Why is the Universe so Friggin’ Confusing?

Should we really expect the Universe to fit nicely with our perceptions of the world? Should it agree nicely with ‘common sense’? Some people think so, but there’s no reason it should. In fact the Universe doesn’t really fit in with common sense at all, especially in the quantum world. There are some profoundly disturbing and philosophically challenging facts about the Universe that have come to light through modern cosmology. Whilst you may think ‘this doesn’t make any logical sense, how can this be true?’, things such as quantum physics do actually ensure that everything works. Without it protons, neutrons and electrons wouldn’t be able to stick together to make the elements and so on.

Now, I’m no expert, I don’t pretend to be, but I want to discuss the most disturbing theory of modern science: string theory. Or, to be more precise, the Multiverse, where there are many, perhaps and infinite number of, universes.

Here is a recent video from TED presented by Brian Greene, a very well respected theoretical physicist. The video is 20 minutes long but it is very interesting (apart from the annoying sound effects).

Pretty remarkable, huh? And my hunch (I know I shouldn’t have hunches) is that the Multiverse theory is correct. The disturbing thing though, something that Brain Greene forgets to mention is that this can also mean that there are Universes in which I have written all of this backwards, or in another language, or indeed a Universe in which I actually became an astronaut (can I go to that Universe please?) This, I find, is profoundly disturbing though and I end up asking myself some very deep, unanswerable questions.

What do you think of it all?

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I Dream of Space

I dreamt of space. I dreamt of becoming an astronaut, much to the amusement of my classmates at secondary school. A few years later, however, I confronted reality. It was never going to happen. I still get child-like excited when I meet an astronaut, of which I have luckily met quite a few, but I’m remaining solidly stuck here. I’ll gaze up and watch the intrepid explorers venture up into the sky and I’ll still dream, dream of what they’re experiencing, the G-forces at launch, the views of our pale blue dot, the microgravity of Earth orbit.

Then, a few years ago, I heard about Virgin Galactic. Soon they’d be offering trips to space. Only for 30 minutes, but it’s a trip to space nonetheless. The price tag. Ah! $250,000. Yep, I’m still staying down here.

Virgin Galactic

2 days ago I came across I Dream of Space. They’re offering a unique opportunity…a trip to space. It’s kinda like a lottery, but it’s not (check out their FAQ’s). You buy a poster for $10 and you’re entered into the draw. Once $25,000 of ‘tickets’ have been bought (enough to cover the $250,000) it’s draw from the hat time. One lucky person will get a trip to space. Well, I just had to enter didn’t I?!

Even if my name doesn’t get plucked out (there’s a 1 in 25,000 chance – odds that are better than the lottery actually) then maybe in 15, 20 or 30 years it’ll be different. The price, I imagine, would have come down significantly, perhaps to something I might just about be able to afford.

The Secrets of Gale Crater: Why Curiosity Isn’t Looking for Life

The Mars Science Laboratory Rover ‘Curiosity’

It’s about four months until Curiosity, NASA’s new Mars rover, plunges into the thin Martian atmosphere at a good few thousand miles per hour, releases a parachute and then finally uses a retro-rocket jet pack to place her safely down on the surface…hopefully (watch this great video of the landing sequence). She’s a well equipped machine with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator as her power source and a large swathe of spectrometers, microscopes, cameras and sensors. All these gadgets aren’t going to help her look for life though. Why is that? Why hasn’t NASA loaded a Martian rover, sent it Mars (somewhere where we think life may be) and decided not to go hunting for it? It all stems back to NASA’s first missions to land on Mars, the Viking missions, back in 1976. These were two landers that were equipped to look for life. What went wrong?

Mars from Viking 2

The Viking landers consisted of 3 biology experiments along with two other supporting instruments. I want to focus on one of the biology experiments and one of the supporting instruments. I should note first though that two of the biology experiments provided results consistent with non-biological processes. The two aspects I’m focusing on are the labelled release (LR) biology experiment and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS).

A GCMS is a device used to identify different substances in a test sample and the LR experiment was designed to test for metabolic activity of any microorganisms that consumed nutrients that were provided by the experiment. The results were confusing and yet intriguing.

The LR experiment produced results showing positive life detection. The experiment basically involved a small sample of ‘soil’ being moistened with a nutrient of distilled water and organic compounds that had been labelled with radioactive 14C. Any microorganisms that appeared would consume the nutrient and give off gases containing 14C. In the actual experiment labelled gas was emitted (suggesting the presence of microorganisms) but further additions of nutrient caused the gas level to decrease and then increase slowly again. This was very bizarre if this was due biological activity.

The GCMS, however, didn’t find any evidence of organic compounds at the surface thus making all the biology experiments redundant as they were designed to test organic matter.

This is all a very confusing result. One experiment saying there’s no organic matter so there can be no life whilst another says there could be life here. It’s now thought however the the LR experiment can be explained non-biologically and that all the biology experiments showed chemical processes.

So the overall result? Inconclusive. Although some scientists have started to question the LR experiment recently saying that it did actually find life (see ‘Is this proof of life on Mars?‘). They don’t seem to answer questions about there being no organic matter though.

