A Mars Meteorite by Any Other Name

You remember that meteorite from Mars?  The one that purportedly had fossilized Martian microorganisms inside it? The controversy over that meteorite has never been fully settled.  And now, it’s not just one meteorite.  Now there are two of them.

That original meteorite was named ALH-84001. Names are important.  You can learn a lot simply by understanding where a name came from.  The name ALH-84001 tells us a bit about this particular meteorite’s history. It was found in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica (ALH) during a 1984 scientific expedition (84), and it was the first meteorite found by that expedition (001).

This new meteorite is named ALH-77005, so right there you know some important things about it.  It was found in the same region of Antarctica, a few years before ALH-84001. And like ALH-84001, ALH-77005 sat in storage for a while before anyone got around to examining it.  In fact, it sounds like ALH-77005 has been sitting in storage for a whole lot longer than ALH-84001 did.

When I first heard about ALH-77005 and the surprises that were found inside it, my initial reaction was enthusiastic.  Surely this would bolster the Martian fossil hypothesis for ALH-84001, I thought.  But after some of the research and having some time to think, I don’t think this new evidence actually changes anything.

It’s still possible that something happened to ALH-84001 once it landed here on Earth.  For example, maybe Earthly microorganisms somehow wormed their way inside the rock.  If so, the exact same thing may have happened to ALH-77005.  So have we found new evidence of life on Mars, or new evidence of life in Allan Hills?  There’s still no way to tell for sure.

But it does make you wonder: how many more meteorites are just sitting in storage, waiting to be opened up?

Sciency Words: Euphotic Zones

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

EUPHOTIC ZONES

Based on what Google ngrams has to tell me, it looks like “euphotic” and “euphotic zone” entered the English lexicon right at the start of the 20th Century, then really caught on circa 1940.

The word euphotic is a combination of Greek words and means something like “good lighting” or “well lit.”  In the field of marine biology, the euphotic zone refers to the topmost layer of the ocean, or any body of water, where there’s still enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur.

My first encounter with this term was in this paper by astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter.  Sagan and Salpeter sort of co-opted this term from marine biologists and applied it to the layer of Jupiter’s atmosphere where—hypothetically speaking—Jupiterian life might exist.

I don’t see any reason why the term could not also by used for other planets as well.  There’s a euphotic zone just above the cloud tops of Venus.  The same could be said about Saturn or Uranus.  Or maybe if the ice is thin enough, we may find euphotic zones right beneath the surfaces of Europa or Enceladus.

Of course just because a planet has a euphotic zone, that doesn’t mean photosynthetic organisms are living there.  And also there are plenty of ecosystems here on Earth that do not depend on photosynthesis and that don’t exist anywhere near a euphotic zone.

Still, I’m very glad to have picked up this term.  The concept of euphotic zones can be very helpful in any discussion of where alien life may or may not be hiding.

Meet Miranda, a Moon of Uranus

Miranda has been called the Frankenstein’s monster of the Solar System.  There’s just such a jumbled mismatch of landscapes.  You’d almost believe a mad scientist took pieces of several different moons and stitched them together.

Apparently this is a result of sporadic global resurfacing events.  At least that’s the conclusion of this 2014 paper entitled “Global Resurfacing of Uranus’s Moon Miranda by Convection.”  Due to a paywall, I haven’t been able to read that paper in full, but the research is summarized in articles here, here, and here.

Apparently Miranda used to have a more eccentric (non-circular) orbit than she does today.  Thus, the gravitational pull of Uranus would sometimes be stronger, sometimes weaker, causing Miranda to repeatedly compress and relax.  Imagine Uranus using Miranda like a stress ball and you’ll get a sense of what Miranda must’ve felt like.

All that squeezing and unsqueezing created friction and heat in Miranda’s interior.  Miranda’s internal ices got melty.  Convection cells formed underground, much like they do here on Earth, and some sort of tectonic and/or volcanic activity got started on the surface.

