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:

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:

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.

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:

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.





Book Review: ‘Apes and Angels’ by Ben Bova

Ben Bova (Credit: Ed Chappell)

‘Apes and Angels’ is the third novel in a series by the well known Science Fiction author Ben Bova. Beginning with ‘New Earth’ the saga continued with ‘Death Wave’ (Which I reviewed in my post of 31May2017) and will continue after ‘Apes and Angels’ with a fourth novel ‘Survival’.

Apes and Angels Cover (Credit: Goodreads)

Let me give you a bit of the background leading up to ‘Apes and Angels’. In ‘New Earth’ a starship voyages to the star Sirius where the crew discovers a planet inhabited by both super-Intelligent machines called Predecessors and human beings whom the machines had brought to Sirius. The machines inform the crew that the black hole at the center of our galaxy has erupted in a powerful burst of gamma rays that will kill all unprotected life in the galaxy. The machines give the starship’s crew the technology necessary to protect Earth in exchange for a promise that humanity will travel to other star systems in our section of the galaxy in order to protect the more primitive civilizations inhabiting those stars.

In “Death Wave’ the starship crew has returned to Earth and informed the government of the approaching gamma radiation. However, since the deadly radiation won’t reach our solar system for another two thousand years the politicians ruling Earth are in no hurry to protect the planet and as far as saving alien cultures is concerned, well let’s just say they’re not interested at all. The spacefarers have to directly convince the people of Earth in order to force the politicians to begin the massive effort to build starships to journey to the other stars threatened by the gamma radiation.

‘Apes and Angels’ then begins with the starship Odysseus arriving at the star Mithra, named for the ancient Persian man-god. Mithra possesses two planets that contain life. Mithra-alpha, closest to the star, has octopus like creatures that make noises to each other and who may be intelligent. Planet gamma has two-armed, two-legged creatures that live in primitive villages who definitely are intelligent.

The expedition to Mithra is led by Adrian Kosoff, a scientist turned bureaucrat who wants to run the mission like a military unit, everybody knowing and doing their job and following, if not orders at least instructions. Kosoff is ambitious and by being the man in charge hopes to get credit for the mission’s success and discoveries.

Kosoff’s nemesis is Brad MacDaniels, a young anthropologist who follows his intuition and likes to break the rules. Much of the plot of ‘Apes and Angels’ revolves around the conflict; non-violent I hasten to add, between these two men.

Of course this is a setup of the usual conflict between generations, between the methodical plodder and the hunch taker, between the tried and true and the new and novel. In my opinion Ben Bova leans a little to heavy on the side of MacDaniels. The younger man’s intuition is always right and he always gets the better of Kosoff.

Better handled is the mystery of the Mithra solar system. As soon as the Odysseus arrives it is quickly realized that the alignment of the planets is not stable. The planet alpha is so close to its sun that it is boiling away while gamma comes so close to beta every 60 years that they will collide within the next million years. The astrophysicists in the Odysseus’ crew determine that something, or someone has disrupted this solar system within the last 100,000 years.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot details so I think I’ll leave it there. The story will continue in the next installment, ‘Survival’ so don’t expect all of the answers. Like all of Ben Bova’s novels ‘Apes and Angles’ was both enjoyable and a quick read but it is just an installment in a larger work. When I finish reading ‘Survival’ I’ll let you know how everything works out.

Survival Cover (Credit: Amazon)

Stephen Hawking Final Paper and Final Resting Place.

Stephen Hawking

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking passed away on the 14th of March at the age of 76 after more than 50 years of suffering from the dehabilitating effects of the motor neural disease ALS. Professor Hawking’s ashes are to be interred in Westminster Cathedral not far from the remains of Sir Isaac Newton.

I do not intend to attempt a biography of Professor Hawking or a review of his work. See links below for a few websites that do a better job than I ever could. Instead I’ll just try to describe a bit of Stephen Hawking’s last paper, which I downloaded from the web a couple of days ago.

