More on MH 17

Everyone knows that Malaysian airliner flight MH 17 that overflew Eastern Ukraine was brought down by a missile. We also know that previously the western Ukrainian forces had been carrying out bombing raids on the Eastern break-away province, and had lost at least one aircraft to ground missiles. Under the circumstances, some may think that it was totally foolhardy to fly over the area, and also Ukraine should have closed its air space to commercial flights. Mistakes happen, and the eastern forces obviously had missile defences.

However, international investigators have filed charges in a Dutch court, alleging four defendants committed murder. One defendant is Igor Girkin, a former FSB colonel, and at the time the Minister for Defence for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Exactly how he is linked as a murderer is hard to tell at this stage because he would not have been present at the firing of the missile, and apart from the fact he is a rebel in Kyiv’s eyes, his role as Defence Minister does not seem to be that evil. There is no evidence so far he ordered such an aircraft to be brought down. The fact that he was organising a defence against the bombing of civilians brings international justice to an interesting point: what criteria have to be met for a rebellious zone to claim it is self-governing? If people are being bombed, do they have the right to defend themselves? What say you?

The next two defendants were Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov. According to the New York Times article, they worked under Girkin and had been agents of the GRU, which was implicated in interfering with the US election. Talk about guilt by association. The fourth, Leonid Kharchenko is Ukrainian and was apparently a leader of a separatist combat unit. Just maybe he was associated with the event. So far there is no evidence produced that any of these four were anywhere near the missile launch, but of course they may have some evidence and are leaving it for the trial. The basis of Girkin’s charges appears to be that he made a phone call (intercepted) to Russia asking for antiaircraft defence material. If you are a Minister for Defence, and you are being bombed, is that an unreasonable thing to ask for? According to the Dutch prosecutor, they are “just as punishable as the person who committed the crime.” They are also charged with obtaining the missile with the intent to “shoot down a plane”. Well, that is a surprise. Why else would they obtain missiles? Presumably, the Dutch have no missiles, or they would be criminals too.

There is also the question of where the missile came from. Originally, of course, it came from Russia, and it is agreed by all involved that it was a Buk missile. The investigative team said it is “convinced” the missile came from the Russian army’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in Kursk. The Russians deny that. They also point out that the outer casing of the missile has been recovered, and the manufacturing number is clearly identifiable. According to the BUK factory, that missile was shipped to Ukraine during the old Soviet Union. It should also be noted the missile is obsolete, and a modern unit of the Russian army would not have them. It is well established that Ukraine had a major arsenal in Eastern Ukraine, so maybe it came from there, but even if Russia supplied arms, then what?

The Dutch prosecutor has also accused Russia of providing no assistance to this case. Apparently, providing shipping details of the missile that does not fit the charges is “of no assistance”. That says something about the nature of the charges. Interestingly, the premier of Malaysia has also denounced the charges, saying “so far, there is no proof, only hearsay”. Malaysia is part of the investigation, and of course it was its aircraft that was brought down.

The case is confused because the Joint Investigative Team is trying to identify two men who were overheard in intercepted communications discussing the movements of a convoy the day before the attack. The team also admits there is no evidence these calls have anything to do with MH 17. This is relevant to the alleged “Russian obstruction”. Apparently, the GRU were supplied with questions demanding to know whether certain people were GRU officers and where they have been moving. I can just see The CIA giving details of who their agents are and what they have been doing.

So where does all this leave us? The current position seems to be that the accused could be linked to arms procurement. Does that make it a crime to supply arms that end up killing civilians? What about those supplying arms to those bombing Yemen? So far, at least 70,000 dead, but the Dutch don’t seem to find that exceptional. If it is a crime to shoot down an airliner, what happened to the US Navy officers that shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft some time ago? The short answer was the US regarded that as an accident, and I am reasonably convinced the US officers taking part in this would not have intended to kill civilians. They made an error, despite being extremely well-trained and having the best equipment available. So why is it not possible that Ukrainian irregulars, with little military training, could not make the same sort of mistake? My view is simple: do not fly over war zones where it is known the defenders are being bombed, and have anti-aircraft missiles. This trial, if it ever takes place, will be simply political. The defendants will be absent, which makes the whole point ridiculous, other than, maybe, to make the Dutch feel good. Then again, maybe that is a benefit.

Chaos in the Gulf?

