#GalacticAnatomy

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As readers of a blog like this (and many others), it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve probably bumped into a book or two in your time.  No surprises there! Who read fantasy novels?

Yeah, me too.

Hands up those who used to love examining those little maps that seemed to be a standard part of many fantasy and science fiction novels? I’ve always loved maps; the hours lost in imaginary places. To be able to see the roads travelled by a band of adventurers, or the grim fortress overlooking some craggy windswept peak where the reluctant hero made their last stand was an important part of the story. It gave the events within the narrative a sense of place.

fantasy-maps

A randomly generated fantasy map. I’ll bet your imagination is already populating it with peoples and events… Image: Mark Frauenfelder, Boingboing.net

Well, the ultimate map is all around us. It’s the Universe. A couple of posts ago I explained the joy of the unexplored vista; of finding out what lies out in the unknown. This has always been my fascination with science and studying the Universe in all it’s infinite facets. Many moons ago I purchased a copy of an Australian science news magazine; Australasian Science. I couldn’t resist the picture on the cover, showing a generic artists impression of a galaxy, and a headline promising the secrets of the Milky Way.

This was a map, a road map to the greatest fantasy kingdom in the history of creation.

The article was a good one (so believed much younger Ben), and I actually still have that very magazine lying around somewhere. To be completely honest much older Ben still thinks it’s a cool article.

I will find that magazine and show it to you. It’s one of a few science publications that changed my life. That is actually a good topic for a future blog post right there.

Moving on. This magazine article introduced me to galactic anatomy. It dove into something called the GHZ, which stands for Galactic Habitable Zone. In addition the article taught me a little about the structure of our very own Milky Way. Obviously this was not a scholarly journal piece, although it was careful to include solid references where it could.  I learnt of things like metallicity, and a mysterious ring of this mysterious  stuff called the Galactic Halo, encircling our little ol’ Milky Way. Most likely a great many other galaxies possess such a band as well. Apparently the Halo is is a band of dark matter: that mysterious cosmic MacGuffin, which plays an as yet unknown role in galactic metabolism: akin to the way junk dna plays a role in the comings and goings of genetic information.

The Milky Way is a pretty standard galaxy, one of about 2 trillion in the observable universe!

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“My God, it’s full of stars….” A tiny slice of the sky, courtesy of Hubble. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, standard can mean so many things (especially in this day and age), so I’ll put up another post when the fancy takes me regarding the galactic bestiary. For now, we’re going to focus closer to home. That’s not to say that the Milky Way is at all insignificant. It’s a vast armed spiral of stars and countless other stellar objects, self contained and packaged by collective self gravitation. It’s a cosmic gated community, encircled by a moat of dark matter, warding off the extragalactic night. Containing over 100 billion stars (and several billion planets) this behemoth is approximately 100,000 light years across- not counting our dark matter moat.

That’s a long way.  As Douglas Adams so succinctly put it:

Space is big.

A light year is the distance in which a photon of light travels in one year. Light travels at 186,000 miles in a single second. As Steve Irwin would have said: crikey!!

crikey

She’s a fair dinkum ripper!

The numbers are unimaginable. The Milky Way is vast beyond comprehension. The crazy part is however, that as far as galaxies and cosmic objects go the Milky Way is fairly modest in size. To quote a favourite line from the (unfairly) maligned movie “The Phantom Menace”:

 

N.B. I will often throw in a cheesy sci-fi reference. That’s just how I roll. Stories are an excellent resource, because they can sometimes help you see how the world works.

Welcome to the Neighbourhood

The Milky Way is one of three larger galaxies, forming part of a greater cosmic community called The Local Group. Andromeda and the Triangulum galaxy make up the other two heavyweights.

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The Local Group. With a diameter of approximately 10 million light years, the Local Group contains 36 galaxies or dwarf galaxies. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ten million light years is a lot of distance. But it doesn’t stop there. The Local Group is part of a greater group: the Virgo Supercluster. This is in turn part of the Laniakea Supercluster. For, after the mere 100,000 light years of the Milky Way itself, things just got silly. This post doesn’t venture beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the Milky Way. As for the great beyond, to quote “The Neverending Story”; that’s another story, and shall be told another time.

We have nearly 50 smaller galaxies orbiting us! Three are of note. The Large and Small Magellenic Clouds are visible with the naked eye, and have been since before Man came down from the trees. It’s getting harder and harder to see them. Urban sprawl and light pollution from the world’s cities is inexorably removing the sky from the collective memory of the human race. If you ever can get a chance to get away to remote places, where the night sky is still awe inspiring, then do it! It is absolutely worth it.