The paper is called ‘A Smooth Exit from External Inflation” and Hawking co-wrote the paper with Thomas Hertog of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Leuven in Leuven Belgium. To even understand the title I’m going to have to talk a little bit about the history of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ going back to 1965 and the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Prior to 1965 the observations by Carl Hubble that the Universe was expanding led several physicists to suggest that in the distant past the entire Universe had exploded outward from an incredibly dense initial condition, and I do mean incredibly dense. One physicist named George Gamow then calculated that the leftover heat of that initial Big Bang should still be observable as a uniform background of microwave radiation. This CMB was discovered in 1965 by Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs in Holmdel New Jersey. Penzias and Wilson were a pair of radio engineers who were actually trying to measure the amount of interference that cosmic radio sources would cause the new communications satellites and instead discovered the birth cries of our Universe. The image below shows the CMB as observed by the Planck satellite.

The Cosmic Microwave Background as seen by the Planck Satellite (Credit: ESA)

With the discovery of the CMB physicists began to take a really detailed look at what the conditions in the early Universe, just a tiny fraction of a second after the Big bang, must have been like. It was quickly realized that most of the possible initial conditions would lead to a Universe vastly different than the one we see.

Half of all of these possible Universes would be so dense that gravity would make them immediately collapse back upon themselves, these were Universes that never really get started. The other half of the possible Universes would be just the opposite, they would fly apart so fast that no structure could form, a great big empty Universe. Our Universe, that has survived for billions of years but has billions of galaxies, existed on a knife’s edge between the two. Physicists regarded that as too precise to occur naturally and wanted to find some reason for such fine tuning.

It was a physicist named Alan Guth who would in the 1970s would provide a solution to the problem, although it’s a solution that has caused many problems of its own. Guth proposed that a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang (10-30 seconds or thereabout) the Universe underwent a period of inflation, it expanded at many times the speed of light smoothing itself out and leaving virtually all possible Universes looking just like ours.

Alan Guth (Credit: Alamy)

Before long observations from satellites studying the CMB confirmed many of the predictions of Guth’s inflationary model and today nearly every cosmologist accepts the need for some sort of inflation in the early Universe.

Now at first Guth did not proposed a mechanism of what caused his inflation, he would later work on several alternatives, he simply pointed out that inflation whatever caused it would generate a Universe like the one we see. Back when I was taking Cosmology the energy needed to cause inflation was assumed to come from the symmetry breakdown of a Unified Force Field into the four Forces we’re familiar with, Gravity, Electro-Magnetism and the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces.

Today however Unified Field Theories are having a hard time of it and it has been suggested, based on clues from quantum field theory, that inflating space might be the norm and a Universe like ours is really nothing but a bubble in sitting inside an ever inflating reality. In that case there are undoubtedly infinitely many other bubbles making a Multiverse of infinite Universes.

Is there a Multiverse? (Credit: Smithsonian)

Is your brain hurting yet, because I’m just getting to Hawking’s last paper. What Hawking and his former student have done is to develop a mathematical model of an inflating Universe where inflation comes to a soft end, a smooth exit as Hawking and Hertog put it. This generates a single Universe not an infinite number of Universes in a Multiverse.

Now all of this is just a mathematical model, the only observable prediction that the paper makes is that there should have been gravity waves produced during the inflation period, an observation that may soon be tested. However many other theories of the early Universe make the same prediction so the discovery of such gravity waves will only be weak support for Hawking’s model.

Progress in cosmology is slow but I have seen quite a bit in my time, I can barely remember when the Big Bang was still just a hypothesis. I do hope that in the next few years we get a better understanding of what triggered inflation as well as what brought it to a halt. If and when we do I’m certain that the answer will be something that Stephen Hawking would have found fascinating!






Space News for March 2018.

It’s been a quiet month as far as space exploration is concerned. The most interesting news items are actually updates of earlier stories but are rather important in the long term.

The first item I’d like to discuss concerns astronaut Scott Kelly and the continuing research into the medical effects of his yearlong mission to the International Space Station (ISS). You may have heard reports that because of his time in space Scott Kelly and his twin brother Mark Kelly were no longer identical that being in space had actually changed Scott’s DNA!! The image below shows Scott and Mark together, Mark is the one with the mustache.

