Tag Archives: science

Goldilocks and the Three Planets

Hi all. It’s been a while I’m ashamed to admit. I’ve been working on a new Facebook group to raise the profile of my channel. It’s been fun. Here is the link (hint: join the group!)
Here is my newest video. A basic breakdown of what exactly the Goldilocks (or circumstellar habitable) zone is, and it’s importance to life on Earth. If you like the channel please subscribe!


I’ve also provided the script/transcript for my upcoming episode of “Astro-Biological:”, which introduces us to the concept of the Goldilocks Zone….

G’day! Welcome to Astro-biological:!

Porridge!

Life.

Porridge!

Life!

Ben what the heck are you talking about? What’s the connection?

 Let’s go check out THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE!!!!

INTRO BIT

Life, as I like to remind you, is really special. Here on earth, life exists only because certain conditions are met. Today, we’ll consider water. Everything needs it, but it only exists as a liquid at the surface here on Earth. 

So? Big deal right?

Well it is actually!

Check out the sun. Giver of life! Driver of climate! Pumping out some pretty respectable energy. How much?

384.6 yottawatts.

Yotta whatta?

1 yottawatt equals 10 with 26 zeroes after it!

Brutal! And the sun is a pretty average star! Nothing special about it!So there’s plenty of sunlight for everyone!

Could other planets benefit from the sun’s golden goodness the way we do? Let’s take a look at the inner planets. They’re the only ones that really matter in all this…

Let’s see…Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The rocky planets. The so called “Terrestrial Planets”. 

Mercury is 58 million kilometres from the sun. That’s really close. This close proximity has turned Mercury’s surface into an oven, where liquid water couldn’t possibly last.

Let’s visit the next in line: Venus. Venus is similar to Earth in composition, gravity and size. Long ago Venus might have had oceans just like Earth, but again the planets closeness to the sun and other factors saw all that water disappear into space. Venus is now the hottest place in the solar system. Definitely no liquid water there anymore!

Wanna know more about what happened to Earth’s twin? This guy I know made a video! 

Earth! Beautiful Earth. Our home. Every thing’s home actually. Eighty per cent of earth’s surface is covered by liquid water. There’s so much spare water here that our bodies are mostly made up of it! It’s absolutely everywhere, even locked up deep in the earth’s crust! Enough of earth. We’ve all been there.

Next planet out:

Mars. The cool planet. Every one wants to go here. Pity it’s so cold! Liquid water may exist here in tiny amounts, but most of the red planet’s water is locked up as ice or permafrost just below it’s surface. Plenty there for future colonists to use, but nothing readily available for biological processes. Pity. It’s a beautiful planet. Just ask Matt Damon!

So what is the Goldilocks Zone then?

Here’s the inner solar system. Mercury, Venus,  Earth and Mars. Let’s visit a special guest who can explain the Goldilocks Zone for us…

Chef Ben bit. (Watch the video when it’s up!)

Nice work Chef! So, if Earth was a bowl of porridge it would be the one Goldilocks ate: the one that was just right! it’s that simple! Earth is lucky enough to be at the perfect distance from the sun, where water likes to slosh around in liquid form. Things would be a lot different here if that wasn’t the case. 

So that’s it for now! A simple but important piece of information. The Goldilocks Zone!

How am I going so far?

If you thought I was alright, then subscribe for more. If you thought this video was useful to you, then give it a like! Likes help this channel get noticed. That little notifications bell is just the thing if you want to see more. Go on. You know you want to.

Thanks for watching astrobiological. Giving you the universe in plain human. Ciao!

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Europa: Life Beneath the Ice?

The Chicken and the Egg

 

There’s an old theory known as Panspermia,  which hypothesises that life got its initial leg up on Earth (around 4-3.5 billion years ago) after a long journey across space. According to this theory, (which at the very least is quite reasonable) the ingredients and precursor molecules for life hitched a ride on comets and asteroids and reached earth early in its history, when these objects impacted our planet. As for where these molecules and ingredients came from…well, that is a real chicken and the egg type question, and one I will be exploring in more detail in future posts as well as videos.

Not all astrobiologists agree with this of course. Each to their own. Science and seeking the truth is all about disagreement. I’ll leave the debate alone and for the purpose of this post assume that Panspermia is a pretty valid idea.

