Science Communication and the 2018 Australasian Astrobiology Meeting

Earlier this week I presented a talk at the 2018 Australasian Astrobiology Meeting, with the objective of showing where life might be found elsewhere in the Universe, and as a consequence I shall do a number of posts here to expand on what I thought about this meeting. One presentation that made me think about how to start this series actually came near the end, and the topic included why do scientists write blogs like this for the general public? I thought about this a little, and I think at least part of the answer, at least for me, is to show how science works, and how scientists think. The fact of the matter is that there are a number of topics where the gap between what scientists think and what the general public think is very large. An obvious one is climate change; the presenter came up with a figure that something like 50% of the general public don’t think that carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change while I think the figures she showed were that 98% of scientists are convinced it does. So why is there a difference, and what should be done about it?

In my opinion, there are two major ways to go wrong. The first is to simply take someone else’s word. In these days, you can find someone who will say anything. The problem then is that while it is all very well to say look at the evidence, most of the time the evidence is inaccessible, and even if you overcome that, the average person cannot make head or tail of it. Accordingly, you have to trust someone to interpret it for you. The second way to go wrong is to get swamped with information. The data can be confusing, but the key is to find critical data. This means that when making a decision as to what causes what, you put aside facts that can mean a lot of different things, and concentrate on those that have, at best, one explanation. Now the average person cannot recognize that, but they can recognize whether the “expert” recognizes it. As an example of a critical fact, back to climate change. The fact that I regard as critical is that there was a long-term series of measurements that showed the world’s oceans were receiving a net power input of 0.6 watt per square meter. That may not sound like much, but multiply it over the earth’s ocean area, and it is a rather awful lot of heat.

Another difficulty is that for any given piece of information, either there may be several interpretations for what caused it, or there may be issues assigning significance. As a specific example from the conference, try to answer the question, “Are we alone”? The answer from Seth Shostak, from SETI, is, so far, yes, at least to the extent we have no evidence to the contrary, but of course if you were looking for radio transmissions, Earth would have failed to show signs until about a hundred years ago. There were a number of other reasons given, but one of the points Seth made was a civilization at a modest distance would have to devote a few hundred MW power to send us a signal. Why would they do that? This reminds me of what I wrote in one of my SF novels. The exercise is a waste of time because everyone is listening; listening is cheap but nobody is sending, and simple economics kills the scheme.

As Seth showed, there are an awful lot of reasons why SETI is not finding anything, and that proves nothing. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but merely evidence that you haven’t hit the magic button yet. Which gets me back to scientific arguments. You will hear people say science cannot prove anything. That is rubbish. The second law of thermodynamics proves conclusively that if you put your dinner on the table it won’t spontaneously drop a couple of degrees in temperature as it shoots upwards and smears itself over the ceiling.

As an example of the problems involved with conveying such information, consider what it takes to get a proof? Basically, a theory starts with a statement. There are several forms of this, but the one I prefer is you say, “If theory A is correct, and I do a set of experiments B, under conditions C, and if B and C are very large sets, then theory A will predict a set of results R. You do the experiments and collect a large set of observations O. Now, if there is no element of O that is not an element of R, then your theory is plausible. If the sets are large enough, they are very plausible, but you still have to be careful you have an adequate range of conditions. Thus Newtonian mechanics are correct within a useful range of conditions, but expand that enough and you need either relativity or quantum mechanics. You can, however, prove a theory if you replace “if” in the above with “if and only if”.

Of course, that could be said more simply. You could say a theory is plausible if every time you use it, what you see complies with your theory’s predictions, and you can prove a theory if you can show there is no alternative, although that is usually very difficult. So why do scientists not write in the simpler form? The answer is precision. The example I used above is general so it can be reduced to a simpler form, but sometimes the statements only apply under very special circumstances, and now the qualifiers can make for very turgid prose. The takeaway message now is, while a scientist likes to write in a way that is more precise, if you want to have notice taken, you have to be somewhat less formal. What do you think? Is that right?

Back to the conference, in the case of SETI. Seth will not be proven wrong, ever, because the hypothesis that there are civilizations out there but they are not broadcasting to us in a way we can detect cannot be faulted. So for the next few weeks I shall look more at what I gathered from this conference.

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Trump meets Kim.

Now the dust has settled and the media seems to have got bored with this meeting, what was achieved, and who, if anyone, came out ahead? Some of the comments about this meeting seem to me to verge on the ludicrous, but my answer to those questions, what was achieved was that the two countries at least started talking to each other, and nobody came out ahead.

The meeting led to a statement where the north agreed to “work towards complete denuclearisation” and the US committed to provide security guarantees to the North. Commentators have moaned that the statement left out “verifiable” and “irreversible”. Actually, the document gave no hint as to how this denuclearisation was to be achieved or what the terms mean, which is hardly surprising because such details need to be worked out, and that takes a long time. Equally, the US gave no clue as to how it was to provide security guarantees. This will be significantly more difficult because US Presidents have a habit of tearing up commitments made by previous Presidents. Ask Gaddafi, who gave a promise not to go after nuclear weapons in return for security. If I were Kim, I would expect this to be clarified well before I started to throw away what security I have.

