Archive for November 17th, 2010

COSMIC MODESTY REQUIRED

November 17, 2010

 

THE UNIVERSE TEACHES AWE AND HUMILITY:

Theme: Is there extraterrestrial life? Extraterrestrial intelligence? A related question: how big is the universe? On all these subjects considerable and very surprising progress is in the making. I describe some of the new ideas and facts in plain language, from Plate Tectonics to Cosmic Inflation.

Facing the enormity of it all, honest minds will find honor and pleasure in telling the truth, and nothing but the truth (carefully distinguishing it from hope we can believe in). Some physicists, searching for the limelight, have presented some science fiction, or some science fantasy, or let’s say scientific working hypotheses, philosophically grounded, as real, established science. This is misleading and dangerous: science is truth, and that is why the public supports it. Let’s keep it that way.

Sometimes all that science does, but that is fundamental, is to find new uncertainties we did not previously suspect. A basic humility that needs to be taught to people and politicians is that knowledge is not just about learning what we know, but also about learning that there are new dimensions to what we don’t know.

One certainty: our Earth is rare and fragile. Earth was a primordial deity of the Greeks, Gaia, viewed as female, nourishing humankind. Gaia is an on-going miracle, of self regulation, with extremely complicated biology and physics entangled. The more we observe the cosmos, the more we see that’s hell out there. Gaia is a rare deity, Pluto is the rule. Here are some inklings.

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ALIEN SOLAR SYSTEMS EVERYWHERE:

Many planets have been discovered around many stars. Solar systems (= several planets orbiting the same star) have also been discovered. In one of these systems three planets around a dwarf red star are all in the inhabitable zone (= neither too cold nor too hot, so that liquid water exists on a planet there). One of them is smack in the middle of the balmy zone. It seems clear that most stars will be found to have planets (we are above 30%, and our present detection methods are very crude).

Still there does not seem to be many civilizations out there. As Enrico Fermi put it:”Where is everybody?”

Far enough from the dangerous galactic center, with its zooming stars, high radiation, and gigantic black hole, but not far enough to miss the full wealth of the periodic table, with its many elements, there is a narrow band all around the galaxy, the inhabitable zone, with at least 50 billion suns (within the trillion suns of the Milky Way).

Everything indicates that there are billions of colonizable planets in the inhabitable zone of our galaxy: colonialism has a great future (once we find how to get there). Life could have started on many of these planets. But on most of these, it was quickly annihilated: hellish, incandescent “super-earths” (rocky planet with masses up to 10 times Earth) ready to fall into their star, abound.

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INGREDIENTS FOR LIFE: MAGNETOSPHERE, TECTONICS, MOON…

The obvious candidate for the start of life is next door. It is Mars (Venus may have qualified too, the early Sun being 25% weaker; but Venus has long turned into hell, destroying all biological remnants). Everything indicates that life started on Mars. It would be very surprising that it did not.

Probably even OUR life started there. Impacts of asteroids and comets would have thrown living material from Mars to Earth. Mars meteorites have been found in Antarctica, lying on the ice. It has been observed that the temperatures within a Mars meteorite could stay very low: no more than around 40 Celsius, during the entire Mars-Earth transfer.

The Earth stayed too hot for life much longer than Mars, due to its much greater thermal inertia, large, intense radioactive core, greater number of impacts, and having thoroughly melted after the giant impact which created our life fostering Moon.

But then, after an auspicious start, Mars lost most of most of its atmosphere (probably within a billion years or so). Why? Mars is a bit small, its gravitational attraction is weaker than Earth (it’s only 40%). But, mostly, Mars has not enough a magnetic field. During Coronal Mass Ejections, CMEs, the Sun can throw out billions of tons of material at speeds up to and above 3200 kilometers per seconds. It’s mostly electrons and protons, but helium, oxygen and even iron can be in the mix.

