NASA Scientists Speculate on Pre-Human Intelligent Life on Earth.

“Nor is it to be thought, that man is either oldest or the last of Earth’s masters.” That is a quote from the story ‘The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft. Several of Lovecraft’s stories deal with the idea that millions of years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs or even earlier, there were intelligent creatures living here on Earth the remains of whose existence the passage of time has practically erased. The image below shows Lovecraft’s ‘The great race of Yith’ who lived in the area we call Australia during the Jurassic period, at least in the story ‘The Shadow out of Time’ that is.

The Great Race of Yith (Credit: Astounding)

Could that be true? Human history only goes back some 6 thousand years but the Earth is over 4 billion years old. If a pre-human species had built a civilization 100 million years ago how would we know? Would there be any traces remaining that we could find as evidence?

Two scientists, Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adam Frank of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rochester University are trying to answer those questions. Together they’ve written a paper ‘The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geologic record.’ The Silurians by the way are from another science fiction franchise. Back in the 1970s the British TV series Doctor Who ran a series of episodes where the Doctor encounters an ancient race of intelligent lizards who have been in hibernation since the days of the dinosaurs but are now waking up! The image below shows one of the silurians from Doctor Who.

Silurians in Doctor Who (Credit: Doctor Who, BBC)

O’k so the whole idea is inspired by science fiction but so what, so have airplanes and submarines. Science fiction has predicted many things that turned out to be true so lets take a good look at the Silurian Hypothesis by considering how a future intelligent species might discover evidence of our existence!

Now at first you might think that the biggest things humanity has built would survive the best. The pyramids have lasted now for 4 thousand years and they are still in reasonably good shape. But how recognizable will they be in 4 million years, that’s a thousand times their present age. That’s lot of erosion and remember what’s left will just be a pile of limestone, no different than the bedrock its sitting on!

Great Pyramid of Kheops (Credit: Wikipedia)

O’k then what about something like the Golden Gate Bridge. Iron is stronger than limestone and you could never mistake a something like a bridge for a natural formation. That’s true, iron doesn’t erode, it rusts, faster than stone erodes and then it falls to pieces that can be dispersed by wind or water and just become a stray outcrop of iron ore.

Golden Gate Bridge (Credit: Bay City Guide)

Then let’s think bigger, how about entire cities like New York or Mumbai, in fact with sea level rise due to global warming both of those cities may soon be submerged into river deltas that would bury them in new rock formations. Couldn’t the fossil remains of New York City be found 10 million years from now?

Yes, it could, but you have to remember that New York City, indeed our entire industrialized society is only a little over 300 years old and that’s a very, very thin layer in the geologic record (the latest estimate for sediment deposition in the oceans is 1cm of thickness per 1000 years). Worse, our entire urban landscape today is only about 1% of the Earth’s total surface area making the odds of future, non-human geologists finding extensive evidence of our existence very low.

So do Schmidt and Frank think that there are any markers of our existence will survive for millions of years. Yes, but they’re not exactly flattering. For example, one is plastic. All of those bottles, cups and containers we just throw away are forming an unmistakable layer of artificial polyethylene and polypropylene covering much of the globe, making it both easier to spot and identify as a product of industrial civilization. The image below shows the plastic trash island in the Pacific Ocean, a huge amount artificial material that is now larger than any city.

Great Pacific Trash Heap (Credit: Sputnik International)

Other indicators that Schmidt and Frank consider are subtler. The carbon deposited by our burning of fossil fuels will have an unnatural ratio of the isotopes C13 to C12 and similar unnatural ratios will occur to the elements strontium (Sr87 to Sr86) and osmium (Os187 to Os188). It is humbling indeed to think that for all of our importance, as we believe, if we were to destroy ourselves today (Nuclear War or Global Warming or etc) a few million years from now there would be little if anything remaining to prove that we had ever existed!

So perhaps we are not the first intelligent creatures to live on Earth, perhaps one day we will find the evidence to prove this. H. P. Lovecraft and Doctor Who have open minds, maybe we should as well!

