Category Archives: astronomy

Extremely Extreme Places in the Solar System

Hi all. This post is essentially the script for a YouTube episode I have coming up on my Ben’s Lab channel. Like the “Holiday on Venus” episode, this one also is meant to depict a TV or radio presenter, outlining a vacation package across the solar system. Zip on past this video if you like, but it provides a bit of continuity for the script.

G’day, lunatics!

“Do you love risking life and limb? Do you think extreme sports is the perfect way to relax? Well then strap yourselves in! Did you love your trip to Venus! Venus is the testing ground for the Apocalypse! Not for the faint hearted!

If you thought Venus was hardcore, and you’re thirsty for more, Time-X has the ultimate vacation package for you! A grand tour of the craziest places in the Solar System! Let’s go!!!!

Mars! Been there, done that, I know, but have you seen a REAL Grand Canyon! Valles Marineris: the longest Canyon in the solar system! Not only the longest, but the deepest!

Those guys in Norway back in the old days… thought they were pretty cool jumping off cliffs, here, swooping down gracefully in their seagull suits! How do you think they’d like to jump into this bad boy! At 2485 miles long, there’s plenty of parking! That’s the distance from San Francisco to Washington. Or, just a bit more than the distance from Sydney to Perth! Holy Frehole! Not only is this canyon long, stretching a quarter of the way around Mars, it’s deep: 7 km deep in places. Hooley Dooley! Cliff jumpers will go insane for this place!

Should we tell them there’s almost no atmosphere on Mars, and they’ll drop like stones?…..Nah!

Still on Mars!

Enjoy a sunrise atop Olympus Mons. Sounds lovely! At an altitude of 21.9 kilometres! That’s pretty tall! How tall is Mount Everest in comparison? Do we even care? Look, look at the little poopoo! Nawwww!!! Olympus Mons is an extremely ancient shield volcano, which has long since become extinct. Climbing its slope, you’d actually be virtually standing in outer space once reaching the peak! What’s not to like about that?

Moving on… ahem!

Next stop, Vesta, a lovely little chunk of prime real estate in the Asteroid belt. Boasting lots of peace and quiet and some really epic views, Vesta has the tallest mountain in the Solar System: Rheasilvia.

A computer generated elevation map of Rheasilvia crater, with its 20km+ peak at its centre. Image: NASA/JPL.
And from above. Red areas correspond to maximum elevation. Image: NASA/JPL.

Plopped right in the middle of a gigantic crater that takes up 90 percent of the diameter of Vesta, this monster was formed by a meaty impact with something really big and mean around 1 billion years ago. Sorry Olympus Mons, Rheasilvia is just a little bit higher than you, at 22 km.

Let’s head further out! Where are we now?

 Io, orbiting Jupiter, is the most geologically active object in the solar system! Did someone say geology? That doesn’t sound very extreme, you say. What does that mean for the extreme sports nut? Well, Io has 400 active volcanoes! 400! Ride your mountain bike down one of those- there’s no shortage of them! Just ride really fast! This place is a little bit too extreme! I’m not hanging around for that!

We haven’t forgotten water sports! Europa is the place to go for extreme deep sea diving! Back on earth the deepest point in the ocean is the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, which gets to 12 km below sea level. You could hide majestic Mount Everest inside it. Poor Everest, a little bit inadequate today!

Europa, smallest of the Galillean moons, is a real contender for the possibility of life. Image: NASA/JPL.

Europa orbits Jupiter, and looks pretty serene, but that pretty icy shell hides an ocean averaging 62 km deep! I’d like to explore that myself! Just be mindful though, extreme sportsters; Europa may have it’s own life. No littering and no feeding the natives!

That’s some pretty serious water! On to our next stop: Neptune and Uranus!

If extreme weather is your thing, then line up! Go hang-gliding in these winds! On Uranus, winds in the upper atmosphere blow along at over 900 kph!

Stop the world, I wanna get off!

But wait, there’s more!

On Neptune, similar winds scream along at a brain splattering 2100 kph! Just think about it. Whiplash from hell, anyone?

If you still can’t get jumping off rocks out of your system, then you will LOVE Miranda, one of the moons of Uranus. What’s so great about Miranda?


