Martian Fluvial Flows, Placid and Catastrophic

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Despite the fact that, apart localized dust surfaces in summer, the surface of Mars has had average temperatures that never exceeded about minus 50 degrees C over its lifetime, it also has had some quite unexpected fluid systems. One of the longest river systems starts in several places at approximately 60 degrees south in the highlands, nominally one of the coldest spots on Mars, and drains into Argyre, thence to the Holden and Ladon Valles, then stops and apparently dropped massive amounts of ice in the Margaritifer Valles, which are at considerably lower altitude and just north of the equator. Why does a river start at one of the coldest places on Mars, and freeze out at one of the warmest? There is evidence of ice having been in the fluid, which means the fluid must have been water. (Water is extremely unusual in that the solid, ice, floats in the liquid.) These fluid systems flowed, although not necessarily continuously, for a period of about 300 million years, then stopped entirely, although there are other regions where fluid flows probably occurred later. To the northeast of Hellas (the deepest impact crater on Mars) the Dao and Harmakhis Valles change from prominent and sharp channels to diminished and muted flows at –5.8 k altitude that resemble terrestrial marine channels beyond river mouths.

So, how did the water melt? For the Dao and Harmakhis, the Hadriaca Patera (volcano) was active at the time, so some volcanic heat was probably available, but that would not apply to the systems starting in the southern highlands.

After a prolonged period in which nothing much happened, there were catastrophic flows that continued for up to 2000 km forming channels up to 200 km wide, which would require flows of approximately 100,000,000 cubic meters/sec. For most of those flows, there is no obvious source of heat. Only ice could provide the volume, but how could so much ice melt with no significant heat source, be held without re-freezing, then be released suddenly and explosively? There is no sign of significant volcanic activity, although minor activity would not be seen. Where would the water come from? Many of the catastrophic flows start from the Margaritifer Chaos, so the source of the water could reasonably be the earlier river flows.

There was plenty of volcanic activity about four billion years ago. Water and gases would be thrown into the atmosphere, and the water would ice/snow out predominantly in the coldest regions. That gets water to the southern highlands, and to the highlands east of Hellas. There may also be geologic deposits of water. The key now is the atmosphere. What was it? Most people say it was carbon dioxide and water, because that is what modern volcanoes on Earth give off, but the mechanism I suggested in my “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” was the gases originally would be reduced, that is mainly methane and ammonia. The methane would provide some sort of greenhouse effect, but ammonia on contact with ice at minus 80 degrees C or above, dissolves in the ice and makes an ammonia/water solution. This, I propose, was the fluid. As the fluid goes north, winds and warmer temperatures would drive off some of the ammonia so oddly enough, as the fluid gets warmer, ice starts to freeze. Ammonia in the air will go and melt more snow. (This is not all that happens, but it should happen.)  Eventually, the ammonia has gone, and the water sinks into the ground where it freezes out into a massive buried ice sheet.

If so, we can now see where the catastrophic flows come from. We have the ice deposits where required. We now require at least fumaroles to be generated underneath the ice. The Margaritifer Chaos is within plausible distance of major volcanism, and of tectonic activity (near the mouth of the Valles Marineris system). Now, let us suppose the gases emerge. Methane immediately forms clathrates with the ice (enters the ice structure and sits there), because of the pressure. The ammonia dissolves ice and forms a small puddle below. This keeps going over time, but as it does, the amount of water increases and the amount of ice decreases. Eventually, there comes a point where there is insufficient ice to hold the methane, and pressure builds up until the whole system ruptures and the mass of fluid pours out. With the pressure gone, the remaining ice clathrates start breaking up explosively. Erosion is caused not only by the fluid, but by exploding ice.

The point then is, is there any evidence for this? The answer is, so far, no. However, if this mechanism is correct, there is more to the story. The methane will be oxidised in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide by solar radiation and water. Ammonia and carbon dioxide will combine and form ammonium carbonate, then urea. So if this is true, we expect to find buried where there had been water, deposits of urea, or whatever it converted to over three billion years. (Very slow chemical reactions are essentially unknown – chemists do not have the patience to do experiments over millions of years, let alone billions!) There is one further possibility. Certain metal ions complex with ammonia to form ammines, which dissolve in water or ammonia fluid. These would sink underground, and if the metal ions were there, so might be the remains of the ammines now. So we have to go to Mars and dig.

