Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Movile - "tiny piece to the jigsaw of understanding Earth"

Rich Boden grew up in the West Midlands in the UK and moved to London to read Chemistry at King’s College London. 2 years into a 4 year programme, he realised his real love was biochemistry and - catalysed by the closure of the Department of Chemistry - he joined the Division of Life Sciences to read Biochemistry. As he had taken a lot of the courses biochemistry students were required to take, he had a lot of gaps in his timetable and was given a final year Immunology project to do instead - published in part in a 2005 publication by Alan Ebringer - this lead to him being bitten by the research bug and growing an urge to do a Ph.D! Inspired by lectures on sulfur metabolism and methylotrophy by Dr Ann Wood, he undertook a second library-based research project with her, looking at the thermodynamic possibilities of life in the putative Martian groundwaters, before taking his final year laboratory project with her, looking at amine-degrading bacteria in the River Thames sediments - published several years later with the addition of further data (Boden et al., 2008). He then did his Ph.D at the University of Warwick - a project covering both methylotrophy and sulfur metabolism - his undergraduate passions - during which he was awarded the 2008 Young Microbiologist of the Year Prize (Society of General Microbiology - now the Professor Sir Howard Dalton Prize, Society of Microbiology). After a short postdoc in biomining with Dr Paul Norris he returned to Professor Colin Murrell’s lab to work on Movile Cave. During this project he was offered a Lecturer position at the University of Plymouth, where he has lead a group working on microbial biochemistry and physiology of sulfur metabolism and developing biotechnologies including mining technologies, biomethane methods and bioremediation of heavy metals. He lives right on the sea and in his spare time enjoys watercolour painting.

Thanks for taking your time to talk with me. So how does one get to visit alien cave? How did you prepare for this exploration?

Near to 10 years ago, the laboratory I was working in at the time was contacted by a cave microbiologist in Romania (Dr Alexandra Hillebrand, Emil Racovita Institute, Bucharest) and sent some samples from the Cave to analyse - which we then published about 2008/9. Around the same time, we wrote a grant application to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK for about £350,000 to employ me for 3 years to work on the microbiology of the Cave. To cut a long story short, we got the grant and we had our first expedition in April 2010 and another a year later (which is the one on YouTube). I originally had no intention of going into the Cave myself but about January 2010 I decided I was turning down a once in a lifetime - once in a career - opportunity and I could not refuse that, so I did it!

How did it feel inside? How much time did you spend there? Do you have experience with similar places? Would you want to go back?

Hot! It’s only about 25 degrees centigrade but the high humidity makes it feel hotter. The air in the Cave is not air as we know it on the surface - it is only 10% oxygen (half the concentration on the surface), 3.5% carbon dioxide (100 times the surface concentration) and also contains methane, and hydrogen. That amount of carbon dioxide makes one feel out-of-breath very quickly and you become tired and slightly sluggish over time. A condition called hyperkapnea starts to happen so you can’t really spend more than 6h in the Cave safely - we limited ourselves to about a 4-5h expedition so we still had 1h to make the ascent to the surface. Getting back out involves a lot of uphill crawling whilst dragging bags and boxes of equipment and finally climbing 20 metres up a rope - which is not easy when you’re already out of breath. I had an accident the last time I went in (which is on YouTube!) where I fell 2 metres and landed on rock - as such, I don’t feel confident going back in, even though I know it would be fine.

Outside world surely helped seed life there, but how self-contained is that cave? Is it really a closed system? If something destroyed life on surface, would Movile Cave ecosystem survive?

It is really 100% sealed, yes. Movile was connected to the surface originally - it was just an ordinary cave until about 5.5 million years ago when a large section of it collapsed, sealing in the region we now call Movile Cave. “Movile” is the Romanian plural for “small hill” because the Cave is underneath a ring of small hills surrounding a depression 500 metres across called the obanul mare - “the great sinkhole” I guess - that was originally a hill too, so quite a large area collapsed, sealing in the Cave. If life was destroyed on the surface would Movile life survive? It’s very probably - as it has no interactions with the surface at all.

How did it benefit your work?

We were reliant on the expeditions to obain samples and do experiments for our work. I actually ended up getting another job about 2 years into the 3 year project so someone else took over from me after I left. In academia, you’re usually on short-term 1 or 3 year contracts until you reach a certain level of experience and you can apply for permanent positions such as being a Lecturer - which is what I did - those jobs don’t come around often so it was too good a chance to take. I still get asked about Movile even now, 5 years after my last expedition, which is always nice.

How can science benefit from studying such exotic and alien environment. What does the inside tell us about the outside?

