Weaving a Web of Reality

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

 

Entering a new decade of physics, there are spacetime crystals and teleparallel theories of gravity that seem to have taken a life of their own until the next wave of theoretical concepts washes ashore.  As waves spread out, they break new ground, hoping to cross a new threshold. From nothingness to being, theoretical constructs provide a conduit for information flow. For my part, I am still trying to grapple with the metaphysical implications of words and metaphors. What does it mean that it is possible for the universe to be in a phantom dominated era today? Time is a river carrying particles on a journey from being phantom-like to dust-like across the phantom divide. 

 

The movement of galaxies is not random. It was said that all clusters are dynamically young and that the formation of structure in the Universe has been proceeding from the small scale to the larger scale (clusters and superclusters). Our Consciousness, indeed, holds a camera, slowly zooming out from Earth beyond the bounds of our physical reach. Widening the view of the camera is our way to reflect upon the past and the future. We see Earth rotating around the solar system within the boundaries of the Milky Way which is part of a local group of galaxies currently outside the so-called capture zone of the Virgo Cluster. The same way satellite galaxies undergo infall, galaxy groups are continually being accreted onto clusters through a web-like network of filamentary structures. I wonder whether our local group and the Virgo Cluster will ultimately move towards each other?  Beyond the limits of the Virgo Cluster extends the Virgo Supercluster which, itself, is part of an even larger supercluster named Laniakea. 

 

From the genesis of the first molecule to the formation of planetesimals through a dust sticking process called pebble accretion and the multistage building of moons and planets via impact, the scene is set. The story goes on with massive rings giving birth to satellites and the tale of a white dwarf in the binary system PSR J1141- 6545 which accreted matter from a pulsar progenitor. Yet, I am still wondering what looms beneath glaciers that defines their fleeting nature.  I dreamt about an incandescent line formed by warm underground waters breaking off a river of ice flowing to where I could not say. I see the Universe as an infinite series of self-organized structures bounded by critical states. 

 

Iceberg shattered (contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Iceberg shattered (contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

 

Based on the understanding that amino acid precursors are formed by cosmic radiation, cosmic rays may have many biological and climatic effects.  Scientists study the molecular chemistry involved in their interaction with Earth’s atmosphere and planetary surface when they produce a cascade of secondary particles as well as their mutagenic effects on cells. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy aboard a Boeing 747SP provided us with the first astrophysical detection of helium hydride in the planetary nebula NGC 7027. The flying Observatory also revealed that dust can re-form or grow immediately after catastrophic damage, notably in the aftermath of the Supernova 1987A’s blast wave. Dust grain catalyzes reactions at its surface allowing for the formation of molecules

When a cosmic ray particle collides with a dust grain, it deposits its energy... This heating increases the mobility of radicals on the surface of the grain…

L. Reboussin, V. Wakelam, S. Guilloteau, F. Hersant

 

 

Victor Hess received the Nobel prize in physics in 1936 for his discovery of cosmic radiation. He proved that the Sun, more precisely solar flares and coronal mass ejections, could not be the only source of cosmic rays. Scientists study the process in which cosmic rays emerge and how frequently they occur. How did they reach our shores? Is it them falling upon us, or is it we who are dragged with the rest of the solar system into those fateful encounters? While our solar system orbits through the galaxy and crosses the spiral arms of the Milky Way, it experiences variations in the interstellar medium, allowing Earth to be exposed to random doses of high-energy cosmic rays.  It was even suggested that it may be due to our Galaxy’s infall toward the Virgo cluster coupled with the oscillatory movement of our solar system perpendicular to the galactic plane

 

Galactic cosmic rays are produced by diffusive shock acceleration at the shocks of supernova remnants, such as the Orion-Eridanus superbubble blown by multiple supernovae several million years ago.  As mankind has witnessed, in the past, the sight of supernovae, not least of all, in 1604, I wonder whether the impalpable cosmic rays produced during those events did, in fact, reach us and how it would be to witness such an explosion in one’s lifetime.  

The star’s significance is a difficult matter to establish and we can be sure of only one thing: that either the star signifies nothing at all for Mankind or it signifies something of such exalted importance that it is beyond the grasp and understanding of any man

Johannes Kepler, De Stella nova in pede Serpentarii

 

Although most cosmic rays are produced by the Sun or, to a lesser extent, in our galaxy,  I wonder about those coming from beyond the solar system, whose sources remain unexplained.  I imagine that the further we launch cosmic rays detectors such as NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer or the Cosmic Ray Subsystems onboard Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, the better we might be able to understand their composition and origin. Although they may produce noticeable fluxes of diffuse gamma rays and neutrinos, further study is needed, notably in regard to the possibility that they are accelerated by the electric fields of supermassive black holes.  

Stars and Cosmic Rays Observed from Mars ( Mars Exploration Rover (MER))

Stars and Cosmic Rays Observed from Mars ( Mars Exploration Rover (MER))

 

 

Some have raised the possibility that decay or annihilation of dark matter particles is at the root of their emergence. They are engaged in the hunt for a superheavy Dark matter as a potential origin for extreme energy cosmic rays. The debate today is rather about how to get to more definite answers, even indirectly.  Others investigate the nature of antiparticles in cosmic rays, in particular the production of positrons from interactions between cosmic rays and interstellar gas, and whether those positrons are to be looked at as secondary or the product of an unknown source. Franco Vazza wrote a paper entitled ‘How complex is the Cosmic Web?” in which he stated that the combination of Information Theory and modern cosmological simulations makes it possible to tackle a challenging question such as the complexity of the Universe we live in. He gave an estimate of the total statistical complexity within the observable Universe, required to describe the evolution of gas in the cosmic web. 

 

In my mind, I cling to the idea that in the intragalactic medium plasma lie fluid-like streams of cosmic rays and that interstellar dust grains hold the chemistry of life and Consciousness.  Furthermore, some researchers are looking into the possibility that ultra high energy cosmic rays could be experiencing quantum gravity effects.  In my mind, cosmic rays’ chemistry and their unseen but timely diffusion over the quantum field,  weave the web of a complex and multi-layered Universe coded by a mathematical riddle. In my mind, the evolution of matter and life and, to an unknown extent, Consciousness have sprung out of the cosmic microwave background since the early Universe. 

 

Franco Vazza went on saying that the mathematical representation of the Universe is similar to the latest estimates of the maximum memory capacity of the human brain as if the Universe was expanding at the same pace as our consciousness. Such a connection makes me wonder whether there can not be a Universe in which we live without consciousness. The statistical complexity of the Universe is also of the same order of the total amount of data generated every day by social media. I imagine the World Wide Web to be an expression of our collective consciousness evolving, communicating, in a sense living outside of our heads. Ultimately, I am unsure how I feel about weighing those three different things against each other. Setting them side by side makes my head spin. My feet off the ground, I have lost balance. Maybe it is not the Universe which is an infinite series of self-organized structures bounded by critical states, but Consciousness that is structuring itself into multiple states: a brain, social media, the Universe. And if consciousness is dependent on the amount of information that circulates within a system, how conscious is our planet? How conscious is our Universe?

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Night Sky

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Venus and the Moon (December 28)

Venus and the Moon (December 28)

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth

 

Driving southeast from Cleveland on the first month of the year, the night curtains fall, revealing dazzling stars and planets caught in a net of constellations. The starlights beam bright, but I am not sure how I feel and whether they trigger in me some “distant memory” *. Venus, the third brightest celestial body, shines in the southwest sky. Beyond the heliosphere, eruptive, unstable stars signal their dramatic demise. Energy shocks flow in space when stars eject mass in a bubble of whimsical clouds as if they were “pulsating”. Mass loss may produce planetary nebulae such as NGC 5307 in the Centaurus constellation and  NGC 2022  in Orion. Those phenomena emit ultraviolet light that causes the expelled gases to glow. 

NGC 5307 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Wade et al.; CC BY 4.0)

NGC 5307 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Wade et al.; CC BY 4.0)

NGC 2022 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Wade et al.; CC BY 4.0)

NGC 2022 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Wade et al.; CC BY 4.0)

 

My night sky is not the skies over Aotearoa, that the Maori people would have contemplated. According to the star map drawn by Garry Beckstrom for 43 degrees north latitude, as I was leaving Cleveland and crossing back the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the brightest stars, visible with a naked eye, were Procyon, Sirius, Rigel, and Capella. Stars are classified based on their magnitude and luminosity.  However, for an observer looking at the night sky, their apparent brightness is also relative to how close they are to the solar system like Sirius born in the outer segment of the Sagittarius-Carina arm in our Milky Way at 8.6 light-years away and Procyon at 11.4.  I see space stretching in a line up of globular or galactic clusters, a grid of star formations extending one after the other as the discovery of Gaia 1 cluster concealed from sight by the brightness of Sirius has shown. 