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Discount

From June 13 – 20, Legatus Legionis will be discounted to 99c on Amazon in the US and 99p in the UK. The second book in a series, in which science fiction has some real science. Have you got what it takes to actually develop a theory? In the first book in the series, Gaius Claudius Scaevola is asked by Pallas Athene to do three things, before he will be transported to another planet. The scientific problem is to prove the Earth goes around the Sun with what was known and was available in the first century. Can you do it? The answer is given here, but try it first. Following Athene’s prophecy, Scaevola meets the first woman in his life, and ignores her. When Caligulae is assassinated, Scaevola must save Claudius from the attempted Scribonianus coup, then he is given command of Legio XX Valeria for the invasion of Britain. Leaving aside Scaevola’s actions, this is as historically accurate as I can make it, but since the relevant volume of The Annals are lost, there will be inaccuracies, but equally that gives some opportunity to imagine. Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JRH83E2

Cold Fusion

My second post-doc. was at Southampton University, and one of the leading physical chemists there was Martin Fleischmann, who had an excellent record for clever and careful work. There would be no doubt that if he measured something, it would be accurate and very well done. In the academic world he was a rising star until he scored a career “own goal”. In 1989, he and Stanley Pons claimed to have observed nuclear fusion through a remarkably simple experiment: they passed electricity through samples of deuterium oxide (heavy water) using palladium electrodes. They reported the generation of net heat in significant excess of what would be expected from the power loss due to the resistance of the solution. Whatever else happened, I have no doubt that Fleischmann correctly measured and accounted for the heat. From then on, the story gets murky. Pons and Fleischmann claimed the heat had to come from nuclear fusion, but obviously there was not very much of it. According to “Physics World”, they also claimed the production of neutrons and tritium. I do not recall any actual detection of neutrons, and I doubt the equipment they had would have been at all suitable for that. Tritium might seem to imply neutron production, thus a neutron hitting deuterium might well make tritium, but tritium (even heavier hydrogen) could well have been a contaminant in their deuterium, or maybe they never detected it.

The significance, of course, was that deuterium fusion would be an inexhaustible source of clean energy. You may notice that the Earth has plenty of water, and while the fraction that is deuterium is small, it is nevertheless a very large amount in total, and the energy in going to 4-helium is huge. The physicists, quite rightly, did not believe this. The problem is the nuclei strongly repel each other due to the positive electric fields until they get to about 1,000 – 10,000 times closer than they are in molecules. Nuclear fusion usually works by either extreme pressure squeezing the nuclei together, or extreme temperature giving the nuclei sufficient energy that they overcome the repulsion, or both.

What happened next was that many people tried to reproduce the experiment, and failed, with the result this became considered an example of pathological science. Of course, the problem always was that if anything happened, it happened only very slightly, and while heat was supposedly obtained and measured by a calorimeter, that could happen from extremely minute amounts of fusion. Equally, if it were that minute, it might seem to be useless, however, experimental science doesn’t work that way either. As a general rule, if you can find an effect that occurs, quite often once you work out why, you can alter conditions and boost the effect. The problem occurs when you cannot get an effect.

The criticisms included there were no signs of neutrons. That in itself is, in my opinion, meaningless. In the usual high energy, and more importantly, high momentum reactions, if you react two deuterium nuclei, some of the time the energy is such that the helium isotope 3He is formed, plus a neutron. If you believe the catalyst is squeezing the atoms closer together in a matrix of metal, that neutron might strike another deuterium nucleus before it can get out and form tritium. Another reason might be that the mechanism in the catalyst was that the metal brought the nuclei together in some form of metal hydride complex, and the fusion occurred through quantum tunnelling, which, being a low momentum event, might not eject a neutron. 4He is very stable. True, getting the deuterium atoms close enough is highly improbable, but until you know the structure of the hydride complex, you cannot be absolutely sure. As it was, it was claimed that tritium was found, but it might well have been that the tritium was always there. As to why it was not reproducible, normally palladium absorbs about 0.7 hydrogen atoms per palladium atom in the metal lattice. The claim was that fusion required a minimum of 0.875 deuterium atoms per palladium atom. The defensive argument was the surface of the catalyst was not adequate, and the original claim included the warning that not all electrodes worked, and they only worked for so long. We now see a problem. If the electrode does not absorb and react with sufficient deuterium, you do not expect an effect. Worse, if a special form of palladium is required, that rectifying itself during hydridization could be the source of the heat, i.e.the heat is real, but it is of chemical origin and not nuclear.

I should add at this point I am not advocating that this worked, but merely that the criticisms aimed at it were not exactly valid. Very soon the debate degenerated into scoffing and personal insults rather than facts. Science was not working at all well then. Further, if we accept that there was heat generated, and I am convinced that Martin Fleischmann, whatever his other faults, was a very careful and honest chemist and would have measured that heat properly, then there is something we don’t understand. What it was is another matter, and it is an unfortunate human characteristic that the scientific community, rather than try to work out what had happened, preferred to scoff.

