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.







Misleading Accusations

Fake news is becoming more common, and most of it is either political in nature or it is an attempt to be humorous. Last week I posted on the attempted murder of the two Skripals. Since then there have been a raft of accusations, some of which border on the pathetic, and some of which are definitely misleading.

The first example comes from the Russians. A Russian ambassador stated that for the British to be able to identify this agent as a Novichok, they must have a sample, therefore they are making it. There was then the implication that this could have been the source, although he never actually said he believed it. This last implication is just plain stupid. I am quite convinced the British would not do this. If they wanted to get rid of the Skripals, which I do not believe they would, at the very least they would do it in a way that would not harm anyone else. It is almost as if the Russian government sees itself as some sort of gangster organization and thinks everyone else is too. That is why I think it was a stupid comment; it is the sort of thing that immediately backfires.

But what about the point that Porton Down must have samples? That is just plain wrong. They must have some sort of expertise, but since it is the UK national defence laboratory, that expertise should be taken for granted. If so, it is a rather straightforward task to identify something like that. We know what the structures involve, and such structures do not occur in nature. You have to have some idea what it could be before you start if your sample is really small, but given the circumstances, that would be a given. One approach would be to run a mass spectrum of the sample (having done some sort of chromatographic purification), and do it under a few different conditions. One such determination would be low energy ionization to determine the overall molecular weight, which tells you how many atoms are there, and if the instrument is good enough, the molecular formula. That is because although all elements comprise protons and neutrons, which have a constant mass, the binding energy varies from atom to atom, and from relativity there are clear but very small mass differences between the various possibilities from the general molecular weight. The next attempt would be hit it with higher energy, which would break it into fragments, and again the molecular weights of the fragments will tell you how the various groups are assembled. Finally, some small groups will give you more information, and the exercise then is to interpret how to put this back together again. Of course had they ever had access to a sample, they would have records of the fragmentation patterns of all the Novichoks they knew about. So there is little doubt the British authorities would have been able to find out what this was without having to go around making or having samples.

However, then the British politicians made a further statement: we can tell where it came from through the structure. Sorry, but you can’t. That statement violates the first law of thermodynamics, from which you can show the nature of a chemical is independent of how it was made, or from where. Had there been tonnes of the stuff, yes, then you might, not directly from the structure but rather once you knew what it was, you would know who made it because chemical plant, by and large, gets dedicated to making one substance and there would probably be only one making some of these components. But at the gram level, there is no way of knowing from its structure where it came from.

The problem with these sort of comments is they sound convincing to those who do not know much about the general subject However, eventually someone points out the errors and conspiracy theories start up. When it becomes known that the authorities made politically desirable statements, all sorts of rubbish comes out of the woodwork. Another problem with such announcements is that they may look to be politically desirable at the time, but what about the downstream consequences? In this case, the desire to blame Russia has set off some tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, and some sanctions. Now what? Why could that not have waited until the evidence came in? If it can be shown that Russian agents did it, then surely the various actions would be stronger and even the Russians might seem embarrassed. But suppose some individual or small rogue organization did it? Now Russia has been made angry for no good purpose. Nothing has been done that could not have waited, so why not wait and make sure the conclusions are right?

Sergei Skripal, Novichoks, and Accusations

One of the more depressing pieces of news this week was the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by what appears to be a Novichok agent. There is a large family of these, which were developed in the old Soviet Union as chemical weapons. Their structure involves a phosphoramidate or a phosphonate, either of which is often fluorinated. These can be made simply by mixing two chemicals: a substituted phosphoryl compound with at least one halogen on it, and if there happen to be two fluoride substituents, displacing one of these leaves the other fluoride as part of what is desired. The other compound appears to usually involve an amine or an oxime, and phosgene oxime (a chemical weapon in its own right called CX) appears to form particularly active Novichoks. A major advantage of these as war chemicals is that they can be made by mixing the chemicals at the point of use, which makes them safer to handle up to use, especially if they can be mixed remotely. The Novichoks are extremely dangerous, as can be seen in that when the Skripals collapsed after being poisoned elsewhere, a policeman who came to help was himself struck down by residue seemingly adhering to the Skripals.

As might be expected, everyone has jumped up and down blaming the Russians, and of course, they may well be to blame. The Russian case for innocence is not helped by the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko some time ago with 210-polonium, which in some ways was quite clever in that after administering, it takes several days before any symptoms appear, so the villain would have left the country before a crime was even recognized. While we do not know who did that, the actual use of such an isotope meant that the perpetrator had to have access to extremely dangerous isotopes, and that strongly suggests a nation such as Russia. You can’t make such isotopes in a shed, even with an unlimited budget.

