In April 2018, in the famous Faraday Theatre at the Royal Institution in London, Carlo Rovelli gave an hour-long lecture on the nature of time. A red thread spanned the stage, a metaphor for the Italian theoretical physicist’s subject. “Time is a long line,” he said. To the left lies the past—the dinosaurs, the big bang—and to the right, the future—the unknown. “We’re sort of here,” he said, hanging a carabiner on it, as a marker for the present.
Then he flipped the script. “I’m going to tell you that time is not like that,” he explained.
Rovelli went on to challenge our common-sense notion of time, starting with the idea that it ticks everywhere at a uniform rate. In fact, clocks tick slower when they are in a stronger gravitational field. When you move nearby clocks showing the same time into different fields—one in space, the other on Earth, say—and then bring them back together again, they will show different times. “It’s a fact,” Rovelli said, and it means “your head is older than your feet.”
Also a non-starter is any shared sense of “now.” We don’t really share the present moment with anyone. “If I look at you, I see you now—well, but not really, because light takes time to come from you to me,” he said. “So I see you sort of a little bit in the past .” As a result, “now” means nothing beyond the temporal bubble “in which we can disregard the time it takes light to go back and forth.”
Rovelli turned next to the idea that time flows in only one direction, from past to future. Unlike general relativity, quantum mechanics, and particle physics, thermodynamics embeds a direction of time. Its second law states that the total entropy, or disorder, in an isolated system never decreases over time. Yet this doesn’t mean that our conventional notion of time is on any firmer grounding, Rovelli said.
Entropy, or disorder, is subjective: “Order is in the eye of the person who looks.” In other words the distinction between past and future, the growth of entropy over time, depends on a macroscopic effect—“the way we have described the system, which in turn depends on how we interact with the system,” he said.
“A million years of your life would be neither past nor future for me. So the present is not thin; it’s horrendously thick.”
Getting to the last common notion of time, Rovelli became a little more cautious. His scientific argument that time is discrete—that it is not seamless, but has quanta—is less solid. “Why? Because I’m still doing it! It’s not yet in the textbook.” The equations for quantum gravity he’s written down suggest three things, he said, about what “clocks measure.” First, there’s a minimal amount of time—its units are not infinitely small.
Second, since a clock, like every object, is quantum, it can be in a superposition of time readings. “You cannot say between this event and this event is a certain amount of time, because, as always in quantum mechanics, there could be a probability distribution of time passing.”
Which means that, third, in quantum gravity, you can have “a local notion of a sequence of events, which is a minimal notion of time, and that’s the only thing that remains,” Rovelli said. Events aren’t ordered in a line “but are confused and connected” to each other without “a preferred time variable—anything can work as a variable.”
Even the notion that the present is fleeting doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It is certainly true that the present is “horrendously short” in classical, Newtonian physics. “But that’s not the way the world is designed,” Rovelli explained. Light traces a cone, or consecutively larger circles, in four-dimensional spacetime like ripples on a pond that grow larger as they travel. No information can cross the bounds of the light cone because that would require information to travel faster than the speed of light.
“In spacetime, the past is whatever is inside our past light-cone,” Rovelli said, gesturing with his hands the shape of an upside down cone. “So it’s whatever can affect us. The future is this opposite thing,” he went on, now gesturing an upright cone. “So in between the past and the future, there isn’t just a single line—there’s a huge amount of time.” Rovelli asked an audience member to imagine that he lived in Andromeda, which is two and a half million light years away. “A million years of your life would be neither past nor future for me. So the present is not thin; it’s horrendously thick.”
Listening to Rovelli’s description, I was reminded of a phrase from his book, The Order of Time : Studying time “is like holding a snowflake in your hands: gradually, as you study it, it melts between your fingers and vanishes.”
By : Brian Gallagher
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.
One of the most important open questions in science is how our consciousness is established. In the 1990s, long before winning the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for his prediction of black holes, physicist Roger Penrose teamed up with anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff to propose an ambitious answer.
They claimed that the brain’s neuronal system forms an intricate network and that the consciousness this produces should obey the rules of quantum mechanics – the theory that determines how tiny particles like electrons move around. This, they argue, could explain the mysterious complexity of human consciousness.