Paleontology News for April 2018.

There have been several interesting new discoveries about ancient life over the past month and I think I’ll start in a place that doesn’t usually spring to mind when you talk about paleontology. Scotland.

Now trace fossils, or ichnofossils as they’re technically known, are not the actual remains of ancient animals but rather the remains of their activity. Trace fossils can be anything from a burrow to fossilized feces, called a coprolite. The image below shows the track made by a trilobite as it crawled along the seafloor.

Trilobite Track (Credit: Trilobite.info)

The best known type of trace fossils are of course Dinosaur Footprints! Well a recent discovery on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides by paleontologists from the University of Edinburgh has brought to light more than fifty footprints from at least two different kinds of dinosaurs. The collection includes footprints from both a long necked, plant eating sauropod along with the two-legged meat-eating theropods. The image below shows one of the footprints for each of the sauropod and theropod.

Sauropod Footprint (Credit: New Your Times)
Theropod Footprint (Credit: The Guardian)

Back in the Jurassic period when the trace fossils were made the western islands of Scotland were a series of warm, shallow, soggy lagoons, a perfect place to leave footprints. By studying the footprints biologists can learn a great deal about the size, weight and even the gait of the animal that made them. The researchers estimate that the sauropod dinosaur measured two meters tall at its hip and was perhaps ten meters in length counting both its long neck and tail. They also believe that an early ancestor of the famous T-rex could have made the theropod tracks. The paleontologists hope to find more footprints on the Island and have even asked the local residents to keep a look out for them.

And speaking of carnivorous dinosaurs a new species has been identified from the Patagonia region of Argentina. Although the bones of Tratayenia rosalesi were unearthed a decade ago it is just recently that its discoverers, Doctors Domenica dos Santos and Ruben Juarez Valieri of the Museo de Ciencias Naturales in Argentina have identified it as a new species of a type of predatory dinosaur know as a Megaraptoridae.

Specimens of megaraptoridae have only been found so far in South America and Australia and they lived from the middle to late Cretaceous period. While Tratayenia rosalesi superficially resembles the famous T-rex (See image below) the skulls of megaraptoridae are longer and narrower and most importantly their arms are larger and much more powerful. (Remember how T-rex’s arms are such tiny, useless things.) I fact the megaraptoridae are probably more closely related to the velociraptor of the US southwest.

Tratayenia rosalesi (Credit: Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Only a few specimens of the megaraptoridae have been discovered so far and the researchers who found Tratayenia rosalesi hope it will tell us more about this interesting type of dinosaur.

My final story today doesn’t concern dinosaurs but rather is about their just as interesting contemporaries the Ichthyosaurs. The name ichthyosaur literally means ‘fish-lizard’ and indeed during the Triassic period a group of lizards returned to the sea and evolved into reptile versions of our modern porpoises and whales. Thousands of fossils of ichthyosaurs have been found and many different species have been described.

Now, the discovery of a bone from the lower jaw of a giant ichthyosaur from Gloucestershire in the UK has led a group of paleontologists to reevaluate other fossils from the same area that had been previously identified as ‘dinosaur vertebra’ but which may be other bones from a new species that could be the largest ichthyosaur yet discovered. The images below shows a typical, porpoise size ichthyosaur (by the way we do know that ichthyosaurs gave birth to live babies!) along with a complete fossil of one.

Artists representation of an Ichthyosaur (Credit: Gizmodo)
Ichthyosaur Fossil (Credit: The Fossil Forum)

The researchers, led by Dean R. Lomax of the University of Manchester, estimate that the animal to whom the fossil bones belonged might have been as long as 26 meters. If that estimate turns out to be accurate the ichthyosaur would have been approximately the same size as a blue whale, the largest animal alive today.

 

Space News for April 2018.

There have been several news items over the past month dealing with space exploration so let’s right get to it. I’ll start with the new kid on the block Rocket Lab.

