Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

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The question of how planets form continued to attract attention. Everyone agrees the accretion starting position is the disk of gas falling into the forming star. The gas also contains "dust", ranging in size from a colloidal dispersion to pieces a few millimetres in diameter. It is possible some pieces could be bigger, but we would not see them. The question then is, what happens next? The standard theory is that by some undefined mechanism, this accretes into planetesimals, which are about the size of asteroids, and the resultant distribution of these, which is smooth and continuous with regards to distance from the star, gravitationally collide. The asteroid belt is therefore likely to be the remnants of this process. In my opinion, that is wrong, and the first stages were driven by chemistry, and the distribution of growing bodies is highly enhanced in certain zones of temperature appropriate for the specific chemistry.
There was an interesting paper in Nature 511: 22-24  that surveyed problems with the standard theory of planetary formation, and ends with the question, "Why is our system so different from so many others?" Unfortunately, no answer was provided. As my theory shows, the reason is very simple: the admittedly limited evidence strongly suggests that our star cleaned out its accretion disk very quickly after formation, and this stopped accretion. Other systems kept going, which leads to more massive bodies and stronger gravitational interactions, and this results in what is effectively planetary billiards takes place. Unfortunately, once gravitational interactions get big enough, the resultant system becomes totally unpredictable.
Another interesting problem involved the question of rubble-pile asteroids. One major question is how rocky planets accrete, and the standard theory seems to assume that somehow moderate sized objects form, and gravity makes these come together, and as they get more rubble, they become bigger objects. Eventually they become big enough that they heat up, partly through radioactivity and partly through the loss of potential energy when bodies pile up, and the heated body starts to melt together. Asteroids are often believed to be piles of such rubble. However, two papers were published that make this proposition less likely. In this context, my theory requires rocky bodies accreted while the accretion disk is still present to be joined together chemically, and in the case of the asteroids, by cements similar to those used by the ancient Romans, and which also come from certain volcanoes such as Vesuvius. Such asteroids can still be piles of rubble, but cemented together where the surfaces meet. Effectively, they are very poorly compacted concretes. Also, non-cemented rubble piles would exist if the pieces came together following the disk clean-out.
The first (Nature 512: 174 – 176) involved asteroid (29075) 1950 DA, which has a density of 1.7 0.7. Since the solids are believed to be similar to enstatite chondrite, it should have a density of 3.55, hence it appears to have about 50% space inside it.  However, the rotational velocity is such that if it comprised rubble, the rubble should peel off. The authors argued that it must be held together with van der Waals forces from fine grains between the larger pieces. I have a problem with this. If the spaces are filled, then the density should be higher. Note that van der Waals forces are very weak at a very short range, and according to Feynman's calculations, they fall off inversely to the power of 6 with distance. The second paper (Icarus 241: 358 -372) analysed the size/frequency distribution of small asteroids and compared these with computed collision frequencies, and they found that the assumption of rubble-pile asteroids leads to a significant worse fit with observation than the assumption of monolithic bodies, hence they conclude that the majority of main-belt asteroids are monolithic.
Finally, there is the question of global magma oceans. The standard theory has rocky planets finally accreting through massive collisions, which lead to massive generation of heat, which in turn converts the rocky planet to magma. However, evidence has been presented (Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 403: 225 – 235) that the geology of Mars is incompatible with this picture. My mechanism for planetary formation does not forbid a magma ocean, but unless there is a giant collision between two massive bodies, there will not be, and planets can form without one. In fact, they probably have to, because the energy of collision of massive bodies is generally such that size reduction occurs as material is shed to space.
Posted by Ian Miller on Aug 31, 2014 9:34 PM BST
An interesting problem is how should scientists present their information to the public. The issue is more complicated because we have to assume that some of the public will be educated enough to understand what is presented, and if there are flaws, to pick on them. The problem then is, as other members of the public see the fallout, science itself gets discredited. One piece of news that I saw was a statement that from analysis of the decay products of heavy isotopes 182Hf and 129I, the gas and dust that formed the solar system was present in a dust cloud isolated from interstellar space for 30 million years before collapse to form the solar system took place. The news item stated that this was quite remarkable, because it only took about 1 My for the star to form once it got going (or so we think) and about 30 My for the rocky planets to finally form (this is almost certainly wrong – Mars took about 3My.)  What would be your reaction to seeing that?
