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.







Scientific low points: (1)

A question that should be asked more often is, do scientists make mistakes? Of course they do. The good news, however, is that when it comes to measuring something, they tend to be meticulous, and published measurements are usually correct, or, if they matter, they are soon found out if they are wrong. There are a number of papers, of course, where the findings are complicated and not very important, and these could well go for a long time, be wrong, and nobody would know. The point is also, nobody would care.

On the other hand, are the interpretations of experimental work correct? History is littered with examples of where the interpretations that were popular at the time are now considered a little laughable. Once upon a time, and it really was a long time ago, I did a post doctoral fellowship at The University, Southampton, and towards the end of the year I was informed that I was required to write a light-hearted or amusing article for a journal that would come out next year. (I may have had one put over me in this respect because I did not see the other post docs doing much.) Anyway, I elected to comply, and wrote an article called Famous Fatuous Failures.

As it happened, this article hardly became famous, but it was something of a fatuous failure. The problem was, I finished writing it a little before I left the country, and an editor got hold of it. In those days you wrote with pen on paper, unless you owned a typewriter, but when you are travelling from country to country, you tend to travel light, and a typewriter is not light. Anyway, the editor decided my spelling of a two French scientists’ names (Berthollet and Berthelot) was terrible and it was “obviously” one scientist. The net result was there was a section where there was a bitter argument, with one of them arguing with himself. But leaving that aside, I had found that science was continually “correcting” itself, but not always correctly.

An example that many will have heard of is phlogiston. This was a weightless substance that metals and carbon gave off to air, and in one version, such phlogisticated air was attracted to and stuck to metals to form a calx. This theory got rubbished by Lavoisier, who showed that the so-called calxes were combinations of the metal with oxygen, which was part of the air. A great advance? That is debatable. The main contribution of Lavoisier was he invented the analytical balance, and he decided this was so accurate there would be nothing that was “weightless”. There was no weight for phlogiston therefore it did not exist. If you think of this, if you replace the word “phlogiston” with “electron” you have an essential description of the chemical ionic bond, and how do you weigh an electron? Of course there were other versions of the phlogiston theory, but getting rid of that version may we’ll have held chemistry back for quite some time.

Have we improved? I should add that many of my cited failures were in not recognizing, or even worse, not accepting truth when shown. There are numerous examples where past scientists almost got there, but then somehow found a reason to get it wrong. Does that happen now? Since 1970, apart from cosmic inflation, as far as I can tell there have been no substantially new theoretical advances, although of course there have been many extensions of previous work. However, that may merely mean that some new truths have been uncovered, but nobody believes them so we know nothing of them. However, there have been two serious bloopers.

The first was “cold fusion”. Martin Fleischmann, a world-leading electrochemist, and Stanley Pons decided that if deuterium was electrolyzed under appropriate conditions you could get nuclear fusion. They did a range of experiments with palladium electrodes, which would strongly adsorb the deuterium, and sometimes they got unexplained but significant temperature rises. Thus they claimed they got nuclear fusion at room temperature. They also claimed to get helium and neutrons. The problem with this experiment was that they themselves admitted that whatever it was only worked occasionally; at other times, the only heat generated corresponded to the electrical power input. Worse, even when it worked, it would be for only so long, and that electrode would never do it again, which is perhaps a sign that there was some sort of impurity in their palladium that gave the heat from some additional chemical reaction.

What happened next was nobody could repeat their results. The problem then was that being unable to repeat a result when it is erratic at best may mean very little, other than, perhaps, better electrodes did not have the impurity. Also, the heat they got raised the temperature of their solutions from thirty to fifty degrees Centigrade. That would mean that at best, very few actual nuclei fused. Eventually, it was decided that while something might have happened, it was not nuclear fusion because nobody could get the required neutrons. That in turn is not entirely logical. The problem is that fusion should not occur because there was no obvious way to overcome the Coulomb repulsion between nuclei, and it required palladium to do “something magic”. If in fact palladium could do that, it follows that the repulsion energy is not overcome by impact force. If there were some other way to overcome the repulsive force, there is no reason why the nuclei would not form 4He, because that is far more stable than 3He, and if so, there would be no neutrons. Of course I do not believe palladium would overcome that electrical repulsion, so there would be no fusion possible.