However, Novichoks are not particularly difficult to make for a skilled chemist. The synthesis would involve some sophisticated equipment and quite a bit of patience to make them from chemicals you could often purchase if you were in the chemical business, but they are not impossible for someone with the necessary skill. It would be very difficult to make them on a large scale, but a gram of each precursor would not be that difficult. There are other sources. They were developed in the old Soviet Union, and not just in Russia. Uzbekistan was one of the places, and I would suspect other parts also had some of the necessary chemicals. Of course Russia would be a good source.

Teresa May delivered some sort of ultimatum to the Russian government: either account for all your Novichok agents within about 36 hours, or “face the consequences”. With the best will in the world, I doubt a country as large as Russia could account for its entire chemical stock in that short a time. Probably much less than a gram of each precursor would have been used, and I doubt any country could account for that degree of accuracy in a chemical stock in that time, if ever. However, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, did make a response: he asked for a sample of the Novichok. Given there were could be many of them, and the different ones could well have originated from different places, wanting to know the structure is a reasonable request. Maybe a sample of the agent is too much to ask, but at the least a mass spectrum would be helpful because that should define which Novichok was used, assuming it was one.

As it happens, Russia did not respond to May’s demands. Now what? The problem with delivering an ultimatum is that if the other side declines to give in, you have to deliver, and Britain’s position is too weak to worry Russia.

So, who else could be responsible? What we have to realize is that Skripal, as a double agent, managed to hand over a GRU list of agents in the West, most of whom were promptly arrested. Now suppose, many years later, some were released? Or one of their associates who managed to avoid detection found out where the Skripals were? Anyone want to bet they would not have a motive? The man they trusted, a senior officer in their own organization, handed them over to the West, and they, whose lives had been ruined, don’t want payback? And why a Novichok? The real problem with them is there is a good chance the damage is permanent. The victim may recover, but only partially, and some nerve damage will be permanent. That would be revenge.

So how do we find out? My guess is good old police work. It is known when it happened, where it happened, it was a public place so someone must know something. Britain has a large number of surveillance sites, and with any luck, images of the perpetrators will be available. Let us wait and see what the investigations produce before jumping on the bandwagon. Evidence is what we need. Facts. Not wild accusations. Maybe it was the Russian government, but not necessarily. If the perpetrator can be identified, at least an arrest warrant can be issued. In the meantime, being a KGB defector does not look like being a good position to have.

Predicting the Outcome of Trade Wars

I have written a series of novels that form a sort of “future history”, all of which, of course, were imaginary and in most cases I hope those futures won’t come to pass. I never intended to try to predict any future, because predicting the future is tricky and it seldom complies with our wishes. There are two basic approaches. The first is to be sufficiently general that with any sort of luck, you can say, “Yes, that complies with the prediction.” A classic example was when a king asked the Delphic oracle what would happen if he went to war with a neighbouring king and he got the answer, “A great kingdom will fall.” Overjoyed, the king went to war, overlooking the fact that it could be his kingdom that fell. Oops.

The alternative is to look at what has happened in the past and extrapolate. If you want to know what the weather will be like in two hours time, look out the window. In general, the chances of a dramatic change are not that great. If you look further to the future, the problems get more difficult. I recall in my youth, there was something of a drought in Westland, New Zealand, and since that is rather wet generally, the weather forecast consistently seemed to think that this could not last, so they predicted rain. The drought persisted for 48 days, when finally the weather forecast decided to yield and predict continued fine weather; a front arrived and it rained! The problem for New Zealand then was there were very few data coming from the Tasman sea. Now, with satellites, they can see what is coming, and follow its rate of arrival.

Anyone who has tried to predict sports game results will know how difficult that is. With some sportsmen (and women) form is transient to say the least. Only the bookmakers do well, and of course they don’t care who wins; they lay the odds so that they always make more from the losers than they pay to the winners, or at least they try to. That is why they like to offer “multiple choice” bets in big team games. So why are sports so difficult to predict? The problem involves random variables. Someone is not feeling very well, a key player gets injured, players have mental aberrations, the list goes on.

Anyway, the cause of this particular post is President Trump’s latest proposal to put tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium. This was totally unpredictable, but the question now is, how do you predict the consequences? It is no good extrapolating because there is nothing recent to extrapolate from. It is no good being Delphic, because that does not get anyone anywhere. The problem then is, how will other countries respond? They have two considerations. If they retaliate, you get a trade war and everyone loses. If they do not retaliate, then Trump will be encouraged and keep at it, and again most lose. They could try to persuade him not to, but so far he has not been particularly amenable to receiving advice and changing his mind.