Penrose and Hameroff were met with incredulity. Quantum mechanical laws are usually only found to apply at very low temperatures. Quantum computers, for example, currently operate at around -272°C. At higher temperatures, classical mechanics takes over. Since our body works at room temperature, you would expect it to be governed by the classical laws of physics. For this reason, the quantum consciousness theory has been dismissed outright by many scientists – though others are persuaded supporters.
Instead of entering into this debate, I decided to join forces with colleagues from China, led by Professor Xian-Min Jin at Shanghai Jiaotong University, to test some of the principles underpinning the quantum theory of consciousness.
In our new paper, we’ve investigated how quantum particles could move in a complex structure like the brain – but in a lab setting. If our findings can one day be compared with activity measured in the brain, we may come one step closer to validating or dismissing Penrose and Hameroff’s controversial theory.
Brains and fractals
Our brains are composed of cells called neurons, and their combined activity is believed to generate consciousness. Each neuron contains microtubules, which transport substances to different parts of the cell. The Penrose-Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness argues that microtubules are structured in a fractal pattern which would enable quantum processes to occur.
Fractals are structures that are neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, but are instead some fractional value in between. In mathematics, fractals emerge as beautiful patterns that repeat themselves infinitely, generating what is seemingly impossible: a structure that has a finite area, but an infinite perimeter.
This might sound impossible to visualise, but fractals actually occur frequently in nature. If you look closely at the florets of a cauliflower or the branches of a fern, you’ll see that they’re both made up of the same basic shape repeating itself over and over again, but at smaller and smaller scales. That’s a key characteristic of fractals.
The same happens if you look inside your own body: the structure of your lungs, for instance, is fractal, as are the blood vessels in your circulatory system. Fractals also feature in the enchanting repeating artworks of MC Escher and Jackson Pollock, and they’ve been used for decades in technology, such as in the design of antennas. These are all examples of classical fractals – fractals that abide by the laws of classical physics rather than quantum physics.
It’s easy to see why fractals have been used to explain the complexity of human consciousness. Because they’re infinitely intricate, allowing complexity to emerge from simple repeated patterns, they could be the structures that support the mysterious depths of our minds.
But if this is the case, it could only be happening on the quantum level, with tiny particles moving in fractal patterns within the brain’s neurons. That’s why Penrose and Hameroff’s proposal is called a theory of “quantum consciousness”.
We’re not yet able to measure the behaviour of quantum fractals in the brain – if they exist at all. But advanced technology means we can now measure quantum fractals in the lab. In recent research involving a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), my colleagues at Utrecht and I carefully arranged electrons in a fractal pattern, creating a quantum fractal.
When we then measured the wave function of the electrons, which describes their quantum state, we found that they too lived at the fractal dimension dictated by the physical pattern we’d made. In this case, the pattern we used on the quantum scale was the Sierpiński triangle, which is a shape that’s somewhere between one-dimensional and two-dimensional.
This was an exciting finding, but STM techniques cannot probe how quantum particles move – which would tell us more about how quantum processes might occur in the brain. So in our latest research, my colleagues at Shanghai Jiaotong University and I went one step further. Using state-of-the-art photonics experiments, we were able to reveal the quantum motion that takes place within fractals in unprecedented detail.
We achieved this by injecting photons (particles of light) into an artificial chip that was painstakingly engineered into a tiny Sierpiński triangle. We injected photons at the tip of the triangle and watched how they spread throughout its fractal structure in a process called quantum transport. We then repeated this experiment on two different fractal structures, both shaped as squares rather than triangles. And in each of these structures we conducted hundreds of experiments.
Our observations from these experiments reveal that quantum fractals actually behave in a different way to classical ones. Specifically, we found that the spread of light across a fractal is governed by different laws in the quantum case compared to the classical case.
This new knowledge of quantum fractals could provide the foundations for scientists to experimentally test the theory of quantum consciousness. If quantum measurements are one day taken from the human brain, they could be compared against our results to definitely decide whether consciousness is a classical or a quantum phenomenon.