My initial reaction, knowing something about the subject, was to say, "Hold on a minute. We date the early stages of solar system formation through the decay of 26Al, and that has a half-life of about 73,000 years." If we take the half-lives through 30 My, it becomes obvious that there is essentially no 26Al left. As it happens, with what we know to have been present initially, there is insufficient left to be useful for dating after about 3My at best. So, how do we resolve this?
If we look at the actual paper, (Science 345: 650 – 653), what they actually say is that certain radioactive nuclei were formed 100 My and 30 My before the sun started forming. They then produce one of those "pretty pictures that implies just about everything important ended 30 My before star formation, and that is presumably what the writer of the public statement latched onto. This is not helped by the same being presented in an explanation (Science 345: 620-621) which states early on that the gas cloud was isolated for 30 My before stellar formation. However, at the end of the paper, the authors of the paper conceded that additional supernovae were required to put the 26Al into the gas just before star formation. The problem is, such supernovae would also put in more of the other isotopes as well.
Thus the statement that the dust formed 30 My before star formation is just plain misleading. That does not mean it is wrong, and the authors have found something. The problem is, it has since been interpreted as something else by the media who do not have the skill to actually analyse what is there. So, what the story should have said is that the material used to form the solar system was a mix of material from a sequence of supernovae. The basic gas, hydrogen and helium, was, of course, there from the big bang.
This article could be written off as unimportant. The problem is, this sort of reporting is more widespread. Think of climate change. Why is there such a heated debate? Surely we can find some critical results and agree what they mean. Unfortunately, this does not seem to happen. I think that learned societies have a responsibility to present critical fact-stating documents, where everything within them is analysed and its reliability stated. Most topics have only a very limited number of really critical papers; the problem is to get these summarized so that the conclusion is not misleading.
Posted by Ian Miller on Aug 17, 2014 10:50 PM BST
One of the more unusual publications recently involved a theoretical computation of a hypothetical carbonium ion (or at least a very short-lived molecule-ion) C-(CH3)5 . (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed 53: 7875 – 7878.) Computations concluded that the structure was that of a trigonal bipyramid, which effectively had three methyl groups around the central carbon atom, which was in sp2 configuration, and two other methyl groups bonded to the p orbital of the central carbon atom. All methyl groups were in sp3 configuration. The important point about such a computation is that the ion is argued to be sufficiently stable that it exists, albeit short-lived, as it has two computed decay modes. The question now is, is it right? The issue is important because it proposes a type of bonding that so far has not been recognized, or if it has, the recognition passed by me.
There is one important point to note. Computations indicate that the CH5 ion does not follow the same structure. This ion can be considered as a distorted CH3 system that bonds to a H2 molecule. This gives three equivalent hydrogen atoms and two further equivalent, but different atoms. This is supported by the infrared spectrum (Science 309: 12219 – 1222) which shows a fluxional molecule consistent with that structure and with full hydrogen scrambling. Why does the replacement of hydrogen atoms with methyl groups make such a difference? Then again, does it?
The CH5 ion is conceptually simple, in that it is really a carbenium ion making an electrophilic attack on a two-electron bond. Now, if it will do that to the hydrogen molecule bond, why does the same thing not happen with, say the (CH3)3 – C ion which could make an electrophilic attach on the C – C bond of ethane?