I first mentioned Rocket Lab in my post of 10Feb18 when I discussed the second successful test launch of their Electron rocket. With two successes under their belt Rocket Lab is already planning their first actual paying launch placing two small satellites into orbit that are owned by Spire Global and GeoOptics. The mission is scheduled to take off on April 19th.

Now the Electron is a small rocket, see image below, with a total payload to orbit of only 150-250kg but Rocket Lab is aiming to grab a share of the growing market in miniaturized satellites. Presently small satellites may have to wait months or even years in order to ride up piggyback with some big satellite on an Atlas or Falcon rocket. Rocket Lab plans on using a quick turnaround launch schedule as a part of the company’s sales pitch to bring in business.

Rocket Lab’s Second Successful Launch of their Electron Rocket (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab launches their Electron rocket from their own launch pads in New Zealand into polar orbits at a cost of only about $5 million USD. If this third launch is successful Rocket Lab’s fourth mission, carrying 10 miniature satellites for NASA, could come in the next few months.

Also in my February post I mentioned that the Russian space agency was making plans to attach a new module to the International Space Station (ISS) as a luxury hotel in space. Well the idea of a space hotel is picking up steam as a company called Orion Span has announced plans for its own space hotel hopefully as early as late 2021.

The station/orbiting hotel concept is called Aurora and the planned cost of a twelve-day stay is ‘only’ $9.5 million USD. The initial Aurora will accommodate four paying guests along with two astronaut crewmembers in a pressurized chamber of 160 cubic meters volume. The images below show what the Aurora will look like inside and outside.

Proposed Aurora Space Hotel (Credit: Sia Magazine)
Aurora Outside (Credit: Space.com)

Just how customers will get to the Aurora hasn’t been finalized yet but Orion Span will soon have a choice of companies capable of providing the ride. Space X, Boeing and Blue Origin are all planning to launch a crewed space capsule either this year or next and the possibility of using these commercial, manned space vehicles to maintain a space hotel has often been discussed.

In time Orion Span intends to add additional units to Aurora and one day hopes to even sell permanent space on Aurora as a kind of orbiting condo. The image below shows what Aurora could one day look like.

Aurora Final Configuration (Credit: You Tube)

If you’d like to learn more about Orion Span’s plans for their Aurora space hotel click on the link below to be taken to their site.

https://www.orionspan.com/

Speaking of Boeing’s Starliner manned space capsule; the first, unmanned launch is now only months away with the second manned mission is less than a year. And now there’s a possibility that NASA might want Boeing to add a third astronaut to the second mission and turn the second test flight into a full mission to the ISS.

You see NASA has only scheduled to fly astronauts to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft through the end of next year so the space agency has to get its commercial space program up and running before then. The timing is tight, especially because both Boeing and Space X have seen several delays in their original schedule. The deal isn’t done yet; NASA still has to perform a technical evaluation of switching from a test flight with a visit to the ISS to a full six month mission. The image below is an artist’s representation of the Boeing Starliner docking at the ISS, something we’ll hopefully see for real in less than a year.

Boeing Starliner docking at the ISS (Credit: Youtube)

Finally before I go, did you see it? Did you see China’s Tiangong-1 space station as it fell back to Earth? Well either did anyone else. After all of the hysteria by the chicken littles out there the Tiangong-1 ended up falling harmlessly into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and apparently nobody even got to see anything. In fact in all of the history of space exploration on one has even been harmed by debris falling from space and very few people have ever even seen anything fall from space! Only goes to show just how big our planet really is!

 

 

 

 

The CUORE Experiment in Italy releases its first Results. The Search for New Physics.

Perhaps the most sophisticated, sensitive experiment even attempted is the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events or CUORE now underway at Laboratori Nazionali del San Grasso in Italy. To order to give you an idea of just what lengths the scientists have gone to in order to achieve such sensitivity the researchers boast of having build “the coldest cubic meter of space in the known Universe!”

