How Did We Escape the RNA World?

In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that life had to start with nucleic acids because only nucleic acids can provide a plausible mechanism for reproduction, and, of course, that is exactly what they do now – they reproduce. The RNA world may not qualify as life as more is required, but if this step is not achieved there can be no life. The first reproducing agent had to be RNA because ribose is the only sugar that occurs at least partially in a furanose form. (The furanose is a five-membered ring; the pyranose is a six-membered ring and is generally more stable.) Why do we need the furanose? In my ebook I show various reasons, but the main one is that the only plausible experiment so far to show phosphate esters could have formed naturally lead to AMP and ATP. While the ribose is only about 20% furanose, NO pyranose formed phosphate esters.

Later, DNA was used primarily for reproduction for a very simple reason: it uses 2-deoxyribose. The removal of the 2-hydroxyl from ribose makes the polymer several orders of magnitude more stable. So why did this not be part of the starting mix? Leaving aside the fact we do not really know how to get 2-deoxyribose in any synthesis that could reasonably have happened in some sort of pond without help (complicated laboratory chemical syntheses are out!) there is a more important reason: at the beginning high accuracy in reproduction is undesirable. The first such life forms (i.e. things that reproduce) are not going to be very useful. They were chosen at random and should have all sorts of defects. What we need is rapid evolution, and we are more likely to get that from something that mutates more often. Further, RNA can act as a catalyst, which speeds up- everything.

Bonfio (Nature, 605, p231-2) raises two questions. The first borders on silly: why did proteins as enzymes replace most of RNA catalytic activity? The short answer is they are immensely better. They speed things up by factors of billions, and they are stable, so they can be reused over and over again. So why did they not arise immediately? Consider the enzyme that degrades protein; it has 315 properly sequenced amino acids. If we limit ourselves to 20 different ones, and allow for the initial ones being either left- or right-handed, except for glycine, the probability of random selection is 2 in 39^315. That is, 39 multiplied by itself 315 times. To put that in perspective, there are just 10^85 elementary particles in the visible universe. It was simply impossible. But that raises the second, and extremely interesting question: how could ordered protein selection emerge with such horrendous odds against?

What happens now is that messenger RNA has three nucleotide sequences “recognized” and “transfers” this information to transfer RNA which selects an amino acid and attaches it to the growing chain, then goes back to the messenger RNA to get the next selection information. That is grossly oversimplified, but you might get the picture. The question is, how could this emerge? The answer appears to include non—canonical nucleotides. RNA comprises mainly adenine, guanine, cytosine and uracil, and these are the “information” holders, but there are some additional entities present. One is adenosine with a threonylcarbamoyl group attached. The details are not important at this level – merely that there is something additional there. The important fact is there is no phosphate linkage so this is not in the chain. At first sight, these are bad because they block chain formation. Thus for every time this hydrogen-bonded to a uracil, say, it would block the chain synthesis and stop reproduction. However, it turns out that they may assist peptide synthesis. The non-canonical nucleotide at the terminal point of a RNA strand attracts amino acids. This becomes a donor strand, and it transfers to a similar RNA with a nascent peptide, and we have ordered synthesis. It is claimed that this can be made to happen under conditions that could plausibly occur on Earth. The peptide synthesis involves the generation of a chimeric peptide – RNA intermediate, perhaps the precursor of the modern ribosome. Of course, we are still a long way from an enzyme. However, we have (maybe) located how the peptides could be synthesised in non-random way, and from the RNA we can reproduce a useful sequence, but we are still a very long way from the RNA knowing what sequences will work. The assumption is, they will eventually self-select, based on Darwinian principles, but that would be a slow and very inefficient process. However, as I note in the ebook, the early peptides with no catalytic properties are not necessarily wasted. The most obvious first use would be to incorporate them in the cell wall, which would permit the formation of channels able to bring in fresh nutrients and get rid of excess water pressure. The evolution of life probably a very long time during which much stewing and testing was carried out until something sufficiently robust evolved.

Betelgeuse Dimmed

First, I apologize for the initial bizarre appearance of my last post. For some reason, some computer decided to slice and dice. I have no idea why, or for that matter, how. Hopefully, this post will have better luck.