The point of our work was to try and understand how the complex microbial populations interact with one another and the environment so that the macrobiologists could understand what the nematodes and mites were eating. Our work was a mix of ecology and eco-physiology. All such studies (regardless of the environment studied) add another tiny piece to the jigsaw of understanding Earth and how the various chemical elements cycle around and how life interacts with them.

Biorefinery, bioenergetics and biohydrometallurgy what exactly is that?

That’s a totally unrelated set of work. I lead a research group now working mostly on microbial bioenergetics - how they obtain their energy and, at protein level, how organisms differ at this very basic level. My research group also works on applied microbiology, specifically the use of microorganisms to extract metals from ores (biohydrometallurgy) and then refining and processing the metals into products we can use (biorefinery) - this is cheaper as well as cleaner and greener than current methodologies.

If I’m correct, your research is at least partially connected with ongoing climate change, could you tell my readers something about it?

Only a little connected! I have two postgraduate students jointly with colleagues Dr Mick Hanley (who works on plant-insect interactions and how environmental changes impact these critical relationships) and Prof Camille Parmesan (who works on climate change impacts on insect populations and shares the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize as part of the IPCC). One has been working on how sea-level rises and storm surges impact coastal grasslands - we have looked at every scale from soil chemistry to soil microbiology, plant-microbe interactions, toxicity of salt to plants and how pollenating insect populations changes when plants get damaged by salt - my input to this work is largely the soil chemistry and microbiology. We have another who has been working on the environmental impact of bioenergy crop growth - these are plants that grow really fast and can be burnt to generate electricity or can be fermeted into biomethane - and again, my relationship with the work concerns soil microbiology and chemistry.

Let’s get back to the cave. Is there anything about Movile Cave you’d say was most strange or surprising?

It’s so long ago now it’s honestly hard to remember. We did use a hand-held gas monitor whilst down there and found 0.2% hydrogen in the air - that was totally unexpected - and I remember seeing the insects etc down there and how they totally ignore people or light etc. Sitting in total darkness down there with our helmet lamps turned off was an enjoyable, if sobering, experience. You literally are in another world and totally cut off from Earth as we know it.

This sure is some strange life, but as a Carbon Chauvinist I gotta ask - can you imagine extraterrestrial life that is not carbon based? Or life that is complex but makes it without oxygen?

Well, there are probably more organisms on Earth that operate without oxygen than those that do - don’t forget humans can use pyruvate instead of oxygen, producing lactate, which is what makes your muscles feel heavy when exerted. Microbes using sulfate, nitrate, uranium (VI), ferric iron, manganese (IV), pyruvate, formate and so on as their terminal electron acceptors all exist. There are metazoa and protozoa that can metabolise anaerobically too - Spinoloricus for example. We don’t know how widespread these organisms are yet - you don’t need a very extreme environment for a total lack of oxygen - 0.05mm into dental plaque and there is no oxgen - and your entire large intestine is lacking in oxygen, which is why so many methane-producing Archaea can live there.

As for life without carbon - who knows. I would find it pretty coincidental that all life on Earth that is known uses carbon when there’s so much silicon around but direct homologs just wouldn’t work - respiration producing silicon dioxide (sand), for example! Sounds painful! There was a study a few years ago suggesting an organism used arsenic instead of phosphorus in both DNA and ATP (ATAs, as it became) - not a single lab around the world has been able to replicate that, however. If life ever came along during evolution that used something other than phosphorus, it presumably got out-competed by those that do use as it as they’re more efficient, which is why it’s the norm on Earth. I do believe there must be life elsewhere in the universe, just based on the simplicity of the chemistry that gave rise to Krebs’ cycle on clay surfaces (the work of Gunter Wächtershäuser) - that could easily happen elsewhere - and several variations of the Miller-Urey experiment have shown the building blocks of life could form under the conditions of a variety of planets now.

Thank you for your time!

You can follow dr. Boden’s work on Twitter: @bodenlab or YouTube: bodenrich

Top picture - Copyright (c) 2013 Plymouth University
Rest - Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"We are trained not to jump to conclusions." - a conversation with Carolyn Porco

Carolyn Porco is the go to person when it comes to planetary rings and the small active moon, Enceladus. For the past 25 years she led Cassini imaging team, which brought us some of most spectacular space pictures in the history. She also was part of Voyager mission and New Horizons mission (among other scientific activities).

She concieved the idea of taking the famous “The Day the Earth Smiled” photo. She was on TIME magazine list “The 25 Most Influential People in Space”, on "The 50 People Who Matter Today" list by New Statesman magazine, and on “Wired magazine's first-ever Smart List” Wired magazine.