And they’re going to need it; the CUORE team are looking for subatomic events so rare that they happen once or twice a year in 100 kilograms worth of atoms. The specific reaction that the CUORE team is studying is the extremely rare double beta decay, they’re trying to see whether or not two neutrinos are produced, as the Standard Model of Elementary Particles requires.

Let me take a step back and describe single beta decay first. Back in the early 20th century physicists found three distinct types of radiation, alpha, beta and gamma rays. Beta radiation was found to occur when a neutron broke up into a proton and an electron, the electron is the high energy beta particle. Problem was that some of the energy of the neutron went missing, an apparent violation of the law of conservation of energy. It was the physicist Wolfgang Pauli who suggested in 1935 that there was another particle as well, a neutral particle with little or no mass that would be very difficult to detect. The image below shows a Feynman diagram of the beta decay process (The W particle in the middle is the boson that carries the weak nuclear interaction). Detecting neutrinos turned out to be so difficult that in fact it took experimentalists 25 years to finally prove that the neutrino was real.

Feynman Diagram of single Beta decay

Single neutrino decay happens quite often, in fact a free neutron, one not in a nucleus will undergo beta decay with a half life of about 12 minutes. (See my post of 4Mar2017). Double beta decay, where two neutrons simultaneously decay to two protons and two electrons, is far rarer and was only proven to exist in 1987.

Now it’s been suggested that double beta decay might not produce any neutrinos! This would require the neutrino to be its own anti-particle so that they would annihilate each other. Such a reaction would be a violation of conservation of lepton number, a key element of the Standard Model of elementary particles. So physicists are very interested in the possibility of neutrinoless double beta decay. The image below shows the Feynman diagrams for double beta decay with and without neutrinos.

Double Beta decay, left with neutrinos, right neutrinoless

There are several reasons why physicists are so interested in neutrinoless double beta decay. One is that it would indicate a possible channel to explain why there is more matter in our Universe than anti-matter while at the same time it could also enable us to measure the tiny rest mass of the neutrino.

Now as I said double beta decay is very rare. You need to observe all of the atoms in kilograms of a material that is capable of double beta decay in order to see one or two a year! And then you have to measure the total energy of both of the electrons to make certain that they got it all, with no neutrinos the electrons get all of the kinetic energy generated.

The experiment the CUORE team has developed uses a device known as a bolometer that will actually measure the heat generated by a single subatomic event. There are 988 total bolometers composed of crystals made from the chemical TeO2 where Te is the element whose isotope Te130 is capable of double beta decay. It is in order to measure the tiny amount of energy released by the double beta decay that all 988 bolometers have to be maintained at the unbelievably cold temperature of 10mK (That’s 10 thousandths of a degree above absolute zero Kelvin), the coldest place in the known Universe. The image below shows the detector ‘towers’ ready to be installed in the cold chamber.

CUORE Detectors before installation (Credit: Meteoweb.eu)

Before I forget I need to mention that in order to prevent radiation from outside, primarily cosmic rays, interfering with the measurements the detectors are first wrapped in lead shielding and then the entire experiment is buried deep underground.

The CUORE collaboration, which consists of over 150 scientists from around the world, have just released the results of the first year of the experiment and so far it looks like the standard model still stands. The CUORE team puts the half-life of a neutrinoless double beta decay at greater than 1.5 x 10^25 years. That doesn’t mean that neutrinoless double beta decay never happens, you can never prove something never happens, it means on average you’ll have to wait 15,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years to see a nucleus of Te130 produce a neutrinoless double beta decay.

The CUORE experiment will continue to gather data, looking not only for neutrinoless double beta decay but also for possible signs of minute interactions between the material in the detectors and hypothetical Dark Matter particles called ‘WIMPS’, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles.

Another thing I like about CUORE however is that it is a search for new physics at low energy; it is an experiment that doesn’t need the huge particle accelerators like those at CERN or Fermilab. I hope CUORE does find new physics of some kind and I’ll let you know when it does.

