Monday, August 15, 2016

Separated at Birth

Separated at Birth

"As I gazed through my binoculars this morning at The Pleiades, The Seven Sisters, I wonder if perhaps there is not someone, something, some intelligent being staring back through its own lenses at me.

Of course there is no chance I will ever know. The laws of physics separate us forever."

- Kenny A. Chaffin

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Tree Rings, Carbon Dating and the Age of the Universe

Tree Rings, Carbon Dating and the Age of the Universe


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

How do we measure time? With a clock of course, but what is that? It’s really just a defined amount of movement which repeats at regular intervals like a pendulum or a slowly rotating pointer. The first time piece we used may have been our own beating hearts. Certainly the Sun and Moon in their regular cycles, solstices and equinoxes have forever in our history, eyes and brains been used to measure time. The seasons of course were used as well to predict animal migrations and for agriculture. But how do we know the age of the Universe, the age of the Earth, fossils or other things on it when we were not there with our stopwatches in hand? We have only an incomplete recorded history for the last few hundred years, very sketchy records and artifacts before that. But by using the natural time cycles, processes and events in nature we can obtain ages for most things in the universe, including the universe itself.
Each year trees grow in summer and go dormant in winter. This growth adds a distinctive and easily seen layer of cells around the trunk of the tree and when seen in cross-section appears as concentric rings. Certainly this was noticed well before writing and one of our smarter ancestors realized these rings were due to annual growth and that each ring not only represented a year but the growing conditions during that year. By counting the rings we can tell how many years the tree has grown. We can also tell if it was a good year or bad year climate-wise. In good years the growth layer will be thicker due to the favorable conditions. In lean years the growth layer will be thinner.

Tree Rings from a one meter wide trunk.

Trees of course do not live forever so how far back can we go with this type of dating? The oldest tree we know of is a bristlecone pine that is 5063 years old. From this tree alone we can tell something about the climate 2000 years ago during the time of Buddha, or the conditions during the Battle of Thermopylae. In addition by matching up the thick/thin pattern of the rings in samples from different trees either living or dead we can extend our tree ring dating 11,000 years into the past. Beyond that, samples of wood living, dead or petrified that includes rings capable of aligning are few and far between. Still this could be extended further into the past if we find well preserved samples, fossils, etc. Oh and in case you’re wondering if someone cut down that 5000 year old bristlecone pine to count its rings in its trunk, the answer is -- thank goodness, no. We can take a ‘core sample’ from the tree without any serious damage by using a hollow drill and removing just a small cross-section from the trunk of the tree without harming it. This is the same method we use to take ocean and arctic ice core samples.
Another method of determining age of organic samples is through carbon dating. And that doesn’t mean carbon-based life-forms hooking up on Facebook. It works only with samples from dead plants or animals all of which contain carbon and it relies on measuring the relative ratios of carbon isotopes in the sample. Willard Libby received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1949 for discovering this technique. It can measure as far back as 60,000 years. The reason it relies on dead organic matter is that a living organism is constantly metabolizing (flushing out old carbon in waste and replacing it with new carbon from the environment) and will have an equal ratio of carbon-12 (C12) to carbon-14 (C14). When that organism dies the carbon is not replaced by bodily functions. The C14 is radioactive with a half-life of 5,730 ± 40 years and will gradually decay to Nitrogen over time changing the ratio of C12 to C14.  By measuring the ratio of the carbon isotopes we can get a reasonably accurate date of death. This method works great for determining the age of bones and plant materials. Despite a few ‘gotchas’ in using this method such as the randomness of decay and the sampling accuracy, when used correctly is a highly reliable measurement of age in organic samples.
By comparing carbon dates against tree ring dates we can validate the accuracy of both against one-another. Carbon dating extends our reach into the past (at least for organic items) to 60,000 years ago. There are other methods as well such as ice and ocean floor core samples. As snow falls in the Arctic and Antarctic where it never melts it forms layers (much like tree rings) that build up year after year, season after season. By taking ice core samples using a hollow drill (like with the tree rings) we can obtain samples as old as 800,000 years ago – almost a million years. By matching the layers against tree-ring data we can synchronize the dates thus providing a glimpse deeper into the past. Like tree rings the width of the layer will tell us the amount of snowfall that year and from that we can get an indication of the climate over time. Ice cores also provide data on the atmosphere of the planet at the time the snow fell. This is because the snow traps bubbles of air and other particulates as it falls and is compressed by additional layers above it. The air bubbles can be analyzed for various elements such as CO2, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Ammonia, and other gasses that were in the atmosphere when the snow fell. The particulates can give information on volcanic eruptions, dust storms, pollen and a multitude of other information on climate, weather and environmental status.

19 cm long section of an ice core showing 11 annual layers with summer layers (arrowed) sandwiched between darker winter layers

A similar accumulation takes place on the ocean floor as microscopic creatures die and fall to the bottom along with any particles, dust, pollen, etc. These layers too can be synced up with the ice cores and our other measurement methods. These sea floor sediment cores extend our view to 145 million years ago. We can use the same type of analysis to determine the climate by measuring the thickness of the layers made up of these microscopic creatures. This will tell us something about the conditions, whether they were thriving or starving. The pollen and dust can give us information such as prevailing winds determined by the source of the pollen as well as amount, type and other details. The composition of the chalky shells (calcium, carbon, etc.) can tell us about the ocean, the atmosphere, water temperature and more.
Of course normal dry land does a similar layering process as dust, dirt and other particles are carried into and settle from the atmosphere. There is a gradual ‘sinking’ of the past into the Earth which archeologists and others know well. Significant climate changes and events can be quite evident in those layers. The deeper we dig the farther into the past we delve. We can identify layers by comparing cross sections from different geological areas or even countries. Certain world shattering events such as the Chicxulub asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs can be identified in strata by its tell-tale iridium rich K-T boundary layer (now called Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary) which is found in sediments world-wide.

