Thursday, March 5, 2015

#TDB20, Viking Poetry, and Marooned on Earth as Viewed from Space

Artwork from Storm Thorgerson from Pink Floyd's The Division Bell

Pink Floyd's album The Division Bell was released over two decades ago! 

One of my favorite memories from the mid-1990s was when I spent an entire day listening to this album over-and-over while sitting in an old rocking chair and reading poems from  The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-Speaking World. The skylight windows were open in the attic room where I was reading and a soft summer breeze brought warm drafts of air to where I was sitting. I can still close my eyes and feel the warmth as I rocked back-and-forth and lost myself in a world of poetry and music.

I honestly can't recall anymore how many hundreds of pages of classic poetry I read that day, but the sounds of Floyd and the poetry seemed to flow together into a collage of various thoughts and emotions that hit me in various ways as the hours passed. Ah, youth.

The Division Bell was reissued last year, the 20th year since its original release. For #TBD20, they've also cut a new video for the song Marooned. The song is a chilling instrumental piece that was cut from a few improvised takes onboard David Gilmour's houseboat/recording-studio, the Astoria. The original setting was said to be their feeling of being marooned on an island, but this new video shows something a bit different. 

Starting with views from orbit of our planet, our island in the cosmos, the video then takes us to the now-abandoned Pripyat, Ukraine. Pripyat was abandoned due to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. On our little island in the cosmos, on our only home, we've built empires and industries, art and science, and yet we've also built disaster and destruction. Your interpretation of the video may be different from mine, especially with regard to the individual performing calculations at the end, but I see it as a story of marooned humanity; this is, to me, a vision of what it would be like if we were to lose our ambitions for a future. Our species is now at a point where we can foresee leaving our little island to explore the greater cosmos, yet, if we don't take care of our island, we could end up feeling less like inhabitants of a beautiful world and more like prisoners marooned in a prison of our own making. 

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Only for geniuses? No, finding the answer doesn't mean you're a genius, but these puzzles from Facebook can still be fun

I just came across another one of these puzzles on Facebook the other day. You may already know that I love a good puzzle. Ones like you see here are usually quick and fun. In the puzzle above we have this problem:

111 = 13
112 = 24
113 = 35
114 = 46
115 = 57
117 = ??

In this case, the solution will be 79. But you knew that, right?

The above problem has two little tricks. Firstly, you have to notice the pattern for each operation (the equality symbol in this case does not imply that the left and right are equal, but that there is some operation that can be done to one side to make it equal to the other). Here the last digit on the left of the equality symbol is the first digit on the right. The second digit on the right is the sum of all of the digits on the left. However, the second little trick is to skip 116 = 68 and go straight to 117 = 79. Ya, not a big shocker there at all.  Like I said, quick and fun.  

Here are some more of these types of puzzles
(can you figure out the answers for all three?)

So, what'd you get for your answers? My answers are, in order:
90, 410, and 143547

I posted those three problems with an order of increasing difficulty, but they're all still quite manageable since they all follow the same idea as the problem that started this post: namely, assume that the equality sign implies an operation is necessary to form one of the numbers from the other. If you're curious to now how I got my answers to those three problems, then you can cruise down to the bottom of this post. 

Before I get to that, however, I want to point out that answering these questions correctly does not make you a genius, nor should you believe the statistics that claim that only some number of people can get the answer correct.

Only for Geniuses?

Something that really bothers me about these types of puzzles on Facebook is that so many of them say something like "Only for Geniuses" or "Only geniuses will get the answer". What's with that? It may seem a bit silly to think that anyone would feel like they are somehow a certified genius just for answering a very simple problem just because some text on the problem said so, but I wonder how many people really do. How many people out there are swindled by such claims? 

I guess the important question is what exactly is a genius? A quick search online will reveal that there is no well-constrained definition of genius. Dictionaries may give some definition for genius, such as "an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc." from You might also see definitions claiming that genius implies having a high Intelligence Quotient (IQ). But scoring high marks on a standardized test is probably not the best way to judge. 

It's seems fairly well agreed upon that all people who are recognized as geniuses can score fairly high on tests of logic and reason, but they don't necessarily have to have the highest scores. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists and thinkers of the past century, self-reported that his IQ was only ever measured as high as 125

The word genius should be used to imply respect for someone who has shown their mental prowess with mathematics, art, science, creativity, oratory, or teaching, but surely it's not something that can be determined from a simple puzzle on Facebook. That's absurd. Maybe the people who add the "only geniuses" text to those Facebook puzzles are just misled about what "genius" implies, but it's more likely that they're pandering to others in the hopes to increase the "likes" and "shares" of their images. I think the latter seems more likely. Indeed, it's become pretty common for people to use pandering techniques on social media to try to improve their internet presence.

So, what's the point? Why do I care so much? 

I think the "only for geniuses" crap bothers me because I love puzzles, but I don't like having my intellect attacked by pandering. Finding the answers to these puzzles on Facebook doesn't make you a genius, but the people who actually believe that are most likely not geniuses. Even a genius can be suckered into something stupid once in a while, but I think a measure of genius is having the ability to recognize when you're being cajoled.

