Theorem," John H. Conway and Simon Kochen (Notices of the AMS, Volume 56, Number 2, February 2009) argue that elementary particles have free will:
Some readers may object to our use of the term “free will” to describe the indeterminism of particle responses. Our provocative ascription of free will to elementary particles is deliberate, since our theorem asserts that if experimenters have a certain freedom, then particles have exactly the same kind of freedom. Indeed, it is natural to suppose that this latter freedom is the ultimate explanation of our own.

[ ... ]

We introduced the term "semi-free" in [1] to indicate that it is really the pair of particles that jointly makes a free decision.
This explanation seems to overlook the specific role of the human mind in making what we think of as free decisions. Or is that the point?

Must electrons have free will because humans cannot have it unless electrons do?

Mathematicians must read and evaluate this paper. I can't.

Science: Bell's inequality the most profound fact ever discovered?

In response to this post ("Quantum theory: Finally facing up to its threat to special relativity"), friend Malcolm Chisholm writes to say:
I have been wondering when you would blog about Bell's inequality.

Bell's Inequality has its foundation in traditional logic (stuff developed by the scholastic guys of the Middle Ages). It states the following

The number of objects which have parameter A but not parameter B plus the number of objects which have parameter B but not parameter C is greater than or equal to the number of objects which have parameter A but not parameter C.

So for instance, if you have a class of students, then

The number of girls who are not blond plus the number of blond students who are under six feet tall must be greater or equal to the number of girls who are under six feet tall.

This will always be true. It is amazing. You can do it for all kind of populations that possess 3 attributes in the macroscopic world that we inhabit. And yet it can be applied to the domain of quantum entanglement to prove that everything in the universe is utterly connected at a very fundamental level. It really is the most profound fact ever discovered in science

Here is a link for
more (and it's Canadian!).
Well, he knows how I will love that!

If Bell's inequality is indeed the most profound fact ever discovered in science, it is interesting (at least to me), that Bell started out wanting to disprove it. He was a follower of Einstein and shared the Einsteinian suspicion of quantum physics.

I read his book and toward the end he finally concedes defeat, in the nicest possible way. I recall it as somewhat touching.

Here's more about Irish physicist John Bell, pictured above. Here are his collected works, Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Life came from dwarf planet Ceres?

Well, as Lee Pullen tells it at in "Dwarf planet may have survived early cataclysmic asteroid impacts", Joop Houtkooper from the University of Giessen argues that life could have originated on the dwarf planet Ceres:

"This idea came to me when I heard a talk about all the satellites in the solar system that consist of a large part of ice, much of which is probably still in a liquid state," says Houtkooper. "The total volume of all this water is something like 40 times greater than all the oceans on Earth."

This reminded Houtkooper of a theory about how life originated. Organisms may have first developed around hydrothermal vents, which lie at the bottom of oceans and spew hot chemicals. Many icy bodies in our solar system have rocky cores, so they may have had or still have hydrothermal vents. Houtkooper realized, "if life is not unique to the Earth and could exist elsewhere, then these icy bodies are the places where life may have originated."
If you can't place Ceres, don't worry. It's a dwarf planet (formerly thought of as an asteroid) somewhere in the asteroid belt.

This particular origin of life scenario sounds to me like publicity for the Dawn mission rather than a plausible scenario. The closest Ceres is likely to ever get to life is that Dawn flyby. But hey, it's not for me to break that guy's rice bowl. And surely not in these times.

Others have been more outspoken. Friend Rob Sheldon observes:

There are so many counter-factuals here, I hardly know where to begin.

1. Let's begin with "hydrogen peroxide" life. The theory starts with hydrogen peroxide being an antifreeze, and suggests that life built upon it could survive the cold. But then so is fuming sulfuric acid. This is hardly a place to start. And is contrary to all experience that says hydrogen peroxide is a potent oxidant and anti-biotic. I mean it destroys hydro-carbons extremely efficiently. The man who invented this theory, and amazingly got his paper published, was invited to the Astrobiology conference, where he was unable to answer any specific questions on his hypothesis. It is just another junk science PR.

2. Ceres is cold. There wont be any liquid water outside the orbit of Mars, simply because Mars average temperature is -60C. Ceres is colder by a factor 4.