The worst CME known happened during the Nineteenth Century, before the rise of the electromagnetic civilization we presently enjoy. Should one such ejection reoccur now, the electromagnetic aspect of our civilization would be wiped out. It goes without saying that we are totally unprepared, and would be very surprised. Among other things, all transformers would blow up, and they take months to rebuild. we would be left with old books in paper, the old fashion way. A CME can rush to Earth in just one day. (Fortunately the Sun seems to be quieting down presently, a bit as it did during the Little Ice Age.)

When a CME strikes a planet, the upper atmosphere is hit by a giant shotgun blast. Except a shotgun blast goes around 300 meters per second, 10,000 times slower than a CME. So, per unit of mass, the kinetic energy of a powerful CME is at least ten billion times more powerful than a shotgun blast. Since the liberation speed is going to be around ten kilometers per second, on an average life supporting planet, to be hit by projectiles going at 3,000 kilometers per second is going to knock all too much of the upper air atoms into space. That’s how Mars lost most of its atmosphere. And thus its ocean and much of its greenhouse. So now Mars is desperately airless, dry, and cold.

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A cluster of new stars forming in the Serpens South cloud

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Both Mars and Venus are at the limit of the inhabitable zone. But Venus does not have a magnetic field worth this name. Thus Venus lost a lot of its hydrogen (hence water; the rest is tied up in sulfuric acid, H2SO4).

It is known that the Earth’s strong magnetic field originates from the motion of huge masses of liquid metal within.

So a solar wind shield, a magnetosphere, is tied to the plate tectonic of a very dynamical planet with a powerful nuclear reactor deep inside. Whereas Venus and Mars are tectonically inert, at least, most of the time; maybe they wake up every half a billion years or so, for a big eruption. If Mars and Venus had been very tectonically active planets, may be they would be teeming with life (but that depends upon the distribution of heavy radioactive nuclei in a gathering solar system, an unknown subject, obviously non trivial, since Earth got them, and not the other two).

In any case the Earth’s magnetic shield protects life from the worst abuse of the Sun, as it deflects most of the CMEs out and around (they sneak back meekly as Aurora Borealis).

Another factor in the stable environment Earth provides for life is the Moon. The Earth-Moon system divides its angular momentum, between each other and the orbital motion of the Moon. This prevents the Earth to lay its rotation axis on its side: such a wobbling could not be compensated by the rest of the system. So it does not happen.

Mars, though, not being so impaired, wobbles between 15 and 35 degrees (causing weird, pronounced super-seasonal variations).

In any case, everything indicates that extremely primitive life appears quickly. But complex life needs time, lots of time, to evolve. Animal life and intelligence needs even more time. However, what strikes me in the new solar systems discovered so far, is how alien and unstable they are (this is partly a bias of the present detection methods).

Many of these systems have huge Jupiter styles planets in low orbit around their stars. It’s pretty clear that they fell down there, destroying the entire inner system in their path.

Other notions threaten life; gamma ray explosions, supernovas, and simply passing next to another star, throwing a solar system into chaos, and some Jupiters down into a fatal spiral. Our Sun, though, is pretty much cruising far from any star, in a cosmic void right now, perhaps left by a supernova explosion. Maybe we have been lucky for 4 billion years.

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COSMIC GRANDEUR VERSUS MONKEY BUSINESS:

Many a physicist, or cosmologist, talks about the beginning of time, and other various notions pertaining to the grandest imagined machinery of the universe, as if they had found God, and it was themselves they were looking for (as Obama would put it). They claim to know their garden, the universe, pretty well (having apparently being there, at the moment of creation).

Verily, what we know for sure is what we see in pictures, and that’s plenty:

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Hubble Ultra Deep Field: 10,000 galaxies. How many men?

Notions such as the “edge of the universe” are much less scientifically robust than some scientists claim. When some talk about the “First Three Minutes”, one can only laugh, even if countless Nobel Prizes in physics subscribe to the notion. Physics is relative, the search for glory, absolute. At least so do monkeys behave.

The concept of time in Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are in complete contradiction. One is absolute, the other relative. So nobody knows for sure what time is, and what is truly its relation to space (nor do we know what space is, much beyond the pretty pictures given by the telescopes). Speaking of the history of time is completely meaningless, except as poetry. Or scientific sounding poetry. Too many holes in the logic.

