Friday, August 30, 2013

Oxygen, Ice, and Our Changing Earth

Learning more about this universe is part of being human. This week I read about a newly-confirmed element; more evidence that Earth froze over, several times; and the three-billion-year legacy of our genes.
  1. Ununpentium: It's Real
  2. When Earth Froze Over
  3. Genes: A Three-Billion-Year Legacy

Astrobiology, Exobiology

The currently-hypothetical study of extraterrestrial organisms is called exobiology; astrobiology; and, by some, a total waste of time. I generally call it exobiology, even though the Pontifical Academy of Sciences used the term "astrobiology" a few years back:
  • "Study Week on Astrobiology"
    The Pontifical Academy of Sciences (November 6-10, 2009)
    (from The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, archived ca. October 2, 2011)
The second of my picks this week is about Earth's climate, more than a half-billion years back: which first appeared in Astrobiology Magazine. That makes sense, since the only planet we know has supported life is Earth. Studying what was 'normal' here before we came along helps scientists figure out what environments could support life.

'New' Element

The 'big deal' news is that scientists in Sweden confirmed that element 115 exists. Ununpentium doesn't occur naturally on Earth, as far as we know. It was first spotted by folks in 2003 at Dubna and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Near-simultaneous discoveries don't surprise me. Scientists are notorious — or remarkable — for sharing information, so who finishes their research first is a sort of race.

It's Greek to Me

Ununpentium doesn't have anything to do with not having Intel microprocessors. The element was called eka-bismuth. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, IUPAC for short, called it ununpentium because eka-bismuth's atomic number is 115.

That makes sense, since unum is Latin for one, pent is Greek for five. They used Greek because the Latin word for five is quin, which starts with q: and might get folks confused because flerovium used to be called ununquadium. For folks who don't understand Latin and Greek, and know that flerovium was called ununquadium, ununpentium is just a five-syllable label, and that's another topic. (Wikipedia)

Now that I've got that out of my system, here's more about Ununpentium:

1. Ununpentium: It's Real

"New element confirmed for periodic table" (August 27, 2013)

"...Swedish scientists report fresh evidence confirming the existence of a new element for the periodic table, the 'telephone book' of matter that makes up the universe. First discovered a decade ago, this particular substance proved hard to confirm -- after all, atomic number 115 doesn't occur naturally anywhere on earth.

"By bombarding calcium ions at a thin film of americium -- that's atomic number 95, for the forgetful -- an international team of researchers led by physicists from Lund University measured the element's alpha decay, a 'fingerprint' of a given element.

"The element has been tentatively named 'ununpentium' since its discovery in 2003, but an official name has not yet been given, and the element's very existence remained unconfirmed until now...."
Researchers started looking for and discovering new elements about a thousand years back, with the pace picking up around 1700. By 1800 researchers were called scientists instead of alchemists, and that's yet another topic. They found 51 new elements from 1800 to 1899, but only 29 from 1900 to 1999.

Iron Man and Real Synthetic Elements

The hero in science fiction stories occasionally saved the day by discovering, or creating, a new element. Marvel's Iron Man may be the best-known example today. Many, probably most, of the stories were more imaginative than plausible: but 'artificial elements' are quite real.

They're called synthetic elements:
"In chemistry, a synthetic element is a chemical element that does not occur naturally on Earth, and can only be created artificially. So far, 20 synthetic elements have been created (those with atomic numbers 99–118). All are unstable, decaying with half-lives ranging from a year to a few milliseconds.

"Nine other elements were first created artificially and thus considered synthetic, but later discovered to exist naturally (in trace quantities) as well; among them plutonium - first synthesized in 1940 - the one best known to laypeople, because of its use in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors...."
("Synthetic elements," Wikipedia)

'Meddling With Nature,' Being Human

Individual Catholics may dislike science, or feel that 'meddling with nature' is wrong. Catholics don't have to keep up with what we're learning about the cosmos: but it's okay.