However, the issue is not entirely dead. It appears that Google put $10 million of its money to clear the issue up. Now, the research team that has been using that money still have not found fusion, but they have discovered that the absorption of hydrogen by palladium works in a way thus far unrecognised. At first that may not seem very exciting, nevertheless getting hydrogen in and out of metals could be an important aspect of a hydrogen fuel system as the hydrogen is stored at more moderate pressures than in a high-pressure vessel. The point here, of course, is that understanding what has happened, even in a failed experiment, can be critically important. Sure, the actual initial objective might never be reached, but sometimes it is the something else that leads to real benefits. Quite frequently, in science, success stories actually started out as something else although, through embarrassment, it is seldom admitted.

Finally, there is another form of cold fusion that really works. If the electrons around deuterium and tritium are replaced with muons, the nuclei in a molecule come very much closer together, and nuclear fusion does occur through quantum tunnelling and the full fusion energy is generated. There are, unfortunately, three problems. The first is to maintain a decent number of muons. These are made through the decay of pions, which in turn are made in colliders. This means very considerable amounts of energy are spent getting your muons. The second is that muons have a very short life – about 2 microseconds. The third is if they lose some energy they fall into the helium atom and stay there, thus taking themselves out of play. Apparently a muon can catalyse up to 150 fusions, which looks good, but the best so far is that to get 1 MW of net energy, you have to put 4 MW in to make the muons. Thus to get really large amounts of energy, extremely huge generators are required just to drive the generation. Yes, you get net power but the cost is far too great. For the moment, that is not a productive source.

Where are the Planets that Might Host Life?

In the previous posts I showed why RNA was necessary for primitive life to reproduce, but the question then is, what sort of planets will have the necessary materials? For the rocky planets, once they reached a certain size they would attract gas gravitationally, but this would be lost after the accretion disk was removed by the extreme UV put out by the new star. Therefore all atmosphere and surface water would be emitted volcanically. (Again, for the purposes of discussion, volcanic emission includes all geothermal emissions, e.g. from fumaroles.) Gas could be adsorbed on dust as it was accreted, but if it were, because heats of adsorption of the gases other than water are very similar, the amount of nitrogen would roughly equal the amount of neon. It doesn’t. (Neon is approximately at the same level as nitrogen in interstellar gas.)

The standard explanation is that since the volatiles could not have been accreted, they were delivered by something else. The candidates: comets and carbonaceous asteroids. Comets are eliminated because their water contains more deuterium than Earth’s water, and if they were the source, there would be twenty thousand times more argon. Oops. Asteroids can also be eliminated. At the beginning of this century it was shown that various isotope ratios of these bodies meant they could not be a significant source. In desperation, it was argued they could, just, if they got subducted through plate tectonics and hence were mixed in the interior. The problem here is that neither the Moon nor Mars have subduction, and there is no sign of these objects there. Also, we find that the planets have different atmospheres. Thus compared to Earth, Venus has 50% more carbon dioxide (if you count what is buried as limestone on Earth), four times more nitrogen, and essentially no water, while Mars has far less volatiles, possibly the same ratio of carbon dioxide and water but it has far too little nitrogen. How do you get the different ratios if they all came from the same source? It is reasonably obvious that no single agent can deliver such a mix, but since it is not obvious what else could have led to this result, people stick with asteroids.

There is a reasonably obvious alternative, and I have discussed the giants, and why there can be no life under-ice on Europa https://wordpress.com/post/ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/855) and reinforced by requirement to join ribose to phosphate. The only mechanism produced so far involves the purine absorbing a photon, and the ribose transmitting the effect. Only furanose sugars work, and ribose is the only sugar with significant furanose form in aqueous solution. There is not sufficient light under the ice. There are other problems for Europa. Ribose is a rather difficult sugar to make, and the only mechanism that could reasonably occur naturally is in the presence of soluble silicic acid. This requires high-temperature water, and really only occurs around fumaroles or other geothermal sites. (The terrace formations are the silica once it comes out of solution on cooling.)