Something similar happens on Europa, a moon of Jupiter. As a result, Europa has the smoothest, youngest-looking surface in the whole Solar System.  So how did Europa turn out looking so beautifully smooth while Miranda turned into Frankenstein’s moon?

Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like Miranda’s orbit changed.  Uranus stopped squeezing Miranda like a stress ball, Miranda’s interior cooled off, and the resurfacing process came to a halt.  What we see today is a moon that is only half transformed by global resurfacing.

Personally, after studying reference photos of Miranda, learning about what happened to her, and drawing her portrait myself, I no longer feel comfortable with the whole Frankenstein’s monster thing.

I’d like to suggest a new metaphor: Miranda is the Picasso painting of the Solar System. Miranda does have a weird mishmash of surface features that don’t make a lot of sense together (much like a Picasso painting), but that doesn’t make Miranda monstrous.  It gives her her own strange, confusing beauty.

So yes, Miranda, to answer your question: I do think you’re beautiful.

Is This the End of the Great Red Spot?

I have sad news.  Right now, we may be witnessing the final death throes of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

For those of you who may not know, the Great Red Spot is an enormous storm that’s been raging on Jupiter for centuries.  It was visible to the telescope as far back as Galileo’s time, and it’s surely been around much longer than that.

But over the last few decades, the notorious G.R.S. has been slowly shrinking.  Recently, the rate of shrinkage has accelerated.  According to spaceweather.com, the storm is 20% smaller than it was a month ago.  In the time lapse animation below, you can actually see giant blobs of red break free of the Great Red Spot and then disperse into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Courtesy: spaceweather.com

Has the Great Red Spot suddenly reached a point where it can no longer sustain itself?  Or will the storm resurge and start to grow once more?  I don’t know.  At this point, I don’t think anyone knows.

But I would like to take this opportunity to pontificate a little on the value of space exploration.  Space exploration is expensive, and to many people it seems like a colossal waste of money.  Shouldn’t we be spending all that money trying to solve the problems we have here on Earth?

The thing is space exploration does help us solve our problems here on Earth.  Our ability to compare and contrast Earth with other planets has taught us so much!  Even Jupiter—about as un-Earth-like a planet as there can be—has added to our knowledge of how weather patterns form, sustain themselves, and change over time.

Whatever is happening to the Great Red Spot, this is an opportunity for us to learn.  I have no idea what we’re going to learn, but we’re going to learn something.  We’re going to know a little more about storms in general, which will help us refine our models about storms on Earth in particular.

Weather forecasts will improve.  Maybe we’ll be a little better at predicting hurricanes, and that, in turn, will save lives. All thanks to the space program and the Great Red Spot.

Sciency Words: Sinkers, Floaters, and Hunters

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

SINKERS, FLOATERS, and HUNTERS

In the 1970’s, Carl Sagan and fellow astrophysicist Edwin Salpeter were curious about the orangey-red coloration seen on certain parts of Jupiter.  That sort of orangey-red color is frequently associated with organic chemistry (see my post on tholin).

So in this 1976 technical report for NASA, Sagan and Salpeter hypothesize that we really are seeing organic compounds in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  They then go on to imagine what kind of life might develop on a planet like Jupiter.  As a frame of reference, they start by describing one specific example of life here on Earth:

The best analogy seems to be the surface of the sea.  Oceanic phytoplankton inhabit a euphotic zone near the ocean surface where photosynthesis is possible.  They are slightly denser than seawater and passively sink out of the euphotic zone and die.  But such organisms reproduce as they sink, return some daughter cells to the euphotic zone through turbulent mixing, and in this way maintain a steady state population.

So if microorganisms exist on Jupiter, perhaps they follow a similar lifecycle.

Sagan and Salpeter name these hypothetical microorganisms “sinkers,” since sinking is pretty much the defining characteristic of their lifecycles.  But if these sinkers really do exist, then Jupiter may be able to support other, more complex forms of life as well.

Sagan and Salpeter go on to describe “floaters.” Floaters would be giant organisms, perhaps several kilometers in radius.  In order to remain buoyant, they’d have to have very thin skin and be filled with a lifting gas like hydrogen.  Floaters would drift aimlessly through the skies of Jupiter, feeding on the rising and falling swarms of sinkers.

