"Your weekly fix of everything cosmic and mind bending, with a little dose of controversy on the side."

Val Landi here, bringing you your weekly fix of news of space and science --a random journey from Planet Earth through the Cosmos-- that has the capacity to provide clues to our existence and add a much needed cosmic perspective in our fraught Anthropocene epoch.

This Week's Top News Stories

“It’s Never Aliens, Until It Is” –Astronomers Deciphering Strange Signal from Our Nearest Star System, reports The Daily Galaxy. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb says that advanced extraterrestrial life is less speculative than dark matter or extra dimensions, or, as Scientific American observes, it’s never aliens, until someday, it is. The Guardian leaked the news that a “tantalizing” radio signal, BLC-1, appears to have come from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun at just 4.2 light-years.

The Cosmologist Working to Preserve the Night Sky for the Future, reports Becky Ferreira for Motherboard Science.-- Dr. Aparna Venkatesan studies the distant reaches of space and time, while advocating for a night sky undamaged by orbital clutter.

Astronomers Get Their Wish, and a Cosmic Crisis Gets Worse --We don’t know why the universe appears to be expanding faster than it should. New ultra-precise distance measurements have only intensified the problem, reports Natalie Wolchover for Quanta.

“Defying the Laws of Gravity” –Does a ‘Smoking Gun’ Nix Dark Matter Theory? asks The Daily Galaxy, In the early 1980’s Israeli physicist Mordehai Milgrom from Weizmann Institute proposed a new theory, “the smoking gun” –a new theory of the universe’s structure that offers the most plausible alternative yet to dark matter– that defied the laws of gravity suggesting that galaxies are governed by modified dynamics rather than obeying the laws of Newton and of general relativity.

Are strange space signals in Antarctica evidence of a parallel universe?--Odd detections at the South Pole have so far defied explanation, inviting theories beyond conventional physics, reports Astronomy.

“Dinosaur Dust to Future Apocalypse” –Earth’s Mass Extinction Cycles, reports The Daily Galaxy.--Sixty Six million years ago it would have been a pleasant day one second and the world was already over by the next, wrote Peter Brannen about the Mount Everest sized asteroid that blasted a hole in the ground, the Chicxulub Impact, releasing the equivalent of 100 million megatons of TNT creating a 20-mile deep, 110-mile hole and sterilizing the remaining 170 million square miles of the ancient continent of Pangaea, killing virtually every species on Earth.

2020 in review: The hunt for life on Venus continues, reports New Scientist --Clara Sousa-Silva spent most of 2020 sitting on a huge secret – the apparent detection of phosphine, a potential sign of life, on Venus. She tells New Scientist what it felt like and what comes next.

Why We Need Quantum Tech In Space to Fight Climate Change, reports Maddie Bender for Motherboard/Vice. Classical Earth observations are reaching their limit, so scientists are probing fundamental physics in space to understand our planet's complexity.

“Coming Attractions” –Alien Intelligence as Physics

“Imagination is everything,” observed Albert Einstein. “It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” One day we shall meet our equals, or our masters, among the stars, wrote Arthur C. Clark in 2001. “But men,” he added, “have been slow to face this prospect; some still hope that it may never become reality. Increasing numbers, however, are asking: Why have such meetings not occurred already, since we ourselves are about to venture into space?”

The truth we eventually discover, Clarke suggests, will be far stranger.

Enter Columbia University’s intrepid astrophysicist, Caleb Scharf. What, asks Scharf, in Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence riffing beyond Clarke with a mind-boggling conjecture, is alien life is so strange, that it appears like physics?

“After all,” Scharf observes, “if the cosmos holds other life, and if some of that life has evolved beyond our own waypoints of complexity and technology, we should be considering some very extreme possibilities. Today’s futurists and believers in a machine “singularity” predict that life and its technological baggage might end up so beyond our ken that we wouldn’t even realize we were staring at it. That’s quite a claim, yet it would neatly explain why we have yet to see advanced intelligence in the cosmos around us, despite the sheer number of planets it could have arisen on—the so-called Fermi Paradox.”

Scharf is echoed by Paul Davies in The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence —

“Thinking about advanced alien life requires us,” he writes, ” to abandon all our presuppositions about the nature of life, mind, civilization, technology and community destiny. In short, it means thinking the unthinkable. Five hundred years ago the very concept of a device manipulating information, or software, would have been incomprehensible. Might there be a still higher level, as yet outside all human experience?”

“In Each of Us Lies a Message, Its Beginnings Lost in the Mists of Time”

Could an alien civilization be so advanced that it could recode itself and upload its entire physical realm into new forms blending itself completely into the fabric of what we’ve thought of as nature? Perhaps this new “form” being the very universe we inhabit? Or, stranger yet, Scharf imagines, they migrate to the 27% of the universe we call dark matter, some component of which may comprise particles that interact with one another via long-range forces. “It may seem dark to us,” Scharf suggests, “but have its own version of light that our eyes cannot see.”