Even using standard science to buttress one’s reflection, the size of the universe could well be at least a 1,000 bigger than the 14 billion light year piece that we presently observe. In truth, we have literally no idea. Even when sticking to conventional theory, which predicts only one thing in that respect, namely that the universe is bigger than what we see (it predicts it by requiring it actually, see below).

Another thing is sure: it’s incredibly immense out there, and not just in physical size, but also in conceptual size. We know lower bounds for the universe in size and complexity, but have no idea whatsoever about the upper bounds. Dark Energy is a perfect example. Fifteen years ago, Dark Energy was unknown. Now it makes up 74% of the mass of the universe.

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PRESENTING SCIENTIFIC PHILOSOPHY AS SCIENCE IS NOT WISE:

It is not a good thing when highly uncertain science is presented as certain, just as much as really true parts of science. It is not just immodest. It undermines, and threatens, science deeply.

Because presenting as certain what is not so is just a lie. But science is truth, and that is why society supports it.

To present as true what is not so ridiculizes the notion of certainty. When, ultimately, the ineluctable collapse of immodest pseudo-certainty occurs, all of science gets slashed with doubt. American witches can run as republican candidates for the US Senate on completely crazed platforms, mumbling about mice with human brains (this happened in the last USA election). Scientists ought not to make craziness respectable by leveraging it themselves. Crazy is crazy, especially when a scientist does it. It’s craziness squared.

Make no mistake: speculation is central to science and even more to philosophy. Just speculation ought to be labeled as such. When I talk about my own TOW theory, I do not present it as fact and certitude.

Most of recent (last 120 years) physics was totally unexpected. A lot of it is true, no doubt, in some sense. Some of it is completely false, too, most probably, in the most fundamental sense. The more fundamental science gets, the more it gets subjected to representations which can be misleading. Thus when some physiology or solid state physics gets established, it will not be shattered. Not so for Quantum Field Theory (most of which being an extrapolation over an energy domain where it has not been tested).

Science, like philosophy, is not just a body of knowledge, but also a method. Both have to use common sense as much as possible. Philosophy uses the external edge of knowledge, the first inklings, the first warnings, the smallest indices, the irreproducible experiments. Thus any scientist searching for really shattering new science will pass through the philosophical method, as a mandatory passage to greater certainty.

When science is proclaimed, it has to be certain. Science is truth in which one can have faith. A lot of the most glitzy cosmology comes short of that. (Thus the adventures of the alleged Big Bang should not be used as an argument to fund expensive accelerators: there are enough good reasons to fund them, not to use the bad ones!) The surest part of cosmology is actually its pretty pictures.

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INFLATE OUR CLAIMS, IF THE OLD ONES DID NOT WORK OUT:

All of recent conventional cosmology’s biggest and noisiest concepts rest on something called the Inflaton Field. One could say that it is just as much a rabbit out of a hat as in the best circus acts. There is no justification for it, except to explain what we see: something very big, very homogeneous, apparently contradicting relativity. The universe in its entirity.

The mystery that Cosmic Inflation tries to explain was this: as new regions of the universe come into view (at the speed of light!), it is observed that the new regions are exactly as the region we already know; same aspect, same background temperature, etc. How did they know how to look the same? They could not have talked to each other! Light did not have time to go from one to the other!

According to standard Einsteinian relativity, our region, and those regions, some on the opposite side of the universe from each other, have no common history! (Those new regions which appear are NOT within our past light cone… To use relativity lingo.)

In the USSR, Einstein’s work was criticized in minutia, for ideological reasons (Note1). So the great astrophysicist Zeldovitch came up in 1965 with the idea of inflation (the discovery is attributed to Guth, 1980, in the USA, because the USA buried the USSR, and America is a super power blessed by God, as the resident of the White House reminds his flock every day).

Einstein’s Relativity speaks of the speed of light within space, but not of the speed of space (so to speak). Speed of light is limited within space, speed of space is not limited. So it was breezingly supposed space had inflated at a gigantic speed, before slowing down. So the new regions coming into view had a sort of common history, after all.