Some will recall that around October 2019 the red supergiant Betelgeuse dimmed, specifically from magnitude +0.5 down to +1.64. As a variable star, its brightness oscillates, but it had never dimmed like this before, at least within our records. This generated a certain degree of nervousness or excitement because a significant dimming is probably what happens initially before a supernova. There has been no nearby supernova since that of the crab nebula in 1054 AD.

To put a cool spot into perspective, if Betelgeuse replaced the sun, its size is such it would swallow Mars, and its photosphere might almost reach Saturn. Its mass is estimated at least ten times, or possibly up to twenty times, the mass of the sun. Such a variation sparks my interest because when I pointed out that my proposed dependence of characteristic planetary orbital semimajor axes on the cube of the mass of the star ran into trouble because the stellar masses were not known that well I got criticised by an astronomer: they knew the masses to within a few percent. The difference between ten times the sun’s mass and twenty times is more than a few percent. This is a characteristic of science. They can measure stellar masses fairly accurately in double star systems, then they “carry over” the results,

But back to Betelgeuse. Our best guess as to distance is between 500 – 600 light years. Interestingly, we have observed its photosphere, the outer “shell” of the star that is transparent to photons, at least to a degree, and this is non-spherical, presumably due to stellar pulsations that send matter out from the star. The star may seem “stable” but actually its surface (whatever that means) is extremely turbulent. It is also surrounded by something we could call an atmosphere, an envelope of matter about 250 times the size of the star. We don’t really know its size because these asymmetric pulsations can add several astronomical units (the Earth-sun distance) in selected directions.

Anyway, back to the dimming. Two rival theories were produced: one involved the development of a large cooler cell that came to the surface and was dimmer than the rest of Betelgeuse’s surface. The other was the partial obscuring of the star by a dust cloud. Neither proposition really explained the dimming, nor did they explain why Betelgeuse was back to normal by the end of February, 2020. Rather unsurprisingly, the next proposition was that the dimming was caused by both of those effects.

Perhaps the biggest problem because telescopes could only look at the star sone of them however a Japanese weather satellite ended up providing just the data they needed. This was somewhat inadvertent. The weather satellite was in geostationary orbit 35,786 km above the Western Pacific. It was always looking at half of Earth, and always the same half, but the background was also always constant, and in the background was Betelgeuse. The satellite revealed that the star overall cooled by 140 degrees C. This was sufficient to reduce the heating of a nearby gas cloud, and when it cooled, dust condensed and formed obscuring dust. So both theories were right, and even more strangely, both contributed roughly equally to what was called “the Great Dimming”.

It also suggested more was happening to the atmospheric structure of the star before this happened. By looking at the infrared lines, it became apparent that water molecules in the upper atmosphere that would normally create absorption lines in the star’s spectrum suddenly changed to form emission lines. Something had made them become unexpectedly hotter. The current thinking is that a shock-wave from the interior propelled a lot of gas outwards from the star, leading to a cooler surface, while heating the outer atmosphere. That is regarded as the best current explanation. It is possible that there was a similar dimming event in the 1940s, but otherwise we have not noticed much, but possibly it could have occurred but our detection methods may not have been accurate enough. People may not want to get carried away with, “I think it might be dimmer.” Anyway, for the present, no supernova. But one will occur, probably within the next 100,000 years. Keep looking upwards!

Energy Sustainability

Sustainability is the buzzword. Our society must use solar energy, lithium-ion batteries, etc to save the planet, at least that is what they say. But have they done their sums?. Lost in this debate is the fact that many of the technologies use relatively difficult to obtain elements. In a previous post I argued that battery technology was in trouble because there is a shortage of cobalt, required to make the cathode work for a reasonable number of cycles. Others argue that we could obtain sufficient elements. But if we are going to be sustainable, we have to be sustainable for an indefinite length of time, and mining is not sustainable; you can only dig up the ore once. Of course, there are plenty of elements left. There is more gold in the sea than has ever been mined; the problem is that it is too dilute. Similarly, most elements are present in a lump of basalt; just not much of anything useful and it is extremely difficult to get it out. The original copper mines of Cyprus, where even lumps of copper could occasionally be found, are all worked out, at least to the extent that mining is no longer profitable there.