There's a quote that goes "Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid".  This quote is often misattributed to Albert Einstein though it was likely written in this form first by someone named Matthew Kelly. Is everyone a genius in their own way? I'd like to think so, but the problem with being a genius is that it's only a quality in a person that can be recognized by others. If you want to be a genius, don't worry about what some pandering asshole wrote on a Facebook image, but rather find what you're good at and use that to make the world a better place.

We need a society of people who are literate in statistics

One other crappy thing about some of these Facebook puzzles is when they throw out some ridiculous faux statistic about how few people get these things correct. For instance, the claim that "Only 20% will give right answer on 1st attempt" on the first problem in this post is laughable. Where did they derive such information? Nowhere, of course. They made it up because it sounded impressive and because, once again, they're pandering to people who can be won over through emotional wheedling.

Todd Snider has a song called "Statisticians Blues" where he points out that "...64% of all the world's statistics are made up right there on the spot. 85.4% of people believe them whether they're even accurate statistics or not." Check out that tune here:

What do you think? Are 72% of all statistics really made up right there on the spot? Are you one of the 80.4% who will believe those made up statistics whether they're even accurate statistics or not?

You might have noticed that none of those values matched, and you might have also noticed many times in your life when someone tries to throw some numbers at an opinion to make it sound stronger without having the ability to say where those numbers came from. So what's up with that? 

Statistics is a field of study that focuses on how to qualify and quantify data in a rigorous manner. It's about learning from measurable data and making predictions from known evidence. Statistics is very much a scientific approach to considering data, yet it's constantly misused, especially in our era of data overload.

Misusing statistics is just another form of pandering on these Facebook puzzles, just like the "only for geniuses" claims. These fake stats are an attack on your intellect and your reason, but also on your emotions. Don't fall victim to the wheedling of the people who don't understand statistics! We should all take a little time in our lives to be sure we understand the "writing on the wall"; statistics literacy should be a common goal of all peoples' education in our modern world.

Okay, okay, enough ranting

Here's how I found my answers to those three problems earlier in the post:

How did I get the answers of 90410, and 143547?

Let's step through each one and see if you agree with me:

Here's the easy one

This one is very simple. The problem is:

2 = 6 
3 = 12
4 = 20
5 = 30
6 = 42
9 = ??

Just as with the first problem in this post, the idea is to forget what you know of the equality symbol (it doesn't imply equality here, but rather what must be done to the numbers on one side to make them the numbers on the other side). You should hopefully see rather quickly that the operation is to take the number on the left and multiply it by the integer that is one greater than itself (so multiply 2 by 3 to get 6, 3 by 4 to get 12, and so on...). Once you see that you should find that the final answer (??) is 9 multiplied by 10, or 90

It's nice to get the right answer, but fun puzzles are definitely not only for geniuses.

How about this one?

This one takes a little more thought, but it's not terrible. The problem is:

5 + 3 = 28  
9 + 1 = 810
8 + 6 = 214
5 + 4 = 19  
7 + 3 = ???

Remember my answer was 410? Beyond having to think beyond the normal use of an equality symbol, this problem requires you to break your usual thinking of how numbers are arranged. You need to perform some operation to the numbers on the left to make the numbers on the right, but you don't have to follow the normal rules of mathematics and you don't have to consider a string of numbers to be one unique number. What if I told you to think of these numbers like each one is separate? How does this look?

<5> <3> = <2> <8>

Any better? What if I just said "you have to do something with a 5 and a 3 that can give you a 2 and an 8"?

Did you think that the difference of 5 and 3 is 2 and the sum of 5 and 3 is 8? If so, then you're on the right track. 

Applying that thinking to the rest of the problem shows you:

The difference of 9 and 1 is 8 and the sum of 9 and 1 is 10:
9 + 1 = 810

The difference of 8 and 6 is 2 and the sum is 14:
8 + 6 = 214

Following that convention to the unknown gives you, "the difference of 7 and 3 is 4 and the sum of 7 and 3 is 10", hence my answer of 410:
7 + 3 = 410

Don't worry if you didn't get it. That whole "99% People Failed to Solve this Question" malarky is just a bunch of bunk!

Now for the tricky one:

This one may look pretty intimidating, and, admittedly, it took me a couple minutes to figure out.  Here's the problem:

5 + 3 + 2 = 151022
+ 2 + 4 = 183652
+ 6 + 3 = 482466
+ 4 + 5 = 202541
+ 2 + 5 = ??????

My answer for this problem is 143547. Notice how it has 6 digits? Did you notice how all the other answers have six digits? That's a pretty important feature of this problem.

This is one where you have to look at the numbers available on the left and start trying to figure out the potential associations to single numbers, strings of numbers, and the whole numbers on the right. Doing this, one thing I noticed right away was that the first line has 5, 3, 2 on the left and it has 15 (the product of 5 and 3) as well as 10 (the product of 5 and 2). If you take a look at the rest of the lines, this relationship holds; product of first and third numbers followed by the product of the fist and third numbers. Let's make some notation to explain this.  Let's set a line up as:

A + B + C = xxyyzz

Then, from what I've said so far:

A*B = xx
A*C = yy

That just leaves "zz". You may want to think about that one for a moment. Try combinations of A, B, and C using general arithmetic. I'll post the final answer below, but here's a fun cartoon first:

Get more giggles at

Still hanging around? This is a pretty long post, but, if you love puzzles and games as much as I do, then I hope you've found it worth your while. So here's how I found the final answer:

In the first line we get the product of 5 and 3 (15) and the product of 5 and 2 (10) and, if we're looking close, we have 22 yet to figure out, which is pretty close to 25 (the sum of 15 and 10). In fact, 22 is 3 less than 25, which led me to my answer:

For A + B + C = xxyyzz

where A*B = xx

and A*C = yy,

we can find that zz = A*(B+C) - B

or, in other words, zz = xx + yy - B

Now using the numbers from the problem:

+ 2 + 5 = (7*2) / (7*5) / (7*(2+5) - 2) = 14 / 35 / 47

and, finally:

+ 2 + 5 = 143547

Finding this answer will not make you a genius and no one has any idea about how many people have successfully solved this problem (or have even run any tests on an adequate sample to statistically say roughly how likely you are to be capable of solving it compared to the general public). Still, if you're like me, then you've probably at least had some fun working on the answers. 

Feel free to comment on these problems, my approach to solving them, or suggest some more fun puzzles!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Borup Fiord Pass: An introduction to how an Arctic glacier may aid in our search for life on Jupiter's moon Europa

Standing on the glacier at Borup Fiord Pass and looking down-valley (Photo: John Spear)

Borup Fiord Pass. I've said that name so many times that it almost feels like the name of a good friend. Last summer I had the opportunity to visit this remote place on the planet, far north of the northernmost cities of North America. The experience was incredible and something that I will cherish forever. My research team and I spent two weeks at Borup Fiord Pass, and when we left we brought back the samples that I'm now studying to better understand the relationships between living organisms and the chemical element sulfur.

Borup Fiord Pass is a valley in the Canadian High Arctic where yellow staining of the surface of a glacier is caused by large deposits of sulfur in its elemental form. This site gives us the opportunity to study the chemical and biological cycling of sulfur through various forms in a unique icy environment. Borup Fiord Pass also gives us a chance to study some of the biological processes we might expect to find on icy worlds with subsurface oceans, such as Jupiter's moon Europa, if life ever came to exist there.  

Europa, one of the most intriguing places in the solar system (NASA)

Watch out where those huskies go...

Borup Fiord Pass is located on Ellesmere Island, very near the North Pole, at the northern extreme of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. To get an idea of where this is, if you hold up a globe and point the North Pole directly toward yourself, then Borup Fiord Pass will be within the first 10 degrees of latitude from the center:

Looking at the world with the North Pole at the center

Benoit Beauchamp, of the University of Calgary, was the first person to see the yellow staining on the glacier at Borup.  At least, that's what I've been told. There are military flights that pass overhead quite often. I wouldn't be too surprised if one of the pilots of a military plane was flying low and happened to see some large yellow patch on the white of the ice. Maybe that pilot thought, "huh, that's interesting." Or maybe some explorer decades ago chanced upon a glacier with a yellow icing that smelled of hydrogen sulfide, but the same explorer didn't see need to note the occurrence. 

We really don't know how long this yellow staining has been happening, though we know it's been active since Benoit first noticed it during a helicopter fly-over in 1988. Once Steve Grasby, a geochemist with the Geological Survey of Canada and my collaborator, learned from Benoit about the yellow coloration on top of the glacier, he knew something special was happening and had to check it out.  

Steve Grasby sampling a sulfur deposit on one his earliest trips to Borup Fiord Pass
Steve Grasby and his earliest collaborators on the Borup Fiord Pass project published the results of their initial findings after multiple visits to the site in an article published in the journal Astrobiology in 2003. In this article they detailed some of the basic characteristics of the yellow sulfur materials and the processes causing their existence on the glacier.  

The sulfur is deposited by springs that emerge on the glacier and which carry high levels of sulfide, the most electron-rich (reduced) form of sulfur, with a formal oxidation state of -2. In considering the chemical composition of the spring fluids and the isotopes of sulfur at the site, Steve Grasby and his colleagues determined that the sulfide is likely derived from sedimentary sulfate deep in the subsurface. Sulfate is the most electron-poor (oxidized) form of sulfur (since the sulfur atom in a sulfate molecule shares it's electrons with four oxygen atoms, giving the sulfur a formal oxidation state of +6). The transition from sulfate to sulfide implies that there must be microorganisms somewhere below the glacier which are using sulfate reduction (making sulfur more electron-rich) for their metabolisms.  

After sulfur in groundwater has been processed by organisms in the subsurface, it then flows up through the glacier or along its base and emerges as springs at the surface. Many years, the springs are still quite active when researchers have arrived to investigate. Last summer, in 2014, there was no apparent spring activity, but rather an earlier spring had deposited a large sheet of sulfide-rich ice. 

Where this icing dropped over the sides of a small canyon, we called the deposit "Sulfur Falls" (see image below). Near the glacier, in the middle of the icing, was a large circular structure that we called "The Blister". This structure may be the remnant of a sulfur-rich plume which had burst its way out from the subsurface and could possibly have formed the icing.