Geological layers

There are also other radioactive substances with much larger half-lives than carbon including potassium-argon and uranium-lead dating with half-lives of over a million years. These radioactive isotopes are used to date dinosaur bones and rocks back to the formation of the Earth. And of course we can sync this clock up with the C14 , tree ring and other data to provide accurate dating back to the formation of the Earth. These methods along with geological stratigraphic methods have allowed use to establish a full geological timescale. We continue to add events to our ‘all time’ calendar as well as synchronizing it with new information as it becomes available.
The age of the Earth has been measured by this radiometric dating of rocks and meteor samples and is currently thought to be 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years old. The oldest minerals analyzed to date are zircon crystals from Australia which give a date of at least 4.404 billion years old. The oldest meteors we have sampled are 4.567 billion years old which would be the upper limit for the age of the Earth. These meteors would have been formed and been left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago which initially formed the Earth. Also judging by the age of the Sun (see next section) this validates the 4.54 billion year age of the Earth.
            Determining the age of stars such as our sun relies on stellar evolution models, mass, membership in a group of stars formed together, luminosity, type of star, and other factors. As stars age their luminosity decreases – they fade out. For main sequence stars knowing the mass of the star and its luminosity you can determine its age. If a star is a member of a cluster it can be assumed that all stars in the cluster are approximately the same age. Using these factors we can estimate the age of our sun as 4.6 billion years. Other techniques which have to do with protoplanetary disc and gravitational collapse of molecular clouds leading to star formation can play into determining a star’s age. If the molecular cloud or protoplanetary disc is still highly visible around the star it would of course be younger than one with a fully collapsed/formed planetary system. By comparing fully dispersed protoplanetary clouds to fully collapsed clouds and know the typical time frame required for formation of a solar system an estimate of a star’s age can be made. There is always potential error in determining these ages but by putting all the puzzle pieces together – stellar evolution, brightness, location, etc. we believe we can determine the age of individual stars quite well.

UGC 12158 is an excellent example of a barred spiral galaxy taken by the Hubble space telescope.

So what of the age of galaxies and the Universe itself? The age of galaxies is really just the age of the stars in them, but some implications could be made based on the distribution of the stars. In particular in a spiral galaxy, because it is ‘spinning’ it is thought that the stars in the arms will gradually spread apart. The more dispersed the stars and arms are, the older the galaxy would be. But this should also be evident from determining the age of the stars in those spiral arms. And again like matching up our tree rings across samples and to radiometric dating we can match up the spreading of the spiral arms based on our knowledge of galactic evolution with the age of the stars in those arms and confirm that they are equal in order to validate them. Now on to the thing we and everything we know of are part of -- the Universe itself. 
Our estimate of the age of the universe is determined by its date of origin. Wait, what? If we know the origin of the universe we know its age, right? No, not exactly. Until Edwin Hubble determined the distances to and between various stars and learned that those distances were increasing with time we had no idea about the age of the Universe. Once we knew the universe was expanding and knew the expansion rate then it is a simple matter to extrapolate backwards to the time everything in the universe was at a single point – the Big Bang! That would be its beginning and that would be its birthdate. You could be forgiven if you thought Hubble was the one to realize and calculate it, but actually it was Allan Sandage in 1958 almost 30 years after Hubble’s initial work. He found the age of the Universe to be 13.7 billion years old – amazingly accurate even today. Our most recent estimate and measurement was done using the space telescopes from the WMAP study and the Planck space probe to measure the cosmic background radiation. This has given us our latest and best estimate of the age of the universe at 13.798 billion years old. Perhaps not amazingly this number fits well in our overall understanding of the universe, our third generation sun, and our observations of galactic and stellar formation. There are of course still many puzzles such as dark energy, string theory and quantum gravity to be solved but I’d say we’ve done quite well on the measuring time frontier and in understand the age of many and sundry things. Certainly there will be some adjustments as time goes on as there always is in science, but for now we seem to have a reasonable handle on what time it really is. All the puzzle pieces align and the stars are brightly shining.


Tree Ring Dating - Dendrochronology:

Tree Ring Image:

Oldest Trees:

Carbon Dating:

Ice Core Dating:

Ice Core Example Image:

Radiometric Dating:

Dating Dinosaur Bones:

Sea Floor Cores:

Ocean Sediments:

Geological Layers Image:

Geological Time Scale:

Age of the Earth:

Age of Stars:

Our Sun:

Age of the Universe:

Spiral Galaxy Image:

Friday, June 19, 2015


 Since a sixth mass extinction appears to be under way...



From my book: How do we know? 