The answer is to recycle, right? Well, according to an article [Charpentier Poncelet, A. et al. Nature Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022- 00895-8 (2022)] there are troubles. The problem is that even if we recycle, every time we do something we lose some of the metal. Losses here refer to material emitted into the environment, stored in waste-disposal facilities, or diluted in material where the specific characteristics of the elements are no longer required. The authors define a lifetime as the average duration of their use, from mining through to being entirely lost. As with any such definition-dependent study, there will be some points where you disagree.

The first loss for many elements lies in the production state. Quite often it is only economical to obtain one or two elements, and the remaining minor components of the ore disappear in slag. These losses are mainly important for specialty elements. Production losses account for 30% of rare earth metals, 50% for cobalt, 70% for indium, and greater than 95% for arsenic, gallium, germanium, hafnium, selenium and tellurium. So most of those elements critical for certain electronic and photo-electric effects are simply thrown out. We are a wasteful lot.

Manufacturing and use incur very few losses. There are some, but because materials are purified ready for use, pieces that are not immediately used can be remelted and used. There are exceptions. 80% of barium is lost through use; it is used in drilling muds.

The largest losses come from the waste management and recycling stage. Metals undergoing multiple life cycles are still lost this way; it just takes longer to lose them. Recycling losses occur when the metal accumulates in a dust (zinc) or slag(e.g. chromium or vanadium), or get lost in another stream, thus copper is prone to dissolve in an iron stream. Longest lifetimes occur for non-ferrous metals (8 to 76 years) precious metals (4 to 192 years), and ferrous metals (8 to 154 years). The longest lifetimes are for gold and iron.

Now for the problem areas. Lithium has a life-cycle use of 7 years, then it is all gone. But lithium-ion batteries last about this long, which suggests that as yet (if these data are correct) there is very little real recycling of lithium. Elements like gallium and tellurium last less than a year, while indium manages a year. Before you protest that most of the indium goes into swipeable mobile phone screens and mobile phones last longer than a year, at least for some of us, remember that losses occur through being discarded at the mining stage, where the miner/processor can’t be bothered. Of the fifteen metals most lost during mining/processing, thirteen are critical for sustainable energy, such as cobalt (lithium-ion batteries), neodymium (permanent magnets), indium, gallium, germanium, selenium and tellurium (solar cells) and scandium (solid oxide fuel cells). If we look at the recycled content of “new material” lithium is less than 1% as is indium. Gallium and tellurium are seemingly not recycled. Why are they not recycled? Metals that are recycled tend to be like iron, aluminium, the precious metals and copper. It is reasonably easy to find uses for them where purity is not critical. Recycling and purifying most of the others requires technical skill and significant investment. If we think of lithium-ion batteries, the lithium reacts with water, and if it starts burning it is unlikely to be put out. Some items may have over a dozen elements, and some are highly toxic, and not to be in the hands of the amateur. What we see happening is that the “easy” metals are recycled by organizations that are really low-technology organizations. It is not an area attractive to the highly skilled because the economic risk/return is just not worth it, while the less-skilled simply cannot do it safely.

Indigenous Rights in Science

Most readers will have heard of the fights for the rights of indigenous people, but what about people born in the country, whose ancestors have been there for a long period? What rights to they have? Should they have rights to the resources of their own country? You will have heard about animal poaching, where endangered species are smuggled out of the country, and will have a view on that. However, there is a new argument coming in the scientific community, reported in Nature (605, 18 – 19) and it came from an article in the journal Cretaceous Research. The article described Ubirajara jubatus, a 110-million-year-old fossil of a dinosaur that appeared to display the precursors to feathers. The fossil had been collected in Brazil decades earlier but no Brazilian had heard of it. The authors claimed the fossil had been exported with a permit signed by some official, and the skeptic might suspect corruption here.

The publication sparked a revolution. A massive Twitter campaign was launched, and eventually the paper was withdrawn, although how you withdraw a printed paper is another matter. The specimen is in the State Museum of Natural History in Karlesruhe, and apparently the museum is engaged in negotiations to return it.