She also says we should have annual parades celebrating landing on Titan, and I couldn’t agree with her more. In short - she’s awesome and she found time to talk to me.

It seems like the past 12 months were like continuous christmas. We’ve landed on a comet, we’ve entered Ceres’ orbit, and swooshed right by Pluto. How and how soon can we top that? What do you think should be the next big thing or things?

These were all ‘firsts’, and we do love ‘firsts’, don’t we? But they were all relatively small missions. We could top that by doing either or both of the following.

Finally, put a Cassini-class orbiter in orbit around the planet Neptune. Here is a planet that Voyager visited 26 years ago, and it is actually a fascinating planetary system, hosted by a body that is not like Jupiter or Saturn, but different in important regards. And it has, of course, Triton … the ‘cousin’ to Pluto. We only flew by this place, and we need to study it in the way we’ve studied Saturn and its system. An orbiter is clearly the way to do it and would be the only ‘next step’ that could provide a quantum leap over what we found with Voyager.

Send a spacecraft to Enceladus to address one and only one question: Do its geysers, which are sourced in a salty, organics-laden ocean far beneath the surface, contain evidence of life? THAT could be the mission that returns the Holy Grail.

New Horizons will be sending us data for quite some some time, but what would you say is the biggest surprise New Horizons has shown us so far?

The complexity of the Pluto surface is far and away the best and biggest discovery. I can’t say it was totally unexpected: We developed our expectations based on what Voyager found at Triton: a very complex, varied, extensively worked surface, with active plumes reaching 8 km skyward. So, we – or at least, I – expected to see an equivalent level of complexity. But no matter how much you anticipate one thing or another, it’s always a ‘surprise’ when you finally see it because it’s not exactly what you thought. It’s always a variation on a theme.

In Pluto’s case, we expected to see geology born of the process of sublimation and condensation of volatiles. But did anyone expect that there would be a very large but clearly defined region, made of volatiles and seemingly thick enough to flow, showing signs of long-time-scale solid convection (if in fact that theory is correct)? Not at all!

The Pluto images are simply dazzling, and I’m always struck, during these events, at how limited our imaginations were in predicting what would be there. It’s not a failure of thought; it’s more often a failure of imagination that brings about the surprises.

I wonder - can Pluto encounter impact the way we see or study the inner solar system? For example could it somehow impact Cassini mission?

No. First, the Cassini mission is nearly over… just 2 more years to go… and our plans are solidified, with very clear goals. That won’t change. And the two systems are very different: Pluto, remember is tiny, less than half as big as Titan. It’s like a mid-size Saturnian moon (smaller than our moon) at the edge of the solar system. Second, the inner solar system is even more different than Pluto than the Saturnian system is. Remember, it is very, very cold out there. And so the active, volatile materials you’re seeing on the surface of Pluto are very different than the ones we see in the inner solar system. Two entirely different physical realms.

The real scientific significance of the Pluto flyby is that it has shown us what an object in the Kuiper Belt, one that has been more or less left unaltered for billions of year, looks like. We’re looking at processes that no doubt are ancient and have been left to play out for the age of the solar system (or close enough). That is why this flyby has been so thrilling. It’s like visiting the solar system back in the really old days.

For more than a decade Cassini has been giving us georgeous pictures of Saturn and its system. What can we expect in its final years?

More of the same! And hopefully answers to some questions that we’ve long had, like “How massive are the rings?” And “what are the processes that occur in the auroral region on Saturn?” And “Is anywhere else on the south polar terrain of Enceladus warm besides the 4 main fractures?” And “Does Enceladus’ plume vary on long timescales?”

Speaking of Saturn system and Titan… While it seems as different from Earth as it gets (it is a cold moon of a gas giant with methane-rich atmosphere), it also seems eerily similar. Does it mean that if there are Earth-like planets with bodies of water out there, they are going to look very much like our pale blue dot?

If they are rocky and they have water and conditions at the surface are the same, chances are good they will have very similar surface- and atmosphere-altering processes. Therefore, they are likely to look similar: That is, similar landforms. This is what is ‘similar’ about Titan too. What is dissimilar on Titan are the materials: instead of silicate rocks, the ‘hard surface’ is water ice. Instead of water, it’s methane. Like science fiction!

Could you compare Europa and Enceladus in terms of how interesting each one is, or which one you think should be explored first?