Night Sky
Hertzsprung–Russell diagram

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram

 

There are stars we can’t see, masked by the ones closer and brighter. Stars may outshine their companions, too. More than half of all stars are born and live out their long lives with other siblings making up so-called binary and multiple star systems. A hidden white dwarf was found hanging around with Sirius, and, in the constellation Canis Minor, a faint white dwarf was discovered keeping company to Procyon. Rigel, a massive blue supergiant in the Orion constellation,  is composed of at least four stars and Capella, of two binary pairs. Betelgeuse has no “invisible companion”** and forms the winter Triangle with Procyon and Sirius. However, a study published four years ago raised the possibility of a past coalescence with a companion star, making it harder for us to predict Betelgueuse’s evolutionary history and future. 

Betelgueuse (ESA/Herschel/PACS/L. Decin et al)

Betelgueuse (ESA/Herschel/PACS/L. Decin et al)

A few years back, a composite color image of Betelgeuse captured by the Herschel Space Telescope showed material ejected from Betelgeuse as it evolved into a red supergiant star, shaped by its bow shock interaction with the interstellar medium. In my mind, I picture Betelgeuse to be currently blocked by some obscuring material on the edge of an interstellar cloud.  Stars hide in a cocoon of gas and dust.  In 1847, there was a large erratic outburst now known as “The Great Eruption”. Eta Carinae, the subject of over four centuries of observations, dramatically faded. It was later established that the system was a massive, long-period, highly eccentric binary in which periodic variations are driven by the collision of the stellar winds of the component stars. A study published last year proposed that the long-term brightening phase, due to the dissipation of a dusty clump in front of the central star, will be completed around 2032 ± 4 yr, when the star will be brighter than in the 1600’s

 

 NGC 1175 (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and William Keel (University of Alabama) and the Galaxy Zoo team)

NGC 1175 (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and William Keel (University of Alabama) and the Galaxy Zoo team)

 

At nightfall, the ground slowly disappears. Under the starry dome, I paint with a Baudelairian brush the Universe. What looks to me like dust and smoke moving and spreading in various forms and shapes cloak galaxies like NGC 1175. Clumps of space dust formed the building blocks of terrestrial planets. A recent paper published in the Journal Nature reports of a population of dust-enshrouded objects orbiting the center of the Milky Way.

Star-forming molecular clouds are threaded by magnetic fields that are likely inherited from the galactic-scale interstellar medium out of which they condensed

Mark R. Krumholz and Christoph Federrath

One could read the history of galaxy mergers as a story of war and peace, filling space with ghosts and deceased stars. With my eyes closed, I could even sense a lingering feeling of bitterness at having been treated so unmercifully as hope vanishes in dark matter halos. 

… the one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness.

Martin Luther King, Jr, Where do we go from here?, p.26

 

 

Galaxies like egg-like structures are surrounded by a hot galactic corona beyond which another layer, a dark matter halo, is home of satellite galaxies. They are like islands in an archipelago  In the local group, the largest galaxy is Andromeda (M31) on collision course with the Milky Way. and the biggest satellite to orbit our own is the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a face-on galaxy with low metallicityOver the course of its history, the Milky Way has ingested multiple smaller satellite galaxies. Satellites may clash with each other or fall in the Milky Way’s territory, quenching, as a result, star formation within their own galactic realm. It was suggested that a merger between the Milky Way and a dwarf galaxy named Gaia-Enceladus occurred between 11.6 and 13.2 Gyr ago.

The Universe 11 billion years ago (NASA, ESA, M. Kornmesser)

The Universe 11 billion years ago (NASA, ESA, M. Kornmesser)

 

It seems to me that stellar physics attempts to explain stars from inside out and the transitioning process from one state to the next.  An abundance of surveys, imaging techniques as well as astrometry and interferometry are tools used to provide a better understanding. Night and day skies are worlds apart like a butterfly and a mole. The difference is the stars that we cannot see. And for the human eyes, the only ones that they see are within one galaxy, the Milky Way, like a glistening carriage carrying us through the Universe.  

 

Between the naked branches of slumbered trees, the Moon is high as I walked through the park one morning.  The cold swishing breeze moves through the dead leaves still hanging on trees. Steady steps on the sidewalks, I feel the warmth of the blinding sun and the quiescence of the moment. Time is my friend.  Early the next morning, the Moon has not risen yet, still hiding under a blanket of earthly feathers after a bitterly cold day yesterday. Blinded by the Sun, she will rise later and later until the end of January. Shrouded in the dust of ignorance, my mind somehow wanders back to cosmic rays and the phantom divide. 

Photograph of the Milky Way in the night sky over Black Rock Desert, Nevada by Steve Jurveston

Photograph of the Milky Way in the night sky over Black Rock Desert, Nevada by Steve Jurveston

 

*Cosmos, Carl Sagan

**The lost planets, John Wenz

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Messengers in the dark

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Enhanced Image by Gerald Eichstädt and Sean Doran (CC BY-NC-SA) based on images provided Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Enhanced Image by Gerald Eichstädt and Sean Doran (CC BY-NC-SA) based on images provided Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

 

The color-enhanced image of Jupiter’s swirling clouds raises questions about the degrees of reality and to what extent processing techniques play a role in delivering the Universe as it is to us. Disentangling layers of reality relies on messengers to our brain, whether they be our five senses or, to a larger extent, the wide range of man-made remote sensing devices and observational techniques that act like filters created to allow the Universe to drip bit by bit into our realm of knowledge. Some signals to our brain may just be the sound of an alarm call made by a Carolina Wren or the view of a leaf flapping like a butterfly, pulled by Earth’s gravity. As the Madrella amphora and the Ecsenius springeri are leaving the realm of the unknown, adding pieces to the puzzle of life distribution on Earth, the information-driven Universe expands inch-by-inch, forward and backward in time.

The Frozen Canyons of Pluto’s North Pole (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The Frozen Canyons of Pluto’s North Pole (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

From the Fermi paradox to the Drake equation, could cradles of biodiversity on Earth be a clue on finding life elsewhere in the Universe? Could signatures of life be found inside Pluto’s frozen canyons or on objects beyond our Solar system emitting aurora-like phenomena driven not externally but by internal processes?   I dream of life forms frozen in time hiding in space, maybe on Triton, the target of Trident, a mission concept currently proposed. Triton is the only captured dwarf planet that has become an icy satellite in the solar system, maybe with an active interior and a possible subsurface ocean

Messengers in the dark

 

The Drake equation from an outsider's point of view is an odd expression because nearly all of its factors are essentially undetermined due to the lack of observational tests. Sifting through data recorded with the Wide Field Camera 3 aboard the Hubble Space Telescope during nine transits within a period of three years and supplemented by observations provided by Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes, the exoplanet K2-18 b was determined to be the first habitable-zone planet in the super-Earth mass regime with an observed atmosphere around it, suggesting a potentially temperate climate. Could it be harboring a life-supporting atmosphere? In the hunt for habitable exoplanets, two similar projects have been studied since the mid-1990: ESA’s Darwin concept and NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder Interferometer. 

The universe just talks to us in so many ways, and every time you find a new way of listening, you find something else.

Ellen Zweibel

 

NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft embodies the essence of space exploration. Its full name was MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. It studied Mercury’s internal magnetic field and confirmed that its polar deposits are dominantly water-ice. From ground telescopes to space observatories, we have extended our first line of exploration and sent probes into space to unveil the unknown. Those devices depend upon human minds, using data analysis algorithms, their input and expertise to interpret the information received, notwithstanding the fact that past interpretations may be reconsidered in the light of space newcomers. Last year, Pieter van Dokkum and his team relying on a small-size telescope, Dragonfly Telephoto Array, have put into question previous results regarding the stellar stream around NGC 5907.  

 

 The history of galaxy mergers brings its own metaphors and figurative expressions describing collisional debris such as stellar streams, gaseous structures named “plumes”, tidal tails, and stellar shells.It is suggested that the number of shells can indicate the time that has passed since the last merger and that streams have shorter timescales

Tidal tails result from major mergers events, stellar streams from minor mergers and shells from major and intermediate-mass mergers.