Screenshot_2017-09-11-12-58-26-1
You said it Neil. Funny thing is, look at all the people agreeing with him. Kinda ironic?

 

This post (and the YouTube video it will eventually give birth too) is essentially a piece of speculation. Looking into the future of space exploration, what is waiting for us out there?

Europa has been the hearts desire of many an astrobiologist for decades now. Ever since the Pioneer 10  probe rushed past back in 1973 and sent back the first pictures it’s been a bit of a rock star. Why? Because it ticks a whole lot of boxes on the “Things could live here because…” checklist.

Things could live here because….

Let’s look at some of those boxes. And why they’re important. First of all:

1: Europa is  now widely believed to harbour a substantial subsurface ocean: of actual honest to gosh water. How have we come to this conclusion?

Take a look at the surface of Europa.

It sure is striking. Huge channels and streaks criss cross the moons frozen exterior.

And that’s about it.

No craters? Callisto is part of the Jovian family as well, and is the most heavily cratered  object in the solar system. Compared to Europa Callisto is a teenager with weapons grade acne.

Like an explosion in a pizza factory.

Europas surface is geologically new, having been resurfaced recently (in geological terms). Something is wiping the slate clean on Europa, and this is our first clue that Europa is special. Something under that icy shell is acting upon the surface and rearranging it.

Astrobiologists think it’s water. A lot of it. Europas surface is basically a shell of ice, rafting and fracturing like pack ice on Earth. Essentially vast swathes of pack ice remodel the Europan landscape and are thought to be it’s version of our plate tectonics.

 

2: Some time ago, none other than the venerable Charles Darwin postulated that life began in a “warm little pond”, whereby the right combination of mineral salts and energy resulted in the first biomolecules. Ever since this first speculation, forwarded in a private letter from Darwin to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1871, science has placed an emphasis on water as the likeliest birthplace of life on Earth. Darwin believed in a warm little pool, many other theories have thought bigger, fingering the ocean as the culprit. Whatever the case may be, and whatever supporting evidence gives testament to it, water (for now) is the one thing no life can exist without.

And Europa has a lot of it. The deepest point on our planet lies at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, some 12 kilometres below sea level. That is deep to be sure, but the abyssal plains of the world’s oceans are on average about 4 kilometres beneath the waves. Europas subsurface ocean averages a cold dark 62 kilometres deep!

Where do the minerals fit into this? Patience, grasshopper!

Jupiter pumps out extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation. This is, of course, a constant engineering hurdle for the various missions that have paid the gas giant a visit. It’s extensive family of moons: some 67 in total are constantly immersed in this field, which interacts with various bodies in various ways. Europas magnetic field is no different,  and is an induced magnetic field.  This is a special kind of magnetic field produced when an electromagnetic field is passed through some kind of conductive material. In the case of Europa this material is believed to be an ocean, brimming with conductive mineral salts. Such an ocean would be a vast salty brew, fulfilling Darwin’s vision somewhat.

Europa-magnetic-field.jpg
Europa’s magnetic field changes in relation to it’s position within Jupiter’s magnetic field, indicating it isn’t generated by the moon itself, but is induced by Jupiter.

What of Darwin’s energy source? To understand this a little more, and to see what it means for Europa, we need to understand that all life requires an energy source. On Earth, the vast majority of life is solar powered. What does this mean? You can’t just go outside and photosynthesise! You need to go to the fridge and get a snack. Food keeps you going, right?

Absolutely. But where did that food come from? Whether  you’re a vegetarian or a carnivore, ultimately every single thing in that fridge of yours exists because of the sun. Either it grew from the ground, something came along and ate it, or something bigger came along and ate that something. The sun is at the base of this very simplified food web, and it’s been doing it forever of course.

No solar power is not some fandangled idea. Renewable energy has been around, well, since before life began. The sun provides energy not only for Earth’s climate and hydrological cycle, it also fuels all photosynthesis on Earth. Plant life not only provides food and oxygen for animal and fungal life, it also contributes to climatic processes.  Yes, the Sun is really important.

Ah, you think, how does any of this relate to Europa? The frozen moon is a bit further out from the sun than warm little earth, at about 485 million kilometres. Not much use for solar power out there! Well it turns out that not all life on Earth is completely dependent on the Sun after all.