3. Ceres has no atmosphere. So why would liquid water stay liquid? It would all boil off.

4. Ceres has no gravity to speak of. What would have ever held the atmosphere in place at any time in the past?

5. Ceres is made of stone, matching the stony meteorites observed on earth. Why would it have any water on it ever?

6. Ceres has no magnetic field. What is to keep the solar wind from removing any putative atmosphere it might never have had, just as solar wind denuded Mars?

7. Why would a cold, dry, stony, asteroid with no magnetic field be a better place for life to start than a wet, atmospheric, warm place like Earth?

He could go on, but it is only an e-mail, not a paper.

Another friend notes,

I think he is claiming the water is under an icy crust, like at Europa.

The rocky core might contain short-lived radionuclides that would heat the rock and produce hydrothermal vents. At least that is what planetologists surmise may be happening at Europa.

The whole hypothesis started when Houtkooper decided Earth was a dangerous place to live during the Late Heavy Bombardment (another one of their mythical tales of yore). Ceres would have been a smaller target for the life-prohibiting impacts.

These considerations don't make the hypothesis any less crazy.

I guess we would all like to believe that there is life on planets other than Earth. What we don't have is the evidence.

The skinny on Ceres, according to Solarviews,

With a diameter of about 975x909 km, Ceres is by far the largest and most massive (9.5 x1020 kg) body in the asteroid belt, and contains approximately a third of the mass (0.2 x1021 kg) of all the asteroids in the solar system. However, it is not the largest solar system object besides the Sun, planets, and their moons. Larger bodies have been found in the Kuiper belt including Pluto, 50000 Quaoar, 90482 Orcus, 90377 Sedna, and Eris. Recent observations have revealed that Ceres is nearly spherical in shape, unlike the irregular shapes of smaller bodies with less gravity. Having sufficient mass for self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces is one of the requirements for classification as a planet or dwarf planet.

[ ... ]

Ceres has a very primitive surface and like a young planet, contains water-bearing minerals, and possibly a very weak atmosphere and frost. Infrared observations show that the surface is warm with a possible maximum temperature of 235 K (-38°C). Ceres ranges in its visual brightness magnitude from +6.9 to +9.. At its brightest point it is just barely too dim to be seen with the naked eye.

[ ... ]

More will be know about Ceres when the Dawn spacecraft visits the dwarf planet in 2015. The Dawn mission is set for launch in September 2007. It will explore asteroid 4 Vesta in 2011 before arriving at Ceres.

Here's Ian O'Neill's view at Universe Today:

Although it is unknown whether or not Ceres has liquid water oceans, Joop Houtkooper believes that if it does, basic life forms may be thriving around hydrothermal vents in the hypothetical Ceres oceans. However, it is not clear how these proposed oceans can stay in a liquid state, as it seems unlikely there is significant tectonic activity (as it has very little mass to sustain a long-term molten core) and it is not orbiting a tidally disruptive body (like the icy moon Europa around Jupiter - extreme tidal forces maintain sub-surface oceans in a warm state). However, the idea remains as Ceres has a lower escape velocity than any other planetary body, meaning that microbes (hitch-hiking on fragments of Ceres) could have been kicked into space with more regularity than other planets, such as Mars.
He sees it as evidence for Panspermia (life was seeded from distant galaxies, in some versions by space aliens).

See also: Origin of life: Researchers claim life could have existed 4.4 billion years ago, before Earth cooled (and look at all the other scenarios there - only a small portion of the ones I have been collecting over the years).

(Note: The image shows Earth, the Moon and little Ceres.)

Dante's proton

Physicist Bob Estes draws my attention to his post, Dante's Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton:

Now I want to consider Dante’s attempt to convey through poetry the mysterious concept of the Holy Trinity, which in his faith was a certainty. On reading the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso recently, I came across an image that immediately reminded me of something else I’d thought of before: the conceptual similarities between our scientific description of the proton and the Triune God; only now a particular detail of Dante’s description of what he had seen made the similarity appear stronger than I had realized before.

Near the end of his time in Heaven (Paradiso) Dante was finally empowered to behold God, his ability to comprehend mysteries directly by sight alone having been enabled by Divine grace. Here is the Singleton translation of lines 115-120 of Canto XXXIII of Paradiso.

“Within the profound and shining subsistence of the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors and one magnitude; and one seemed reflected by the other, as rainbow by rainbow, and the third seemed fire breathed forth equally from the one and the other.”