 

The Milky Way, like all other galaxies has a structure. Over time our view of it has changed. It has progressed in the minds and eyes of observers throughout history. Native Australian mythology believed the band of stars stretching across the night sky to be some kind of river of the night, along which supernatural beings and the spirits of fallen warriors would travel between worlds. I have to admit, mythology really puts a fascinating spin on these things.

Whilst it may not be a river, the reality of it is just as interesting. As mentioned previously we see the galaxy as a band across the night sky. This is because we are looking along the plane of the galaxy. We are, after all, embedded deep within it, some 26,000 light years away from a supermassive black hole, some 4 million times the mass of our own sun. This monster is busily devouring neighbouring stars and clusters in the bulge which comprises the galactic core.

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A hungry black hole prowls our galactic core…

Oh, to live in some science fiction movie, watching the spectacle of stellar destruction. Future tour operators really will have some impressive vistas to explore!

Let’s move on to this “Galactic Habitable Zone”. It sounds like some interstellar demarcation in a cheesy space opera. To my own biased ears it sounds positively mythical; like a really cut down version of the Galactic Empire.

Or, it just sounds cool.

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The blue band represents the GHZ. Image: NASA/Caltech

Readers of previous space based posts will have come across references to something called the “Goldilocks Zone.” Another word for this is the Habitable Zone. We on Earth only exist because we’re smack bang in the middle of it. Venus happens to orbit just within the inner cusp of our Goldilocks Zone, whereas frigid Mars lies at it’s very outer limits. It’s the zone around a star where the temperature is amenable to liquid water existing on the surface of a planet, hence greatly increasing its habitability. Of course life needs a little more than this, but it sure helps. As far as we know, no life can exist without liquid water.

The recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 system comprises a red dwarf sun, with FOUR planets within its habitable zone! In the above video, TRAPPIST-D, E, F, and G all lie within the TRAPPIST-1 Goldilocks zone, and so are all hypothetically capable of at least bearing life.

As these planets (and those within our own solar system) orbit their parent star, so does our solar system move around the galactic centre, with a galactic year lasting some 250 million years! What then, makes our position in the Milky Way so special?

As they say in the real estate business, location location. Consider you’ve just moved into a large city, looking to set yourself up. You start by looking for a home. They all look nice. You’re not overly fussy about the house itself, but it has to be in a good spot. There’s a fantastic place on the outskirts of town. Big, roomy, plenty of space to accidentally lose the kids. There’s also this nice little flat smack bang in the CBD. How do you weigh these two places up? The edge of town is nice, and there are plenty of open spaces, but that’s a drawback. There’s nothing out there. Like, really. No one to talk to but trees and ageing hippies. In the centre of town, there’s an insane buzz. Nothing ever closes. Everywhere you look, there’s plenty of action. But that also worries you. Also, the crush of humanity in the inner city is nuts. There’s no room to swing a cat anywhere. You’ll lose your mind within two weeks of moving in. No thanks.

So, you look to somewhere in the middle. Out in the suburbs, life is a little boring, but that’s probably for the best. Not much crime or craziness, with just enough to keep your brain from going stale. Oh, and you don’t want to be on a main road either. Little kids and traffic don’t mix. That decides it then.

Our position in the galaxy is something like that. Too close to the galactic centre and life would never have made it. It’s vastly overcrowded with stars and stellar clusters (not to mention Sagittarius A*) and supernovae rates are off the charts. You know what that means for life? Curtains. The Galactic Core is a hellhole of cosmic radiation. Life wouldn’t even start there.

Out on the rim things aren’t much better. When categorising stars, astronomers group and observe stars under two main types: Population 1 and Population 2.  Population 1 stars, like our own sun are deemed metal rich, or have high metallicity.  In the context of stellar populations metals are any elements heavier than hydrogen and helium; the most abundant elements in the universe. Such stars are common in the disc, gradually thinning further out toward the galactic rim. Heavy elements are crucial for the construction of all other material in the universe, ie planets and the organic compounds needed for life.

Out in the rim, Population 2 stars dominate. These stars are older, and are metal poor. Not much new stellar construction goes on out here. Stellar nurseries; the cosmic factory floor are more common in the disk.

So what’s all this about main roads? Revisiting the real estate analogy, roads are bad news, right? Hard core traffic is plain dangerous. Well, if we take another look at the galaxy (any spiral galaxy for that matter) we see that tremendous arms radiate outward from the bulge at the centre:

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A typical barred spiral galaxy, just like the Milky Way. Image: Wikimedia Commons

These arms are the main roads. Densely populated with throngs of stars and solar systems whizzing around the centre. Lucky for us the Sun is situated between two of these highways, free from too much interference from nasty neighbours. It whiles away it’s time, drifting peacefully through the quiet galactic suburbs. Life, as we’re finding out, is extremely tough but there’s no way on God’s green earth it would have started at all if conditions on earth were too apocalyptic.