I lost this argument. My stance was simple: If the goal is really to find an extraterrestrial habitable zone that could support life and go investigate it, Enceladus was the best find in all the solar system. Its habitable zone is gushing into space and is there for the sampling. Easy sampling too: you don’t have to land, scratch the surface, or dig, or even bunker your spacecraft in lead to protect it from intense radiation. It’s extremely straightforward: make sure your spacecraft is properly equipped and fly through the plume collecting samples.

And we know so much more about Enceladus than we do about Europa, because Galileo had a broken antenna and we didn’t even get to image the entire surface! In contrast, we’ve spent the last 11 years studying Enceladus and we have a very deep level of knowledge on it and its activity.

So all other things being equal, Enceladus was the clear winner.

Europa, however, had a huge ‘following’, as it were, because people had been promoting a mission to Europa for many years, when it was the best astrobiological target around. Well, Enceladus trumped it in the astrobiology arena but the political momentum behind Europa was unstoppable and what carried it to ‘new start’ status.

Now mind you: There are plenty of reasons to study Europa. It obviously has had a fascinating geological and geophysical history, and there is much yet to discover that Galileo couldn’t. So there will be much to learn and it will be a thrilling mission for sure. But what the next Europa mission will largely do is bring our knowledge of that moon up to the level we have on Enceladus today. And only after that point will we be in a position to judge how easy or not it will be to access its ocean.

For now, the operative word in support of Enceladus is ‘Accessibility’!

Most scientists try to be very careful with making extraordinary claims. What extraordinary kind of data or observation would be conclusive enough to announce that we’ve found life on Mars, Europa/Enceladus or on an exoplanet?

When we can hold an alien life form – being it macroscopic of microscopic – in our hand, without all the qualifying conditions that remote sensing of a body requires. Doing that may necessitate bringing samples back to our Earth-based laboratories. But then we’d be in the best situation possible to judge. Until then, we’ll be attaching levels of confidence to our observations. You might find us saying things like, ‘Our instruments have determined that there is a level of chirality in this sample of Enceladus’ plume that is very unlikely to be from anything other than biology’. But there will always be a nagging doubt. Scientists, as you point out, are a conservative bunch. We are trained not to jump to conclusions.

Let’s say there IS life on each. Underground on Mars, in the ocean of one of icy moons, and widespread on one of transiting Earth-like planets. Where would you expect we would discover it first?

If there really is life in each location, AND we mount programs to go after such information, then Enceladus wins because (at least right now) its zone of possibility is the most accessible.

Finding life on exoplanets and being confident that it really is life is going to be extremely challenging. I’m guessing it will mostly be by inference that we make such a discovery, as in, “This exoplanet has the same size, distance from its host star, and surface composition as the Earth, we find oxygen out of equilibrium, and so we conclude …. it likely hosts life”. BUT … we won’t know for sure, and also, we are a long way away from being able to make sure measurements.

Recently you were involved with the movie Star Trek, can you say something about your input?

The director J.J. Abrams posed the question to me: ‘We have a problem. We have the Enterprise returning to the solar system to save the Earth, and we have to figure out where to hide it from the enemy? What should we do?” It seemed silly to me and I actually thought that this was a test to see if I could come up with any good ideas. But I answered, ‘Why don’t you have it come out of warp drive in the atmosphere of Titan, and rise up through the haze, submarine style?” I knew it could be made into a very dramatic scene.

To my delight and astonishment, Abrams thought the idea was 'brilliant' and immediately used it. It can be found here.

I was expecting to be asked at some point how to get around the obvious problem that any respectable starship, Federation or Romulan, would have no trouble picking up the presence of an alien ship by other than visual means, but I never was. I didn't realize until seeing the final result for the first time myself in the movie theater that they imagined it could be made invisible by the magnetic field of Saturn's rings. Of course, the rings don't have a magnetic field, and even Saturn's is not very strong -- certainly not as strong as Jupiter's -- and I would gladly have informed them of such had I known.

As you might suspect I’m sort of a big fas of Carl Sagan… I think it’s quite clear that he had a huge influence on the general public. I’d like to know what his influence was on people who knew him personally?

His colleagues who were his age resented him terribly. I’d say he wasn’t treated very well, and yet I never saw him retaliate. He was always very gracious and patient, even when publicly ridiculed.

But people my generation and younger loved him. He was the coolest, most gracious, non-judgmental, respectful, kind person imaginable. And very old world. I half expected, when he greeted me (sometimes even kissing my hand), that he’d also bow.

Speaking personally, it’s hard for me to describe the effect that Carl had on me. When I find myself in a particularly uncomfortable or stressful professional situation, I often think, “How would Carl handle this?” Our community lost a great deal the day he passed away. He was a truly special individual and I miss him very much.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you!


