Friday, October 4, 2013

Three Es: Exoplanets, Exobiology, and Evolution

This week's theme is 'long ago and far away,' sort of:
  1. Flowering Plants: A Hundred Million More Years
  2. Another Exoplanet First: Clouds of Kepler-7b Mapped
  3. Silurian Trend-Setter?

Living in Fast-Forward

In my own way, I'm as excited about a few very old pollen grains and an even older fish head as a baseball fan watching the World Series.

I'm also impressed by a map that looks like a flattened beach ball.

We live in an era when scientists add knowledge of Earth's history and the universe to humanity's archives every year. Trying to keep up with at least some developments is exhilarating.

That's my experience.

Some folks apparently don't enjoy living in a world like today's. That's understandable. Experiencing change can be unsettling. We've seen a lot of change in my lifetime: new technology; new science; new social norms, some of which were long-overdue reforms.

I'm not happy about some of what's happened in the last half-century, and that's another topic:
Moving on.

Science and Me

As I've said before, my faith doesn't depend on keeping up with science news: but it's not threatened by reality, either.

A reasonable faith can't be disturbed by knowing more about this world, because God made the world. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

Not assuming that folks who lived a thousand years ago knew more about the universe than God helps.

Deciding that God is large and in charge made sense two millennia back, and still does. A quick Google search showed me that someone's already called it "the Gamaliel principle" or "Gamaliel's principle," and that's yet another topic.

Gamaliel's the chap who told the Sanhedrin to leave Peter and the apostles alone. He explained that if Peter and company were wrong, they'd fail; and if they were right, the Sanhedrin might be in the awkward position of fighting God. (Acts 5:34-39)

Getting a Grip About Evolution

Evolution has been an emotional topic ever since some Victorian gentlemen decided that since life on Earth has changed quite a bit, and is far older than Ussher's six millennia, God doesn't exist. I suspect that if Darwin had been an astronomer, 'serious thinkers' would have claimed that God doesn't exist because the Moon has no air. (March 20, 2009)

Knowing that we live in an overwhelmingly ancient and vast universe doesn't diminish my regard for God's creative ability. At all.

A remarkable number of folks who didn't like new ideas decided that evolution, and by extension all science, was bad. That, in my considered opinion, is silly.

Evolution: Real and Imagined

Some of what passed for "science" in popular culture didn't help.
"One of the common misconceptions from the first half of the 20th century was that evolution ran along fixed rails and that by doing something very clever one could skitter up and down the evolutionary chain like it was some sort of biological cable car.

"In The Man Who Evolved (1931) by Edmond Hamilton, Dr. John Pollard discovers that he can speed up human evolution with a shower of cosmic rays. Naturally, you wouldn't think that he'd be as daft as to try it out on himself first, but that's exactly what he does do and in short order he morphs his way from man to superman to giant brain...."
("The Man Who Evolved," Tales of Future Past, David S. Zonndy)
Evolution isn't a "biological cable car," but it's not haphazard change. We've learned quite a bit about natural laws involved in evolution since "On the Origin of Species:"

"Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins...."
I believe that God created everything, and is rational: so the idea that life develops along rational lines doesn't bother me. Besides, I've read about secondary causes (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 304)

Life in the Universe?

Even in 1934, Frank R. Paul's martian was probably recognized as more "fiction" than "science."

(Frank R. Paul, from Fabio Feminò, via David S. Zodney's Tales of Future Past, used w/o permission.)

We don't know if life exists anywhere except on Earth, but the more we learn about the universe, the more likely extraterrestrial life looks. My opinion.

I'm certainly not going to claim that there can't be life elsewhere. Even if I wanted it to be so, I realize that my preferences don't outvote God.

If there is life elsewhere, I'm pretty sure that it won't look quite like what we're used to seeing. Even life on Earth hasn't always looked like it does today.

For example, the mouth of that little five-eyed critter was on the underside of its head and faced backward. Maybe the thing looking like a vacuum cleaner hose coming out of its head grabbed food and passed it into the mouth. Then again, maybe not. There's nothing like opabinia regalis alive today.

Amiskwia sagittiformis is another long-extinct critter that's like nothing on Earth: today.

On the other hand, opabinia and amiskwia aren't all that different from many living creatures. They're more-or-less bilaterally symmetrical, and noticeably longer than they are wide or tall: just like nearly all animals that move through water.

Even critters with radial symmetry that move rapidly, like squid and octopi, have 'left' and 'right' sides.

Then there are animals like the sea harp, and that's yet again another topic.

(from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), via, used w/o permission)

More about amiswia and opabinia:

1. Flowering Plants: A Hundred Million More Years

(P. Hochuli/S. Feist-Burkhardt, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Fossil evidence for origin of flowering plants in the Middle Triassic period (scale bars 10 micrometres)"
"Flowering plant origins pushed back 100 million years"
Jeremy Coles, BBC Nature (October 1, 2013)

"Flowering plants may have originated more than 100 million years earlier than previously thought, according to scientists in Switzerland and Germany.

"The previously oldest known flowering plant-like pollen dates from the Early Cretaceous period.

"But the team described six types of fossil pollen grains from older Middle Triassic core samples that closely resemble these earliest examples.

"The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science...."
Flowering plants, had a sort of population explosion in the Early Cretaceous, roughly 140,000,000 years ago. The number of different flowering species increased rapidly during that era, too: so paleontologists figured that the first flowers had probably appeared then.

