Featured

Infinite in All Directions: Titanic Chemistry, the Alien Beacon, Geometric GIFs

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Credit: pixabay

Credit: pixabay

Sumer Is Icumen In

Summer’s not even properly kicked in in Chennai and it’s already got water problems. I’m from Chennai and familiar with the annual water-tanker and boring rituals – when residential colonies and offices all run out of water at once around May, especially in the city’s central commercial area and in the residential suburbs in the south. Then, the city’s Metropolitan Corporation ramps up its water tanker service, which bring in water from neighbouring towns and villages, as well as clears multiple applications to plumber deeper depths in search of groundwater. But this year, as it happens, these rituals have begun in earnest from March.

Scroll had a recent article in which it detailed that the city’s IT companies, centred around the Taramani area in the south, were feeling the pinch and had kickstarted efforts to broker a deal between two parties that were making it difficult to obtain water:

At the intervention of the National Association of Software and Services Companies, and pressure from residents, a meeting was convened between the district administration and the association. At this meeting, the administration agreed to give the lorry owners a month to procure the required permits for extracting water.

The funny thing here is that Chennai’s IT companies, while generating thousands of crores in revenue each year, are built on top of important waterways, their physical infrastructure being directly responsible for many of Chennai’s water problems! This was no more clear when, in 2015, the city was ravaged by floods because the waters couldn’t access natural drainage systems in the south, especially around the Velachery area. And here we are, with the National Association of Software and Services Companies intervening to find a solution to the water crisis.

Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo…

§

Titanic chemistries

Say what you will, Titan is absolutely fascinating. It’s my favourite ~moon~ object in the Solar System. It’s giant, larger than Mercury, larger than Earth’s moon by far. It’s got a dense atmosphere and has liquid oceans on its surface – just like Earth. Scientists also think its rich organic chemistry could be home to some strange lifeforms (I’ve written about that here).

(My second favourite object is Jupiter’s Europa, which may have a subsurface ocean of liquid water and possibly plate tectonics. My third favourite is Venus – which, by the way, could also harbour life in its atmosphere as well as on its hellish surface, and could also feature plate tectonics.)

NASA was mulling sending a submarine to Titan in the 2040s but that may not happen (a possible reason is that it doesn’t have enough plutonium-238 leftover to power the battery that will have to power the submarine). Maybe Clipper will take a look at Titan in the 2020s.

Anyway, the reason I’m talking about Titan is that a new study has found the moon’s lakes of liquid methane may occasionally bubble with nitrogen. So basically, the whole moon’s one spherically warped Coke bottle – with methane and nitrogen instead of water and carbonates. The study was motivated in part by some of Cassini’s observations (the probe, not the astronomer), which showed that some island-like features in Titan’s lakes were appearing for short periods and then disappearing. The authors of the new fizz study say that if nitrogen bubbling could be the culprit, and the island-like features might in fact be large patches of bubbles.

Ah, Titan.

§

Where is dark matter?

Anyone notice a sudden glut of a certain kind of long-form science pieces on the web? All of them have to do with whether dark matter exists or not. Very little about our understanding of dark matter has changed in the time we’ve known about it, yet here we are: early 2017, talking about whether dark matter really exists or not. Why? Because a particle that we think dark matter could be made of – called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) – doesn’t seem to exist. Dozens of detectors around the world – including the LHC – are looking for WIMPs in different energy bands and they don’t seem to be there. So might our theories be wrong? Is a paradigm shift awaiting us?

There’s also been a second kind of stories but these aren’t exactly recent as much as constituting a recent historical trend: about a putative fifth force of nature. Our thinking about dark matter has fuelled some speculation about such a force’s existence: some scientists hope it could help explain why – assuming dark matter exists – the two dominant cosmological models have trouble accommodating it completely in their mathematical frameworks. Anyway, other sources include the supposed Atomki anomaly as well as doubts about the strong/weak equivalence principle. Recent attempts have also extended into the particle physics and quantum mechanics realms (though they’re overlap bigly, the distinction is to denote different kinds of experiments).

§

Cool stuff on The Wire you might wanna check out:

1.6 billion-year-old algae rejuvenate Indian geologist’s once-bunked ideas – Insightful analysis of multicellularity by Suvrat Kher, as well as some details about the ‘Himalayan fossil fraud’ of the 1980s.

Why cobras evolved tissue-destroying venom – Janaki Lenin resumes her ‘Amazing Animals’ column with a story about how cobras don’t use venom to attack alone. They also use it to defend, which arises due to different needs.

Consider making a donation to us – it’ll give you a tax-break.

Oh, another thing. While you’re reading this, my colleague Jahnavi Sen will be putting together her newsletter. It comes out every Tuesday morning and brings you the best stuff from the world of social science research. You can subscribe here.

§

The FRBs beacon

Avi Loeb is a good astronomer at Harvard – but he’s also known for developing ideas that border on the fantastic, and his latest thesis keeps up this reputation. Along with one of his students, he’s posted that fast-radio bursts (FRBs) – millisecond-long one-time radio signals flashing in distant reaches of the cosmos – could be of alien origin. Granted, since the first one was discovered in 2007, we’ve come no further in understanding what exactly FRBs are, but we’ve multiple competing explanations that all make sense of the phenomenon with some degree of accuracy, using objects or phenomena we’re familiar with – at least in theory: colliding blackholes, magnetar hyperflares, dark-matter-driven pulsar collapses, pulsars collapsing into blackholes, blackhole explosions, etc. But Loeb and his student, Manasvi Lingam, think that FRBs could in fact be of alien origins.