Our work could also have profound implications across scientific fields. By investigating quantum transport in our artificially designed fractal structures, we may have taken the first tiny steps towards the unification of physics, mathematics and biology, which could greatly enrich our understanding of the world around us as well as the world that exists in our heads.
In September 2019, my colleague Anna Kapinska gave a presentation showing interesting objects she’d found while browsing our new radio astronomical data. She had started noticing very weird shapes she couldn’t fit easily to any known type of object.
Among them, labelled by Anna as WTF?, was a picture of a ghostly circle of radio emission, hanging out in space like a cosmic smoke-ring. None of us had ever seen anything like it before, and we had no idea what it was. A few days later, our colleague Emil Lenc found a second one, even more spooky than Anna’s.
EMU plans to boldly probe parts of the Universe where no telescope has gone before. It can do so because ASKAP can survey large swathes of the sky very quickly, probing to a depth previously only reached in tiny areas of sky, and being especially sensitive to faint, diffuse objects like these.
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I predicted a couple of years ago this exploration of the unknown would probably make unexpected discoveries, which I called WTFs. But none of us expected to discover something so unexpected, so quickly. Because of the enormous data volumes, I expected the discoveries would be made using machine learning. But these discoveries were made with good old-fashioned eyeballing.
Our team searched the rest of the data by eye, and we found a few more of the mysterious round blobs. We dubbed them ORCs, which stands for “odd radio circles”. But the big question, of course, is: “what are they?”
At first we suspected an imaging artefact, perhaps generated by a software error. But we soon confirmed they are real, using other radio telescopes. We still have no idea how big or far away they are. They could be objects in our galaxy, perhaps a few light-years across, or they could be far away in the Universe and maybe millions of light years across.
When we look in images taken with optical telescopes at the position of ORCs, we see nothing. The rings of radio emission are probably caused by clouds of electrons, but why don’t we see anything in visible wavelengths of light? We don’t know, but finding a puzzle like this is the dream of every astronomer.
We have ruled out several possibilities for what ORCs might be.
Could they be supernova remnants, the clouds of debris left behind when a star in our galaxy explodes? No. They are far from most of the stars in the Milky Way and there are too many of them.
Could they be the rings of radio emission sometimes seen in galaxies undergoing intense bursts of star formation? Again, no. We don’t see any underlying galaxy that would be hosting the star formation.
Could they be the giant lobes of radio emission we see in radio galaxies, caused by jets of electrons squirting out from the environs of a supermassive black hole? Not likely, because the ORCs are very distinctly circular, unlike the tangled clouds we see in radio galaxies.
Could they be Einstein rings, in which radio waves from a distant galaxy are being bent into a circle by the gravitational field of a cluster of galaxies? Still no. ORCs are too symmetrical, and we don’t see a cluster at their centre.
A genuine mystery
In our paper about ORCs, which is forthcoming in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, we run through all the possibilities and conclude these enigmatic blobs don’t look like anything we already know about.
So we need to explore things that might exist but haven’t yet been observed, such as a vast shockwave from some explosion in a distant galaxy. Such explosions may have something to do with fast radio bursts, or the neutron star and black hole collisions that generate gravitational waves.
Or perhaps they are something else entirely. Two Russian scientists have even suggested ORCs might be the “throats” of wormholes in spacetime.
From the handful we’ve found so far, we estimate there are about 1,000 ORCs in the sky. My colleague Bärbel Koribalski notes the search is now on, with telescopes around the world, to find more ORCs and understand their cause.
It’s a tricky job, because ORCS are very faint and difficult to find. Our team is brainstorming all these ideas and more, hoping for the eureka moment when one of us, or perhaps someone else, suddenly has the flash of inspiration that solves the puzzle.
It’s an exciting time for us. Most astronomical research is aimed at refining our knowledge of the Universe, or testing theories. Very rarely do we get the challenge of stumbling across a new type of object which nobody has seen before, and trying to figure out what it is.
Is it a completely new phenomenon, or something we already know about but viewed in a weird way? And if it really is completely new, how does that change our understanding of the Universe? Watch this space!