The next question is, does it matter? I think it does, because it calls into question a number of bond issues. The first is, where is the formal positive charge? In my view, it starts on the central carbon atom. I argued that the gas phase stabilities of the usual carbenium ions is given quite satisfactorily by assuming the positive charge is first located at the formal ion centre, and it then polarizes the substituents (Aust J. Chem. 26 : 301-310.) That makes the (CH3)3 – C ion considerably more stable than the CH3 ion, and that ion would more readily polarize the bond in ethane. The issue then resolves itself to whether the formation of a two-electron C – C – C bond, plus the polarization energy is lower than the energy of the C – C bond in ethane, plus its polarization energy. A further question then is, is a two-electron C – C – C bond even possible? What we are asking, at least in conventional chemical thinking, is for the two methyl electrons that are separated over that distance to pair, and get the appropriate phase relationship. What disturbs me about this is that there are no other examples that I can think of where a vacant p orbital can bind two electrons in that way. My immediate thinking then makes me ask, is there any equivalent in boron chemistry? I am not sufficiently familiar to say there is not, but I am certainly unaware of any. Therefore the question is, does B-(CH3)5 exist? If the trigonal bipyramid structure for C-(CH3)5 is correct, one would think it should because the troublesome ionic character that leads to rearrangement is missing. If on the other hand, such an ion represents the (CH3)3 – C ion polarizing ethane, then there should be no B-(CH3)5
Posted by Ian Miller on Aug 11, 2014 12:27 AM BST
Some time ago I made a number of posts on biofuels, by concentrating on what I saw as the pros and cons of individual technologies, but by themselves, while you may have your own ideas as to their usefulness, one of the more important points is they lacked perspective. Of course it is hard to get perspective of such a wide field in a 600 word post. Another odd thing about those posts was I did not get around to posting about hydrothermal liquefaction, or hydrothermal hydrogenation, which, in my opinion, are likely to be the most useful technologies. Of course I am also biased, because these are the areas in which I have actively worked and published on and off over the last 35 years. The reason I got into those areas was that early in my career, while working for the main New Zealand government chemical research lab, I was given the job, and a useful travel budget, to try to survey what were the possibilities, and to unravel what the more promising (if any) options were. As a consequence of that, I have now repeated the exercise (without the travel budget!) and put my conclusions into another ebook that I am publishing on July 31.
The important aspect about such a survey is that it must explain why it is important to develop biofuels and to do that, numbers have to be put on the assertions. I feel that is the biggest problem with current work in this area. It is true, and I conclude this, that there is no single 'magic bullet', and that a very large number of resources will have to be used, and there is no harm in using resources that are available, even if, by doing so, you will be doing something that is not general. But it is also important to end up with a limited range of fuels. There is no point in having 120 different fuels on the market, when a given motor can only reasonably operate on one. Now, if you put numbers on resources, you very quickly find that if you want to eat, and you want to retain something of the natural land-based environment, you cannot replace oil from the land. There is simply insufficient area that is reasonably useful. Accordingly, I conclude that eventually we have to utilize the oceans. Now the problem here is that we have very little truly adequate technology to do this with. On the other hand, we know that in principle we can grow the algae. Problems include getting past "in principle". There have been clear demonstrations of growing macroalgae in deep water, but the experiment by the US navy started in the 1970s got wrecked in a storm, and when, at the time, the price of oil collapsed, the project was stopped. That does not mean it cannot be restarted, but it will require more work to solve the obvious problems.
So why do I think hydrothermal liquefaction is such a desirable technology to chase? Largely because it can process any biomass and with some reservations, provided one adjusts the methodology to be suitable for the resource. It then produces either drop-in fuels, or fuels than need a little more processing, however, once one gets to the liquid state, it is much easier to transport the "pre-fuel" to a refinery for upgrading. Can we totally replace oil? Probably not. Probably we shall have to reduce the wasted travel, but in principle we can come reasonably close. And while I most certainly do not claim to have all the answers, I am putting what I have out there.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jul 28, 2014 5:14 AM BST
My theory of planetary formation differs from the standard theory in three ways. The first two are that the standard theory has no mechanism to reach the initial position that it assumes, which is an even distribution of planetesimals (asteroid-sized bodies) with respect to distance from the star. (There is a lowering of concentration due to greater circumference as r increases.) My theory requires accretion to be due to chemical means (which includes physical chemistry), which means the distribution of accreting bodies is highly temperature dependent. The third major difference is that the standard theory has everything accreting through the collision of similar-sized bodies, so it becomes very slow; my theory requires accretion to be continuous and proportional to the gravitational cross-section, hence major bodies grow very quickly or not at all. The maths show that once one body in a region is significantly larger than any of the others, it alone tends to grow, by sweeping up all the smaller objects.