Now it looks like the first flowering plants, angiosperm for those who like technical words, date from the Middle Triassic, about 243,000,000 years back.

The six varieties of pollen grains aren't much different from pollen of the Early Cretaceous. Apparently angiosperms plugged along for a hundred million years before taking off as Earth's biggest group of plants.

Pollen Grains: Knowing What to Look For

Those pollen grains weren't easy to spot. For one thing, angiosperms aren't the only plants that use pollen or produce seeds. Plants have sprouted from seeds since the Devonian, another hundred million years or so before the pollen grains the University of Zurich's Professor Peter Hochuli and others found.

Professor Peter Hochuli says that we've probably already found pollen from the earliest flowering plants, but haven't recognized it:
" 'I think part of it is a gap in the observation, one finds what is already known. Without my experience from the Barents Sea, I think I would have missed the few tiny grains,' Prof Hochuli told BBC Nature."
(Jeremy Coles, BBC Nature)
Finding 243,000,000-year-old pollen grains is one thing. Noticing the one percent of a fossil specimen's pollen grains that look like ones formed by flowering plants: that's trickier.

2. Another Exoplanet First: Clouds of Kepler-7b Mapped

(NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission)
"Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped. The cloud map was produced using data from NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT"
"NASA Space Telescopes Find Patchy Clouds on Exotic World"
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (September 30, 2013)

"Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes have created the first cloud map of a planet beyond our solar system, a sizzling, Jupiter-like world known as Kepler-7b.

"The planet is marked by high clouds in the west and clear skies in the east. Previous studies from Spitzer have resulted in temperature maps of planets orbiting other stars, but this is the first look at cloud structures on a distant world.

" 'By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution "map" of this giant, gaseous planet,' said Brice-Olivier Demory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Demory is lead author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. 'We wouldn't expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds.'..."
"Sizzling" is a an understatement. Kepler-7b's clouds seem to be somewhere around 1,700 degrees Kelvin: that's roughly 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 1,400 degrees Centigrade. This hot Jupiter's clouds aren't water vapor, like Earth's.

Demory's team thinks Kepler-7b's clouds are silicates, the stuff sand, quartz, mica, and some gems like tourmaline are made of.

Finding silicate clouds isn't a surprise. The Sudarsky extrasolar planet classification said that some hot gas giants would have silicate clouds. What's remarkable is that this is the first time someone pieced together a map of an extrasolar planet's clouds.

Kepler-7b's Clouds: a Very Low-Resolution Map

(From "Inhomogenous Couds in an Exoplanet Atmosphere," Brice-Olivier Demory, used w/o permission.)

That diagram is the "map" Demory and others made of Kepler-7b's clouds. The colors show which parts of the planet's visible surface are brighter than others. If they'd put their "map" on a globe, it would look like a beach ball, with strips showing different brightness running from pole to pole.

"Moving Beyond Just Detecting Exoplanets"

"...'With Spitzer and Kepler together, we have a multi-wavelength tool for getting a good look at planets that are trillions of miles away,' said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington. 'We're at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them.'..."
(Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
In my youth, we knew that other planets circled our star; and that our star was one of an enormous roster in the Milky Way galaxy. We'd even discovered that our galaxy was just one "island universe:" a term that made more sense a few centuries back than it does now.

Some scientists said that other planets probably existed, based on what we were learning about how the Solar system formed. Then we started collecting data from orbiting observatories.

As of a few days ago, nearly a thousand exoplanets have been confirmed. It looks like there are billions of planets in our galaxy.

We're learning that our Solar system's selection of cold gas giants and warm-to-hot smaller rocky planets isn't the only possibility. Hot Jupiters, like Kepler-7b, were one surprise. Super-Earths, like < a href="">GJ 1214 b
, could be rocky worlds with very thick atmospheres, mostly water, or - something else.
I agree with Paul Hertz: this is "exciting science."

A rather technical look at Kepler-7b:

3. Silurian Trend-Setter?

(From Discovery News, via, used w/o permission.)
"The earliest known species with what we would recognize as a face was an armored, beady-eyed prehistoric fish."
"First face? Prehistoric fish was a jawdropper"
Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, via (September 25, 2013)

"The earliest known species with what we would recognize as a face was an armored, beady-eyed prehistoric fish, according to a new paper in the journal Nature.

"The fish, entelognathus primordialis (meaning 'primordial complete jaw'), is the oldest known animal to have face-forming jaw and cheek bones comparable to those of today's bony fishes and most terrestrial animals, including us....

"...'Entelognathus had a rather unprepossessing face,' co-author Per Erik Ahlberg of Uppsala University told Discovery News. 'The mouth was wide, the forehead low and flat, and the small, close-set and almost immobile eyes pointed forwards like a pair of car headlights.'..."
Cheekbones and a simple hinged jaw are standard equipment on vertebrates: critters with a backbone. It wasn't always like that, though.

Back when this fish lived, 419,000,000 years ago, the continent I live on was mostly covered by a shallow ocean. Entelognathus lived in what's now southwestern China, which was mostly under water too.

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

This entelognathus fossil is a big deal because it's in remarkably good condition, considering that the fish has been dead for nearly a half-billion years. Since it's the earliest known vertebrate with jaws, studying it may tell paleontologists more about how jaws developed: and why.

Now it looks like the first jawed fish didn't look like sharks, which came along later. And that's - what else? - another topic.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

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.