I’ve left my favourite part of the galaxy til last. The galactic halo. The very name is evocative, carrying obvious religious connotations. We don’t really know it’s there, due to the fact that it is likely composed of dark matter. That stuff gets around, doesn’t it? It exerts an invisible pull on the large scale universe, drawing space and time into a new dance. It encircles the galaxy, like the diffuse corona of light surrounding the heads of saints in old paintings. To date, no one really knows what dark matter is; only what it does. It’s something like the wind: no one can see it but we can all see what it does. Something this mysterious is like science candy, and it’s the subject of much debate.

After all. Remember those maps I was talking about at the start of this post? My favourite parts were the hazy lands that lay outside the story….

This has been a slightly longer post, but it’s pretty hard to squeeze something 100,000 light years across into a few paragraphs. Please feel free to leave a comment. There’s nothing better than meeting other science buffs.

Have a good one.

Ben.

P.S., The European Space Agency’s Gaia Probe has been hard at work imaging and tracing the position and movements of over 1 billion stars, enabling us to gain a highly detailed picture of the galaxy and it’s development. I’ve provided a link to a YouTube video which visualises the movements of two million stars over the course of five million years.

Wanna keep up with Gaia? Follow them and catch all the galactic fun on Twitter!

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Sons of War

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.

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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 closest 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 Dieimos were the sons of the Greek god of war; Ares! (Mars to the Romans.) Phobos meant panic and Dieimos 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 after tripping over a piece of regolith 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, which are 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:

 

P.S.

I’m currently having fun putting together a live streaming segment on Periscope called “Cosmos-scope” It is a lot of fun, mainly because I’m learning a lot about astronomy again from researching for it, and I think it may  feature a lot in the comings and goings of Ben’s Lab.

Cheers!

 

Ben.

*Occupational Health and Safety

Who writes the #Writer?

If you’re a fan of the fantastic and the (almost) magical, then you’ll know that it’s getting harder and harder to get through a single day without being almost paralysed by the veritable flood of big announcements being unleashed upon the world. 
Gravity waves, TRAPPIST-1, Juno and it’s watchful eye on Jupiter. All just more science candy to rot our teeth with. 

I LOVE IT!

But here’s a little secret. 

There’s no magic like old magic. Warning label: this post will contain references to talking lions and impossible cosmologies. 

The universe and all within is an impossible cornucopia of wonder. J.R.R. Tolkien once spoke of the wonders of the unexplored vista in fiction. The universe is still (and always will be) an unexplored vista, like some dark brooding mountain range; its fell winds filling a lost band of travellers with foreboding. The mountain ranges are the same in every fantasy novel I ever read: cruel, dark and vast. I would join the travellers on their journey; be they the Fellowship of the Ring, Atreyu and companions finding a way through the Nothing or the Pevensey children, seeking Aslan. I would see the same mountains or vistas they would see and wonder what was in them, watching the story unfold. 

Did you ever wonder what was beyond  those mountains?  Nameless lands and other unrecorded epic histories and struggles? Life? Death? Infinity? Cyborg armadillos? A back door out into some rat infested alley somewhere? I spent a lot of time beyond the borders of these imaginary lands, seeing them as some kind of dreamlike state attached by imaginary geography to the main tale. Like junk DNA they didn’t seem to play any kind of part in the story, yet they also provided it with further structure. Playing a very important role by simply hanging there, forever out of reach. 

In a sense the distant past is like this imaginary land, especially the very distant past and in particular those very very first moments. Maybe even the time before time. How far back can we go really? Like the resurrection of Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the Lord of Narnia drew power from a time before time, is everything built on something else? 

Life is such a thing.

Contemporary scientific dogma explains life as a phenomenon emerging from inanimate disorder. To the scientific mind this makes intuitive sense: a bit of stuff and another bit of stuff merged or were bonded chemically and some miraculous act of transmutation took place. Life appeared: self replicating systems, handing down and reliant upon the seamless transmission of information/instructions. Hiccups in this basic routine were bound to happen of course. If biological information transmission were completely flawless I wouldn’t be sitting here in a McDonald’s writing this, I’d still be a blob of stuff flopping around in some warm little pond somewhere. Obviously I’ve used the simplest description possible. Life changes in response to environmental changes and pressures, but I’m not going  to have a blog post blowout by hyperlinking into a discussion about evolution. 

Where was I? Life. 

 I’m thinking now about this process of emergence.  Life itself is (at the very least) an emergent property, arising somewhere from within the girders and tangled architecture of Nature. Is it created by this chemical and physical architecture, or was the promise of life already hiding in the basement somewhere?

A snapshot of the cosmic microwave background radiation. The ultimate family snapshot: everyone’s in it!