In a previous post, I used my theory of planetary formation to predict the properties of the two planets around Kapteyn’s star. Over the last few weeks there have been further papers in accord with my theory, and against the standard theory of planetary formation. In one (Science 344: 1150) the use of the hafnium/tungsten chronometer showed that the iron meteorite parent bodies formed over an interval of 1My, and within 0.1 – 0.3 My of calcium aluminium inclusions. However there is also evidence that the latter formed over about 3 My (Science 338: 651) so the iron meteorite bodies were amongst the earliest bodies in the solar system to form, at least in the zone of the rocky planets. That is required by my theory, because iron meteorites had to form at least within the first My, and probably over an even shorter time.
My theory requires rocky planets, with the possible exception of Mercury, to accrete through water acting as an initial setting agent for silicaceous cements, which gives the initial body enough strength prior to gravity becoming strong enough. This requires the water to be here initially, and not through cometary bombardment. There have been some papers recently that argue that seismic evidence suggests a zone between 410 and 660 km deep that contains 1 – 3% water (Science 344: 1265). That cannot get there by cometary impact, and had to have been there initially, which is well in accord with my theory.
Growth of moons should follow the same rule in my mechanism, and a recent paper (Icarus 237: 377) gave interesting support, in that the moments of inertia of Callisto and Titan inferred from gravity data suggest incomplete differentiation of their interior, which implies cold accretion. Simulations show accretion rate plays only a minor role, and the fraction brought by large impactors plays a more crucial role. The simulations show that a satellite exceeding 2,000 km in radius may accrete without experiencing significant melting only if its accretion is dominated by small impactors and if more than 10% of satellite mass was brought by satellitesimals larger than 1 km, global melting for large bodies like Titan and Callisto cannot be avoided.
On the other hand, there was one paper that suggests an alteration to what I put in the ebook is required. When I wrote the book, all available evidence stated that the isotope ratios of most elements in Moon and Earth samples were the same. This was a problem, because in the giant impactor scenario, since isotope ratios seem to be dependent on radial distance from the star, the impactor should have had different isotope compositions. My suggestion was to support a previous proposition, namely that the impactor formed at the same radial distance, specifically at one (or both) of the Lagrange positions L4 or L5. If so, the Moon would have formed towards the end of Earth’s accretion (because it needs Earth to have a significant gravitational field at these positions) and because the rocky planets were supposed to accrete by adding additional material as it headed starwards, there should have been a slight difference in oxygen isotope ratios. On this proposition, the impactor would not accrete many small iron containing bodies either, because the lunar feed would lie outside the zone where iron melted.
So, overall, I remain reasonably happy. The very first forms of this theory were  laid down in the mid 1990s, and of course I started to keep track of evidence for or against. Some of the evidence as interpreted by the authors naturally supported the standard theory, but so far nothing I have seen has contradicted fundamentally what I started with, although of course there were some minor adjustments. There is a slightly weird feeling when your theory contradicts what everyone else thinks, and nothing falsifies it over twenty years, and also some of what has deeply puzzled almost everyone has a natural explanation.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jul 14, 2014 4:01 AM BST
Throughout my career in chemistry, one of the more interesting debates has been the nature of the cationic exo-2-norbornyl system, and recently (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2014, 53, 5888) a paper was published that included, after a discussion of the original debate, the quote: "To our surprise, the structure of C7 H11+ obtained under our conditions is not that of 2NB+, but instead corresponds to a much more stable rearranged ion." Why was this surprising?
First, this is irrelevant to the original debate on the question, why is the rate of solvolysis of the exo-2-norbornyl X systems, where X is a leaving group, proceed much faster than that of the endo system? The isolated 2-norbornyl cation should be the same for each, and is hence irrelevant. The reason for the differences in solvolysis is not the structure of the isolated ion, but rather the activation energy required to reach the transition state, in which the ion is not fully developed. If the ion fully develops as a free ion, then both starting materials will lead to one ion with one energy and structure.
Another quote: "Although 2NB+ is well-known in the condensed phase, it is not generally recognized that it is not the C7 H11+ global energy minimum. Computational studies have explored some C7 H11isomers, but there has been no comprehensive study of the potential energy surface, and no studies of this system at higher levels of theory.[20, 28, 29]". The paper then went on to show from measuring the infrared spectrum of their cations generated in the MS that the ion was the 1,3-cyclopentenyl carbenium ion. This was apparently a surprise to them.