NASA have since taken the view of ‘follow the water’. They don’t want to spend millions or billions of dollars on a mission to get another inconclusive result. So they’re more recent missions have been to understand the geology and chemical processes, and to figure out where the water has been. After a while we may find evidence of an area that could have extant or extinct life, only then will NASA be confident enough to send a life searching mission to Mars.

Gale crater with Curisoity’s landing site

Gale crater, Curiosity’s destination, is an interesting place though. It appears to have been an old lake bed where sediments have been laid down over long periods of time when Mars had water. A good habitat for life? Possibly, but we’re not going to find out conclusively for a long time yet.

Smooth Moves at 17,500mph

This is a beautiful image of ATV-3 ‘Edoardo Arnaldi’ docking at the International Space Station the other day. You can see the green haze of the atmosphere, the great stars of the galaxy and the bright lights of ATV-3. I think this will be my new desktop wallpaper!

ATV-3 Docking at the ISS

ATV-3 is the third ‘Automated Transfer Vehicle‘, an unmanned supply capsule, created by the European Space Agency, used to deliver food, water, clothes and experiments to the space station. It holds a lot more than the more regular Russian Progress resupply ships. After a few months docked to the station the astronauts will fill it with rubbish and it will burn up in the atmosphere.

My Favourite Places in the Solar System

Here I’m going to show you some of my favourite places in our solar system. They’re in no particular order, partly because I don’t think I can pick out an absolute favourite. I’ll provide some pictures for each and briefly describe why I think they’re interesting places.

  • Pele Volcano, Io – Jovian Moon

Pele Volcano, Io

Io is a pretty interesting place. Due to various gravitational interactions it is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. Because it’s quite small, volcanic plumes can reach 300 odd kilometers high, as opposed to a few 10’s of thousands of feet on Earth. The most notable aspect about this volcano though is the large red/orangey ring surrounding it (as can be seen in the picture). This is the sulphurous fallout from the volcanic plume. Pretty good start, right?

  • North Polar Region, Saturn

Hexagonal Cloud Pattern

No ice caps up on the poles on Saturn, it’s too big. It’s one of the gas giants. It still has a rather unique and interesting feature though. It’s called the ‘north pole hexagonal cloud pattern’. Not very catchy at all, is it? But it’s a truly bizarre feature. Each straight side of the hexagon is about 14,000km long, making them larger than the diameter of the Earth! No one quite yet knows exactly how it formed or how it works, however, although there are plausible theories.

  • 433 Eros, Near-Earth Asteroid

The Asteroid Eros

Eros is only here because I remember the photos coming through, when I was 10, when the NEAR spacecraft landed on its surface. Some of the larger rocks found on the asteroid are all thought to originate from a single crater from a meteor impact about 1 billion years ago. The asteroids got a pretty funky shape too.

  • Olympus Mons, Mars

Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons just had to make it in here. It’s the tallest mountain in the solar system (technically an extinct volcano) that stands a whopping 22km high, that’s 3 times the height of Everest! How does a volcano grow to be so big? It’s mainly thanks to Mars’ lower gravity. Lava doesn’t rush down at such a speed so has longer to cool in a given place. Also, it’s thanks to a mantle plume that used to sit beneath the volcano. This is where magma rises from the deep to the surface. We have these mantle plumes on Earth, but because of plate tectonics they move around and don’t stay in one fixed location, which is partly why we don’t have anything as impressive!

  • Verona Rupes, Miranda – Uranian Moon

Miranda

Now for one not so well known. We venture much farther out to a moon orbiting Uranus, Miranda. We’ve only had a brief glimpse of Miranda, thanks to the Voyager 2 spacecraft, so not all of it has been imaged. It’ll probably be another 50 or more years before that’s done. But from what we’ve seen it looks like a pretty cool place, it’s got some interesting geological features, in fact it’s the most geologically diverse moon of Uranus. Verona Rupes is the tallest cliff in the solar system, up to 10 km high. Imagine looking all the way up at that! It’s not known how it formed, although it’ll either be from an impact or crustal lifting.

  • Kraken Mare, Titan – Saturnian Moon

Radar Image of Kraken Mare, Titan

Titan ranks as possibly the most interesting place in the solar system. It’s the second biggest moon around (larger than the planet Mercury) and it’s enveloped in a thick atmosphere, thicker than the Earth’s. Titan’s sometimes referred to as a primordial Earth in deep freeze. That’s because it’s thought to resemble how the Earth looked a couple billion years ago, but in deep freeze. The most unique feature though is in relation to its temperature. At  about -175°C methane can remain in 3 different states – a gas, a solid and a liquid, much like water can on Earth. As a result there are large icy patches of frozen methane, a nitrogen atmosphere with many different hydrocarbons and there are large lakes of liquid methane, of which Kraken Mare is the biggest. It’s also the only other place in the solar system where it rains. Not water but methane, which drifts slowly down because of its lower gravity. What an amazing sight that would be!