Sunday, 10 May 2015

Could Ultron's plan work?

Fellow blogger Bobrownia gave me the idea for this entry. He asked if Ultron’s plan for humanity extinction was plausible from scientific standpoint. Obviously this means a spoiler for Avengers: Age of Ultron. So if you haven’t seen it just yet, you’ll have one surprise less, but I assure you the movie has more in store.

Spoiler in 3… 2… 1…

So the question is - can you wipe out humanity by dropping something very big from very high? Simple answer is - yes. Obviously, the devil is in details. Asteroids and comets typically go at great speeds - tens of kilometers per second. Ultron had no way to send his projectile that fast, so he had to go for mass, which is inconvenient since kinetic energy is ½ * m * V2, so you need a lot more mass to make up for velocity.

To play with numbers, we’ll need some assumptions based on what we saw. The “meteor” is roughly a half-sphere. The city above is negligible - buildings may seem large, but it’s mostly empty space, incomparably lighter than solid rock or dirt. To estimate mass we’ll use density of granite. Cubic meter of dirt is around 1760 kg; let’s assume Ultron picked a rocky spot, so cubic meter will be 2600 kg. If we assume that the lifted piece was 10km in diameter (I guess it’s way more than what we saw in a movie), then it’ll weigh 700 billion tonnes.

Ultron wasn’t stupid, he knew just dropping the rock wouldn’t do the job. So he installed engines to plunge it into ground faster. Given how Iron Man got squeezed to the bottom of the “meteor”, let’s assume it’s accelerates like top Formula 1 cars, less than 20 m/s2. The biggest unknown is how high he raised the city. Let’s make another “optimistic” assumption and say it was 50 km. Arbitrary boundary of space is 100 km. The highest planes go (well Blackbird SR-71) is 26 km (85 000 feet). Actually even at the altitude of just few kilometers it gets hard to breathe, but let’s turn a blind eye to this.

So… With 50 km to gather speed, Ultron’s meteor would smack the planet releasing 700 billion gigajoules of energy - that’s 150 thousand megatons of TNT. It’s the force three thousand times that of the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated - the Tsar Bomba. But if we compare that to the asteroid that wiped the dinosaurs, it turns out to be thousand times weaker. To match it, Ultron would need enough time to lift the city closer to 500 km; that’s higher than orbit of ISS.

So what if the energy is smaller? A big issue for the genocidal robot is that the impact point was deep inside the continent. Dropping his “meteor” near the coast, preferably close to a tectonically active area could result in an earthquake or at least a devastating tsunami increasing the damage. Still, the calculated energy should suffice to demolish most of Europe and cause a nuclear winter in which army of robots could systematically eradicate the remains of humanity.

Carbon Chauvinist has it’s fanpage, just in case you wanna follow it.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Depressive realist - an interview with Peter Watts

Peter Watts has a special rapport with Polish readers. While German and Russian publishers deemed Starfish to be "too dark", we loved it just as we loved the acclaimed Blindsight (written later, published earlier). Peter Watts stalks us with the help of Google-translate, checking up on what we are saying about him, while we look forward to see his subsequent books. With no little help I managed to reach Peter and ask him a handful of questions.

Would you call yourself a pessimist? Or is title “An Antidote for Optimism” a joke?

"An Antidote for Optimism" is a rejoinder to Ray Bradbury's collection "A Medicine for Melancholy". As far as the term "pessimist" goes, though, I think there's some unwarranted baggage that goes with that term. As a species, we're hard-wired to be delusionally optimistic about our chances— which makes sense Darwinian world where any accurate assessment of one's odds would make most of us just sit down in the middle of the road and wait for a truck to run us over. Only the clinically depressed come close to objectivity when it comes to assessing reality (although I think the politically-correct term these days is "depressive realism").

On a personal level, I think I'm as delusionally upbeat about my prospects as anyone. On a more global level, though, I'm definitely a realist. And you can't be realistic about the state of the world without also being depressed.

Maybe it’s too early with Echopraxia just released, but can you tell us what to expect next? You mentioned techno-thriller about marine biologist in afterword, is that still the plan, also I wonder if you have some theme in mind, like consciousness in Blindsight and hive-mind/mind-hive, workings of the brain in Echopraxia?

The plan at this point is to write Intelligent Design next— which is, yes, my near-future technothriller about a marine biologist. Basically my sellout novel, where I stop pursuing a smart audience and try going for a large one instead. The theme is inherent in the title. I'm also musing about a contemporary thriller based around the idea of clandestine immortality.

