Martian Fluvial Flows, Placid and Catastrophic


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.






Phosphine on Venus

An article was published in Nature Astronomy on 14th September, 2020, that reported the detection of a signal corresponding to the 1 – 0 rotational transition of phosphine, which has a wavelength of 1.123 mm. This was a very weak signal that had to be obtained by mathematical processing to remove artefacts such as spectral “ripple” that originate from reflections. Nevertheless, the data at the end is strongly suggestive that the line is real. Therefore they found phosphine, right? And since phosphine is made from anaerobes and emitted from marsh gas, they found life, right? Er, hold on. Let us consider this in more detail.

First, is the signal real? The analysis detected the HDO signal at 1.126 mm, which is known to be the 2 – 3 rotational transition. That strongly confirms their equipment and analysis was working properly for that species, so this additional signal is likely to be real. The levels of phosphine have been estimated as between 10 – 30 ppb. However, there is a problem because such spectral signals come from changes to the spin rate of molecules. All molecules can only spin at certain quantised energies, but there are a number of options, thus the phosphine was supposed to be from the first excited state to the ground. There are a very large number of possible states, and higher states are more common at higher temperatures. The Venusian atmosphere ranges from about 30 oC near the top to somewhere approaching 500 oC at the bottom. Also, collisions will change spin rates. Most of our data comes from our atmospheric pressure or lower pressures as doing microwave experiments in high-pressure vessels is not easy. The position of the lines depends on the moment of inertia, so different molecules have different energy levels, and there are different ways  of spinning, tumbling, etc, for complicated molecules. Thus it is possible that the signal could be due to something else. However, the authors examined all the alternatives they could think of and only phosphine remained.

This paper rejected sulphur dioxide as a possibility because in the Venusian atmosphere it gets oxidised to sulphuric acid so there  is not enough of it, but phosphine is actually far more easily oxidised. If we look at our atmosphere, there are actually a number of odd looking molecules caused by photochemistry. The Venusian atmosphere would also have photochemistry but since its atmosphere is so different from ours we cannot guess what that is at present. However, for me I think there is a good chance this signal is from a molecule generated photochemically. The reason is the signal is strongest at the equator and fades away at the poles, where the light intensity per unit area is lower. Note that if it were phosphine generated by life and was removed photochemically, you would get the opposite result.

Phosphine is a rather reactive material, and according to the Nature article models predict its lifetime at 80 km altitude as less than a thousand seconds due to photodegradation. They argue its life should be longer lower down because the UV light intensity is weaker, but they overlook chemical reactions. Amongst other things, concentrated sulphuric acid would react instantaneously with it to make a phosphonium salt, and while the phosphine is not initially destroyed, its ability to make this signal is.

Why does this suggest life? Calculations with some fairly generous lifetimes suggest a minimum of about million molecules have to be made every second on every square centimeter of the planet. There is no known chemistry that can do that. Thus life is proposed on the basis of, “What else could it be?” which is a potential logic fallacy in the making, namely concluding from ignorance. On earth anaerobes make phosphine and it comes out as “marsh gas”, where it promptly reacts with oxygen in the air. This is actually rather rare, and is almost certainly an accident caused by phosphate particles  being in the wrong place in the enzyme system. I have been around many swamps and never smelt phosphine. What anaerobes do is take oxidised material and reduce them, taking energy and some carbon and oxygen, and spit out as waste highly reduced compounds, such as methane. There is a rather low probability they will take sulphates and make hydrogen sulphide and phosphine from phosphates. The problem I have is the Venusian atmosphere is full of concentrated sulphuric acid clouds, and enzymes would not work, or last, in that environment. If the life forms were above the sulphuric acid clouds, they would also be above the phosphoric acid, so where would they get their phosphorus? Further, all life needs phosphate: it is the only functional group that has the requirement to link reproductive entities (two to link a polymer, and one to provide the ionic group to solubilize the whole and let the strands separate while reproducing), it is the basis of adenosine tripolyphosphate which is the energy transfer agent for lfe, and the adenosine phosphates are essential solubilizing agents for many enzyme cofactors, in short, no phosphate, no life. Phosphate occurs in rocks so it will be very scarce in the atmosphere, so why would it waste what little that was there to make phosphine?To summarize, I have no idea what caused this signal and I don’t think anyone else has either. I think there is a lot of chemistry associated with the Venusian atmosphere we do not understand, but I think this will be resolved sooner or later, as it has got so much attention.

E-Book discount

From September 18 – 25, Athene’s Prophecy, the first in a series, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. Science fiction with some science you can try your hand at. The story is based around Gaius Claudius Scaevola, who is asked by Pallas Athene to do three things before he will be transported to another planet, where he must get help to save humanity from total destruction well in the future. 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? Try your luck. Hint: you should use the background in the novel, but think of experiments to check it. I suspect you will fail and if so, the answer is in the following ebook. Meanwhile, the story.  Scaevola is in Egypt for the anti-Jewish riots, then to Syria as Tribunis laticlavius in the Fulminata, then he has the problem of stopping a rebellion when Caligulae orders a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem. You will get a different picture of Caligulae than what you normally see, supported by a transcription of a report of the critical meeting regarding the statue by Philo of Alexandria.

Science is No Better than its Practitioners

Perhaps I am getting grumpy as I age, but I feel that much in science is not right. One place lies in the fallacy ad verecundiam. This is the fallacy of resorting to authority. As the motto of the Royal Society puts it, nullius in verba. Now, nobody expects you to personally check everything, and if someone has measured something and either clearly shows how he/she did it, or it is something that is done reasonably often, then you take their word for it. Thus if I want to know the melting point of benzoic acid I look it up, and know that if the reported value is wrong, someone would have noticed. However, a different problem arises with theory because you cannot measure it. Further, science has got so complicated that any expert is usually an expert in a very narrow field. The net result is that  because things have got so complicated, most scientists find theories too difficult to examine in detail and do defer to experts. In physics, this tends to be because there is a tendency for the theory to descend into obscure mathematics and worse, the proponents seem to believe that mathematics IS the basis of nature. That means there is no need to think of causes. There is another problem, that also drifts over to chemistry, and that is the results of a computer-driven calculation must be right. True, there will be no arithmetical mistake but as was driven into our heads in my early computer lectures: garbage in, garbage out.

This post was sparked by an answer I gave to a chemistry question on Quora. Chemical bonds are usually formed by taking two atoms with a single electron in an orbital. Think of that as a wave that can only have one or two electrons. The reason it can have only two electrons is the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which is a very fundamental principle in physics. If each atom has only one in  such an orbital, they can combine and form a wave with two electrons, and that binds the two atoms. Yes, oversimplified. So the question was, how does phosphorus pentafluoride form. The fluorine atoms have one such unpaired electron each, and the phosphorus has three, and additionally a pair in one wave. Accordingly, you expect phosphorus to form a trifluoride, which it does, but how come the pentafluoride? Without going into too many details, my answer was that the paired electrons are unpaired, one is put into another wave and to make this legitimate, an extra node is placed in the second wave, a process called hybridization. This has been a fairly standard answer in text books.

So, what happened next? I posted that, and also shared it to something called “The Chemistry Space”. A moderator there rejected it, and said he did so because he did not believe it. Computer calculations showed there was no extra node. Eh?? So I replied and asked how this computation got around the Exclusion Principle, then to be additionally annoying I asked how the computation set the constants of integration. If you look at John Pople’s Nobel lecture, you will see he set these constants for hydrocarbons by optimizing the results for 250 different hydrocarbons, but leaving aside the case that simply degenerates into a glorified empirical procedure, for phosphorus pentafluoride there is only one relevant compound. Needless to say, I received no answer, but I find this annoying. Sure, this issue is somewhat trivial, but it highlights the greater problem that some scientists are perfectly happy to hide behind obscure mathematics, or even more obscure computer programming.

It is interesting to consider what a theory should do. First, it should be consistent with what we see. Second, it should encompass as many different types of observation as possible. To show what I mean, in phosphorus pentafluoride example, the method I described can be transferred to other structures of different molecules. That does not make it right, but at least it is not obviously wrong. The problem with a computation is, unless you know the details of how it was carried out, it cannot be applied elsewhere, and interestingly I saw a recent comment in a publication by the Royal Society of Chemistry that computations from a couple of decades ago cannot be checked or used because the details of the code are lost. Oops. A third requirement, in my opinion, is it should assist in understanding what we see, and even lead to a prediction of something new.

Fundamental theories cannot be deduced; the principles have to come from nature. Thus mathematics describes what we see in quantum mechanics, but you could find an alternative mathematical description for anything else nature decided to do, for example, classical mechanics is also fully self-consistent. For relativity, velocities are either additive or they are not, and you can find mathematics either way. The problem then is that if someone draws a wrong premise early, mathematics can be made to fit a lot of other material to it. A major discovery and change of paradigm only occurs if there is a major fault discovered that cannot be papered over.

So, to finish this post in a slightly different way to usual: a challenge. I once wrote a novel, Athene’s Prophecy, in which the main character in the first century was asked by the “Goddess” Athene to prove that the Earth went around the sun. Can you do it, with what could reasonably be seen at the time? The details had already been worked out by Aristarchus of Samos, who also worked out the size and distance of the Moon and Sun, and the huge distances are a possible clue. (Thanks to the limits of his equipment, Aristarchus’ measurements are erroneous, but good enough to show the huge distances.) So there was already a theory that showed it might work. The problem was that the alternative also worked, as shown by Claudius Ptolemy. So you have to show why one is the true one. 

Problems you might encounter are as follows. Aristotle had shown that the Earth cannot rotate. The argument was that if you threw a ball into the air so that when it reached the top of its flight it would be directly above you, when the ball fell to the ground it would be to the east of you. He did it, and it wasn’t, so the Earth does not rotate. (Can you see what is wrong? Hint – the argument implies the conservation of angular momentum, and that is correct.) Further, if the Earth went around the sun, to do so orbital motion involves falling and since heavier things fall faster than light things, the Earth would fall to pieces. Comets may well fall around the Sun. Another point was that since air rises, the cosmos must be full of air, and if the Earth went around the Sun, there would be a continual easterly wind. 

So part of the problem in overturning any theory is first to find out what is wrong with the existing one. Then to assert you are correct, your theory has to do something the other theory cannot do, or show the other theory has something that falsifies it. The point of this challenge is to show by example just how difficult forming a scientific theory actually is, until you hear the answer and then it is easy.

What are We Doing about Melting Ice? Nothing!

Over my more active years I often returned home from the UK with a flight to Los Angeles, and the flight inevitably flew over Greenland. For somewhat selfish reasons I tried to time my work visits in the northern summer, thus getting out of my winter, and the return flight left Heathrow in the middle of the day so with any luck there was good sunshine over Greenland. My navigation was such that I always managed to be at a window somewhere at the critical time, and I was convinced that by my last flight, Greenland was both dirtier and the ice was retreating. Dirt was from dust, not naughty Greenlanders, and it was turning the ice slightly browner, which made the ice less reflective, and thus would encourage melting. I was convinced I was seeing global warming in action during my last flight, which was about 2003.

As reported in “The Economist”, according to an analysis of 40 years of satellite data at Ohio State University, I was probably right. In the 1980s and 1990s, during Greenland summers it lost approximately 400 billion tonnes of ice each summer, by ice melting and by large glaciers shedding lumps of ice as icebergs into the sea. This was not critical at the time because it was more or less replenished by winter snowfalls, but by 2000 the ice was no longer being replenished and each year there was a loss approaching 100 billion t/a. By now the accumulated net ice loss is so great it has caused a noticeable change in the gravitational field over the island. Further, it is claimed that Greenland has hit the point of no return. Even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases now, it was claimed, more ice would be progressively lost than could be replaced.

So far the ice loss is raising the oceans by about a millimetre a year so, you may say, who cares? The problem is the end position is the sea will rise 7 metres. Oops. There is worse. Apparently greenhouse gases cause more effects at high latitudes, and there is a lot more ice on land at the Antarctic. If Antarctica went, Beijing would be under water. If only Greenland goes, most of New York would be under water, and just about all port cities would be in trouble. We lose cities, but more importantly we lose prime agricultural land at a time our population is expanding

So, what can be done? The obvious answer is, be prepared to move where we live. That would involve making huge amounts of concrete and steel, which would make huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which would make the overall problem worse. We could compensate for the loss of agricultural land, which is the most productive we have, by going to aquaculture but while some marine algae are the fastest growing plants on Earth, our bodies are not designed to digest them. We could farm animal life such as prawns and certain fish, and these would help, but whether productivity would be sufficient is another matter.

The next option is geoengineering, but we don’t know how to do it, and what the effects will be, and we are seemingly not trying to find out. We could slow the rate of ice melting, but how? If you answer, with some form of space shade, the problem is that orbital mechanics do not work in your favour. You could shade it some of the time, but so what? Slightly more promising might be to generate clouds in the summer, which would reflect more sunlight.

The next obvious answer (OK, obvious may not be the best word) is to cause more snow to fall in winter. Again, the question is, how? Generating clouds and seeding them in the winter might work, but again, how, and at what cost? The end result of all this is that we really don’t have many options. All the efforts at limiting emissions simply won’t work now, if the scientists at Ohio State are correct. Everyone has heard of tipping points. According to them, we passed one and did not notice until too late. Would anything work? Maybe, maybe not, but we won’t know unless we try, and wringing our hands and making trivial cuts to emissions is not the answer.

We Need Facts, not Fake News

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled “Conspiracies and Fake News” ( and needless to say, I have not succeeded in stopping it. However, it seems to me this is a real problem for changing public policy or getting people to comply with the new policy. To be effective, policy needs to be based on facts, not on what someone would like it to be or fears it might be, or worse, doesn’t even care but feels the need to be seen to say something. Recently, our TV news has had about four different quotes of President Trump saying New Zealand is in a crisis regarding COVID – 19. I don’t want to give the impression it is like Utopia here; it isn’t, and we have our problems but we have a population of five million and so far the total deaths come to 22. Take your own country and multiply that 22 by your population in millions and divide by five. I think you will find we are doing some things right, and our current problems are almost certainly because the quarantine restrictions for returning citizens were too kind. Most obeyed the rules, but there were a very small percentage who did not. Here, the policy did not recognize the fact that some people are totally irresponsible. A few days ago someone who knew he had the virus broke out and went to a local supermarket for something. You cannot run a quarantine like that, and that selfish oaf will have made things much worse for future entrants.

But for me, the worst things are those who spout what can only be termed “fake news”. One lot of people, particularly young people, argue the virus is just like a mild cold. Well, fact check. Mild colds do not kill 800,000 people in a little over half a year. It is true that for the young it seems to be not very hazardous, but for the older people it is serious. Why? Here, understanding of causes might be desirable. Part of the reason may lie in angiotensin-converting enzymes, of which for the present there are two important ones: ACE1 and ACE2. These modulate the effects of angiotensin II (ANG II) that increases blood pressure and inflammation, which in turn leads to various tissue injury. The elderly tend to have more ANG II, which leads to higher blood pressure, etc. ACE2 mitigates the pathological effects of ANG II by breaking it down. However, ANG II does have useful effects, and so the body has ACE1, which leads to an increase in ANG II. If you are wondering where this is going, I apologise, but now to the virus, SARS-Cov-2; it binds to the ACE2 receptors as a way of getting into the cells and stops its action. As a result, ACE1 is busy stimulating ANG II, and too much of that leads to cell scarring, etc. As partial good news, ACE inhibitors, used to treat high blood pressure, block the activity of ACE1, and so may help stop the bad effects of the SARS virus. As to why the young are less affected, they seem to have fewer ACE sites. (The very young also have lower levels of androgens, which stimulate viral reproduction.) The reason I have gone on a little on this is because as you learn the facts, it becomes a little easier to see how this virus might be defeated. You win by logically applying true facts.

Another objection I have heard is the flu is worse, and I heard one assertion that in the 2018 season it killed 1.5 million. The CDC website says the figures are not yet in, but the biggest earlier figure was a little under 800,000 infected sufficiently to be hospitalized. On request for where the 1.5 million came from, no reply. It appears some figures are made up. Another figure that gets bandied around is the infection fatality rate. This is cited as extremely low. How? Because the number of infected are estimated. You can estimate anything you like! However, if the number of harmless infections and hence those with immunity were true, the virus problem would be over. It isn’t.

Some other bad news. First, masks don’t make much difference, then suddenly, yes they do and everyone should wear one. How did this situation arise? In the absence of tests, and hence facts, various people have expressed opinions. Here, you have to ask what you are trying to defend from. If you are trying to defend against coarse droplets any mask will do, but if you want to defend against an aerosol you need something more sophisticated, and it has to fit properly. On the other hand, a mask will not make the situation worse, so from mathematics if you don’t know, wear one and hope.Perhaps the worst news: vaccines are bad. Apparently someone made up the claim that vaccines have mercury in them, or aluminium nanoparticles. There are even claims that vaccines will contain nanobots that allow the authorities to keep track of you. The fact that these do not exist (application of energy conservation laws will indicate a minor problem with them) and if they did, someone in the vaccine business would object is no problem for these near paranoid rumourmongers. If someone knows that such pollutants occur, why don’t they take the samples to the authorities so the perpetrators will get long jail sentences. Oh, didn’t you know the government is out to get you? They are encouraging this to kill off citizens. That is the most ridiculous balderdash out. OK, Putin appears to have ordered specific attacks on people like the Skripals, but besides being incompetent, that is not general, and Western governments would not do that, and if they tried they would be exposed. However, it leaves the question, how can society survive if this sort of nonsense and non-critical thinking continues?

How We Got to Our Current Economic Problems

A little while ago, Nature (582, 461) ventured an item on our economic problem, and it is of interest to reflect on this. Most economic presentations, especially those that concern politicians, involve microeconomics: what happens to individual, families, businesses, etc. That is natural because that is where the votes lie, and to some extent it is what politicians can control. The main point of the Nature article revolved around macroeconomics, which involves cross-border capital flows, the role and behaviour of central bankers, the role of global financial markets, and the role of the US Federal Reserve, which, despite its grandiose name is actually not a government owned or controlled institution. The owners of the Federal Reserve are effectively members of the plutocratic class that own the economies.

In 1944, Franklin D Roosevelt decided to make some attempt at fixing the macroeconomic situation and he invited qualified experts to set up a useful system to form an international financial system that represented the needs of diverse geographical regions with diverse economies. Of considerable interest, bankers and financiers were barred, as Roosevelt did not trust them to put aside their own interests. FDR understood them very well. The result was the Bretton Woods system, named after where the procedures were devised. This arguably worked well, although I have little doubt it could be criticized.

In 1971 Richard Nixon dismantled that system and replaced it with, er, not much. A special place arose for the US dollar, which, because the US economy was so large that no single transaction would appear on the overall “balance sheet”, this was the only real currency that was considered to be stable. The idea was, if there were anything resembling an idea, let the market rule. A subsidiary idea was (although this was never openly stated) it gave a special position to the Federal Reserve, who could print what they felt like printing. The market is the proper place for fixing the price of things that are traded according to available supply and demand, and each of those is free of external constraints. The concept is, if something is in short supply, the price rises and new suppliers enter the market. However, if a cartel can control supply, say, as with OPEC in the 1970s, price rises get out of hand, but great profits are made by the cartel. Currencies can be open to manipulation. The very rich can withhold to raise the price and sell at huge profits when more is needed to settle other trading. You see a large number of very rich people who got that way by trading currencies, generally through inside knowledge of what is going on in the broader market. However, that trading does not create anything of value; it merely skims from those who do, so such trading is little better than a bunch of parasites who also precipitate the financial crises we seem to have gone through since 1971. Of course, on the other side of the argument, the value of a nation’s currency should not be set by politicians with other agendas, because long-term, only too many suffer.

This market rules system has led to much greater world trade, it has raised the living standards of many, but in the western world it has done this by permitting the very rich to become ridiculously more wealthy while punishing what we can loosely call the working class. Manufacturing has been shipped to the lowest cost labour, and the multinationals from a limited number of countries built manufacturing complexes, often with very little regard to the health of the local population. Pollution occurred at levels that would be totally unacceptable in the countries where the companies have headquarters. I recall driving through Cubatão, which is just inland from Santos in Brazil, one evening in the mid 1980s. One chemical plant was pouring out clouds of white stuff, which I provisionally guessed was phthalic anhydride. The health effects of this sort of pollution on the locals were terrible, there was no excuse for this, but because general safety and pollution control was absent, the product would be cheaper. So the net result was that a surprising amount of manufacturing fled the West to places that did not care, while workers in the West joined the unemployment queues.

Thus fortunes for the very rich increased dramatically, but at the expense of the not so rich, many of whom became the new poor. The real money was made by bankers, and as they grew richer, not by doing traditional banking but by selling financial “products”. After the 2007-2008 crisis, you might think things improved, but no, the world is still flooded with junk bonds, leveraged loans, and huge debt. You might have expected the US Federal Reserve to act responsibly and limit the potential for excess credit, but after 2009, why, no, they allowed the private credit market to expand to $US 9 trillion. Since a certain virus struck, the Federal Reserve has made a massive cash injection, but where has this gone? Largely to bail out what the Nature article calls “Monetary chicanery”. In short, the bankers pass go and again collect 200 billion.The question then is, can markets provide affordable health care, affordable housing, affordable higher education, security in times of crisis? I leave you to find your own answers, but I suspect the answer will often be no. Then there is the question, what will happen to all this created money? So far it is sitting harmlessly on ledgers, but what happens if enough of the rich decide to cash out at the same time? Who saves the poor, and the innocent? This is a system that needs fixing, but where do you find the fixers? Not from those who have the resources to fix it because they are the major beneficiaries.

The Recent Economy up to Covid-19

In the previous post I noted that Keynesian economics tended to fail because governments overlooked the second half of the prescription: when the going got strong, it was necessary to “pay back” the debt, or at least reduce the money supply. That results in politicians being party poopers, restraining the good times and what politician wants that with an election coming? The net result was with too much money floating around, we had the rather unexpected result of inflation coupled with stagnation/recession. More money would not solve that. Friedman had the answer, perhaps: stop government priming the economy and correct structural deficiencies. That was not followed either – Friedman had no more success than Keynes in getting politicians to behave. What resulted was the likes of Reagan reducing government expenditure, lowering taxes, and maintaining and expanding the government deficit. Then the US Federal Reserve set the tone by reducing the money supply, even though it knew that would send unemployment soaring. They simply did not care. Anything went in the name of “economic efficiency”. 

What was undefined was “efficiency.” To answer that we have to ask what is the purpose of the economy? To the bankers it seems to be to make nice profits for banks, but surely it is more than the keeping of tidy books. For some, it is to maximize wealth, especially for themselves. For some it is to generate the means of enabling people to live in a pleasant place and live alongside nature. For others it is to enable all people to get the best out of life. Under the new economics of Reagan and others, the emphasis was on the “basics”: get the government out of the economy because they don’t know what they are doing, focus on low and stable inflation, let the rich get richer, following which the wealth would trickle down. Except the evidence is, it didn’t.  Then when it became clear that squeezing the money supply, while it might have helped make the books tidier, was generating unemployment that was too great, so central banks switched to using interest rates as their primary tool. Which gets us to where the bankers are now. Interest rates have got to the point where depositing in banks is only good for security, as long as the bank does not go belly up.

What actually happened was that when the corporations noted that the government did not care about employment it fired its workers, thereby saving money on benefits, etc. and moved manufacturing to low wage countries. Basic manufacturing, like clothes, were exported to places like Indonesia or Bangla Desh, and more difficult manufacturing to China. That undoubtedly increased the wealth of the rich, but it sent the workers into low-paying jobs in the service industries. Meanwhile, there was a somewhat unrecognized crisis in the academic community, and in particular the physics community. Funding had dropped and we had a large number of highly educated unemployed. The physicists, in particular, were good at computer modeling, and they got jobs in banks to create new “financial products”. The banks made huge profits until about 2008. The problem with these “products”. which were sliced and diced debt, were based on the assumption that nothing significant could go wrong, but in the US, for political reasons, a huge number of houses were sold to people who had no hope of repaying the mortgages. Oops. 

We have sort of recovered from that, but the legacy is that thanks to COVID 19 the debt levels of so many countries is extraordinarily high, interest rates are ridiculously low they cannot go lower, so there is no incentive to save. Money goes into assets, which merely inflates the price of the assets. Stock at $100 is worth that if you can sell it for that, but at the end of a period of time, you have to look at the overall returns on investment. In a bubble, everyone makes money until the music stops, then the losses are concentrated on the then holders. COVID has forced the nervous investors to cash out and the stock market fell, but it is coming back because of the quantitative easing. So what happens when the quantitative easing stops and the bonds are cashed out?What is clear is that we cannot look to the past for ways to get out of this. We have to try something new, but what? If you look at our leaders, do any of them have a solution to what happens after quantitative easing? Or do they have their heads in the sand and assume that will be for another electoral cycle?

Will Pump-priming the Economy Help Post-Covid?

Because I operated a company that had the primary objective of developing technology for new businesses in the chemical arena, economics interested me. We can all be smart looking back, but what about now? What should we do about the economy during virus times? So what are some options? This will take more than one post, but first, what is the best example in history of getting out of trouble? What tools are available?

In 1936, John Maynard Keynes published “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, and when he did so, he should have known it worked for getting out of depression because when Adolf Hitler took over in Germany, the economy was in a mess, with horrendous unemployment and terrible wages for most of those actually employed. Hitler promised to fix things, and he did, by implementing the policies that Keynes was later to publish. By 1936 the German unemployment had essentially disappeared and Keynes would know that.  Hitler was to provide the world with horrors, but early on his economic policy was exactly what Germany needed.

Keynes’ approach was essentially that in a depression the state should provide money to prime the economy, and when better times arrived, pay it back. In my opinion, therein lay one flaw: when better times arrive, do politicians want to pay it back? Er, no. Better (at least for re-election chances) to leave it as debt and inflate it away. (Hitler never had the opportunity to pay it back, because he had other interests.) It is usual to say that Keynes’ economics collapsed in the 1970s with persistently high inflation and high unemployment. One could argue that at least part of the inflation was because the governments refused to pay back, and instead kept borrowing. I have no doubt the counter to that will be, look at now – there is no inflation, and governments are borrowing heavily. Maybe.

If following Keynes, does it matter what the money is spent on? In the German example, the money went on infrastructure, and on providing the expansion of industries for making things. There was an unintended consequence after the war: once the West Germans started to run their own economy they had another economic miracle. Thanks to Hitler’s apprentice schemes, there were a large number of highly skilled people required for manufacturing, and they had factories. The allies bombed cities but mainly left the factories alone. German manufacturing reached its highest point of the war in late 1944. As an example, they made ten times more fighters then than around the Battle of Britain. (That they had run out of skilled pilots was a separate issue.) 

Keynesian economics involved high taxes on the wealthy and some claim such tax rates prevent innovation and general expansion. In the US, from 1953 to 1964, the top tax rate was 90%, and it did not drop below 70% until about 1982. This period corresponded to the US being the most developed country in the world. The tax rates did not stifle anything. Of course, there were tax exemptions for money being sent in the desired direction, and that may well be a desirable aspect of taxation policy. The death of Keynesian economics was probably a consequence of Milton Friedman, as much as anything else. The stagflation in the late 1970s convinced politicians they could no longer spend their way out of a recession. An important observation of Friedman was that if policymakers stimulated without tackling the underlying structural deficiencies, they would fail. They did not and fail they did, but that was partly because the politicians had ceased to look at structural deficiencies. Friedman was correct regarding the problem, but that was because in detail Keynes’ obligations were overlooked. No more than half of the Keynes  prescription was implemented generally. So, where does that leave us? Is Keynes applicable now? In my opinion, the current attempts to spend our way out of virus difficulties won’t work because there are further problems that apply, but that is for a later post.

The Hangenberg Extinction

One problem of applying the scientific method to past events is there is seldom enough information to reach a proper conclusion. An obvious example is the mass extinction that we know occurred at the end of the Devonian period, and in particular, something called the Hangenberg event, which is linked to the extrinction of 44% of high-level vertebrate clades and 97% of vertebrate species. Only smaller species survived, namely sharks smaller than a meter in length and general fish less than ten centimeters in length. This is the time when most ammonites and trilobites, which had been successful for such a long time, failed to survive. One family of trilobites survived, only to be extinguished in the Permian extinction, another  of those that wiped out 90% of all species. 

So why did this happen? First, it is most likely the ecosystems had been stressed. The Hangenberg event occurred about 358 My ago, but before that, at about 382 My BP most jawless fish disappeared, while from 372 – 359 My BP there were a series of extinctions or climate changes known as the Kellwasser event (although it was almost certainly a number of events.) So for about 30 million years leading up to the Hangenberg event, there had been severe difficulties for life. At this stage, leaving aside insects and plants that had left the oceans, most life were in marine or freshwater environments and it was this life that appears to have suffered the most. That conclusion, however, may more reflect a relative paucity of land-based fossils. Climate change was almost certainly involved because over this period there was a series of sea level rises while the water became more anoxic. The causes of this are less than clear and there have been a numper of suggestions.

One possibility is an asteroid collision, and while impact craters can be found they cannot be dated sufficiently closely to be associated with any specific event. A more likely effect questions why anoxic? The climate  should have no direct effect on this, although the reverse is possible. The question is really was it the seas only that became anoxic? One possibility is that on land the late Devonian saw a dramatic change in plant life. In the early Devonian, plants had made it to land, but they were small leafy plants like liverworts and mosses. In the late Devonian they developed stems that could move water and nutrients, and suddenly huge plants emerged. One argument is that this caused a flood of nutrients through the weathering of rocks caused by the extensive root systems to flow down into the sea, which caused algal blooms, which led to anoxic conditions. Meanwhile, the huge forests of the Devonian may have reduced carbon dioxide levels, which would lead to glaciation, and the sea level fall in the very late Devonian. However, it does not explain sea level rise earlier. That may have arisen from extensive volcanism that occurred around 372 My ago, which would enhance greehouse warming. You can take your pick from these explanations because even the experts in the field are unsure.

Accordingly, a new theory has just emerged, namely Earth was bombarded by cosmic rays from a nearby supernova (Fields, et al., arXiv:2007.01887v1, 3rd July, 2020). This has the advantage that we can see why it is global. The specific event would be a core-collapse supernova. If this occurred within 33 light years from Earth, it would probably extinguish all life on Earth, but one about twice as far away, 66 light years, would exterminate much life, but not all. The mechanism is in part ozone depletion, but there is the possibility of enhanced nitrogen fixation in the atmosphere, which might lead to algal blooms. One of the good things about such a proposition is it is testable. Such an event would bombard Earth with isotopes that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, and one would be plutonium 244. There is no naturally occurring plutonium on Earth, so if some atoms were found in the fossils or in accompanying rock, that would support the supernova event.

So, is that what happened? My personal view is that is unlikely, and the reason I say that is that most of the damage would be done to life on land, and as I gather, the insects expanded into the Carboniferous period. The seas would be relatively protected because the incoming flux would be protected by the water. The nitrate fixation might cause an algal bloom and while a lot of energy would be required to saturate the world’s oceans, maybe there was sufficient. The finding of plutonium in the associated deposits would be definitive, however. The typical deposits were black shales overlaid by sandstone, and are easy to locate, so if there is plutonium in them, there is the answer. If there is not, does that mean the proposition is wrong? That is more difficult to answer, but the more samples that are examined from widespread sources, the more trouble for the proposition.

My preferred explanation is the ecological one, namely the development of tree ferns, etc. The Devonian extinction was slow, taking 24 million years, and while most marine extinctions occurred during what is called the Hangenberg event, the word event may be misleading. That specific period took 100,000 – 300,000 years, which is plenty of time for an ecological disaster to kill off that which cannot adapt. To put it into perspective, Homo Sapiens has been around for only 30,000 years, and effective for only about 10,000 years. Look at the ecological change. Now, think what will happen if we let climate change get out of control. We are already causing serious extinction of many species, but the loss of habitat if the seas rise will dwarf what we have done so far because our booming population has to eat. We should learn from the late Devonian.

Planets Being Formed Now

An intriguing observation, recorded in Nature Astronomy3, 749 (2019) is that two planets are being formed around the star PDS 70, a star about 370 light years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus. The star is roughly 76% the mass of the sun. Its temperature is 3972 degrees K, so it is a bit cooler than our sun, and is about 1.26 time bigger. What that means is it has yet to collapse properly. Because at least some of the accretion disk is still there, gas is still falling towards the star, and towards any planets that are still forming. Because giants have to form quickly, the huge amount of gas falling into them gets very hot, the planets glow, and if they are far enough away from the star, we can see them through very large telescopes. The first such planet to be observed in this system (Labelled PDS 70 b) is about 7 times as big as Jupiter, and is about 23 AU away from the star, i.e. it is a little further away from its star as Uranus is from our star. (1 AU is the Earth-sun distance.)

We can detect the gas flowing into the planet by the spectral signal Hα at 656.28 nm, and by selecting such a signal much of the general light is filtered out and gas can be seen streaming into planetary objects. The planet PDS 70 b was confirmed in the cited reference, but there is an addition: PDS 70 c, which is about 38 AU from its star, also with about 4 AU uncertainty. This is a bit further away from its star as Neptune is from ours, which suggests an overall system that is a bit more expanded than ours.

These planets are interesting in terms of generating a theory on how planets form. The standard theory is that dust from the accretion disk somehow accretes to form bodies about the size of asteroids called planetesimals, and through gravity these collide to form larger bodies, which in turn through their stronger gravity collide to form what are called embryos or oligarchs, and these are about the size of Mars. These then collide to form Earth-sized planets, and in the outer regions collisions keep going until the cores get to about ten times the size of Earth, then these start accreting gas, until eventually they become giants. Getting rid of heat is a problem, and consequently newly formed giants are very hot and seem like mini-stars.

The problem with that theory is timing. The further away from the star, the dust density is much lower simply because there is more space for it and even if you can form planetesimals, and nobody has any idea how they formed, the space between them gets so big their weak gravity does not lead to useful collisions. There is a way out of this in what is called the Grand Tack model. What this postulates is that Uranus and Neptune both grew a little further out than Saturn, and as they grew to be giants their gravity attracted planetesimals from further out. However, now the model argues they did not accrete them, but instead effectively pulled them in and let them go further in towards the star. By giving them inwards momentum, they got “lift” and moved out. They kept going until Neptune ran out of planetesimals, which occurred at about 32 AU.

Now, momentum is mass times velocity, which means the bigger the planet that is moving, the more planetesimals it needs, although it gets a benefit of being able to throw the planetesimal faster through its stronger gravity. That effect is partly cancelled by the planetesimals being able to pass further away. Anyway, why does a star that is about ¾ the size of our star have more planetesimals that go out almost 20% further. In fairness, you might argue that is a rather weak conclusion because the distances are not that much different and you would not expect exact correspondence. Further, while the masses of the giants are so much bigger than ours, you might argue they travelled then accreted the gas.However, there is worse. Also very recently discovered by the same technique are two planets around the young star TYC 8998-760-1, which is about the same size as the sun. The inner planet has a mass of 14 times that of Jupiter and is 162 AU from the star, and the outer planet has a mass of 6 times that of Jupiter and is 320 AU from the star. It is difficult to believe that one star of the same size as another would inadvertently have a huge distribution of planetesimals scattered out over ten times further. Further, if it did, the star’s metallicity would have to be very much higher. Unfortunately, that has yet to be measured for this star. In my opinion, this strongly suggests that this Grand Tack model is wrong, but that leaves open the question, what is right? My usual answer would be what is outlined in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, although the outer planet of TYC 8998-760-1 may be a problem. However, that explanation will have to wait for a further post but those interested can make up their minds from the ebook.