Musical Milliner

October 21, 2010

Ascolta Tutti

Our resident guest columnist, professional astronomer  Claude Plymate of NSO at Kitt Peak takes up more Big Questions.  This week : Life in the Universe, Part I ~ Are We Martians?

One of the foremost questions in science as well as theology has always been “are we alone in the cosmos?” For the first time we are actually making real headway into answering this fundamental question. Recent results in biology have shown that life is far more tenacious than we ever could have imagined. At the same time, astronomers are demonstrating that planets are rather common companions to stars. Current estimates are that between 30 – 60% of stars include planetary systems. That would indicate that there are something like 30 to 60 billion planetary systems in our galaxy alone! That’s 5 – 10 planetary systems for each individual living on Earth. And if you assume our solar system is somewhat typical, each planetary system likely includes several planets. These overwhelmingly huge numbers makes it very easy to assume that Earth cannot be so special as to be the only place in our Universe where life has taken hold.

Observations of Mars from telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii have found evidence of methane in its thin atmosphere. This methane could be the result of geologic processes but could just as well be a side effect of life – living, farting organisms! What would if mean for the commonality of life throughout the Universe if we were to find it growing right now on our next door planet? Well, it depends. If it was found that life had spontaneously and independently sprang into existence on at least two distinct planets in our solar system, the implication would be that life is easy to get started and that life is likely to be found just about anywhere that the proper conditions exist. If however there is or ever was life on Mars, it is highly likely that it is directly related to life here on Earth and that its origin was not independent.

It is well known that throughout the history of our solar system a significant amount of asteroidal material has been flung back-and-forth between the Earth & Mars. The Martian meteorite ALH84001 made quite a media splash back in the 1996 when a team of NASA researches announced that structures imbedded in the rock appeared to show fossilized evidence of microbes. The controversy continues about the origin and meaning of these structures but it does clearly show that material from Mars occasionally does make the trek to Earth. Presumably, although not nearly as common, rocks that have been blasted off of the Earth by asteroid impacts should also occasionally find their way to Mars. (Mars’ weaker gravity and thinner atmosphere makes it easier to eject material off that planet than from the Earth. At the same time, more meteors will get pulled into Earth’s deeper gravity well.) It’s been shown that many types of microbes can easily survive inside a rock catapulted off of a planet and in the harsh conditions of interplanetary space for the time required for travel between Mars and Earth. This cross-contamination between the two planets would seem to make it highly likely that any life there is directly related to life here. The concept of life on a planet being seeded by life from elsewhere goes by the name panspermia. Panspermia makes it quite possible that we are all Martians!

As cool as it may seem to think that we might have or had microbial relatives living on Mars, it would tell us nothing about how likely or how often life gets started in the first place. Mars, however, is far from our last possible place to look for extraterrestrial life inside our solar system. Several of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn are believed to have liquid water oceans below frozen ice mantles. Any of these sub-surface oceans might make comfortable ecospheres for extraterrestrial critters. And it is rather unlikely that Earth or Martian bugs could have made the journey that far out in the solar system. Any life out there is quite unlikely to be related to us. If any other life that is truly unrelated to life here on Earth is found within our solar system, the odds are overwhelming that life must be pervasive throughout the Universe.

This leaves us at this the moment without knowing how easy it is for life to get itself started. What is clear is that once life does get going, it quickly adapts to a very wide range of conditions; I think the quote from Jurassic Park was “life finds a way.” Even if we find that life is difficult and takes a long time to get started, there are so many planets that have been around for such a very long time that the odds seem good that life – at least microbial life – is common across the galaxy.
Claude Plymate
Engineering Physicist
National Solar Observatory ry
http://www.noao.edu/noao/staff/plymate

(c)GoshGusMusic(ascap)2010

July 12, 2010

Scherzo Tutti: Symmetry Violation

Our resident physicist & occasional guest columnist Claude Plymate offers something for our lazy summer brains to consider.