First, the fact that the 1,3-cyclopentenyl ion was at an energy minimum for this system has been known since the 1960s, and the fact that certain cyclohexenyl carbenium ions would contract to a cyclopentenyl system with the methyl generated at an adventitious position was also known in the 1960s. Then, in 1973 I published a paper explaining why such carbenium ion rearrangements take place, and giving a procedure for calculating the energies of the various species. As to why the rearrangement of the norbornyl to the cyclopentenyl system occurs, we might note that the norbornyl system is in effect a five-membered ring with a two-carbon bridge at the 1,3-positions. (Count from C1, and make what is usually C7 now C2.) The system is also highly strained, and forming the cyclopentenyl system relieves that strain. Lose the bridging bond, and the two "methyl" substituents are already in position following the required hydride shifts, which are known to be fast in this system.
To summarize, the fact that the system forms the 1,3-dimethylcyclopentenium cation should not be a surprise. More interesting is the reason this system is in an energy well, not so much for the norbornyl system, where the strain energy makes it somewhat obvious, but rather for the corresponding cyclohexenyl system. The calculations I made do not need "the highest level of quantum computing". What I assumed was that before the ion was formed, the bonds were standard. Now, when the ion is formed, the action in each bond must remain constant, because action is quantized. What does happen to such a standard framework comes from the application of Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. Very specifically, the enhanced electric field polarizes all electric distributions in the space around it If we assign a volume and a relative permittivity to each specific type of bond (in this case C – C and C – H ), then the stabilization depends on the bond's location with respect to the formal charge, which, for a cation, is a carbon atom. An important point was that the assumed permittivities and volumes were consistent with effects noted from electromagnetic radiation. Perhaps not quite as "glamorous" or "sophisticated" as "the highest level of quantum computing", but equally Maxwell's electromagnetic theory is not exactly fringe science either.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 29, 2014 11:45 PM BST
One of the most intriguing announcements recently regarding exoplanets is that two planets have been found around the red dwarf Kapteyn's star, which happens to be about rather close to us, at about 13 light years distance. Even more intriguing is its proper motion; it was about 11 light years distant about 11,000 years ago. The reason for this is that it is orbiting the galaxy in the opposite direction to us! Galaxies grow by accreting galaxies, and our galaxy has apparently swallowed a small galaxy, some of which may be known now as the Omega Centauri cluster. Another interesting feature of this star is that it was formed about two billion years after the big bang. Not surprisingly, the star is rather short of heavy elements, as these have to be made in supernovae.
The planets have been found using the Doppler method, which measures small variations in velocity of the star as it wobbles due to the planets. This star has a mass of about 0.28 times that of the sun, and a surface temperature of about 3,500 degrees C, and such low stellar masses make the detection of planets somewhat easier, because small stars wobble more through the gravitational effects of the same sized planet. The two planets are (b) at 0.168 A.U. from the star, and at least about 4.5 times Earth's mass, and (c) at 0.311 A.U. from the star, and at least about 7 times Earth's mass. (The "at least" is because what is measured is msini, i.e. the actual tug that we see is the component in our directions, and the angle of the orbital plane is unknown.) The reason this hit the news is that (b) is at a distance from the star where water could be liquid, so it is in the so-called habitable zone. With over 11 billion years for life to evolve, would it? If it would, with an extra 6.5 billion years, why hasn't its technology led to space travel to us?
If you accept my theory of planetary formation, the answer is, life there is highly unlikely. In this theory, certain types of planet form at specific temperatures in the accretion disk. The temperature depends on the power generated at a point, which in turn depends on the gravitational potential and the rate of the starwards component of matter flowing through the point. The first, from Newton, is proportional to stellar mass, the second, from observation, is very roughly proportional to stellar mass squared. Accordingly, the radial distance for equal temperatures will vary between accretion disks proportional to stellar mass cubed. Now, this is an extremely rough approximation, not the least because we have left heat radiation out of the calculation and assumed it to be proportionally the same for all disks. However, heat is radiated by dust, which depends on metallicity (which, to astronomers, means elements heavier than helium) and this is an extremely low metallicity star. If we assume my approximate relationship, then the Jupiter equivalent should be at 0.12 A.U. and the Saturn at 0.20 A.U., both plus or minus quite a lot.