So, where will we find suitable planets? Assuming the model is correct, we definitely need the dust in the accretion disk to get hot enough to form carbides, nitrides, and silicates capable of binding water. Each of those form at about 1500 degrees C, and iron melts at a bit over this temperature, but it can be lower with impurities, thus grey cast is listed as possible at 1127 degrees C. More interesting, and more complicated, are the silicates. The calcium aluminosilicates have a variety of phases that should separate from other silicate phases. They are brittle and can be easily converted to dust in collisions, but their main feature is they absorb water from the gas stream and form cements. If aggregation starts with a rich calcium aluminosilicate and there is plenty of it, it will phase separate out and by cementing other rocks and thus form a planet with plenty of water and granitic material that floats to the surface. Under this scene, Earth is optimal. The problem then is to get this system in the habitable zone, and unfortunately, while both the temperatures of the accretion disk and the habitable zone depend on the mass of the star, they appear to depend on different functions. The net result is the more common red dwarfs have their initial high-temperature zone too close to the star, and the most likely place to look for life are the G- and heavy K-type stars. The function for the accretion disk temperature depends on the rate of stellar accretion, which is unknown for mature stars but is known to vary significantly for stars of the same mass, thus LkCa 15b is three times further away than Jupiter from an equivalent mass star. Further, the star must get rid of its accretion disk very early or the planets get too big. So while the type of star can be identified, the probability of life is still low.

How about Mars? Mars would have been marginal. The current supply of nitrogen, including what would be lost to space, is so low life could not emerge, but equally there may be a lot of nitrogen in the solid state buried under the surface. We do not know if we can make silicic acid from basalt under geochemical conditions and while there are no granitic/felsic continents there, there are extrusions of plagioclase, which might do. My guess is the intermittent periods of fluid flow would have been too short anyway, but it is possible there are chemical fossils there of what the path towards life actually looked like. For me, they would be of more interest than life itself.

To summarise what I have proposed:

  • Planets have compositions dependent on where they form
  • In turn, this depends on the temperatures reached in the accretion disk
  • Chemicals required for reproduction formed at greater than 1200 degrees C in the accretion disk, and possibly greater than 1400 degrees C
  • Nucleic acids can only form, as far as we know, through light
  • Accordingly, we need planets with reduced nitrogen, geothermal processing, and probably felsic/granitic continents that end in the habitable zone.
  • The most probable place is around near-earth-sized planets around a G or heavy K type star
  • Of those stars, only a modest proportion will have planets small enough

Thus life-bearing planets around single stars are likely to be well-separated. Double stars remain unknown quantities regarding planets. This series has given only a very slight look at the issues. For more details, my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis(http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I) has far more details.

Why Life Must Start with RNA and not Something Else.

In the previous post, I argued that reproduction had to start with RNA, but that leaves the obvious question, why not something else? The use of purines and pyrimidines to transfer energy arises simply because the purines and pyrimidines are the easiest to form, given the earliest atmosphere almost certainly was rich in ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, cyanocetylene, and urea would soon be formed. Some may argue with the “easily formed”, however leaving a sample of ammonium cyanide and urea to its own devices will get nucleobases. Cytosine is a little more difficult, but with available cyanoacetylene, it is reasonably likely. The important point is that if you accept my mechanism for how rocky planets form, these chemicals are going to be prolific. I shall justify that later. The important thing about these chemicals is that they lead to the formation of multiple hydrogen bonds only with their partners. As explained in the last post, there is no alternative to hydrogen bonds for transferring information, and these are the only chemicals that can provide accuracy under abiogenic conditions.

The polymer linking agent is phosphate, so why phosphate? Phosphoric acid has three hydrogen atoms that are available for substitution, i.e.it can form three functions. Two are to form esters and as I noted previously, the third is to provide solubility. The solubility is important because if there was not anionic repulsion, the strands would bundle together and reproduction would not work. The strands would also not provide catalysis, which occurs because a strand can fold around a cation like magnesium and form the shapes that seem to be needed. The good news is that unlike in enzymes, it can rearrange the magnesium and thus get different effects. Of course, enzymes are hugely more effective, but an enzyme generally only does one thing.

The polymer forms esters by phosphate bonding to a sugar. Think of the reaction as

P – OH  + HO – C    ->  P – O – C  + H2O       (1)

where P is the phosphorus of a phosphate or phosphoric acid, and C is the carbon atom of a sugar. Note that this reaction is reversible, but at room temperature the bonds are quite stable. These ester bonds are very strong, which is important because you do not want your carefully prepared polymer to randomly fall to bits. On the other hand, it must be able to be disrupted or substituted and not be essentially fixed, as would happen if proteins were used for information transfer. The reason is, life is evolving by random trials, and it is important that since many of these trials will be unproductive, there has to be a way to recover an many of the valuable chemicals as possible for further trials, and also to unclutter the system so that something that conveys advantages does not get lost in the morass of failures or otherwise useless stuff. Only phosphate offers these properties. In principle, you might argue for arsenate, but its bonds are weaker, thus less reliable, and worse, arsenic reacts with hydrogen sulphide (common around fumaroles which as we shall see are necessary sites) to form insoluble sulphides. These are the very pretty yellow layers in geothermal areas. No other element will do.