Symmetry Violation

There is something very strange about the universe we live in and the evidence is quite literally all around us. Go ahead, look around. What do you see? Stuff. Everywhere, stuff. Now that might not seem all that profound at first until you think about the conditions in the very early universe. In the smallest fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was compacted into a tiny volume. All the energy in the Universe was contained it this minuscule space. The temperature was so extreme that matter couldn’t yet even exist! The immense energy density would cause material to spontaneously pop in and out of existence. As the Universe expanded, energy was spread over a greater volume and the temperature dropped. Matter & antimatter began to condense out but would pair up and annihilate almost immediately.

Now we were taught that matter & antimatter are exactly symmetric differing only in the sign of some of their parameters, such as charge and spin. It would seem, therefore, that they should have been produced in equal quantities. But obviously this was not the case. After all the matter & antimatter paired up and converted back to energy, there was a small residual amount of matter left over – all the stuff you see around you! All matter we see today is a result of this minor excess in production of matter over antimatter. Apparently, our Universe has a slight proclivity for stuff versus anti-stuff. The fact that more matter was originally produced is what is known as a symmetry violation. (Specifically CP-violation. “C” for charge conjugate and “P” for parity meaning the particles are mirror images of each other.)

Why there is a preference for stuff over anti-stuff isn’t really understood. As a physicist, it would be more satisfying to have a nice simple symmetric universe but without this complication, the Universe would be a very bland place without any matter to look at, or for that matter, no “you” to look at it. It seems quite profound how perfectly CP-violation is tuned to allow a universe so well suited for things like us to exist. Many might see this as an example of intelligent design by some omnipotent deity. It is all too easy to come to such a conclusion. But, must such remarkable-seeming coincidences require invoking the supernatural? Some might argue “what else could it be?” Not at all if you assume ours is not the only Universe, only one amongst an unimaginably huge and diverse multiverse. It doesn’t matter how unlikely the combination of parameters are, if you try enough examples, you’ll eventually hit upon the ideal magical seeming mix. And of course, we find ourselves in one of the extraordinarily rare universes that is ideally fine-tuned to allow us to exist. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be any stuff and wouldn’t be any you to look at it.

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Claude Plymate, Engineering Physicist

National Solar Observatory
http://www.noao.edu/noao/staff/plymate
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(c)GoshGusMusic(ascap)2010

May 10, 2010

Strani eventi: Physics of Precognition or Just Fuzzy Logic?

Filed under: empricism,Faith,Language,metaphysics,precognition — by Musical Milliner @ 10:32 pm
Tags: , , ,
(At left, the Carina Nebula. Photo courtesy of NOAO.edu)

A few days ago, I had a metaphysical discussion with an old friend, Claude Plymate. Claude is an astronomer. A real astronomer who has spent his life massaging a very special observatory, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope atop Kitt Peak outside of Tucson. Claude has cred. His wife, Teresa Bippert is also an amazing astrophysicist who does crazy things with optics at the University of Arizona- things I can’t begin to understand. Both attended undergraduate school with me. Just so you know:

“The McMath-Pierce solar telescope is the world’s largest solar telescope, and the world’s largest unobstructed-aperture optical telescope with a diameter of 1.6 meters. Permanent instruments include a dual grating spectrograph capable of extended wavelength coverage (0.3-12 microns), a 1-meter Fourier Transform Spectrometer for both solar and laboratory analysis, and a high-dispersion stellar spectrometer.

Important discoveries include: detection of water and isotopic helium on the Sun; solar emission lines at 12 microns; first measurement of Kilogauss magnetic fields outside sunspots and the very weak intra-network fields; first high resolution images at 1.6 and 10 microns; detection of a natural maser in the Martian atmosphere.” (http://tinyurl.com/26vu3sc)  Smart folks, these friends of mine.

For me, our chat was a flashback to the days when a group of about eight to twelve of us undergrads sat around a large round table, drinking coffee and arguing and speculating over the Big Questions late into the night. We studied different disciplines, but among the many other things we had in common was one biggie: we were night owls. Students of astronomy & related sciences, writers and musicians. And there was the campus radio station in which we criss-crossed at various times.  People who were up awaiting  a celestial event, or the quiet in which to think, or the need to burn off energy from a rehearsal or performance. These were the people I loved most, and after all these years, know that I still do.