This is me kneeling on a pile of glacial till in front of the toe of the glacier at Borup Fiord Pass.  The yellow coloration of the ice behind me is caused by the deposition of elemental sulfur at this site. (Photo: John Spear)

The sulfide-rich water and ice that forms at the surface then provides the material for the oxidation of sulfide (stripping of electrons from sulfur) to form elemental sulfur (sulfur with a formal oxidation state of 0 and which only forms bonds with other sulfur atoms).  Elemental sulfur forms one of the most beautiful minerals on Earth:

Elemental sulfur: the mineral is yellow in solid state,
turns blood red when melted, and burns a bright blue (Image: Volty)
There are a lot of scientifically intriguing questions that remain with regard to Borup Fiord Pass. For one thing, cells of a certain type of microorganism that our lab has isolated from the field site have the strange capability of forming unique biominerals when grown in gradient cultures of sulfide and oxygen. This was first reported in a paper by Damnhait Gleeson and our colleagues in the journal Geobiology in 2011. We've learned a good deal about these biominerals since that time. Specifically, Julie Cosmidis, a postdoc in our lab, is now working on characterizing these unique structures. I'm also now in the process of looking at the samples from the field to see if any of these unique structures can be found there.

Another interesting question comes from the presence of the yellow sulfur itself.  Given the chemistry of the fluid at the ice surface and the presence of oxygen from the atmosphere, the sulfur should be oxidized the whole way to sulfate, yet the yellow staining persists throughout the summer (at least until the snow begins to fall at this site). Much of my work is now focused on quantifying the different chemical forms of sulfur at Borup Fiord Pass. Expect more posts from me in the near future that details some of the various types of instruments and methods that I'm using in this endeavor.

Using the Field Microsensor Multimeter from Unisense to measure sulfide (Image: Alexis Templeton)

The Connection to Europa

There's been a lot of buzz in the press and social media lately regarding Europa. Europa is one of the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter and is definitely one of the more intriguing places in our solar system for astrobiologists. Europa bears a deep subsurface ocean, and that ocean might have been in recent communication with the surface. If life ever came about in the ocean of Europa, we might have the potential to find signs of such life near the surface of that moon. We're now working on the next spacecraft that will explore Europa.  

Europa's awesome surface textures and deep subsurface ocean are enough to scientifically justify a mission to that moon, but the possibility for life detection in materials at Europa have bolstered scientific and public support together and now it looks like we might soon see a Europa mission on its way to Jupiter. For us to better understand what signs of life we may find on Europa, it's a good idea to study life in icy environments here on Earth. Places like Lake Vostok and Blood Falls in Antarctica and Borup Fiord Pass, my field site, in the Arctic can aide in this type of research. Indeed, Borup Fiord Pass has gotten its fair share of press as a Europa analogue site. Here are articles from Wired,, Popular Science, and CBC News that report on the importance of Borup Fiord Pass in our search for life on Europa.

With Lake Vostok and other ice-covered Antarctic lakes, as well as some recent research on a drilling project to study the organisms living under the Ross Ice Shelf, we can explore ecosystems in lakes and oceans deep below icy environments. Research in these areas may highlight the techniques we'll need if we ever want to get through the ice on Europa and explore the ocean below.  However, that ice is very thick (probably at least 1 km but maybe more than 10 km in thickness), and it will take us a long time to build a spacecraft with the right technology to get down there. In the meantime, there's a lot that we have to learn about Europa's ocean and the possibility for signs of life to be found in the near-surface of the ice through an orbiter mission and our first lander mission. That's where our work at Borup Fiord Pass comes in. By studying the connection of subsurface microbial processes to the chemical and biology processes that occur where fluids make their way through the ice and to the surface, we might be able to highlight some key signs of life to look for near the Europan surface.  

I was recently at NASA's Ames Research Center for the Workshop on the Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume. There are a lot of us who are now trying to figure out what the best instrumentation is to send to Europa to capture signs of life.  You might have read recently about the potential discovery of water plumes coming out of Europa.  Although some of us are highly skeptical of the data in that study, if there are water plumes at Europa, they may offer even more insight into the processes that are occurring in the subsurface ocean.  Even if the plumes are not there, we still have a lot to learn with the mission that we'll be sending to Europa. If we can get data about the chemistry of the surface or, better yet, the near subsurface, then we may be able to find signs of life from the subsurface ocean.  This of course requires that fluid from the ocean has made its way through the ice and to the near surface. There's a lot of "ifs" involved, but that's part of the fun of science.

In the coming months, I'll be writing up posts that detail the importance of sulfur for astrobiology as well as the importance of Borup Fiord Pass in our exploration of Europa (and other worlds). These are important topics for me, especially since they'll be included in my Ph.D. dissertation.  Before I leave you, though, here's a sweet infographic from NASA regarding Europa, one of the most intriguing worlds in our solar system:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Senator Jim Inhofe needs better glasses: A snowball cannot refute climate science

Sen. Jim Inhofe and his poor vision (ABC News)
Senator Jim Inhofe needs better glasses.  It appears that he's having a hard time seeing past his own nose.

In an attempt to refute climate science, Inhofe took a snowball out of a bag while speaking on the Senate floor on the 26th of February, 2015, and said, "I ask the chair, you know what this is? It’s a snowball, just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out."  Inhofe appears to be suggesting that the occurrence of snow this winter in Washington D.C. negates the wealth of evidence and scientific understanding about the human influence on global climate.  It really seems that, if anything, Inhofe's stunt is just another reason to shake our heads at the lack of vision amongst some of our politicians.

