Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, is turning out to be as majestic as its ancient name implies. High definition images taken of its poles, transmitted back to Earth by the space probe Juno, show a vibrant, churning cloudscape which appear to have been artistically generated in oils (1). The gnarly appearance of the storms and tempests which are woven into this mind-blowingly immense vista seem peaceful enough from space, but the ferocity of their winds can only be imagined. Although the colours have been enhanced to a certain extent artificially (2), Juno’s imaging equipment has captured the incredibly beautiful blue colours of the polar zones and the immense set of storms swirling within.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)
These dramatic regions contrast strongly with the generally dull series of beige bands wrapping around the more familiar equatorial region (although Juno has also allowed us to better appreciate the intricate patterns of these banded zones, too) . These blues are more reminiscent of the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, and perhaps even of Earth – although the constituent gases of the atmospheres of these worlds can differ significantly from Jupiter’s. which give the clouds. The different colours and properties of Jupiter’s clouds can be attributed to their constituent gases – mostly hydrogen and helium, but also water, ammonia, methane and sulphur.
It seems to me that the solar system is starting to come to life – not in the way of biological life, although that may yet come to be, but instead in terms of our appreciation of its rich complexity and visuality. The Pioneer and Voyager space probes provided what were incredible images of the outer solar system planets back in their day. But limitations in the image-capturing technology also created a sense in those images of dull uniformity.
In the decades before the space-probe images had been sent back from the outer solar system, sci-fi writers, film-makers and scientists had created an amazing array of ideas about what these worlds might be like. This potential had become ingrained within the public collective consciousness, and to some extent helped drive NASA’s ambitious space programme forward. This was enhanced by a sense of mystery – and a hope of alien life. However, the images returning to our television screens in the latter part of the 20th century clearly did not do these worlds justice. So, although obtaining the planetary images were astonishing achievements in themselves, the disappointing lack of features within them dashed many hopes, and provided the public with a new view of the outer solar system. Like lifeless Mars and overheated Venus, the outer solar system consisted of a rather mundane set of giant planets distinctly lacking in the vibrant complexity of our own Earth. Read More…
It looks like it’ll be another long, lonely autumn for Dr Mike Brown on the summit of the Hawaiian dormant volcano Mauna Kea, searching for Planet Nine. He made use of the 8m Subaru telescope last year, and it looks like he’s back again this year for a second role of the dice (unless he does all this by remote control from Pasadena?). I can only assume, given the time of the year, that the constellation of Orion remains high on their list of haystacks to search.
A recent article neatly sums up the current state of play with the hunt for Planet Nine (1), bringing together the various anomalies which, together, seem to indicate the presence of an undetected super-Earth some twenty times further away than Pluto (or thereabouts). Given how much, I’ve written about this materials already, it seems unnecessary to go over the same ground. I can only hope that this time, Dr Brown and his erstwhile colleague, Dr Batygin, strike lucky. They have their sceptical detractors, but the case they make for Planet Nine still seems pretty solid, even if the gloss has come off it a bit recently with the additional OSSOS extended scattered disk object discoveries (2). But there’s nothing on Dr Brown’s Twitterfeed to indicate what his plans are regarding a renewed search for Planet Nine.
Even if the Planet Nine article’s discussion about a new hunt for the celestial needle in the haystack is misplaced, it does make a valid point that super-Earths, if indeed that is what this version of Planet X turns out to be, are common enough as exo-planets, and weirdly absent in our own planetary backyard. So a discovery of such an object way beyond Neptune would satisfy the statisticians, as well as get the bubbly flowing at Caltech. Dr Brown did seem to think that this ‘season’ would be the one. We await with bated breath…
Meanwhile, the theoretical work around Planet Nine continues, with a new paper written by Konstantin Batygin and Alessandro Morbidelli (3) which sets out the underlying theory to support the result of the 2016 computer simulations which support the existence of Planet Nine (4). Dr Morbidelli is an Italian astrophysicist, working in the south of France, who is a proponent of the Nice model for solar system evolution (named after the rather wonderful French city where he works). This model arises from a comparison between our solar system’s dynamics, and those of the many other planetary systems now known to us, many of which seem bizarre and chaotic in comparison to our own. Thus, the Nice model seeks to blend the kinds of dynamical fluctuations which might occur during the evolution of a star’s planetary system with both the outcomes witnessed in our own solar system, and the more extreme exoplanets observed elsewhere (5). It invokes significant changes in the positions of the major planets during the history of the solar system, for instance. These migrations have knock on effects which then drive other disturbances in the status quo of the early solar system, leading to the variations witnessed both here and elsewhere. For instance, Dr Morbidelli lists one of the several factors which brought about the Nice model:
‘Reclaiming Civilization’ by Brendan Myers
Subtitled “A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity”
Moon Books, 2017
For the most part, this is a philosophy book. The author, a Canadian academic with an interest in pagan thought, is doing some personal soul-searching during his long summer break. This provides something of a narrative upon which to attach various philosophical arguments. I can identify with this process, having gone through a similar internal rumination in my late teenage years.