This is far from being a clear picture, and Dante had said beforehand that description—even distinct memory—of what he had beheld was impossible. But I was struck this time by how much Dante’s word-painting resembles our own nebulous physical picture of the proton. The essentials of Dante’s vision were three equally sized circles (or spheres) of three colors and two distinguishable types, with some sort of continual interaction occurring among the circles. The image of the rainbows reflected in each other, with each circle yet of a different color, seems to my mind to be saying that the colors are changing, but in a co-ordinated way. I might add that Dante’s original description of God was as a point of blindingly bright white light.

Well, I have long been a Dante fan (illustrations here), and the illustration above is from an edition of the Paradiso.

(Note: This illustration aims at a different point from Dr. Estes', namely that all the blessed are linked as all the petals of a flower are linked to its stem. Thus questions of precedence in Paradise are not matters for envy. Wherever the petal is placed, it is linked to the stem that nourishes it.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Quantum theory: Finally facing up to its threat to special relativity?

In "Was Einstein Wrong?: A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity" (Scientific American, February 18, 2009), David Z Albert and Rivka Galchen discuss, with commendable frankness, the implications of the fact that the universe is non-local. You are there and I am here, and that's all there is to it, right? Well, not among elementary particles:
... according to quantum mechanics one can arrange a pair of particles so that they are precisely two feet apart and yet neither particle on its own has a definite position.
Furthermore, the standard approach to understanding quantum physics, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation - proclaimed by the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr early last century and handed down from professor to student for generations - insists that it is not that we do not know the facts about the individual particles' exact locations; it is that there simply aren't any such facts. To ask after the position of a single particle would be as meaningless as, say, asking after the marital status of the number five. The problem is not epistemological (about what we know) but ontological (about what is).

[ ... ]

But entanglement also appears to entail the deeply spooky and radically counterintuitive phenomenon called nonlocality - the possibility of physically affecting something without touching it or touching any series of entities reaching from here to there. Nonlocality implies that a fist in Des Moines can break a nose in Dallas without affecting any other physical thing (not a molecule of air, not an electron in a wire, not a twinkle of light) anywhere in the heartland.
Albert and Galchen focus on the problem quantum theory poses for special relativity, pointing out that the problem has long been evaded.

But it strikes me that quantum theory poses other problems as well.

One frequently encounters claims that action at a distance cannot happen when it might be more wisely described as statistically improbable (if you are somewhat largerthan an elementary particle). Statistical improbability is the basis on which lottery fraud is detected, for example. Few will believe that the lucky rabbit's foot did it.

The authors discuss the work of Irish physicist John Bell, who wanted to know whether non-local behaviour was real or only apparent. (One way of dealing with the conflict between special relativity and quantum theory has been to say, with Einstein, that quantum theory is incomplete.) However,
Bell seems to have been the first person to ask himself precisely what that question means. What could make genuine physical nonlocalities distinct from merely apparent ones? He reasoned that if any manifestly and completely local algorithm existed that made the same predictions for the outcomes of experiments as the quantum-mechanical algorithm does, then Einstein and Bohr would have been right to dismiss the nonlocalities in quantum mechanics as merely an artifact of that particular formalism. Conversely, if no algorithm could avoid nonlocalities, then they must be genuine physical phenomena. Bell then analyzed a specific entanglement scenario and concluded that no such local algorithm was mathematically possible.

And so the actual physical world is nonlocal. Period.
For the most part, work that demonstrated that fact was ignored, but Albert and Galchen argue that that is changing:
It took yet another 30 years after the publication of Bell's paper for physicists to finally look these issues squarely in the face. The first clear, sustained, logically flawless and uncompromisingly frank discussion of quantum nonlocality and relativity appeared in 1994, in a book with precisely that title by Tim Maudlin of Rutgers University. His work highlighted how the compatibility of nonlocality and special relativity was a much more subtle question than the traditional platitudes based on instantaneous messages would have us believe. Maudlin's work occurred against the backdrop of a new and profound shift in the intellectual environment.
One hopes that this shift will lead to open-minded examination instead of reassertions of truisms.

See also: Physics: A peek behind the veil of reality earns physicist Templeton Prize

Physics: A peek behind the veil of reality earns physicist Templeton Prize

In "Work on 'veiled reality' earns French physicist $1.4 million award", Brendan Conway
reports (Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 2009) that
"French physicist Bernard d' Espagnat won the 2009 Templeton Prize for his exploration of a reality that exists beyond observable phenomena."
The annually award prize is worth $1.4 million.