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

            Over 98% of known species are dead – gone, kaput, vamoosed, disappeared, extinct! We will be too someday by those odds, but for now let us enjoy our time under the sun. That 98% doesn’t count the unknown species; those that we could have no idea about, like the ones just getting going when Theia struck the nascent Earth and turned it once more into a molten sea of lava. In the last half billion years there have been at least five planet-spanning extinction events in which half of all animal species on Earth have been destroyed. Could it happen again and if so is there anything we can do about it?
            The answer of course is, certainly it could happen again and very likely will and odds are there is very little we could do about it. The best we might be able to do would be to get out of the way. The earliest extinction may have been from the formation of our Moon when Theia, a Mars-sized protoplanet slammed into the Earth some half-a-billion years after its initial formation. At that time the early Earth would have likely had surface water, atmosphere and have been cool enough to support primitive life or its origin whether from panspermia or abiogenesis. Life literally could have been gaining a foothold on Earth when the massive impact by Theia would have rebooted life to begin again.
            Once life returned it was still no easy pickings. Early simple single celled organisms and their predecessors would live in a kind of stasis for billions of years as best we can tell. The geological and fossil records are virtually non-existent. The earliest indicators of life we have are geological layers and stromatolites produced by cyanobacteria. It would be another 2.5 – 3 billion years before these single cells began cooperating and forming multicellular aggregates and another billion years – approximately 4 billion years since the Earth’s formation before the first simple animals appeared. There would be what has been called the Cambrian explosion 540 million years ago right around Earth’s four billionth birthday when there was a major expansion in the diversity of life. It is this abundance of life and the traces it left in the geological record which allows us to gain insight into extinctions. By excavating and analyzing layer upon layer of sediment left on the sea floor and subsequently pushed to the surface or through direct core sampling we can count, test, and examine layers in relation to one another and determine reasonably precisely when life was abundant, when certain species died out or when all life seems to struggle or disappear.
Our first glimpse of the great Cambrian explosion came from the Burgess shale a 505 million year old fossil bed in Canada which contains some of the best preserved fossils of all time. This plethora of Cambrian life has been validated in other sites around the world as well. There may have been a greater diversity of life at that time than at any other in Earth’s history. The Ordovician-Silurian extinction which followed would definitely put a damper of that explosion.
            The O-S event was actually two closely spaced extinction events in the 450-440 mya timeframe. It killed off 70% of all species and is ranked second only to The Great Dying of 251 mya. At 450 mya the cephalopods may have been the dominant life-form, but many others existed. There were sea urchins and jawed eels and jawless vertebrate fishes. This event killed off two-thirds of all those species.
Of course what most people want to know is what caused it? Was it an asteroid like killed the dinosaurs, was it an ice age or global warming? The fact is that we cannot always associate a specific climatic change or other cause with an extinction event.

There have been five ‘major’ extinctions and dozens of smaller extinctions which we see in the fossil record. There is even a hypothesis that extinctions occur every 26 million years and are somehow linked to a dark companion star (named Nemesis of course) that is orbiting around the sun and perturbs the Oort cloud and/or asteroid belt. There is of course no evidence supporting this nor does it match precisely with the timing of extinction events. Other associated and/or more relevant possibilities are flood basalt flows of magma from the Earth’s interior. This would be events such as the Deccan and Siberian trap events which released massive flows of lava as well as volcanic gasses into the atmosphere. Sea-level falls appear to be associated with all of the major extinction events, but it is unclear if this is a cause or a result of other events.
And of course there is the one we all fear – an impact event such as the Chicxulub impact which killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. An ocean impact can have an even more devastating effect than a land impact. The energy – particularly heat generated by an ocean impact can release massive amounts of CO2 gas which would kill any air-breathing organisms. Since ocean impacts do not always leave an obvious crater it is difficult to attribute as the cause of a mass extinction. There is always the possibility for climate to shift out of control producing either an ice age or global warming that can be disastrous to all life. Again like the sea-level falls these conditions are thought to be more a result of others than the cause themselves. There are other less obvious but possible events which either contribute to or trigger extinction events such as near-space supernova explosions, anoxia conditions in the ocean, super volcano events such as the Toba eruption, unusual plate tectonics movement and others. (See the links in the resource section if you really want to dig deeper)
            It is interesting to note that immediately following the Ordovician-Silurian extinction (450 mya) we see the first plant life move onto land from the seas. This may be an example of how an extinction event can ‘accelerate’ evolution. Not that evolution can be actually accelerated, but by clearing out the environment or opening up niches for new life to flow into there can be a greater rate of expression of mutations that take advantage of those previously unexploitable environmental niches. We see this happen following the extinction of the dinosaurs with the rise of mammals to take advantage of the vacant environmental areas. Following the O-S extinction sharks became the dominant predator in the ocean. Crawling insects arose on land and would soon be flying. The first tetrapods wriggled and climbed their way onto land to become the ancestors of all four-limbed vertebrate land animals including humans. At this time the most recent supercontinent Pangaea was being formed from the convergence of Euramerica and Gondwana.
            While those tetrapod descendants were likely affected by the next mass extinction it would have its predominant effect on marine species. Overall some 70% of species on the planet were destroyed by the Late Devonian Extinction which lasted an incredible 15-20 million years from 375-360 mya. There is some evidence for multiple ‘pulses’ of extinction during this period. Even given the long duration there is no definitive evidence as to the cause. We know ocean anoxia existed but that was likely a result rather than the cause.
            Every extinction event we’ve seen required 5-10 million years for species to re-adapt, re-evolve, and re-enter the environmental niches opened by the extinction.  In the case of extreme extinction events such as the Permian-Triassic Extinction it was more like 30 million years. This was known as The Great Dying and over 90% of all species were destroyed, life itself was close to being wiped from the planet. This took place 251 million years ago. Whereas the Devonian extinction affected primarily the oceans, the P-T extinction was devastating to everything. It ended the dominance of mammal-like reptiles on land. It destroyed 96% of all ocean species and 70% of all land species down to the insects which is unique to this particular extinction. There are numerous speculations as to the cause. The Siberian Trap event is the prime candidate which lasted for a million year period from 251-250 mya. A secondary possibility is an asteroid impact, perhaps in the ocean. Beyond those, the fossil evidence shows a sea level change, anoxia, drought-like conditions and apparent shifts in ocean circulation. Given the near total extinction of life we see significant evidence of this event in most any and all areas of the environment – in the geological layers, ocean core samples as well as Arctic ice cores in all regions of the world.
            Life would recover from this the worst devastation ever during the next 50 million years until the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event 201 mya just before Pangaea began to break up. Compared to others it was short-lived at only 10,000 years yet it still destroyed 70% of all living species at the time. Many of the land animals - archosaurs, therapsids, and large amphibians were killed off which left open an environment the dinosaurs would rule for the next 140 million years. There was an evident and gradual climate change associated with this extinction but that alone would not have induced it. A proposed meteor impact could have, but no evidence has been found. There was a large basalt flood, of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) in the area of what would become the mid-Atlantic ridge as Pangaea was beginning to break up. Many think this is the most likely source for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction which made way for the thunder lizards.