The EU has stated it will impose tariffs on US products, but Trump has threatened to counter those with tariffs on European cars, which are more of a big-ticket item for Germany. I was unaware that the EU was a significant exporter of steel or aluminium to the US. A check on the EU statistics showed that “metals and others” came in at about 4% of trade, and the EU imported a little more from the US than it exported. In my opinion, a better strategy for the EU would be to shut up and see what happened. There are a lot of other countries far more deeply involved, so let them do the fighting. Unfortunately, politicians, when interviewed, feel they have to say something and cannot resist the chance to look important. Much better to “make a stand” and never mind the consequences, which in this case would be severe.

This raises the question, why has the US got such a big trade deficit? The answer from a US professor of economics at first sight seems of low relevance, but on thinking about it I suspect he is in part correct. According to him, a very important cause is the US government deficit. If you think about it, suppose the trade should be at equilibrium if there were no deficits. Now, when you borrow money, if that goes more or less in the same ratio to domestic and imports as before, the imports rise, but the government deficit is not going into exports, or, at present, into infrastructure, which would enhance economic growth. So the balance swings to more imports. There is a second problem. No industrialist likes to expand production or invest more to do it when there are frequent random changes to the rules. Good growth is encouraged by clear government rules that stay the same. Right now there is the threat of chaotic rule changes. All of which raises the question, what next? I don’t think anyone knows, but the worrying thought is that suddenly the world could fall back into trade wars and nobody wins.

Read an Ebook Week Discounts

raew 2018 - 4

From March 4 through to March 10 (US Pacific time), my books on Smashwords, and related sites, Apple, Kobo, etc will be discounted in support of “Read an ebook week”. For details of the books see:

For expected prices (USD) and links (In order, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, B&N) Note, where you see /nz/ in a link, replace that with your country code. (A very brief, “What is it” is also included.)

Puppeteer: Free. (Debt, terrorism, Kerguelen cabbage)

‘Bot War: $1.50 (Terror from uncontrolled war machines, Economic collapse.)

Troubles: $1.00 (Emergence from anarchy) miller/1112037527?ean=2940044672888

Biofuels An Overview (Nonfiction. What you don’t know about biofuels.)


Neanderthal Culture

We like to think that culture separates humans from animals, but what is the sign of culture? The reason this is of interest is that recently cave art has been discovered in some Spanish caves that is at least 60,000 years old, which means that it was drawn by Neanderthals as Homo sapiens did not arrive in Europe for another 20,000 years. It is not as distinctive as some of the cave art found in French caves, but that may not be surprising, since it has had to last an additional 30,000 years or so, and some has been dated to over 100,000 years.

Neanderthals are often considered as unsophisticated brutes, incapable of art, and far less technically capable than us. That has often been argued because Homo sapiens made quite sharp arrowheads and Neanderthals did not. It is true that Homo sapiens also made sharper spear tips, but this may be because the two races/species hunted differently. The Neanderthals were ambush hunters in the ice age forests whereas Homo sapiens arrived as grass-lands were appearing, and had to hunt in the open. This may be why the Neanderthals gave way: they simply could not get enough food. That we shall never know. There is also an argument that we have a few per cent of Neanderthal genes, which means the two interbred, which to me suggests they were simply different races and not different species.

As for being clumsy brutes, I saw in a museum near the palace at Versailles some artifacts, and yes, by and large the weapons used by the Neanderthals for hunting were far more clumsy looking, and would need a lot more power to use. But they were far more powerful. They had strength, but not stamina. They had not mastered flint knapping, and I am not sure whether they even knew about flint. We have to be careful in making such statements because although we have a number of artefacts, they tend to have been collected from a few very selected places, and during an ice age, the supply or resources may have been considerably less. However, at this museum there was also a bone flute that was attributed to them. If so, that means they made music. The caves also contained shells with holes pierced in them, strongly suggestive that the shells were made into necklaces.

Now the paintings. The way we know how old they are is interesting. The cave artists used inorganic pigments, by and large, although the black may have been carbon. However, the dating was done by a particularly crafty means. The paintings have a thin layer of calcite over them, deposited by groundwater seeping down over them. The water contains tiny levels of uranium, and when lodged in the calcite, it decays to thorium. (Thorium oxide is effectively insoluble in water, so it would not have been in the original water.) The uranium/thorium ratio allows us to date the calcite, and interestingly, although this layer is relatively thin, they have been able to shave it and find that the deeper calcite is indeed older.

