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Last year, some of the same research team reported finding complex organic macromolecules within the water vapor that were likely floating on the surface of Enceladus’ ocean. This year, they followed up with a more sophisticated analysis of what sorts of molecules were dissolved into the ocean water. The compounds found within Enceladus’ water vapor plumes, which are responsible for most of the content of Saturn’s E ring, are believed to be present in the liquid subsurface ocean that exists underneath the south pole rather than being the result of contamination as the water escapes from its subsurface prison. That’s significant because many of the nitrogen and oxygen-based compounds the researchers detected are also essential to amino acids here on Earth…
“If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth,” said Nozair Khawaja, who led the research team of the Free University of Berlin. “We don’t yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle.” Khawaja’s findings were published Oct. 2 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Here is further information.
Saturn moon spewing water vapor. Or so it seems…
A reader request:
I also recently heard you mention on the Clearer Thinking Podcast that Geology is a field you are not as naturally curious about…would love a blog post on fields that you less interested in with a short reflection on why.
First, keep in mind what it means when I say I am not very curious about geology. I am for instance quite interested in the origins of geology, how they relate to the Enlightenment, why some of those origins were in Scotland, and how geology developed as a profession throughout the early part of the 19th century with the formation of geological societies for the first time. I’ve read James Hutton and Charles Lyell (a splendid book to teach reasoning from, among its other virtues), and have a sense of the import of Georges Cuvier for the development of geological science. And of course geological data had a big influence on Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Darwin at first thought he might be making contributions to geology (in a way he was right).
I know that John Playfair (1748-1819) was a founding father of geology. He was trained as a minister and worked as a philosophy instructor and later in mathematics. He became friends with Adam Smith and Joseph Black (an important figure in Linnaean botany) and he tutored Adam Ferguson, a leading light in the Scottish Enlightenment. His younger brother, William Playfair, wrote on political economy, though his work is no longer widely read, not even by history of thought specialists.
In terms of travel, I have been interested in seeing the different layers of geological strata in France and in China especially, Sicily too, and of course in the Western United States. Iceland! I was keen to visit Rotorua in New Zealand. I worry about super-volcanoes, and have read a book about them. How about the role of the Massif Central in French history? Fascinating.
Still I am not interested in geology per se. I cannot “think like a geologist,” whatever that might mean. I am interested in the facts of geology when they intersect with other things I am interested in, such as the Enlightenment or travel, or how geological disasters have shaped human societies. I am interested in economic geology and petroleum geology, and would be interested in any generated knowledge about how “exo-geology” (moons of Saturn!) might relate to the existence of life beyond Earth. I would like to know more about rare earths and why there is so much lithium in the Bolivian desert. I am interested in geology as a source of knowledge and data about climate change.
Still, I know very little about what is inside the crust of the Earth, and am comfortable with that. I couldn’t tell you much about sediments, or thermochronologic studies. I feel if I learned the models of geology, or how geologists use micro-computed tomography, it would not overlap much with my other interests. I could be wrong about that, but currently am short on time for figuring out and correcting such possible errors.
So no, I am not all that interested in geology, but it doesn’t hold such a special status either! I am not interested in most things. Geology may well come in above average.
One lesson of this post is that it is possible to be interested in things one is not interested in, and vice versa.
1. City dwellers are clueless about the suburbs (NYT). But they are happy if their kids can continue to slack off.
3. The elderly have higher income than we thought: “…the discrepancy is mainly attributable to underreporting of retirement income from defined benefit pensions and retirement account withdrawals.”
3. Reemergence of some famine conditions around the world. I take this to be another sign of a broader breakdown of global order.
4. David Brooks on the Cuomo free college plan (NYT). Masterful analysis of an idea that otherwise is being passed around uncritically.
6. Is there life on Enceladus, moon of Saturn? I think so. Hi out there!
1. Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix, Beyond Earth; Our Path to a New Home in the Planets. The core claim is that humans can (will?) colonize Titan, the moon of Saturn. But what are we to make of sentences such as: “The temperature is around -180 Celsius (-290 Fahrenheit), but clothing with thick insulation or heating elements would keep you comfortable. A rip wouldn’t kill you as long as you didn’t freeze.” Pregnancy would be tricky too.
2. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi. One of my favorite literary biographies, ever. This is also a first-rate look at the history of the Holocaust, and the postwar Italian literary world. Definitely recommended.
3. Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture. One of the best and most readable treatments of the Haitian revolution, with a focus on Louverture of course. Here is one good bit:
When it came time to pick between two extremes — slavery and unfettered freedom — Louverture stopped well short of the latter. By order of General Louverture, all former field slaves, even those who had settled in urban areas during the Revolution, would return to their original plantations, sometimes under their former masters. Those who refused would be “arrested and punished as severely as soldiers,” which implied that plantation runaways could be shot as deserters. He thereby merged the two worlds he knew best — the sugar plantation and the army camp — into a kind of military-agricultural complex.
According to many critics at the time, rebel leaders were in essence confiscating the slave plantations of their former white masters. Furthermore, the importation of laborers from Africa was to continue.
4. Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew, delivers exactly what it promises: “For many young Israelis, Arial is virtually the only font they read.”
Also in various stages of undress are:
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, foreword by Bernie Sanders.
Niall Kishtainy, A Little History of Economics, a modern-day Heilbroner.
Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, a Julian Simon-esque take on the case for optimism.
Here is the NYT article:
Can you fly an iPhone to the stars?
In an attempt to leapfrog the planets and vault into the interstellar age, a bevy of scientists and other luminaries from Silicon Valley and beyond, led by Yuri Milner, the Russian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur, announced a plan on Tuesday to send a fleet of robots no bigger than iPhones to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, 4.37 light-years away.
If it all worked out — a cosmically big “if” that would occur decades and perhaps $10 billion from now — a rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying a thousand or so small probes to space. Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth, set off one by one like a flock of migrating butterflies across the universe.
Within two minutes, the probes would be more than 600,000 miles from home — as far as the lasers can maintain a tight beam — and moving at a fifth of the speed of light. But it would still take 20 years for them to get to Alpha Centauri. Those that survived would zip past the stars, making measurements and beaming pictures back to Earth.
Upon reflection, I don’t think we should do it. What if the devices are traced back to us and we are exterminated or enslaved or simply demoralized? Let’s stick with those moons of Saturn.
2. Enceladus update: “A sensor on board the spacecraft has “tasted the eruptions of vapor and ice materials” and will identify any of the basic ingredients of life, he said. After past, higher-altitude journeys through the plume, Cassini has detected water vapor, methane, nitrogen, ammonia and other molecules associated with life. But Wednesday’s pass was the lowest ever, through a range more likely to hold heavier, more complex organic molecules.”
NASA’s mantra for finding alien life has long been to “follow the water,” the one ingredient essential to our own biochemistry. On Wednesday, NASA will sample the most available water out there, when the Cassini spacecraft dives through an icy spray erupting from the little Saturnian moon Enceladus.
…in 2005, shortly after starting an 11-year sojourn at Saturn, Cassini recorded jets of water squirting from cracks known as tiger stripes near the south pole of Enceladus — evidence, scientists say, of an underground ocean kept warm and liquid by tidal flexing of the little moon as it is stretched and squeezed by Saturn.
And with that, Enceladus leapfrogged to the top of astrobiologists’ list of promising places to look for life. If there is life in its ocean, alien microbes could be riding those geysers out into space where a passing spacecraft could grab them. No need to drill through miles of ice or dig up rocks.
As Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory, said, it’s as if nature had hung up a sign at Enceladus saying “Free Samples.”
It is sad the American public is not more excited about this, but kudos to the NYT for making it a feature story.
That was the email heading from Nick Mann a week or so ago. Nick asked:
If humans saw strong signs of life on Mars when telescopes became powerful enough to detect it (1800’s?), how would’ve that impacted our economic space priorities? Would’ve we already have sent a manned mission there? Does it matter what stage the life was in (i.e. seeing villages & dirt roads vs glowing metropoli)?
I will predict a one-way mission to Mars, sent in the 1980s, but not too much earlier. For one thing, Mars is far away (duh). The moon shot already took quite a concentrated effort, and it is hard to imagine it being started before the 1950s, given earlier missile technology and the like. World War II already gave associated technologies a big boost, large relative to the likely effect of Mars-gazing on the political equilibrium for everyday science funding.
Ask a comparable question about today. Let’s say we could identify a distant planet as having intelligent life, or likely to have intelligent life. How much would the budget of NASA go up? Not enough to make a huge difference in the short run I suspect. It already seems there may be not-very-intelligent life on Mars (though don’t forget the slime mold, maybe the Martians are smart), and possibly something of interest on some moons of Saturn and Jupiter, and yet we are dismantling NASA’s space efforts.
If you wish to argue this the other way around, both voters and politicians up through the 1960s seemed to have a much more “can do” attitude about large science projects than they do today. As Peter Thiel mentioned recently, is it not odd — and bad — that we refer to ourselves as “the developed nations”?
5. Peto's paradox: why is there no correlation between animal body size and cancer?, plus a meditation on blue whales.