Enter the hydrothermal vents.

These are exciting and mysterious places, home to a bewildering and diverse array of lifeforms. They are found where life seemingly has no business existing, and yet there they are: on the vast abyssal plains of the ocean floor. Miles away from any sunlight, subjected to pressures and extremes that would kill us instantly life thrives in a hostile alien world.

Champagne_vent_white_smokers
A white smoker, situated at the Champagne Vent in the Marianas Trench, Pacific Ocean. Image: NOAA

These ecosystems are based not on photosynthesis, whereby sunlight is converted into a food source for plants, but chemosynthesis. Down here life has found a way, to steal a phrase from “Jurassic Park”. Literally, bacteria have evolved to survive at the hellish temperatures and pressures around these hydrothermal  vents, where the water can reach temperatures of over 350 degrees Celsius. With nothing but a rich mineral brew spewing from these vents out onto the ocean floor, these bacteria have learnt to make use of this brew. These bacteria then form the basis for some of the most intriguing ecosystems on the planet. These vents are an oasis of life, all alone in the abyssal night.

life-on-europa
Concept art showing the possible structure beneath the ice. Image: NASA/JPL

Does Europa have the capacity for such vents, far beneath the ice? On Earth, the vents are geothermally heated. Earth posesses a core of molten iron, heated by slow radioactive decay of elements from the formation of the planet 4.6 billion years ago. This internal heat eventually reaches the upper mantle of the planet, seeping through in more threadbare regions of the Earth’s crust,  Europa is heated by Jupiter itself. As the moon orbits the gas giant, tidal forces act upon it, squeezing and massaging. Resulting frictional forces are believed to sustain a heated core, which, just like earth, could provide energy to keep systems of hydrothermal vents running on the abyssal plains of Europa.

So. Europa may tick some really important boxes, for the existence of life. Water: definitely check. Minerals and organic compounds: check. A source of heat, to power possible life: check.

Now the only thing for it is to visit; to get through the icy shell to the ocean beneath….

To be continued….

Next post takes a ride beneath the ice.

17th November 2017:

And here is the video for which this post formed the script:


 

Further Reading and Resources

http://geology.com/stories/13/life-on-europa/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia

http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=83497&tid=7842&cid=70453

View story at Medium.com

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtomics/did-life-evolve-in-a-warm-little-pond/

http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/212_spring_2015/Amir_Raz/amir_raz/Magnetic.htm

https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/hunting-the-building-blocks-of-alien-life?utm_content=bufferc7d0e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

Astro-biological: The living universe 

I have been hard at work rebooting my Bens Lab YouTube channel. This has been prompted by a realisation that a niche topic such as astrobiology is not only insanely interesting, it can keep a niche channel alive, away from the blinding glare of the massively monolithic and sucessful general science channels dominating the platform.


Astrobiology is almost too interesting, and there is plenty of scope for all kinds of interesting viewing. It’ll at least be fun making them. There’s also a huge array of related topics, with some room even for a bit of speculation and fun!

To that end I’ve rebadged the channel a little, and here is the first “proper” video from Ben’s Lab presents: astro-biological: 

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?

Only the TALLEST CLIFFS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM!!

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,

 

Ben.

 

References and Further Reading:

https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/rains-of-terror-on-exoplanet-hd-189733b

https://www.space.com/21157-uranus-neptune-winds-revealed.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valles_Marineris

https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110404.html

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/io

https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_956.html

https://www.space.com/27334-uranus-frankenstein-moon-miranda.html

#Astrobiology

Were I offered the chance to study again, I know what I would do. Astrobiology. In the last few years it’s been something I’ve followed. The trouble is, I’m easily interested in almost anything I come across. However, I would study astrobiology in a heartbeat.  So, what is astrobiology? 

Ever since humanity made its first baby steps beyond our thin layer of atmosohere astrobiology has looked to the stars, emerging as a discipline in its own right. It is the study of life on other worlds. Moreover, it is the study of life itself and asks the question: could life exist anywhere else? 

We’ve all seen the movies and heard stories. The idea of life on other worlds has had a vice like grip on the human imagination for a very long time. Every single culture on Earth has some accounts of visitors from the sky and encounters with otherworldly beings.