D'Espagnat, a professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Orsay,
wrote 20 books, countless papers and articles, and is best known for positing that matter everywhere is entangled in a "veiled reality" that exists beneath time, space, and energy.
The veiled reality is, of course, the entangled quantum world. It halfway reminds me of Francis Thompson's (1859-1907) poem:
O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
I think the ol' "Hound of Heaven" quarry had a purely spiritual world in mind, but perhaps the quantum world is a dim reflection of that. One thing it isn't is the crass materialism so often fronted as "science" in popular media.

In 1981-82,
A team of physicists under the French physicist Alain Aspect found that a change in polarization of a photon miles from a separate photon could be detected in both – and it would all happen faster than the speed of light. This violated a series of principles on the behavior of particles.

For instance, it challenged a basic premise of classical physics: Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That, at least, would be true if "travel" is the operative word.
Perhaps it isn't. The photons do not behave as if they are travelling faster than light. They behave as if there is no space between them. That is the famous "action at a distance" which is supposed to be impossible.

D'Espagnat doesn't claim he can unveil the veiled reality. He told Conway,
"It's not that science will explain the ultimate reality of certain objects or events," d'Espagnat said. "Rather, it is that the concepts we use, such as space, time, causality, and so on, ... are not applicable to ultimate reality."
Perhaps they are best described as the names we give to what we ourselves experience, so we can communicate with each other. But we must not demand that ultimate reality be what we discuss.

Note: The photo is of d'Espagnat.

See also:

Quantum mechanics and popular culture: Artist's kit offers chance to produce trillions of universes; Quantum theory and popular culture: Hit job on - of all people - Paul Dirac?;
Science fiction: Reflections on the nature of time; A theory of almost everything is the best we can do?; No escape from philosophy through equations; Can reincarnation save Schrodinger's cat? Could God live in an infinite sea of universes? It depends ... Quantum mechanics: Could cosmic microwave background show that it is wrong?

Origin of life: Researchers claim life could have existed 4.4 billion years ago, before Earth cooled.

Just when claims for Akilia, as evidence of life at 3.82 billion years ago have not held up, some researchers are even more ambitious.

As reported in New Scientist, Oleg Abramov and Steve Mojzsis of the University of Colorado in Boulder suggest that life could have existed on earth as early as 4.4 billion years ago:
... hardy life-forms could have survived if they were buried underground.
They were using a computer model and they assumed that these primeval life forms were extremophiles (simple, extremely hardy life forms).
... heat from the impacts would not have penetrated very deeply into the underlying solid crust. The layer heated to the sterilisation point, about 110 ̊C, would be only about 300 metres thick. High-temperature 'extremophile' microbes, like those in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, would have survived at greater depths, down to their limit of about 4 km.
Mojzsis argues that the Late Heavy Bombardment of Earth by asteroids "pruned, rather than frustrated, life."
That conclusion is reasonable, says Kevin Zahnle of NASA's Ames Research Center in California.
It certainly is, if you are looking for an argument that God created the first life on Earth. I wonder if either he or New Scientist have thought this one out ....

Abramov and Mojzsis will present their research to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas on March 23. Here's the .pdf.

In fairness, I must warn you that I consider New Scientist the National Enquirer of popular science magazines, and I am also wary of computer models in these situations. So I would just wait and see.

See also: Podcast: Chemist Charles Garner on chemical evolution; Why the Huygens probe - sadly - probably won't tell us much; Mars red but not dead?; NASA says, could be life on Mars, could be rocks; Origin of life: What can the Saturnian moon Titan tell us?; Origin of life: Alien origin taken seriously? Ghost of Francis Crick smiles wanly; Origin of life: A meatier theory? Or just another theory?; Origin of life: There must be life out there vs. there can't be life out there; Origin of life: Oldest Earth rocks may show signs of life, in which case ... ; Origin of life: Positive evidence of intelligent design?; Origin of life: But is being greedy enough?; Origin of life: Ah, that "just so happens" intermediate series of chemical steps; Why should the search for Darwin's "warm little puddle" be publicly funded?

(Note: The photo shows an extremophile, a simple, heat-loving organism.)