Just to be clear, North Korea has adopted a porcupine strategy for security. The porcupine knows that in an all-out contest it will die. What it tries to do is to make it so obvious at the start that such a victory will come with a price that the predator will not wish to pay. Kim would know he cannot win an all-out fight with the US, but with nuclear weapons he can exact a very undesirable price. The reason they have been developed has been obvious too. George Bush invaded Iraq on a totally trumped up charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and then killed Saddam in an example of “victor’s justice”. He then put North Korea on a list of “the axis of evil”. The then Kim had to do something, and nuclear weapons were as good as any other option for a security guarantee.

Many commentators seem to think Trump gave away the shop and got nothing back. How? Apparently by talking to Kim, he promoted Kim to being an international figure. Well, I think that is the nearest to total rubbish that there is. Trump wanted Kim to give up nuclear weapons, his security blanket. How, short of all-out war, was this ever going to happen if he refused to talk to Kim? You can’t get anyone to do what you want without talking to them. Trump also said he would cancel future military exercises along the border. That is not much of a concession. The US military is very highly trained, and these exercises were more for show than anything else. Added to which, Trump claimed the cancellation saved the US a lot of money, so it was as much a gift to himself as to Kim. In the meantime, Kim has apparently destroyed a bomb-testing site and declared no more nuclear tests. In reality, he probably decided that he needed no more tests, and destruction of the site gave news, and stopped people from further investigating the site. He has also agreed to have US bodies from the Korean War repatriated to the US. Again, neither of these are big deals, but Kim has at least given them. Both sides made small concessions to the other that were not that meaningful, but they each gave something.

In my opinion, very little has actually happened, and the biggest gain is the two leaders have stopped prodding each other and started talking to each other. It is hard to know where this will end up, but I suspect that as long as Kim keeps a low profile and stays polite, the up-coming potential trade war will take up far more attention.

What do Organic Compounds Found on Mars Mean?

Last week, NASA announced that organic compounds had been found on Mars. The question then is, what does this mean? First, organic compounds are essentially chemicals formed that involve carbon, which means Mars has carbon besides the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The name “organic” comes from the fact that such compounds found by early chemists, with the exception of a very few such as carbon dioxide, came from organisms, hence there is the question, do these materials indicate that Mars had life? The short answer is, the issue remains unresolved. One argument is that if there were no organic compounds on Mars, it obviously did not have life. That it has taken so long to find organic compounds does not say anything about the probability, though, because the surface of Mars is strongly oxidizing, and had any been there, they would have been turned into carbon dioxide. The atmosphere already has a lot of that. The reason none has been found, therefore, is because most of the rovers have not been able to dig very deeply.

I shall try to summarise the results that were reported [Eigenbrode et al., Science 360, 1096–1101 (2018)]. One important point is that the volatiles analysed were obtained by pyrolysing the mudstone the rover dug up, so what was detected may not be the same that was in the rock. The first compounds were identified as aliphatic hydrocarbons, from C1 (methane) to C5, and these were stated to be typical of that obtained from Kerogen or coal on Earth. One problem I had with these data was there were odd-numbered masses, BUT they all indicated that the cause was a fractured hydrocarbon, i.e. the pyrolysis had chopped that bit off something else and produced a radical.

One big problem was they could not say whether nitrogen or oxygen was present ” because mass spectra are not resolvable in EGA and other molecules share the diagnostic m/z values. ” I really don’t understand that. First, the identification of aliphatic hydrocarbons was almost certainly correct, because they form series of signals that are very recognizable to anyone who has done a bit of this work before. They stick out like an organ stop, so to speak. However, the presence of nitrogen species in any reasonable amount should be just as easily identified because while hydrocarbons, and their like with oxygen, basically give even mass signals, nitrogen, because of its valency of 3, gives odd numbered mass signals that is 1 bigger than a hydrocarbon. Now, a few of the fragmentation patterns of hydrocarbons give odd numbered mass signals, but if you cannot tell where the molecular ion is, you do not know what the mass of your molecule is. If all you have are fragmentation ions, then the instrument was somewhat poorly designed to go to Mars. With any experience, you can also tell whether you have oxygenated materials because hydrocarbons go up by adding 14 to the basic ion, and the atomic weight of oxygen is 16. If it has oxygen, it abd the fragments containing oxygen have an entirely different mass.