This practice, called by some colonial palaeontology, has caused a storm across south America. A report that analysed 200 studies published between 1990 and 2021 found that more than half did not involve local researchers, and of the Brazilian fossils used, 88% of them were kept outside Brazil. One of the authors of the Ubirajara paper protested that the study cherry-picked data, and omitted a whole lot of earlier American practices. The author of the report states it picked on starting at 1990 because that was when Brazil introduced laws preventing the export of such fossils, and it would be wrong to criticise a practice that was perfectly legal before then. He also noted it was a curious defence to state that others were doing it, so why not him, despite the law?

Now the South Americans are attempting to persuade scientific journals to act to stop such colonial practices. They noted that none of the 200 studies published an acknowledgement of the permit they should have had to take the specimen out of the country. If you read scientific papers, you often see a remarkable list of acknowledgements, such a X made helpful comments. Acknowledging that you followed the law might seem to be a useful step.

Apparently, this “revolution” had some less that satisfactory behaviour. Members of the public began visibly harassing scientists involved in the Ubirajara research, while the Karlsruhe Museum had to close its Instagram account due to the flood of negative comments.

There followed a spat about how researchers local to where the fossil was found should be involved when the fossil has been in a foreign museum for ages. Our author who protested (above) then continued to protest that this would involve tokenism if they had to include a scientist from the region on the paper. Of course, a way out of that would be to return the fossil. Two other countries particularly affected are the Dominican Republic and Myanmar, both of which have significant fossilized amber, of Jurassic Park fame. What happens next is unclear, although it appears the move to return fossils is growing.

That thought leads to another. Scientific publication involves peer review. It would be interesting to compare the fraction of rejections from third world countries with those from major US/European Universities. Does the address “Harvard” give a serious advantage over some town in Myanmar? Or is it done truly on content?

On a completely different matter, a huge fang of an ichthyosaur has been found from the Swiss alps. From the size of the tooth, the reptile would have measured about 21 meters in length. You might have heard that ichthyosaurs were somewhat vulnerable and only lived in shallow waters. Not this beast. A carnivore the size of a sperm whale would not be a pleasant thing to encounter. However, it died out at the end of the Triassic so no current danger.

Molecular Oxygen in a Comet

There is a pressure, these days, on scientists to be productive. That is fair enough – you don’t want them slacking off in a corner, but a problem arises when this leads to the publication of papers: there are so many of them that nobody can keep up with even a small fraction of them. Worse, many of them do not seem to say much. Up to a point, this has an odd benefit: if you leave a lot unclear, all your associates can publish away and cite you, which has this effect of making you seem more important because funders like to count citations. In short, with obvious exceptions, the less you advance the science, the more important you seem at second level funding. I am going to pick, maybe unfairly, on one paper from Nature Astronomy (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-022-01614-1) as an illustration.

One of the most unexpected findings in the coma of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was “a large amount” of molecular oxygen. Something to breathe! Potential space pilots should not get excited; “a large amount” is only large with respect to what they expected, which was none. At the time, this was a surprise to astronomers because molecular oxygen is rather reactive and it is difficult to see why it would be present. Now there is a “breakthrough”: it has been concluded there is not that much oxygen in the comet at all, but this oxygen came from a separate small reservoir. The “clue” came from the molecular oxygen being associated with molecular water when emitted from a warm site. As it got cooler, any oxygen was associated with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. Now, you may well wonder what sort of clue that is? My question is, given there is oxygen there, what would you expect? The comet is half water, so when the surface gets warm, it sublimes. When cooler, only gases at that lower temperature get emitted. What is the puzzle?

However, the authors of the paper came to a different conclusion. They decided that there had to be a deep reservoir of oxygen within the comet, and a second reservoir close to the surface that is made of porous frozen water. According to them, oxygen in the core works its way to the surface and gets trapped in the second reservoir. Note that this is an additional proposition to the obvious one that oxygen was trapped in ice near the surface. We knew there was gas trapped in ice that was released with heat, so why postulate multiple reservoirs, other than to get a paper published?