Brisa Mancillas, Pierre-Alain Duc, Françoise Combes, Frédéric Bournaud, Eric Emsellem, Marie Martig and Leo Michel-Dansac

 

The same way we study the Sun to learn more about how stars work, we study our own galaxy in the hope that it will give us the clues that we need to understand the Universe. An article published last month in the journal Nature reports that the bulk of the Milky Way’s stars formed at least 8 billion years ago. After a long period of quiescence, a starburst event followed about one billion-year ago that formed roughly 5% of its mass in what may have been one of the most energetic events in the history of the Milky Way. The study went on to say that star formation continued subsequently on a lower level, creating a few per cent of the stellar mass in the past ~500 Myr, with an increased rate up to ~30 Myr ago

 

 

From what we thought we knew to what we now think we know, we may be able, with the use of the upcoming space gravitational-wave detector LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna),  to confirm whether, indeed, a supermassive black hole binary exists in our galactic center as a result of galaxy mergers. As researchers propose their hypothesis, they wait for instruments and facilities to be built and put into operation. ERIS, the Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph, will be able, in the near future, to follow up on young clusters at the center of the Milky Way with high angular resolution imaging and spectroscopy. With Gaia, the star-mapping Observatory, an increased number of streams wound around the Milky Way was also detected. 


 

On the basis of the work done with the Max-Planck Millimeter Bolometer Array (MAMBO) and the Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE), the early Universe’s celestial objects such as MAMBO-9 may one day become the focus of the James Webb Space Telescope and NASA project named Origins Space Telescope that will provide direct insight into the dust opacity of star-forming galaxies. Origins is bound to trace our cosmic history. Following the opposite conclusions of two studies last year in regards to whether the Milky Way bar stars are more metal rich, Origins could be a suitable instrument to help our understanding of how metals and dust are made and dispersed throughout the cosmic web over the past 12 billion years


 

Eighty-five percent of all matter in the Universe is the so-called dark matter. Studies have suggested that it may have collapsed into small gravitationally bound systems known as halos, and then formed more massive halos through a history of mergers, with many small subhalos being much closer to the Earth than the bigger ones.  In order to maximize the sensitivity of dark matter searches, data was combined from different sources: the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS), the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes (MAGIC), and the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) as well as the Fermi-LAT satellite, and the High Altitude Water Cherenkov Experiment (HAWC). A study has identified seven best dark matter subhalos candidates. One source may even coincide with Sagittarius stream, remnants of a Sagittarius dwarf galaxy that collapsed with the Milky Way between 300 and 900 Myr ago. Current Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescopes (IACTs) and the future Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) could be used to perform analyses of those candidates at high energies. On the evidence of a population of dark subhalos from Gaia and Pan-STARRS observations,  the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will add more precision in the definition of potential dark matter subhalos and help to explain density fluctuations observed in the galactic stream. 

When a dark subhalo gravitationally perturbs a stream, the long-term effect is that it pushes stars in the stream away from the point of closest approach and thus creates a characteristic gap in the density distribution of stream stars.

Nilanjan Banik, Jo Bovy, Gianfranco Bertone, Denis Erkal, and T.J.L. de Boer

Another study has called attention to an underdensity observed in the distribution of galaxy clusters, bounded in the Northern sky by the Sloan Great Wall, the richest nearby galaxy system, and in the south by the Shapley supercluster. While there is no universal star formation law, it is understood that interstellar magnetic fields play an important role in the structure and evolution of galaxies. The closest galaxies like Andromeda have been the focus of studies using a vast array of telescopes.  As I wrote in my last post about the observed reversals in the Sun’s magnetic field, reversals are detected in the halo of galaxy NGC 4631 using the G. Jansky Very Large Array radio Telescope. Along with APERTIF (APERture Tile In Focus) installed on the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT), the above-mentioned radio telescope may be of help in the search of magnetic field reversals in the Andromeda Galaxy. 

 

Streams can be perturbed by smaller-scale objects, such as dark-matter subhalos, spiral arms, and molecular clouds. With PAWS, the PdBI Arcsecond Whirlpool Survey, a retrograde rotation was observed in galactic molecular clouds. The photometric catalog of DECam Legacy Survey may allow to confirm whether indeed the large gap in the globular cluster Palomar 5 originates from a dark-matter subhalo encounter, while the small gap may have been produced by a molecular cloud.

Multi-messenger astronomy involves the coordinated observation and interpretation of what appears to be inherently different signals, whether they be electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves, neutrinos, and cosmic rays. However, they are pieces of the same puzzle that reveal different clues about a particular source of energy. Multi-messenger astronomy is about combining efforts in order to answer those fundamental questions that we all have been asking: How does the Universe work?, How did we get here, and Are we alone? In addition, the fact that there are multiple sources ensures the independent verification of results and observations and confirms the reliability of those different means and processing techniques. In the future, mission concepts like the All-sky Medium Energy Gamma-ray Observatory (AMEGO) and the Advanced Energetic Pair Telescope (ADEPT) meant to study signals in the medium-energy gamma-ray band, will be added to the well-established players like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the Fermi’s Large Area Telescope and the Virgo interferometer. 

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On the Nature of Solar Activity

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

What one sentence of advice can encapsulate the embrace of breadth and the journey of experimentation that is necessary if you want...to arrive at a place optimized for you alone?

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, p.287

A new subject brings along an array of metaphorical expressions like coronal holes, helmet streamers, and coronal rain. When the hot plasma high in the Sun's corona undergoes rapid cooling, the coronal rain condenses and falls to the surface in post-flare loops. The helmet streamers are composed of yet smaller substreamers channeling continual density fluctuations at all visible scales. A typical coronal mass ejection (CME) is characterized by its shape, halo, and signature. 

CME consists of three components; an eruptive prominence associated with a bright core, a lower density dark cavity region, and a diffuse leading-edge CME front with its legs connected to the Sun.

Sudheer K. Mishra and A.K. Srivastava

 

Human nature is wired to recognize common patterns, but what role does intuition play? Intuition seems to be wrapped in a bundle of fear and reason. How can we tell the difference? Instead of ignoring sparks of intuition, hints inside our head, can our silent intuition with enough practice and training become louder? What I’m talking about here is the suggestive dialogue spur by our senses, arisen from sensorial perceiving, like the glimpse of a book on a desk, the last words written on a previous post or the sight of wavering leaves on a tree whose foliage is otherwise immobile, put in motion by busy birds on a branch, a dove nesting or a downy woodpecker pecking. It requires us noticing, with the understanding that the principle scientists and philosophers alike abide by is intuitive, the same one poets, for their part, are willing to embrace without a second thought.


 

Heights give us the deceptive impression that we are closer to the sky. In the eighties,  I used to ride my bike before dawn to see the Sun rising from the top of Charbon Hill in Beijing. Years later, in New Zealand, during that summer of 2013, I once felt uneasy by the closeness of the clouds while wandering in a late afternoon on the hill path at the Wellington Botanic Garden where no sun peeked through the heavy sky. My impression was not completely off after all since Austral Borealis can be seen from New Zealand. They are open trails to the Sun on the doorstep of the cosmic cave.  The common thread between those memories is the Sun, ruler of our calendar, with the Moon, the stars and the asterisms, and the subject of this inquiry.

A brilliant and vivid Aurora Borealis illuminates the Earth’s northern hemisphere on Jan 20, 2016, providing a spectacular view for members of Expedition 46 aboard the International Space Station

A brilliant and vivid Aurora Borealis illuminates the Earth’s northern hemisphere on Jan 20, 2016, providing a spectacular view for members of Expedition 46 aboard the International Space Station

In order to address questions related to the physical mechanisms and structure involved in the electromagnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles in the regions of the corona and wind, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission recently plunged through the inner heliosphere of the Sun to its perihelia, about 24 million kilometers from the Sun.The international journal Nature provides news and views on the findings of the Parker Solar Probe. Four academic papers were published this month on the matter. While the high wind streams may be coming from deep within coronal holes, evidence shows that low-latitude coronal holes are a key source of the slow solar wind. An increasing rotational component to the flow velocity of the solar wind around the Sun was found to peak at 35 to 50 kilometers per second.  The journal revealed how peculiar it is that the solar magnetic field exhibits patches of large, intermittent reversals. The latest results on a decades-long search for a dust-free zone surrounding the Sun were also highlighted.  

 

When there is an onset of solar activity, it reaches its apotheosis that may be one of the strongest geomagnetic storms on record since 1755, such as the events of August 2018. I don’t know what is more intriguing, whether it is to investigate where those solar flares are coming from and their subsequent impact on Earth or to study the long term patterns in solar cycles. We are currently in the 24th cycle since 2008 until the onset of the next one in around 2019-2021.  We are told that the Sun cycle is linked to the number of sunspots and that the Maunder minimum refers to a time in history around 1645 to 1715 when the number of sunspots was at a prolonged minimum. 

 

Sunspots are dark regions on the solar surface where the presence of strongly and densely twisted magnetic fields inhibits the plasma and energy flow into the regions, resulting in cooler and darker regions compared to the surrounding regions on the Sun’s photosphere.

Simon Wing, Jay R. Johnson, and Angelos Vourlidas

 

The number of sunspots climbs, at solar maximum, up to 200 in very active or strong solar cycles and drops down, at solar minimum, to 20 or less sunspots during periods of solar minimum. Some have speculated that we may be heading towards another Grand solar minimum if the decline in the photospheric fields continues beyond 2020

 

 

Indeed, researchers have been working on predictions for future solar cycles with cycle 25 to end around 2029-2031. Some claim that a gradual decrease in solar activity is underway since the 22nd solar cycle that began in 1986 and predicted that the next cycle will be even weaker. The current solar cycle 24 was preceded by one of the deepest solar minima experienced in the past 100 years causing cycle 24 to not only start about 1.3 years later than expected but also be the weakest since solar cycle 14 in the early 1900s

 

Can we follow the footprints of the solar winds all the way to the heliopause? And if indeed there is a decrease, what are the implications on faraway planets such as Uranus and Neptune? Much like the Earth, other planetary magnetospheres would have also undergone changes in their magnetopause shape as a result of the observed global changes occurring in the solar wind, notwithstanding the fact that planets are different from each other. Uranus has a negligible internal heat while Neptune internal energy enables the unraveling of powerful winds and rapidly-evolving storms as the observation of the new Great Dark Spot on Neptune has shown.

 

 I wish to know more about how long-term variation in cycle amplitude may affect the shape of the heliopause, the depth of penetration of interstellar hydrogen in the solar winds and the interactions with interstellar winds. I imagine the heliosphere like an invisible fortress and the heliopause its surrounding walls. Away from the charge exchange region behind the bow shock, I dream that solar winds in their retreat allow the penetration, into the perimeter of the solar system, of an interstellar object carried by interstellar winds and may facilitate the ejection of planetary debris into interstellar space.

 

 

The observed decrease in solar activity has naturally initiated studies on the response of the terrestrial magnetosphere. Its steady expansion has been observed since 1996. However, a forecast of the magnetopause (MP) shape in 2020, the expected minimum of cycle 24, showed a smaller MP stand-off distance. A drift of the Earth’s North Magnetic Pole may, on the other hand, be associated with a decline in its magnetic field.

 

In a ripple effect, a solar flare creates an outflow of particles traveling in the interplanetary space to the Earth’s poles. The Northern and Southern Lights are a manifestation of geomagnetic storms like the one that occurred on the 26th of August 2018. The Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1867–1917) laid the foundations of our current understanding of the nature of the aurora borealis

Frederic Edwin Church - Aurora Borealis - Google Art Project

And the Aurora Borealis was out. I’ve seen it only a few times in my life. It hung and moved with majesty in folds like an infinite traveler upstage in an infinite theater. In colors of rose and lavender and purple, it moved and pulsed against the night, and the frost-sharpened stars shone through it. What a thing to see at a time when I needed it so badly!

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America, p.48

Chasing a snow rainbow on the way back from Montreal through the pine trees of the Adirondack mountains and the frozen ponds, bounded to the east and west by mountain peaks covered in snow, a wave of disappointment washed over me for not reaching the Canadian Rockies to see the Northern Lights and catch the sunrise above the clouds as I recall words I read years ago that Wisdom is like the Sun and knowledge, the Moon… but ...the floating clouds of mistaken thoughts veil (human) nature... (Le Sutra de la plate-forme, p.46, 1992).

 

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Dreams of the Earth and Sky

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Dreams of the Earth and Sky

The evidence for a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art.

Freeman Dyson, Dreams of Earth and Sky, 2015, p.137

 

It has been a year. Twenty-four posts reflecting on the nature of the relationship between the Universe and Consciousness. The lessons I learned and what I remain convinced of is that Poetry and Philosophy are part of the new Age of Wonder, of a participative approach to the unveiling of the Universe. I plan for the next twelve months to post one or two articles every month, still resolute to strike the right balance between academic rigor and a sense of poetry.

 

On this one-year anniversary, I pause and dwell on the symbolism of Richard Powers’ book, The Overstory, hoping for a poetic intermission. What is a tree? I asked. Can it feel my touch? Can it communicate?  Let’s imagine a tree that dominates its surroundings, a witness of what unfolds through time, guardian of memories. And now let’s imagine a more imposing, invisible tree overlooking the Earth and humanity. This is how I feel about Richard Powers’novel. 

 

I started to read The Overstory and felt as if it were narrated by a tree that sees time differently from us as life events occur in a blink of an eye, “a couple of new fissures, an inch of added rings”. From kings in the forest, some have become lone lighthouses “in a grain-filled sea”, hopeless souls in the brutal landscape of cities. Is it our existential anguish that binds our souls to trees? 

 

 

Hope however is what is given to us by those lone lighthouses -- an inspiration to guide us into the future.  I seek to discover in the midst of nature the symbolism attached to every tree, stone, and animal. As we are standing upright on our two feet, so do trees, “vertical passages” between the Earth and Heaven. Solitary figures or multiple figures lost in the landscape. Filiform bodies, stripped of substance, erased memories in a city skyline. Trees, like threads, stretch and extend bridges between the telluric entrails of the Earth and the sky. In a life-and-death struggle with urbanization, deforestation, and pollution, trees are not crippled. In the long run, individual shadows have disappeared and yet reappeared miles away. In a surprising story of survival, seeds are constantly in motion. 

Dreams of the Earth and Sky

Under the lid of the cosmic prison evolves the Earth around the Sun, populated by billions of beings and their inner selves, cloaked in disguise, with their face masked even in solitude. Trees witness our demise, the way our mind, disconnected, is wrapped with emotions searching for those vertical threads that our physical hands can’t grasp. Trees witness our transmogrification at every stage of life evolution in the quest of order in the midst of chaos and a new representation of ourselves. 

 

I reflect upon what I wrote over the past nine years and remember that I saw a calcined trunk as I was wandering along the edge of Namadgi National Park outside Canberra in the summer of 2013, catching sight of kangaroos. In my mind full of preconceived images, its form reminded me of the figure of a Chinese scholar carrying the wisdom of the world on his back, frozen in time and mindful of the loss of life on the hunting grounds of humanity. 

 

Of course, trees would not stand the comparison with stars. But there is no need to look at the sky to contemplate the many facets of time, short and long manifestations of physical beings. Trees have their own sense of becoming. As time passes, trees whether they be banyans, oaks, or sequoias, will witness the replacement of billions of human beings, including me, by an even larger number within a hundred years. Trees attend every fall the flight of leaves blown in the wind like flocks of birds. However immovable they appear to be, trees, in the midst of overgrazed lands and urban neighborhoods, are intrinsic actors in our life and sometimes the only tangible link that we have with our distant past, when old grown forests were kingdoms on earth. Above the canopy of the Universe, what is the ontology of becoming? 

 

Interdisciplinary communication is epistemically perilous. Not only is there a risk of being misunderstood, but there is also the greater risk of not being aware of being misunderstood – and thus being unable to correct consequent mistakes.

Thomas Pradeu, A. Ferner

 

Consciousness is the overstory that stands above the canopy of the Universe. If she were reading my post, she would laugh at the idea that there is an above and a below, an up and down, a left and right in the Universe. Her laugh would frustrate me even more. Humans are a brief episode in a universal process. Consciousness, for her part, evolves delivered from the yoke of matter and time in her pursuit of the adjacent possible. As we only see the areas at the equator of the Sun where the magnetic field is rooted in dark spots as large as multiple earths, would she tell us the view over the solar poles? 

 

Trees with their rainbow-like canopy touching the sky, are living forms with an ever more considerable extension in time than we are.  Time is many things, I recall. An intangible concept shredded into intertwined layers. Some layers buried deep form an even more intangible past relegated to the archives of time. Our vanished memories have become undetected signals emitted by the cells of our brain. Time, I recall, sums up to multiple flows within one flow, loops of temporalities hanging from a single flow. 

Time was not a line unrolling in front of her. It was a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim.

Richard Powers, The Overstory, p.55

 

There is the flow of things and the things that make up this flow. Bergson was right: we have learned to spatialize time. Under the lid of the cosmic prison, our linear time moves forward, sliced in an infinity of space-time. Each slice constitutes a whole universe.  Is time a fundamental property of reality or just the macroscopic appearance of things?  I read. It is a multitude of superposed layers collapsing into integrated information structures, entangled,  that allows Consciousness to emerge through the quantum universe which trees are made of. In a new Age of Wonder, I gather crumbs of random bits and recall that Randolph Kloetzli in his 1983 Buddhist cosmology refers to “those structures of space and time which transform chaos into a “world,” i.e., structures which support and sustain life" and adds that cosmos "must not be understood as the physical universe, but rather as structured reality at every level, whether physical or spiritual.” (p.19).  

Des Cieux Spirituels l'inaccessible azur,
Pour l'homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S'ouvre et s'enfonce avec l'attirance du gouffre.

Charles Baudelaire, L'Aube spirituelle

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Randomness

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

...probability is not a physical energy. Probability is an operational concept that can be held by a conscious mind, a philosophical category that is distinct from physical energy.

Christopher W. Tyler

 

Randomnicity is in the eye of the beholder. In order to gain a better understanding, humans struggle to measure probabilities and use statistics to prove theories. Time and time again, randomness may reveal its mystery.  Imagination advances inch by inch into a maze of impasses, around standing walls ready to crumble. It carries humanity forward even though, at times, through falsehood and controversies. Words and images are used for support like a staff would be used by a pilgrim to assist in walking. One of the greatest painters, Leonardo da Vinci, studied fluid dynamics, the nature of waves, even the sun glitter on the terrestrial seas. “Forms”, I read in French while walking through Le Louvre exhibit, “are an illusion the Universe by its unceasing movement keeps on stripping away”. 

Leonardo da Vinci, Le Louvre, Paris
Leonardo da Vinci, Le Louvre, Paris

Leonardo da Vinci, Le Louvre, Paris

Poets, go to the ocean shore. You will sing the mystery of the infinite. You will feel the power of solitude out on the coastline

Odilon Redon

 

Flying over Charlie Gibbs fracture zone where polar and southern waters meet, I wonder whether randomness plays a role in waves’ formation. The word “randomness” implies that time exists. It means that something is unpredictable. Earth may well be a pantheon which holds the thoughts and ideas of the Universe.  Anastasios Tsonis, better known for his controversial views on climate change, wrote a book that caught my eye, entitled Randomnicity: Rules and Randomness in the Realm of the Infinite (2008). If it is easy to speak in general terms of the unitary system that is the Universe, it is in the details, in the complexity of the interactions compartmentalized in an infinite number of structures and at unlimited spatio-temporal levels that the difficulty of our observation lies. I mentioned in my previous post the idea that loops of temporalities seem to hang from the linear representation of time and that’s what makes a prediction so problematic. Statistical inference of causal interactions and synchronization between dynamical phenomena evolving on different temporal scales is of vital importance for better understanding and prediction of complex systems. 

 

 

Time-domain astrophysics is a new field of observational astronomy that studies the universe on all timescales from less than milliseconds to more than decades, and at all wavelengths.

Phil Charles and Aarran Shaw

Orion A and the role of magnetic field (ESA/Herschel/Planck; J. D. Soler, MPIA)

Orion A and the role of magnetic field (ESA/Herschel/Planck; J. D. Soler, MPIA)

 

 

Randomness conveys a sense of disorder. It challenges us to find order in chaos, to devise theories and laws in the hope to explain what drives those forces of chaos. It refers to the occurrence of transient events such as bursts of energy in patchy molecular clouds. The rate at which stars form is a pivotal quantity in tracing a galaxy’s fundamental properties and distribution of matter and activity. Gravitational instability is controlled by turbulent velocity rather than by the temperature In a 2019 study pertaining to the evolution of molecular clouds in the central region of giant galaxies, Suman Paul and Tanuka Chattopadhyay developed a time-dependent random fragmentation model with turbulence as one of the key parameters.

 

Solar wind (NASA)

Solar wind (NASA)

 

When our observation remains inconclusive and events appear inconsistent with our prior knowledge, we suspend our judgment until more information becomes available. Randomness makes us feel unsteady. It may refer to an event intermittent at best, erratic at worst, whether it be the outflow of solar material streaming out from the Sun, the irregular noise that the electromagnetic waves make rippling around the Earth, the incoherence in the quantum fluctuations. or the sunflower patterns. The Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission was selected by NASA this year to study solar winds and coronal mass ejections with the goal of understanding how solar particles interact with Earth’s magnetic field. A 2019 paper on the sunflower lemma is said to be an important step aimed at finding meaning in randomness.

If you have a large enough mathematical object of some nature, there has to be some hidden structure inside it.

Shachar Lovett

 

In their respective mediums, artists and mathematicians alike are embarked on a similar quest to identify patterns and structures out of otherwise random systems. Mystery rises again and again to the surface. The moment we begin to really look at what is, we also begin to imagine what it might be. I flew back over Deer Lake, Labrador City and Caribou and saw the silvery reflection of the sun glitter on the ocean cast by the hazy sun along the shores of Long Island, like a slow, almost static flow of thick liquid silver. “Mystery”, Odilon Redon said, “ is all the time ambiguous, open to double, triple interpretations, hints of appearance, forms coming into being and forms being revealed based on the observer’s state of mind”. Within the Universe lies random bits of mystery. 

 

 

The randomness of historical findings, such as the discovery of a giant planet orbiting a low-mass star, raises in my mind the question of their timing. Almost 4000 exoplanets have been discovered to date, but largely because of their intrinsic faintness,  only 10% have been found so far orbiting low-mass M dwarf stars, in spite of this stellar type being the most numerous in the Galaxy. GJ 3512 b has a minimum mass of 0.46 times that of Jupiter. Two years ago, another odd couple was found. It involved a planet called NGTS-1b about the size of Jupiter. If, as James Baldwin was quoted as saying, “the great force of history comes from the fact that... we are unconsciously controlled by it”, could it mean that every random discovery is part of a larger scheme of things meant to guide us through the maze of the unknowable?

 

 

Questions arise like waves in the ocean. Hundreds, if not thousands, of substellar objects have been found so far.  Is there a bridge between the least massive stars and the most massive planets?   Is there a mass limit for the least luminous stars? In the mix, the peculiar substellar objects, named brown dwarfs with the same temperature range and many physical properties shared by giant exoplanets, add to the mystery surrounding our Universe.

 

 

Randomness conveys a lingering sense of uncertainty. In a new Renaissance era, I wish to find peace in Edward O. Wilson’s call for consilience. The Gaia hypothesis implies that every form of life interacts in manifold ways with its biotic and abiotic environments and that these interactions form a multilevel network from which higher-level properties can emerge  If Earth is a global living system, it begs the question of how many planets like ours are out there. Can those holobiont-like systems communicate with each other, even separated by a large distance, in some quantum entanglement-like conditions that only poets would dare to dream of? 

 

 

51 Eri b is the first planet discovered by the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey. It rotates around a star, part of a moving group that is about 26 to 29 million years old. It seems to have a cloudy atmosphere with patchy clouds. Does she know that Earth is about 100 light-years away from her?  The mind of the poet remains irresistibly drawn to lonely travelers, free-floating objects, faint shadows in the interstellar space like CFBDSIR 2149 of the size of Jupiter that may be a young isolated planetary-mass object possibly similar to the exoplanet 51 Eri b, or perhaps an older brown dwarf.

 

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Cosmic Web

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it.

Schrödinger, What is life?

 

Words form a circle dance in my head. If cognition is construed as an interaction between and mutual definition of a living unit and its environment, I am a “living unit” and the Universe is my environment. In the midst of it all, I feel free to reflect on the mirroring nature of words. Caught in the threads of my own thought, the self-made web of my imagination, I am entangled in the places I go, the things I do, the people I meet. I am entangled in my daily life, confronted with the needs of my inescapable body. Am I a physical resonance of the Universe? 

 

Reading about comets and biology gave me a peculiar perspective. A dormant comet, a planet or a star is a complexity-based system governed by organizational and variational rules. They bear comparison with a biological organism that exhibits at times different degrees in their capacity to move. They are intrinsically teleological objects with a tale of their own, an account of random events that constitutes the foundation of their historicity. Life is a sequence of events, a suspended period of extended criticality. It is a process during which a “living unit” finds itself in a constant struggle to reaffirm its runaway identity. 

 

A physicist and a biologist study the whys and the hows. As I walk on the tightrope that separates the two, I draw a parallel between a particle that remains a wave of probability until it is detected and a historical object that takes a particular path among several possible paths through time and cannot all be described ahead of time. Through time and space, I see the Universe unfolding its networks of relationships between “local” and “global”. Can a fugitive interstellar object be a triggering factor of the propagation of some unknown variation to our indefinite future? 

 

 

Crab Nebula. Credits: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

Crab Nebula. Credits: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

I imagine evolution as a series of starting points at which a convergence of objects or events takes place and of finishing lines where signs of divergence appear. The temporal dimension of a historical split in a phylogenetic tree reminds me of the spatial representation of a tree when its limbs diverge, of the nodes in a spiderweb as if a fractal-like structure was replicating itself through time and space. As I look outside my window at the naked branches of the elderberry bush, the dried leaves of the young red oak and the Purple love grass in the Fall landscape, I think of the Universe ruled by a divergent force up to its own expansion. 

 

Living systems, when compared to inert matter, are “coherent structures” in a continual (extended) critical transition. Planets, comets, and stars too are extended criticalities on their own time frame, which may be billions of years. Other temporalities seem to hang onto the linear representation of time, molded into spacetime. Francis Bailly, Giuseppe Longo and Maël Montévil proposed that physical and biological cyclicities account for another dimension of time. I see various examples of cyclicities on display in our Universe, including tidal, orbital, reproductive and climate cycles.  The Sun too presents cyclic activity. Giuseppe Longo and Maël Montévil argue that the temporality of extended criticality involves protention (i.e. pre-conscious expectation) and retention (i. e. pre-conscious memory), with the understanding that protention and retention are a sort of present which is extended in both directions


 

Organisms and species do not have cosmological life spans. Gaia does, and this is perhaps a general property of living worlds

David Grinspoon

Life with or without cognition appears within the bounds of self-organized systems governed by seemingly distinct operational principles. The debate around what qualifies as life and what defines mind has brought us to question whether the mind can manifest itself beyond the enclosure of the individual body. I wonder whether the newly described choanoflagellate species which form cup-shaped colonies that reversibly invert their curvature in response to light,  the Physarum polycephalum that preceded humans on Earth by 500 million years and the trilobites, known as Ampyx, whose fossils suggested that they intentionally formed a queue are living systems with cognition. We tell the story of a bacterium in our distant past which was “captured and domesticated inside another cell, a host, where it became a mitochondrion”*. Was it a result of a cognitive process involving free will and volition? 

 

Humans are haunted by “ghosts of other life-forms” * since the eukaryotic cell whose lineage eventually led to “humans and every other creature we can see” *. In a universe bursting with biological and gravitational resonance, autopoiesis** refers to the process of self-creation that allows a system to reproduce and maintain itself. Michel Bitbol and Pier Luigi Luisi in a 2004 paper arrived at the conclusion that the very lowest level of cognition is the condition for life, and the lowest level of cognition does not reduce to the lowest level of autopoiesis. When eukaryotes formed in warm liquid waters on the early planet Earth, did they also exist at the same time on Mars when volcanoes erupted and on Venus when a shallow ocean covered its surface? 

... a living creature “makes sense” of the world through affectively motivated action-as-perception and, in the process, constructs a viable niche

Dylan van der Schyff and Andrea Schiavio

Picture of the galaxy distribution (The Millennium Simulation Project)

Picture of the galaxy distribution (The Millennium Simulation Project)

Living units are shells protecting the many levels of biological “resonance”.  Each level, past and future, brings variation to the whole system, allowing it to maintain and adapt over time. The oldest common ancestor of a flea and a human being still lies in me. Is it the result of enaction? As waves of “resonance” spread through the cosmic web, they break new ground. Their fractal-like dynamics filter through the cracks of the threshold between levels of organization. From the inert to the living state of matter, the nothingness to being, they provide a conduit for free information flow. 

 

The impalpable wind blew down the rustling leaves and chased away the Indian summer heat. It scattered the circling words away. Will it blow in the answer I seek? For me, “embodied consciousness” means that our body is the host of consciousness. Through a conscious and intentional grasp of our surroundings, we find purpose in our function. A satellite view of the Chesapeake Watershed has the appearance of limbs branching off a tree trunk. Up close, instead of rising through the streams and tributaries, the river’s sap flows downstream into the ocean. Time and space are woven into the cosmic spiderweb.  Is time a matter of perspective emerging like the river from a hidden divide?

 

*David Quammen, The Tangled Tree

**H.R. Maturana, F. J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, 

Chesapeake Watershed (Landsat Image)

Chesapeake Watershed (Landsat Image)

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A fool on the hill

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

The Ghost of a Flea, William Blake

The Ghost of a Flea, William Blake

 

Comets have made their appearance in works of art and literature. They left their mark in our collective memory. William Blake's portrayal of the Ghost of a Flea shows the attempt by an artist to capture the eerie moment in time of a passing comet.  I have a foggy memory in my head of Haley’s Comet on an early morning moon in Shanghai’s skies while she was on her 1986 journey through the solar system. She seemed as much as I was in a hurry to grow old and reach the shore of a haven of peace. By now, she is near her unseeable aphelion, unafraid to turn around and see her mass vanish in the Sun’s radiation.

 

 In the case of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, visited by ESA mission Rosetta, the effect of erosion through the sublimation of volatiles ranged from meters to tens of meters per apparition. Cliff collapsed and larger chunks of material such as one named ‘Churymoon’ separated from the surface. Although large, loose boulders were around one hundred times weaker than freshly packed snow. Yet, as it is observed on the distant C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS), the loss of mass isn't just triggered near perihelion.

 

Distant active comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS)  (NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA))

Distant active comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) (NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA))

Consciousness implies a willingness to interact with our surroundings. It means opening our senses and our mind to embrace the Universe. When Gregory Matloff asks whether stars’ motion is volitional, I wonder whether comets too have a mind of their own. Formed in the very distant regions of the protosolar nebula, they are a common feature of most, if not all stellar systems. Exocomets, interstellar comets or comets orbiting our Sun, they are travelers with their ‘head in the clouds’, called coma, set out on a journey from a storage zone, the Oort Cloud, or from the Kuiper Belt or the region in between giant planets in the form of Centaurs, planetesimals waiting to be transformed, or from the main asteroid belt, such as Comet Elst–Pizarro, target of the proposed Castalia mission, except that not all of the main-belt comets can repeat activity during orbit passages

 

Comet 67P (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Comet 67P (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

 

Comets are oddly stretched bodies displaying evidence for nearly all fundamental geological processes. With their bright light, they are showing the way to new frontiers. Two categories have been established: the short-period comets whose orbit time is less than 200 years, such as Comet Holmes and 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and the long-period comets whose orbital rotation may take up to several million years, such as the Great Comet of 1997 - Comet Hale-Bopp - and C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) which has been outside the planetary region of the solar system for the past three million years.

 

The orbital distribution of short-period comets shows clear evidence for two populations known as Jupiter-family comets and Haley-type comets. Based on simulations of early planetary migration, it appears that the Haley-type comets are an extension of the population of returning Oort-cloud comets to shorter orbital periods. Unless they are somehow resupplied from external reservoirs, comets do not survive. Their physical lifetime may depend on their nuclear size.  

 

Comet Hale-Bopp (E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria)

Comet Hale-Bopp (E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria)

 

Haley’s Comet hasn’t yet collided with a planet as did Shoemaker-Levy 9 which orbited Jupiter for most of last century, and possibly longer before taking a plunge 25 years ago. Her path is surprisingly impacted not by the big planet Jupiter but the small Venus that is the dominant perturber until Jupiter takes over after about 3000 years from now. She hasn’t collided yet either with Earth, like 1864 meteorite Orgueil that fell near Montauban, France, and whose orbit is compatible with that of a Jupiter-family comet, although an Halley-type comet cannot be excluded. She wasn’t either torn apart by her own gravity like comet ISON in 2013.

 

Numerous studies have suggested the possibility that our giant planets have ejected debris and larger bodies out of the solar system throughout history. I wonder whether any of those objects ever reached another star system or whether they remain dormant in the dark and icy forest of interstellar space.  Malena Rice and Gregory Laughlin discussed that scenario in the context of exoplanets that may not have been discovered yet but may be capable of efficiently ejecting debris from their environments. The discovery of Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) reveals the possibility of an abundance of free-floating small bodies ejected into galactic space. 

The nature and the origin of Oumuamua remain unclear. Was it an asteroid,  an interstellar probe or a piece of debris of a dwarf interstellar comet? It may have been a dormant comet whose nucleus was reactivated after millions of years in interstellar space, propelled by water ice sublimation as a result of its perihelion passage. Before being caught in the interstellar limbo, our dormant comet may have been cut from its original host system during intra-cluster interactions that lasted tens to hundreds of million years. As for the interstellar comet C/2019 Q4 discovered on August 30, a paper published a few days ago identifies a double star named Kruger 60 as a plausible home system. The object is on its inbound leg and will be the closest to the Sun on December 8.

 

There’s a patchwork of concepts in my mind spelled out not in words but in a series of images.  As a possible carrier of viruses, the round and elongated shape of a comet reminds me of a bacteria with a flagellum to help with swimming in outer space. In our paramount need to meet the set of prerequisites for the development of life, the study of comets takes Biology at the forefront of our quest. What is life? And can life be devoid of consciousness? I wonder whether the future still has to offer new and distinct forms of life. 

 

Scheduled to be launched in 2028, the Comet Interceptor mission will look for a pristine comet in the goal of analyzing its chemical composition, identifying its organic compounds and finding clues for microbial life. Information hidden in molecules, drifting in space, may tell us about a lost phylogenetic event under the shell of an interstellar comet and even the time of existence and lines of descent of ancient molecules in the early solar system formation. Those newly found molecules of life might give us a renewed sense of belonging to a single connected biosphere

 

Castalia, the proposed mission that will rendezvous with Elst-Pizarro, will test whether a main belt comet is a viable source for Earth’s water. For now, scientists caution that the detection of abundant amounts of oxygen in the coma of two comets, namely Halley’s Comet and 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, does not imply that it is necessarily a sign of biological activity and that the gas-grain chemistries of even simple molecules such as oxygen and water are still highly uncertain and subject to debate. In addition, whether the observed ‎oxygen in both comets was formed in the ices of the pre- and protosolar nebula before the comets’ formation remains to be confirmed. 

One important detection was that of the simple amino acid glycine (top, C2H5NO2), a biologically important organic compound commonly found in proteins. Phosphorus was also detected (bottom, P), a key element in all living organisms. It is found in the backbone of DNA and RNA, in cell membranes, and in adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which transports chemical energy within cells for metabolism.

http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2016/05/Rosetta_s_comet_contains_ingredients_for_life

 

In a narrative of empiricism and intuition, a fool sees a familiar face in the eccentricity of a comet not bound by the normalcy of life on a planet orbiting the Sun. At the edge of the solar system, she goes on roaming between the stars.

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Kindred spirits

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Certainly, three kindred spirits have here encountered each other; and although the first two missed each other on earth by eight centuries and the last two by twelve months, still in the heart of the survivor lingers the hope that in the life 'sans end' they may all yet meet…Thus was the seed of Omar planted in a soil peculiarly adapted to its growth, and it grew and took to itself all of sorrow and of mirth that it could assimilate, and blossomed out into the drawings.

Elihu Vedder

 

The vision of the extraordinary may occur along a winding road through a maze searching for a way out to new wonders. Ideas are seeds that we pass on to each other. In order to evolve,  they need the right environment and must carry the quintessential aspect of what they are yet to become. A seed planted in my head by Elihu Vedder, peculiarly adapted to its growth, grew and took to itself all of William Wordsworth’s romantic spirit and Charles Baudelaire’s sorrow, and blossomed out into a wave of imaginative power that other sensitive beings and creative souls will harness in an effort to urge humankind to look into its own consciousness. 

Fermi Bubbles (NASA Goddard)

Fermi Bubbles (NASA Goddard)

 

Time is an intangible concept shredded into intertwined layers. On one level,  it may be that Sahelanthropus, ancestral to later hominins, stands upright to gaze at the sky, startled by the muffled echo of an explosive outburst from Sagittarius A* burping up giant lobes of plasma. On another, it may be that Psyche, the spacecraft, will reach in 2026 Psyche, the exposed nickel-iron core of a disrupted planetesimal, in the hope to map it and study its properties. On yet another level, the rings of Saturn will be gone in 292 million years. Meanwhile, I stand in the midst of scorched plants and dying trees, wary of the drought of the late summer.  

 

There are countless of asteroids and not just located in the asteroid belt like metallic Psyche. There are Trojan asteroids that share a planet’s orbit,  7113 as of today, most on Jupiter’s path. Asteroids collide with each other, creating more fragments along the way that may escape their natural home and reach a planet’s shore. A global collaboration is underway with the goal to assess threats posed by near-Earth objects, including comets, and find ways to deflect them. If 879 as of today have a non-zero probability to hit Earth, other asteroids offer future mining opportunities and a great insight into planet formation.  Radio telescope observations have indicated that Psyche mainly consists of iron and nickel metal, the same key ingredients that sunk into Earth’s interior in the process of core formation and play a role in generating the Earth’s magnetic field

A look at Psyche (NASA/JPL/JHUAPL)

A look at Psyche (NASA/JPL/JHUAPL)

 

I enjoy listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the river shore. If it were not for Earth’s magnetic field, the ground and everything down here would be, as it is for the river shore, battled by the flow of electrically charged particles streaming from the Sun. Instead,  their journey ends in the form of a bow shock in front of the magnetosphere. The universe is magnetized, from the Earth, the Sun, and other stars to disk galaxies, galaxy clusters, and perhaps also the intergalactic medium in voids. A 2019 study entitled From Primordial Seed Magnetic Fields to the Galactic Dynamo traced the generation of magnetic fields right from the early universe to their subsequent amplification by turbulent dynamos in the later universe.  The magnetic field plays a role in the evolution of planetary discs and may define criteria for habitability.

The magnetic field along the Galactic plane (ESA/Planck Collaboration. Acknowledgment: M.-A. Miville-Deschênes, CNRS – Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Université Paris-XI, Orsay, France)

The magnetic field along the Galactic plane (ESA/Planck Collaboration. Acknowledgment: M.-A. Miville-Deschênes, CNRS – Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Université Paris-XI, Orsay, France)

 

While theorists press ahead with new studies on Quantum Teleportation,  my mind is guided to the bird’s magnetic compass. I wonder whether the magnetic field is rooted in my soul as I wait for the return outside my door of the mesmerizing whistle of the white-throated sparrow. A 2019 study on human magnetoreception found that two classes of ecologically-relevant rotations of Earth-strength magnetic fields produce strong, specific and repeatable effects on human brainwave activity. If there is such a thing that resonates inside me and lies within the dynamic interaction with our physical Universe, why does my individual consciousness feel isolated? The research suggests the loss of a shared, ancestral magnetosensory system, or the possibility that the system lacks a conscious component with detectable neural activity but no apparent perceptual awareness by us


At the crossroads of science and philosophy, my quest turns to cosmic Consciousness. From nebulae to stars, from gaseous ring to planets, from fluid-like bodies to the formation of rigid bodies, this is how the process unfolds. The word ‘accretion’ refers, in my mind, to a symbiosis of matter and time that allows the blending of one layer with another from the planet’s core to its atmosphere. Between shredded layers, the information get lost, scrambled. Could the cause-effect power of conscious mechanisms be extended to the overall structure of the Universal Consciousness outside the limitations of our own individual self? To this question, Julio Tononi and Christof Koch answer that the Integrated Information Theory can not be applied to aggregates and complicated systems. 

...for integrated information theory, the spatiotemporal maximum of integrated information fixes the spatiotemporal scale of consciousness

Erik P. Hoel, Larissa Albantakis, William Marshall, Giulio Tononi

 

Time, as we experience it, is a complex and multi-layered web of geometry intertwined with that of space (Carlo Rovelli, The order of time) and provides the pulse, like a rhythmic flow,  to the interplay between Consciousness and the Universe. In the remote past, the prelinguistic mind drew its artistic drive from the well of the Unconscious. In a distant future, Consciousness may dive into the depth of the Unconscious and uncover what was once lost. How can one see beyond the appearance of disunity and discontinuity? Life and consciousness go hand in hand. I imagine they extend from the beginning of time to the other side of the Universe. Life chemistry occurs on Earth from its seemingly spontaneous emergence to the driving force it has become, as a result of thermodynamic processes.

The emergence of chaos is the most plausible explanation for the thermalization of closed quantum manybody systems

Markus J. Klug, Mathias S. Scheurer and Jörg Schmalian

 

Is there in the universe, billions of light-years away, a biochemistry different from the one we know at the origin of life on Earth?  And could it be paired with another level of consciousness? Ideas may grow, mature or become obsolete and sometimes reappear as they are picked apart and further interpreted. The vision of the extraordinary makes us wonder what the difference is between a ‘break-through’ and a ‘breakdown’. I imagine the flow of nothingness that has its own usefulness,  in which all things are connected through a set of complex, and yet unseen, interactions.  And as I start reading David Quammen’s book The tangled tree, I see the Universe full of chimerical beings, may they be stars, planets, human beings, assembled in the course of time, transmogrified into what is yet to be discovered.

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Collide

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

When two great masses come into collision in space, it is certain that a large part of each is melted, but it seems also quite certain that in many cases a large quantity of debris must be shot forth in all directions

Presidential Address to the British Association, Edinburgh, 1971, Popular Lectures and Addresses, William Thomson, Baron Kelvin, Cambridge University Press, 2011

Crescent-shaped Earth and Moon (NASA/JPL)

Crescent-shaped Earth and Moon (NASA/JPL)

 

As I, too, view the Moon as a font of dreams and myths, and poetry, I wonder about her life path. Giant collisions have an impact on the trajectory and formation of planets and their satellites. Based on recent simulations, two roughly half-Earth-sized impactors may have collided, resulting in not one but two dominant moons orbiting the Earth for an extended period of time. One of the moons may have driven the other inside Earth’s Roche limit where it was ripped apart by Earth’s gravity unless the two did collide. Martin Jutzi and Erik Asphaug described how the lunar farside highlands were formed by accretion of a companion moon. Yet, a study last year emphasizes the role of multiple giant impacts in the formation of the Earth-Moon system and suggests that the Earth experienced many smaller impacts, producing smaller satellites that potentially coevolved.

 

On the implications of Captured Interstellar Objects for Panspermia and Extraterrestrial Life,  Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb theorized that tens of millions of interstellar objects may have been captured over the history of the Solar system. About 400 of them with a radius of less than 0.1 km could have struck Earth prior to abiogenesis and about 10 of km-sized, confirming the possibility that life may have been transferred to Earth by means of lithopanspermia. Although not all of those interstellar objects  remain in bound orbits, the authors estimate that thousands are expected to be present in the Solar system at any given time, such as the asteroid (514107) 2015 BZ509 that is thought to have been captured from the interstellar medium 4.5 billion years ago, which coincidentally seems to be around the time of Earth formation. According to the study, the capture of Earth-sized interstellar objects would offer an alternative to conventional planet formation through accretion. And if those objects have already developed life, they could spread it to other planets by means of interplanetary panspermia. They may not ultimately impact a planet in a direct collision, but serve as the carrier, with smaller impactors being sufficient to produce ejecta and consequently enable interstellar lithopanspermia. Life may have been transferred via grains propelled by collisions with space dust or by means of radiation pressure and therefore enabling “spores” to escape. Arjun Berera in his paper on Space dust collisions as a planetary escape mechanism focused on the possibility that such collisions can give particles in the atmosphere the necessary escape velocity and upward trajectory to escape Earth’s gravity.  

 

 

Planets rotate around stars. Moons revolve around planets. "Do moons have moons too?" I ask... Martian Moons eXplorer  is scheduled to be launched by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in 2024  to explore  Phobos (and/or Deimos), the two moons of Mars. Uranus has a regular set of satellites, suggesting their accretion from a disk. The inner Saturnian moons, too, may have been formed near the outer edge of the Roche limit by accretion of icy ring material.While Neptune’s moons are thought to be captured objects as a result of gas-drag, collisions, exchange action or during a  planetary flyby in the early solar system evolution, a 2019 study suggests that all satellites of large trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs)  were formed via giant impacts in the early stage of solar system formation, before the outward migration of Neptune, and that they were fully or partially molten during the giant impact era. 

 

Sun up close (	ESA/ESAC/CESAR – A. de Burgos )

Sun up close ( ESA/ESAC/CESAR – A. de Burgos )

 

Gravity emerges from a microscopic description that doesn’t know about its existence. Its speed is the speed at which matter - space including - is brought to “light”... I see spots popping up to the surface of the Sun as if it were a pot of boiling gas. On a solitary journey far from his birthplace, the Sun has lost his siblings formed with him in the same cluster. They have spread throughout the Milky Way. Last year, the search for the closest solar siblings - the AMBRE project - resulted in the identification of 4 candidates, with HD 176535 being the least likely and HD 186302 the most. I wonder whether HD 186302 has met the same fate as the Sun and if an Earth-like planet is revolving around it. Based on a 2012 paper, lithopanspermia could have allowed the transfer of solid material between two planetary systems embedded in a cluster. If life arose in any of these systems before the cluster dispersed - and there seems to be some indication that liquid water may have been present on Earth during the solar system’s first hundred million years -, this mechanism may have allowed the exchange of life-bearing rocks amongst the planetary systems in the cluster. Given that even a few kilograms of microbe-bearing fragments may suffice to seed the target planetary systems with life, Idan Ginsburg, Manasvi Lingam, Abraham Loeb showed in a 2018 paper on Galactic panspermia that the entire Milky Way could potentially be exchanging biotic components across vast distances.  The transfer of microbes from Mars to Earth is regarded as highly probable, inferring the possibility that rocky material may be exchanged between nearby planets, which may very well be the case of exoplanets in other planetary systems such as the TRAPPIST-1 system.  Furthermore, a 2004 study suggested that an ejection mechanism involving microorganisms may be common in other planetary systems environmentally capable of supporting life, creating a ‘chain reaction’ that may seed the disc of a galaxy within a few billion years. I picture a three-stage process - escape, capture, collide -  within the limits of planetary systems and beyond and the life forms that appear simultaneously or subsequently in recurring chains of events. 

Galactic duo UGC 2369 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Evans; CC BY 4.0)

Galactic duo UGC 2369 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Evans; CC BY 4.0)

I see in action the power of a collective consciousness heightened by new ideas and new forms of cooperation in the search for a deeper understanding of both the outer as well as the inner worldCaught in a cloud of subjectiveness, the mind wonders whether life spread from Earth to other planets and exoplanetary systems or from Europa,  Ceres or from anywhere else for that matter. Ceres, for instance, is the largest body in the asteroid belt and the most water‐rich inner solar system body after Earth. It was explored by the Dawn mission set to understand the abundance, distribution, and phase partitioning of water in the subsurface. It may be that icy moons, terrestrial planets, comets, and asteroids that share geophysical characteristics play an essential role in the spread of life throughout the Universe. In a 2018 paper on Subsurface Exolife, Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb quantified the energy resources available to icy worlds like Ceres that may contain subsurface oceans for ice is believed to be one of the possible sites for abiogenesis to take place and since ecosystems may not always be dependent on photosynthesis but may draw upon alternative sources of energy - such as thermal gradients, magnetic fields, and gravitation.  Surprisingly, on our Moon, too, there is ice. A team of scientists, led by Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii and Brown University, found direct and definitive evidence for surface-exposed water ice in the lunar polar regions. The abundance and distribution of ice on the Moon are distinct from those on other airless bodies in the inner solar system such as Mercury and Ceres, which may be associated with the unique formation and evolution process of our Moon.

 

Occator Crater on Ceres limb (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Occator Crater on Ceres limb (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Large block along the ridge of Urvara Crater (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Large block along the ridge of Urvara Crater (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

 

One wonders whether the shaping of planetary systems leaves behind belts of smaller bodies or whether those are more specific to our solar system. It was suggested that those belts may be one of the prerequisites for the origin of complex life and that such belts are not common in our Universe. For systems without such belts, the impacts from interstellar objects might be more conducive to macroevolutionary processes. Nevertheless, as Biologist Nick Lane concluded that complex life will be rare in the universe and that it is far more likely to get stuck at the bacterial level of complexity, Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb who also wrote a paper on the habitability of M-dwarf exoplanets concur in the opinion that the majority of the higher evolutionary transitions might not occur on planets with (sub)surface oceans. Another paper shows as well that the habitability zone for complex aerobic life is likely limited relative to that for microbial life.

 

Storytelling, may it be done by a poet or a scientist, weaves our earthly footprints in the canvas of the Universe while words wrap our minds in a blanket of memory, knowledge, and imagination. Words like synestiasploonets, and blazars... As new stories are written, they shed light on past events. The multimessenger observation of blazar TXS 0506+056 has prompted scientists to investigate reports of earlier blazar flares, that were also detectable by the Icecube Neutrino Observatory.  Indeed, the past expands as a spectrum of possibilities. The Universe bursts with complex adaptative systems that evolve to the edge of chaos or somewhere near the edge of chaos “because evolution takes them there. Chaos is not to be afraid of for chaos brings something anew. But I rather hear the sound of the word “collide” instead. 

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