By: Ray Norris Professor, School of Science, Western Sydney University
A new study using observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope reveals the first clear-cut evidence that the expanding debris of exploded stars produces some of the fastest-moving matter in the universe. This discovery is a major step toward meeting one of Fermi’s primary mission goals. Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space at nearly the speed of light. About 90 percent of them are protons, with the remainder consisting of electrons and atomic nuclei.
In their journey across the galaxy, the electrically charged particles become deflected by magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and makes it impossible to trace their origins directly. Through a variety of mechanisms, these speedy particles can lead to the emission of gamma rays, the most powerful form of light and a signal that travels to us directly from its sources. Two supernova remnants, known as IC 443 and W44, are expanding into cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas.
This material emits gamma rays when struck by high-speed particles escaping the remnants. Scientists have been unable to ascertain which particle is responsible for this emission because cosmic-ray protons and electrons give rise to gamma rays with similar energies. Now, after analyzing four years of data, Fermi scientists see a gamma-ray feature from both remnants that, like a fingerprint, proves the culprits are protons. When cosmic-ray protons smash into normal protons, they produce a short-lived particle called a neutral pion.
The pion quickly decays into a pair of gamma rays. This emission falls within a specific band of energies associated with the rest mass of the neutral pion, and it declines steeply toward lower energies. Detecting this low-end cutoff is clear proof that the gamma rays arise from decaying pions formed by protons accelerated within the supernova remnants. This video is public domain and can be downloaded at: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?11209 Like our videos? Subscribe to NASA’s Goddard Shorts HD podcast: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/iTunes/f… Or find NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NASA.GSFC Or find us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/NASAGoddard
Albert Einstein’s work so revolutionized physics that it is difficult to discuss him without slipping into hagiography. Indeed, his brilliance is so storied that his surname has become synonymous with “genius,” and his brain preserved for study.
And yet, while Einstein was undeniably a smart cookie, one cannot look back at the course of history without noticing that the dominoes were all there, set up, and waiting for someone like him to start toppling them. Part of Einstein’s brilliance was merely realizing this. Avi Loeb, a professor of physics at Harvard University with a regular a column in Scientific American, told me that he thinks that Einstein’s physics revelations would have been developed by others even if Einstein hadn’t been born. “It would take maybe a few more decades,” Loeb clarified. “Many of the things that Einstein personally was responsible for — there at least 10 touchstones in physics where each of them is a major intellectual achievement — you know, they would be discovered by different people, I think,” Loeb continued. “That illustrates his genius.”
Loeb is advising on a public project celebrating Einstein’s life and work at Hebrew University, which hosts an archive of Einstein’s documents. The project, “Einstein: Visualize the Impossible,” is slated to be an interactive online exhibition to engage the public with Einstein’s work. As a fellow physicist, Einstein’s work and his life have weighed on Loeb’s mind for years, which is why he was interested in helping curate.
In considering Einstein’s legacy, though, Loeb says we have to reckon with what has and hasn’t changed about the physics world. In the 1890s, when Einstein was in college, physics knowledge was a shell of what it is today. Quantum mechanics, dark matter, nuclear physics and most fundamental particles were unknown, and astronomers knew little about the nature of the universe — or even that there were other galaxies outside our own. Nowadays, many of the biggest physics discoveries happen by virtue of some of the largest and most expensive scientific instruments ever built: gravitational wave observatories, say, or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Given the landscape of physics today, could an Einstein-like physicist exist again — someone who, say, works in a patent office, quietly pondering the nature of space-time, yet whose revelations cause much of the field to be completely rethought?
Loeb thought so. “There are some dark clouds in physics,” Loeb told me. “People will tell you, ‘we just need to figure out which particles makes the dark matter, it’s just another particle. It has some weak interaction, and that’s pretty much it.’ But I think there is a very good chance that we are missing some very important ingredients that a brilliant person might recognize in the coming years.” Loeb even said the potential for a revolutionary physics breakthrough today “is not smaller — it’s actually bigger right now” than it was in Einstein’s time.