Verona Rupes, right of centre, caught in a single grainy image during the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986.

For some colon twisting thrills, these cliffs fit the bill. At 20 km deep, it’ll be a real high jump! Thing is though, we offer this jump to newbies. Why? Because with Miranda’s tiny gravity, it’ll take 12 minutes to fall to the bottom! You’ll hit pretty hard, at about 200 kph, but a tonne of bubble wrap will get around that! We do give a Seniors discount for this jump.

Well those places are nasty, no doubt, But never let it be said that we at Time-X are not discerning purveyors of the ultimate in bowel clenching excitement!

Let’s leave the Solar system altogether! Hurry up! It’s 63 light years away!

What is?

The perfect way to say “I love you” to the raving psychopath in your life!

Exoplanet HD189733B (Catchy name, I know!)

This place eats the others for breakfast. Uranus and Neptune are super windy, but they’re just farting compared to this place. Winds reach speeds of 5400 miles per hour, or 8690 kph!! Oh my gosh! AND it rains glass!! Sideways!! If you’re still keen to visit, put your affairs in order and say goodbye to your loved ones, because that’s what extreme sports are all about!!

Do you wanna live forever?

Places on this trip are going fast! Mind you, we have a slightly high turnover, so you don’t really have to wait too long for a seat. Call now.

If you love bone crushing science and mind splattering knowledge, subscribe to Time-X , I mean Ben’s Lab! Giving you the Universe in PLAIN HUMAN!”


What do you think? Suggestions and comments below! Until then,




References and Further Reading:


#Emergence in Action

The universe is a truly incredible thing. It is an endlessly cycling chaotic simulacra, churning out endless iterations of itself. The best part about being immersed in such wonder? No one needs to travel to the ends of the Universe to see this. At roughly 93 billion light years across there’s plenty to see. But the thing is, the universe is self assembling!

Yes, self assembling. What does this mean?

Exactly what it says. Nature is chock full of patterns. It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that nature abhors disorder. Patterns arise naturally from the firmament of whatever lies beneath the universe every single second every where at once all across the universe. In all of that vastness messes and disorder arise, but order always eventually spontaneously emerges.

Or at least it seems that way.

Life is a special example of emergence in action. A rather special example. It’s the most incredible phenomenon in all of existence. It’s right next to me as I write:

This is a collective of eukaryotic organisms. They all share the same genome: a special set of instructions which has emerged over evolutionary time. This set of instructions co-opts other seemingly random but very precisely designed molecules to pretty much do nothing but make more copies of itself ad infinitum. This collective of cells has organised itself into specialised structures that make the business of being a collective a little bit easier for all involved.

Now, replication of these instructions will eventually become riddled with flaws, as a process called senescence begins to emerge from this collective’s previously youthful state. Time will march on and eventually another equilibrium will emerge called death.

It doesn’t even end there. All of the atoms and compounds within this collective (from now on we’ll call this collective “Jasper”) will cycle through soil, clouds, other organisms, stars, molecular clouds, other planets and galaxies. Eventually they’ll come to rest at the end of time along with everything else. It’s a heck of a story. Really.

And all of that is self organising. Structures and patterns arise spontaneously from the laws of nature. Structures such as rivers and streams are no different to other familiar branching structures such as circulatory systems. Methane based river systems on frozen Titan resemble precisely the branching network of blood vessels that winds through your body like…..well, a river system. And it all creates itself!

2017-03-06 16.28.34
Naturally arising branching patterns on earth.

This spontaneous self organisation is ubiquitous in nature. Life , and especially multicellular life, has borrowed this proclivity for patterns, recreating those which seem conducive to biological processes functioning well.

Is this how multicellularity got a leg up?

Consider this example. Physarum polycephalum is the scientific name for a rather interesting species of plasmodial slime mold. Now, its name is a sign of things to come, meaning “many-headed slime”.