This emergence is a built in property of the universe. Quantum theory holds that our perception of the universe calls it into existence. If this is true, then what of a time before life or perception even existed? Did the universe even exist before we came along? “We” being life that is. We of course aren’t the first things to experience the universe. Even a jellyfish experiences existence in it’s own way. I must make here a distinction between perception and intelligent perception. 
Obviously the universe existed before us. Take whatever side of the fence you like: religion or science. We can all explain the universe and we are all intrinsically aware that the universe was created and was here long before the first living thing flopped out of the primordial mud. 

This emergence of life was always meant to happen. The universe cycles itself, refreshing every second, every single passing of whatever fundamental subunit of time ticks by. We perceive it into existence, but it was perceived by things before us, things before them and so on.  But what of the first thing? What perceived the universe before anything even knew it was there?

The universe has always contained the framework for perception. Patterns in inanimate nature repeat themselves in biology.  

When I was at university I gave some thought to the emergence of multicellular life. After completing my degree I kept studying, doing an Honours year. I originally wanted to study biofilms. Of course the project mutated and became unrecognisable. My supervisor steered me towards something completely different, but I always thought about the emergence of something fundamentally different to single celled life. I felt that simplistic biological structures like biofilms represented a step in the transition from single celled existence to colonial organisms and from there to multicellularity. 

Take a wild guess what got me thinking about multi celled organisms emerging like this; ready made as it were.

Coffee. 

I was in one of the University cafés,  up on the hill behind the sciences building. As did many others I spent a lot of time here studying, reading or just thinking. It was quiet and I had actually been thinking about multicellularity on this day when I looked down at my coffee. I have a tendency to forget things when I’m pondering the world and my coffee had gone cold. 

The wrinkly skin that had formed on top got me thinking. I remember drawing it, doodling it on a corner of a notebook page, recognising something.  It looked exactly like all kinds of biological structures, in particular biological infrastructure such as a circulatory network. The branching structure or pattern we see here is so familiar to us we don’t even think about it.

And so it began. I got thinking..

We see so many repeating patterns and structures in the natural world that they are almost white noise. The forking of tree branches or blood vessels, the winding of streams and rivers and the somehow disciplined swirling of clouds are very familiar to us all. It’s interesting how the same kinds of patterns appear both spontaneously, as in the case of rivers, or under the guidance of carefully meted out biological information (tree branches etc).

Physarum polycephalum, a bizarre and fascinating oddity.

Consider this image. 

A river winds through a muddy delta plain, stretching toward the brackish waters of an estuary. 

Now consider this one:

A stagnant shallow pond, at Mutton Cove Conservation Reserve, Port Adelaide.

The branching pattern running through the midst of this mat is quite reminiscent of a river system. In fact, you’ve most likely figured out that these are both the same image. This is why I’ve used this image. It represents a key point I’m trying to make. 

The mat is likely mostly microbial, or composed of biological material: microorganisms,  waste products, in  addition to inorganic muds or silt. The branching  and bifurcations within the mud are most likely formed due to abiotic factors, in the same way that synaerisis cracks form in muddy lake bottoms as the last of their water dries.

My question: could such structures;  formed by innocuous natural processes, provide templates for biological processes? Biofilms are known to possess channels and a certain level of internal structure.  Some of these structures are similar both in form and function to structures that perform analogous tasks in multicellular organisms.

Did early multicellular life get an organisational leg up from a deeply mathematical universe, in which all manner of patterns appear in a multitude of environments?

I say the universe is deeply mathematical, but I will admit here and now I am no mathematician. It’s just always seemed apparent that the universe operates around a very secretive and mysterious set of guidelines. In the same way that a businessman from Sydney can walk into a McDonald’s in New Delhi and expect exactly the same Big Mac he’d get in Moscow, so it follows that rivers of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan form branching channels and patterns; following the same recipe as rivers of water on Earth.
What I mean is that some things just never change, wherever you may be in the local Universe. If you were standing on an exoplanet passably similar to Earth you’d see flows and channels just like those on Earth. One of the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 may make a good setting for this imaginary walk. The sky is dark. It’s like a permanent sunset: a red hue washes over a rocky landscape. You’re standing on a low cliff, looking down at a river. It looks like any river on earth. OR, just like the river systems on Titan.

River channels on Titan, carved and eroded by liquid hydrocarbons. Image: NASA/JPL

This similarity is spontaneous. That’s something we all intuitively know. This is what I’m getting at. If life formed spontaneously as a result of natural laws, then life- and more complex life would arise on other worlds.  Depending on its environments and circumstances it will obviously be different to life on earth, but there will also be similarities. 
It’s all about infrastructure. Infrastructure arises unbidden in all manner of systems. 

A flock of starlings is a system.

Spaghetti on toast is not.