I’ve noticed that August usually brings with it a significant uptick in Planet X-related stories in the mainstream media. Lots of people go on holiday, companies go quiet, governments tick along and seek only to bury bad news this month, and no one’s playing much attention anyway. So, bored journalists stuck in their offices when everyone else is having fun scrabble around to produce stories, sometimes from nothing at all, other times re-hashing previous material. More often than not, they simply nick each other’s ideas. This year, the traditional August silly season has been marred by the rather unfortunate possibility of nuclear war. This kind of serious topic has no place in August, so most people seem to be consigning it to the desperate summer news schedule. I’m sure that if the threat of war on the Korean peninsula continues into September, then people will start to sit up and take notice, with the commensurate impact on stock markets, prospects of mass annihilation, etc.
Anyhow, within that context, it’s little surprise to see a story outlining the fears people have about Planet X, and how there may actually be an underlying reality behind the conspiracy theories (which there often is, in one form or another). The celestial ball gets rolling by an online article in the Daily Star (1) which outlines the most recent nightmare scenario from the heavens, and then includes a family-friendly Planet X rebuttal on a YouTube video by NASA scientist David Morrison. Some of the detailed points he makes are arguable (about ‘Nibiru’ being a ‘minor god in the Babylonian pantheon’, and about how great an effect a perihelion transit by a Planet X object might have upon the solar system’s architecture, for instance) but his general thrust is sound. Don’t panic!
Last month, scientists working on the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS) published a large dataset of new Kuiper Belt Objects, including several new extended scattered disk objects discovered way beyond the main belt (1). These four new distant objects seemed to have a more random set of properties, when compared to the rather more neat array of objects which had previously been constituted the Planet Nine cluster. This led to scepticism among the OSSOS scientific team that there was any real evidence for Planet Nine. Instead, they argued, the perceived patterns of these distant objects might be a function of observational bias (2).
Whilst reporting on these new discoveries and their potential implications, I predicted that the debate was about to hot up, bringing forth a new series of Planet X-related articles and papers (3). Indeed, leading outer solar system scientists were publishing related materials in quick succession (4,5), each finding new correlations and patterns which might indicate the presence of an unseen perturbing influence.
Now, Caltech’s Konstantin Batygin has published an article analysing the impact of the discovery of these new extended scattered disk objects on the potential for a Planet Nine body. The short conclusion he draws is that although the objects are, on the face of it, randomly distributed, their property set is largely consistent with Caltech’s original thesis (6). They are either anti-aligned to the purported Planet Nine body (as the original cluster is thought to be), or aligned with it in a meta-stable array.
‘Ontogenesis’ – A novel by John Evan Garvey
Self-published via the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017
My son, currently sitting his GCSEs, spotted this book on our dining room table, and said, “Oh, yeah, ontology, that’s all to do with God, and our state of being – we’ve done something about that in R.E.”. Which showed that (a) studying for your public exams actually works and (b) my son knew significantly more about this than me. So, having read most of John Garvey’s excellent novel by this point, I said, “Yeah, it is kind of like that, only way weirder, all to do with alien intervention, all that stuff.” With a half-absent “Cool”, my son moved on to something else, and I decided perhaps now was the time to look up what this title actually meant. It’s relevant because, although this is ‘just’ a novel, in my opinion ‘Ontogenesis’ is a deeply thought through work of metaphysical enquiry.
I’m not really sure my review is going to do it justice, because the philosophies underpinning the work were, at times, stretching my conceptual understanding. At one point, I wrote in my notes that the book was Cubist, in that it was using multiple vantage points to explore certain concepts and situations. Later in the book, it went multi-dimensional, like a game of 3D Tic-tac-toe, and the Cubist structure turned into something more akin to a Möbius strip.