Plasmodial slime molds; not quite colonial, not quite multicellular. Image: Wikipedia

P. polycephalum breaks several tenets of what we would call common sense. Essentially, it is a single gigantic cell, consisting of thousands or millions of individual cells which have joined together for common interest. Unlike creatures like you and me, however, these cells aren’t compartmentalized like our own. In us, each cell is partitioned from its brethren by walls and membranes. The innards, including the nuclei are tucked away safe and sound. It’s truly a neighbourhood as we would understand it. Within the slime mold it’s like the sixties never died. It’s an orgy in there. All of the individual nuclei all slosh around inside this plasmodial common area. Creatures bearing this property are called coenocytic.

So. The slime mold has this kind of generic look about it, doesn’t it?

All of these structures emerge spontaneously, coded for by some as yet unknown aspect of spatial and quantum topography. I don’t know what this is, or how to elucidate it, but I know it’s there.

Life has somehow managed to encode these structures. Just like Jasper in the first image, these structures have evolved over geological time to work together, creating assemblages from which something emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Could the first attempts at multicellularity have gotten a leg up? Did the laws of nature lay the groundwork for biological structures shared by the vast majority of multicellular organisms today? Consider this scenario.

Earth, several billion years before the present day. You’re drifting above a hellish landscape, in a little temporal bubble, that allows you to observe and record data but not interact with the landscape in any way. That could be disastrous. How so? Just imagine accidentally stepping on L.U.C.A; the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life. Let your imagination do the rest. So you’re drifting along, observing, and you see something.

The earth at this time is hot. Islands of freshly minted land protrude above the semi-molten surface of a world still cooling down. You see chunks of the planet high above you, settling into a tenuous orbit. Only recently something the size of Pluto crashed into baby earth, shattering much of its outer skin and sending it into high orbit. All of those chunks you see in the sky will one day become the Moon. The collision wiped the surface clean like an Etch-A-Sketch, and so as a result baby earth is reforming again. Pockets of land like this one harbour water and other organic muck delivered by comets; the Universe’s version of Fed-Ex. Not to mention the stranger that caused all this damage in the first place.

Space plays rough. Earth’s surface, wiped away in a catastrophic collision, provided the raw materials for its moon. Image: NASA/JPL

The view is impressive. Just imagine every vision or rendition of Hell you’ve ever seen and apply reality to it. It’s pretty cool. But something else huge is happening as well. Life is forming in the midst of this apocalypse. Your time machine hovers over the most momentous event in the history of the universe…

Whatever this tiny thing is, drifting about in warm eddies and swirls in that hot little pond, it’s the first. It may not live to see another day, or it may eventually give rise to things like you. You would love to examine it in more detail, but you ask yourself. How did this singular piece of organic machinery manage to figure out that one day forming collectives would be a good idea? Your time machine bubble thing seems to know what you’re thinking. It is only fictional after all, and the writer decides to jump forward a billion years or so….

Something large and dark slowly glides past you in the brightly lit upper layer of a sea that completely covers over three-quarters of the planet. The thing pushes you aside as a tremendous tail fin propels it down into dark depths. It’s some kind of fish. A big fish. The armour plating on its head gives it an appearance reminiscent of a tank. If Thunderbird 2 and the Batmobile (Christian Bale’s batman of course) had a baby, it would look something like this: Dunkleosteus. Your time bubble wobbles alarmingly as the behemoth sends powerful compression waves through the water. You know this is a fictional scenario, but you don’t care. You’ve gone too far forward anyway….

Primeval earth, with a toxic atmosphere, much closer moon and primitive colonial life, in the form of stromatolites (right foreground). Image: NASA/JPL

A haze wafts across a landscape dominated by volcanic ash and a truly huge moon. Waves crash against a dark craggy shoreline. The time bubble lets you observe, but not interact, right? You can observe with all your senses. This place stinks. The shoreline is matted with a thick film of bacteria and gunk. Waves crash against the mat, breaking it up, and dispersing it further landward. You’re guessing with the moon so close tides must be insane here. This whole area is sub-littoral. Anything that can hold on here has to be tough. The rocks all give off steam. The sun isn’t as hot now as it is where you come from, but seams of volcanic activity are evident out in the water. Pillow like ridges of freshly solidified lava stretch up the shore, still not quite cool. Bacteria, or these Archean versions of them carpet some of the rocks. It’s here that you see something big. Almost as big as life appearing in the first place. Channels and rivulets run through some of the mats. Skins have formed and as water has reduced within the mats, structures have appeared. These mats have been given a push towards colonialism by the blind forces of nature. In these early more experimental times, genetic information and it’s transfer is a lot more promiscuous. A lot less Darwinian and a little more Lamarckian. These bacteria with their scrambled DNA and transfer will find this way of doing things a little easier, and will adopt it. Quickly.