“Ezekiel’s Vision” by Mattheaus Merian. Image: Wikimedia Commons

From Judeo-Christian mythology and tradition to the various disparate and yet somewhat homogenous mythologies of Australia’s aboriginal people, it seems we’ve had visitors from the sky for quite some time.

Wandjina rock art, from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. Image: Wikipedia

 At least so the stories go. Those stories will persist in one form or another for a long time to come, and the popular imagination is still fired up with tales of otherworldly visitors. Just trawl social media sometime and you’ll see what I mean. A search on YouTube: that paragon of level headedness, for a term such as “Area 51” will yield a miasma of conspiracy theories, alien “sightings” and general silly nonsense. Many of these videos have had millions of views. In my first search one particular video had over 20 million views. It was a “sighting” of an alien strolling across a road in some generic American desert setting. 

20 million views? Seriously?

People are eating this stuff up. But what does it have to do with astrobiology? Our desire for interstellar neighbours is always a little, shall we say, elitist? Does all extraterrestrial life need to be flying around in advanced spacecraft and spying on us: the cosmic equivalent of an ant farm? 

An early version of the Big Brother house. Image: Factzoo.com

(Are we that fascinating?)
Astrobiology specifically looks for life beyond earth. That life doesn’t need to be a wookie or a Borg drone. Something as simple as a bacterium would rock the worlds of astrobiologists everywhere. 

Missions to other worlds in the solar system have had this in mind for decades now. Missions to Mars almost turned the science world on its head when micro traces believed to be produced by single celled organisms were relayed back to space agencies. Big news indeed. Life on another world. Not Yoda, to be sure, but better! The jury is still out on this “evidence” but time will tell!

Possible biogenic structures, found in the Alan Halls meteorite, Antarctica in 1996. Image: NASA

You see, astrobiology is the search for life beyond earth. It is the application of a diverse set of scientific disciplines (which includes but isn’t restricted to) chemistry, geology, biology, planetolgy,  ecology and astronomy to look for anything. Any life at all. If human or robotic explorers ventured across the gulf of space and found something as simple as a bacterium it would be a massive deal. From the time of earth’s formation circa 4.6 billion years ago life took around a 

Life really was pushing it uphill in the beginning. Image: NASA/JPL

billion years to appear. The story of life isn’t the key point here. On earth life still took a long time to gain traction. It was only around 800 million years ago that anything as complex as a sponge first appeared, and it went through a pounding before all this happened. The Late Heavy Bombardment, a highly toxic and reducing atmosphere; likely similar to that on Titan today, which was replaced by another highly toxic atmosphere: oxygen. This change led to the greatest mass extinction this planet has ever known. An irradiated, toxic lethal planet somehow gave rise to life. 
Astrobiology looks at life on this primeval earth and posits the question: if it could make it here, it kind of stands to reason that it could develop somewhere else. Earth now is a benign paradise, possessing a very particular set of attributes that enable life to thrive. Among these; a thick atmosphere and life giving heat from a nearby sun which respectively enable liquid water to exist at the surface and provide the fundamental energy for life to prosper. Earth possesses an active magnetosphere which shields life from cosmic radiation.  These are only some of the factors that make earth just right, like the proverbial bowl of porridge. In fact, in honour of that famous metaphor, Earth is said to orbit the Sun in a “Goldilocks Zone” This means that we are just far enough from the sun that the temperature range is just right for liquid water to exist at its surface. Hence the thing with the porridge.

Many other worlds we’ve examined don’t have any or all of these qualities, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. 

Life is seemingly turning up everywhere we look these days, and the more we look the more we see that life is extremely tenacious    From the clouds above us to hadean environments deep within the earth’s crust to active nuclear reactors life seems to be able to survive anywhere. 


That’s what gives astrobiologists hope.
This post is to be the outline of an upcoming episode on my “Ben’s Lab” YouTube channel. For any who are following the channel (thank you!) It will be undergoing renovations. The subject matter will focus more on things near and dear to my heart, and astrobiology is one of those things!  If you like astrobiology please leave suggestions for episode ideas in the comments, or share this with others who like it as well.