Notwithstanding the inherent errors, I am reasonably confident we do not have rocky planets there, because while my estimates have a large potential error, there is a huge difference between the melting point of ice and the melting point of iron (needed to get iron lumps as in meteorites). Further, the error is reasonably consistent, being out by a factor of 1.4 for the Jupiter equivalent, and 1.55 for the Saturn equivalent, if those are what they are. That is reasonable for less heat loss due to lower metallicity. In my theory of planetary formation, these two planets would be interpreted as the cores of the Jupiter equivalent (formed like a snowball by ice sticking together near its melting point following collisions) and a Saturn equivalent (formed by melt fusion of methanol/ammonia/water near that eutectic temperature, the energy of the collision providing the heat, the melt then fusing the ice.) The reason they would not develop to full gas giants would be simply a lack of material to grow that big. Of course such dust as was available would also be incorporated, and the resultant planets would be like a giant Ganymede and a giant Titan. Thus I would expect (b) to have little atmosphere but maybe be a waterworld on the face tidally locked to the star, and (c) to have a nitrogen atmosphere, and maybe methane. Why maybe? Because methane is photochemically degraded, and presumably has to be regenerated on Titan. On Kapteyn c, with 11 billion years photochemistry, the methane may not have lasted. There would be no life on (b), nor for that matter in any Europa under-ice ocean, because of a general deficiency of nitrogen, and also a probable difficulty in forming phosphate esters.
So, that is my prediction. Unfortunately, I guess I shall never know whether it is right.
Finally, a small commercial break! Four of my fictional ebooks are on special at Amazon from the solstice for a few days, including the one that was actually the cause of my developing my alternative theory of planetary formation. The fiction required an unusual discovery on Mars, I invented one, and an editor had the cheek to say it was unbelievable. Now editors in publishing houses have a right to criticize grammar, but not science, so I ended up determined to do something about this. Details of the special are at
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 16, 2014 12:55 AM BST
One of the more disturbing pieces of news recently is that the Thwaite glacier is melting, and a lump of ice of area the size of Uruguay and of uncertain thickness will slide off the West Antarctic land mass and fall into the sea over the next couple of hundred years, thus raising the world sea levels by something like 3 - 4 meters. The problem is, it is melting from below, thanks to ocean warming. This, of course, is probably not the only ice sheet under threat, so serious sea level rising must be expected unless we do something to counter it. Before going further, however, it is important to note that the oceans are warming, specifically with an average net power input of 0.64 W/m^2 (Lyman, J. M. and 7 others, 2010. Nature 465:334-337.)
That raises the question, what can we do? One thing is very clear: raising carbon taxes or introducing emissions trading certificates is not going to do anything to stop this, although it will presumably raise government revenue, and/or traders' revenues. The fact is, if we stopped burning carbon today, the CO2 levels would remain at about 400 ppm for a century or so, and the present net heating of the ocean would continue over that time. Since we currently burn about 9 Gt of carbon per year from fossil sources, minor cutbacks simply will not achieve anything of value. Then there is the question of whether any cutbacks are practical. There have been plenty of earnest pledges over the past two decades, but emissions have actually increased.
So, what can we try? I do not know. Like many people, I have some rough ideas, but I have no idea whether they would work. In this context, I am reminded of a statement by General Wesley Clark on strategy, which was something like this. There are two sorts of plans: those that won't work and those that might work. You must take one that might work and make it work. The question now is, are there any that might work, or are the changes inevitable? I am optimistic that there are probably plans that might work, but how do we go about considering them?
Time to get unpopular! What I have noticed is that we are spending quite large sums of money measuring various emissions. I think much of this work could cease, because we have reached the point where we know more or less what is happening, and further such spending will not make any difference to our future, other than to make us more gloomy. Instead, that money should be redirected towards action that might make our future better.