Scott Kelly (left) with his Brother Mark (Credit:

Well that’s not quite true. In fact a very important phrase ‘the expression of’ was left out of some news stories. Now what exactly does that mean? Well, our DNA can ‘express itself’ differently under different environmental conditions.

For example, if you eat a huge amount of food and drink a lot of beer your DNA will express itself by producing a lot of fat cells to store all those calories and you will become obese. On the other hand, if you eat right and exercise you DNA will express itself by producing muscle cells and you will stay trim and fit. Same DNA, it just expresses itself differently depending on what environmental conditions its exposed to.

What the latest medical tests have revealed is that the change in the expression of Scott’s DNA has amounted to about 7%. That’s quite a lot actually but about the same as the results that had been published earlier and within the range of normal variance for DNA expression. Click on the link below to be taken to NASA’s official announcement of the results of Scot Kelly’s medical tests.

Before I go on to another subject, Scott Kelly also made some news this week by giving an interview in which he voiced his opinions of America’s space program and its future. The big takeaway from the interview was Scott’s criticism of NASA’s continued low budgets and the increased competition from China. Scott’s warns; “I think that China will overtake the US in the space business–If we allow them to.”

Scott is also concerned about the Trump administration’s recent plans to cut all funding to the ISS starting in 2025 despite the fact that the station’s expected working life takes it to 2028. Kelly is more hopeful when it comes to the scheduled test launches later this year of both Space X’s and Boeing’s space capsules. The first tests this year will be unmanned but hopefully starting next year NASA will no longer be dependent on the Russian’s in order to get our astronauts into space.

And speaking of NASA and the Trump administration the other news this month is that the space agency has continued with its plans to design, build and launch into deep space a Lunar Orbiter Platform called Gateway. The idea behind Gateway is to establish a small space station either in lunar orbit or an orbit around both the Earth and Moon. This station will give NASA experience in operating in deep space as well as a place to carry out solar and astrophysical experiments. The image below shows an image of the planned Gateway station.

Design Illustration of Lunar Gateway Station (Credit:

The problem is, take a guess, money! Since Trump has directed NASA to a goal of returning astronauts to the surface of the Moon and then on to Mars where’s the money for Gateway. Once again it seems that NASA just can’t seem to set a clear goal for itself and get the funding necessary to achieve it.

NASA has been without a permanent Chief Administrator since Trump took office and just last week the agency’s interim administrator retired leaving NASA without any real boss. Without leadership from congress and the white house America’s space program will continue to founder without direction.

On a somewhat brighter note, NASA is at least making plans for the outside chance that the Earth will be struck by the asteroid Bennu on 21Sept in the year 2135. According to the best estimate the 500-meter in diameter space rock has a 1 in 2,700 chance of colliding with our planet on that day.

Right now the NASA probe Osiris-REx is on its way to Bennu on a mission that includes taking a sample of the asteroid and returning it to Earth. As a part of this mission NASA should get a better idea of Bennu’s orbit and therefore a better idea of whether Bennu is a future danger to Earth.

Should that prove to be the case NASA is developing a concept it calls the ‘Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response’ or HAMMER. Depending on just how big Bennu is HAMMER will impact on the asteroid to nudge it into a safe orbit or carry a nuclear bomb to destroy it. The image below shows the asteroid Bennu compared to a couple of more familiar objects.

The Asteroid Bennu (Credit:

Now where have I heard all that before? In a sense NASA is simply using Bennu as an example of a potentially dangerous asteroid to design a mission around. Based on the first part of this post I wonder whether or not by 2135 it will be a Chinese spacecraft that ends up protecting us from Bennu?

National Geographic Documentary: ‘Jane’, a biography of Jane Goodall.