            And now the one you’ve been waiting for, the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction (K-T) of 66 mya which killed those very same dinosaurs and made way for us via a mammal domination of the Earth which continues to this day. Of the five major extinctions this is the one that is tied to an asteroid impact. The theory is supported by a geological layer of iridium found world-wide and whose thickness varies by location. Iridium is associated with asteroids and the distribution of this layer – its thickness and position matches with the location of the Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico off of the Yucatán peninsula. The layer is thicker closer to the impact point and in predominant wind directions and thinner in remote regions – e.g. the opposite side of the planet. The fact that this layer is world-wide tells us that it sent massive amounts of dust and debris into the atmosphere. The impact brought on a global and extended winter due to dust blanketing the atmosphere. The dust and debris in the atmosphere was so thick that it blocked most sunlight preventing photosynthesis and many plants died leaving a massive hole at the bottom of the food chain which propagated upward and resulted in the death of the dinosaurs at the top of that food chain. Also implicated in this extinction is the Deccan Trap Event -- a basaltic flow in northern India which spanned the same time period. Some 75% of all species were destroyed, but the environment was opened to the small surviving mammals that would thrive, expand and diversify into new creatures such as horses, whales, bats, primates and more leading eventually to ourselves.
            What of future extinctions? There is certainly the possibility of an asteroid strike as was seen dramatically over Russia recently and with the recent close-passes of largish asteroids. It is thought that the Yellowstone caldera is well past due for a massive explosion or basaltic flow. It could all happen again and there would be very little we could do. We are in no position to evacuate the planet in large or in small. We would simply die…or depending on the extent of the event perhaps survive in some small and or primitive manner to potentially rebuild civilization again.


Mass Extinction Event:

Cambrian Explosion:

Timeline of Life on Earth:

Burgess Shale:


Extinction Events Graph:


Chicxulub Crater:

Deccan Traps:

Siberian Traps:

Pangaea Map 201 mya:

Russian Meteor Event February 2013

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Evolution of Knowledge

The Evolution of Knowledge
Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2012 Kenny A. Chaffin

It's only words, and words are all
I have to take your heart away.
  - Bee Gees

There are no Individuals

            You may think of yourself as a separate and unique individual organism but you rely on many other organisms and certainly your environment to exist. You rely on the bacteria in your gut to digest your food; you rely on the mitochondria in your cells to produce the energy needed for life itself, and to fuel movement, growth and metabolism. At a more fundamental level you rely on your environment; the oxygen in the air, water from the Earth to exist. And much of the environment you rely on is produced by other organisms and their processes. At another level you rely on everything that has gone before you. Because you are here, because you are alive, you are a survivor. Your body, your abilities, your resistance to disease, your very existence itself is a result of your genetic heritage. You survived; your parents and their parents survived all the way back to the single celled organisms of the ancient Earth and even prior to that to the primitive DNA/RNA and their precursors of living organisms.
            Not only that, but the pieces and parts of your body are constantly changing and being replaced. Cells die and are replaced by new ones, hair falls out and other hair grows to replace it. With a few exceptions (neurons being one) most of the cells in your body are replaced every ten years or so. At any given moment your body is only a snapshot in time that is constantly changing.  The you that is here now is not the same you that was here 10 years ago or even 10 minutes ago. It’s not that life is in a constant state of flux but that life is a constant state of flux.

Yeah, so?

            Just as your body is composed of a collection of cells and precursors and loose confederations of living things, so is your mind, your consciousness. You may feel as though you are an individual, separate and unique to all others and in a sense you are, but just as your body is separate and different from other human individuals while still being composed of and reliant on other living organisms, so is your mind.  It too is comprised of and relies on both internal and external information, sensory input from the environment, memories, collaboration of ideas and thoughts. And not just in the same manner as your physical body, but truly in exactly the same manner. Your self, your mind, your consciousness is a collection of interrelated information, memories, sensory input, and knowledge of self and environment that is a single entity yet constantly changing within and as part of its environment.


So if our biology and our minds work in the same manner, even though with different piece-parts is that where the similarity ends or is there more?  Oh, there’s more, definitely more. Part of this may be evident. Our DNA which is the key to all living organisms is itself nothing more than a sequence of information used to store, manage and drive biological growth, evolution, and procreation. So certainly in this manner information in the form of DNA sequences is used for biological purposes. The information and knowledge stored in and used by our minds is of course is a bit different and is used in a different manner, but certainly with the same goal in mind -- survival of the individual and the species.

