If you’re looking for some good news…

by on July 23, 2011 at 9:54 am in Science | Permalink

Astronomers found a reservoir of water in space that measures 140 trillion times the earth’s ocean water.

It is also the farthest reservoir of water ever discovered in the universe, according to two teams of researchers.

The water surrounds a huge, feeding black hole called a “quasar” more than 12 billion light-years away. The quasar is powered by a giant black hole which gradually consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust, while spewing out enormous amounts of energy.

Astronomers studied a quasar called APM 08279+5255, where the black hole is 20 billion times greater than the sun. They discovered Water vapor distributed around the black hole spanning hundreds stretching out to hundreds of light-years in size.

In other words,  “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.”  But wait, oops, Katja Grace will tell us this isn’t really good news at all…

1 Ed July 23, 2011 at 10:34 am

Oh good, when we are finished trashing this planet we can go to another one.

“The water surrounds a huge, feeding black hole called a “quasar” more than 12 billion light-years away. The quasar is powered by a giant black hole which gradually consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust, while spewing out enormous amounts of energy.”

Sh–, guess not.

2 Careless July 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Seeing as it’s 12 billion light0years away, I suspect the water is no longer there anyway.

3 zbicyclist July 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm

And from the quasar’s point of view, we aren’t here.

4 Neal July 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Careful – at 12 bn ly, the quasar is moving away from us at 90% c. We and the quasar will have different notions of simultaneity.

5 RR July 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm

“Water, water everywhere
Nor a drop to drink”
(“Coleridge-Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”

6 TGGP July 23, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Kind of ruined it when you gave a citation. Would have been hilarious though if the cite was to Iron Maiden.

7 Edward Burke July 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

Hilarious still for anyone distinguishing “rhyme” from “rime”: the latter was the Middle English spelling. From a 1963 ed. Thorndike-Barnhart usage note: “The simpler spelling seems to be gaining slowly . . . It is not only simpler but was the original spelling in English.” Curious at this point that the simpler spelling has not prevailed; or should we understand that our contemporaries are now illiterate enough not to know how to spell “rime”?

8 Yancey Ward July 23, 2011 at 4:40 pm

The pipeline was funded by ARRA.

9 nick July 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Grace is wrong on this one. Given the vast uncertainties of the probabilities of the origins of life, as well as of the many evolutionary barriers that had to be overcome between then and where we are now, there’s no good reason to not believe an arbitrarily high percentage of “the Great Filter” lies behind us. The actual facts of history and the present and technology provide almost infinitely higher quality information about our extinction risks. And it turns out if you analyze the various disaster scenarios (nuke, biological, supervolcanoes, asteroids, etc.) carefully, you discover that hardly any of them are actually exisential risks. They are merely very horrible disasters. It’s easy to slaughter billions of humans, but our species is extremely difficult to kill off.

By the way, the few orders of magnitude uncertainty we have about how much water there is in the universe is dwarfed by the very many orders of magnitude uncertainty we have about the probabilities involved in these evolutionary events.

10 Katja Grace July 24, 2011 at 5:02 pm

None of what you say appears to contradict the claim that finding evidence that we got to where we are easily is bad news with regards to the Great Filter. You seem to only be arguing that the effect is small.

11 nick July 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm

For present or future existential risks to be a significant component of “the” Great Filter (GF) they would have to be extremely close to certainty — otherwise they would be lost in the noise of the extreme uncertainties of the probabilities of past events in the evolution of life. If we face extinction with such extremely high certainty, a few orders of magnitude decrease in the probability of an past GF event makes no significant difference — we are doomed with extremely high probability anyway. If we aren’t so doomed, then our future existential risks are lost in the noise of the extreme uncertainty of the probability of past evolutionary events and we have no way of estimating our existential risks using Great Filter methodology.

The good news is that we have ways estimate our existential risks that are astronomically better than speculating about evolution and ETIs. We can look at actual history, technology, and the proposed risk scenarios. That information tells us that our present and future existential risks are very low, which is perfectly consistent with the extreme uncertainties of past GF event probabilities. Even an existential risk of exactly zero would be very well within the GF error bars.

As a result, this news or any other news that the universe contains more of some prerequisite of life like water is “bad news” only with respect to other astronomically uncertain events that occurred in our past. It simply changes our estimates of the probability that the events that did occur in our past also have occurred elsewhere in the galaxy (or if you prefer the number we can expect to have occurred in the universe). For example if we discover that water is more common, some other prerequisite for the origin of life, or some other event that occurred between the origins of life and ourselves must be (keeping our estimate from astronomical observations of ETI density in the universe fixed) that much less probable.

Indeed there isn’t even any significant “bad news” in terms of probability here for past events. That is because the current news changes the estimates of water by so few orders of magnitude that it’s lost in the extreme uncertainty of the probability of those past events. Reconstruction of the genetics of the “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA), experiments with theories of origin (e.g. RNA world in a lab), and other such biological studies shed far more light on the origins of life than observations of the amount of various simple molecules in the universe.

12 Edward Burke July 24, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Not even detecting the Higgs boson is going to deflect us from our fall into “the Alpha Concentration” (Norma Cluster + Great Attractor + Shapley Supercluster), towards which we and the entire Virgo Supercluster are sailing at c. 600 km/s, just as we have throughout recorded history and unrecorded time. Maybe we’ll all drown there, hunh? Or, maybe just enough water will be on hand to reconstitute our dust. Wake me after we arrive . . . . and why quibble over human extinction anyway? Maybe our destiny lies in the realm of non-baryonic matter.

13 Jorj August 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm

All the more reason to do ourselves a favor and start researching technology, setting ambitions higher and begin expanding outwards… even if we don’t leave the solar system, we’re still hugely better off in thousands of autonomous artificial environments than in one, very efficient and ever changing one… so let’s start the new exodus!!! Deus Vult! There’s something for the believers out there…

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