(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Galaxy

“Appearances are a glimpse of the unseen”

A shower of comets rains down on Earth while violent volcanic eruptions billow up from below. Both events may follow our planet’s passage through dark matter concentrated in the Milky Way’s plane and help to trigger extinction events.

Are we on the verge of understanding the upheavals that have shaped the earth?

Do geologists dream of a final theory? Most people would say that plate tectonics already serves as geology’s overarching idea. The discovery of plate tectonics 50 years ago was one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century, but is the theory complete? I think not. Plate tectonics describes Earth’s present geology in terms of the geometry and interactions of its surface plates. Geologists can extrapolate plate motions both back in time and into the future, but they cannot yet derive the behavior and history of plate tectonics from first principles.

Although scientists can interpret the history through the lens of what they see today, an important question remains: Why did geologic events — such as hot-spot volcanism, the breakup of continents, fluctuations in seafloor spreading, tectonic episodes, and sea-level oscillations — occur exactly when and where they did? Are they random, or do they follow some sort of a pattern in time or space?

A complete theory of Earth should explain geologic activity in the spatial domain, as plate tectonics does quite well for the present (once you incorporate hot spots), but also in the time and frequency domains. Recent findings suggest to me that geology may be on the threshold of a new theory that seeks to explain Earth’s geologic activity in time and space in the context of its astronomical surroundings.

The solar system oscillates with respect to the midplane of the disk-shaped Milky Way Galaxy with a period of about 60 million years. The Sun’s family passes through this plane twice each period, or once every 30 million years or so. The solar system behaves like a horse on a carousel — as we go around the disk-shaped galaxy, we bob up and down through the disk, passing through its densest part roughly every 30 million years.

Surely, it is too much of a coincidence that the cycle found in mass extinctions and impact craters should turn out to be one of the fundamental periods of our galaxy. The idea seemed almost too pretty to be wrong. But people searching for cycles have been fooled before, and we still had to answer the question: How does this cycle of movement lead to periodic perturbations of the Oort Cloud comets?

The idea of a roughly 30 million-year rhythm in geologic events has a long history in the geological literature. In the early 20th century, W.A. Grabau, an expert on sedimentary strata, proposed that tectonic activity and mountain building drove periodic fluctuations in sea level with an approximately 30 million-year cycle. In the 1920s, noted British geologist Arthur Holmes, armed with a few age determinations from radioactive decay, saw a similar 30 million-year cycle in Earth’s geologic activity…

If the cycles are real, what could be driving these long-term changes in volcanism, tectonics, sea level, and climate at such regular, if widely spaced, intervals? At first, I thought that the periodic energetic impacts might somehow be affecting deep-seated geological processes. I suggested in a short note in the journal Nature that large impacts might so deeply excavate and fracture the crust — to depths in excess of 10 miles (16 km) — that the sudden release of pressure in the upper mantle would result in large-scale melting. This would lead to the production of massive flood-basalt lavas, which would cover the crater and possibly create a mantle hot spot at the site of the impact. Hot spots could lead to continental breakup, which can cause increased tectonics and changes in ocean-floor spreading rates, and in turn cause global sea levels to fluctuate. Unfortunately, no known terrestrial impact structure has a clear association with volcanism, although some volcanic outpourings on Mars seem to be located along radial and concentric fractures related to large impacts.

The potential key to resolving this geological conundrum may come from outer space. Remember that Randall and Reece suggested that Earth passes through a thin disk of dark matter concentrated along the Milky Way’s midplane every 30 million years or so. Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek of Harvard University, and independently Katherine Freese, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, proposed that Earth could capture dark matter particles that would accumulate in the planet’s core. The number of dark matter particles could grow large enough so that they would undergo mutual annihilation, producing prodigious amounts of heat in Earth’s interior.

A 1998 paper in the journal Astroparticle Physics (which I am sure few geologists ever read) provided a potential missing link. Indian astrophysicists Asfar Abbas and Samar Abbas (father and son, respectively) at Utkal University also were interested in dark matter and its interactions with our planet. They calculated the amount of energy released by the annihilation of dark matter captured by Earth during its passage through a dense clump of this material. They found that mutual destruction among the particles could produce an amount of heat 500 times greater than Earth’s normal heat flow, and much greater than the estimated power required in Earth’s core to generate the planet’s magnetic field. Putting together the predicted 30 million-year periodicity in encounters with dark matter with the effects of Earth capturing this unstable matter produces a plausible hypothesis for the origin of regular pulses of geologic activity.