I spoke with Loeb via phone about Einstein’s legacy, and how physics has become “stuck” on certain problems; as always, this interview has been condensed and edited for print.
To start, let’s talk about some of Einstein’s contributions to science. What compelled you to help curate this celebration of Einstein’s legacy?
Well, to start, Einstein’s special theory of relativity revolutionized our notion of space and time. The fact that space and time are entities that are lumped together and that the speed of light is the ultimate speed, and, and that you can convert mass to energy, which is demonstrated by nuclear energy in particular. Then later on, he made the extremely important contributions to quantum mechanics, and of course developed the general theory of relativity that he published in November 1915, 105 years ago.
And amazingly, exactly a hundred years later, in August, 2015, gravitational waves were detected by the LIGO experiment — and they demonstrated that not only do gravitational waves exist, which are ripples in space and time that Einstein’s theory forecasted, but also that the forces of these gravitational waves are black holes, which are also a prediction of Einstein’s theory.
Obviously Einstein was very visionary, but also in a sense, he had peers — people like Karl Schwarzchild and Edwin Hubble — who were doing work that would help him test and correlate his theories. I’ve wondered, say, if Einstein were born 30 years later, would someone else have figured out relativity, and the photoelectric effect, and so on?
That’s a good question. Physics is about nature, right? So we’re trying to learn about nature. We’re trying to understand nature and you know, so, in that sense, we collect data and eventually someone comes up with the right idea. The question is, how long does that take? What I’m saying is, I believe that the same ideas would have been developed.
I don’t know how close to the time that Einstein and thought about them, but eventually. . . . it would take maybe a few more decades or something. But the most important thing is, I think it would have been fragmented. So, you know, many of the things that Einstein personally was responsible for — like there at least 10 touchstones in physics where each of them is a major intellectual achievement — they would be discovered by different people. So the fact that he came up with with all of them illustrates his genius.
But you know, if you look at people that got the Nobel prize, there are many people — examples of people that got it once for one major discovery, that’s pretty much what they did for their life. Either they did it early on in their life or late, but doesn’t matter. And that’s not true about Einstein. So he didn’t only deviate from the beaten path and, and come up with original ideas, but he did it multiple times. And by that, you know, it contributed to humanity. A great deal, I should say, like for example, his a general theory of relativity — this idea that space and time and gravity are connected.
It seems like physics has changed between Einstein’s day and now. Most of the underlying physical principles of our universe appear to have been well-defined and tested by now — say, the standard model of particle physics, or relativity and gravitation. And a lot of advances happen now because of data from huge teams working on government-funded instruments. Given the landscape of physics, is it actually possible that there could be somebody else like Einstein nowadays, someone who revolutionizes the whole field? Or do you think things have sort of fundamentally changed — both in terms of funding of experiments and of our understanding of the universe — so that such a thing is no longer possible?
I mean, we do have much bigger experiments as you said, and much more data in some fields. But we still need people that think about the blueprint of physics, that think about the fundamental assumptions that everyone else is making that might be wrong. We need critical thinking. And there are some dark clouds on the horizon, just as they were 150 years ago. You know, back then, back then it was the blackbody radiation. And people at the time thought, “well, we just need to clarify that dark cloud, and then we finish physics.” [Editor’s note: in the 1890s, the fact that objects glowed different colors as they heated up was one of the great mysteries of physics. It turned out to be related to quantum mechanics, the study of which prompted an ongoing revolution in physics.]
And right now there are some dark clouds, too, you know. Like, there is the nature of dark matter, or the nature of the cosmological constant, or that we don’t know where the vacuum gets its energy from. People will tell you, “oh, these are just minute details. You know, we just need to figure out which particles makes the dark matter, it’s just another particle. It has some weak interaction, and that’s pretty much it. And the dark energy, you know, it’s just the vacuum energy density, you know, for some reason it’s more maybe, because otherwise we wouldn’t exist here.” You know, we can give each other awards and celebrate the end of physics.
I think it’s pretty much similar [to the 19th century situation]. And I think there, there is a very good chance that we are missing some very important ingredients that a brilliant person might recognize in the coming years, in the coming decades.
What are some of the “dark clouds” in physics, as you say?