Interestingly, the chemists who did this experiment and believed it would work protected themselves with a safety shield of Perspex. The physicists decided it had no show, but they protected themselves with massive lead shielding. They knew what neutrons were. All in all, a rather sad ending to the career of a genuinely skillful electrochemist.

More to follow.

Climate Change Horrors

By now a lot of people are probably getting sick of hearing about climate change, but it needs to be continuously emphasized because the problem is not going away any time soon. People are now starting to realize that global warming means stronger storms, but that is the least of our problems. Worse than that, most people don’t actually know what many of our problems are going to be. Let us forget about storms and look at what else could happen.

The most frightening is if warming gets out of control and melts the Arctic tundras. We have to be careful about this, but we know that about 252 million years ago there was the most massive mass extinction ever. What happened? We cannot be entirely sure, but one account has it that global warming of about four degrees caused the release of Arctic methane, and 97% of life on Earth died. Now, of course we cannot be sure of what happened and the Earth is not like what it was then. The continents are not even the same, and those land forms that were there then are not in the same place now. Nevertheless, we can be sure that if the Arctic methane is released due to warming, there will be a very serious enhancing of temperature. Amongst other things, for the first two decades methane is 87 times worse than carbon dioxide.

The most obvious consequence is from the heat. Already there are parts of the world where heat becomes a problem for people working, and this is not helped by humidity increases. In 2003 there was a European heat wave that killed as many as 2000 people every day it maintained its high temperatures. If we add 2 degrees to the average temperatures, cities in the middle east, like Bahrain, and further east like Karachi and Kolkata will be almost uninhabitable, and for Muslims, the hajj would be impossible. We could try air conditioning, but with what fuel? Our current energy systems would simply add to the problem.

Warming of agricultural areas reduces crop yields. At present, most crops are grown in as near ideal conditions for them, and most foods are produced in quantities to feed the population, but not with a huge excess. So the biggest problem is starvation. You may say, move the agriculture away from the equator to newly warmed regions. That is possible to some extent, but what we forget is that the current colder regions do not have good soil. Trying to grow crops in Greenland is fine, until you discover that most of the newly exposed surface is stone.

There are also secondary issues, thus the recent flooding in Bangla Desh that covered almost half the country with water also largely destroyed the crops being grown there. Other places may suffer droughts, with the same result. My view is this is uncertain, because I do not believe that modeling is good enough. You will hear that in Jurassic times temperatures were significantly warmer than now. Yes, but much of the land was desert, the continents were also in a greatly different configuration, and mammals were not predominant.

Everyone now knows that as the ice melts, the sea levels will rise. Depending on how much ice melts, the seas could rise by seventy meters. At present, about 600 million live within ten meters of sea level. Given that even modest sea level rising predicts a seven to fourteen meter rise, you can see that an awful lot of infrastructure will have to be rebuilt, and perhaps a billion people moved and rehoused, followed by somehow finding them employment. That means more carbon dioxide emissions. Cement manufacture alone produces about three billion tonne of carbon dioxide per annum now, and if we have to rebuild the entire coastal infrastructure, a huge amount of additional cement will be required. If the sea absorbs too much carbon dioxide, and a lot of organic matter gets trapped in it, parts may go anoxic and emit large amounts of hydrogen sulphide. Excessive hydrogen sulphide is the agent that is believed to have enhanced the great extinction in the late Permian. Higher levels of carbon dioxide are often used to explain coral bleaching, but the problem is much worse. Shellfish that depend on aragonite, one of the two crystalline forms of calcium carbonate, will not be able to form shells if the oceans absorb significantly more carbon dioxide because aragonite will no longer crystallise.