The Structure of Knowledge

Memes, bits, words, books, theories, history, information – all these things make up knowledge, that unseen, non-corporeal (in some cases) collection of information, data, memories, books and more that we think of as knowledge. Knowledge itself is a spectrum of information, information that is structured at various and multiple levels, something like this writing itself which is composed of many piece-parts at various levels – a title, headings, paragraphs, sentences, words, letters all combining in an attempt to convey knowledge to the reader. This concept of knowledge as a loose confederation of information, memories, senses, and even other knowledge makes defining it difficult -- a bit like catching a greased pig, but allows us to better examine it.


            Confusion, roadblocks, false leads and non-sequiturs come from a number of the areas listed in the previous section, but the two biggest that have thrown the proverbial monkey wrench in the search for knowledge are Richard Dawkins’ memes and Claude Shannon’s information science.
            Dawkins’ meme concept was brilliant at the time and while it still has usefulness what has happened is that its proponents have constrained the field by mimicking genetic concepts a bit too strictly. Genes and DNA are well defined physical objects that are reasonably well understood.  Memes on the other hand are non-physical, very loosely defined and difficult to specify precisely.  This makes the meme concept much more unwieldy and difficult to work with in the same manner as genetics and has put many on the wrong track in searching for a scientific means of understanding information and knowledge.
            Shannon’s information science is nothing of the sort. It is actually communication science. It focuses on reliably transferring coded messages from one point to another point. Now certainly this is important and much of significance has come from it. It even defined the ‘bit’ which is used extensively in computer science and digital communications systems.  The problem is that it has distracted and derailed the true search and research into information and knowledge. Over and over significant work has been waved aside with the claim that Shannon’s information science already explained all that when in fact the only thing it explained was how to reliably communicate that information from point A to point B.

The Evolution of Knowledge

The process whereby knowledge is created and maintained does not work similarly to biological evolution; it works EXACTLY THE SAME, but in a less tangible medium. Knowledge evolves, it changes, it adapts to its environment and it survives or dies just like a biological organism. If particular facets of knowledge become outdated and non-applicable, they are discarded, lost and/or replaced. In biological evolution if a better elbow joint appears due to random mutation that works better for climbing trees or gathering berries then it eventually supplants the previous joint because it increases the odds of survival and is passed on to the individual’s descendants. In knowledge evolution if a hunter-gatherer finds a better way to track or trap prey and passes that knowledge along it will survive because it has increased the hunter-gatherer’s odds of survival. If a theory of gravity appears that is better suited to its environment, then it replaces the previous theory of gravity. This is exactly what science and the scientific method provide and is one aspect of the evolution of knowledge. Galileo’s work with gravity was replaced by Newton’s work which was in turn replaced by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  Each was a change, an enhancement, a replacement for what came before. In a manner of speaking Galileo and Newton’s theories are fossils in the evolutionary trail of knowledge known as the theory of gravity. It should also be clear that knowledge is not something exclusive to the human mind but something independent of it. This is evident in bodies of knowledge such as the body of scientific knowledge, the amassed history of civilization, or mathematics which exist independent of the human mind.
Not only does knowledge evolve in the same manner as biological organisms, but by the same mechanisms. Knowledge evolves by mutating and changing and then surviving or dying in its environment. At any given time there may be thousands or millions of potentially competing memes, thoughts, ideas or suggestions in the world, some may be random thoughts thrown out in newspaper op-ed articles, some may be bills introduced into congress, and some may be novels or stories or poems. At some point some of these may come into competition for survival such as in congressional debates, in the public media or in scientific journals. When they do, one may survive while another fails, or both could potentially continue to exist. A book of poetry may be published while another is rejected or possibly both are published. Two competing pieces of knowledge could certainly co-exist as in the biological world where different types of wings, feet, limbs or other characteristics co-exist at any given time.
Just as there are many types of organisms that have evolved to meet a variety of environmental conditions, there are many types of knowledge that have evolved in a variety of environments. Some knowledge passes through the crucible of the scientific method other knowledge is evaluated in the light of history, experience, or evidence. Still other knowledge may survive strictly by force of will and may or may not survive long term evolutionary pressures, in the same manner as certain biological mutations may survive and be passed on but appear to have no survival value themselves. Those biological mutations may eventually disappear or they may at some point prove to be an evolutionary advantage in a new or changed environment. These same evolutionary mechanisms apply to knowledge and if we begin to examine and study it within that framework we will be much better positioned to further our understanding of knowledge in a scientific sense.

References, links, additional information:

Evolution, Genes, Memes:




Your Body is Younger than you Think:
Evolutionary Psychology:

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at He may be contacted through his website at

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dark Matters


Dark Matters


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
- Sounds of Silence
by Paul Simon
There is no dark side of the moon really.
Matter of fact it's all dark.
- Eclipse (Dark side of the Moon)
Roger Waters