A week ago, 12 Mar 2018, the National Geographic Channel broadcast a documentary that it had produced about the life and work of the World renowned naturalist Jane Goodall. Directed by Brett Morgen the film consists of an interview of Jane Goodall as a voice over for footage of her throughout the career. Much of the film used was derived from more than 100 hours of previously unreleased footage taken by Hugo van Lawick, Jane’s longtime collaborator and husband. The image below shows Goodall and van Lawick together with their son Hugo, nicknamed Grub.

Jane Goodall with Hugo van Lawick and son Hugo (Credit: The Times)

Now everybody knows that Jane Goodall has revolutionized our views of mankind’s closest relations in the natural world the chimpanzees by her intimate and long term observations of a group of chimps who resided in Gombe national forest in Tanzania. What few people know however is that Jane was initially sent to Gombe by the noted paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey as a part of his study of early human evolution. You see Leakey believed that the closest we could come to being able to study the behavior of our ancestors of two or three million years ago would be to study our closest surviving relatives the chimpanzees. The image below shows Louis and Mary Leakey with their most famous find the skull of the early hominid Zinjanthropus.

Louis and Mark Leakey with Zinjanthropus (Credit: History Channel)

Leakey distrusted the prevailing theories about human evolution, indeed even in the 1960s there were still anthropologists who believed that humans had originated not in Africa but in central Asia despite there being absolutely no evidence to support this hypothesis. So for the job of observing chimpanzees Leakey choose his young English secretary, a woman with no university degree but who did love animals. He choose Jane Goodall.

The best part of the documentary was in fact Jane talking about her first months in Gombe. Leakey had been able to secure only enough money for Goodall to spend six months studying the chimpanzees there and any more money, and time for further study would depend on what, if anything she could discover about chimp behavior.

Upon arriving in Gombe Jane was immediately in her element. She genuinely did love animals and the outdoors and she was very happy spending her days walking around and observing the Tanzanian forests. Trouble was that she may have loved being with the chimps but they certainly didn’t return that love, not at first.

For the first five months Jane could only study her subjects from afar, the chimps ran off any time she tried to get close. By binoculars and telescope she was learning some interesting details of chimp behavior but nothing Earth shattering. Jane was quite concerned that her money would run out before she could get a real close-up look in the private lives of chimpanzees. (How many scientific discoveries do you think have been lost because of a lack of money???)

Then one day an older male chimp whom Jane had named David Graybeard did not flee as she came closer. In a breakthrough that lasted several hours she watched David Graybeard from a distance of only a few meters. Within days the entire troop had ceased to be afraid of her and Jane was able observe her subjects as close up as she desired.

It was also the male David Graybeard who gave Jane her first major discovery. One day she watched in astonishment as the chimp took a thin reed and, licking it first, he shoved it down a hole into a termite mound and when he pulled it out he gobbled up the termites that clung to it. The image below shows a chimpanzee using a reed as a tool.

Young Chimpanzee ‘Fishing’ for termites (Credit: BBC)

At that time no one thought chimps used tools but there he was, using that reed as a tool to obtain some necessary protein for his diet. A few days later Jane watched as several of the chimps not only used reeds and twigs to pull out some termites but were actually altering their twigs, stripping off the leaves in order to make them thinner and pointier. They were modifying if not making tools. This was the discovery Jane needed and when she announced her find the National Geographic Society, which had supported Leakey for many years, gave her all the money she required to continue her work.

There was one catch, the Geographic wanted a professional nature photographer to come and document her work. The man they sent was Hugo van Lawick who would become Goodall’s husband as well as chronicler.

In the years that followed Jane made other important discoveries. She watched as the male chimps hunted small monkeys for food, they actually succeed a higher percentage of the time than lions do. She also observed our relatives as they committed murder, even fights between groups that can only be described as wars.

In all Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees are very much like us. They can be tender and nurturing, Jane says she learned a lot about being a mother from a female chimp named Flo. Yet at the same time they can be viscous and brutal. All in all their behavior is not very different from our own.

No one can doubt that Louis Leakey made a terrific choice in selecting Jane Goodall to carry out a study of our relatives the chimpanzees. And you’ll be making a terrific choice if you take some time to watch The National Geographic Channel’s documentary ‘Jane’!