So they drew, they made music, they adorned themselves. Not that much different from us.

The Latest Indictments by Robert Mueller

Probably the most interesting thing to happen this week on the world stage, as opposed to locally, was the issuing of indictments by Robert Mueller. These came as quite a surprise to me because they were only peripherally related to the election. The few things that were, like dressing up as Hillary Clinton in prison garb was, in my opinion, more juvenile than anything else, and the charge of posting tweets that might have influenced voters seems to me to be a bit over the top. It almost made me wonder if anything I had written in various posts could be considered as “influencing American voters”. If it were, then I find that strange because I have no preference for American politics, but because of the importance of the US, of course I am interested in what goes on there.

One of the things that surprised me about this indictment was its length. It is 37 pages long, and some of the allegations seem to me to be ridiculously trivial. One allegation I found interesting was that some of these Russians “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign”. This would seem to indicate that Trump’s protestations that there was no collusion is valid. Collusion implies knowledge of what you are doing; being fooled by someone is hardly collusion. Another interesting thing about this allegation is that it gives no examples of what actually happened with these “unwitting individuals”. It could be a straw man allegation for all we know, and no evidence is likely to be required because I can’t see these Russian coming to the US to defend themselves.

One of the defendants is a collection of entities termed “the organization”, and it had an annual budget of millions of dollars. That is a fairly trivial budget compared with what the American parties spent. It “obviously” had Russian government involvement because one of the officers had been in a company that provided food for the Kremlin. Now that is a deep association. It divided itself into sections and posted on social media, with the goal of spreading distrust towards candidates and the political system in general. If so, we have to admire its success, because if you look at the social media there are a lot of people who do not trust their politicians. Apparently the organization received money though a number of Russian banks, but given that it is a registered Russian company and its headquarters are in St Petersburg, that is hardly surprising, nor is it a crime. A cited example of their efforts at subverting the US elections was to have somebody stand outside the White House with a sign saying “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss”. What an earth-shattering criminal he was! One man, R. Bovda, attempted to travel to the US under false pretenses but could not get a visa. Obviously a master criminal! Most of the other defendants are charged with holding office in the Russian company. Charged? Why is that a crime?

A number of the defendants were charged either with attempting to enter the US or of doing so and not disclosing their full intentions. The indictment even mentions that two who succeeded wrote a report summarizing their itineraries and listing their expenses. Maybe they were complying with tax law. They talked to Americans, and even made a list of US public holidays. And someone paid them to do this? Others posted on social media, under misleading identities, with the intention of irritating Americans. Now that is sterner stuff.

Apparently these Russians were real spoil sports, as they periodically destroyed or deleted data, emails, and other evidence of their activities. However, the FBI seems to have taken the trouble to look up Facebook and check their history. Again, hardly master criminals. They purchased Facebook ads for “March for Trump” rallies, but also advertised “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims”, although later they tried “Down with Hillary”. For people being paid to do this, they lacked focus.

Some were also charged with obtaining money by fraud, including defrauding a federally insured institution. They are also charged with misrepresenting and lying on their visa application, and in carrying out identity theft, and used false credit cards thus defrauding the financial institutions. They also perpetrated wire fraud and bank fraud. At this point I should add that it is highly appropriate that such people be charged for such crimes, and dealt with in the usual way. However, what I find surprising is that these sort of crimes are not usually given this sort of publicity. The usual procedure is to apprehend the perpetrator, charge them, and let the law run its course. It is hardly of the stature of international crime. Another oddity is that no American is charged, and presumably the Russians are in Russia, so why release this now? Why not say nothing, hope they try to enter the US again, and if they do, arrest them? Is the release to show evidence that Mueller has been doing something? Hopefully, not to divert attention from other problems.

At the same time, an ex-Director of the CIA has apparently publicly stated that the CIA has regularly interfered with foreign elections, “but only for the greater good”. The greater good of whom? Why was Pinochet of greater good than Salvador Allende? Admittedly, the American mining companies in Chile would agree, but would the Chileans at the time? If it is for the greater good of America, why can’t some other country do the same for the greater good of their country? Then we might ask, what was the budget of the CIA for these ventures? My guess is it would be far greater than “millions”. The Russians should be accused of being cheapskates, or maybe the CIA of wasting tax-payer’s money?

In one of my futuristic novels, I had a different form of governance, and there was a fringe movement calling for “the return of democracy” (not that we actually have it now – our western governments are of the Republic form). Three very senior people sit around a table discussing this, laughing at the bizarreness of those long-gone times. However, I never foresaw anything quite like the present political mess.