A system is a collective of interconnected parts or processes, all acting within the context of a greater whole. A flock of starlings differs from spaghetti on toast in this fundamental aspect. The flock appears chaotic, but in fact behaves according to rules which are seemingly set in stone.  The spaghetti shows no flavour of interconnectedness nor any kind of behaviour. The strands do not interact and so are unable to work together to prevent being eaten by me. The flock of starlings however can.  

I’ll take the spaghetti. 

The swarming behaviour exhibited by the birds and other creatures which swarm (locusts, Monarch butterflies etc) is an emergent property, arising from the interactions between sub units. 

Back to infrastructure. The flock of starlings acts as it does because all of the birds can see each other or otherwise interact with each other in some way. Mechanisms exist by which the birds connect to each other, and so something new emerges from a seemingly disparate collection of birds. Consider a city.  Many cities began as gatherings of family groups or tribes. For these small groups such an existence worked. Not much infrastructure other than language, common customs and some simple rules were needed in order for these simple societies to function. 

But then the families began to grow. Other villages were discovered. Tribes went to war. Other villages and tribes were conquered. Populations and customs began to change as other cultures and ideas sped up progress.  Farming was discovered: trade followed. Technology developed. This is all part of the growth of a society,  and it is an analogue for the evolution of multicellular life. As time goes on infrastructure is a necessity. Roads, money, writing, advanced modes of travel, all develop as a natural by product of the growth of a society. A city becomes an organic thing. It sprawls across a landscape, complete with a venous network of roads and railways. Communications dart back and forth along phone lines and fibre optic lines: the equivalent of nerves, enabling disparate sections of the city to be aware of outside forces and distant events. From a distance these branching roads and lines could bear a passing resemblance to biological infrastructure. Even lower eukaryotes appear to understand this:

This is the famous example of a slime mold set to work redesigning Tokyo’s rail network! Many experiment have shown these unbelievable organisms effortlessly redesigning Spanish and Portuguese rail networks: often rendering them more efficient than the human engineers!

So at a glance at least it looks as though the collective behaviour shown by a slime mold runs along similar lines to the growth of a city. Lines of infrastructure, connecting sub units, create a gestalt entity; something more than the sum of its parts. 

If life (and in particular multicellular life) arose due to a proclivity for exploiting the connective properties of certain naturally recurring patterns and structures, how did life figure this out? Obviously roads didn’t appear before cities. But in every single city on earth roads could be found. The idea of a road always existed. Roads were inevitable.

Off on a wild tangent? Is this a flight of fancy? Maybe, maybe not.  What do you think? Self organisation and emergence aren’t just products of group behaviour. They are inherent tendencies, built into the fabric of space and time. Feel free to pipe in with your opinion. Thanks for reading. It’s been a long post, and possibly rambling, but it’s a blog.  Not the six o’clock news.

Cheers,

Ben.

The moo of the wild

Not just about cows! But mostly about cows. Real cows.

TwilightBeasts

In a sense, Pleistocene megafauna are still with us even in post-industrial England. It may not seem like it but the humble heifer is probably the most successful species of megafauna on the planet, outnumbering all the elephants, rhinos, whales, lions, tigers, and hippos put together! The simple cow (1.5 billion and counting), shaped by millennia of domestication into a (mostly) docile and manageable creature is a direct descendant of something so fearsome, and so deadly, that Julius Caesar (himself no slouch in the bellicosity department) described them as “a little below the elephant in size and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary. They spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.”

A beast that terrified the legendary Caesar must have been impressive indeed.

This is the aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius), the wild ancestor of our domestic…

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#NightFlighttoVenus

Turn that dial. What’s on the radio?

Crackle. Static. Hissss……

….

Welcome back!

You’ve seen Mars. Who hasn’t?  Done to death! Orbital skydiving from Phobos? Yesterday’s thrill! Jupiter? Saturn? 

Boring!!

Deep sea diving with the natives on Europa?

Somebody wake me up!

Chuck all those snoozefests in the trash because we have something special just for the first 10 callers!

Yessiree we’ve moved on from plain old space tourism. None of this flying over the dark side of the moon for hyper rich tourists! Its  2087, and for a limited time Ben’s Lab Mystery Tours have a ripper for you!

Venus!

For a moment I thought I actually heard crickets chirping in this studio…
What’s that you say? Venus is the Florida of the Solar System! How can that possibly be exciting?  I don’t want to fall asleep in the upper atmosphere, enjoying the sun and mild temperatures on some Cloud City! Retirement villages, man!

Well, how about we forget the cloud cities then? We have put together- for the extreme extreme sports nuts out there, a holiday from Hell- in Hell!
Take a walk on Venus.

I hear your bowels clenching. Good!