Dark matter, dark energy, the dark side of the Moon…..hmmmm….I think we better talk.  A couple of decades ago everything was cool. We knew the universe was expanding and the thought was that it would either continue expanding or reverse course and begin collapsing due to gravity. In either case it was assumed that the rate of the expansion would slow due to gravity. We’d never seen any slowing so have been looking to verify this claim. Then along comes the damn Hubble Space Telescope screwing everything up! Its observations of distant galaxies in 1998 showed just the opposite. Not only was the expansion not slowing but the rate of expansion was increasing! It was as if some force were pushing the galaxies apart every faster. There was no explanation that fit. Enter confusion and a new hypothesis – Dark Energy -- thrown in to the cosmological mix to explain the accelerating rate of expansion. Now if you’re getting a feeling of déjà vu, blame it on Einstein and his cosmological constant. He claimed it was his biggest mistake – adding it into his general relativity equations and then removing it. It has again been resurrected as an explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe we now see. Or perhaps this begins to sound more like Roger Water’s Dark Side of the Moon lunatic or maybe Roger Penrose’s quantum mind. It’s all dark, really.
Dark energy is the name cosmologists have assigned to this unexplainable observation, somewhat in relation to the ‘vacuum’ energy of space. This is not science, this is speculation. We don’t know what is going on really we only have observations awaiting an explanation. Dark energy is a hypothesis, not a theory as there is no way to verify it because on its definition.  It only interacts with normal matter in the form of gravity. There is no way to observer it, measure it, or test it beyond the indirect observations of galactic expansion. And how is that different than some unknown feature, force or characteristic of the universe that we simply do not understand at this point? The problem as I see it is that this ‘theory’ of dark energy has been feed to the public in sensational news headlines and popular science articles as if it were real science. This is misleading at best and deceptive at worst in my opinion since it makes it sound like there is a clearly identified cause – dark energy. That is what the public takes from these twitter-like headlines, particularly since most readers don’t get beyond those headlines. The truth is that we don’t know if any such thing as dark energy exists, we have an unexplained observation and that is all we know. Would it not be better to simply say, “Yes the rate of expansion of the universe appears to be increasing but we do not know why?” Unfortunately science is acting more like a religion and claiming that it has answers to the unknown when in fact it does not. In this age of the media and marketing as kingmaker science communicators can fall into the same trap of sensationalizing their stories. But enough of that just call me a lunatic if you like.
Something is responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe. Something we don’t understand, perhaps there is a cosmological constant that we’ve yet to identify and understand, perhaps there is a problem with Einstein’s General Relativity Equations, perhaps there really is some form of energy here-to-fore unidentified that is pushing the galaxies apart faster and faster. Or perhaps there is some error or issue with our deep-space, deep-time observations.


(Credit: NASA)

            As you can see in the above illustration, measurements show that the direction of the curve changes about 7.5 billion years ago. What might have happened at that point in the universe? Could it be that the ‘vacuum energy’ of space changed at that point due to physical expansion? This is unknown of course. As new space came into being did additional dark energy appear as well? The belief at this point is that 68% of the universe is actually dark energy with another 27% is dark matter. Now it is certainly something of a dark matter that leaves only 5% of the universe as normal matter. That 5% is everything we know, you, me, all the planets, stars, asteroids and hydrogen clouds, everything we previously assumed was the entire constitution of the universe. With the emergence of dark matter and dark energy everything we thought we knew has been turned upside down as though we were in an Alice in Wonderland story.
            Before we go too far, let’s look back at dark matter. It was first proposed by Jan Oort (of Oort cloud fame) in 1932 to account for the orbital velocities of stars in the Milky Way. Others have shown additional situations that require dark matter in order to explain gravitational anomalies. Dark matter doesn’t seem to be as unbelievable as dark energy as it is thought to be ordinary matter which is not easily detectable either optically or by other observational methods. The effect is primarily seen through gravity on orbits, velocities and movement of stars and galaxies. It seems very possible there are massive amounts of normal matter strewn throughout the universe collectively known as massive compact halo objects or MACHOs that could be enough to cause gravitational anomalies but we have not been able to detect enough possible candidates to conclude that this is the case. Another possibility is nonbaryonic dark matter (such as WIMPS – weakly interacting massive particles) which would not be detectible by electromagnetic means. This appears to be the leading candidate for the source of dark matter. While most cosmologists agree that dark matter exists and explains the anomalies there are alternative hypotheses/theories of gravity that attempt to explain the discrepancies without resorting to unobservable matter.

This three-dimensional map offers a first look at the web-like large-scale distribution of dark matter, an invisible form of matter that accounts for most of the Universe's mass. The map reveals a loose network of dark matter filaments, gradually collapsing under the relentless pull of gravity, and growing clumpier over time. The three axes of the box correspond to sky position (in right ascension and declination), and distance from the Earth increasing from left to right (as measured by cosmological redshift). Note how the clumping of the dark matter becomes more pronounced, moving right to left across the volume map, from the early Universe to the more recent Universe. (Credit: NASA/ESA/Richard Massey (California Institute of Technology))

            So the effect of dark energy we observe is somewhat the opposite of the effect of dark matter.  Dark matter has a gravitational pull and effect on stars, planets, galaxies and all normal matter in the same way they affect and attract one another. Dark energy on the other hand creates a constant ‘anti-gravity’ force that pushes everything apart and accelerates the on-going expansion of space. The following illustration from NASA shows the change in composition from the origin of the universe 13.7 billion years ago to what we see today. Note the increasing percentage of dark energy. This sort of makes sense as there was only a certain amount of matter in the original universe and as it expands what is added is space and along with it the vacuum energy which seems to include increasing amounts of dark energy.

            So we have a mystery. It’s a scientific mystery not unlike others that we encounter at the edges of science, in this case the science of cosmology. Dark energy is proposed as a hypothesis to explain the accelerating expansion of the universe though we have no means of measuring, detecting or verifying that that is the case. Dark energy is really just a placeholder for something we don’t understand. It seems to harken back even beyond Einstein’s cosmological constant to the ether theory that was proposed before Maxwell provided us with an understanding of electromagnetic waves. For the non-scientist reading about this research in the media it can be confusing and the casual reader will come away thinking dark energy is a real thing because science said so. Most readers don’t think too deeply about it and figure it’s something like atoms or quarks or photons when in fact it is nothing of the sort. It is nothing more than a hypothesis, and perhaps not even that because to be a true hypothesis it must be testable and from what has been proposed there is no way to test, verify, or validate dark energy. There is only the observation which it is hypothesized to explain – a circular definition in other words. This is the dark side and dark matters.