 

 

Cultured Meat, Grown in the Lab. Are You Ready to Try Some?

There’s been a lot of work going on in labouratories around the World the past few years to develop the engineering techniques for producing various types of edible meats without the need for actual animals! This research has been referred to by various names either cultured meat, lab grown meat or even test tube meat. In fact it was back in August 2013 that Doctor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands produced the first artificial hamburger patty. At a demonstration in London the hamburger patty was cooked by chef Richard McGeown of Couch’s Great House restaurant and eaten by the food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald. The image below shows Doctor Post with his hamburger.

Doctor Mark Post with his manufactured Hamburger (Credit: RTE Ireland)

So how did the scientists do it, well much of the technology used was developed in the effort to study stem cells, the growth cells in embryos and fetuses that become muscle cells, skin cells or the cells of various organs. This is a branch of biotechnology known as tissue engineering. The image below illustrates the process.

Cultured Meat Production (Credit: Nanalyze)

In practice what the scientists have done is to take a few hundred adult muscle stem cells, known as a myoblast, from an animal, these are referred to as starter cells. The starter cells are then placed in a nutrient rich environment and given a protein that stimulates growth.

Once you have your cells growing you have to provide an organized structure to the developing tissue to make certain that all the cells have access to the nutrients. This prevents clumping which could leave some cells starving. Technically this structure is known as a scaffold and should be both edible, so that it doesn’t have to be removed, as well as flexible to facilitate cell growth. The most often used material is a collagen, that is a protein ladder or spiral structure formed into a three dimensional matrix to which the growing cells attach.

Once you get the whole process going there’s no theoretical limit to how much muscle can be produced from just a few cells. However many practical problems remain to be solved before large-scale commercial production can begin.

Nevertheless there are a dozen or more startup companies working on just that, commercialization of edible meat grown under labouratory conditions. And it’s not just beef, in the last few years chicken, duck, turkey, pork, fish and even frog, as in frog’s legs anyone, have been grown in the labouratory in sufficient quantity to provide a quick bite at a news conference. The images below show some of the different types of meat produced in the lab.

Cultured Chicken Deep Fried (Credit: Tree Hugger)
A Closer look at Cultured Meat (Credit: NewHarvest.Org)

But why should we even want to manufacture meat as if it were steel or TV sets when we have always gotten our meat from farmers and ranchers, why should we change? In fact polls indicate that as much as 80% of people have no desire to ever try test tube meat, so it may be a while before you see cultured meat for sale in your supermarket.

Well there are two main reasons to move to large-scale production of cultured meat, efficiency and morality. Lets talk about efficiency first.

Even with today’s advanced chicken farms, pig farms and cattle ranches meat production is very inefficient and time consuming. As a rule of thumb the production of one kilo of meat requires 20 kilos of vegetable feed. Then there are the wasted parts of the animal carcass such as bones and chicken feathers. The inefficiency of meat production is the chief reason why even today meat is a rarity in the diets of half the world’s population.

The moral advantages of cultured meat are twofold. Firstly we just simply will no longer have to kill millions of animals for our food. A few cow cells, pig cells, chicken cells and etc can be grown indefinitely so the stain of the slaughterhouse could become a thing of the past. Its no wonder then that animal rights groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are actually funding some of the research into cultured meat.

Environmental groups are also hopeful that cultured meat can reduce the impact of human civilization on our planet. The idea is that a one hectare meat factory can produce as much food as a 20 hectare farm or ranch perhaps even allowing some of the land now being used for agriculture to be returned to its natural, wild state.

Cultured meat is a technology still in its infancy. Whether or not it lives up to the promise many people have for it or not only time will tell. By the way, I’d certainly be willing to give a lab grown hamburger a chance!

 

 

 

 

New Archaeological Evidence of Pre-Columbian Civilization in the Southern Amazon Basin.