The removal of ice from the poles will also alter weather patterns. Wind changes may lead to greater air pollution in certain areas if we try to maintain current industries. China has recently suffered from this. Places that are now livable will become desert, or near desert, and this will force people to move. The problem, is, where to? Where will they get work? Which countries are going to accept them, particularly bearing in mind the numbers also displaced from the shores? With few options, various wars are more likely to break out. Unless we solve the energy crisis, what next? If we stop burning fossil fuels, how will our economies progress? The real driver of economic growth since the mid 19th century has been cheap energy from fossil fuels. However, if we do not stop such burning, and if we do not find alternatives, GDP will drop significantly, which will make it more difficult for a large fraction of the population to earn a living. To survive, one outcome is enhanced war and a proliferation of crime.

Scary? Hopefully these consequences are sufficient to persuade those in power to do a lot. I am far from convinced that current politicians recognize what the problem even is, let alone how to address it.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, What next?

By now just about everybody on the planet will have heard of Hurricane Harvey, and we all feel deeply sympathetic to the people of Houston. This was a dreadful time for them, which raises the question, why did this happen? As the disaster abates, the words “Global Warming” keep coming up. Global warming did not cause that Hurricane, it did not cause it to land on Houston, and with one reservation, it almost certainly did not cause hurricanes to be more common. However, global warming would have made the ocean a little warmer than usual, and that will have increased the intensity of any hurricane that was generated, made it more expansive, and more powerful. While it might have been the most newsworthy event, it was by no means the worst event attributable to an effect of global warming.

Hurricanes and Typhoons are just local names for tropical cyclones, and they originate because the earth is a rotating sphere, and because surface temperatures are uneven, therefore in places air rises because it is warmer, and in other places it falls. In the former you get low pressure, while in the latter, high pressure, and because there are pressure differentials, air flows towards and away from these systems respectively. Air moving in the north-south directions has different velocities in the east-west directions because of the different rotational velocities, and this generates some circular air motion (the Coriolis force) the direction depending on whether the air is being sucked in or being pushed out. In the normal course of events this would generate modest circulation, which would affect nobody badly.

However, there is an additional aspect. When the circulation goes over water, it evaporates moisture, and when this is sucked upwards in a low pressure event, eventually the air gets colder and the water comes out as water droplets, which generate clouds, and if there is enough moisture, rain. Of course, this is somewhat oversimplified, especially in mid-latitudes where you get fronts, etc, to complicate matters as air at different temperatures starts to mix, but the above, while oversimplified, at least lets us see what happened with Harvey. The reason the tropical storms are so bad, when you get away from the equator so as to get some effect from the Coriolis effect, is that the warmer the water, the more moisture gets sucked up. Water has a rather high latent heat of evaporation, so when it condenses out, that energy has to go somewhere. The warmer air rises, generating lower pressures below, and hence more suction, which means more water sucked up, leading to even more air being sucked in, leading to the extremes of rotational kinetic energy that we see.

So, the warmer the water, the more energy is available to power stronger winds, and more rain comes down. Harvey was particularly bad because it stalled over Houston. Normally, tropical cyclones run out of strength as they cross land, because there is no further moisture to power them, but Harvey had half of itself over land, and half over the Gulf of Mexico, so it was able to keep itself going longer than you might expect. So the hurricane would have been a little stronger than without the global warming, it would have dropped much more rain than without the global warming, but its path greatly accentuated the damage. Irma will do the same wherever it hits.

What global warming will also do is increase the number of tropical cyclones around the world. That is simply because by increasing the surface temperatures of the seas, there is more energy available for a weather event, hence more of the systems that would normally just qualify as storms or cyclones get upgraded to the tropical cyclone status. Worse, they do not have to be in the tropics. In Wellington, where I live, this winter the Tasman was 1.5 degrees C hotter than usual for this time of the year, and when a resultant system somehow met some colder sub Antarctic air, we got a storm with wind speeds that qualified for a category 3 hurricane, with a lot of rain, but it was cold. So, what we can expect in the future is many more of these storms, and not just in the tropics. The storms do not need to be hot; they merely need to have been powered initially with warmer seawater.