So, let’s get a bit academic here, before I try to engage this novel’s narrative. My son was pretty accurate; ontology is indeed the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. However, ‘ontogenesis’ has been defined as ‘the development of an individual organism or anatomical or behavioural feature from the earliest stage to maturity’. Somehow, the author has brought both of these concepts into the book’s 337 pages, amalgamating human evolutionary progress with New Age metaphysics, theology and Ufology – all pinned together by plenty of Socratic rhetorical debate. The contents may involve some heady stuff indeed, but the novel is coated by a chilled Californian vibe – rather in the style of Joe Satriani’s guitar work; vigorously intellectual and creative, whilst remaining damn cool.
There’s a political struggle woven into the work, too; a very American contest between liberalism and social conservatism: A breaking free of mainstream thinking, and a rejection of established and repressive community values. This is all drawn together into the New Age concept of Ascension – a spiritual evolution of being which allows humanity to break through into a multi-dimensional universe already inhabited by more highly evolved alien entities from neighbouring star systems.
The kick in this book is how that transformation plays out on an existential level, i.e. how the protagonist and his Scooby Doo-style band of friends experience this bizarre multi-dimensional roller coaster. There are many allusions to the Matrix movies, at least in terms of the way the book steps out of the box. There are many allusions to Virtual Reality games, an increasingly straightforward solution as the narrative weirdens. But this is no first-person shooter. The author’s science fiction style harkens back to a Golden Age, more like Asimov or Bradbury, and brings in action sequences reluctantly, I felt. It didn’t help that most of the book is written in the present tense. This may have been a consciously worked aspect of the underlying metaphysics, but it made the pacing of certain tracts of the book feel stilted. To be fair, it can’t be easy to mix heady New Age philosophy with widescreen action adventure.
So, to the narrative. The story begins as a Close Encounter of the Fifth Kind (“bilateral contact experiences through conscious, voluntary and proactive human-initiated cooperative communication with extraterrestrial intelligence”) on the hills overlooking Los Angeles, involving an eclectic group of UFO enthusiasts. The main protagonist of the story, a marketing executive called Trevor, has brought along his beautiful new girlfriend Veronica, who seems to be settling into this odd clan unexpectedly well. A highly successful encounter with a UFO turns into a classic abduction experience for several members of the group, which is then plunged into chaos when the UFO is intercepted by dark forces mid-abduction.
The abductees are rounded up and imprisoned within a military facility, partly manned by aggressive aliens. Upon their escape, they manage to find their ways home remarkably easily – making the whole thing seem like an extended acid trip. Someone laced the Kool Aid? But this is just the beginning of an evolution of weirdness, which permeates and ultimately takes over the lives of the abductees. They progressively experience a deeper multi-dimensional reality, aided by alien presences whose motives are often questionable. Inevitably, the course of the transformation and ascension of humanity to a new existential level relies upon the courage, determination and underlying humanity of these abductees.
The narrative draws from many, many strands of Ufology. One might even consider it to be a comprehensive exposé of the subject, attempting to understand this disparate discipline by attempting to incorporate all of its fayre simultaneously. The alien denizens of Earth, decidedly ‘Men-in-Black’ in concept, rely heavily upon Ufology’s menagerie – Greys, reptilians, Nordics, preying mantis-types, shape-shifters, and so on.
Then there are the many conspiracy theories which each try to explain and/or contextualise the UFO phenomenon, including alien bases, mind control, MILABs, ancient aliens, abductions, hybridisation, multi-dimensional encounters, folklore, demonology, environmental catastrophism, our estranged place in the galactic community, and quite a lot of dark David Icke-style material.
But, ultimately, the preferred solution edges towards human progress to a higher spiritual truth, aided by various quasi-religious figures known as Ascended Masters. This requires the book to turn in on itself, and provide multi-faceted experiences for its reader, which serve to penetrate this higher reality. It’s an ambitious gambit, and for the most part works well. It’s certainly thought-provoking. The sardonic, jocular wit shared by the abductee group gives the sense of a literary work smiling at itself knowingly – like an amused Bodhisattva. Whether the book would appeal to readers not acquainted with the diversity of Ufology, I don’t know, but personally I found ‘Ontogenesis’ engaging and immersive, and enjoyable. I’d certainly read another of John Garvey’s books.
