Friday, March 22, 2013

DNA, Voyager 1, Habitable Worlds, and the Universe

Researchers have uncovered new data about the comparatively recent past: tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago. Others are learning about conditions in this universe, a little less 10 billion years before Earth existed.
  1. Humanity's Story: New Data
  2. Mapping this Universe
  3. Outward Bound
  4. Water, Water, Everywhere - - -

Assumptions, the Universe, and God

About 363 years ago, someone named Ussher decided that the universe was created on a particular date in 4004 B.C. At the time, it was an interesting bit of scholarship: and consistent with what folks knew about the world.

A third of a millennium later, some folks insist that Ussher must have been right because he used the Bible as a source for his calculations.

I'm willing to take the universe 'as is,' and not assume that God couldn't have decided to create something on a scale that's vast both in time and space.

Besides, the robot spaceships we've sent to explore other planets would have long since run into the dome mentioned in Genesis 1:6, if the accepted cosmological model of ages past were accurate.

There's also the matter of whether or not the sun goes around Earth. I've been over that before. (June 9, 2012; January 14, 2011)

I'm a Catholic, so I have to take the Bible seriously:
"WORD OF GOD: The entire content of Revelation as contained in the Holy Bible and proclaimed in the Church. In John's Gospel, God's 'Word' means his only-begotten Son, who is the fullness of God's Revelation and who took flesh (the Word incarnate) and became man for the sake of our salvation (65, 81, 101, 241, 461; cf. 2653)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary)

" 'Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.'42 'And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.'43"
(Catechism, 81)
But I'm also allowed to accept what we've learned since the 1600s:
  1. "Know what the Bible is - and what it isn't. The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation."
(USCCB, "Understanding the Bible")
I don't see a problem with seeking truth by studying the universe, and seeking God, because:
"...the things of the world

and the things of faith

derive from the same God...

(Catechism, 159)
I suspect that what we're learning about humanity's story in the uncounted ages since our beginning upsets more folks than the vastness of creation.

I'm okay with the idea that we didn't always look quite the way we do now. God could have created a universe that's small, young, and comparatively static. But evidence strongly indicates that this creation is in a "state of journeying."

1. Humanity's Story: New Data

" 'Out of Africa' Story Being Rewritten Again"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (March 21, 2013)

"Our early human ancestors may have left Africa more recently than thought, between 62,000 and 95,000 years ago, suggests a new analysis of genetic material from fossil skeletons.

"The new findings are in line with earlier estimates, but contradict a more recent study that put humans' first exodus from Africa least 200,000 years ago.

"The new results 'agree with what we know from archaeology,' said study co-author Alissa Mittnik, a biologist at University of Tübingen, in Germany...."
The "our" in the lead paragraph refers to folks whose ancestors didn't head over the horizon a mere 62,000 years back, or 200,000 years ago, or whenever. I'm one of them, our appearance changed a bit, and that's another topic. Topics. (March 17, 2013; April 18, 2012)

The focus of the article is new data: and discussion of what it means. At this point, it looks like assumptions about humanity's genes need to be re-evaluated.

That's no surprise, at least for me. It's only been a few centuries since we realized how old Earth was, and how long we'd been around before folks invented writing.

Mutation Rates, Chimps, and Me

"... Exactly when the first humans emerged from Africa to colonize the world has been a topic of heated debate. [Photos: Our Closest Human Ancestor]

"All of the estimates hinge on one number: the gene mutation rates. By knowing how often genes change, and then counting up the number of genetic differences between different species or groups of people, scientists can create a 'molecular clock' to decipher how long ago they shared a common ancestor.

"Early studies used genetic differences in mitochondrial DNA - genetic material inside the cells' energy-making structures that gets passed on from mother to child - between chimpanzees and humans.

"But since that technique is based on the number of mutations divided by the time since the two shared a common ancestor, it requires an estimate of when the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans lived...."
(Tia Ghose, LiveScience)
I've been to zoos often enough to notice that humans, chimps, orangutangs, and gorillas aren't the same species.