So, where did this oxygen come from? There are two possibilities. The first is it was accreted with the gas from the disk when the comet formed. This is somewhat difficult to accept. Ordinary chemistry suggests that if oxygen molecules were present in the interstellar dust cloud it should react with hydrogen and form water. Maybe that conclusion is somehow wrong, but we can find out. We can estimate the probability by observing the numerous dust clouds from which stars accrete. As far as I am aware, nobody has ever found rich amounts of molecular oxygen in them. The usual practice when you are proposing something unusual is you find some sort of supporting evidence. Seemingly, not this time.

The second possibility is that we know how molecular oxygen could be formed at the surface. High energy photons and solar wind smash water molecules in ice to form hydrogen and hydroxyl radicals. The hydrogen escapes to space but the hydroxyl radicals unite to form hydrogen peroxide or other peroxides or superoxides, which can work their way into the ice. There are a number of other solids that catalyse the degradation of peroxides and superoxides back to oxygen, which would be trapped in the ice, but released when the ice sublimed. So, from the chemist’s point of view there is a fairly ordinary explanation why oxygen might be formed and gather near the surface. From my point of view, Occam’s Razor should apply: you use the simplest explanation unless there is good evidence. I do not see any evidence about the interior of the comet.

Does it matter? From my point of view when someone with some sort of authority/standing says something like this, there is the danger that the next paper will say “X established that . . “  and it becomes almost a gospel. This is especially so when the assertion cannot be easily challenged with evidence as you cannot get inside that comet. Which gives the perverse realization that you need strong evidence to challenge an assertion, but maybe no evidence at all to assert it in the first place. Weird?

Ebook Discount

For a short  time my ebook Spoliation is price reduced on Amazon. Unlike Kindle Countdowns, this discount applies world-wide, and I am experimenting to see how effective this strategy is.

The Board, is a ruthless, shadowy organization with limitless funds that employs space piracy and terrorism. A disgraced Captain Jonas Stryker is acting as an asteroid miner, and when The Board resorts to using a weaponised asteroid to get its way, only Stryker can divert the asteroid. The Board is determined to have Stryker killed, officially he is wanted for murder, so Stryker must expose and destroy this organization to have any future.

A story of greed, corruption and honour, combining science and visionary speculation that goes from the high frontier to outback Australia. The background also gives a scientific perspective on asteroid mining.

Exit the Dinosaurs

According to National geographic, an anniversary is coming. Not sure which anniversary, but it’s a biggie – the anniversary of the extinction of the dinosaurs. Well, at least the anniversary of the Chicxulub crater, which is about 180 km wide. This would be caused by an impactor of about 10 km diameter, which perhaps shows how fierce these impacts were. Of course, there are arguments over whether it was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, but it certainly would not have helped. It was about the same time that in India the Deccan traps formed, where huge amounts of basalt were extruded out from the mantle.

So, what happens when an asteroid strikes? We have some idea relating to smaller ones because hydrogen bomb tests have provided evidence of the consequences of the localised production of heat equivalent to the low hundreds of Mt of TNT. At the point of impact extremely intense pressure is generated, which is transmitted into each body by waves. As the smaller body enters the major body, all points of contact lead to the generation of pressure waves that radiate into both bodies. Waves from different point sources will lead to vibrations in different directions, the vibrations of the rock become too great and the rock simply pulverises, which leads to the absorption of energy. The next waves have to travel through pulverized material, wave interference results, and huge amounts of energy are absorbed. Modelling from the hydrogen bomb data leads to the following conclusions. At a velocity of 10 km/s, an impactor of diameter of 1 km will generate a crater 12.2 km diameter and 0.6 km deep; an impactor of diameter of 0.1 km would generate a crater of diameter of 2.6 km and depth of 0.55 km. As a final example, with an impact velocity of 5 km/s and an impact diameter of 2 km, the crater diameter would be 11.5 km and of depth 4 km. Once the distance is big enough that the impact acts as a point source, the shock wave continues through to the other side of the body, where it can be reflected, or disrupt the surface. It may be that the reason the Deccan traps occurred at about the same time may be because the asteroid caused the eruption. I think that on Mars the Tharsis volcanic field was caused by the Hellas impactor, and maybe Elysium by the Argyre impact. They are more or less on opposite sides of the planet.

