Origin of the Rocky Planet Water, Carbon and Nitrogen

The most basic requirement for life to start is a supply of the necessary chemicals, mainly water, reduced carbon and reduced nitrogen on a planet suitable for life. The word reduced means the elements are at least partly bound with hydrogen. Methane and ammonia are reduced, but so are hydrocarbons, and aminoacids are at least partly reduced. The standard theory of planetary formation has it (wrongly, in my opinion) that none of these are found on a rocky planet and have to come from either comets, or carbonaceous asteroids. So, why am I certain this is wrong? There are four requirements that must be met. The first is, the material delivered must be the same as the proposed source; the second is they must come in the same proportions, the third is the delivery method must leave the solar system as it is now, and the fourth is that other things that should have happened must have.

As it happens, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen are not the same through the solar system. Each exists in more than one isotope (different isotopes have different numbers of neutrons), and the mix of isotopes in an element varies in radial distance from the star. Thus comets from beyond Neptune have far too much deuterium compared with hydrogen. There are mechanisms by which you can enhance the D/H ratio, such as UV radiation breaking bonds involving hydrogen, and hydrogen escaping to space. The chemical bonds to deuterium tend to be several kJ/mol. stronger than bonds to hydrogen. The chemical bond strength is actually the same, but the lighter hydrogen has more zero point energy so it more easily breaks and gets lost to space. So while you can increase the deuterium to hydrogen ratio, there is no known way to decrease it by natural causes. The comets around Jupiter also have more deuterium than our water, so they cannot be the source. The chondrites have the same D/H ratio as our water, which has encouraged people to believe that is where our water came from, but the nitrogen in the chondrites has too much 15N, so it cannot be the source of our nitrogen. Further, the isotope ratios of certain heavy elements such as osmium do not match those on Earth. Interestingly, it has been argued that if the material was subducted and mixed in the mantle, it would be just possible. Given that the mantle mixes very poorly and the main sources of osmium now come from very ancient plutonic extrusions, I have doubts on that.

If we look at the proportions, if comets delivered the water or carbon, we should have five times more nitrogen, and twenty thousand times more argon. Comets from the Jupiter zone get around this excess by having no significant nitrogen or argon, and insufficient carbon. For chondrites, there should be four times as much carbon and nitrogen to account for the hydrogen and chlorine on Earth. If these volatiles did come from chondrites, Earth has to be struck by at least 10^23 kg of material (that is, ten followed by 23 zeros). Now, if we accept that these chondrites don’t have some steering system, based on area the Moon should have been struck by about 7×10^21 kg, which is approximately 9.5% of the Moon’s mass. The Moon does not subduct such material, and the moon rocks we have found have exactly the same isotope ratios as Earth. That mass of material is just not there. Further, the lunar anorthosite is magmatic in origin and hence primordial for the Moon, and would retain its original isotope ratios, which should give a set of isotopes that so not involve the late veneer, if it occurred at all.

The third problem is that we are asked to believe that there was a narrow zone in the asteroid belt that showered a deluge of asteroids onto the rocky planets, but for no good reason they did not accrete into anything there, and while this was going on, they did not disturb the asteroids that remain, nor did they disturb or collide with asteroids closer to the star, which now is most of them. The hypothesis requires a huge amount of asteroids formed in a narrow region for no good reason. Some argue the gravitational effect of Jupiter dislodged them, but the orbits of such asteroids ARE stable. Gravitational acceleration is independent of the body’s mass, and the remaining asteroids are quite untroubled. (The Equivalence Principle – all bodies fall at the same rate, other than when air resistance applies.)

Associated with this problem is there is a number of elements like tungsten that dissolve in liquid iron. The justification for this huge barrage of asteroids (called the late veneer) is that when Earth differentiated, the iron would have dissolved these elements and taken them to the core. However, they, and iron, are here, so it is argued something must have brought them later. But wait. For the isotope ratios this asteroid material has to be subducted; for them to be on the continents, they must not be subducted. We need to be self-consistent.