On the other hand, I've also noticed that differences between us and chimpanzees aren't all that dramatic. We've got shorter arms and longer legs, shorter hair on our bodies but much longer hair on our heads, and our brains are a lot bigger.

We're also the ones that learned how to use fire, make cloth: and recently started building robots and producing reality television shows.

I'm not upset that about 99% of my DNA is the same as what's in a chimp's genetic coding. As I've said before, I'm willing to take the universe 'as is.'

DNA, Interchangeable Parts, and Predictable Reactions

Cellular machinery that makes life work here on Earth is surprisingly interchangeable.

I think that's great, since it means that we're now able to improve domesticated plants and animals much more rapidly and precisely.

New ideas, or improvements on old ones, get a predictable sort of reception, though. In recent years we've been seeing a repeat of the sort of fuss that greeted fluoridated water, bar codes and cell phones.

Come to think of it, interchangable parts and mass production upset some folks. (April 7, 2011)

I've posted about that before, fairly often. (this blog (January 27, 2013); Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 31, 2011); Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (October 29, 2009)

Being able to do something doesn't necessarily make it right: or prudent. I've harangued about that, too. (February 10, 2013)

2. Mapping this Universe

"Universe Older Than Thought, Best Space-Time Map Yet Reveals"
Clara Moskowitz, (March 21, 2013)

"The universe is 100 million years older than thought, according to the best-ever map of the oldest light in space.

"The adjustment brings the universe's age to 13.82 billion years, and means space and time are expanding slightly slower than scientists thought.

"These discoveries come from a new all-sky map of ancient cosmic light by Europe's Planck mission, which has measured what's called the cosmic microwave background in greater detail than ever before. ..."
Whether this universe is 13,820,000,000 or 13,720,000,000 years old won't make a difference in how much a loaf of bread costs: but it matters to folks who are learning how this marvelous creation works.

What Planck has been mapping is the cosmic microwave background, CMB: 'light' that shone just over a third of a million years after the Big Bang. The data fits pretty well with what's predicted by the Standard Model: the particle physics one, not the art exhibition in Stockholm.

It's nice when observed data agrees exactly with theoretical expectations. It's exciting when reality turns out to be something unexpected: which seems to be what's happening with the new CMB map.

On small scales, what Planck is 'seeing' matches what Standard Model theory says it should. On larger scales, not so much.

There's also an oddly-large 'cold spot:'

(from ESA and the Planck Collaboration, via, used w/o permission)
"This image unveiled March 21, 2013, shows the cosmic microwave background (CMB) as observed by the European Space Agency's Planck space observatory. The CMB is a snapshot of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 380 000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today...."

(from ESA and the Planck Collaboration, via, used w/o permission)
"Two Cosmic Microwave Background anomalies hinted at by the Planck observatory's predecessor, NASA's WMAP, are confirmed in new high-precision data revealed on March 21, 2013. In this image, the two anomalous regions have been enhanced with red and blue shading to make them more clearly visible...."

Good News from the Edge of the Universe

"...The disagreements with the Standard Model are actually good news to physicists, who know they need more than this theory alone to explain the whole of the universe anyway. For instance, the Standard Model does not include any explanation for dark matter or dark energy, the two largest constituents of the universe that so far remain mysterious...."
(Clara Moskowitz,
There's also the possibility that evidence of collisions with other universes may be in the CBM: at or beyond the limits of what our instruments can detect: today.

And that's another yet topic.

3. Outward Bound

(SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission)
"An artist's impression of Voyager 1 as it passes across the Milky Way"
"Voyager Solar System 'exit' debated"
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (March 20, 2013)

"The possibility that the Voyager-1 spacecraft may have left the Solar System is being hotly debated.

"Launched in September 1977, the probe was sent initially to study the outer planets, but then just kept on going.

"Researchers studying its data say the craft appears now to be in a realm of space beyond the influence of our Sun.

"But the US space agency (Nasa), which manages Voyager, says that it regards the probe as still being inside the Solar System.