The issue as far as sea level rising is very simple. There are two options only to prevent it. The first is to ensure that the rate of permanent snow deposition is equal to or exceeds the rate of ice melting. If we manage that, sea level stays constant because there is no net inflow of water. In practice, that means generating increased snow deposits in Antarctica and Greenland. The second is to ensure that the oceans receive a net negative power input for some period until balance is restored. Note that neither of these options directly affects carbon emissions. Are either of these options possible? In theory, yes, but in practice, I do not know. They require serious geoengineering. We can come up with plausible physical processes that may or may not work, but even if they do work, the costs and the secondary consequences are unclear. The political problems are enormous, and may be insurmountable because changing climate on this sort of scale will seriously disadvantage some. But failure to do anything will seriously disadvantage all coastal cities, all coastal farms, at least a third of Bangla Desh, and probably everyone from grossly enhanced storms. So, what should we do? Your thoughts, please.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 2, 2014 12:30 AM BST
This month there was a relative flood of interesting information. First, as readers will know, Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn, is unusual in that it has icy eruptions, and the cause of these has led to a lot of speculation. Two papers (Science 344: 78 – 80; Icarus 235: 75 – 85) concluded that these were due to the presence of a subsurface sea that experienced periodic heating of about 1.5 GW due to tidal forces. Further, a low melting temperature of around 175 oK is required, which implies relatively large amounts of ammonia. Such large amounts of ammonia (and methanol) are required in the Saturnian system by my mechanism of icy body formation, so these results are pleasing, at least to me. Provided there is ammonia and methanol present, these may be chemically converted to methane and nitrogen, and the conversion produces further energy, but still not enough to power the eruptions. However, the clathration of such gases in ice would help generate the pressure and store the energy, which would support the periodicity.
The issue of water on the Moon remains unclear: did it accrete with water or was the rock that formed it anhydrous? The issue is important because some models of lunar formation have the Moon accreting from what is essentially the vapour of silicaceous species, in which case and water with them would be expected to be lost to space. The presence of hydroxyapatite has long been considered to be a marker for the presence of relatively high concentrations of water, however one report showed that the presence of hydroxyapatite is a poor means of determining the water content of the lunar magma because the ease of forming hydroxyapatite also depends on the concentrations of chloride and fluoride, and hence there are too many unknowns. (Science 344: 400 - 402) On the other hand, there are apparently samples of olivine and plagioclase that show that some water must have been present (Science 344: 365 – 366), although it should be emphasised that neither of these rocks will absorb very much water. This issue only indirectly affects my theory, which argues that the impactor that created the Moon (Theia) probably started from the Lagrange points L4 or L5. (Some form of giant impact is required to generate enough heat by which the separation of a hydroxyapatite phase could occur so early.) Any body forming at these Lagrange points should have the same composition as Earth if composition is determined by disk heating, so it is not necessary now to generate so much energy on impact, and the Moon may have accreted around what was essentially a major fragment of Theia.
The final piece of relevant news is that an absorption spectrum of carbon monoxide has been recorded from a gas giant around β Pictoris (Nature 509: 63-65). This is a relatively young star, and the reason the giant gives a carbon monoxide signal is that its temperature is about 1600 oK, due to gravitational heating as it has accreted. The planet has a mass of about 11 times that of Jupiter, it seems to be in a circular orbit, and it has a spin velocity, determined by the Doppler signal broadening, of about 50 km/s. They also show a graph showing that as planetary mass increases, so does equatorial spin rate. Most of the points are from our solar system, and while Earth is on the graph, it probably should not be there because its spin now is accidental and was affected by lunar formation. However, the fact that this extrasolar gas giant fits the graph suggests a causal relationship. In my view, this is to be expected. In the accretion disk, gas slows below Keplerian velocity and falls towards the star. Accordingly, the planet, which is in Keplerian motion, accretes more gas from its leading face, because the pressure there is greater, and since that gas is falling starwards, it drags the planet into prograde rotational motion. The more gas accreted, the more rotational angular momentum is picked up. Convincing? Hopefully, more data will come in. Of course, only data from planets in near circular orbits are relevant. Some with very high eccentricity have probably had massive gravitational of even collisional experiences, and then the rotation could be anything, depending on the nature of the collision.