There are a variety of other sugars that if used to link nucleobases to phosphate will form duplexes, so the question then is, why weren’t they used? The ability to catalyse its own scission is the first of two reasons why ribose is so important. Once the strands get long enough to fold around themselves, catalysis starts, and one of the possible catalytic reactions is the promotion of the remaining OH group on the ribose to help water send the reaction (1) into reverse, which would break a link in the polymer chain. Deoxyribose does not have such a free hydroxyl and hence does not have this option, which is why DNA ended up being the information transfer chemical once a life form that had something worth keeping had emerged. What this means is that RNA has the opportunity to mutate, which is a big help in getting evolution going, and when it is broken, the bits remain available for further tries in some rearranged form.

The question then is, how do you form the phosphate ester? You mix phosphate and the sugar in solution and – oops, nothing happens. Reaction (1) is so slow at ambient temperature that you could sit there indefinitely, however, if you heat it, it does proceed. However, the rate of a reaction like this depends on the product of the concentrations on each side, with such a product on the right-hand side determining the rate of the reaction going from right to left. If you look at (1), it probably occurs to you that in aqueous solution, the concentration of water is far greater than the concentration of sugar. You will see people say that life could start around black smokers, but when you check, at the temperatures they require for the forward reaction to go it requires the concentration of water to be less than about 2%. Good luck getting that at the bottom of the ocean. You may protest that nevertheless there is life there, devouring emerging nutrients. True, although the ocean acts as a cooling bath, and the life forms have evolved protective systems. There are no such things when life is getting started. Life has moved to be close to black smokers but it did not start there.

What we need is a more precise way of delivering the required energy to the reaction site. So far, one and only one method has been found to make such initial linkages, and that is photochemical. If adenine is irradiated with light in the presence of ribose and phosphate, you get AMP, and even ATP. We now see why only ribose was chosen. AMP, and for that matter, RNA, link the nucleobases and phosphate through the ribofuranose form. Such sugars can exist in two forms: a furanose (a five-membered ring involving an oxygen atom linked to C1 of the sugar) and a pyranose form (the six-membered equivalent.). Now the first important point about a sugar is it cannot transmit electronic effects arising from the nucleobase absorbing a photon. However, it can transmit mechanical vibrational energy, and this is where the furanose becomes important. While the pyranose form is always rigid, the furanose form is flexible. The reason ribofuranose can form the links, in my opinion, is it can transmit and focus the mechanical energy to the free C-5 which will vibrate vigorously like the end of a whip and form the phosphate ester. Ribose is important because it is the only sugar with a reasonable amount of furanose form in aqueous solution. It is also worth noting that in the original experiments, no phosphate ester was formed from the pyranose form. As the furanose is used, the equilibrium ensures pyranose maintains the furanose/pyranose ratio.

That leaves open the question, how are the polymers formed? It appears that provided you can get the mers embedded in a lipid micelle or vesicle (the most primitive form of the cell wall), leaving these in the sun on a hot rock to dry them out leads to polymers of about 80 units in an hour. This is the first reason why life probably started around geothermal vents on land. Plenty of hot rocks around, with water splashes to replenish the supply of mers, and sunlight to form them. The second reason will be in the following post.

The title statement can now be answered. Life must start with RNA because it is the only agent that can lead to biological reproduction without external assistance. I started the last post indicating I would show what sort of planets might harbour life. The series is nearly there, but some might like to try the last step for themselves.

What do we need for life?

One question that intrigues man people is, is there life in the Universe besides what we see? Logic would say, almost certainly yes. The reason is we know there is a non-zero probability that it can form elswhere because it did here. That probability may be small but there is an enormous number of stars in the Universe (something in excess of 10^22 that we can see) that the conditions that led to life here must be reproduced a very large number of times. Of course, while there are such a large number of stars, by far the most are at such an extraordinarily large distance from us that they are essentially irrelevant. For the bulk of them, it took the light more than ten billion years to get here. But if we were to look for life nearby, where would we look? To answer that, we need to ask ourselves, what conditions are needed to get life started? The issue is NOT where can life exist, but rather where can it form. We know life can be found now on Earth in a wide range of environments, but that does not mean it can form there. It can migrate from somewhere else, gradually evolving systems needed to stabilize it to the new environment. The most obvious example is life emerging from the water to live on land. Nobody suggests life did not start in water because you need a solution to move nutrients around.