A book or two down the road, I intend to write a concluding volume to the Consciousnundrum series begun in Blindsight and Echopraxia. As of about an hour ago, I think I might call it Omniscience. (If it matters, you're only the second person after me to learn that title.)


How important is scientific plausibility to you? Your books end with ever-growing number of references, you went far into details of βhemoth, vampires, scramblers, and for things from Echopraxia I don’t want to spoil (Portia! Portia!). Is it a habit, way to justify “weird” elements of your fiction, way to encourage curiosity?

If I was pitching myself to some NY Publisher, I'd say that scientific plausibility is very important, and that all those technical appendices are just my way of sharing my excitement and curiosity about this wondrous universe we live in. I'd point out how flattered I am that so many folks have told me they followed up on those citations, and in some cases even wrote theses based on ideas encountered in my novels.

If I was being honest, however, I'd say that scientific rigor is vastly overrated; that some of the most visionary science fiction has been written by people with little or no scientific background (Delany and Gibson, to name but two); that kowtowing slavishly to 21rst Century Science is to deny that there's going to be a 22nd Century Science; and that all those technical references at the end of my book are a defense mechanism dating back to my days in Academia, when people would show up at your Wednesday afternoon seminars for the sole reason of shooting holes in your research. A smokescreen, other words; something to point to when the critics say Oh come on, that's just bullshit. ("Oh yeah? Take it up with the team that published that in Nature, asshole!")

I would also admit that sometimes, all that scientific plausibility stops the plot dead in its tracks. I probably do it too much.

In Starfish you didn’t hesitate to use the term "monster" when describing deep-ocean life - is that just a writer's trick or is that the word that comes to marine biologist head when he studies some of those animals?

Just a trick. To a biologist, a "monster" is something malformed, something that doesn't look the way it's supposed to. Mesopelagic fish may look pretty weird, but they're not monsters in that sense; they look just the way they're supposed to.

Except for their size, around Beebe Station. Those ones are admittedly somewhat larger than a mesopelagic fish has any need to be.

What surprised you most in your study of marine life? Is there something that still boggles your mind when you think about it?

Life boggles my mind. The marine kind is just a bit more alien than what I run into on your average weekday.

The shapeshifting and pattern-matching abilities of your average Pacific octopus still kinda blow me away, though.

It is said that 90% of the oceans remain unexplored. To me it sounds somewhat like number pulled out of one’s ass. Is that some weird, exaggerated statistic, or is it entirely justified?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "explored". I first heard that claim back in the sixties, and my sense is that the "10%" was basically the continental shelf; they were just saying that the abyss was entirely unexplored. But that hardly means that we were tramping all over the conshelf back then; even today, the actual human presence on the conshelf must be just a fraction of a fraction of a percent. So I think whoever came up with that 10% figure had a really loose definition of "exploration"; if you'd mapped the depth contours, dropped a few salinity probes, and done some sampling trawls you could be said to have "explored" an area.

Even by those standards, I don't believe we've "explored" much of the ocean. But mapped? Sure. I'm pretty sure the militaries of the major nations must have the seabed mapped down to the boulder by now. We may never visit any of those boulders, but at least we know where they are.

Someone does, anyway.

So… Would you say we should study Earth’s ocean not Europa’s ocean?

I would not say that. I would say we should study both— but if I were forced to choose only one for funding in the next fiscal quarter, I'd go for Earthly oceans. It's just good sense to know as much as possible about that thing that we've been using as a combination kitchen/toilet bowl for the past few centuries.

Not that we're likely to do anything useful with the knowledge, mind you.

I'd really like to read more of undersea stories from Peter Watts. Any chances for that?

There'll be some nice underwater Arctic giant-squid porn in Intelligent Design. Also I think that book will probably open with a duel between a SCUBA diver and a lobster.

While we’re at it, I was always fascinated by cephalopods. Can I get super-intelligent, shape-shifting, hive-minded cephalopods in your next book?

Cephalopods, sure. I already told you that much. Even superintelligent ones. Don't push your luck on the shapeshifting hive mind, though.

Do you see any particular mission of Science Fiction? Like education, speculation, commentary? Or maybe entertainment comes first?

Depends on the writer. Personally I like using SF to perform thought experiments about cool stuff— not to "educate" readers so much as to invite them to explore a particular sandbox with me— so I guess I fall into the Speculation camp. But I know people who do explicitly set out to educate through fiction, and still others who aspire to nothing more than the spinning of an exciting tale. These days, SF-as-political-commentary seems to be making a comeback, which is great if you can pull it off without being preachy (Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. was really good at that).

It's a big tent; there's plenty of room for all of us.

Do rat neurons on a chip piss you off?

They don't. Actually, I think they're pretty cool.

Do you think there are some technological advancements that are innately bad/evil/wrong.

I suppose anything that's unsustainable over the long term, and which is nonetheless deployed on a long-term basis, is innately bad. Economic models predicated on continual growth in a resource-limited system are wrong. A fossil-fuel economy, used as anything other than a stop-gap en route more sustainable energy technology, is wrong. And so on.

Anything else is morally neutral, as far as I can see. The rightness/wrongness of a hammer depends on whether you use it to build a house or bash in someone's skull. Nuclear weapons can either destroy the world or save it (depending on whether we're aiming them at each other or at an asteroid on a collision course).

Are there new technologies you are excited about?

The ever-widening encroachment of the US surveillance state into our bedrooms and up our rectums. The blanket recording of all our communications, transactions, and movements— and the massive server farms and millions of lines of code to process all that information, so that Obama can check every time I went to at a moment's notice. Armed drones that can kill people without having to go through all that nasty warrant/arrest/trial bullshit.

How can I not be excited by all that?

You have shown us aliens that are very different from us. What are your thoughts on convergent evolution? Life tends to find similar solutions independently on this planet, so if there is a life on somewhat similar one… Maybe there is someone we could understand and relate to.

It's certainly possible. I expect that the rules of natural selection apply throughout the universe— it's hard to see how they couldn't, actually— so similar conditions could give rise to similar biochemistries and trophic webs, at least. There'd be a lot of gross differences: appendages, sense organs, all that stuff that might make alien life look downright batshit insane to earthly eyes— but there'd still be a persistence imperative, whether through replication or the self-repair of an immortal chassis. There'd still be a need to extract matter and energy from the environment for metabolic purposes. Some models suggest that any ecosystem is bound to evolve parasites, so certain ecological niches may be inevitable. Those commonalities, at least, might be enough to bridge the gap a little.

I wouldn't bet on it, though. I mean, we humans aren't even different species, and look how well we get along…

Thank you for your time.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Dawn over dwarf planet

Dawn is a space probe that was launched in 2007 and has already visited protoplanet Vesta, the second-largest body in the asteroid belt. Now it is heading for Ceres - a dwarf planet that constitutes one third of the asteroid belt mass. Believe it or not, but since its discovery in 1801 we couldn’t get a better look at this body than this photo by Hubble Space Telescope you see on the left.

Initially regarded as planet, then demoted to asteroid, Ceres was reclassified as a dwarf planet along with Pluto and few other large (but not large enough) bodies in the solar system. Now, for the first time in history, we will see it in glorious detail.

Christopher T. Russell is Dawn’s Principal Investigator, meaning when NASA has a complaint or praise for the mission, he’s the man they call. Before leading Dawn mission he led an experiment that mapped Earth’s magnetosphere with Polar satellite. He is also the head of the Space Physics Center at UCLA, he has an asteroid named after him,

...and he was kind enough to find time to answer my questions about Dawn Mission.

How will meeting with Ceres be different from rendezvous with Vesta?

From technical standpoint, the mission will not differ that much. The spacecraft trajectory, the instruments and the measurement philosophy will be very similar. When we arrive at Ceres, we will enter a “high altitude survey orbit” and map the entire surface at low resolution and obtain gravity and navigation data necessary for further stages of the mission. We acquire the full coverage of the surface using the visible light and infrared mapping spectrometer to analyse the mineral composition of Ceres’ surface. Then we go closer but but still maintain relatively high altitudes (“high altitude mapping orbit”) and from that vantage point we map the surface in more detail and take data for stereo/altimetric purposes. Finally we enter a “low altitude mapping orbit” to take high resolution gravity data and obtain gamma ray and neutron data on elemental composition.

But while the approach is the same, we expect Ceres to be totally different than Vesta. It has no family member asteroids and it has no meteorites to study, so we know next to nothing.

[Side comment: Let me jump in for a second here. Asteroid family is a group of asteroids that have similar orbital parameters and share origin, meaning they may be parts of a larger body shattered in a collision. Some of them may fall on Earth and give us a chance to learn about the whole family. For example HED meteorites enabled us to learn about Vesta before Dawn reached it.]

Did any unexpected data about Vesta or Ceres emerge after Dawn was launched? We found new moons around Pluto while New Horizons was on its way, anything similar in regards of Vesta and Ceres?

We know of no moons at either Vesta or Ceres. We were learning from meteorites about Vesta all the time before we arrived, but the new knowledge was evolutionary and not revolutionary. Now at Ceres, Hershel [Space Observatory] has made some observations of water in Ceres atmosphere. Still we already had strong indications from earlier observations and from Ceres density that it was a wet body.

Once the primary objectives are met, what's in store for Dawn?

Dawn is expected to stay in orbit around Ceres.

Thank you for your time.

Dawn is now less than 0.03 astronomical units from Ceres. You can track its position on this website. Dawn is expected to reach Ceres in March/April 2015.

Handful of useful links:

Monday, 25 August 2014

Monument for a billion years

Neil Armstrong died 40 years after last manned mission was sent to the Moon and 43 years after he himself set foot on our natural satellite. It is a perfect moment to lament over the state of space exploration. But for that purpose it is much better to watch We Stopped Dreaming video, featuring Neil Tyson. For me the photo of this iconic footprint invokes more positivie thoughts.

Neil Armstrong left a permanent trace in our history. I'm convinced that once most present-day people are gone and forgotten, he will persist in collective memory, just like Gagarin, Columbus, Einstein and Julius Cesar. But his legacy may very well outlive humanity itself. There is no erosion on the Moon. Rain will not wash off that very footprint, wind will not disperse it, it won't be deformed by tectonic movements.

All monuments, plaques or symbols raised in memory of the first man who set his foot on the Moon may not last a tiny fraction of the time that footprint will last. If humanity vanishes this instant, in just a few decades cities will fall. Some structures like pyramids or huge concrete dams will survive much longer, but eventually even those will perish. Plastic may survive longer, but even today we know of organisms that eat plastics. Rushmore monument may last the longest, but in time even that will wither.

Perhaps hundreds of millions years from now, the Earth - with an entirely different set of continents - may be unrecognisable, and that footprint and pile of metal will be all that is left of humanity. The flag is probably white by now from solar radiation, and will eventually crumble into pieces from constant temperature changes (-233'C / -387'F during night, 123'C / 253'F during day). If space tourists from the future don't stomp on it, if a stray meteorite doesn't hit it, the monument Armstrong made himself may last even five billion years, until the Sun changes into a red giant and burns it along with the pale blue dot.

Neil Armstrong (5 VIII 1930 - 25 VIII 2012)

Monday, 21 July 2014

The cosmos is dark and full of surprises

Recently on my fanpage (yep, the Polish one, people don’t think out loud on English one yet, but you are more than welcome to do so) someone expressed doubts whether Pluto will surprise us once New Horizons sends us data in 2015. It may be a blind guess, but I’ll confidently say – yes.

Pretty much every time we got a clear look at astronomical objects, they greeted us with surprises. Uranus turned out to be “the tilted planet”, its poles are where most planets keep their equators. If that’s not enough, its magnetic field seems to ignore the planet’s rotation and its geometric center. The axis of Uranus’ magnetic field is 60’ ajar from its rotational axis and its center is third of its radius away from the planet’s core.

Neptune is ten astronomical units further away than Uranus, it gets 60% less heat from the Sun, yet its internal heat drives the fastest winds in the solar system (over 2000 kph). Composition of both gas giants is similar, so astronomers are still scratching their heads how exactly the more distant planet has more internal heat.

In 2011 Dawn spacecraft reached Vesta, the second largest body in the asteroid belt. This too didn’t go without surprises. Flattened, probably by a giant impact, it turned out to have series of deep ridges around the equator. Its biggest crater is whooping 460 km in diameter. Impressive, given that diameter of Vesta is 570 km.

Moon Mimas surprised us by looking pretty much like the Death Star. That’s thanks to a crater so big that scientists don’t know how it’s possible that Mimas survived such impact. Iapetus, a satellite of Saturn, has a weird equatorial ridge making it look somewhat like a walnut. It also has a very distinct two-tone coloration, one side is dark brown, while other is bright white. Miranda, circling Uranus, looks like it has been shattered into pieces and put back together.

Second and final impulse to write this entry was the set of pictures taken by the Rosetta spacecraft. As it makes its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko it sends us ever sharper images. And the newest one revealed a pretty damn surprising shape. 67P clearly seems to be composed of two pieces and that’s not very comet-like. I personally think 67P should be immediately renamed a “rubber ducky”. Given very turbulent lifestyle comets lead, with extreme temperature changes, tidal forces when moving near the Sun, ice and gas pockets blown by heat… it’s really interesting that it has such a shape.

Bottom line is – I have no doubt that comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has still much in store for us, and that in 2015 world will be mesmerized and surprised by photos of Pluto, its moons caught by New Horizons, and by photos of Ceres snapped by Dawn.

Upper-left: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Rosetta)
Middle-right: asteroid Vesta (Dawn)
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