What is going on in the Gulf of Oman? Four tankers off the UAE port of Fujairah had been struck on May 12, and two further offshore on June 13.  The most obvious consequence is that the world’s oil supplies are going to be threatened because already the owners of tankers are starting to stop sending them to the Gulf until this situation resolves itself. As of the time of writing, it is unclear who is responsible, although the US has immediately blamed Iran. Iran has previously threatened to close the gulf, and it is easy to jump to the conclusion they are doing it, but the fact is the latest happened at the same time as Japan and Germany are working to ease tensions and to ease sanctions. There was a visit from the Prime Minister of Japan to Tehran so surely that would be a stupid time to do that, especially to Japanese ships. It would be more likely that someone would want to prevent the Japanese from getting friendly with Iran.

The cause of the explosions is believed to be limpet mines. We “know” that because after the explosions, the US released a video showing the Iranian navy sent a boat to rescue sailors on the Japanese ship, and they disabled and removed an unexploded limpet mine. This prodded the US to accuse them of having put it there. There is the question as to why they got there so quickly, but one reasonable answer is the Gulf of Oman is rather narrow, they regularly patrol, and if Iran were innocent and the naval boat heard an explosion and saw smoke coming from a ship, it would be natural for it to go and assist since it could be by far the closest possible source of help.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, immediately blamed Iran, stating his blame was “based on intelligence” and they have the ability. He claimed nobody else had the ability, then he stated that the US will defend its interests, stand by its partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability. He offered no evidence for his claim and took zero questions.

An immediate problem here is that Pompeo has previously told blatant lies about Iran, and at an audience at Texas A&M University he seemed to boast that when he was Director of the CIA, “We lied, we cheated, we stole.” In short, he is not a man to be taken at face value, and worse, the US has a history of using lies and false flags to justify military intervention. You may recall the “firm intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction”. John Bolton is also known to be a liar when necessary to achieve his goals, he was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, and he has made statements to the effect that there should be military action against Iran. Back to Pompeo, he was reported here as stating, in response to a question of why Iran would do it, that if you keep poking someone in the eye with a stick, you have to expect a response. That does not prove that Iran did this, but it does strongly suggest that the US has a strongly malevolent policy towards Iran. It also makes a lie of Pompeo’s claim that the attack was unprovoked. If Iran did do it, the sanctions applied to Iran, and Pompeo’s “poking its eyes with a stick” could be regarded as acts of war, and whatever else, they would not be unprovoked.

The next question is how were these mines attached? There would seem to be only two methods: from a boat at sea, or in a harbour. A ship at sea, if there is any sort of watch, would see the perpetrators. There appear to be no reports about this. These were limpet mines, which would be difficult to attach to a moving ship anyway, so perhaps they were attached while in harbour. It should be noted the mines were attached above the waterline. The US video that has shown the Iranians removing an unexploded mine (assuming that was what it was) has the Iranians standing on the deck of a patrol boat to reach it. This would be difficult to attach at sea. Images of the other ship show corresponding holes well above the waterline.

Perhaps we should look at cui bono– who benefits? The Japanese Prime Minister was in Tehran attempting to negotiate a de-escalation of US-Iran tension, and Trump had given his blessing to it. Why then attack a Japanese ship? Why rescue the crew and remove the limpet mine? All this at a time when Iran was busy negotiating with Europe. Why attach explosives so high above the waterline? The only reason for doing that is that you do not wish to sink the ship. Why not? Presumably because you do not want any accidental evidence that it was you who did it to blame you for the damage. So who wants to merely be a nuisance and strictly limit any damage?

There are other players. The region is torn with the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam. Iran is helping Shias and has fought Sunni extremists, including ISIS, in Iraq and Syria, and it supports the Houthis in Yemen, who are being bombed by the Saudis on a regular basis. Against Iran is a group of countries including the Sunni states, probably the Sunnis in Iraq, al Qaeda and its offshoots, and, for totally different reasons, Israel and the US. The problem for the Sunni states such as the Saudis is that while they have a lot of money and buy a lot of armaments, and are happy enough to bomb the defenceless, they are not soldiers and do not want to fight on the ground. Accordingly, they might well want to goad the US into going to war with Iran.

So who did it? I do not know, but common sense suggests to me one more likely suspect would be some Sunni fringe group, such as al Qaeda, or one of its many offshoots, out for revenge against Iran. They cannot get it themselves directly, but they would have their revenge if the US went to war against Iran. There is reasonable evidence consistent with it having done that in Syria with the so-called chemical weapon attacks. The area is a powder keg.  Against that, why protect the ship against sinking? If ships sank, the US would be more likely to go to war. However, despite what some in the US may have us believe, I believe it really does not want to get into a war with Iran. While Iraq had an ideal landscape for mechanised war, Iran does not, and unlike the Iraqis, the Iranians have had some battle experience. A war there would be much worse for America than Afghanistan was, and that was not exactly good.

Book Discount

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

Cold Fusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the Planets that Might Host Life?

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

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

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

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

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

To summarise what I have proposed:

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

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