I mentioned that Harvey was not the worst event. At the same time, the monsoon over parts of India and Bangla Desh, thanks to increased sea temperatures, gave record rainfall that put about half the country under water, thus probably wiping out a large fraction of the country’s crops. It also killed about twelve hundred people and severely affected the lives of forty-one million people. And Bangla Desh in one of the poorest countries on the planet. There may be a tendency to think Houston, being part of the richest country on the planet, will get over this, and it probably will, but these changing events are going to happen everywhere, and as with Bangla Desh, many places will not be able to cope easily. It is the richer countries that have to start doing things to control these disasters, if for no other reason than they are the only ones with the means to make an impact. We really need to work out how to deal with such events, because they will occur, but better still, we need to take real action to minimize the number that do happen, and that means really doing something about global warming. Those who deny its existence should be made to exchange positions with people in Bangla Desh

The Face of Mars


In 1976, the Viking 1 mission began taking photographs of the surface of Mars, in part to find landing sites for future missions, and also to get a better idea of what Mars was like, to determine the ages of various parts of Mars (done by counting craters, which assumes that once the great bombardment was over, the impacts were more or less regular over time if we think in terms of geological timing.) On the Cydonia Mensae, an image came back that, when refined, looks surprisingly like a face carved into a large rock. Two points are worth mentioning. The first is, if it were such a head, the angle of the light only allows you to see the right side of the head; the rest is in deep shadow. The second is all we received of this object was 64 pixels. The “face” is clearly a butte standing up from the surface (and there are lot of these in the region) and it is about 2.5 km long, about 1.5 km wide, and something like up to 800 m above the average flat ground at its highest point. As you might imagine, with only 64 pixels, the detail is not great, but there is a crater where the right eye should be, a rise that makes the nose, and some sort of “crack” or depression that hints at a mouth, but most of the “mouth” would be in the shade, and hence would be invisible. The image was also liberally splattered with black spots; these were “failed pixels” i.e. a transmission problem. What you see below is that primary image.

640x472 pixels-FC

So, what was it? The most obvious answer was a rock that accidentally looked like a face. To the objection, what is the probability that you could end up with that, the answer is, not as bad as you might think. There are a lot of mesas and rock formations on Mars, so sooner or later one of them might look like something else. There are a number of hills etc on Earth where you can see a head, or a frog, or something if you want to. If you think about it, an oval mesa is not that improbable, and there are a lot of them. There are a very large number of impact craters on Mars, so the chances of one being roughly where an eye would be is quite high (because there is quite a bit of flexibility here) and there are really only two features – the eye and the “mouth”. The rise for the nose only requires the centre to be the highest part, and that is not improbable. As it happens, when you see the whole thing, the left side of the head has sort of collapsed, and it is a fracture offshoot from that collapse that gives the mouth.

However, the image caught the imagination of many, and some got a little carried away. Richard Hoagland wrote a book The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. If nothing else, this was a really good selling book, at one stage apparently selling up ot 2000 copies a month. Yep, the likes of me are at least envious of the sales. So, what did this say? Basically, Hoagland saw several “pyramids” near the Face, and a jumble of rocks that he interpreted as a walled city. Mars had an ancient civilisation! Left unsaid was why, if there were such “Martians” did they waste effort building pyramids and carving this Face while their planet was dying? For me, another question is why does something this fanciful become a best seller, while the truth languishes?

So what caused this? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It is reasonably obviously caused by erosion, but what the eroding agent was remains unknown. If you believe Mars once had an ocean, the Cydonian region is roughly where one of the proposed shorelines was. It could also be caused by glaciation, or even wind erosion, aided by moisture in the rock. The freezing/thawing of water generates very powerful forces. What we need is a geologist to visit the site to answer the question, although there would be far more important things to do on Mars than worry about that rock.