This isn't the first time that Inhofe has tried to make some statement regarding his belief that scientists have fabricated anthropogenic impacts on the global climate.  Back in 2010, Inhofe and his family built a snow fort on the lawn of the National Mall in a mockery of climate science.  They called this snow fort "Al Gore's New Home".  In fact, Inhofe has been making such statements and attempted jabs throughout his political career.  Inhofe has been the Chair for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works since 2003.  It's somewhat bewildering to think that someone who honestly believes a snowball can refute all of modern climate science can also hold the highest rank within a Senate committee which requires knowledge of the environment.  Here's a video of Bill Maher from back in 2009 where he considers climate change deniers, including Inhofe:

Maher's bashing of Inhofe is more than warranted.  To better understand the Anthropocene and the impacts of industrialization and human activities on the environment we must have scientifically literate world leaders.  Infrastructure development, coastal economies, weather-related dangers and costs, growing seasons and crop yields, and far more will all be impacted by the global climate.  Politicians like Inhofe are a threat to the future of our species and to our biosphere.  We need leaders who can see that there is more to the world than their own day-to-day experiences.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse: A leader with greater vision

At least not everyone on the Senate Committee for Environment and Public Works has poor vision.  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a politician from Rhode Island, took the Senate floor to rebut Inhofe's remarks later in that same day.  Senator Whitehouse has given many speeches on the Senate floor in support of science literacy and education with regard to the current and future effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Image: Stephen Crowley/NY Times)
Senator Whitehouse took out his iPad and brought up an image from the Earth-Now app, a free application developed by NASA to share global climate data with anyone and everyone (you can use this app to see where several of our Earth observing satellites are in their orbits and to map various physicochemical parameters such as air temperature, CO, CO2, sea surface salinity, and ozone).  Whitehouse points out that you can use this app to see the current polar vortex in the Arctic and how the cold air is being driven down to New England.  Whitehouse, highlighting the fact that these basic climate data are available from NASA, then said, " can believe NASA and you can believe what their satellites measure on the planet, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball."  

Indeed, Senator Whitehouse then points out four more instances in which one can side with a group or organization which supports the wealth of information from climate science or one can side with "the Senator with the snowball".  Although I usually oppose this pitting of side-vs-side on political issues (most issues are more complex than yes-or-no or red-and-blue), Senator Whitehouse is definitely a skilled speaker and gives a strong argument in support of scientific literacy from more than just the scientific viewpoint.  Here is Whitehouse's rebuttal:

Take home point from Whitehouse's rebuttal: you simply can't be scientifically literate if you agree with the Senator with the snowball.  The occurrence of snow on a winter day in Washington D.C. does not refute our knowledge of the changing climate.  2014 is now the hottest year on record, with higher average global temperatures than any previously recorded since the 1800s.  We still have the seasons and we're still going to experience hot summers and cold winters, but the general trend of warming at the global scale is still occurring.  It's hopeful to think that we at least have some politicians, like Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who support a scientifically literate populace and leadership with greater vision.

Frosty the Snowman has no idea about climate science

Let's face it, Frosty the Snowman was only imbued with knowledge about winter.  Still, in his various incarnations, Frosty has always known well enough to take off before the warming temperatures destroyed him because that's how the seasons work in the regions of our planet that get snow in the winter.  

We can learn a lot from the snow.  We can measure the pH of the water composing the snow and can study the particles of dust and debris mixed into the snow to learn about the chemistry of the clouds and the atmosphere where that snow formed.  However, a snowball, in and of itself, is not a refutation of modern science, science literacy, or our combined knowledge of the human impacts to the global climate.

There's plenty of snow here in Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. right now.  Maybe I'll go outside and make a snowball, without any pretensions that the weather in my backyard means that everywhere else is the same.  If you'd like a good laugh, here is some climate science denier busting by John Oliver of Last Week Tonight:

You can find 5 hilarious moments of climate denial busting, including the videos from Bill Maher and John Oliver that I posted in this blog, from Forecast the Facts at this link.

Update: 3 March 2015

Looks like I beat the Daily Show to pointing out the ridiculousness of Jim Inhofe's little snowball stunt:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name, which then carried me from the Sahara to the Amazon

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Scientific Visualization Studio
There's a lot we can learn from Earth observing satellites.  For instance, the dust from the Sahara desert, the world's largest desert, has been found to travel through the atmosphere, making its way across the ocean and settling down to fertilize the Amazon rainforest.  That's quite a journey, and it probably seems a bit baffling to think that the material from a desert can then help to sustain all the diverse organisms that live in the world's largest rainforest.

A team of researchers have recently provided estimates of the amount of dust that makes the journey to the Amazon.  Of the 182 million tons of dust that gets lofted out of Africa, some 27.7 million tons of that same dust then finds its way to the Amazon rainforest.  The same team of researchers that made this discovery have also announced that the phosphorous within the Saharan dust fertilizes the rainforest.  Some 22,000 tons of phosphorous are estimated to rain down to the Amazon, far from their Saharan origin.  The researchers estimate that this influx of phosphorous makes up for the all the phosphorous lost to erosion.  Our world is truly dynamic.  Our fleet of Earth observing satellites have so much to teach us about our home.

Here is a fantastic video from NASA explaining these new discoveries:

For more information about this research, check out the NASA Press Release.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What can the craziest creatures on Earth teach us about the possibilities for alien life?