Of course the authors did note the presence of CO2 and CO. These could arise from the pyrolysis of carboxylic acids and ketones, but that does not mean life. Carboxylic acids would pyrolyse at about 400 – 550 degrees C and ketones a bit higher. They also found aromatic hydrocarbons, thiophenes and some other sulphur containing species. These were explained in terms of sulphur –bearing gases coming in contact, and further chemical reactions then taking place, in other words, these sulphur containing species such as hydrogen sulphide do not necessarily provide any information regarding what formed the original deposit. The sulphurization, however, was claimed to provide a preservative function by protecting against mild oxidation. If it carried out that function, it would be oxidized, and none of the observed materials were.

Unfortunately, the material is not directly associated with anything related to life. The remains of life can give rise to these sort of chemicals, as noted by our crude oil, which is basically hydrocarbon, and formed from life, but then altered by tens of millions of years change. These Martian deposits are believed to be in rocks 3.5 billion years old. However, the materials were also obtained by pyrolysis at temperatures exceeding 500 degrees C. The original molecules could have rearranged, and what we saw was the sort of compounds that organic compounds might rearrange to. Nevertheless, the absence of nitrogen is not encouraging. Nitrogen is present in all protein and nucleic acids, and there tends to be high levels of these in primitive life. Pyrolysis would be expected to produce pyrazines and pyridines, and these should be detectable. Pyrazines, having two nitrogen atoms, tend to give even numbered ions, and give the same mass as a ketone, but since neither was seen, that is irrelevant. Had there been such signals, the fragmentation patterns are quite distinctive if you have done this sort of work before.

Other possible sources of organic compounds, besides carbon, are from chondrites that have landed, and geochemically. It is hard to assess chondrites, because we do not have other information. It is possible to tell the difference between oxygen from chondrites from oxygen from other places (because of the different ratios of isotopes of mass 17 and 18 compared with 16), but they never found oxygen. The materials could be geochemical as well. The same reaction used by Germany to make synthetic petrol during WW2 can occur underground, and make hydrocarbons. So overall, while this is certainly interesting, as is often the case it raises more questions than it answers.

The Strange Case of Arkady Babchenko

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I must say, I cannot conceive of any reasonable fiction writer coming up with a plot that included these rather bizarre events.

The first reports I heard were on the radio, where it was announced that the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who had been a strong critic of Vladimir Putin and who had fled to Ukraine a year previously, had been shot in the back on a Kiev street, and had died on the way to hospital. There were strong protests from Ukraine and a number of other countries at the Russians for using murder as an act of revenge. The Kremlin denied any involvement. Of course, they would, wouldn’t they? My first thought was, since Ukraine is a bit anarchic, maybe we had better wait for more information. The next morning’s paper gave more details, and it looked bad. The story now changed to this murder had been pulled off outside their apartment, and his wife had phoned for the ambulance.

But the morning radio news had an even more bizarre twist. The Ukrainian police had given a press conference, and in the middle of it, in walked Arkady Babchenko. Yes, Putin was definitely innocent of his murder. It turned out the whole episode had been staged, which left open the question, why? The official statement was Arkady had had threats, and this was staged to “flush out the perpetrators” who were alleged to be Russian Intelligence. Even Arkady’s wife did not know this stunt had been pulled. My thought at the time was, he may not be dead yet, but when he gets home . . . But wait – his wife phoned for the ambulance?? A little short on self-consistency here. Well, there is worse to come.

Let’s think about this for a moment. You have been instructed to murder Arkady, then you hear on the news that he has been murdered? What do you do? Get flushed out? Or sit back and say to yourself, “Well, that was easy,” and have a glass or two of whatever beverage take your fancy? Even the highly suspicious agent (and note, this is Ukraine) might like to check out that there is indeed a funeral and see how sad the mourners are, but whatever, they are not going to jump up and down and be “flushed out.”

It seems these thoughts finally struck the Ukrainian authorities so the story changed. Now a hit-man had been hired and instead of doing it, he went to the police, and the Ukrainian intelligence services staged it so it looked as if it had been done, so the man who hired him would have to identify himself when he paid for the hit. The next question is, if so, why not wait a bit and let him identify himself. However, no need, because a day later, we knew who he was. The hit-man was an ultra-right wing priest who was known to be violently anti-Russian, and who liked to dress in military attire and take part in “exercises”. The man who hired him was Boris L. Herman, and he was alleged to have a list of some thirty others Moscow allegedly wanted eliminated. He is supposedly in custody for two months. Herman then claimed he hired the priest to kill Babchenko at the request of Ukrainian counterintelligence. Ukrainian counterintelligence denied this. Herman is reported as claiming that he hired the priest, on the basis that the priest would go straight to the SBU, Ukraine’s security service.

The SBU has conceded that he priest told them about this and they collaborated, but denied the matter had anything to do with Ukraine’s counterintelligence operations. That is like saying, “We did it, but it wasn’t us.” It then turns out that Herman is

the only private enterprise arms manufacturer in Ukraine, and was similarly right wing. Is this some sort of oligarch shakedown? They get his company and he lives if he cooperates? Whatever, who can believe anything out of Ukraine these days.

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