Book review by Andy Lloyd, 25th June 2017
I’ve often discussed the origin of various elements and compounds on Earth – most notably the isotopic ratio of water, and what that might tell us about the origin of terrestrial water (1). Data about this can help provide evidence for the Earth’s early history, and often the data is inconsistent with the general theories of oceanic origin, like the ‘late veneer theory’, for instance, where the bulk of terrestrial waters were supposed to have been supplied by comets. It turns out that the water was on this planet all along (2,3), raising questions about why the Sun’s heat had not driven this relatively volatile resource away from the primordial Earth during the early history of the solar system.
Despite such evidence, the ‘late veneer theory’ continues to hold ground for many scientists, and tends to go unchallenged within the science media. This is apparent within the following excerpt about a new paper on the mysterious presence of a particular isotope of the noble gas xenon found in ancient terrestrial water encased in rock:
“The scientists have been analysing tiny samples of ancient air trapped in water bubbles found in the mineral, quartz, which dates back more than three billion years. The team found that the air in the rocks is partly made up of an extremely rare form of the chemical element, xenon. It is known as U-Xe and what makes it so rare is that it isn’t usually found on Earth. The component is not present in the Earth’s mantle, nor is it found in meteorites.
“Therefore, the team believe that the U-Xe must have been added to the Earth after a primordial atmosphere had developed. Simply put, comets are the best candidates for carrying the U-Xe to the planet. Co-author, Prof Ray Burgess, from Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences explains: “The Earth formed too close to the Sun for volatile elements, such as U-Xe, to easily condense and they would have rapidly boiled off the surface and been lost to space.
“”The reason that oceans and an atmosphere exist at all is because volatiles were still being added after the Earth formed. The puzzle is in identifying where the volatiles came from and what objects carried them to the early Earth. The difficulty is that many of the different volatile ingredients that were originally added have been thoroughly mixed together by geological processes during Earth’s long geological history.”” (4)
It turns out that xenon, in general, is mostly absent from the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly compared to other noble gases like argon. No one knows why. Perhaps the missing xenon is encapsulated within rocks buried deep within the Earth. Or perhaps, conversely, it has been driven off the Earth because it is not easily captured by rocks like perovskite (5). Xenon is missing from Mars, too, which may allude to its propensity for loss from a weak atmosphere.
New species of archaic humans seem to pop up pretty frequently these days. If you accept the evolution by natural selection model, then the human lineage is less of a linear progression from primate ancestors, and more of a messy demolition derby of sub-species which came and went, branching out into dead-end alleys of development. Only one line survived the ravages of the last few hundred thousand years – us. The remains of the rest, the human species which didn’t make it and succumbed to extinction, like Homo floresiensis, are being dug out of caves around the world.
The latest of these discoveries are the Homo naledi hominins, who appear to have lived in southern Africa some 300,000 years ago around the same time that early humans were emerging as a species (1). The remains of these hominins was discovered in the complex Rising Star system of caves in South Africa a couple of years ago (2). The bones littered a pit-like chamber which was very difficult to access. The bones provide palaeontologists with a curious set of archaic specimens. The small skull size of Homo naledi, providing space for a brain just half the size of a modern human, indicated a primitive hominin.
The small brain size led the palaeontology team, led by the maverick academic Lee Berger, of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, to conclude that the species had lived perhaps 2 – 3 million years ago. The shape of the skull was suggestive of early Homo species, including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. However, various aspects of the skeleton more closely resembled modern humans – their wrists, the feet, the lower part of the pelvis, some of their teeth (3). It’s a very odd mix indeed:
““You could almost draw a line through the hips—primitive above, modern below,” said Steve Churchill, a paleontologist from Duke University. “If you’d found the foot by itself, you’d think some Bushman had died.”” (2)
This article will explore the potential for life to develop in the outer planetary systems of red giant stars. It will then discuss the death-throes of red giant stars, and whether the subsequent outward thrust of stellar material might provide another mechanism for free-floating planets in interstellar space.
Exoplanets have already been found orbiting extremely old stars, one some 11 billion years old (1). This star, named Kepler-444, makes our own Sun, at a mere 4.6 billion years old, seem like an infant in comparison. The implication of this is that life could readily have got going early on in the history of the universe, long before the birth of our Sun. Furthermore, if these exoplanets were to benefit from a relatively stable stellar environment during that long timescale, then the chances of life evolving into higher forms are statistically more probable. Scale this up across trillions of stars, and the possibilities become clear.