The flyer for my public talk this week at Fiske Planetarium

Later this evening I'll be giving a public talk at Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado Boulder!  I'm thoroughly stoked to give this talk.  We're going to take a journey to some of the worlds in our solar system and also some worlds far beyond and ask ourselves about the types of life that could come to live in such places using the only examples of life that we have to work with, the life from our own world.  During this talk, we will consider some of the craziest creatures on Earth and what they can teach us about the types of alien life that may exist out there.

This talk is part of the Above & Beyond: Cosmic Conversations series, organized by my friend, Morgan Rehnberg (find him at Cosmic Chatter).  These are public talks that are focused at creating conversations between speakers and the audience so that we can all share in the storied wonder of science, human history, and our place in the cosmos.  The Craziest Creatures on Earth will hopefully inspire those of us in the theater at Fiske Planetarium to engage in lasting conversations about how crazy and beautiful life can be, and about whether or not we're alone in this vast universe.  Here's a little overview of what we'll be talking about at Fiske Planetarium this Friday night:

A Multitude of Worlds

An artist's impression of what Kepler 22b might look like

Many of us have dreamed of alien worlds, wondering what planets orbiting other stars may be like.  We've created alien life in our science fiction and we've imagined what a visit to an alien biosphere might be like.  Over the last couple of decades, we have begun to discover only a fraction of the worlds that must exist in our universe.  Yet the only life that we've ever known is life here on our Earth, our home.  As our species continues to explore more of our solar system and to discover other planetary systems far away, it begins to feel like we are continually approaching a time when we might have an answer to the age-old question "Are we alone in the universe?"  What might alien life be like if it exists?  Would it be anything like the life we know here on Earth?

Life on Earth and the
Oddness of the Hummingbird

Life as we know it has been on Earth for at least 3.5 billion years, but probably even much longer.  Through that time, life has evolved to dynamically fit and fill nearly every ecosystem available on the the thin habitable shell and lower atmosphere of the planet.  Since the diversification of multicellular lifeforms during the Avalon and Cambrian Explosions, over 500 millions years ago, plants, animals, and fungi have developed unique body plans and forms of locomotion to better gain energy, fight, reproduce, and live.  

Sometimes an evolutionary adaptation comes along that seems bizarre relative to how we live.  Take for instance the hummingbird.  Hummingbirds are among the smallest birds on the planet, weighing fractions of a pound.  Indeed, the smallest known bird in our modern world is the Bee Hummingbird, which weighs less than a U.S. penny coin.  Hummingbirds get their name from the humming or buzzing sound that their wings make when we listen to them flying.  The hummingbirds's wings beat on average 50 times per second, but have been recorded as high as 200 times per second.  They beat their wings so fast that they can fly up to 34 mph (54 km/h) and they can fly backwards and upside-down.  But that's not the craziest thing about hummingbirds.  

The strangest thing about hummingbirds is that they have a ridiculously high metabolism.  For their little body size, they have a massive caloric intake.  Hummingbird's will eat between 3 and 8 calories each day in nectar.  3 to 8 calories sounds small relative to us, that's really only a couple of grapes worth of energy, but if we consider caloric intake vs. bodyweight, then we can see that hummingbirds eat 77 times more than us.  This is the equivalent of a human eating about 155,000 calories each day.  That's a bizarre caloric intake.  It makes the hummingbird a crazy creature in my book.  

This video discusses research on how hummingbirds maintain their metabolisms

Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pennsylvania makes some gigantic cheeseburgers.  One of them, The Belly Buster, weighs just over 20 pounds and holds 25,000 calories worth in energy.  If we had the caloric intake of a hummingbird, then we would need to eat 6 of these calorie-loaded burgers and then, on top of that, we would need to wash it down with 6 800-calorie milkshakes.  And we would need to do this every single day.  That seems bizarre relative to how we understand our place in the world.  

When we consider what crazy creatures like the hummingbird can teach us about the possibilities for alien life, we have to keep in mind that not all organisms function the same way and we may one day find that alien life is wholly bizarre to us.  Maybe there are worlds out there where most organisms have hummingbird-level metabolisms.  Maybe there are worlds where vision or hearing have never evolved.  Perhaps our alien neighbors have forms of locomotion, sensory organs, and even body structures that are adapted to environments with only limited similarities to our world.  To constrain such speculations about alien life, we can take a look at some of the unique environments in our solar system and consider whether Terran organisms could survive in such places.    

Storybots jam vid about the planets of our solar system

Venusian Planets:
A Hunk, a Hunk of Burning Love

Venus is our sister planet.  It's very similar to our Earth in size and overall composition and it even has clouds, but, unlike Earth, Venus is a world completely obscured by clouds.  The thick, clouded atmosphere surrounds and blankets Venus.  That's because Venus has the densest atmosphere of any of the terrestrial planets.  However, if we strip away the cloud layer and take a look at the surface of Venus using radar imaging (from spacecraft as well as Earth-based instruments), we see a chaotic terrain on a geologically young surface.  The surface of Venus is a marred desertscape of volcanoes and plains with ridges appearing as cracks.  From orbital observations as well as from a few spacecraft that landed on the surface, we know that the surface pressure of Venus is 92 times greater than that of Earth at sea level.  Not only that, but the surface temperature of Venus is a sweltering 863 degrees Fahrenheit (735 Kelvin)!

Currently, we know of no life that could survive in the high temperature and high pressure environment on the surface of Venus, yet there are organisms on our planet that have adapted to high temperatures.  Take for instance the microorganisms living along the margins of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.

Grand Prismatic Spring: a thermophile's oasis
The center of Grand Prismatic is a beautiful blue of burning hot water, reaching temperatures up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  As the water approaches the edges of the spring, it cools to temperatures that can be survivable for certain types of organisms.  The yellows, oranges, and greens at the edges of the pool are pigments within microbes that live in microbial films at the pool's edge.  These organisms are considered extremophiles, as they've come to inhabit an environment that is extreme relative to us.  We know of extremophiles that have come to life in many of the extreme environments of our planet: from places that are hot to places that are cold, places that are acidic or alkaline, and places that are super-salty or even very high in pressure.  Extremophiles have become a target for astrobiologists when it comes to understanding how life may have come to live and to thrive in various environments.  

"The Toughest Microorganism": In the Red

One of the most intriguing worlds in our solar system is our little neighbor, Mars, the 'Red Planet'.  Mars has long held the fascination of scientists and the public.  In the late 1800's, the astronomer Percival Lowell announced he had made observations of striations on Mars that he thought were canals built by an intelligent extraterrestrial species.  Lowell's speculation led to H.G. Wells' story The War of the Worlds and, in many ways, launched the early era of alien science fiction.

Mars has been our most visited neighbor.  We've sent orbiters, landers, and rovers to the Red Planet to learn more about it's geology as well as the possibilities for it to once have had life or to perhaps even currently have life.  Mars has a great volcanic mountain, Olympus Mons, which is almost 3 times taller than Mount Everest.  Mars bears one of the largest canyons in the solar system, Valles Marineris, which is a distinguishing feature when Mars is viewed from far away.  The Martian surface is a cold, dry, and dangerous place for most of life as we know it.  The surface has an average temperature of around -80 degrees Fahrenheit and there's only around 200 parts per million water vapor in the atmosphere (the Earth's atmosphere has an average of about 10,000 parts per million water vapor).  We've known for some time that the surface of Mars is bombarded by intense radiation, since Mars doesn't have the strong magnetic field or the atmosphere that Earth has to protect us from radiation.  However, we've recently learned from the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument on the Curiosity Rover that the surface of Mars has even more radiation than we had previously thought.  The first astronauts that we send to Mars will most likely have to employ shielding of various types to protect themselves from the radiation.  

Although the Martian surface will be a dangerous place for humans, there are some organisms on Earth that could easily survive the radiation on Mars' surface.  Take for instance Deinococcus radiodurans.  The Guinness Book of World Records title holder for "the world's toughest microbe", D. radiodurans is an extremophile that can withstand environments with limited nutrients and extreme dryness and, most importantly, can withstand extremely high doses of radiation.  This microbe can withstand a radiation dose over 1,000 times more than what would be lethal to a human.  It can survive in the cooling fluids of nuclear reactors.  The microbe's very name stand for "strange little berry that can withstand radiation" while some people like to call it Conan the Bacterium.  Indeed, D. radiodurans can even survive in the empty vacuum of space.  D. radiodurans would have no problems surviving a trip to Mars and even sitting on the Martian surface.

The extreme radiation resistance of D. radiodurans might even make us wonder about alien life that could survive long-term within the emptiness of space.  Perhaps there are biospheres where life has learned to launch itself out into space, like little spores traveling between worlds.  Perhaps some alien has even adapted to the space environment and become a fully space-fairing creature.  What would such a creature look like?  Perhaps it would be something like the Tin Man from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Moya from Farscape or perhaps something utterly strange.  Would such a creature be anything remotely similar to life as we know it.  Would it need to stay close to stars and planets to maintain itself?  Those are the questions that bridge between science and science fiction.  But we do have good reason to wonder about how organisms get their energy and how biospheres are built.  Much of life as we know it here on Earth is built upon the primary productivity garnered by organisms that utilize the light of the Sun for energy, but not all life on Earth requires sunlight to survive.

Life in Deepest Seas and the Curious Blobfish

My graduate advisor, Alexis Templeton, is the head of a team of researchers centered here at the University of Colorado Boulder and including members from several other institutions which have recently been awarded a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute to study what they are calling "Rock-Powered Life".  Their work will focus on understanding how biology on Earth has come to utilize chemical reactions between water and rocks for sustenance.  Life as we know it does not inherently require sunlight to drive primary production.  Rock-powered life may be the base of biospheres on other worlds.  Take for instance the Galilean moon Europa.

Europa (NASA)
Europa is a small moon of Jupiter that might have some big surprises in store for us.  The surface of Europa is a cracked icy shell, maybe 1 to 10 km in thickness, underlain by a deep subsurface ocean.  The ocean of Europa may be as deep as 120 km, making it one of the largest oceans in our solar system.  In fact, all of the water in the ocean of Europa is more voluminous than all of the water in all of the oceans, and rivers, and lakes of Earth!

Comparison on water on Europa vs. Earth (Kevin Hand)
Many of us now wonder if the subsurface ocean of Europa holds a subsurface ocean biosphere.  Perhaps there are hydrothermal vent systems on Europa's seafloor.  Perhaps, much like on Earth, those hydrothermal vent system have become oases of life, where rock-powered life sets the stage for the development of other organisms.  Could there be deep sea marine animals on Europa?  What would they be like.

