Friday, November 15, 2013

Old Water, Older Fossils, and Extraterrestrial Etiquette

Bacteria-infested water can be a nuisance or a health hazard. When it's from two miles underground, it can be exciting evidence from the dawn of life on Earth. I'm fascinated by that sort of thing. Your experience may vary.
  1. Craters, Lakes, and Life
  2. MISS: Signs of Ancient Life
  3. Interstellar Diplomacy and Ignoring Strict Guidelines
  4. Really Old Water

Space Aliens

One of the news items I picked for this week shows what some "experts" say about how we should deal with extraterrestrial intelligence. Some of what they said makes sense: although it's a little hard to see how anyone can be an expert on space aliens.

Tabloid headlines of earlier decades notwithstanding, we still don't know if there's life of any sort beyond Earth: let alone intelligent life.

That hasn't stopped storytellers from weaving yarns, though.

Space aliens in the movies have been invaders; infiltrators; saviors; and, like, real groovy:
If we meet neighbors who aren't human, but who share our mix of free will and material form, I'm pretty sure that some folks will be upset. Others may expect the space aliens to solve all our problems, and someone's likely to see if they'll buy the Brooklyn bridge.

Being Human

I don't think that we're alone, or that we're not. Right now, we don't know. What we're learning about the billions of planets in this galaxy suggests that we're probably not the only creatures with a body and soul. On the other hand, if we share this universe with other people: I suspect that they're not quite like us.

People with the insatiable desire to see what's 'over the next hill' would, it seems to me, have found us a long time ago.

If we're not alone, our neighbors probably 'aren't human' in more ways than one. IF they were, we'd probably be selling souvenirs to tourists from the stars, struggling to win our planet back, or explaining why "football" isn't the same game on all continents.

I hope we find folks who, like us, share characteristics of both living creatures and angels. It would be an opportunity to learn what parts of "human nature" come from being human: and what comes with being - people.

More about being human, from a Catholic perspective: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 362-368, 1703.

Hate: Not an Option

Even if space aliens were the most gentle, friendly, innocuous folks imaginable: I'm sure that some of the billions of human people would hate them. I've written about original sin, hate, tolerance, and being Catholic before. Bottom line, we're not allowed to hate anybody. (September 11, 2012; July 11, 2012; December 9, 2010)

Right now, the Church says that humanity is "a unity" because we're all related. (Catechism, 360)

I do not think that implies that folks who aren't human - 'aren't human:' not in the sense that we'd be allowed to mistreat them. That simply doesn't fit with what we're told about social justice, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1928-1942)

Rules, Neighbors, Stewardship

The rules are simple:
We're also supposed to trust God: and plan ahead. (Catechism, 227, 2115)

One more thing, before I get started on big craters, old microbes, and space aliens.

Our job description includes "subduing" nature. That's not the same as strip-mining the land and poisoning Earth's oceans. We're supposed to remember that we're stewards. (Catechism, 373, 1880, 2432, 2415, 2432)

1. Craters, Lakes, and Life

(Don Davis/CORBIS, via, used w/o permission.)
"A new study says impacts may be deadly at first, but their craters can later provide a habitat for life."
"Alien Life May Thrive in Impact Craters"
Amanda Doyle, Astrobiology Magazine, via (November 13, 2013)

"An asteroid or comet smashing into the surface of a planet can spell doom for living creatures, but if the impact isn't large enough to completely decimate a planet's inhabitants, then the crater can ultimately provide a habitat for life. That's the finding of a new study reported at the European Planetary Science Congress in September by Iain Gilmour of the Open University in the United Kingdom.

"If an ice- or water-rich area is the victim of an impact, the combination of heat and groundwater will create what is known as a hydrothermal system. In addition, many complex organic compounds, which could be precursor molecules for life, are created at high temperatures such as those generated by a collision. This combination could create the ingredients needed for life as we know it, making impact-induced habitats a potential candidate for the birthplace of life on Earth.

"For a habitat within a crater to remain 'home sweet home,' there must be a constant supply of water and nutrients. The lifetime of the hydrothermal system is also crucial, as the heat from the impact will eventually fade away into its surroundings...."
Three near-simultaneous impacts 65,000,000 years back probably helped dinosaurs die out. (September 29, 2013)

That's "near simultaneous" from a geological perspective. Something hit what's now the Ukraine, forming Boltysh Crater, about a thousand years or so before the 'big one' near the edge of today's Yucat√°n Peninsula. That makes the Ukraine crater a good model for learning how fast impact craters cool off on Earth.

Looks like Boltysh Crater took between 30,000 and 40,000 years to cool off, but a similar crater in Canada, the Haughton impact crater, only took 5,000 years. The obvious difference is that Boltysh Crater filled with water almost immediately (geologically); while the one in Canada didn't become a lake until millions of years after it formed.

As Gilmour pointed out, 30,000 to 40,000 years isn't much time: not compared to how long life's been around here on Earth. For incoming meteors and comets to keep habitats going on a cold but icy world, a whole lot of impacts would have to happen: often, and near enough to let critters migrate from a cooling habitat to newer ones.

Even so, studying impact sites and how they affect life should help us learn more about how life started here: and maybe show us where to look for life on other worlds.

2. MISS: Signs of Ancient Life

(Nora Noffke/Carnegie Institute, via, used w/o permission.)
"A rock surface displaying polygonal oscillation cracks in the 3.48 billion years old Dresser Formation, Pilbara region, Western Australia.
(Nora Noffke/Carnegie Institute)
"Evidence of 3.5-billion-year-old bacterial ecosystems may be earliest sign of life on Earth" (November 13, 2013)

"Scientists have discovered what may be the earliest sign of life on Earth. Remains of nearly 3.5-billion-year-old bacteria has been found in north-west Australia.

"Evidence of the never-before-seen bacteria was found in sedimentary rocks in the remote Pilbara region, home to the world's oldest rock formations.

" 'There was plenty of life from the 3.4 and 3.43 billion-year-old mark - this is pushing it further back,' researcher David Wacey, from the University of Western Australia told The Telegraph.

"While there are no cells from the microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) to be studied under the microscope, scientists observed the marks left behind created by large clusters of microbes...."
This is a big deal in several ways: it's the earliest MISS found so far, by about 300,000,000 years; and the fossils help show what sort of conditions the bacteria lived in. What we learn about the Pilbara fossils should help guide Mars rovers, that are looking for similar structures.


3. Interstellar Diplomacy and Ignoring Strict Guidelines

(Columbia Pictures. via, used w/o permission.)
"Extraterrestrial Etiquette: How Should Humanity Interact with Alien Life?"
Miriam Kramer, (October 23, 2013)

"Humanity should start thinking about how to interact with alien species long before coming into contact with extraterrestrial life, experts say.

"Coming up with a strict set of guidelines that govern the way people on future interstellar space missions study and interact with aliens is imperative before anyone blasts off to a distant world, according to attendees at Starship Congress in August.

"While a 'prime directive' - the rule that prevented Star Fleet officers from interfering with the business of alien life-forms on TV's 'Star Trek' - might be a little extreme, such a rule could help govern interactions between aliens and humans...."
Project Icarus founder Kelvin Long says that if we run into other folks in the universe, it'll be a big event. That, I'll agree with. He also said it:
"...'...will need to be managed with great care and to ensure our culture and their culture remains intact and not disrupted by this new knowledge'...."
(Kelvin Long, via
It's quite possible that Long sees a need to 'manage' contact between humanity and people who aren't human. I'm not sure what he thinks being "disrupted" means. If he sees any significant change as a disruption, there's no way that 'first contact' wouldn't disrupt the myriad cultures and subcultures we have: short of ignoring our neighbors.

More opinions from the article:
  • Armen Papazian, CEO of the International Space Development Hub
    • Either we trust that this is
      • A beautiful universe, an incredible cosmos
      • An amazing landscape
    • Or we will
      • "Utilize" it
      • "Export our scarcity economics"
  • Icarus Interstellar
    • President Richard Obousy
      • Settling on other planets may not be
      • Desirable
    • Designer James Benford
      • Humans
        • Are curious
        • "Like to explore"
        • Won't leave other people alone
      • Dealing with other cultures
        • Is complex
        • Requires research
  • Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop's Les Johnson
    • Before interacting directly
      • Learn as much as possible
    • Learn all you can learn before risking any kind of direct interaction
    • Leave anything that's alive alone
    • Don't bring samples back
      • We might contaminated our ecosystem
Some ideas from the panel, like trying not to hurt other folks, make sense. Others sound like the currently-fashionable fears of environmental disasters and capitalistic imperialistic warmonger America, projected on the stars.

Opinions and Control Freaks

I'm dubious about opinions that reduce complex situations to simple 'either-or' options, and that's another yet topic.

Opinions about space aliens often are like a Rorschach test. They tell more about the person than what we can expect from extraterrestrial intelligence:
This one, I'll take with a pinch of salt:
"...'It wasn't just guns, disease and steel, it was the shock of finding out that you're not even No. 1, you're not even No. 3, Benford said. 'That is a thing to really worry about.'..."
(Icarus Interstellar designer's James Benford, via
Learning that humanity has neighbors who are bigger, smarter, or richer than we are wouldn't "shock" me: provided that they aren't actively hostile. Being Catholic, I realize that humans are as far down the ladder of creation as it gets, for conscious creatures. If anything, it'd be nice to have some company at our end, other than critters like ravens, ragweed, and rocks. (March 28, 2012)

Finally, this refreshing expression of good sense:
"...'A vibrant interstellar civilization will be essentially ungovernable, and that observing such guidelines will be strictly left up to each and every first contact team to obey or not obey at their discretion,' Johnson said. 'When someone is several light-years from home and they've encountered something they never encountered before, they're going to be making the decisions regardless of what the guiding moral principles might have been when they left home.'..."
(Miriam Kramer,
Control freaks won't like the idea that 'experts' back home can't regulate everything: but it works for me.

4. Really Old Water

(B. Sherwood Lollar et al., via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"A scientists takes a sample of water from a mine deep underground in Ontario, Canada. The water turned out to be 2.6 billion years old, the oldest known water on Earth."
"Oldest Water on Earth Found Deep Underground"
Charles Q. Choi, OurAmazingPlanet, LiveScience (May 15, 2013)

"A pocket of water some 2.6 billion years old - the most ancient pocket of water known by far, older even than the dawn of multicellular life - has now been discovered in a mine 2 miles below the Earth's surface.

"The finding, announced in the May 16 issue of the journal Nature, raises the tantalizing possibility that ancient life might be found deep underground not only within Earth, but in similar oases that may exist on Mars, the scientists who studied the water said.

"Geoscientist Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto and her colleagues have investigated deep mines across the world since the 1980s. Water can flow into fractures in rocks and become isolated deep in the crust for many years, serving as a time capsule of what their environments were like at the time they were sealed off...."
They found this water in copper and zinc mines near Timmins, Ontario. It's much saltier than seawater, with dissolved chemicals: like water around hydrothermal vents at the ocean's floor. I remember when scientists were finding so many critters living in 'uninhabitable' places that they came up with a new word: extremophile. It's possible that life started around hydrothermal vents, not tidal pools.

Either way, we've learned that life can flourish in places where we can't: and apparently can survive for a very long time in isolated pockets. Provided that it 'took root,' we might find some sort of life buried deep in Mars: or elsewhere.

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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.