Does this scenario make any sense? It does, but it had to have some basis in fact. I saw the principles in action, and they are as follows: an organic matrix, containing all manner of constituents useful to life is forced into biologically useful patterns and structures by some kind of energetic input. Where did I see this happen, or at least some analogue of it?

My creature lives! Meet Soupenstein.

Meet Plasmodium botanicus, or plant muck. Otherwise known as puree vegetable soup. It does bear a striking resemblance to P. polycephalum, doesn’t it? This little monstrosity was created accidentally in the lab. Or should I say kitchen?

20170728_133413 It was busy. I was moving at a million miles an hour, when I spilt soup on the grill plate next to me. This odd structure was the quick result. Branching patterns and channels formed within seconds, and I was instantly taken by its similarity to a slime mold. It was this random splash that was the inspiration for this post. Now, this post is only a speculative “what if?” with some cheap time travel thrown in, but could the earliest multicellular life, or collective modes of existence have been given some kind of initial leg up by similar incidents or circumstances? There are parallels between my imagined “slime on a rock” and the soup accident above. Let’s call the soup an extracellular matrix. It is a composite substance, containing all manner of organic compounds, plus a few impurities (probably. What doesn’t?). Energy in the form of heat is applied to the ECM as it comes into contact with a flat hot surface. Water in the ECM reduces, leaving behind a concentration of material, which forms channels and branches in accordance with the laws of nature. Bacteria within this newly formed arrangement suddenly find life a little bit easier.

What of other mixes of organic and inorganic compounds? Could life have resulted from a random splash like this? Did multicellular life arise when the cosmic cook was a little busy and not being careful? It would be interesting to perform a series of experiments. Why not use foodstuffs such as soup? Would different recipes lead to different structures? Would other energy sources, or electricity, lead to new outcomes? Who knows? That’s the point of experimenting!

I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this. Thanks for reading.



References and Further Reading:


Thanks for reading this far! Could readers please do me a favour? I have a YouTube channel, and I would like feedback on it. If people could watch a couple of videos and give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. What’s good? What’s not? Am I boring? Do I mumble etc? All feedback is welcome and if you can leave comments either here, on my twitter, Facebook or YouTube channel that would be awesome. I’ll make you famous. Or something.

Sons of War: The view from Phobos

The crackling airwaves reverberate with the ethereal radio noise of the universe. You’re sitting cross-legged in fine regolith staring out into the big empty. You reach down and tune the receiver on your space suit, trying to lock in some broadcasts from Mars.

It’s pretty quiet down there today.  Traffic is slow. There sure as hell isn’t too much happening here today. Not even commercial vessels hover over the skyline of this tiny moon.  Phobos is alone with its thoughts on this Martian Sol,  and so are you.

Come to Phobos! Spectacular views!

It’s a good place to get away. When you’re after some quiet time, you don’t mess around. Mars is a hub of busy-busy, as a melting pot of factions; corporate, government and private explore and carve it up. Maps are being drawn down there, maps of the future.

Mars rolls slowly beneath you. Phobos’ orbit brings it close to the red planet. With a semi-major axis of 9377 kilometres, Phobos makes a closer approach to its parent body than any other satellite or moon in the Solar System. By contrast, Phobos’ little brother; Deimos has a semi-major axis of 23460 kilometres. IF you were standing on the surface of Mars you might just see Deimos as a point of light, something like the folks back on Earth see Venus in the morning and at dusk.

At The Martian equator Phobos is about 1/3 the size of the full moon as seen on Earth.  Artist’s impression.

So, why “Sons of War?”