Origin of life: Doubt cast on oldest trace of life - not so old, new research says

As ScienceDaily tells it, (Feb. 28, 2009), a 1996 study argued that the small island called Akilia in southwest Greenland featured apparent evidence for life at 3.82 billion years ago.

That's certainly remarkable because, as the release explains,

The age of the Earth itself is around 4.5 billion years. If life complex enough to have the ability to fractionate carbon were to exist at 3.8 billion years, this would suggest life originated even earlier. The Hadean eon, 3.8 – 4.5 billion years ago, is thought to have been an environment extremely hostile to life. In addition to surviving this period, such early life would have had to contend with the ‘Late Heavy Bombardment’ between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago, when a large number of impact craters on the Moon suggest that both the Earth and the Moon underwent significant bombardment, probably by collision with asteroids.
The 1996 group
... argued that a five metre wide outcrop of rock on the island contained graphite with depleted levels of 13C. Carbon isotopes are frequently used to search for evidence of early life, because the lightest form of carbon, 12C (atomic weight 12), is preferred in biological processes as it requires less energy to be used by organisms. This results in heavier forms, such as 13C, being less concentrated, which might account for the depleted levels found in the rocks at Akilia.
Well yes, but ... it's not like finding something definite like stromatolites ...

They may have jumped swiftly to conclusions.

Anyway, that's what other researchers thought: Martin J. Whitehouse at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Nordic Center for Earth Evolution led a team that dated the graphite rocks themselves

and found no evidence that they are any older than c. 3.67 billion years.

"The rocks of Akilia provide no evidence that life existed at or before c. 3.82 Ga, or indeed before 3.67 Ga," they conclude.
Still pretty old, when you think of it ...

(Note: The photo is a view of Akilia's rocks from SpaceDaily.)

Journal reference:

1. M J Whitehouse, J S Myers & C M Fedo. The Akilia Controversy: field, structural and geochronological evidence questions interpretations of >3.8 Ga life in SW Greenland. Journal of the Geological Society, 2009; 166 (2): 335-348 DOI: 10.1144/0016-76492008-070
Adapted from materials provided by Geological Society of London, via AlphaGalileo.

See also:

Podcast: Chemist Charles Garner on chemical evolution

Why the Huygens probe - sadly - probably won't tell us much.

Mars red but not dead?

NASA says, could be life on Mars, could be rocks

Origin of life: What can the Saturnian moon Titan tell us?

Origin of life: Alien origin taken seriously? Ghost of Francis Crick smiles wanly

Origin of life: A meatier theory? Or just another theory?; Origin of life: There must be life out there vs. there can't be life out there; Origin of life: Oldest Earth rocks may show signs of life, in which case ... ; Origin of life: Positive evidence of intelligent design?; Origin of life: But is being greedy enough?; Origin of life: Ah, that "just so happens" intermediate series of chemical steps
Why should the search for Darwin's "warm little puddle" be publicly funded?

Multiverse: Comic vid mocks the paradoxes

If you have decided that a multiverse makes more sense than a designed universe, chances are, you will rethink after you see this:

"Time Travelling the Universe," produced by Rob Bryanton of What You Ought to Know.

See also:

Science fiction scores big - on the reference shelf?

Science fiction: Reflections on the nature of time

Physicist to pop science writer: In a hole? Stop digging

Materialism strikes back: We create the universe, not God?

Not just aliens: The multiverse gotta be out there too!

No escape from philosophy through equations?

Now, remind me again why we need this multiverse theory in the first place ...

Letter: Multiverses are nonsense but so is much contemporary physics

The universe has the hallmarks of design and what can anyone do about it?

Quantum mechanics and popular culture: Artist's lot offers chance to produce trillions of universes

No escape from philosophy through equations?

Big physics could end up putting physicists out of a job?

Will it be a disaster for physics if the Higgs boson is the ONLY thing the Large Hadron Collider finds?

And so forth (Other stuff I have written on the bleeping multiverse, for which It, (Inc.) is suing me ... But the writ was sent to an infinite number of wrong universes, so ... )

Monday, March 9, 2009

Who made God? And other questions that shouldn't really bother us if we live in a finite universe

Wintery Night answers a common misconception advanced by Richard Dawkins, "Who Made God?"

Dawkins's objection is confused because it assumes that an infinite regress is possible in a finite universe. We know that isn't true. As the old joke teaches, when you fall 100 metres, you really only need to worry about the last centimetre ... Somewhere in there the regress ends.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy: