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The Evolutionary Perspective
Daily Archives: November 18, 2019
Posted: November 18, 2019 at 6:46 pm
The title may conjure up the Ayn Randian philosophy of theVirtue of Selfishness or Atlas Shrugged. The article does take some of AynRands philosophy and apply this to todays life. Altruism as defined byAuguste Comte, calls for living for the sake of others. The belief that one must place the welfare ofothers over our own self-interest. That a person must become a sacrificiallamb and self-sacrifice as a value and duty. Other interests are subordinate to your owninterests and its is ones moral obligation to live life in this manner.
Ayn Rands definition of selfishnessis that a person has the right to live for their own self. It does not mean the person can do whateverthey want. Morality and ethics are partof the societys culture and laws that need to be obeyed. The person has a right to live a life ofreason, purpose and self-esteem.
It is not my intention to uphold or debate the RandianPhilosophy, rather make the point that in order to be altruistic a person mustbe selfish. Lets look at the basic needs of the Altruistic person that need tobe met for the Altruist to help others.
Health. Too often we have seen people neglect theirown health in order to make life easier for others. While this may work in the short term,eventually your disregard for your health will catch up with you. The longhours at the office, the second job, unhealthy eating habits, the striving caregiver. The selfish motive of Altruism should be to place your health above allelse as a rational interest, in order to pursue the unselfish goals.
Wealth. There needs to be enough to meet the basicneeds of the Altruist. We have seen the exemplary charitable behavior of BillGates or Warren Buffet who have more to give than most people can imagine. Inorder for the normal person to contribute either in time or money, both ofwhich are interchangeable, there should be a buffer of wealth that allows theperson to contribute in a meaningful way.
Mental Fortitude. The Altruist needs to develop theappropriate mental strength so they can immerse themselves in the aid ofothers. It means at times taking the selfishstep to devote time and energy in their own mental wellbeing. To feed theirsoul with the rest, reflection and recuperation it needs.
To quote Ayn Rand from the Fountainhead: To say I Love You one must know first how to say the I. The I must be self-aware, self-accepting and strong.
View original post here:
Does NASA’s Plan To Drop Planetary Protection For Parts Of Mars Risk Future Discoveries Of Extraterrestrial Life? – Science 2.0
Posted: at 6:45 pm
Right now all our missions to Mars are sterilized to protect it from any Earth life that could hitch a ride and confuse the searches. A report by the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board, published on October 17th 2019 recommends that NASA treats most of Mars similarly to the Moon for planetary protection. The report comes with a cover letter from NASA recommending to their planetary protection officer that they implement the proposal.
The suggestion is to reclassify large parts of Mars as Category II:
where there is only a remote chance that contamination carried by a spacecraft could jeopardize future exploration. In this case we define remote chance as the absence of niches (places where terrestrial microorganisms could proliferate) and/or a very low likelihood of transfer to those places.
COSPAR Workshop on Planetary Protection for Outer Planet Satellites and Small Solar System Bodies European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), 1517 April 2009
This would be fine if we had clear evidence that these regions are like the Moon. However, we don't. The report relies on an earlier 2014 report that is now out of date. Even when it was in process of publication, NASA and ESA took steps to get it independently reviewed. For some reason they cite the problematical 2014 report as their main source, and don't cite the critical 2015 review of it. This meme summarizes one of the several issues identified by the 2015 review:
Its important to get this right as there is no way to do a do over. It would be so sad to get to Mars, find life there, and then realize it was just life we brought ourselves. For many, the search for other lifeforms in our solar system is one of the major motivating reasons to explore Mars and other parts of our solar system with a potential for life.
This could also impact on the future commercial potential for Mars. If we find life based on a different biochemistry - this can be the basis of billion dollar industries in the future (as is already the case for enzymes from extremophiles). For details see Billions of dollars commercial potential of extraterrestrial biology. Perhaps biological prospecting for extraterrestrial life may be the most lucrative industry for Mars, if we do this right.