Suppose it was carved by a civilization? I included that possiblity in my novel Red Gold. In this, one character tried pulling the leg of another by announcing that it was “obviously carved” by aliens with the purpose of encouraging humans to go into space. “It is worth it,” the aliens would be saying. So why is it so rough? Because the aliens were plagued by accountants, who decided that the effort to do it properly was not worth the benefit; if humans cannot take the hint from the roughly hewn rock, so be it.

It also figures in another of my novels: A Face on Cydonia. Again, it is intended as a joke in the book, but on whom? Why did I do that? Well, I started writing when I heard that Global Surveyor was going to settle this issue, so I thought I should try to have something ready for an agent. However, Global Surveyor, which took very narrow strip images, and could have taken two years to cover this area, took only a few weeks. Out of luck again! Fortunately, the story was never really about the rock, but rather the effect it had on people.

A quick commercial: if anyone is interested, the ebook is at 99 cents on Amazon (or 99p) for the first week of September. The book is the first of a trilogy, but more about people being taken to levels higher than their abilities, and also about what causes some to descend to evil. It also has just a toiuch of science; while you can ignore this and just consider it a powerful explosive, it has the first mention of a chemical tetranitrotetrahedrane. That would be a really powerful explosive, if it could be made, but the more interesting point is why is that there?

The Fermi Paradox and Are We Alone in the Universe?

The Fermi paradox is something like this. The Universe is enormous, and there are an astronomical number of planets. Accordingly, the potential for intelligent life somewhere should be enormous, but we find no evidence of anything. The Seti program has been searching for decades and has found nothing. So where are these aliens?

What is fascinating about this is an argument from Daniel Whitmire, who teaches mathematics at the University of Arkansas and has published a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology (doi:10.1017/S1473550417000271 ). In it, he concludes that technological societies rapidly exterminate themselves. So, how does he come to this conclusion. The argument is fascinating relating to the power of mathematics, and particularly statistics, to show or mislead.

He first resorts to a statistical concept called the Principle of Mediocrity, which states that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, any observation should be regarded as typical. If so, we observe our own presence. If we assume we are typical, and we have been technological for 100 years (he defines being technological as using electricity, but you can change this) then it follows that our being average means that after a further 200 years we are no longer technological. We can extend this to about 500 years on the basis that in terms of age a Bell curve is skewed (you cannot have negative age). To be non-technological we have to exterminate ourselves, therefore he concludes that technological societies exterminate themselves rather quickly. We may scoff at that, but then again, watching the antics over North Korea can we be sure?

He makes a further conclusion: since we are the first on our planet, other civilizations should also be the first. I really don’t follow this because he has also calculated that there could be up to 23 opportunities for further species to develop technologies once we are gone, so surely that follows elsewhere. It seems to me to be a rather mediocre use of this principle of mediocrity.

Now, at this point, I shall diverge and consider the German tank problem, because this shows what you can do with statistics. The allies wanted to know the production rate of German tanks, and they got this from a simple formula, and from taking down the serial numbers of captured or destroyed tanks. The formula is

N = m + m/n – 1

Where N is the number you are seeking, m is the highest sampled serial number and n is the sample size (the number of tanks). Apparently this was highly successful, and their estimations were far superior to intelligence gathering, which always seriously overestimated.

That leaves the question of whether that success means anything for the current problem. The first thing we note is the Germans conveniently numbered their tanks, and in sequence, the sample size was a tolerable fraction of the required answer (it was about 5%), and finally it was known that the Germans were making tanks and sending them to the front as regularly as they could manage. There were no causative aspects that would modify the results. With Whitmire’s analysis, there is a very bad aspect of the reasoning: this question of whether we are alone is raised as soon as we have some capability to answer it. Thus we ask it within fifty years of having reasonable electronics; for all we know they may still be asking it a million years in the future, so the age of technological society, which is used to base the lifetime reasoning, is put into the equation as soon as it is asked. That means it is not a random sample, but causative sample. Then on top of that, we have a sample of one, which is not exactly a good statistical sample. Of course if there were more samples than one, the question would answer itself and there would be no need for statistics. In this case, statistics are only used when they should not be used.

So what do I make of that? For me, there is a lack of logic. By definition, to publish original work, you have to be the first to do it. So, any statistical conclusion from asking the question is ridiculous because by definition it is not a random sample; it is the first. It is like trying to estimate German tank production from a sample of 1 and when that tank had the serial number 1. So, is there anything we can take from this?

In my opinion, the first thing we could argue from this Principle of Mediocrity is that the odds of finding aliens are strongest on earth-sized planets around G type stars about this far from the star, simply because we know it is at least possible. Further, we can argue the star should be at least about 4.5 billion years old, to give evolution time to generate such technological life. We are reasonably sure it could not have happened much earlier on Earth. One of my science fiction novels is based on the concept that Cretaceous raptors could have managed it, given time, but that still only buys a few tens of millions of years, and we don’t know how long they would have taken, had they been able. They had to evolve considerably larger brains, and who knows how long that would take? Possibly almost as long as mammals took.

Since there are older stars out there, why haven’t we found evidence? That question should be rephrased into, how would we? The Seti program assumes that aliens would try to send us messages, but why would they? Unless they were directed, to send meaningful signals over such huge distances would require immense energy expenditures. And why would they direct signals here? They could have tried 2,000 years ago, persisted for a few hundred years, and given us up. Alternatively, it is cheaper to listen. As I noted in a different novel, the concept falls down on economic grounds because everyone is listening and nobody is sending. And, of course, for strategic reasons, why tell more powerful aliens where you live? For me, the so-called Fermi paradox is no paradox at all; if there are aliens out there, they will be following their own logical best interests, and they don’t include us. Another thing it tells me is this is evidence you can indeed “prove” anything with statistics, if nobody is thinking.

Collusion, Treason, Evidence of Interfering With Elections

Yes, I know you have heard all this before, but maybe this is different? The last Presidential election in the US has a lot to answer for, but wait, there’s more! And with evidence to go with it! First, some background. New Zealand has a law that states that anyone with one New Zealand parent is automatically a New Zealand citizen. Australia has a law that states that to be a member of parliament, you must not be a citizen of another country. It turned out that an Australian reporter found out that the father of Barnaby Joyce (the Australian Deputy Prime Minister) was a New Zealander and therefore Joyce was a New Zealand citizen by descent. Barnaby Joyce was born in Australia and as far as we know has never been to New Zealand. The journalist wrote to Joyce’s office, the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra, and the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs for clarification and got no response. A further relevant piece of information is that New Zealand is shortly to have an election and very recently, thanks to appalling poll results, the leader of the Lahour Party here, who are in opposition, was replaced by Jacinda Ardern, who is somewhat younger and more vibrant. Two weeks into the job the following mess descended on her.

It is less clear exactly what started this, but the New Zealand MP Chris Hipkins raised the issue of dual citizenship by submitting questions to the New Zealand Parliament, which is in its dying stages. Exactly why he did this is the unclear part. One story is that an assistant to Penny Wong, the shadow foreign affairs spokesman for the Australian Labour Party, primed Hipkins. Whatever the source or the reason, clearly Hipkins had a brain fade. You don’t start commenting on the constitutional aspects of another country if you are in Parliament; you don’t raise an issue formally (had he really wanted the answer as opposed to making a public statement he could have asked one of the legal aspects available to Members of Parliament) unless you have an objective, and finally if you don’t know where an issue might go, you do not raise it about six weeks before an election, especially with a new leader struggling to find her way. Ardern quickly lashed Hipkins, verbally at least, as soon as she had found out, but the fuse had been lit.

The Australian Prime Minister immediately accused Bill Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labour party, of conspiring with a foreign power. That accusation may have been the first Shorten knew of the issue. However, it left the average New Zealander in a funny position. On the whole, leaving aside sporting contests, we consider ourselves rather friendly with Australians, although I suppose the temptation of either side to give the odd raw prawn is still there. But fancy that – we are accused of being a power. First I’ve heard of that one. Then, obviously having got the rhythm, the conspiracy is to undermine the Australian government, and that is treason!

There was more stuff for this fuse to ignite. The Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, could not be restrained, and accused the Australian Labour Party of trying to use the New Zealand Labour Party to undermine the Australian government. Collusion and treachery! She was also quoted on TV (evidence!) as saying “New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.” That is effectively the Australian government intervening in the New Zealand election.

So, what of Jacinda Ardern? She seemed somewhat unfazed by these accusations. She certainly sent Hipkins to the dog box and she tried to diplomatically engage with Ms Bishop, so far with no luck. But she refused to apologise. So, will this have any effect on the election? We have to wait and see, but my guess is the only effect will be from Ms Bishop’s attack, and that will help Jacinda. As one of our previous Prime Ministers once said, New Zealand politicians don’t lose votes by refusing to bow down to Australian politicians. As for the Australian Labour politicians, I understand their response to accusations of treachery and collusion was to sit back and laugh, which is probably the only response worth making.

I have no idea what the average Australian thinks, but my guess it will be either shaking the head in disbelief or laughing. And in New Zealand? This morning’s newspaper had two items that probably represent our feelings. The first was a cartoon with an aboriginal sitting outside a hut and being told about this electoral law fiasco. His response” Wow! Pity they didn’t have that law 200 years ago.” There was also a letter to the editor, with the proposal that, in the spirit of good relations and friendship with our Aussie neighbours, that New Zealand immediately convey New Zealand citizenship on all Australian politicians.

What is nothing?

Shakespeare had it right – there has been much ado about nothing, at least in the scientific world. In some of my previous posts I have advocated the use of the scientific method on more general topics, such as politics. That method involves the rigorous evaluation of evidence, of making propositions in accord with that evidence, and most importantly, rejecting those that are clearly false. It may appear that for ordinary people, that might be too hard, but at least that method would be followed by scientists, right? Er, not necessarily. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published a work, “The structure of scientific revolutions” and in it he argued that science itself has a very high level of conservatism. It is extremely difficult to change a current paradigm. If evidence is found that would do so, it is more likely to be secreted away in the bottom drawer, included in a scientific paper in a place where it is most likely to be ignored, or, if it is published, ignored anyway, and put in the bottom drawer of the mind. The problem seems to be, there is a roadblock towards thinking that something not in accord with expectations might be significant. With that in mind, what is nothing?

An obvious answer to the title question is that a vacuum is nothing. It is what is left when all the “somethings” are removed. But is there “nothing” anywhere? The ancient Greek philosophers argued about the void, and the issue was “settled” by Aristotle, who argued in his Physica that there could not be a void, because if there were, anything that moved in it would suffer no resistance, and hence would continue moving indefinitely. With such excellent thinking, he then, for some reason, refused to accept that the planets were moving essentially indefinitely, so they could be moving through a void, and if they were moving, they had to be moving around the sun. Success was at hand, especially if he realized that feathers did not fall as fast as stones because of wind resistance, but for some reason, having made such a spectacular start, he fell by the wayside, sticking to his long held prejudices. That raises the question, are such prejudices still around?

The usual concept of “nothing” is a vacuum, but what is a vacuum? Some figures from Wikipedia may help. A standard cubic centimetre of atmosphere has 2.5 x 10^19 molecules in it. That’s plenty. For those not used to “big figures”, 10^19 means the number where you write down 10 and follow it with 19 zeros, or you multiply 10 by itself nineteen times. Our vacuum cleaner gets the concentration of molecules down to 10^19, that is, the air pressure is two and a half times less in the cleaner. The Moon “atmosphere” has 4 x 10^5 molecules per cubic centimetre, so the Moon is not exactly in vacuum. Interplanetary space has 11 molecules per cubic centimetre, interstellar space has 1 molecule per cubic centimetre, and the best vacuum, intergalactic space, needs a million cubic centimetres to find one molecule.

The top of the Earth’s atmosphere, the thermosphere goes from 10^14 to 10^7. That is a little suspect at the top because you would expect it to gradually go down to that of interplanetary space. The reason there is a boundary is not because there is a sharp boundary, but rather it is the point where gas pressure is more or less matched by solar radiation pressure and that from solar winds, so it is difficult to make firm statements about further distances. Nevertheless, we know there is atmosphere out to a few hundred kilometres because there is a small drag on satellites.

So, intergalactic space is most certainly almost devoid of matter, but not quite. However, even without that, we are still not quite there with “nothing”. If nothing else, we know there are streams of photons going through it, probably a lot of cosmic rays (which are very rapidly moving atomic nuclei, usually stripped of some of their electrons, and accelerated by some extreme cosmic event) and possibly dark matter and dark energy. No doubt you have heard of dark matter and dark energy, but you have no idea what it is. Well, join the club. Nobody knows what either of them are, and it is just possible neither actually exist. This is not the place to go into that, so I just note that our nothing is not only difficult to find, but there may be mysterious stuff spoiling even what little there is.

However, to totally spoil our concept of nothing, we need to see quantum field theory. This is something of a mathematical nightmare, nevertheless conceptually it postulates that the Universe is full of fields, and particles are excitations of these fields. Now, a field at its most basic level is merely something to which you can attach a value at various coordinates. Thus a gravitational field is an expression such that if you know where you are and if you know what else is around you, you also know the force you will feel from it. However, in quantum field theory, there are a number of additional fields, thus there is a field for electrons, and actual electrons are excitations of such fields. While at this point the concept may seem harmless, if overly complicated, there is a problem. To explain how force fields behave, there needs to be force carriers. If we take the electric field as an example, the force carriers are sometimes called virtual photons, and these “carry” the force so that the required action occurs. If you have such force carriers, the Uncertainty Principle requires the vacuum to have an associated zero point energy. Thus a quantum system cannot be at rest, but must always be in motion and that includes any possible discrete units within the field. Again, according to Wikipedia, Richard Feynman and John Wheeler calculated there was enough zero point energy inside a light bulb to boil off all the water in the oceans. Of course, such energy cannot be used; to use energy you have to transfer it from a higher level to a lower level, when you get access to the difference. Zero point energy is at the lowest possible level.

But there is a catch. Recall Einstein’s E/c^2 = m? That means according to Einstein, all this zero point energy has the equivalent of inertial mass in terms of its effects on gravity. If so, then the gravity from all the zero point energy in vacuum can be calculated, and we can predict whether the Universe is expanding or contracting. The answer is, if quantum field theory is correct, the Universe should have collapsed long ago. The difference between prediction and observation is merely about 10^120, that is, ten multiplied by itself 120 times, and is the worst discrepancy between prediction and observation known to science. Even worse, some have argued the prediction was not right, and if it had been done “properly” they justified manipulating the error down to 10^40. That is still a terrible error, but to me, what is worse, what is supposed to be the most accurate theory ever is suddenly capable of turning up answers that differ by 10^80, which is roughly the same as the number of atoms in the known Universe.

Some might say, surely this indicates there is something wrong with the theory, and start looking elsewhere. Seemingly not. Quantum field theory is still regarded as the supreme theory, and such a disagreement is simply placed in the bottom shelf of the minds. After all, the mathematics are so elegant, or difficult, depending on your point of view. Can’t let observed facts get in the road of elegant mathematics!