  • The Rings of Saturn, Saturn

The effects of a moonlet on one of Saturn’s rings

What would this be if we didn’t discuss the majestic rings of Saturn? Made from trillions upon trillions of ice particles, some microscopic some up to a few metres in length, they are so bright because they’re mainly made from water ice and reflect a lot of the Sun’s light. They’re incredibly thin too, no more than a few metres thick! Amazing for such a vast system of rings. It’s thought over time these particles coalesce and then break apart, and the cycle continues. Some of Saturn’s little moonlets cause bizarre gravitational patterns in the rings too, and this is also partly why there are gaps between some of the rings. The moon Enceladus also provides material for one of the rings. More on that shortly though. The biggest question though? No one really knows how the rings go there in the first place.

  • Tycho Crater, The Moon

Central Peak of Tycho Crater

The only reason this one made it in is because of a photo taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter a few months ago. It’s quite a young crater (just over 100 million years old), easily seen with the naked eye and a favourite observing point for amateur astronomers. The crater has a central peak. This is where, moments after the impact that created it, material from deep below rebounded forming a small mountainous area in its centre. This is typical of most large impact craters. LRO took a photo of this central peak, and you can see so much detail that you can even make out a large boulder right at the top it. Impressive stuff, huh? (Click on the image to see the bigger, better version)

  • Tiger Stripes, Enceladus – Saturnian Moon

False colour image of the jets from the Tiger Stripes

Enceladus is a pretty special place. It’s a tiny little moon, so tiny in fact that it would nicely fit in the North Sea between the UK and Scandinavia. Like the gravitational interactions that make Io active though, Enceladus is active. Not with volcanism but with cryovolcanism (basically icy volcanoes – counter-intuitive, I know, but it really does happen). The Tiger Stripes are where it’s most active. Heat from inside melts icy products and a phenomena similar to geysers on Earth are produced, launching the icy products out into space. This creates Saturn’s outermost ring, the E ring. Due to the gravitational interactions warming the moons interior up it’s also possible that a liquid water ocean exists beneath the surface!

  • Conamara Chaos, Europa – Jovian Moon

Conamara Chaos, Europa

Another world shaped by cryovolcanism now, Europa, the moon lying slightly further out than Io. Whilst not as active as Io, and a tad cooler too, Europa remains the most exciting place in the solar system for the possibility of life. It has a thick icy surface, below which probably lies a massive liquid water ocean. If this exists, which is quite likely the case, then life, extraterrestrial life, could be there too. Chaos terrain is called as such because it’s pretty chaotic, there’s a lot that has been going on, as can be seen by the image. The area consists of icy rafts that have moved around and rotated, it’s all surrounded by a ‘matrix’ of jumbled up ice blocks too. Pretty hectic indeed!

  • Cantaloupe Terrain, Triton – Neptunian Moon

Triton’s south polar cap and cantaloupe terrain

Well I’ve got include a place that has such a cool name, haven’t I. This terrain on Triton is named Cantaloupe terrain because it looks like the skin on a cantaloupe melon! Triton is Neptune’s largest moon and it has a mysterious past. The moon goes the wrong way around the planet. Could it be a captured Kuiper belt object, now locked into orbit? Or did Neptune devour another planet billions of years ago and steal one of its moons? What is interesting about this place though is that its geologically active, again with cryovolcanism. It has geysers expelling nitrogen. These geysers appear to be powered by solar heating, which is odd because it’s so far away from the Sun, it seems to have a profound effect though! The Cantaloupe terrain itself is thought to have formed by a process called diapirism, similar to how a lava lamp works.

  • Taurus-Littrow Valley, The Moon

Orange soil on the Moon!

Back to the Moon now and the landing site of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the Moon. This makes it in here because of something very interesting Jack Schmitt found (the only scientist to have been to the Moon). We all think of the Moon as a fairly mundane place. It’s just grey and boring…or so it seems. During Apollo 17, the astronauts came across not grey, but orange soil! This orange soil is made up from volcanic glass beads that erupted and solidified in fire fountains during the areas early formation about 4 billion years ago.

  • Valles Marineris, Mars

Topographic image of Valles Marineris

Another of Mars’ unique landscapes. This is one of the greatest valleys in the solar system. You could fit the Grand Canyon into one of the Valles Marineris’ tributaries! It’s 4,000km long, 200km wide and reaching down to 7km deep! It’s thought that this great valley was created by what’s known as rift faulting – that’s responsible for the rift valley too. Erosion by water in Mars’ earlier days may also have helped too.

  • Cassini Regio, Iapetus – Saturnian Moon

The two halves of Iapetus

And last but not least is Iapetus. This is a moon of two deeply contrasting halves. One side is dark and the other a bright white. There’s also has a strange ridge that runs half way around its equator. The dark part of the moon, known as Cassini Regio, is a thin covering of material, only about 10cm thick, that it thought to come not from Iapetus elsewhere. It’s thought that there is also some residue making it up too that has been left behind by the evaporation of surface ice. The ridge is a great complication as it’s not known how it formed, or why it formed nearly exactly around the equator. What we do know though is that it contains some of the tallest mountains in the solar system!

I’d really like to know some of your favourite places, especially if I haven’t mentioned them. Leave them as a comment below along with a brief reason as to why it’s your favourite.