And then there would be “hunters,” as Sagan and Salpeter call them, though that term may be misleading.  Hunters would be able to maneuver deliberately through the air, “hunting” for other organisms.  But these hunters would not eat their prey, at least not in the way we understand eating.  Instead, through a process called “coalescence,” the hunter and the hunted would merge together as one giant super-organism.

Personally, I think Sagan and Salpeter let their imaginations run a little too wild in this paper.  Could life exist on Jupiter?  Sure.  The universe is full of possibilities.  Can we predict with any specificity what life on Jupiter would be like?  I doubt it.

Still, the Jovian ecosystem that Sagan and Salpeter described seems plausible enough.  For the purposes of science fiction, it deserves some attention, and it inspired the short story I posted on Monday.  However, if you haven’t read that story yet, I have to confess (spoiler warning): it turns out the planet in that story is not Jupiter.

#IWSG: Being a Writer is Soooo Boring!

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in anyway insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

I, J.S. Pailly, stand accused of being a boring person.  Or at least that’s what a few well-meaning friends and acquaintences seem to think.  You see, all I ever do is write and read and do research.  Then I do more research, which is followed up with more writing.

Most people are willing to concede that all the art I do might be fun.  But otherwise my life is soooo boring.  Boring, boring, boring.  I need to get out more, travel, go to loud parties, eat at popular restaurants… or other stuff like that, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve been accused of being boring.  So in my defense, I’m going to talk about something that I find really interesting: space.  And perhaps the story I’m about to tell will serve as a nice little allegory about what it means to be boring or interesting.

In 1986, the Voyager 2 spacecraft became the first—and thus far the only—spacecraft to visit the planet Uranus.  As I’m sure you’re already aware (you may already be giggling), Uranus is a much-maligned planet, because of its name.  Voyager 2’s visit gave us yet another reason to malign our poor seventh planet.

Uranus turned out to be a featureless cyan-blue orb.  There was nothing like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot or Saturn’s polar hexagon.  There were no atmospheric zones or belts.  There was nothing interesting to look at at all! What a boring planet, scientists said.

But of course, this was only true from our limited human perspective.  Our eyes can only see a range of approximately 400 to 700 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum (which we perceive as the colors violet to red).

If you observe Uranus only in this 400 to 700 nm range, there’s not much to see.  Switch to ultraviolet, however, and you’ll find a complex and dynamic atmosphere that’s every bit as interesting as Jupiter or Saturn’s.

Whether we’re talking about planets or people, what is boring versus what is interesting is all a matter of perspective.  Will this little anecdote change anybody’s mind?  I’m not sure.  I suspect if you already think I’m a boring person, me talking about sciency stuff only reinforces that belief. But I hope the rest of you get what I’m trying to say.

P.S.: Fun fact!  If you’ve ever wondered why Uranus got stuck with its giggle-inducing name, it’s because the guy who picked the name was German, and he probably didn’t realize what it would sound like in English.

Beneath the Blue-Green Clouds

It would have been the most celebrated discovery in human history: life on another world.  But the press and the late night comedians soon turned what should have been an auspicious occasion into one great big joke.

In February of 2050, NASA’s Herschel spacecraft released a small probe, one of many such probes designed to penetrate the atmospheres of gas giants.  We had learned much about the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn in this manner, but the Herschel mission would be a first, in more ways than one.

Among its many scientific instruments, the Herschel probe included a camera.  We expected to see a tranquil layer of blue-green clouds, with a layer of storms underneath.  If we were lucky, we thought we might even see methane ice crystals falling like snow.

But then, in a forty-three second sequence of images, we saw them.  They were giant, shadowy forms lurking in the dark, occasionally backlit by lightning.  They were enormous, easily the size of whales, and there were swarms of smaller organisms all around them, like the krill whales feed upon.