One of the challenges is unifying quantum mechanics and gravity. So you have this huge contingency of string theories that agree among themselves that they are leading the frontier, but nevertheless, they haven’t provided any concrete predictions that can be tested by experiments over the past 40 years. [Editor’s note: String theory unifies quantum mechanics and gravity, but it is, as Loeb mentions, not testable as far as anyone knows.]
[String theorists] are still advocating that they’re the smartest physicists — although they’re not doing physics, because in my book, physics is about testing your ideas against reality, with experiments. And, you know, I very much believe that put your theory to the guillotine of experimental data, and it may cut its head off. But if you don’t risk your theory by testing it, you can be very proud of yourself. The only way that you maintain your humility is by recognizing that there is something superior to your ideas, which is nature. And it’s a learning experience where you’re not supposed to know everything in advance.
And that’s unfortunately not popular these days. Today, it’s all about impressing each other. And that’s part of social media, you know, trying to impress other people to say things that look smart, that look very intelligent, that completely align with what everyone else is saying so that they will like you, that you would have more likes on Twitter. Okay. So that’s the motivation, so that you can get more awards, more grants so that you can get a tenure appointment and everyone would respect you.
That’s wrong. That was clearly not the motivation of Einstein. He was not trying to be liked, and that’s why he was working in a patent office. But his ideas happened to be right. And in a way he was naive in that sense, but that’s the right approach — you should be always learning.
So I would say there is the same potential — even greater now — because we are at a time when we recognize the success of physics. It has a huge impact on the economy, on politics, and so forth. So we recognize that — but if you look at the frontiers of physics, which is blue sky research, you know, it’s supposed to be open minded — but it’s not open-minded. There are groups of people, entrenched in ideas that will never be tested and they believe that they’re leading the frontier.
Right. So are you saying that the premise of the some of the major experiments might even be wrong? Like, all the prominent dark matter experiments are trying to find this weakly-interacting, supersymmetric particle, but even that assumption may be wrong?
So here is an example: Supersymmetry, you know, that was an idea advocated for decades now. [Editor’s note: Supersymmetry is the theory that for every fundamental particle, there is a “partner” particle; so for the electron, there would be a supersymmetric “selectron,” and for the top quark, there would be a supersymmetric “squark,” and so on. Dark matter is theorized to be made of one of these particles. Yet none of the supersymmetric particles have ever been observed.] And people celebrated this idea, and gave each other awards. The Large Hadron Collider in CERN was supposed to detect the lightest supersymmetric particles — and it didn’t. There’s no evidence for supersymmetry.
So obviously what people say is, “oh, maybe it’s around the corner.” But it’s already ruled out — the most natural versions of supersymmetry are ruled out. So here’s an idea that was celebrated as part of the mainstream — not only celebrated, but it was the foundation for string theory. So they put it as a building block: “We know it exists, put it as a brick at the bottom of the tower that we are building called string theory, called superstring theory. And let’s assume that we know it it’s completely trivial, experimentalists will eventually find it, we don’t even need to think about it — let’s put it as a building block of our tower.”
Doesn’t exist. LHD [Large Hadron Collider] didn’t find it. So then, people say, “okay, weakly interacting massive particles are dark matter — but for decades, they haven’t found anything. [Editor’s note: One prominent theory to explain dark matter is that it consists of particles that are heavy but rarely interact with normal matter, though they bounce off of themselves and have a gravitational interaction. Most of the major experiments searching for dark matter are attempting to find this type of weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP for short.]
And so I asked the experimentalists, “how long will you continue to search for WIMPs, these weakly interacting particles, since the limits are orders of magnitude below the expectation?” And he said, “I will continue to search for WIMPs as long as I get funding.”
So in the mainstream approach, there is this stubbornness — like, we stick to the ideas that we believe in. And then anyone that deviates from that will be sidelined. You know, anyone that considers any other theory for unifying quantum mechanics and gravity through string theory is sidelined, even though there is no reasonable evidence for string theory. So I would say the potential now for a breakthrough that will be really revolutionary is not smaller — it’s actually bigger right now [than it was in Einstein’s]. It’s just, the social pressure is stronger.