I got into the subject of precognition with Claude. Just like the old days. I told a story of an experience I had some years ago. I was on our sailboat, pre-kid era. We had dropped anchor and slept in Clipper Cove between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, near where we berthed. In the early morning, I looked up at the Bay Bridge nearby, and pondered aloud to my spouse, “Do you see the ramp on the lower deck (eastbound) of the bridge by the bottom of the cantilever? It looks like one of those ramps kids use to launch their skateboards. Wouldn’t it be weird if a car drove up it and flipped into the Bay?”  The guy looked at me cock-eyed. He had learned by then that sometimes I say weird things that come true.

We had a lovely sail, tied up the boat and headed to the clubhouse to use the facilities. Walking up the dock, we heard sirens. Lots of sirens, and a Coast Guard helicopter zoomed over us to the south side of the bridge. We noticed traffic stopped on the lower deck.  We thought, “Oh shit. Bridge accident. Might as well go fix a drink and hang out until the thing is cleared.”  True, we were going back home into the City on the upper, western deck, but a serious accident will occasionally slow the whole structure.

In the clubhouse, actually “shack” was a more fitting description of the Treasure Island Yacht Club back then,  nobody was around. We turned on the television to see if there was information available.

Yes, there was.  A car had driven off  the little ramp, gone over the side of the bridge and into the Bay. There were fatalities. Spouse performed a double cock-eye at me. Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap my head around the big picture. Someone later asked me if I felt responsible. That never entered my mind.  Just absurd. I may practice certain spiritual rituals,  but overall I embrace empiricism. I have no explanation for this experience, or any of  the others. No way to prove or disprove. So I just let it be.

But Claude, being grounded in empiricism and the scientific method wrestles with these questions every day. Claude and I talked about my story and a few related matters, and this is what he wrote. It is used by Claude’s permission.


“I’d like to apologize from the start for the new-agey, pseudoscientific tone of this. Recently, I’ve been hearing about some experiments that appear to show test subjects responding stimuli a fraction of a second BEFORE receiving the stimulus! It is easy to ignore or discard such anomalous results as bad experimental technique or analysis. But what if the results are revealing a real effect? What if there is reproducible laboratory results showing people have some precognitive abilities? Is there any way we might concoct a reasonably conceivable physical explanation for such phenomena? Perhaps what some refer to as the “quantum foam” might provide some insight.

On the smallest scales, the so-called Planck length of around 10^-36 m (trust me, that’s REALLY small), space is expected to deviate from the smooth continuum we’re used to. The contour of space becomes rough or bumpy, changing randomly at each instant. This is where it gets its name quantum foam. In other words, our concept of position becomes fuzzy and even completely breaks down at the very smallest spatial scales. Presumably, time is equally distorted and fuzzy near its smallest divisions. The sizes of these deviations are randomly distributed but heavily weighted toward the smallest scale distortions. However, larger distortions in space/time must also occasionally occur. In this way, it is just conceivable that every once in a while some bit of information will pass from a moment in the future, into the present or even into the past! (Likewise, information from the past could find itself thrust into the future. This, however, would be of less interest and indistinguishable from the normal flow of time and causality.)

Such time/space distortions are happening continuously at every point in the Universe. Larger, even discernibly large, variations in time and/or space are statistically extraordinarily improbable but must occasionally happen. Now consider the brain – it’s made of a whole lot of neurons that are made of lots and lots of quanta. Every once in a while, some of these improbably events must happen in our brains. Could a brain neuron occasionally be triggered by an event that has yet to occur? If so, it would be expected that such occurrences would happen much more frequently for events from the very near future (small fractions of seconds) as apposed to from farther into the future. The ability to reacting to future events would clearly represent a strong survival advantage and would be very strongly selected for. Even if developing precognitive abilities were biologically expensive and/or quite difficult but just possible, evolution would demand that we developed the capability! Might it even be that evolution could have fine-tuned emotions to play the role of filtering out random noise while amplifying important signals? Perhaps this is why precognition tends to be associated with emotionally charged events”

(c) GoshGusMusic (ascap) 2010

For a better, very cool view of the Carina Nebula, check this link from Kitt Peak ‘s website:

http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/star-formation-in-the-carina-nebula/


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