Finally, what should have happened? If all the volatiles came from these carbonaceous chondrites, the various planets should have the same ratio of volatiles, should they not? However, the water/carbon ratio of Earth appears to be more than 2 orders of magnitude greater than that originally on Venus, while the original water/carbon ratio of Mars is unclear, as neither are fully accounted for. The N/C ratio of Earth and Venus is 1% and 3.5% respectively. The N/C ratio of Mars is two orders of magnitude lower than 1-2%. Thus if the atmospheres came from carbonaceous chondrites:

Only the Earth is struck by large wet planetesimals,

Venus is struck by asteroidal bodies or chondrites that are rich in C and especially rich in N and are approximately 3 orders of magnitude drier than the large wet planetesimals,

Either Earth is struck by a low proportion of relatively dry asteroidal bodies or chondrites that are rich in C and especially rich in N and by the large wet planetesimals having moderate levels of C and essentially no N, or the very large wet planetesimals have moderate amounts of carbon and lower amounts of nitrogen as the dry asteroidal bodies or chondrites, and Earth is not struck by the bodies that struck Venus,

Mars is struck only infrequently by a third type of asteroidal body or chondrite that is relatively wet but is very nitrogen deficient, and this does not strike the other bodies in significant amounts,

The Moon is struck by nothing,

See why I find this hard to swallow? Of course, these elements had to come from somewhere, so where? That is for a later post. In the meantime, see why I think science has at times lost hold of its methodology? It is almost as if people are too afraid to go against the establishment.

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.

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.

Ross 128b a Habitable Planet?

Recently the news has been full of excitement that there may be a habitable planet around the red dwarf Ross 128. What we know about the star is that it has a mass of about 0.168 that of the sun, it has a surface temperature of about 3200 degrees K, it is about 9.4 billion years old (about twice as old as the sun) and consequently it is very short of heavy elements, because there had not been enough supernovae that long ago. The planet is about 1.38 the mass of Earth, and it is about 0.05 times as far from its star as Earth is. It also orbits its star every 9.9 days, so Christmas and birthdays would be a continual problem. Because it is so close to the star it gets almost 40% more irradiation than Earth does, so it is classified as being in the inner part of the so-called habitable zone. However, the “light” is mainly at the red end of the spectrum, and in the infrared. Even more bizarrely, in May this year the radio telescope at Arecibo appeared to pick up a radio signal from the star. Aliens? Er, not so fast. Everybody now seems to believe that the signal came from a geostationary satellite. Apparently here is yet another source of electromagnetic pollution. So could it have life?

The first question is, what sort of a planet is it? A lot of commentators have said that since it is about the size of Earth it will be a rocky planet. I don’t think so. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argued that the composition of a planet depends on the temperature at which the object formed, because various things only stick together in a narrow temperature range, but there are many such zones, each giving planets of different composition. I gave a formula that very roughly argues at what distance from the star a given type of body starts forming, and if that is applied here, the planet would be a Saturn core. However, the formula was very approximate and made a number of assumptions, such as the gas all started at a uniform low temperature, and the loss of temperature as it migrated inwards was the same for every star. That is known to be wrong, but equally, we don’t know what causes the known variations, and once the star is formed, there is no way of knowing what happened so that was something that had to be ignored. What I did was to take the average of observed temperature distributions.

Another problem was that I modelled the centre of the accretion as a point. The size of the star is probably not that important for a G type star like the sun, but it will be very important for a red dwarf where everything happens so close to it. The forming star gives off radiation well before the thermonuclear reactions start through the heat of matter falling into it, and that radiation may move the snow point out. I discounted that largely because at the key time there would be a lot of dust between the planet and the star that would screen out most of the central heat, hence any effect from the star would be small. That is more questionable for a red dwarf. On the other hand, in the recently discovered TRAPPIST system, we have an estimate of the masses of the bodies, and a measurement of their size, and they have to have either a good water/ice content or they are very porous. So the planet could be a Jupiter core.

However, I think it is most unlikely to be a rocky planet because even apart from my mechanism, the rocky planets need silicates and iron to form (and other heavier elements) and Ross 128 is a very heavy metal deficient star, and it formed from a small gas cloud. It is hard to see how there would be enough material to form such a large planet from rocks. However, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen are the easiest elements to form, and are by far the most common elements other than hydrogen and helium. So in my theory, the most likely nature of Ross 128b is a very much larger and warmer version of Titan. It would be a water world because the ice would have melted. However, the planet is probably tidally locked, which means one side would be a large ocean and the other an ice world. What then should happen is that the water should evaporate, form clouds, go around the other side and snow out. That should lead to the planet eventually becoming metastable, and there might be climate crises there as the planet flips around.

So, could there be life? If it were a planet with a Saturn core composition, it should have many of the necessary chemicals from which life could start, although because of the water/ice live would be limited to aquatic life. Also, because of the age of the planet, it may well have been and gone. However, leaving that aside, the question is, could life form there? There is one restriction (Ranjan, Wordsworth and Sasselov, 2017. arXiv:1705.02350v2) and that is if life requires photochemistry to get started, then the intensity of the high energy photons required to get many photochemical processes started can be two to four orders of magnitude less than what occurred on Earth. At that point, it depends on how fast everything that follows happens, and how fast the reactions that degrade them happen. The authors of that paper suggest that the UV intensity is just too low to get life started. Since we do not know exactly how life started yet, that assessment might be premature, nevertheless it is a cautionary point.