Excess heat from the planet’s core can raise the temperature at the base of the mantle. Such a pulse of heat might create a mantle plume, a rising column of hot mantle rock with a broad head and narrow tail. When these rising plumes penetrate Earth’s crust, they create hot spots, initiate flood-basalt eruptions, and commonly lead to continental fracturing and the beginning of a new episode of seafloor spreading. The new source of periodic heating by dark matter in our planet’s interior could lead to periodic outbreaks of mantle-plume activity and changes in convection patterns in Earth’s core and mantle, which could affect global tectonics, volcanism, geomagnetic field reversals, and climate, such as our planet has experienced in the past.

These geologic events could lead to environmental changes that might be enough to cause extinction events on their own. A correlation of some extinctions with times of massive volcanic outpourings of lava supports this view. This new hypothesis links geologic events on Earth with the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way Galaxy.

It is still too early to tell if the ingredients of this hypothesis will withstand further examination and testing. Of course, correlations among geologic events can occur even if they are not part of a periodic pattern, and long-term geological cycles may exist apart from any external cosmic connections. The virtue of the galactic explanation for terrestrial periodicity lies in its universality — because all stars in the galaxy’s disk, many of which harbor planets, undergo a similar oscillation about the galactic midplane — and in its linkage of biological and geological evolution on Earth, and perhaps in other solar systems, to the great cycles of our galaxy.

Dark matter’s shadowy effect on Earth“: Earth’s periodic passage through the galaxy’s disk could initiate a series of events that ultimately lead to geological cataclysms and mass extinctions. From Michael Rapino (@mrr1_michael)

For very different angle on the evolution of the earth, the wonderful Walter Murch: “Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest.”

* Anaxagoras


As we dig deep, we might spare a thought for Harlow Shapley; he died on this date in 1972. An astronomer known as “the Modern Copernicus,” he did important work first at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and then as head of the Harvard College Observatory. He boldly and correctly proclaimed that the globulars outline the Galaxy, and that the Galaxy is far larger than was generally believed and centered thousands of light years away in the direction of Sagittarius: he discovered the center of our Galaxy, and our position within it.


“I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.”*…

Email migration should now be complete; email subscribers should now be getting (Roughly) Daily via Mailchimp, and should not be getting a duplicate from Feedburner. If you are getting a dupe, please let me know (roughlydaily@gmail.com). Note that this new service may be landing in your Gmail “Promotions” folder; you can move it to your main folder. With apologies for the turbulence over the last few days, and thanks for your continued reading, on to today’s post…

A new computer simulation shows that a technologically advanced civilization, even when using slow ships, can still colonize an entire galaxy in a modest amount of time. The finding presents a possible model for interstellar migration and a sharpened sense of where we might find alien intelligence.

Space, we are told time and time again, is huge, and that’s why we have yet to see signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. For sure, the distances between stars are vast, but it’s important to remember that the universe is also very, very old. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, in terms of extremes, the Milky Way galaxy is more ancient than it is huge, if that makes sense. It’s for this reason that I tend to dismiss distances as a significant variable when discussing the Fermi Paradox—the observation that we have yet to see any evidence for the existence of alien intelligence, even though we probably should have.

New research published in The American Astronomical Society is bolstering my conviction. The new paper, co-authored by Jason Wright, an astronomer and astrophysicist at Penn State, and Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, shows that even the most conservative estimates of civilizational expansion can still result in a galactic empire.

A simulation produced by the team shows the process at work, as a lone technological civilization, living in a hypothetical Milky Way-like galaxy, begins the process of galactic expansion… Things start off slow in the simulation, but the civilization’s rate of spread really picks up once the power of exponential growth kicks in. But that’s only part of the story; the expansion rate is heavily influenced by the increased density of stars near the galactic center and a patient policy, in which the settlers wait for the stars to come to them, a result of the galaxy spinning on its axis.

The whole process, in which the entire inner galaxy is settled, takes one billion years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s only somewhere between 7% and 9% the total age of the Milky Way galaxy.