Our own Sun has a shorter lifespan than this. Its main sequence life is expected to last another 5 billion years, by which point it will have burned up all of its hydrogen fuel. Then it will swell into a red giant star, before collapsing down into a white dwarf. For Earth, this post-main sequence (post-MS) phase of the Sun’s life will be pretty disastrous. The Sun’s expansion to a red giant will swallow the Earth up. However, a less catastrophic outcome might be expected for planets in the outer solar system, beyond, say, Jupiter. In fact, their climates might significantly improve – for a while, at least. The habitable zone of the solar system will expand outwards, along with the expanding star. Saturn’s largest moon Titan, for instance, might benefit greatly from a far milder climate – as long as it can hang onto its balmy atmosphere in the red heat of the dying Sun.
The expansion of habitable zones, as late main sequence stars become hydrogen-starved, offers the potential for life to make a new start in previously frigid environments. The burning question here is how long these outer planets have to get life going before the red giant then withdraws into its cold white shell. A study published last year by scientists at the Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute attempted to answer this question (2), choosing to examine yellow dwarf stars whose sizes range from half that of the Sun, to approximately twice its mass. They argue that the larger stars along this sequence could well have larger rocky terrestrial planets in their outer planetary systems than our Sun does (at least, insofar as we know it does!) This is because the density of materials in their initial proto-planetary disks should be that much greater for larger stars (3). Larger Earth-like planets in outer regions mean more potential for stable atmospheric conditions during the post-MS period under consideration. In other words, the growing red giant (which is shedding its mass pretty wildly at this point) would not necessarily blast away an outer planet’s atmosphere if that rocky planet had sufficient gravity to hold onto it.
For some time, astrophysicists have argued over how many Dark Stars there might be in the galaxy, with varying opinions. (Note that astronomers use several different names for these objects: sub-brown dwarfs, Y Dwarfs, ‘planemos’). In this short article, I argue that new evidence presented about the stellar populations of open star clusters point towards there being more Dark Stars than stars in our galaxy.
When I use the term ‘Dark Star’ in my book (1) and internet articles, I’m generally referring to gas giant planets/ultra-cool dwarf stars which are several times more massive than Jupiter, up to perhaps ~13 times as massive (at this point, the gas giant begins to burn deuterium and is reclassified as a brown dwarf). Most examples of these objects (perhaps more than a few million years old) are essentially dark. By contrast, very young examples light up more brightly, because they still retain some heat from their formation. It’s a curious quirk of nature that these sub-brown dwarfs are actually smaller in size than Jupiter, despite being heavier. Because these objects are so small, and so dim, they are extraordinarily difficult to observe. Some have been found, but they are usually either extremely young (and therefore still burning brightly), or are exoplanets discovered orbiting parent stars (and so detectable through gravitational ‘wobble’ effects, or other means of finding massive exoplanets).
It has been my contention for some time that the populations of these objects are significantly underestimated. It is recognised generally that these ultra-cool dwarf stars may be free-floating objects in inter-stellar space, often as a result of having been ejected from young star systems as the fledgling planets in those systems jostle for position. Opinions about their numbers vary greatly among astrophysicists. There may be twice as many of these objects as stars, according to studies involving gravitational microlensing surveys of the galactic bulge (2). Other studies conflict with this conclusion, arguing that there may be as few as 1 object of 5-15 MJup size per 20-50 stars in a cluster (3). This discrepancy is important because the difference is perhaps as high as two orders of magnitude, and this ultimately affects our understanding of how many free-floating Dark Stars we can expect to find out there.
Their mass, lying between that of Jupiter and the deuterium-burning limit at about 13 MJup (4) seems to single Dark Stars out as rather special objects:
“An abrupt change in the mass function at about a Jupiter mass favours the idea that their formation process is different from that of stars and brown dwarfs. They may have formed in proto-planetary disks and subsequently scattered into unbound or very distant orbits.” (2)
Therefore, if the number of free-floating sub-brown dwarfs (also sometimes known as “planemos”) is on the high end of expectation, then it means that there are also likely to be far more of these objects in wide, distant orbits around their parent stars. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of there being a similar Dark Star object (or more) in our own immediate solar neighbourhood. Read More…