As little as forty years ago it was thought that civilization in the Americas before the time of Columbus was limited to the Mexico/Central America region (The Maya and Aztecs) and the Andean Mountains of Peru (Inca). We’ve learned a lot since then. In North America archaeologists have re-discovered the civilizations of the canyon dwellers of the southwest known as the Anasazi as well as the Mound Builders of the Mississippi and Ohio River basins. Numerous sites belonging to these cultures have been extensively studied revealing large population centers with a high material culture. The images below show some of the remaining structures build by these lost cultures.

Mississippi Mount Builders, Cahokia (Credit: Pinterest)
Clift Dwellings of the Anasiazi (Credit: Ancient Origins)

Today however I’d like to talk about some of the recent discoveries that are being made in uncovering the lost civilization that existed along the many branches of the Amazon River between 1200-1550 CE. Today the Amazon is best known as a region of dense, uninhabited, almost untouched jungle with only a few Stone Age tribes scattered through it. The image below shows the typical view of the Amazon rainforest.

Everybody’s idea of the Amazon (Credit: Amazon Trips)

The earliest descriptions we have of the Amazon region comes from the journal of a Dominican priest named Gaspar de Carvajal written in the years 1541-42 CE. De Carvajal had joined a band of conquistadors led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of Francisco Pizarro the conqueror of the Inca. Pizarro was of course looking for the fabled city of El Dorado, the city of gold. (Hey his brother had found one so I guess Gonzalo thought that he could as well.)

According to de Carvajal what the conquistadors found as that traveled down the world’s greatest river were countless villages and even major cities crowding along the riverbanks. In his journal de Carvajal describes the people of the Amazon as prosperous and well fed, although possessing little of the gold the conquistadors sought.

Subsequent explorers found next to nothing of the peoples that de Carvajal had claimed to have seen. The Amazon that they found was a jungle largely untouched by human beings. Historians dismissed de Carvajal for making up most of his tales. That there was no Amazon civilization they were certain.

We now know that what must have happened was that de Carvajal and the other Spaniards had brought with them diseases that the native population had no immunity to, mainly measles and smallpox. These diseases are deadly enough to the Europeans who had lived with them for centuries but to the native people the death toll was catastrophic.

Within twenty years of de Carvajal’s journey the cities and villages he had written about no longer existed, an estimated 90% of the people who had lived in them were dead. Without human beings to clear and cultivate the land the vegetation took over, concealing what remained of all of those cities and villages. Later explorers saw only the jungle, the civilization of the Amazon was truly lost.

Until now that is. Over the last twenty years Archaeologists studying the Amazon region have found an enormous amount of evidence backing up the claims of de Carvajal. Earthen mounds and ditched enclosures, the remains of what were once villages and towns have been found almost everywhere they are looked for. The image below shows an artist’s reconstruction of one of the villages / cities discovered in the Amazon flood plain.

Reconstructed Amazon Village (Credit: Nature)

Now Archaeologists are also beginning to discover the remains of human habitation in parts of the Amazon basin that de Carvajal never came anywhere near. In a recent paper scientists have described dozens of geometric earthworks along with other signs of large scale human occupation south of the Amazon floodplain, a region known as the Southern Rim of the Amazon (SRA).

According to lead author Jonas De Souza of the University of Exeter in the UK, “The more we survey the more we realize that different parts of the (Amazon) basin were more settled than we thought.”

Making extensive use of satellite and aerial images De Souza and his colleagues have found 81 Pre-Columbian sites in the SRA ranging in size from small hamlets to large fortified sites. The archaeologists have also visited 24 of the sites to verify that they are Pre-Columbian and are currently excavating one site. The images below show some of the aerial images of the sites.

Ancient Amazon Village? (Credit: Guardian)
Amazon Earthworks (Credit: Guardian)

Based on the evidence gather so far the sites studied in the SRA area are similar to, but different enough from the sites closer to the Amazon itself to indicate that the new sites may belong to a separate and hitherto completely unknown culture.

All too often in the course of human history people and cultures have disappeared leaving no trace of their ever having existed. Today archaeology is recovering some of the stories of these lost civilizations.