The first question to ask is, what are the most difficult things to achieve for life to get started? I think the four hardest things to get started are reproduction, energy transport, solubilization, and catalysis. Catalysis is required to make the chemical reactions that are desirable to go faster, and thus get more of the available resources going in the desired direction. (In this, when I use the word “desired” I mean to get on a right track to where life can get going and then support that choice during subsequent evolution. I do not mean to imply some sort of planning or directing.) Solubilization is required because many of the chemicals with functions that will be needed are not soluble in water, and hence they would simply settle out as a layer of brown gunk, which, as an aside, is what happens in many experiments designed to simulate the origin of life. What needs to happen is that something joins on at a place that does not spoil the function and then conveys solubility. Energy transport is a critical problem: if you do not have something that stores energy, functionality is restricted to microdistances from energy inputs.

Each of these critical functions, as well as reproduction, as I shall show below, depend on forming phosphate esters. Thus energy transport is mediated by adenosine tripolyphosphate (ATP), solubilisation of many of the most primitive cofactors that do not contain a lot of nitrogen or hydroxyl groups is aided by an attached adenosine monophosphate (AMP), initial catalysts came from ribozymes, RNA would be the initial source of reproduction, and both ribozymes and RNA (the latter is effectively just far longer strands of the former) are both constructed of AMP or the equivalent with different nucleobases. The commonality is the ribose and phosphate ester.

Catalysis is an interesting problem. Currently, enzymes are used, but life could not have started that way. The reason lies in the complexity of enzymes. The enzyme that will digest other protein, and hence make chemicals available from failed attempts at guessing the structure of a useful enzyme, has a precise sequence of three hundred and fifteen amino acids. There are twenty different common amino acids used (and in abiogenic situations, a lot more available) and these occur in D- and L- configurations, except for glycine, which means the probability of getting this enzyme is two in 39^315. That number is incredibly improbable. It makes selecting a specific proton in the entire Universe trivial in comparison. Worse, that catalyses ONE reaction only. That is not how initial catalysis happened.

Now, look at the problem of reproduction. Once a polymer is formed that can generate some of whatever requirements life needs, if it cannot copy itself, then it is a one-off wonder, and eventually it will degrade and be lost without a trace. Reproduction involves the need to transfer information, which in this case is some sort of a pattern. The problem here is the transfer must be accurate, but not too accurate initially, and we need different entities. By that I mean, if you just reproduced the same entity, such as in polyethene, you have two units of information: what it is and how long it is, but that second one is rather useless because life has no way of measuring the length without having a very large set of reference molecules. What life here chose appears to have been RNA, at least to start with. RNA has two purines and two pyrimidines, and it pairs them in a double helix. When reproduction occurs, one strand is the negative of the other, but if the negative pairs, we now have two strands that are equivalent to each original strand. (you retain the original.) There are four variations possible from the canonical units at any given position, and once you have many millions of units, a lot of information can be coded.

Why ribonucleic acid? The requirement is to be able to transfer information reliably, but not too accurately (I shall explain why not in a later post.) To do that, the polymer strands have to bind, and this occurs through what we call hydrogen bonds, which each give a binding energy of about 13 kJ/mol. These are chosen because they are weak enough to be ruptured, but strong enough you can get preferences. Thus adenine binds with uracil through two hydrogen bonds, which generates a little over 26 kJ/mol. (For comparison, a carbon-carbon bond is about 360 kJ/mol.) To get the 26 kJ/mol. the two hydrogen bonds have to be formed, and that can only happen of the entities have the right groups in the correct rigid configuration. When guanine bonds with cytosine, three such hydrogen bonds are formed, and the attraction is just under 40 kJ/mol. Guanine can also bind with uracil generating 26 kJ/mol., so information transfer is not necessarily totally accurate.

This binding through hydrogen bonds is critical. The bonding is strong enough to give a significant preference for each mer, but once the polymer gets long enough, the total energy (the sum of the energy of the individual pairs) holding the strands together gets to be those energies above multiplied by the number of pairs. If you have a million pairs, the strength of diamond becomes trivial, yet to reproduce, the strands must be separated. Hydrogen bonds can be separated because as the strands start to separate, water also hydrogen bonds and thus makes up for the linking energy. However, that alone is insufficient because the strand itself would be insoluble in water, and if so, the two strands linked together would remain insoluble (for those who know what this means, entropy strongly favours keeping the strands together). To achieve this, we need something that joins the mers into a chain, adds solubility, forms stable chemical bonds in general but is equally capable of being broken so that if the information creates something that is useless, we can recycle the chemicals. Only phosphate fills these requirements, but phosphate does not bind nucleobases together. Something intermediate is required, and that something is ribose.

In the next posts on this topic, I shall show you where this leads in seeing where life might be.

The Ice Giants’ Magnetism

One interesting measurement made from NASA’S sole flyby of Uranus and Neptune is that they have complicated magnetic fields, and seemingly not the simple dipolar field as found on Earth. The puzzle then is, what causes this? One possible answer is ice.

You will probably consider ice as not particularly magnetic nor particularly good at conducting electric current, and you would be right with the ice you usually see. However, there is more than one form of ice. As far back as 1912, the American physicist Percy Bridgman discovered five solid phases of water, which were obtained by applying pressure to the ice. One of the unusual properties of ice is that as you add pressure, the ice melts because the triple point (the temperature where solid, liquid and gas are in equilibrium) is at a lower temperature than the melting point of ice at room pressure (which is 0.1 MPa. A pascal is a rather small unit of pressure; the M mean million, G would mean billion). So add pressure and it melts, which is why ice skates work. Ices II, III and V need 200 to 600 MPa of pressure to form. Interestingly, as you increase the pressure, Ice III forms at about 200 Mpa, and at about -22 degrees C, but then the melting point rises with extra pressure, and at 350 MPa, it switches to Ice V, which melts at – 18 degrees C, and if the pressure is increased to 632.4 MPa, the melting point is 0.16 degrees C. At 2,100 MPa, ice VI melts at just under 82 degrees C. Skates don’t work on these higher ices. As an aside, Ice II does not exist in the presence of liquid, and I have no idea what happened to Ice IV, but my guess is it was a mistake.

As you increase the pressure on ice VI the melting point increases, and sooner or later you expect perhaps another phase, or even more. Well, there are more, so let me jump to the latest: ice XVIII. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has produced this by compressing water to 100 to 400 GPa (1 to 4 million times atmospheric pressure) at temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees K (0 degrees centigrade is about 273 degrees K, and the scale is the same) to produce what they call superionic ice. What happens is the protons from the hydroxyl groups of water become free and they can diffuse through the empty sites of the oxygen lattice, with the result that the ice starts to conduct electricity almost as well as a metal, but instead of moving electrons around, as happens in metals, it is assumed that it is the protons that move.

These temperatures and pressures were reached by placing a very thin layer of water between two diamond disks, following which six very high power lasers generated a sequence of shock waves that heated and pressurised the water. They deduced what they got by firing 16 additional high powered lasers that delivered 8 kJ of energy in a  one-nanosecond burst on a tiny spot on a small piece of iron foil two centimeters away from the water a few billionths of a second after the shock waves. This generated Xrays, and from the way they diffracted off the water sample they could work out what they generated. This in itself is difficult enough because they would also get a pattern from the diamond, which they would have to subtract.

The important point is that this ice conducts electricity, and is a possible source of the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune, which are rather odd. For Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, the magnetic poles are reasonably close to the rotational poles, and we think the magnetism arises from electrically conducting liquids rotating with the planet’s rotation. But Uranus and Neptune have quite odd magnetic fields. The field for Uranus is aligned at 60 degrees to the rotational axis, while that for Neptune is aligned at 46 degrees to the rotational axis. But even odder, the axes of the magnetic fields of each do not go through the centre of the planet, and are displaced quite significantly from it.

The structure of these planets is believed to be, from outside inwards, first an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, then a mantle of water, ammonia and methane ices, then interior to that a core of rock. My personal view is that there will also be carbon monoxide and nitrogen ices in the mantle, at least of Neptune. The usual explanation for the magnetism has been that magnetic fields are generated by local events in the icy mantles, and you see comments that the fields may be due to high concentrations of ammonia, which readily forms charged species. Such charges would produce magnetic fields due to the rapid rotation of the planets. This new ice is an additional possibility, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it might contribute to the other giants.

Jupiter is found from our spectroscopic analyses to be rather deficient in oxygen, and this is explained as being due to the water condensing out as ice. The fact that these ices form at such high temperatures is a good reason to believe there may be such layers of ice. This superionic ice is stable as a solid at 3000 degrees K, and that upper figure simply represents the highest temperature the equipment could stand. (Since water reacts with carbon, I am surprised it got that high.) So if there were a layer of such ice around Jupiter’s core, it too might contribute to the magnetism. Whatever else Jupiter lacks down there, pressure is not one of them.