References and resources:
This list is not comprehensive and is intended to begin those who are interested on beginning their own research; 

https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/about/
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Hills_84001
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1932751/
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/life-found-deep-inside-earths-oceanic-crust/
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans

#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.

wp-1497247142479.
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….

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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?

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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.

 

Ben.

References and Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titan_(moon)

http://www.elijahwald.com/origin.html

https://www.seeker.com/life-continues-within-the-body-after-death-evidence-shows-2212720233.html

http://www.medicaldaily.com/life-after-death-according-science-cells-fight-stay-alive-long-after-body-dies-409525

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5303275/

P.S.

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. 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClvBq6G-DkIlKci7xXdWYzA

C.S.I. : #Ceres

 Warning: some graphic imagery

Soundtrack: something from Blade runner. If not that, then “Worlds in Collision” by God is an Astronaut

One day…

Someone will die in space. Some day someone will be killed whilst working on an offworld colony or space station.

One day space will just be another workplace, and all workplaces have accidents.

Perhaps more to the point; space will not be devoid of crime. As humanity begins it’s gradual ascent beyond low earth orbit everything that makes us human will follow us out into space: our drive to explore, to look upon new vistas, and our darker side. It makes sense really. The corporate world will be at the forefront of the conquest of space. Big money will be planting it’s flag whether it can. Wherever money goes, corruption soon follows. One day someone will unwittingly join a select group of other human beings who have achieved a first in space. They will be the first murder victim.
Law enforcement will extend its reach to the other worlds of the Solar System. I don’t think to speculate on the finer details and brushstrokes of law and order beyond Earth. I do think it would be an interesting thought experiment to wonder just what may await the very first space cop to come across the very first murder scene in space….

Some things won’t change. Image: Pixabay

Ceres comes around, drifting into view as your transport approaches. The mining facility on the dwarf planet and the transports AI exchange pleasantries; handshakes, exchanges of code and other silicon bureaucratica dart across several thousand kilometres of vacuum. The transport is on old Tesla: a pilotless model now used as a taxi between outposts in the asteroid belt. Ceres is of course the largest settlement out here. Ever since the Asteroid mining business took off in a big way in the 2050s, this stretch of space between Mars and Jupiter is the new Wild West. 16 Psyche; the remnant metallic core of an ancient protoplanet is the real prize. Ceres is the main stop off point to 16 Psyche and scores of other frontiers out here. Now it’s the first crime scene in the Asteroid belt. 

Screenshot 2017-06-23 22.54.09
Ceres contains most of the Asteroid Belt’s mass, and may be an important port of call one day. Image: Solar System Scope

You’re quietly amazed it’s taken this long. 16 Psyche has seen plenty of action. It’s heavily guarded. It has to be. It’s worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars. Plenty of skirmishes. Ceres is quieter, but people will be people. Get a few hundred thousand together in an enclosed space and they begin acting funny.

Not funny haha either.

See, cops on Earth have it real easy. People have been killing each other there since before they were people. There’s a lot of knowledge to draw upon, because forensics and taphonomy have several thousand years of crime to study. All of it earthbased. Up until this day outer space has technically been a Utopia. No killing. You feel like you’re investigating a murder in the Garden of Eden.

We meet again… Image: Pixabay

Boy, that would be a story and a half….
So what does happen to a body in space? What happens to a body on another planet? Every single environment we can think of beyond Earth is utterly hostile to anything larger than a bacterium, and even they have only managed to hitch rides on spacecraft. Life isn’t at home in space. So how would death work there?

That sounds like a dumb question. Death doesn’t work. When you die you stop working, right? Huh!

Death is messy, but it’s actually a process, with discrete steps. Of course all living things cease functioning eventually, but for all multicellular organisms death is akin to synchronised swimming: hard to figure out with a lot happening beneath the surface. 

Death comes to us all, from the smallest bacterium to the largest redwood tree. It had one obvious and final result, but this result can be arrived at in many ways. It all depends on exactly what you are too. 

When you die, yes, you stop working, but like a cheesy zombie movie it doesn’t really end there. There’s still plenty happening as your body transitions back to inanimate matter. Because that’s what’s happening really. You’re being broken down and cycled back into the firmament.