The Church says that learning about nature and finding new ways to work with it is what we're designed for. We can decide to use what we learn for good or evil, and that's built into us too. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159, 282-284, 1730-1738, 2292-2295, 2375)

Scientists have been learning a very great deal about the origins of humankind, Earth, and the universe in recent centuries:
"...These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers...."
(Catechism, 283)
That's not a new idea. More than two thousand years ago, someone wrote this:
"Now God grant I speak suitably and value these endowments at their worth: For he is the guide of Wisdom and the director of the wise.

"For both we and our words are in his hand, as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.

"For he gave me sound knowledge of existing things, that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements,

"The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times, the changes in the sun's course and the variations of the seasons."
(Wisdom 7:15-18)

2. When Earth Froze Over

"What Was Frigid 'Snowball Earth' Really Like?"
Nola Taylor Redd, Astrobiology Magazine, via (August 23, 2013)

" During vast ice ages millions of years ago, sheets of glaciers stretched from the poles almost to the equator, covering the Earth in a frozen skin. Conditions on the "snowball Earth," as scientists refer to it, made the planet a completely different place.

" 'We're essentially talking about another world,' said Linda Sohl of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

"In May, Sohl spoke with a small group at a lunchtime seminar, later posted online, about the evolution of the understanding of the snowball Earth and how it has changed as technology has improved...."
The last I heard, some scientists still aren't convinced that Earth froze over. A big problem, apparently, is that they don't know how it could have thawed again: and so don't think the global ice sheet could have existed. Maybe I'm being unfair: or, not.

My guess is that researchers who found evidence of near-global glaciers are right, and that we're still learning about exactly when these industrial strength ice ages happened.

Glacial Deposits Near the Equator

"...By the early 1990s, scientists had found several unusual features that indicated something chilling had happened in the past. Glacial deposits of similar ages appeared on almost every continent. Evidence revealed that capped carbonates - limestone overlays formed by the ocean - lying on top of the glacial deposits had formed where they were found, rather than having migrated south from higher latitudes.

" 'There had been this growing consensus that we'd had some terrible ice ages back in the past,' Sohl said.

"These features appeared at three different times in Earth's history, at 750 million, 635 million, and 580 million years ago...."
(Nola Taylor Redd, Astrobiology Magazine, via
Earth's recent ice ages, like the one that probably ended 10,000 years ago, only sent glaciers down to about 45 degrees from the poles. Sand and gravel, left when the ice melted, formed moraines, kettle lakes, and other features in the landscape near my home in Minnesota.

'Normal' ice ages send glaciers outward from the poles. Then the glaciers melt and the cycle starts again. In my youth, it looked like another glacial advance was starting: and that's yet again another topic.

In the 'snowball' events, the glaciers kept going until they either reached the equator: or came very close.

Runaway Freeze

"...Temperatures on a snowball Earth are estimated to have reached minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius). As the ice spread, more heat was reflected back into space rather than absorbed by the planet, dropping temperatures down in a runaway effect that sped the formation of ice...."
(Nola Taylor Redd, Astrobiology Magazine, via
Someone visiting Earth during one of those big freezes might have decided that the planet was too cold for any widespread life: and was likely to stay that way.

Earth didn't stay frozen, probably because the glaciers covered rocks that absorb carbon dioxide.

A 10-Million-Year Winter, and Greenhouse Gasses

"...The world remained almost completely frozen over during each of the three periods for around 10 million years before warming again. Scientists still aren't certain what caused temperatures to rise again, but volcanic activity is a strong suspect. Many rocks absorb carbon dioxide, but in a snowball scenario such formations would be covered, allowing the atmosphere-heating molecule to build up to a point where global warming could melt the ice...."
Here's where Earth's continents were, around the time of one of those 'snowball' events. The cartographer, Christopher R. Scotese, shows glaciation limited to higher latitudes.

(From Christopher R. Scotese's, used w/o permission)

About 136,000,000 year later, the big freezes were over and our home probably looked like this:

(From Christopher R. Scotese's, used w/o permission)

Here's the left part of that map, full size, so we can see words like "Ancient Landmass" in the lower left corner.

(From Christopher R. Scotese's, used w/o permission)

Change Happens

Those first two maps don't look alike. That's understandable, since Earth's crust moves. On average, the speed is 'inches per year,' but over 136,000,000 million years that adds up.