From a philosophical perspective, to invent an explanation to explain a specific effect is called an ad hoc hypothesis. It can be a correct way to advance science, if it has predictive power (But differently from the neutrino, or the W, or the Higgs, how do you check for it? Finding the Inflaton particle? The Inflaton is supposed to have given birth to most other particles). In the meantime, it provides some hand waving to explai away an otherwise obvious contradiction with Relativity.

But it is not enough that some of the best theories in physics are weird, with the logical consistency of gruyere.

The apparent discovery of Dark Matter and especially Dark Energy, have brought a new twist. Dark Energy is completely unexplainable.

Dark Energy attracted attention to the fact that Quantum field theory is both the most precise and the most false theory ever contemplated (QFT is off in its prediction of vacuum energy by a factor of ten to the power 120, or so, the greatest mistake in theory, in the entire history of hominids… it would make even baboons scream in dismay.)

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Billions of galaxies can be seen when we look as far as we can see. Here is a tiny detail, as far as we can see, without using a gravitational lens. [NASA-ESA Hubble]. Baffling. We are going to need a bigger imagination.

It’s hard for me to escape the feeling that the universe is much older than what standard cosmology believes, as I look at these very ancient, but very diverse galaxies in a piece of sky (Note 2).

Dark energy was discovered when it was realized, in super novae studies, that the universe’s expansion was accelerating (so energy is injected).

A natural question, though is this:”If, as it turned out, the expansion is accelerating now, maybe it was at standstill much earlier?” Then the universe, even the small piece we can see, would be older and bigger than we have imagined so far. Don’t be afraid of the simple questions. Einstein asked himself at 16 what would happen if he looked at a mirror when going at the speed of light (Note 1).

Time will tell, as long as astronomy gets massively funded. Astronomy (astrophysics, cosmology, etc.) is one of the fields of science where fabulous progress is certain if it gets funded enough (the breakthroughs it made and will make in basic technology, to design the new instruments are very useful to the rest of society too).

In any case, the national debt is secure: it has a long way to go, before it can fill up the entire universe…

***

Patrice Ayme

***

Note 1: Einstein’s views on space and time came under the label “Theory of Relativity”. That incorporated Lorentz’s work on the correct space-time transformation group compatible with Maxwell equations.

That is why looking at a mirror will not work, at the speed of light, if the conventional addition of speed used by Galileo was really true, because light could not catch up: light could not be seen at the speed of light (just as sound cannot be heard if one goes away from it at the speed of sound). So Galilean Relativity did not work (the first scientists who pointed that out were not Einstein, but Lorentz, Fitzgerald, and Poincare’, among others; Lorentz got the Nobel Prize for it).

Soviet scientists were irritated by the exaggeratedly sounding “Relativity” (since only Marx was absolute). They pointed out that the “Theory of General Relativity” should be called the “Theory of Gravitation”, and then they made more pointed critiques.

Ideology is important in science. The “multiverse” theory, a support of string theory, is a case in point. The multiverse ideology exists, because string theory has nothing to say about the measurement process, so it sweeps that inconvenient truth below an infinity of rugs. The multiverse cannot be fought scientifically, because it is not science. But it is philosophically grotesque, since it consists in claiming that all lies are true, somewhere else.

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Note 2: The oldest galaxy was detected by Europeans at the Very Large Telescope in the high Chilean desert, in 2004, using a galactic super cluster as a lens (giving the VLT an aperture between 40 and 80 meters), had a redshift of 10, with an apparent age of more than 13 billion years.

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Note on the notes: What did Einstein do in Relativity? He used an axiomatic method, with two axioms only (Principle of modern Relativity and Constancy of Light Speed).

Both axioms had been proclaimed by Poincare’, as Einstein knew, but Poincare’ had not realized that, with these two axioms only, all the known formulas could be derived in a few pages, as Einstein did (after doing away with the “Ether”, the substance in which waves were supposed to be waving). Einstein said he was influenced by empiricist philosophy from Hume and Mach.

The final story has not been written yet: and if the waves made the space? (TOW.)


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