Asaph Hall, who inadvertently discovered the pair in 1877 after some pushing from his wife (after which Stickney Crater was named), had a penchant for ancient Greece it seems. Phobos and Deimos were the sons of the Greek god of war; Ares! (Mars to the Romans.) Phobos meant panic and Deimos meant fear.

They sounded like a handful for their old man!

The universe is a gift. What else can it be? Every single day seems to bring something new and completely interesting. Sometimes you need to hunt for it, and sometimes it’s right there, hiding in plain sight.  You’ve been known to have a fascination with the phenomenon. You never thought sitting up here on this nondescript pile of rubble could be so interesting. All alone with this incredible vista you look down at Mars and think about tossing your tickets back home out into space. It wouldn’t take much. Here on Phobos you are your own launch system. Phobos is the ultimate destination for weight loss. Back on earth you weigh in at just over one hundred kilograms. Here on this tiny little rock you weigh just over 60 grams! That’s right! You and your little sister’s black and white kitten weigh the same right now!

How cute.

Ha! You’re a lightweight like me! Puny human!

It makes going for a walk tricky though. In the first few years of the Great Mars Rush Phobos was a hotspot. Stickney Crater, that 6 mile wide basin swallowing up one end of the moon became an overnight spaceport, with Hamer Station becoming a sprawl of impossible architecture in a couple of years. People being what they are, didn’t really look before they leapt: literally. Rescuing floating space tourists who’d become new martian moons became a profitable cottage industry. Magnetic boots won’t work here of course. The terrain is almost entirely regolith: powdered rock formed by millennia of impacts. In fact, gravity is so low that with every step you carefully take a cloud of dust slowly puffs up, taking several minutes to descend back to the ground behind you.

You’re holding onto a handrail, one of several hundred which stretch for collectively dozens of miles around the moon. These handrails were the workaround some bright spark came up with in the early days. Straight out of an OH&S* manual, these rails are pretty much all that keeps you from launching yourself into the Big Empty.

Because gravity is so light, you can’t really “feel” the terrain. Probably if you weighed your actual 100 kilos, you’d sink into the several metres of regolith beneath you. It’d be like dry quicksand. Beneath all that are voids; a handy feature of the moon. Phobos is about one-third empty space. It’s a feature of the moon’s formation. Back when Mars was in its infancy something huge crashed into it, like an interplanetary T-Rex.

Space is rough.

A lot of Mars was kicked up into space, forming a secondary cloud of dust and rock around what was left of it. Some of this matter clumped and glommed together, under gravity’s inexorable pull, and moons formed. Phobos and Deimos are the last survivors of these martian offspring. They are piles of rubble. Imagine you’re an extra in a disaster movie, where a building has collapsed on your head, and you play a survivor, trapped in the rubble. All the bits of the building don’t fall down in an orderly manner. This would be an entirely different universe if they did.

Just imagine physics lessons!

Anyway. Survivors, trapped under fallen rubble. Girders, chunks of concrete and twisted metal have fallen randomly, strewn in a completely chaotic heap of mess, under which our film extras wait for the heroic star to pull them out. Phobos is like this. Chunks of randomly shaped Mars have simply fallen together, resulting in an odd honeycomb of dark empty caverns and spaces; now used by humanity, which is rapidly filling them up with the detritus of colonisation and industry. Even living quarters. Like some bizarre sentient ant colony humans hide underground here. It’s a refuge from some crazy space radiation, the same as that bombarding and frying electronics down on Mars.

Mars is virtually zipping past. Phobos has an extremely fast orbit. Right now you are sailing around the red planet, completing an orbit in just over seven hours. Deimos, all alone out there lags behind, making the journey in just over thirty hours. You’re holding the handrail tight, but part of you wants to let go, to reach out for the Red Planet. It really is moving fast, now that Humanity is here.

To paraphrase Kim Stanley Robinson: “Once Mars was a dream. Now, it was a place.”

Valles Marineris, the longest and deepest canyon in the Solar System. Stretching away into the future, like a new Wild West.

The Japanese Space Agency is currently putting together a mission to not only explore the moons of Mars, but to return samples to Earth. Good luck guys. Follow them on Twitter to keep up with their progress and mission updates:



*Occupational Health and Safety