Here's another pair of maps, showing Earth's changing face over the last 150,000,000 years.

(From Christopher R. Scotese's, used w/o permission)

(From Christopher R. Scotese's, used w/o permission)

It doesn't look like quite as much change happened in that last set. That's my impression, anyway. I think that perception comes from the map's projection: the way a sphere's surface gets projected onto a flat surface.

All four maps use a projection that shows most of Earth's current continents without much distortion, except for Antarctica. Or, rather, shows most continents where they are today: 650,000,000 years ago most continents were clustered near the lower left side, and quite distorted.

3. Genes: A Three-Billion-Year Legacy

(From Lawrence David, via Science Daily, used w/o permission)
"Three Billion-Year-Old Genomic Fossils Deciphered"
Science Daily (December 10, 2010)

"About 580 million years ago, life on Earth began a rapid period of change called the Cambrian Explosion, a period defined by the birth of new life forms over many millions of years that ultimately helped bring about the modern diversity of animals. Fossils help palaeontologists chronicle the evolution of life since then, but drawing a picture of life during the 3 billion years that preceded the Cambrian Period is challenging, because the soft-bodied Precambrian cells rarely left fossil imprints. However, those early life forms did leave behind one abundant microscopic fossil: DNA.

"Because all living organisms inherit their genomes from ancestral genomes, computational biologists at MIT reasoned that they could use modern-day genomes to reconstruct the evolution of ancient microbes...."
Maybe the Cambrian Explosion happening right after the last 'snowball Earth' global freeze-over is a coincidence. Or maybe it's what happens when Earth defrosts and stuff can start growing again.

Either way, the Cambrian Explosion may not be the first time life on Earth became much more complicated.

The Great Oxidation Event

"...The work suggests that the collective genome of all life underwent an expansion between 3.3 and 2.8 billion years ago, during which time 27 percent of all presently existing gene families came into being.

"Eric Alm, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biological Engineering, and Lawrence David, who recently received his Ph.D. from MIT and is now a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, have named this period the Archean Expansion.

"Because so many of the new genes they identified are related to oxygen, Alm and David first thought that the emergence of oxygen might be responsible for the Archean Expansion. Oxygen did not exist in the Earth's atmosphere until about 2.5 billion years ago when it began to accumulate, likely killing off vast numbers of anerobic [!] life forms in the Great Oxidation Event.

" 'The Great Oxidation Event was probably the most catastrophic event in the history of cellular life, but we don't have any biological record of it,' says Alm.

"Closer inspection, however, showed that oxygen-utilizing genes didn't appear until the tail end of the Archean Expansion 2.8 billion years ago, which is more consistent with the date geochemists assign to the Great Oxidation Event...."
"Catastrophic" isn't necessarily "bad." If microcritters on Earth hadn't started dumping that incredibly toxic (to anaerobic organisms) element, oxygen, into the environment: we wouldn't be here.

It looks like oxygen in the atmosphere, even a little, gave life an opportunity to grow and change.

Anaerobic critters are still with us. Some live in our digestive system, helping us process food. Deep sea worms like Riftia pachyptila get along without oxygen; and closer to home, pork worms encourage us to cook meat thoroughly.

Oxygen reacts with a great many materials, sometimes violently. That was bad for anaerobic organisms. Other creatures use oxygen as an energy source. We couldn't live without oxygen reacting with carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in our bodies.

More than a million years ago, we learned to use heat released when oxygen reacts with stuff like wood, and that's — still more topics. (January 27, 2013; Apathetic Lemming of the North, April 9, 2012; July 9, 2011)

Related posts:


Brigid said...

Missing end single quote: " the speed is 'inches per year, but over 136,000,000 million years that adds up."

Missing article: "I think that perception comes from map's projection:"

Another missing article: "most continents were clustered near lower left side,"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. "Generations later, man learned to put out fire."

Brian Gill said...

Brigid, last things first -

Found, fixed, and - ah! articles most important in English. Must remember. Thank you so much. :)

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