The krill-like life forms are difficult to make out in any detail, but the whales are clearly held aloft by gas bladders, filled with hydrogen, perhaps; and they have fin-like wings which they must use to maneuver. A great multitude of tentacles dangle from their underbellies, tentacles which seem to be writhing violently from one photo to the next, very much as though these animals were busily feeding.

Of all the places in the Solar System, this was the last place we expected to find alien life.  How could these creatures have evolved?  How could such a complex ecosystem sustain itself in the cold, far reaches of the Solar System?  These will have to be questions for some future mission, assuming Congress and the general public will take this seriously enough to support a future mission.

But unfortunately these mysterious and majestic creatures have become the laughing stock of the world, all because of one minor circumstance. All because of the planet where they happen to live.  All because of that planet’s name.

Although, truth be told, who wouldn’t laugh a little when the top headline on every newspaper reads: “Alien life discovered in Uranus.”

Sciency Words: Ice

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

ICE

I have a friend who teases me whenever I use the word ice. This is because, depending on what we’re talking about, I can’t just say “ice.”  As soon as the conversation turns to space stuff (as it often does when I’m around, for some reason), I feel the need to say “water ice.” I feel the need—no, the compulsion to specify that I mean the frozen form of water, as opposed to the frozen form of something else.

In more normal, down-to-earth sorts of conversation, I don’t feel that same compulsion.  Water ice is the only kind of ice we’re likely to encounter here on Earth. On rare occasions, if you’re at a science fair, or maybe a Halloween party, you might encounter carbon dioxide ice (a.k.a. dry ice).  But that’s a very rare special case.

However, as soon as we start talking about other planets and moons, or comets and asteroids, the word ice takes on a much broader meaning. In these more cosmic conversations, you really do need to be specific about which ice you’re talking about. To quote from a recent issue of The Planetary Report:

In the strictest definition, ice is the solid form of water.  However, planetary astronomers often use “ice” to refer to the solid form of any condensable molecule.

Beyond Earth, and especially in the outer Solar System, we find all sorts of crazy ices, like ammonia ice, methane ice, or nitrogen ice.  Along with the water ice and CO2 ice we Earthlings are more familiar with, these ices make up the hard crusts of many planetary bodies, like Titan or Pluto.

We also find ice crystals (of various types) forming in the clouds of planets like Uranus and Neptune.  In fact, Uranus and Neptune are often called “ice giants” in large part because of all those weird ices found in their atmospheres.

Starting next week, I’m planning to take a much closer look at those ice giant planets.  I expect my research to turn up plenty of questions, but very few answers.  Uranus and Neptune are, at this point, the least well explored planets in the Solar System.

So stay tuned!

P.S.: I want to start referring to all forms of igneous rock as “magma ice.”  After all, what is igneous rock but frozen magma?  I can’t think of any good reason why the term “magma ice” shouldn’t apply.

The Nine Lives Hypothesis, or Why Schrödinger’s Cat Can Never Die

Today’s story was inspired by my recent Sciency Words post on Schrödinger’s cat.  I cannot emphasize enough that this story is not meant to be taken seriously.

It is often said that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics is either lying or delusional.  In 1935, world-renounced physicist Erin Schrödinger proposed an experiment to demonstrate the true absurdity of all things quantum.  The experiment came to be known as Schrödinger’s cat. Now today, despite the vehement protests of animal rights groups, researchers at Omni-Science Laboratories have conducted the first ever real world test of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment.

A cat is placed inside a test chamber, along with a sample of cesium-131, a radioactive isotope.  A contraption within the test chamber will either kill the cat or spare the cat’s life, depending on what that cesium isotope does.  If the cesium undergoes radioactive decay, the cat will die.  In not, the cat will live.  The conditions of the experiment are so devised that the cat should have an even 50/50 chance at survival.

But according to the bizarre laws of the quantum world—the world of atoms, including radioactive cesium atoms—nothing is real unless it is being observed.  In the absence of an observer, anything and everything that can happen does happen, all at once, all jumbled together in a coexistent meta-state.