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.

Proxima b

The news this week is that a planet has been found around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our solar system. Near, of course is relative. It would take over four years for a radio message to get there, or 40 years if you travel at 0.1 times light speed. Since we can never get anywhere near that speed with our current technology, it is not exactly a find critical to our current society. The planet is apparently a little larger than Earth, and it is in the so-called habitable zone, where the star gives off enough heat to permit liquid water to flow, assuming it has sufficient atmospheric pressure of a suitable composition. That last part is important. Thus Mars and Venus might permit water to flow if their atmospheres were different. In Venus’ case, far too much carbon dioxide; in Mars’ case, insufficient atmosphere, although it too might need something with a better greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

Proxima Centauri is what is called a red dwarf. Its mass is about 1/8 of the sun’s, so it gives off a lot less energy, however, Proxima b is only 0.0485 times as far from the star as Earth is, so being closer, it gets more of what little heat is available. The question then is, how like Earth is it?

Being so close to the star, standard wisdom argues that it will be tidally locked to the star, i.e. it always keeps the same face towards the star. So half of the planet is unaware of the star’s presence; one side is warm, the other very cold and dark. However, maybe here standard theory does not give the correct outcome. That it should be tidally locked is valid as long as gravitational interactions are the only ones applicable, but are they? According to Leconte et al. (Science 346: 632 – 635) there is another effect that over-rides that. Assuming the planet does not start tidally locked, and if it has an atmosphere, then there is asymmetric heating through the day, and because the highest temperature is at about 1500 hrs, the heat causes the air there to rise, and air from the cold side to replace it, which leads to retrograde rotation through conservation of angular m omentum. (Prograde rotation is as if the planet went around its orbit as if rolling on something.) Venus is the only planet in our system that rotates retrogradely, and Leconte argues it is for this reason. The effect on Venus is small because it is quite far away from the star, and it has a very thick atmosphere.

Currently, everyone seems to believe that because the planet is in the habitable zone then it will be a rocky planet like Earth. This raises the question, how do planets form? In previous posts I have outlined how I believe rocky planets form, (https://wordpress.com/post/ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/568 and https://wordpress.com/post/ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/576 ). These posts omit the cores of the giants, which in my theory accrete like snowballs. There are four cores leading to giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and there are four sets of ices to form them. (There are actually potentially more that would lead to bodies much further out.) The spacing of those four planets is very close to the projected ice points, assuming Jupiter formed where water ice would snowball.

Standard theory has it that we start with a distribution of planetesimals about the star, and these attract each other gravitationally, and larger bodies accrete until we get protoplanets, then there are massive collisions. The core of Jupiter, for example, would take about 10 My to form, then it would rapidly accrete gas.

There are, in my opinion, several things wrong with this picture. The first is, nobody has any idea how the planetesimals form. These are bodies as large as a major asteroid. The models assume a distribution of them, and this is based on the assumption all mass is evenly distributed throughout the accretion disk, except that the density drops off inversely proportional to rx. The index x is a variable that has to be assumed, which is fine, and it is then assumed that apart from particle density, all regions of space have equal probability of forming planetesimals. It is the particle density that is the problem. Once beyond the distance of Saturn, collision probability becomes too low to form planets, although the distribution of planetesimals permits Uranus and Neptune to migrate out of the planet-forming zone. Now, for me a major problem comes from the system LkCa 15, where there is a planet about five times bigger than Jupiter about three times further away from a star slightly smaller than our sun that is only 3 My old. There has simply been insufficient time to form that. In my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis I proposed that bodies start accreting in the outer regions similar to snowballs. As the ices are swept towards the star, when they reach a certain temperature the ices start sticking together, and such a body can grow very quickly because as it grows, it starts orbiting faster than the gas. Accordingly, what you get depends on the temperatures in the accretion disk. Unfortunately, for any star we have no idea of that distribution because the disk is long gone. However, to a first approximation, the temperature is dependent on the heat generated less the heat lost. The heat generated at a point would depend on the gravitational potential at that point, which is dependent on stellar mass M, and the rate of flow past that point, which to a very rough approximation, depends on M2. That is by observation, and is + over 100%. So if we assume that all disks radiate equally (they don’t) and we neglect accretion rate variability, the position of a planet depends on M3. That gives a rough prediction of where planets might be, within a factor of about 3, which is arguably not very good.