Here's a crazy creature that might help us answer that question: the Blobfish.  These organisms inhabit deep sea environments off the coasts of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.  Living where the pressure is several dozen times greater than at the surface, the Blobfish has developed a unique way to maintain its buoyancy.  While many fish use gas bladders to control their position in the water column, the Blobfish has body of gelatinous flesh that is slightly less dense than water, allowing the Blobfish to control its buoyancy in deep sea settings.  However, when the Blobfish is removed from its natural setting, the one to which it has adapted so well, and brought to the surface, its body structure changes and it basically slumps into a gelatinous mass.  This has earned the Blobfish the vote as "The World's Ugliest Animal".

The Blobfish can survive the extreme pressure of the deep sea, but it's only adapted for that environment.  When we consider what alien life may be like, we need to be sure we're considering the types of environments where life might have come to be and where life might be best adapted.  For instance, what kind of life, if any, could come to live in the environments of gas giant worlds?

Sagan's Floaters and Hunters...  and Blowfish

In Carl Sagan's television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, he discussed speculations about what types of organisms could come to thrive in the vast atmospheres of worlds like Jupiter:

Floaters and Hunters.  What might they look like?  Giant balloon organisms?  Giant floating whales?  In my mind I wonder if maybe such atmosphere-bound life might develop develops defense mechanisms like a blowfish.  Maybe the floaters are giant blowfish-like balloons that can change their position in the atmosphere by bringing in or pushing out gas, and maybe they even look something like blowfish, with spikes and other defense mechanisms adorning their bodies to keep them safe from the Hunters.

As Carl Sagan said, we can constrain our thoughts about the possibilities for extraterrestrial life through physics and chemistry, but these are truly speculations.  Until we have examples of alien life to work with, the best we can do is work to understand life on Earth and try to use what we know of life to understand which environments alien life may have come to call home.  We can look at worlds like Venus, Mars, Europa, and Jupiter and ask these questions.  We can also look further, to other worlds around stars far away.

Exoworlds and the Possibilities of Perception: The Greater Wax Moth and the Mantis Shrimp

Since the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, the first extrasolar world we've found, our conception of the number of alien worlds that exist in our universe has been radically expanded.  As of today, we have found over 1800 exoplanets and that number is always growing!  The worlds we've detected around other stars exist in only a small fraction of the space within our galaxy.  Considering the number of planets we've found thus far, it has been estimated that every star in our galaxy should have, on average, at least one world.  Of course, some may have none and some may have many, but this still leaves a great number of possible worlds and possible environments for the development of extraterrestrial life.  What might those aliens look like?  Astronomer and artist, David Aguilar of Aspen Skies has been using his artwork to propose some ideas.  He creates models of speculative alien life based on his knowledge of life here on Earth and then places those modeled aliens into digitally created worlds.  In what ways can we constrain such work, such speculations?  Perhaps we can consider something like sensory perception.

Take, for instance, the Greater Wax Moth.  This organism has the greatest range of hearing of any known organism on our planet.  Not only that, but the Greater Wax Moth has a hearing range that lies outside of the range of sounds that we humans hear.  It has alien hearing here on Earth.  It's evolved such hearing so that it can hear at frequencies up to 300,000 Hz, allowing it to "out-hear" it's natural predator, the bat.  Bats use high-frequency sounds in their echolocation.  It allows them to "see" what they hear.  The Greater Wax Moth has evolved to hear and to speak above the frequency at which bats echolocate.

An even crazier creature might be the Mantis Shrimp.  The Mantis Shrimp has the greatest perception of light and color of any known organism.  While we humans only have 3 color receptors in our eyes, Mantis Shrimp have 16!  Writing in his webcomic, The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman has said of Mantis Shrimp that their sight is like a "thermonuclear bomb of light and beauty"!  Not only do Mantis Shrimp have the greatest vision of any known organism, but they also happen to pack the hardest punch:

The Mantis Shrimp is a crazy creature.  It sees in ways that we can't comprehend and it kills using a deadly knockout punch.  Might there be alien worlds where the vision of the Mantis Shrimp is only the beginning?  Or worlds where the deadly force of the Mantis Shrimp's punch would be considered puny?

What Beings May Come?

What could organisms like the Greater Wax Moth and the Mantis Shrimp teach us about alien life?  What about the Hummingbird, extremophiles like Deinococcus radiodurans, or the Blobfish?  When there are aliens such as these living amongst us, perhaps it suggests that the possibilities for life in the universe are endless.  

I didn't even start to touch on intelligence and consciousness, robots and machine life, or even some of the myriad ways in which microbes might dominate alien biospheres, and yet there are great examples to be found in those realms as well.  The bridge between science and science fiction lies not only in imagination, but in considering what may yet come to be.

As Carl Sagan mentioned in that video from Cosmos, there is no predictive theory of biology.  Not because it doesn't exist, but because we don't yet have enough to go on to determine if there could be one.  Maybe life does follow certain rules and we will one day find that many aliens are very similar to us, or maybe life follows few rules and alien life will appear utterly and wholly alien to us.  Considering all of the crazy creatures on Earth can help us to constrain our speculations about alien life, but, until we determine if we are or are not alone in the universe, all we can do is continue to look at our one example of a biosphere and say "what might this mean?"