Venus is hardcore. Venus wants to eat you alive and spit you out! Did you know our ancestors thought Venus was a beacon of serenity,  drifting peacefully in the heavens. Ha! They thought Venus was a cloud covered blue green marble like our little planet.

Well, they were right. They just had bad timing. Earth and Venus formed at roughly the same time, forming from a molecular cloud, made of gas, dust and other muck drifting around our own newly formed sun.

Earth got lucky. We were at just the right distance from the sun for water to exist in a liquid state on the surface. Venus is just within this little strip of safety,  called the Goldilocks Zone.
For half a billion years or so, Earth had a real twin. Sure, Venus is pretty much the same size as Earth, with almost identical gravity, but those two things do not a paradise make. What Venus had back then was oceans. Continents even.  Venus kind of looked like Earth!

Am I selling it yet! Sounds pretty sleepy, doesn’t it? If you nutcases can’t handle the peace and quiet go stick your head in a volcano on Io.

Call now! This is a once in a lifetime experience!

I have a caller! Let’s see who it is!

Jasper Dixon wants to know; what happened to Venus then? How did an earthlike planet transform into an inferno, with crushing clouds of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide? What about that atmospheric pressure, 92 times our own!

I agree Jasper. That’s just plain silly. Well at the risk of driving away listeners I’m going to tell you. If I explain why Venus is the nastiest place in the solar system I reckon the phones will be ringing off the hook!

It’s all about water. Back on Earth water isn’t just used to make fizzy drinks and fill swimming pools. It isn’t just necessary for all life. The planet needs water as well. Really!

I know, I know, the planet has a hydrological cycle. Oceans are vast heat sinks, storing heat and influencing climate. Water evaporates, creating rain and clouds, which not only bug us when we’ve just hung clothes on the line, they also reflect a lot of sunlight and heat back out into space. The planet’s reflectivity is called it’s albedo.

This is all true and all very important. But water performs one other vital function:

It lubricates the planet.

Long ago Earth looked like this. 
 

Some time later it looked like this. 

Then this.  

Then this. 

Plate tectonics, my friends. The continents are basically slabs of crust which happen to be less dense than the crust the ocean floor is made of, and so they float and slide around, moving very slowly, but definitely moving. Australia is whipping along at breakneck speed: at about five centimetres a year!

Plate tectonics and other events in the earth’s crust perform an important task; They release heat from the planet’s core. This planet contains a liquid metal core which is kept superheated by the decay of radioactive elements left over from earth’s formation. If the planet’s crust didn’t fracture and split all the time where would all this heat go?

Nowhere of course! The planet would just heat up and heat up, overheating until it became, well, it became Venus. We don’t want that.

So what the heck does water have to do with this! We don’t care anymore! We get it! Shut up and take our money!

Impatient lot, aren’t you? Well, you can’t hurry education! 

Remember those cars the old timers used to drive around? Remember how they had to put oil in them to stop the engines seizing up? Well, if earth’s crust isn’t kept lubricated by vast amounts of water running deep, then it too will seize up. This is what has happened to Venus.

Partly, at least. The planet’s surface is now so hot as a result of this runaway negative feedback that it can melt lead.

Better make sure you pack a decent space suit, extreme sports fans. One that can handle temperatures of 490 degrees Celsius. Make sure the electronics are tough too. It was only due to the advent of electronics that could operate in these temperatures that rovers and eventually humans were able to reach down and touch the Venusian dirt.

All you rugged outdoorsey types: don’t bring compasses. Yes, it’s a great idea, no they won’t work. Period. Venus has practically no magnetic field. This is a side effect of it’s core shutting down long ago. Don’t even ask me why. It may be 2087, but how the heck would I know? I’m selling holidays, not winning the Nobel Prize.

The folks up in those cloud cities have it pretty good.  Sure, hard core acid rain is a pain, and having to wear oxygen masks can be annoying. By and large, however it was a brilliant idea. Much easier than that whole Mars fiasco back in the 2050s.  Terraforming a whole planet? Good luck! See you in a couple of thousand years. Maybe. But those cloudies have no idea what’s below them. I know it’s not pretty.

Not a drop of water anywhere. A few wisps in the atmosphere.  0.002 percent of it is water vapour I think. Down on the freshly formed lava plains (by fresh read: less than 100 million  years old!) though; nada. Zilch.

Venus is close to the sun. A lot closer than earth at 108 million k’s. The Sun, being the vicious ball of fury it is, is constantly punishing the inner planets with solar radiation. Mercury is completely dead, baked clean by its proximity to the Sun. Venus held onto to atmosphere for a while, but when it’s core bit the dust that’s when things went south.

Earth has a magnetic field, which protects life on earth from harmful cosmic and solar rays. Sure, we get sunburn sometimes, but that’s a damned sight better than being baked to death, or having our DNA so damaged by radiation all life would perish from lethal mutations.