Anyway, the asteroid vaporized just about everything above a layer of granite, and it dug an impressive hole in that too. There was not only the impact, but apparently the seafloor where it landed would have had considerable amounts of gypsum, and that would have vaporized and probably pyrolyzed. The net result was from the combination extreme acid rain, helped by the Deccan Traps, there was ocean acidification, and this led to a collapse of plant production, the base of the food chain. Anything large would die of starvation. The survivors tended to be the small, the rat-sized mammals and birds.

The time taken for extinctions is controversial because there are no continuous fossil beds for the period, and the probability that an animal will be fossilized is very small. Accordingly, there may have been small numbers of animals that lingered on. There was also a general decline before the impact, perhaps because of climate change, and many of the dinosaurs had got so big any minor change would prevent them getting enough food. Prior to the impact, the average temperatures rose rapidly by three to four degrees Centigrade, and that would greatly affect plant production. Plants cannot migrate other than through their seeds being transferred, so it is possible very large numbers of plants were too stressed to be productive. Alternatively, plants may have evolved to be less nutritious. When you are slow moving and need tonnes of food, any small adverse change can be deadly. Marine animals were particularly susceptible, and ichthyosaurs became extinct well before the impact.

We don’t know when the impact occurred to within a few tens of millions of years, so what was that about an anniversary? There is one site in North Dakota where there are fossilized bones of fish, and they perished just as they were speeding up a growth spurt, which would arise due to an increase in the food supply. Bone tissue made during a growth spurt is spongier. That suggests they died in the Northern spring. So we know when in the year, but not which year. Apparently sturgeon and paddlefish died with debris of tektites embedded in their gills. These tektites (which are glassy globs) were thrown up by the heat of the impact, but would start to come back down after about fifteen minutes and would soon stop. For these fish to have tektites embedded, they died almost immediately after the impact. Further, all the bodies face one way in one layer, and the other way in the next layer. There were huge tidal waves sloshing around all the way up to the Dakotas. (Note that this part of North America was a river valley.)

The Southern Hemisphere would have an advantage here, because going into autumn, life is getting ready for winter, it has fattened up, and it is ready to hunker down. That might give some advantages, nevertheless it did not seem to. The extermination of life here was just as severe. Yet oddly enough we have the tuatara in New Zealand, the only remaining species from the order Rhynchocephalia which originated in the Triassic, about 250 million years ago. It is a rather slow-moving animal, so maybe it low energy requirements got it through this disastrous period.

Some Scientific Curiosities

This week I thought I would try to be entertaining, to distract myself and others from what has happened in Ukraine. So to start with, how big is a bacterium? As you might guess, it depends on which one, but I bet you didn’t guess the biggest. According to a recent article in Science Magazine (doi: 10.1126/science.ada1620) a bacterium has been discovered that lives in Caribbean mangroves that, while it is a single cell, it is 2 cm long. You can see it (proposed name, Thiomargarita magnifica) with the naked eye.

More than that, think of the difference between prokaryotes (most bacteria and single-cell microbes) and eukaryotes (most everything else that is bigger). Prokaryotes have free-floating DNA while eukaryotes package their DNA nucleus and put various cell functions into separate vesicles and can move molecules between the vesicles. But this bacterium cell includes two membrane sacs, only one of which contains DNA. The other sac contains 73% of the total volume and seems to be filled with water. The genome was nearly three times bigger than those of most bacteria.

Now, from Chemistry World. You go to the Moon or Mars, and you need oxygen to breathe. Where do you get it from? One answer is electrolysis, so do you see any problems, assuming you have water and you have electricity? The answer is that it will be up to 11% less efficient. The reason is the lower gravity. If you try to electrolyse water at zero g, such as in the space station, we knew it was less efficient because the gas bubbles have no net force on them. The force arises through different densities generating a weight difference, and the lighter gas rises, but in zero g, there is no lighter gas – they might have different masses, but they all have no weight. So how do they know this effect will apply on Mars or the Moon? They carried out such experiments on board free-fall flights with the help of the European Space Agency. Of course, these free-fall experiments are somewhat brief as the pilot of the aircraft will have this desire not to fly into the Earth.