I’m sure the undead will make an appearance in future blog posts… Image: Pixabay

The Stages of Death
Fresh

Okay. So you’re dead. (Just work with me okay?) Your heart has stopped and your body is switching off quickly. About 4 minutes after death your body begins to undergo autolysis.  This essentially means that your body is digesting itself. This is as disgusting as it sounds. As oxygen decreases to be replaced by carbon dioxide cellular enzymes in the body are free to roam unchecked. So off they go, breaking down all in their path; rupturing cell membranes and releasing their contents into the mix. It’s like the prison guards have suddenly stopped being paid and so they decide to let all the prisoners loose. Obviously a riot would ensue. Autolysis is your body being broken down by a biochemical prison riot. 

Bloat

Gases are produced inside your body by all of these enzymes and microorganisms: particularly in your gut. Your body swells like an unopened can of coke after being shaken. 

Putrefaction. Yuck. 

This is where the magic happens. Microorganisms are now officially in charge. Further breakdown of tissue turns you into a fetid mess. Those gases produced during the bloat stage? Those ones in your now distended gut? They begin escaping; sometimes violently. We all know what happens when gas escapes our bodies.  Sometimes this out gassing is so nasty it ruptures the skin! Putrefaction essentially means that decay is running rampant and you now resemble an extra from “The Walking Dead”. If you’ve ever seen that show, or anything featuring the undead, you’ll notice that often the dead are crawling with maggots. This is an important stage in decomposition. Breakdown by insects and larger animals is part of putrefaction, and a necessary function performed by these creatures. If nothing broke down dead bodies the world would be awash with diseased corpses. Forget “The Walking Dead”. This is nowhere near as cool as it sounds. 

The last discrete stages of decomposition are mummification and skeletonisation. Mummification means that whatever is left behind  after voracious bacteria have exhausted your body’s nutritional goodness and larger creatures have cleaned you out and moved on just dries out. Usually this is skin. It becomes a dry dessicated shrink wrap around your bones, which are themselves leaching their component compounds into the environment.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Death. 

Hang on, you say. I thought this post was about Ceres! I thought it was gonna be  detective story set in space, like  CSI meets The Expanse! Well it is, but to understand how death works and to understand death in space we only have a single frame of reference: Earth. 

A marsupial body farm. Decomposition on earth is at the whim of countless variables. Image: LaTrobe University.

Let’s head back to our unfortunate murder victim, sailing serenely around the largest asteroid/dwarf planet in the solar system. You’ve gone out and collected the body, cursing several poor life choices as you bring it into your transport. 

Be a space detective in a someone’s blog post they said. It’ll be fun they said. 

  The body on the slab can’t tell you much. Trying to work out a time of death will be problematic, at best. It’s hard to tell how long this guy’s been floating home. See, the stages of death mentioned before tend to be fairly discrete and take place in a fairly predictable sequence. Of course Earth is one big mess of wildly changing environments and variables. Gil Grissom would have found life easier out here. Space is a little more unchanging.

When someone steps beyond the veil you can almost set your watch (metaphorically speaking) to these physical stages:

Pallor mortis.  A paleness sets in within minutes; more noticeably in those with lighter skin. 

Algor mortis. Internal temperature regulation is switched off. The body’s temperature acclimatises to that of the external environment. The rate of acclimation can actually be used with some precision by investigators to determine a reasonable time frame.

Rigor mortis.  A stiffening of the body occurs around 4 hours after death. This is due to chemical changes in the body causing  cellular fluids to gel. This can be affected by the environment. For example, freezing cold can greatly prolong the time it takes rigor mortis to take hold. 

Livor mortis. When a body has been prone for some time blood (particularly the heavier components like red blood cells) settle, pooling in the dependent or lower portions of the body. This causes reddish purple discolouration in these lower portions. Livor mortis usually starts becoming really apparent about 2 hours after death.  

Death is what happens when physics regains control of the body. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Alright then. You’ve read the Wikipedia pages. You know how death works. 
On Earth. 

But you’re in the asteroid belt. There’s no gravity, no air and no insects or scavengers out here to make short work of this poor sap’s remains..

Time to roll your sleeves up.  