Without a magnetic field Venus’s one time oceans were slowly stripped and cast into space. Even today traces of this water are being ripped away by solar rays and sent into the Big Empty.

Still sound like fun? There’s always some hardcase out there who just can’t listen to good sense.

Operators are standing by!

One other thing. Feel free to call in and let me know exactly what happened to Venus’s core…

In the shadow of #Dinosaurs

Some readers may remember a recent post about people and their relationship with science. In particular I ran a poll on Twitter,  asking about “gateway drugs”. What got people initially fired up about about science? A small cross section of followers responded:

For insights into these “gateway drugs” check out this post

This post will take us on a joyful (and maybe self indulgent) look at my own gateway drug: dinosaurs. A very recent visit to the Melbourne Museum had me making a bee line for the dinosaur and fossil exhibits. Even now, in my forties these fascinating relics of the bygone age to top all bygone ages have a powerful hold over me. 

Part of this hold is their ability to grip our imaginations. “Jurassic Park” was for me a life changing event. I still recall the hushed awe I felt when I saw that Brachiosaurus for the first time. Up until then I had only imagined myself walking the steppes and plains of Mesozoic earth; either walking alongside these creatures or watching them fight, struggle, roar and sink into mud. I was with the dinosaurs in a very real sense. When I read books about them or saw pictures of them it was like I was there…

“It’s a warm afternoon, somewhere in mid Cretaceous Queensland, Australia. A small group of hadrosaurids are approaching a shallow river with caution. For miles in all directions a tangled patchwork of marshland and conifer forest is home to communities of dinosaurs who have made this delta their home for countless generations. This is a group of Muttaburrasaurus,  and they bleat and honk quietly,  instinctively hushed. 

An iconic Australian dinosaur.

Small waves lap at their feet as they wade out into the river and begin drinking. The Sun has a sharp edge to it and the creatures are lapping noisily, drinking their fill. Clouds of flies harass them.
The group has been cautious around this waterway lately for a reason. 

By the time the group is fleeing the water, braying loudly in a tone of animal panic it’s too late for one of them. A younger individual is flailing, now kicking weakly in the water and sending shock waves up and downstream that will bring curious scavengers like sharks along. As the juvenile dinosaur is pulled beneath the water it sees another member of it’s herd;  watching from the bank of the river. 

A kronosaurus has taken of late to patrolling the river, recognising the easy pickings to be had. Herds of dinosaurs like these muttaburrasaurus are an irresistable draw. It’s latest victim is dead in less than three minutes; as it’s blood supply gushes away, mingling with the river…

STOP READING!

 See? It’s like a perfect fantasy world. Perfect because it actually existed!

The Dinosaur walk exhibit at the Melbourne Museum allows one to feel this wonder again.

A pair of carnivores greet you at the entrance to the museum’s fossil exhibits

It’s school holidays as I write here in Australia. The skeletons are surrounded by throngs of kids (and equally excited parents I would dare say). Could there be some budding scientists in that mix somewhere? Maybe one day a future palaeontologist or biologist will recall this day, remembering how the Tarbosaurus skeleton loomed large, glowering down at them. They might recall a mixture of excitement and wonder that will stay with them their whole lives.

An adolescent Tarbosaurus, smaller cousin to the infamous Tyrranosaurus Rex.

I’m surrounded by screens. Phones are out, tablets are pointed at the displays and the museum has touchscreens everywhere, where kids are jostling to interact with the information being presented on them. 

As seems to be a standard thing these days the children are focusing more on this electronica. I note this and tell myself what my younger self would have seen when looking up at these giants….

A cool wind slides across a vast expanse of sandy bushland, somewhere in what will one day be Mongolia. The time: not really important to the young Tarbosaurus creeping along a dried river bed,  eyeing new prey. For the human observers, borne by imagination into this distant past let’s call it approximately 68 million years before palaeontology is even invented.

Food is a little scarce out here for the tyrannosaurid.  Larger Tarbosaurs in the region have staked their claims, carving out large tracts of territory. The young dinosaur isn’t starving though. It has discovered these small herds of sheep sized creatures; protoceratops. These are, as their name suggests, ancestors to the tank-like horned dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous: Triceratops,  Styraccosaurus and the like.  The diminutive reptiles are abundant here, staying in groups where there is safety in numbers. They’re savage little fighters too. Seeping wounds on the Tarbosaur’s lower legs and belly give testament to this. They have discovered strength in numbers.