The reason the electrolysis is slower is because gas bubble desorption is hindered. Getting the gas off the electrodes occurs because there are density differences, and hence a force, but in zero gravity there is no such force. One possible solution being considered is a shaking electrolyser. Next thing we shall see is requests for funding to build different sorts of electrolysers. They have considered using them in centrifuges to construct models to compute what the lower gravity would do, but an alternative might be to have such a process operating within a centrifuge. It does not need to be a fast spinning centrifuge as all you are trying to do is to generate the equivalent of 1 g, Also, one suggestion is that people on Mars or the Moon might want to spend a reasonable fraction of their time inside one such large centrifuge, to help keep the bone density up.

The final oddity comes from Physics World. As you may be aware, according to Einstein’s relativity, time, or more specifically, clocks, run slower as the gravity increases. Apparently this was once tested by taking a clock up a mountain and comparing it with one kept at the base, and General Relativity was shown to predict the correct result. However, now we have improved clocks. Apparently the best atomic clocks are so stable they would be out by less than a second after running for the age of the universe. This precision is astonishing. In 2018 researchers at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology compared two such clocks and found their precision was about 1 part in ten to the power of eighteen. It permits a rather astonishing outcome: it is possible to detect the tiny frequency difference between the two clocks if one is a centimeter higher than the other one. This will permit “relativistic geodesy”, which could be used to more accurately measure the earth’s shape, and the nature of the interior, as variations in density outcrops would cause minute changes in gravitational potential. Needless to say, there is a catch: they may be very precise but they are not very robust. Taking them outside the lab leads to difficulties, like stopping.

Now they have done better – using strontium atoms, uncertainty to less that 1 part in ten to the power of twenty! They now claim they can test for quantum gravity. We shall see more in the not too distant future.

Saving the World – with a Stink!

The latest from Nature (vol 602, p 202) on how to save the world: collect urine. This is, of course, a well-established technology – the ancient Romans did it. They collected it from special urinals through the city and did all sorts of things with it. One of the more interesting, according to Catullus, was to use it as a tooth whitener! The urine was also collected and taken to a fullonica (a laundry) and after dilution, was poured over dirty clothes. A worker would stand in a tub and stomp on the clothes – conceptually similar to a modern washing machine. It was similarly used to clean wool and remove the fats, etc, to prepare it for dyeing. It can be used to make leather soft, and when mordant dyeing, it can also make the dyes brighter. And, of course, if you feel so inclined, you could advance to medieval times and make saltpetre, which is essential for gunpowder. But urine uses come and they go, so how now do they save the world?

The lead, apparently, comes from Sweden, and in particular the island of Gotland. They are going to put some public flush-free urinals around the island and hope to collect about 70,000 litres of it. They are then going to dry this into chunks apparently with the texture of concrete, which they powder and compress into pellets for fertilizer. Currently, a local farmer uses the product from a pilot plant to grow barley which goes to a local brewery and thus forms a complete cycle. That is real recycling.

The problem here, of course, is it is necessary to separate the urine from the rest of the sewage. Either you need separate toilets, or you have an interesting design issue. There are, apparently, a number of similar projects in a number of different countries. Currently, it has been estimated that humans produce enough urine to replace about ¼ of our nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers. It also contains potassium and many  micronutrients. Also, by not flushing, we save a lot of water. As for problems, the first we face is we have to redesign our toilets and then design a way for how we treat it. The treatment will have to be dispersed, thus a building might have its own urine system. Currently, we have one sewage system that takes everything, but we cannot afford a further such system, especially since for a dispersed system sooner or later some people will put anything down the second system. As for “saving the world”, one estimate is that communities that do this could lower their overall greenhouse emissions by up to 47%, their energy consumption by up to 41%, fresh water usage by 50%, and nutrient  pollution from waste-water by up to 64%. The greenhouse emission savings go a very long way to saving the planet alone, provided everyone did it, because if properly managed, not only do you reduce methane production, but also the much more difficult nitrous oxide, which is more long-lived than carbon dioxide. Then, if you deal with this properly you could get more imaginative: bags to collect urine from cows! Fix the dairying greenhouse problem in one go.