In short, part of the fabric of the universe is a product of intelligence or is perhaps even life itself. Perhaps, Scharf concludes. “hyper-advanced life isn’t just external. Perhaps it’s already all around. It is embedded in what we perceive to be physics itself, from the root behavior of particles and fields to the phenomena of complexity and emergence. In other words, life might not just be in the equations. It might be the equations.”

Deep Dive…

"Someone is Looking Back at Us" --Three-Hundred-Million Earth-Like Worlds of the Milky Way

“One in 200 stars has habitable Earth-like planets surrounding it – in the galaxy, half a billion stars have Earth-like planets going around them – that’s huge, half a billion. So when we look at the night sky, it makes sense that someone is looking back at us,” says physicist, Michio Kaku, author of The Future of Humanity.

Our galaxy holds at least an estimated 300 million of these potentially habitable worlds, according to new research using data from NASA’s retired Kepler Space Telescope, showing that about half the stars similar in temperature to our Sun could have a rocky planet capable of supporting liquid water on its surface.

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Some of these exoplanets, reports NASA’s Ames Research Center, “could even be our interstellar neighbors, with at least four potentially within 30 light-years of our Sun and the closest likely to be at most about 20 light-years from us. These are the minimum numbers of such planets based on the most conservative estimate that 7% of Sun-like stars host such worlds. However, at the average expected rate of 50%, there could be many more.”

Intelligent Alien Life –“Clues May Lie Buried in Kepler Mission Data”

“Somewhere, on some other planet orbiting some very distant star, maybe in another galaxy, there could well be entities that are at least as intelligent as we are, and are interested in science. It is not impossible,” says 1969 Nobel-Prize laureate, physicist Murray Gell-Mann. “I think there probably are lots. Very likely none is close enough to interact with us, but they could be out there very easily.”

Deep Dive...

Galaxy Insight—Is Dark Energy a ‘Fifth’ Force that Acts on Matter?

“The discovery of dark energy has greatly changed how we think about the laws of nature,” said Edward Witten, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. who has been compared to Newton and Einstein, about the unknown force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate– a ‘fifth’ force that acts on matter.

Deep Dive

“Corpses of Black Holes from Before the Big Bang” --The Eerie Implications of Hawking Points

“If space is truly infinite,” observes Dan Hooper, head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in At the Edge of Time, “the implications are staggering. Within an infinite expanse of space, it would be hard to see any reason why there would not be an infinite number of galaxies, stars, and planets, and even an infinite number of intelligent or conscious beings, scattered throughout this limitless volume. That is the thing about infinity: it takes things that are otherwise very unlikely and makes them all inevitable.”

Perhaps, including an infinity of Big Bangs.

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Foreshadowing Hooper, University of Oxford mathematician and physicist, Sir Roger Penrose, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize for physics has argued that extinct universes exist that were filled with ghost black holes that are hidden, embedded in the Cosmic Microwave Background map, and may have harbored alien civilizations from an eon that preceded the Big Bang, when our universe began to rapidly expand and will continue to expand until all of its matter eventually decays. This process restores uniformity and sets the stage for the next Big Bang and a new one universe will be born.

“Fathomless Dark Creations of the Universe” –Sir Roger Penrose, The Man Who Proved They Exist

The proof of his idea are what Penrose calls Hawking Points: the corpses of black holes from before the Big Bang that outlived their own universes but are now at the end of their lifespans, leaking radiation as they fade into nothing.

“Staggering” –The Implications of Infinite Space

Dan Hooper alludes to Einstein’s observation that the human scientific imagination is “a preview of coming attractions” with his description of Penrose’s daredevil speculative side conjecturing that any civilization we may discover by definition will be millions to billions of years older than Earth, perhaps existing encoded in photons.

“So our Big Bang began with something which was the remote future of a previous aeon and there would have been similar black holes evaporating away, via Hawking evaporation, and they would produce these points in the sky, that I call Hawking Points.” Penrose added about his hypothesis he coined “conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC).”

Deep Dive...

"No Place to Hide" --A 'Perfect Storm' 14 Times Earth's Greatest Biological Catastrophe

“So they’re kind of like dark matter,” said paleontologist David Jablonski of the University of Chicago about the sanctuaries, the "refugia" that have never been found in the fossil record, but sheltered the shell-shocked and decimated species of Earth's past mass extinctions until they were able to repopulate the planet in ensuing eons.

"Where Will the Sanctuaries Be?"