            It is incumbent upon all scientists and science communicators to be as up-front, open and honest as possible with the public. There is a distrust of science that has been building since the mid-20th century. We must take care to not exacerbate the situation in these times of global warming and genetic engineering, these times of political and religious attacks on science. We must work with the public to build bridges of trust and support by stepping out of the darkness and conveying scientific knowledge in the light of truth and full disclosure and thereby regain public trust and support.



The Sounds of Silence:

Dark Energy:

Expansion of Universe Illustration:

Dark Matter:

Distribution map of Dark Matter:

WMAP Content of the Universe graph:

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at He may be contacted through his website at

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Kenny A. Chaffin

You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye bye
                                 -   Bernie Taupin

            Flickering, floating, flying - a river of orange and black as far as the eye can see slips silently from horizon to horizon. The Monarchs are on the move. Their annual migration from Canada to Mexico takes them thousands of miles along well established routes inherent in their genes. Many who begin the journey will never finish it, yet their progeny will continue to follow these same routes year after year, generation after generation.
            Their multi-generational journey covers as much as 3000 miles. Those born in the winter mountains of Mexico traverse only a part of the journey north into the southern United States before mating, laying eggs and dying. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars that eat, grow and transform into butterflies to continue the journey north flying the next leg of the migratory path, followed by another generation who finally reach the northern extent of the Monarch’s range in Southern Canada and the Northeastern United States. Here at the end of their northward journey they once more mate, lay eggs and die. The grubs of this fourth generation grow and transform as before, but this generation is different, it will make the complete 3000 mile trip in a single generation. These southbound butterflies have never made this journey and are three generations removed from those that have, yet they follow the same routes to the same winter habitat in Mexico. It makes one wonder what each butterfly knows if anything of the journey as a whole. Clearly they are following their instincts but we simply do not understand how or why they make their incredible journey. The butterfly lifecycle alone is fascinating; the grubs eating, growing, shedding their skins and growing more and then the caterpillars spinning and building a chrysalis, transforming and emerging as an almost entirely different species.  Of course the caterpillars and butterflies are not different species, their genes have not changed and the vestigial wings, organs and body are all there in the caterpillar. Even so, it is one of the most amazing transformations in the animal kingdom.
            By our best estimates life on Earth began some 3.5 billion years ago, less than a billion years after the formation of the Earth and after ‘only’ an additional 2 billion years multi-cellular life appeared. Because there are no fossils of this early life the estimates and processes are very much unknown and are derived from secondary information such as the beginning of photosynthesis, oxygenation of the atmosphere, geological deposits, DNA, RNA, and other evidence. It is further hypothesized that even the original single-celled life of 3.5 billion years ago was preceded by various abiogenesis ‘experiments’ until one of those experiments resulted in RNA or something like it that was capable of replicating itself. We do know this early life transformed the planet in a complete make-over by creating an oxygen rich atmosphere from the early ammonia and methane atmosphere. And of course none of this happened smoothly. There was a major cooling event 650 million years ago referred to as Snowball Earth wherein the entire planet more or less froze over as seen in the fossil and geological records. Life survived, but the deep freeze definitely put a crimp in its forward momentum. Then about 100 million years later there was an EXPLOSION! The Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago resulted in a vast plethora of life forms, species, and all manner of new creatures. Then in the virtual blink of an eye, vertebrates appear at 350 million years ago, dinosaurs at 250 million years ago and of course their demise 65 million years ago due to the Chicxulub asteroid.
            Despite setbacks life continued to plod along; to shift and change and evolve as the Earth’s climate varied and as its continents drifted and shifted. Life was indeed good!  Then some 2 million years ago humans burst upon the scene to wreak havoc on the planet which we’ve been very successfully at ever since.
            It was many years after our first genetic ancestor that the modern human evolved – some 200,000 years ago. We like all species used the tools provided to us by the evolutionary process – primarily our brains, our ability to think symbolically, and our self-directed need to survive. We learned and passed down lessons to our children and our clan-mates. This ability gave us a major competitive advantage and of course we continue to use it despite on-going skirmishes between tribes.
            We learned to control fire, to fashion stone and then steel weapons. We learned how to grow food; How to trade and barter and to band together in groups of common interest. We have spread ourselves across the globe and we build our machines and fortresses that dominate the world. We travel swiftly and easily from one end of the Earth to the other with never a thought as to the miracle we have created. We reach out into space with our probes and our machines. We launch our eyes into the sky to monitor ourselves (and our enemies) and to peer into the depths of the universe.
            While time itself seems to be moving at increasingly faster rates from a technological perspective the universe is much, much older and seemingly never-ending. The vast distances are almost incomprehensible. Our human journey so far is nothing compared to the age and size of the universe. Our best measurements say the universe is 13.7 billion years old and some 93 billion light years across. If we could traverse it at the speed of light it would require 20 times as long as our entire history, including the formation of the Earth itself, the emergence of life and the evolution of humanity. It’s mindboggling to think that solar systems could have formed and produced intelligent life some 20 times during the course of a single crossing of our universe.