And so once the test chamber is sealed and its contents can no longer be observed, the laws of quantum mechanics should take over. The cesium isotope simultaneously does and does not decay.  The killing apparatus simultaneously has and has not been triggered. The cat simultaneously is and is not dead.  And so the situation should remain, until the scientists reopen the test chamber and observe its contents.

Researchers at Omni-Science originally intended to run the experiment only a dozen times, but the test results were so surprising and so confusing that additional tests were warranted.  In total, 63 cats were put through the experiment.  And to the astonishment of everyone involved, all 63 cats survived.

“We’re at a loss to explain it,” says Dr. D.C. Bakshali, principal investigator on the Schrödinger’s cat project.  “Statistically speaking, roughly half the cats should have died, and half should have survived.  But the survival rate was 100%.  We didn’t lose one cat.  Not one!”

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain these surprising results.  One possibility is being referred to as the nine lives hypothesis.  Since cats are said to have nine lives, perhaps whenever a cat dies in the test chamber it immediately resurrects itself.  Although this notion was initially suggested as a joke, one Omni-Science researcher latched onto the idea and even proposed a mechanism that may explain how unobserved cats are able to continuously revive themselves.

“Even in the 1930’s,” says Dr. Haru Hoshiko, “it was pointed out that a cat is perfectly capable of observing itself.  But has it not occurred to anyone that only living cats are able to make such observations?”

Hoshiko goes on to explain: “So long as Schrödinger’s cat remains alive, it observes itself as living.  The moment it dies, however, there is no longer an observer present.  The laws of quantum mechanics reign once more, the cesium has once again simultaneously decayed and not decayed, and thus the cat is once again simultaneously dead and alive. But the living version of the cat is capable of observing itself to be alive, causing the superposition to collapse.  Thus, Schrödinger’s cat can never die!”

According to Hoshiko, the nine lives hypothesis should more accurately be called the infinite lives hypothesis, as there is no theoretical limit to how many times a cat—or any other animal, for that matter—would be able to revive itself in this manner.  Hoshiko’s paper on the subject has been accepted for publication in Nature.

Needless to say, the results of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment have profound implications for our understanding of quantum mechanics and, indeed, the nature of reality itself.

Sciency Words: Eustress vs. Distress

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

EUSTRESS vs. DISTRESS

So I’ve been dealing with more stress than usual this past week, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Like cholesterol, there can be good stress and bad stress.

When I started researching this topic, I was surprised to learn that the whole concept of stress, in the psychological sense of the word, is a relatively modern development.  According to the American Institute of Stress, Hungarian-American endocrinologist Hans Selye gets credit for coining the term in 1936.

Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  Selye seems to have gone to great lengths to emphasize that stress is not an inherently bad thing.  As stated in this paper on stress in video games:

Medical anthropologists and others commonly frame stress as negative and connected to poor mental and physical health.  However, Selye (1975) pointed out that stress itself is adrenaline- and/or cortisol-fueled arousal, relatively neutral in character, but rendered by context either pleasurable eustress or painful distress.

Selye gets credit for coining those words as well: eustress and distress.  In this context, the Greek prefixes “eu-” and “dis-” simply mean “good” and “bad,” respectively.

Research and discussion of eustress and distress typically focuses on productivity in the workplace, but I think research related to video games does a better job illustrating the concept.  To quote once more from that stress in video games paper, “Without some degree of stress, there is no fun, a point that both anthropologists and game developers understand well.”

But as the paper goes on to demonstrate, certain hardcore gamers—those who “game too hard and too long”—tend to transition at some point from eustress to distress.  Basically, so long as you feel like you’re “up to the challenge,” whatever that challenge might be, you’re probably experiencing eustress.  But if you start to feel overwhelmed, that’s distress.

The point at which eustress turns into distress is, of course, different for each of us, and it varies from one activity to another.  It may even vary from day to day.  Something that you found eustressful yesterday might suddenly feel distressful today, or vice versa.

As for my own stress this past week, there may have been a little too much distress going on.  But that’s over now, and I’m looking forward to a highly eustressful weekend!