As noted, the new model is constrained by some very conservative rules. Migration ships are launched once every 10,000 years, and no civilization can last longer than 100 million years. Ships can travel no farther than 10 light-years and at speeds no faster than 6.2 miles per second (10 kilometers per second), which is comparable to human probes like the Voyager and New Horizons spacecraft. 

“This means we’re not talking about a rapidly or aggressively expanding species, and there’s no warp drive or anything,” said Wright. “There’s just ships that do things we could actually manage to do with something like technology we can design today… Even under these conditions, the entire inner part of the simulated galaxy became settled in a billion years. But as Wright reminded me, our “galaxy is over 10 billion years old, so it could have happened many times over, even with those parameters.”…

A new simulation published by the American Astronomical Society suggests that aliens wouldn’t need warp drives to take over an entire galaxy in (relatively) short order, as George Dvorsky (@dvorsky) explains.

[Image above: Andromeda Galaxy, source]

* Arthur C. Clarke


As we spread out, we might spare a thought for Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn; he died on this date in 1922. An astronomer, he used photography and statistical methods to determine the motions and spatial distribution of stars (especially with the Milky Way), the first major step after the works of William and John Herschel. He introduced absolute magnitude and color indexing as standard concepts in cataloguing stars.

Kapteyn was also among the first to suggest the existence of dark matter (which he deduced from examining stellar velocities).


“Earth is a small town with many neighborhoods in a very big universe”*…

… full of very large objects. From @nealagarwal, a scroll-able comparison of the size of the objects that surround us in in the universe: “Size of Space.”

(Listen to outer space here.)

For other nifty visualizations, visit his site and check out, e.g., “The Deep Sea.”

* Ron Garan


As we internalize insignificance, we might send distantly-observed birthday greetings to Harlow Shapley; he was born on this date in 1885. An astronomer known as “the Modern Copernicus,” he did important work first at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and then as head of the Harvard College Observatory. He boldly and correctly proclaimed that the globulars outline the Galaxy, and that the Galaxy is far larger than was generally believed and centered thousands of light years away in the direction of Sagittarius: he discovered of the center of our Galaxy, and of our position within it.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 2, 2020 at 1:01 am

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”*…


From the good folks at Chrome Experiments, a wonderfully-informative interactive map of the stars in our corner of the universe.  Readers can zoom around our galaxy at “100,000 Stars.”

* Oscar Wilde


As we pause to celebrate the birth of the archetypical “Renaissance man,” quite possibly the greatest genius of the last millennium, Leornardo da Vinci (born on this date in 1452), we might also send starry-eyed birthday greetings to Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve; he was born on this date in 1793.  A renowned astronomer, Struve is known both as the founder of the modern study of binary (double) stars, and as the second in a five-generation-long dynasty of great astronomers: he was the son of the son of Jacob Struve, the father of Otto Wilhelm von Struve, the grandfather of Hermann Struve, the great-grandfather of Otto Struve.





Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

Amazing covers for Amazing Stories (and other magazines)…

Clintriter (Glenn Harris) has given us the gift of his collection of vintage speculative fiction magazine covers…  the wonder!  the awe!

Marvel at them all here.

As we get down with our inner Jules Verne, we might run in gleeful circles– on this date in 1912, Keystone Pictures premiered Hoffmeyer’s Release, the first Keystone Kops picture.

Keystone Kops (The policeman at the left in extreme background is Edgar Kennedy; the hefty officer at extreme right is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.)

But while comic genius Mack Sennett’s career took off, another important artist was stalled:  on precisely that same day, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, rejected an excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past (or, as the translation is now somewhat better known, In Search of Lost Time).  Following a series of similar rejections, Marcel Proust was reduced to publishing his first volume, Swann’s Way, at his own expense the following year.  Thankfully for Alain de Botton (and us), it was a great success.

The Master of the Madeleine

Here begineth your correspondent’s annual hiatus, the period when the responsibilities of the Holidays and the exigencies of travel overwhelm his (already marginal) capacity to focus…  There will likely be a post or three over the next ten days or so, but these missives will resume regularly early in the next decade.  (“Next decade”…  has a nice ring, doesn’t it?)

Meantime, Happy Holidays!

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