Marsquakes

One of the more interesting aspects of the latest NASA landing on Mars is that the rover has dug into the surface, inserted a seismometer, and is looking for marsquakes. On Earth, earthquakes are fairly common, especially where I live, and they are generated through the fact that our continents are gigantic lumps of rock moving around over the mantle. They can slide past each other or pull themselves down under another plate, to disappear deep into the mantle, while at other places, new rock emerges to take their place, such as at the mid-Atlantic ridge. Apparently the edges of these plates move about 5 – 10 cm each year. You probably do not notice this because the topsoil, by and large, does not move with the underlying crust. However, every now and again these plates lock and stop moving there. The problem is, the rest of the rock is moving, so considerable strain energy is built up, the lock gives way, very large amounts of energy are released, and the rock moves, sometimes be several meters. The energy is given out as waves, similar in many ways as sound waves, through the rock. If you see waves in the sea, you will note that while the water itself stays more or less in the same place on average, in detail something on the surface, like a surfer, goes up and down, and in fact describes what is essentially a circle if far enough out. Earthquake waves do the same thing. The rock moves, and the shaking can be quite violent. Of course, the rock moves where the actual event occurred, and sometimes the waves trigger a further shift somewhere else.

Such waves travel out in all directions through the rock. Now another feature of all waves is that when they strike a medium through which they will travel with a different velocity, they undergo partial reflection and refraction. There is an angle of incidence when only reflection occurs, and of course, on a curved surface, the reflected waves start spreading as the angles of incidence vary. A second point is that the bigger the difference in wave speed between the two media, the more reflection there is. On Earth, this has permitted us to gather information on what is going on inside the Earth. Of course Earth has some big advantages. We can record seismic events from a number of different places, and even then the results are difficult to interpret.

The problem for Mars is there will be one seismometer that will measure wave frequency, amplitude, and the timing. The timing will give a good picture of the route taken by various waves. Thus the wave that is reflected off the core will come back much sooner than the wave that travels light through and is reflected off the other side, but it will have the same frequency pattern on arrival, so from such patterns and timing you can sort out, at least in principle, what route they took and from the reflection/refraction intensities, what different materials they passed through. It is like a CT scan of the planet. There are further complications because wave interference can spoil patterns, but waves are interesting that they only create that effect at the site where they interfere. Otherwise, they pass right through other waves and are unchanged when they emerge, apart from intensity changes if energy was absorbed by the medium. There is an obvious problem in that with only one seismometer it is much harder to work out where the source was but the scientists believe over the lifetime of the rover they will detect at least a couple of dozen quakes.

Which gets to the question, why do we expect quakes? Mars does not have plate tectonics, possibly because its high level of iron oxide means eclogite cannot form, and it is thought that the unusually high density of eclogite leads to pull subduction. Accordingly the absence of plate tectonics means we expect marsquakes to be of rather low amplitude. However, minor amplitude quakes are expected. One reason is that as the planet cools, there is contraction in volume. Accordingly, the crust becomes less well supported and tends to slip. A second cause could be magma moving below the surface. We know that Mars has a hot interior, thanks to nuclear decay going on inside, and while Mars will be cooler than Earth, the centre is thought to be only about 200 Centigrade degrees cooler than Earth’s centre. While Earth generates more heat, it also loses more through geothermal emissions. Finally, when meteors strike, they also generate shockwaves. Of course the amplitude of these waves is tiny compared with that of even modest earthquakes.

It is hard to know what we shall learn. The reliance on only one seismometer means the loss of directional analysis, and the origin of the quake will be unknown, unless it is possible to time reflections from various places. Thus if you get one isolated event, every wave that comes must have originated from that source, so from the various delays, paths can be assigned. The problem with this is that low energy events might not generate enough reflections of sufficient amplitude to be detected. The ideal method, of course, is to set off some very large explosions at known sites, but it is rather difficult to do that from here.

What do we expect? This is a bit of guesswork, but for me we believe the crust is fairly thick, so we would expect about 60 km of solid basalt. If we get significantly different amounts, this would mean we would have to adjust our thoughts on the Martian thermonuclear reactions. I expect a rather tiny (for a planet) iron core, the clue here being the overall density of Mars is 3.8, its surface is made of basalt, and basalt has a density of 3.1 – 3.8. There just is not room for a lot of iron in the form of the metal. It is what is in between that is of interest. Comments from some of the scientists say they think they will get clues on planetary formation, which could come from deep structures. Thus if planets really formed from the combination of planetesimals, which are objects of asteroid, size, then maybe we shall see the remains in the form of large objects of different sonic impedance. On the other hand, the major shocks to the system by events such as the Hellas impactor may mean that asymmetries were introduced by such shock waves melting parts. My guess is the observations will not be unambiguous in terms of their meaning, and it will be interesting to see how many different scenarios are considered.