A lot of things are confounding your attempts to determine a time of death. First of all being in a vacuum has freeze dried him. He went out for a nice space walk without his helmet, remember? His nostrils and mouth look burnt because they are. In a vacuum liquids instantly boil away. It’s no different to what happens when you open a can of coke. The pressurised carbon dioxide in the drink depressurises,  forming bubbles of gas. This is a more extreme example. The saliva and fluids in his nose boiled away instantly. Ouch. 


People don’t explode in space. Forget every B-grade science fiction movie you ever saw. Your skin is actually pretty tough- as are your eyeballs. This guy is bloated though. Depressurisation has caused the water in his body, particularly in his circulatory system, to start boiling. His blood vessels have expanded and ruptured. Not to mention the fact that this guy didn’t listen to any safety instructions during his time in space. Golden Rule when being cast out onto the Big Empty: exhale. Do not hold your breath. Have you ever blown too much air into a balloon? The air inside becomes pressurised, more so than the air around the balloon. We’ve all scared enough small kids and cats to know what happens. You’re trying not to imagine what’s left of this guy’s lungs. 

Yikes. Maybe your lungs don’t quite do this, but the principle is the same. Image: Giphy

So anyway. There goes bloat as a yardstick. 
So. Your murder victim is frozen, freeze dried and a purple mess with a case of weapons grade sun burn. No sunblock out here. No pretty blue sky protecting him from deadly solar radiation. Had he survived he would have had a million percent chance of terminal cancer anyway, and soon. Livor mortis is nowhere to be seen. No gravity well down which red blood cells can settle. Algor mortis seems tricky too. He didn’t freeze instantly. Again, forget those bad Sci Fi movies. Heat transfer happens via conductance. Space is a vacuum.  There’s nothing to draw heat away from this man’s body. He’s frozen now, but he’s not a popsicle. About the only normal stage of death you notice is rigor mortis. The ion channels and transfers involved in muscle contraction and relaxation don’t seem to be affected by being in a vacuum. 

Maggots and scavengers feeding on a body are disgusting to be sure, but they’re also really handy for determining how long a body has been lying around somewhere.  Insects are purely driven by instinct, so on finding fresh meat they deposit eggs, or feed or interact with the corpse in very discrete waves or phases. These phases and even their durations are so predictable that forensic entemology is one of the most useful tools investigators have when determining times of death.

Stupid earthbound forensics guys you mutter under your breath. They think they’re so cool, don’t they? Not so much as a tick on this guy. Not even bacteria or fungi. They don’t do well in a vacuum and they’re all in cold storage. Radiation would have wiped most of them out too. This guy is basically perfectly preserved. No pooling of blood, no putrefaction and no chew marks from hungry scavengers!

It looks like you might have to look beyond regular physical and chemical factors surrounding death here, because out in space they mostly don’t apply. 

Cause of death? Er, being thrown into space without a helmet! He would have passed out within a minute or so. Blood pressure became essentially nil, resulting in no oxygen getting to his brain at all. In addition exposure to the vacuum caused oxygen to be dumped from his brain. He died of asphyxiation, before ruptured lungs and internal membranes got to him. 

Your first instinct as a cop, and particularly as a space cop in this blog post is to establish a time of death. Unfortunately, no such studies have been carried out just yet. Mankind is still stuck in Low Earth Orbit. If the forces of ignorance ever gain control (if they haven’t already) we may never leave LEO. 

But, if we do…it’ll be business as usual. Crime will colonise the solar system along with us and wouldn’t it be useful to get some space forensics knowledge under our belts, so we’re ready and waiting for it?

What do you think? 

References and Resources:

Vass, Arpad A (November 2001). “Beyond the grave – understanding human decomposition” (PDF). Microbiology Today. Spencers Wood: Society for General Microbiology. 28: 190–192.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livor_mortis

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decomposition
http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2012/08/how-would-you-die-in-outer-space.html
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arpad_Vass
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/survival-in-space-unprotected-possible/
http://wiki2.benecke.com/index.php?title=All_Mark_Benecke_Publications#Forensic_Entomology
http://listverse.com/2013/07/06/10-things-that-happen-to-an-exposed-human-in-space/
https://www.spaceanswers.com/space-exploration/incredible-footage-of-a-nasa-test-subject-being-exposed-to-a-space-like-vacuum/