Please don’t paint me as anti-alien. Given recent political developments, I’m looking forward to the existence of aliens as much as Ye Wenjie was. But I’m not in favour of Lingam-Loeb’s idea because of its specificity. They think FRBs might be produced by alien Deathstar-esque infrastructure constructed to power their light-sails. As Paul Gilster explains on his blog,

If an extraterrestrial civilization were using the energy of a star to power these beams, and if water were being used as a coolant, such beamers, though enormous, would not violate known physics. The paper extracts a minimum aperture diameter to maintain the operation, finding it to be roughly twice the diameter of the Earth, meaning that the beamer would be an object on the order of a planet, a large ‘super-Earth’ or even a ‘mini-Neptune.’ And in keeping with the speculative nature of the inquiry, the authors point out that we can also consider beam emitters along the lines of the Stapledon-Dyson spheres that have been postulated to use stellar system materials to build artifacts surrounding and enveloping the host star.

In a Harvard CfA press release, Loeb is more honest about his position:

Loeb admits that this work is speculative. When asked whether he really believes that any fast radio bursts are due to aliens, he replied, “Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.”

So, props to him and Lingam for the idea, which I hope will be absorbed into a good science-fiction tale or two, but I personally will remain cynical of the number of assumptions required to make this light-sail idea come true. It imagines the burst of radio waves to be spillover from a much larger and continuous beam used to push a gargantuan light-sail through space! Why a light-sail? And why use radio waves? And as far as the goal is to reverse-engineer a need for large amounts of radiofrequency radiation with occasional spillover, why even stick to Earth-origin tech? So many things could go wrong here.

In fact, as far as explanations using natural phenomena are concerned, I’m quite taken by the magnetar hyperflares. Magnetars are neutron stars with supremely intense magnetic fields, and are thought to be able to explain phenomena called soft-gamma repeaters and anomalous X-ray pulsars. From a June 2006 APS press release:

When massive stars explode at the end of their lives, they can leave behind very dense, spinning neutron stars. Very little is known about their structure, but astronomers believe their cores may contain a state of matter that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the cosmos, at least not since the Big Bang itself. Magnetars are a specific type of neutron star featuring colossal magnetic fields, as high as 1015gauss [the most powerful electromagnet built by humans had a flux density of 450,000 gauss]. These fields might be strong enough to crack the crusts of the stars, and this in turn could prove to be the source of the huge energy bursts – dubbed hyperflares – coming to Earth from these dynamic objects.

(Emphasis added.) Such hyperflares are also thought to be accompanied by FRBs.

§

Light and circularity

This is a wonderful story about how two artists challenged a physicist to reconsider his interpretation of light and the information encoded in it. The art of the Oakes twins, Ryan and Trevor, comprises images created on a curved canvas instead of a flat one, done to mimic the way we perceive the world: through photons of light that reach the spherical surface that is our pupils. The physicist – Stephon Alexander – describes how the Oakes twins’ creations are informed by the work of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein, to conceive of images that remind us that light isn’t simply a streak of energy moving in space and changing in time but three dimensional sphere of information emanating from an object that exists in four dimensions. I’m sure this is a lot to taken in, so I highly recommend you read the whole piece. An excerpt:

It is truly astonishing that the twins arrived at an aspect of a most beautiful and earth-shattering idea in physics—the spherical emanation of light—through perception alone. What is even more mind-bending is that they arrived at this insight by developing their own techniques through intuition, experimentation, and approximations—the same way that a good theoretical physicist may want to unearth new truths.

The twins’ work gave me insight into the unification between quantum mechanics and gravity by reminding me that spacetime and light are intimately connected, and so are observers. A precise understanding of how to incorporate observers, conscious or not, in quantum gravity is still missing. Yet the twins reminded me to take this issue seriously in my research. When I see artists like the Oakes brothers arriving at and employing physical insights based on their own experimentation and intuitions, I gain a confidence that a continued conversation with artists could very well be that extra jolt that takes me into unchartered conceptual territories, and perhaps a solution that I hope will be as beautiful as the twins’ drawings.

§

Other bits of interestingness

A scientist blogs about what it was like to have one of his papers fail replication. It’s a happy ending.

Using one chart (really!), this astronomer demolishes the International Astronomical Union’s definition of a planet – and offers some wisdom of his own.

The life and mathematics of André Bloch, who spent 31 years in a lunatic asylum and produced his best work from there. He was involuntarily admitted because he murdered his brother, aunt and uncle on one night in a “eugenic act”.

Remember those news reports about how IBM’s Watson computer was going to revolutionise cancer diagnoses? The venture bombed – as did the journalism surrounding it.

“How economists have botched the promise of widely distributed prosperity—and why they have no intention of stopping now.”

An ambitious cosmic-ray observatory is coming up in China that can also lay to rest questions about high-energy phenomena from around the Milky Way.

Mosquitoes that will end malaria and then kill themselves? Welcome to the promises of gene drives.

The mind-blowing “geometric GIFs” – to use Boing Boing’s phrase – of Erik Söderberg. One in particular (shown below) seems so much like a time-lapse visualisation of the surface of a dying star.

Source: Erik Söderberg

Source: Erik Söderberg

If you enjoyed the newsletter, please share it with a friend. They can look at previous issues here and subscribe here.