Posted by Ian Miller on May 18, 2014 11:44 PM BST
Quantum mechanics is unusual in that first, while it underpins essentially all of chemistry and most of physics, there are several different interpretations of it, although all agree that the Schrödinger equation is correct. The only problem is, what does it mean? A second point is that the Schrödinger equation is perfectly deterministic. By that, I mean, if you know the value of ψ for any set of variables, you know the value for any change of variables. The problem is, you never observe ψ, but rather you observe position, momentum, energy, or some other more measurable variable, and it is from this problem that all the interpretations arise.
In a post last year I mentioned I had published an ebook entitled "Guidance waves, an alternative interpretation of quantum mechanics", so you might ask, what made me do this? Why cannot I accept ordinary quantum mechanics? The first reason I have alluded to in a previous post. As a student in my honours year (and in those days, your future tended to depend on one big effort in honours finals) I had trouble following a lecture on the hydrogen molecule, and indeed I protested that the function being used should actually be more predictive of the helium molecule. What happened next was that I decided to explore the possibility that the molecular properties were determined solely by wave properties, on the basis that the Schrödinger equation was inherently a wave equation. Wave physics permitted some additional relationships, and I was surprised to get essentially the correct answer on my first attempt, inside a quarter of an hour. What bothered me next was it soon became apparent my lecturers did not understand quantum mechanics, and I was a few weeks short of finals. Finals were to some extent competitive; this was a sorting process, and in principle quantum mechanics was something I felt I was more capable of than the others, but what do you do when those marking your papers don't understand? I tried the library, but most of the books were already taken out. What I did find was the book by de Broglie. What I did not realize was that his was considered a minority interpretation. What I did realize was that the physics background given to chemists was totally inadequate for understanding quantum mechanics. Thus started my heresy! The second point that started my heresy was the Copenhagen Interpretation that the physics were determined by the act of observation. Rightly or wrongly, I always felt Einstein's comment that observation recorded what happened, and did not determine it. That Bohr seemingly over-ruled Einstein does not make Einstein wrong, at least in my opinion.
I still think one point of my initial concern stands. If you want to understand chemistry, I fail to see how you can get by without some understanding of Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. You do not have to be expert in manipulating his equations, but you should understand what is involved. Similarly, it is difficult to come to grips with quantum mechanics if you have no idea what a Lagrangian is, or what action is. I think advanced University chemistry courses need to pay some attention to these matters, and they did not when I went through.
Anyway, back to the issue. The second reason I feel the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is wrong is Einstein's objection, in the EPR paradox. What this can involve is two entangled photons heading in opposite directions. If you determine the polarization of the first, and its polarization is determined by the act of observation, then the polarization of the second is defined instantly, and given relativity says no signal can exceed light speed, the second photon cannot know what the first one did. The problem with relativity is commonly dispensed with by arguing that you cannot send messages by this means, so relativity is not violated. To me, that is arm-waving. Either the second photon had its polarization pre-determined, or it fixed its polarization dependent on what the first one did, and it has to "know" that somehow. To me, that indicated the polarization was pre-determined. For me, to require an electromagnetic signal to travel faster than the speed of light violates both Einstein's relativity and Maxwell's electrodynamics, and I think special evidence is needed to justify that.
The third reason I feel the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is wrong is the Schrödinger cat paradox. The idea that the physical values are determined by the act of observation, as opposed to being recorded by the act of observation, creates its own difficulties for me. The first is the obvious one: who observed the early Universe? To argue that all those photons with a variety of red shifts are created by the telescope is bizarre, but the cat paradox, for me opens another question that I have never seen addressed: what comprises an observation? A detection by a physicist is clearly an observation, but back to the cat: why cannot the cat observe itself? If it did, then the cat is always alive until it can no longer observe, in which case it is dead, classical physics reigns, there is no "half alive-half dead wave function", and there is no paradox. For me, the usual evasions of these apparent paradoxes (for they are only paradoxes within the Copenhagen interpretation) are pure sophistry.
All of which set me off in a search to justify my back of the envelope calculation of the properties of hydrogen. That in itself has been interesting, if a little frustrating at times, because what I found is that most people do not really want the standard interpretation questioned, even if they do not understand it at all.
Posted by Ian Miller on May 4, 2014 11:48 PM BST
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