So we do need — we desperately need another Einstein. There is no doubt.
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It would change everything we know about life in the Solar System and far beyond.
Or would it? What if we accidentally transported life to Mars on a spacecraft? And what if that is how life moves around the Universe?
A new paper published this week in Frontiers in Microbiology explores the possibility that microbes and extremophiles may migrate between planets and distribute life around the Universe—and that includes on spacecraft sent from Earth to Mars.
What is ‘panspermia?’
It’s an untested, unproven and rather wild theory regarding the interplanetary transfer of life. It theorizes that microscopic life-forms, such as bacteria, can be transported through space and land on another planet. Thus sparking life elsewhere.
It could happen by accident—such as on spacecraft—via comets and asteroids in the Solar System, and perhaps even between star systems on interstellar objects like ʻOumuamua.
However, for “panspermia” to have any credence requires proof that bacteria could survive a long journey through the vacuum, temperature fluctuations, and intense UV radiation in outer space.
Cue the “Tanpopo” project.
What is the ‘Tanpopo’ mission?
Tanpopo—dandelion in English—is a scientific experiment to see if bacteria can survive in the extremes of outer space.
The researchers from Tokyo University—in conjunction with Japanese national space agency JAXA—wanted to see if the bacteria deinococcus could survive in space, so had it placed in exposure panels on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as being resistant to radiation. Dried samples of different thicknesses were exposed to space environment for one, two, or three years and then tested to see if any survived.
“The results suggest that deinococcus could survive during the travel from Earth to Mars and vice versa, which is several months or years in the shortest orbit,” said Akihiko Yamagishi, a Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences and principal investigator of Tanpopo.
That means spacecraft visiting Mars could theoretically carry microorganisms and potentially contaminate its surface.
However, this isn’t just about Earth and Mars—the ramifications of panspermia, if proven, are far-reaching.
“The origin of life on Earth is the biggest mystery of human beings (and) scientists can have totally different points of view on the matter,” said Dr. Yamagishi. “Some think that life is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think that life can happen on every suitable planet.”
This is bacteria surviving in space for a long period when shielded by rock—typically an asteroid or a comet—which could travel between planets, potentially spreading bacteria and biologically-rich matter around the Solar System.
However, the theory of panspermia goes even further than that.
What is ‘interstellar panspermia’ and ‘galactic panspermia?’
This is the hypothesis—and it’s one with zero evidence—that life exists throughout the galaxy and/or Universe specifically because bacteria and microorganisms are spread around by asteroids, comets, space dust and possibly even interstellar spacecraft from alien civilizations.
In 2018 a paper concluded that the likelihood of Galactic panspermia is strongly dependent upon the survival lifetime of the organisms as well as the velocity of the comet or asteroid—positing that the entire Milky Way could potentially be exchanging biotic components across vast distances.
Such theories have gained credence in the last few years with the discovery of two extrasolar objects Oumuamua and Borisov passing through our Solar System.
However, while the ramifications are mind-boggling, panspermia is definitely not a proven scientific process.
There are still many unanswered questions about how the space-surviving microbes could physically transfer from one celestial body to another.
How will Perseverance look for life on Mars?
NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to land on the red planet on February 18, 2021. It will land in a nearly four billion-year-old river delta in Mars’ 28 miles/45 kilometers-wide Jezero Crater.
It’s thought likely that Jezero Crater was home to a lake as large as Lake Tahoe more than 3.5 billion years ago. Ancient rivers there could have carried organic molecules and possibly even microorganisms.
Perseverance’s mission will be to analyze rock and sediment samples to see if Mars may have had conditions for microorganisms to thrive. It will drill a few centimeters into Mars and take core samples, then put the most promising into containers. It will then leave them on the Martian surface to be later collected by a human mission in the early 2030s.
I’m an experienced science, technology and travel journalist interested in space exploration, moon-gazing, exploring the night sky, solar and lunar eclipses, astro-travel, wildlife conservation and nature. I’m the editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com and the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide” (Springer, 2015), as well as many eclipse-chasing guides.