However, if we use that relationship on a red dwarf of Proxima’s mass, the Jupiter core would be about 0.01 A.U. from the star. In short, Proxima b is at the very centre of where the Saturn equivalent should be, although I think it is far more likely to be the Jupiter core. The relationship is very rough, as the rate of accretion varies considerably from that relationship, and also, as the distances collapse, the size of the star now becomes significant, and back-heating will push the ice point further out. However, what is important here is that this “ice point” is relevant to any accretion theory. If ice is a solid at a given distance, then the ice should be accreted alongside any other solid.

So my opinion is that Proxima b would be a water world, with no land on the surface at all. Further, if it is the Jovian equivalent, it probably will not have an atmosphere, or if it does, it will be mainly oxygen from photolysed water. So I am very interested in seeing the future James Webb telescope aimed at that planet, as water gives a very clear infrared spectrum.

Homochirality – how I believe it originated

In a previous post I issued a challenge that was issued prior to my talk to the Wellington Astronomical Society: can you work out how homochirality arose in life? To remind you, chirality is what causes handedness. If you have gloves, your left hand has its glove and the right hand its, and one cannot really replace the other. Homo chirality means there is one only form of handedness, thus in your body, sugars are D sugars (right handed) while all your amino acids are L, or left handed. The problem is, when you synthesis any of these through any conceivable route given the nature of the starting materials, which have no chirality, you get an equal mix of D and L. On the other hand, if you synthesize the molecules through a chiral entity, chirality remains. Think of using a left-handed glove. If you use it as a mold for a plaster cast, you will keep making casts of left hands, not right hands.

How did nature select one lot and neglect the others? The real reason for asking this, though, was not to do with chirality. Most people can get through life without stopping to worry about why their proteins are made from L amino acids. Space travellers landing on another planet might, though, because if you landed on a planet where all the amino acids were D, then you could not eat their food and be nourished. However we are here. No, the real reason was, this is a chance to show how to develop a theory.

Everyone develops theories, for example, “Who trashed the letterbox?” is an example I gave in my first ebook, which was about developing theories. The book was mainly about scientific theories, so don’t rush out and buy it unless science really interests you, but that point is valid about life. If you look at the web, you can find many places where people theorize on political matters. That would be very good for democracy, if they did it properly, but not so good if the methodology is very bad. Most simply jump to the first conclusion their prejudices lead to, and if that is the way we intend to run our democracy, then we are in trouble. The reason I picked on this issue of chirality is that it is easy, and it is unlikely to run into prejudiced anger and hence can be considered dispassionately.

There are numerous scientific papers devoted to the question of how homochirality arose: they consider the weak force (which does not apply to chemistry anywhere else); materials adsorbed on special clays (without asking how the material can get off again, or why another clay won’t give the complementary material); polarized light (why is there not the opposite result with oppositely polarized light); and even an assertion there is a weak preference in meteorites.
I believe the answer is strangely simple when instead of starting at the beginning with a mixture of both forms, you stop worrying about how it happened, and start asking why it happened? Why would emerging life discard half of the resources available to it? After all, if it did, why did not some other form use both? By using both, it would have twice the amount of resource, so it should be able to survive better, and should prevail.

The obvious answer is that life chose one form because it had to, so where is homochirality so important? The answer is reproduction. What happens is reproduction is governed by nucleic acids that can form a double helix, or duplex. If you have a strand, complementary nucleobases get absorbed on the strand, and if all the bases can link through the phosphate esters, they form their own helix. When that strand is complete, the strands can separate, and the process starts again. That is the essence of reproduction. Now, the problem is in joining those phosphate esters because the appropriate parts have to be in the right place. The new strand has to have the same degree of twist, in the same direction. This is where the chirality comes in. To get a regular twist, or pitch to the helix, all the ribose units have to have the same handedness. Think of making a bolt, and a nut to fit it. If the bolt has right hand thread, then suddenly lurches every now and again into left hand thread, how can you make a nut to fit it?

If a sugar came in with the opposite chirality, the twist would be wrong, the ends would not match up, and the base could not join the strand. It would then go away and nothing would happen until the correct pitch to the helix could be supplied, and that is with the correct chirality of the ribose. At first, strands with any mix could occur, but duplexes would only form with one chirality, and when one came along, since it could reproduce and the others could not, inevitably it must prevail.

Why does that go out to all the other molecules? Because they are made either directly or indirectly from RNA molecules. (RNA is the generator of enzymes.) Accordingly, everything that comes from the chiral RNA will also carry the appropriate chirality.

Was that so difficult to conceive?