“We think they’re there because we can’t see them,” Jablonski told Peter Brannen, author of The Ends of the World, who asked that if the sixth major mass extinction of the Phanerozoic, the biological "perfect storm," is coming, where will the refugia be? “There won’t be many,” Jablonski said glumly.

“The human footprint is truly pervasive, from McMurdo Station to the north coast of Greenland. From submarine habitats to the tops of mountains. You have metals deposited in remote lakes in the Andes, and of course, in the ocean, plastic is everywhere. So there won’t be any places to hide, really. The groups that are going to do the best are the ones that can actually coexist with people as opposed to the ones that can find the last few hidey-holes. But if society collapses, dogs will just go back to being wolves. The genus canis will be just fine in the long run.

“Dinosaurs On the Moon” — The Impossible Magnitude-12 Earthquake That Changed Our World

Things like ocean acidification are really going to matter,” Jablonski continued. “That’s the key, right? Because of course there’s been plenty of warming in the past. But how do species deal with warming? They move around. But if you’ve built hotels, and sewage effluents, and you’re dynamiting reefs, you can’t move around anymore. And of course, if on top of that you then acidify the ocean, you’ve again removed potential refugia.”

And so that’s the real problem, he concluded, we’re the perfect storm.

Deep Dive

Galaxy Insight —Where Matter is Transformed into Consciousness

The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. “Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe,” observes physicist Michio Kaku. The neocortex, observed Carl Sagan is where “matter is transformed into consciousness.” Located deep in the brain’s center, the subcortex, the most evolutionarily ancient part of our brain, processes everything from our basic senses to long-term memories.

The Great Question —”Do We Live in a Conscious Universe?”

The question that intrigued the great American quantum physicist, Princeton's John Archibald Wheeler in the last decades of his life was: “Are life and mind irrelevant to the structure of the universe, or are they central to it?” Wheeler originated the notion of a “participatory,” conscious universe, a cosmos in which all of us are embedded as co-creators, replacing the accepted universe “out there,” which is separate from us.

“Shape-Shifting Cosmos” — Physicists Seek the Question to Which the Universe is the Answer

Wheeler introduced the concept of wormholes and coined the term “black hole”. He pioneered the theory of nuclear fission with Niels Bohr and introduced the S-matrix (the scattering matrix used in quantum mechanics). Wheeler devised a concept of quantum foam; a theory of “virtual particles” popping in and out of existence in space (similarly, he conceptualized foam as the foundation of the fabric of the universe).

At the end of his life, Wheeler said that when we finally comprehend the true nature of the universe, “we’ll be stunned by its simplicity.”

Deep Dive…

Consciousness In the Universe –“Its Role is Like Spacetime Before General Relativity”

Is it possible to introduce a “space of elements of consciousness,” and investigate a possibility that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness will be inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other? The universe and the observer exist as a pair. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of the universe that ignores consciousness.”

This the great question –perhaps the central unsolved mystery of the 21st Century– asked by Andrei Linde, Russian-American theoretical physicist and the Harald Trap Friis Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Linde is one of the world’s leading proponents of the inflationary universe theory. Linde's Universe, Life, Consciousness brilliantly examines this great question and attempt an answer.

According to standard materialistic doctrine, writes Linde, consciousness, like space-time before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being considered just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory.

Deep Dive…

“Beyond Comprehension” –‘The Observable Universe Is Only a Tiny Fraction of the Aftermath of the Big Bang’

“It boggles the mind that over 90% of the galaxies in the Universe have yet to be studied. Who knows what we will find when we observe these galaxies with the next generation of telescopes,” says astronomer Christopher Conselice, who led the team that discovered that there are ten times more galaxies in the universe than previously thought, and an even wider space to search for extraterrestrial life.

In 2016, astronomers using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescopes and other telescopes performed an accurate census of the number of galaxies, and came to the surprising conclusion that there are at least 10 times as many galaxies in the observable universe as previously thought. The image itself was produced by the Frontier Fields Collaboration (a joint effort between NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra space telescopes) allowing scientists to detect galaxies that are as much as 100 times fainter than those independently captured before.

“Cracks in Spacetime” –Light-Years Long at the Edges of Vast Regions as Big as the Observable Universe

One of the most fundamental known unknowns in astronomy is just how many galaxies the universe contains. The Hubble Deep Field images, captured in the mid 1990s, revealed untold numbers of faint galaxies. It was estimated that the observable Universe contains between 100 to 200 billion galaxies.

The international team, led by Conselice from the University of Nottingham, UK, have shown that this figure is at least ten times too low.

“The Lost Hubble” –Deepest Image of the Universe Ever Taken

Conselice and his team reached this conclusion using deep space images from Hubble, data from his team’s previous work, and other published data . They painstakingly converted the images into 3D, in order to make accurate measurements of the number of galaxies at different times in the Universe’s history.

Deep Dive…