"The mission is currently moving more than 18 billion km from Earth, or 123 times the distance between our planet and the Sun...."
What's being discussed is the heliopause, the surface where the region of space primarily influenced by our star ends and the region between stars in this galaxy starts. Voyager 1 may have crossed this boundary, or not:
"...[Voyager-1] has been detecting a rise in the number of high-energy particles, or cosmic rays, coming towards it from interstellar space, while at the same time recording a decline in the intensity of energetic particles coming from behind, from our Sun.

"A big change occurred on 25 August last year, which the GRL paper's authors say was like a 'heliocliff'.

" 'Within just a few days, the heliospheric intensity of trapped radiation decreased, and the cosmic ray intensity went up as you would expect if it exited the heliosphere,' explained Prof Bill Webber from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces...."
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)
Data from Voyager-1 has somewhat more immediate practical importance than the CBM map. Folks are sending robot spaceships to more places in the Solar system: and a few of us are working in low Earth orbit. 'Weather' in space matters. (March 8, 2013)

"We've Never Been There Before...."

"Why Voyager 1's Solar System Exit Is So Hard to Predict"
Mike Wall, (March 21, 2013)

"NASA's Voyager 1 probe is tantalizingly close to the edge of the solar system, but predicting when it will finally pop free into interstellar space is a challenging proposition, mission team members say.

"Voyager 1 is plying new and exotic terrain at the limits of the sun's sphere of influence, and scientists simply don't know what to expect from these unexplored regions.

" 'We've never been there before,' said Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. 'That's what makes it very hard. It's not unlike the first explorers sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. They thought they might know what they would see, but they saw things that were quite a bit different.'..."
We need folks like Tennyson's Telemachus, "...centred [!] in the sphere / Of common duties, decent not to fail...." I think we also need folks like the poet's Ulysses:
"...And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought...

"...for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die...
(Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

4. Water, Water, Everywhere - - -

"Oceans May Be Common on Rocky Alien Planets"
Mike Wall, (March 19, 2013)

"Every rocky planet likely develops a liquid-water ocean shortly after forming, suggesting that potentially habitable alien worlds may be common throughout the universe, a prominent scientist says.

"The building blocks of rocky planets contain more than enough water to seed oceans, and computer models and Earth's own history suggest such seas should slosh around soon after these worlds' surfaces have cooled down and solidified, said Lindy Elkins-Tanton of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

" 'Habitability is going to be much more common than we had previously thought,' Elkins-Tanton said today (March 18) during a talk at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas...."
There's a big difference between "habitability" and "inhabited," as another article pointed out:
"Alien Life May Be Rare Across the Universe"
Miriam Kramer, (March 11, 2013)

"When it comes to life across the cosmos, the universe might just be an "awful waste of space" after all.

"A new theory presented at a conference this week would confirm the worry of Ellie Arroway, Jodie Foster's character in the film 'Contact,' that life might not exist on other worlds.

"Some scientists think that just because exoplanets could have habitable environments, that does not mean that life evolved there.

" 'The pervasive nature of life on Earth is leading us to make this assumption,' Charles Cockell, the director of the U.K. Center for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, said in a statement. 'On our planet, carbon leaches into most habitat space and provides energy for microorganisms to live. There are only a few vacant habitats that may persist for any length of time on Earth, but we cannot assume that this is the case on other planets.'..."
I don't 'believe in' extraterrestrial life, and I don' t think that there isn't life anywhere except here on Earth. As I said last week, we simply don't know whether we're alone in this universe, or whether life happens wherever conditions are right. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 8, 2013))

I'm certainly not going to say that there can't be other worlds besides Earth. I'm a Catholic, and wild claims like that have been against the rules since 1277.

If we're not the only place with life, we'll have wonderful opportunities to lean what's 'universal' for all living creatures: and what's unique to life here. If we meet matter-spirit hybrids like us, people, we'll learn even more.

If Earth is the only planet where life exists, it looks like the raw materials for terraforming worlds are as common as dirt. I think it's more likely that our descendants will opt for building smaller-scale habitats, at least at first: and that's yet again another topic.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.