Sounds good, so what’s the problem? Toilet design, to start with. What people come up with tends to be unwieldly, awkward to use, and outright smelly, especially if urine gets mixed with the faeces. A clever redesign of a toilet might overcome that, but now you have to collect the separate urine, with no additional water added. It will drain, but leave a smell. Either you collect in a tank that then has to be taken somewhere, or you re-pipe the building. Then what? In an urban setting, it is not practical to install a separate sewer system, and since it is about 95% water, transporting is very expensive for what you get. One trick is to hydrolyse the urine (because much of the nitrogen is present as urea) then add something like magnesium sulphate (maybe supplemented with some phosphate) and you get a precipitate of magnesium ammonium phosphate (struvite), which is an excellent slow-release fertilizer. The problem now is the phosphate in the urine is not balanced with the nitrogen (which is why supplanting it is desirable), you have lost the potassium, and does the average household want to do this every weekend? As you can see, saving the world is more difficult than it looks like at first sight.

Warp Drives

“Warp drives” originated in the science fiction shows “Star Trek” in the 1960s, but in 1994, the Mexican Miguel Alcubierre published a paper arguing that under certain conditions exceeding light speed was not forbidden by Einstein’s General Relativity. Alcubierre reached his solution by assuming it was possible, then working backwards to see what was required while rejecting those awkward points that arose. The concept is that the ship sits in a bubble, and spacetime in front of the ship is contracted, while that behind the ship is expanded. In terms of geometry, that means the distance to your destination has got smaller, while the distance from where you started gets longer, i.e. you moved relative to the starting point and the destination. One of the oddities of being in such a bubble is you would not sense you are moving. There would be no accelerating forces because technically you are not moving; it is the space around you that is moving. Captain Kirk on the enterprise is not squashed to a film by the acceleration! Since then there have been a number of proposals. General relativity is a gold mine for academics wanting to publish papers because it is so difficult mathematically.

There is one small drawback to these proposals: you need negative energy. Now we run into definitions, and before you point out the gravitational field has negative energy it is generated by positive mass, and it contracts the distance between you and target, i.e. you fall towards it. If you like, that can be at the front of your drive. The real problem is at the other end – you need the repulsive field that sends you further from where you started, and if you think gravitationally, the opposite field, presumably generated from negative mass.

One objection often heard to negative energy is if quantum field theory were correct, the vacuum would collapse to negative energy, which would lead to the Universe collapsing on itself. My view is, not necessarily. The negative potential energy of the gravitational field causes mass to collapse onto itself, and while we do get black holes in accord with this, the Universe is actually expanding. Since quantum field theory assumes a vacuum energy density, calculations of the relativistic gravitational field arising from this are in error by ten multiplied by itself 120 times, so just maybe it is not a good guideline here. It predicts the Universe has long since collapsed, but here we are.

The only repulsive stuff we think might be there is dark energy, but we have no idea how to lay hands on it, let alone package it, or even if it exists. However, all may not be lost. I recently saw an article in Physics World that stated that a physicist, Erik Lentz, had claimed there was no need for negative energy. The concept is that energy could be capable of arranging the structure of space-time as a soliton. (A soliton is a wave packet that travels more like a bubble, it does not disperse or spread out, but otherwise behaves like a wave.) There is a minor problem. You may have heard that the biggest problem with rockets is the mass of fuel they have to carry before you get started. Well, don’t book a space flight yet. As Lentz has calculated it, a 100 m radius spacecraft would require the energy equivalent to hundreds of times the mass of Jupiter.

There will be other problems. It is one thing to have opposite energy densities on different sides of your bubble. You still have to convert those to motion and go exactly in the direction you wish. If you cannot steer as you go, or worse, you don’t even know for sure exactly where you are and the target is, is there a point? Finally, in my science fiction novels I have steered away from warp drives. The only times my characters went interstellar distances I limited myself to a little under light speed. Some say that lacks imagination, but stop and think. You set out to do something, but suppose where you are going will have aged 300 years before you get there. Come back, and your then associates have been dead for 600 years. That raises some very awkward problems that make a story different from the usual “space westerns”.