Until they need to lay their eggs. Using the slope of a shallow dune as cover the Tarbosaurus is following the strong scent of a lone female. She’s busy laying her eggs in a neat ring around the edge of a shallow depression she’s dug. She is too focused on her labours, and is unable to defend herself as a giant three toed foot crushes several eggs and powerful jaws lock around her neck. Dagger like teeth finish her quickly, before she can even bleat in pain…

It all happened so fast..

Who knows what has brought these bones all the way across the world to this museum? The lives of these creatures is impossible not to wonder about as I find more skeletons.

Not all dinosaurs here hail from overseas. Australian dinosaurs take pride of place. 

Qantassaurus intrepidus was a small bipedal hypsilophodontid which hailed from what is now-again- modern day Queensland. Along with Dinosaur Cove in Victoria Queensland is becoming a veritable hot bed of fossil discoveries. Qantassaurus is interesting in the context of this exhibit because it’s appearance has been almost entirely reconstructed from fragmentary fossilised teeth.

This alone speaks volumes of the importance of imagination to a scientist, and to the detective work they perform as a matter of their work…

It’s morning in Jurassic Queensland. A pair of rabbit sized mammals are squealing noisily, squabbling over the remains of a dog sized reptile . There isn’t much left. Other scavengers have long since picked the carcass to pieces. The combatants snarl and wrestle over a tooth, desperate to claim any prize in this battle. A victor emerges, and the loser scuttles off into surrounding undergrowth,  eager to not become prey itself….

 A few teeth! From a few teeth (and several educated guesses) palaeontologists are able to glean information: the animal’s lifestyle, diet, and size.

Walking around the exhibit, visitors find themselves hopping backward and forward through time…

Australia, one million years ago, sometime during the Pleistocene Period. Vast red emptiness spans the continental interior. This is a dry, desert continent and life here is tough. A lone predator stalks the deserts and arid grasslands, preying on the megafauna that has evolved here in isolation from the rest of the world. 

A lizard, looking something like a seven metre long Komodo Dragon stalks the scrappy salt bush that stretches as far as the eye can in all directions. Some day a new predator will arrive here; a bizarre two legged beast that will conquer these lands and seize their place at the top of the food chain. 

Top of the pile until new competition arrived, Megalania was a true apex predator, stalking Pleistocene Australia.

For now, the harsh sun blisters the land but Megalania hides in shadows, eyeing it’s next victim…A pair of Diprotodon grazes on some nearby bushes. They are too intent on their meal. These giant marsupials are the ancient Australian equivalent of the rhinoceros,  filling the same ecological niche.

Diprotodon, along with all other Australian megafauna died out circa 46000 years ago; a victim of climate change and human predation.

The Diprotodon aren’t fast movers at the best of times, relying mainly on their size as a means of warding off predators. The youngster, however, is brought down quickly as the ancient reptile dashes out with a freakish burst of speed. The mother is equipped with a fearsome pair of incisors. Normally she uses it to extract roots and vegetation from the dry red soil

Megalania is rewarded with a broken foot as it is trampled by an enraged mother weighing several tonnes. Those teeth inflict a bloody toll as well,  and the defeated predator is forced to retreat,  slinking quickly back into the scrub….

Honestly, having just come back from a trip to outback Australia, surrounded by some of the oldest mountains in the world 

For 380 million years the vast slab like Grampians have dominated the Victorian landscape.

I can almost smell these long lost landscapes. I can stand on the cusp of a red dune, watching whirly-whirlies (dust devils) skipping across the endlessness of an inland sand sea. Where I stand in this dream scape was once the floor of an ocean: the Eromanga Sea. Imagine looking up from this spot, protected by the vast lengths of time between yourself and seeing elasmosaurs; graceful long necked giants gliding through the waters.
There are more posts to come on the very ancient world, and Australia in particular. I would love to hear other people’s dinosaur tales. I don’t think a half baked youtube video can do justice to these prehistoric beasts and their memory as much as the written word. Anyone can feel free to offer suggestions or their own experience growing up in the imaginary shadow of dinosaurs and the prehistoric world.


The beauty of small things: a voyage into a garden’s microcosm

A journey through the macro lens into an alien universe, right outside the back door..

Jules Verne Times Two

“The more we travel, the bigger the world gets”. Over the last couple of years we have taken advantage of our somewhat vague motto to talk about many different things. Christened during our round-the-world trip, it originally stemmed from our observation that no time in the world would be enough to visit all places worth visiting. After we came back, we realised this to be true even for our own country. Abandoning all hopes of closure, we expanded our definition of travelling to encompass other things we love: time-travelling to long-past history, mind-travelling on the comforts of solitude, soul-travelling with the wonders of friendship. All those wanderings however involved some degree of physical travelling. Not today. Today we won’t go beyond Jules’ parents backyard, in Ponte de Sor.

Over the course of countless weekends, I made a habit of sneaking into Jules’ parents garden to take pictures. Hunching…

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