            A milestone was recently reached by two of our early space-probes. Voyager 1 and 2 are about to leave our solar system. They are currently some 11.1 and 9.1 billion miles from Earth respectively approaching the ‘leading edge’ of our solar heliosphere and about to enter interstellar space. Some think there will be turbulence at this boundary, their instruments will tell us, but due to the distance we will only know 17 hours later. The Voyagers have proven to be quite amazing machines. They were launched in August (Voyager2) and September (Voyager 1) 1977 and have been operating almost flawlessly for 35 years. The 17 hours their signals take to make the one-way trip means that it requires over a full day to issue a command and get a confirmation back. They are powered by radioisotope fuel cells which are expected to continue working for perhaps another decade before fading away. We’ve already reduced power consumption on the craft as much as possible in order to extend their operational life.
            Just as astounding as the Voyagers are our twin Mars rovers. While Spirit finally succumbed to the Martian winter in March 2010, Opportunity continues to extend its mission (now well into 2013). The Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity landed using a quite complex landing procedure in August 2012.  It has provided much evidence supporting the belief that conditions may have been conducive to life in Mars’ ancient past and has begun its primary mission, a trek up Mount Sharp. Curiosity is our most advanced rover yet, five times ‘larger’ than Spirit or Opportunity with ten times the mass of scientific instruments. It is about the size and weight of a small terrestrial car. Its planned mission is for one Martian year (23 Earth months), but if our past probes are any indication, we may get much more. As is always the case with our space missions, each is built upon knowledge gained from those that have gone before and using the latest and greatest technology and instruments to provide additional data and ever enhanced experience for constructing our next probes. From each mission we learn, we adapt, and enhance subsequent missions. Always at the core of our probes and rovers are increasingly powerful computing systems, able to survive brutal conditions, capable of error correction and self-repair and with increasing speed, storage and communication abilities as well as ever more sophisticated software and operational capabilities. This autonomous operating capability is increasingly important as we reach further into space and into unknown situations where our rovers and probes must behave in a manner to protect themselves and to continue their missions even when out of touch with Earth.
            Back on Earth there has been an amazing rise of computing capability. Moore’s law says, ‘the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years’ and continues to hold. That in itself does not say much but based on this increasing capability of our computer chips we have increased our software capabilities even more so. Today we have computers in our pockets that have significantly more power than the mainframes of the mid-20th century when the space race began. IBM recently announced their latest supercomputer built for the Department of Defense which brings the title of world’s fastest supercomputer back to the United States. The Blue Gene/Q supercomputer called sequoia at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has 1.57 million Power cores and operates at 16.32 petaflops per second, outdistancing Fujitsu’s K Computer and its 10.5 petaflops. A petaflop is a measure of a computer’ s processing speed and is a thousand trillion floating point operations (such as 13.654 x 11.5) per second. This, like the vastness of the universe is a number hard for mere mortals to comprehend. Also it is difficult if not impossible to compare computer processing and human brain processing because they work in such vastly different manners but, estimates are that the average human brain has about 100 million MIPS (million instructions per second) worth of processing power. Dharmendra Modha, director of cognitive computing at the IBM Almaden Research Center has said, “We have no computers today that can begin to approach the awesome power of the human mind.  A computer comparable to the human brain would need to be able to perform more than 38 thousand trillion operations per second (38 petaflops) and hold about 3,584 terabytes of memory.” This is more than twice the capability of the Sequoia supercomputer mentioned above.  Modha believes that we will be able to simulate some of the workings of the human brain by 2018 – only six years away.
            Keep in mind these supercomputers are still quite unwieldy and require significant support in cooling, electricity, etc. but as we continue to expand our computing horizons and advance the technology there may come a day when we can place this kind of capability in our space probes.
It’s not only computing power that has grown but connectivity and capability as well. Google along with a number of websites such as Wikipedia and You-Tube, have all but replaced the encyclopedia and reference library. And not only that, they are becoming increasingly easy to use. Google already does a reasonable job of interpreting queries but its engineers are working to enhance its natural language processing which will soon make it almost as easy as asking questions of a colleague. Natural language processing is rapidly growing and Apple recently added Siri, its natural language processor to the iPhone.
In an even more impressive feat IBM has demonstrated its Watson computer which was trained to play Jeopardy! and to compete in an actual Jeopardy! game against the two all-time human champions. The outcome was far from assured, but Watson succeeded in defeating his human competitors. It did this by using some very clever natural language processing and automated learning techniques. Standard Jeopardy! questions were asked and Watson had to read and interpret the question as well as determine the solution (in the form of a question). This was particularly tricky because Jeopardy! questions often include subtle, even twisted, word meanings and idioms that the natural language processing software had to understand in order to answer correctly.
            All these advances in computer technology bring us closer to being able to mimic the human brain and give our machines thinking and reasoning capabilities ever closer to our own. One might ask is that the reason we do this. Are we trying to replicate ourselves? Or is it just another aspect of our drive to explore, learn and evolve?
            We might ask the same of our space exploration, our technologies, our societies, are we driven to explore, to reach out, to grow, to learn? Or is there something more to this and all of our human activities, building governments, societies, recording history, exploring everything from quantum mechanics to cosmology? Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And that certainly may be the driving force behind our human endeavors, but given our extremely brief existence – a few thousand years of recorded history compared to the 13.75 billion year old cosmos – what do we know of our journey. Are we humans like the Monarch butterfly, only one leg of a vast cosmic journey? Are we caterpillars in Earth’s cocoon building machines in our likeness, embodying them with our own intelligence, our knowledge, our capabilities, in essence becoming them in order to reach out, to explore and to take that next step in our journey, as butterflies to the stars.

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at He may be contacted through his website at