The results of this decision can impact on other countries too. The future scientific discoveries of ESA (Europe), ROSCOSMOS (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ISRO (India), CNSA (China) and any other nation with an interest in exploring Mars are all potentially impacted if we contaminate Mars irreversibly with Earth microbes.
There would seem to be a need here for a second more thorough review of this, just as NASA and ESA called for the 2015 review of the 2014 report that this report relies on. The Planetary Protection Independent Review Board is headed by a planetary geologist and it would seem to be more appropriate for an astrobiologist to head any review team.
The compilers of this new NASA report seem to have just made a mistake, as they show no awareness in the report that the 2015 review exists. As for private space, Elon Musk for instance thinks that if we find martian life, it is important not to extinguish it. However he thinks the reality is that it is likely it only exists deep below the surface, in habitats that would not be impacted significantly by what humans do on the surface (see 30 minutes into this video). As we will see there are many ideas proposed by astrobiologists for ways that martian life could potentially thrive in near surface conditions on Mars. These potential habitats may exist almost anywhere on Mars. The risk here is again of a mistake due to a space entrepreneur making an executive decision bsed on his own self confidence in his assessment of the situation on Mars.
It is easy to make a mistake here, because microhabitats for life and shallow subsurface habitats on Mars are likely to be undetectable from orbit. The harsh ultraviolet light would cause even surface lichens to huddle into partial shade in cracks and crevices. as they do in the high Antarctic mountains. Similarly it would be impossible to see life hidden beneath the surface of rocks, or beneath a mm or so of dust or deeper down in the top few centimeters of the Martian surface where, as we'll see, there are possibilities that conditions may be habitable for native as well as introduced Earth life.
Text on image: Lichens on Mars would huddle in partial shade protected from UV, like this lichen in high mountains in Antarctica. It could not be seen from orbit with 30 cm resolution.
Pleopsidium chlorophanum in Antarctica From DLR press release Surviving the conditions on Mars
Pleopsidium chlorophanum on granite, collected at an altitude of 1492 m above sea level at "Black Ridge" in North Victoria Land, Antarctica. This photograph shows its semi-endolithic growth in Antarctic conditions. You can see that it has fragmented the granite, and that pieces of the granite are partly covering it, possibly helping to protect from UV light. Photograph credit DLR
See Lichens, cyanobacteria and molds growing in humidity of simulated Martian atmosphere
This article will focus on the forwards direction, the risk of sending Earth microbes to Mars because the legal protection in that direction is very weak. But first lets look at the backwards direction.
Here is a video I made for this article (while working on the draft)
(click to watch on Youtube)
skip to What about the forwards direction?
In the backwards direction from Mars to Earth, we are strongly protected by many environmental laws and laws to protect human health that we didnt have at the time of Apollo. These laws dont rely on the Outer Space Treaty for their legal basis. How NASA categorizes Mars makes no difference to them. See the article by Margaret Race of the SETI institute.
NASA is going to send a sample caching rover to Mars in 2020 and they hope to send a second mission in the 2020s to return some of these samples back to Earth for analysis. They plan to return them unsterilized (a sterilized sample would not trigger environmental laws, but would be just like the sample returns from meteorites, comets, and the Moon).
I cant find any evidence that NASA have made a start on preparing the legislation. They havent left enough time to complete this process within their desired timescale, indeed, they probably should have started in 2010 or earlier if they want a sample return by 2030. There are papers about the engineering challenges of the sample return mission, but I can't find anything about the legal processes (if you know of anything do say in the comments).
Mars sample return concept - credit NASA. If NASA wants to return an unsterilized sample by 2030 they should have started the legal preparation for this about a decade ago at the latest. There is no sign they have even done any planning for the legal process yet.
Perhaps they expect it to be like Apollo 11 where they published the sample return precautions as an informal document on the day of the launch to the Moon and didnt go through any proper legal process? This would not be permitted today.
Mars could have extraterrestrial life there. Its not known to be sterile, and the dust can carry spores almost anywhere on the planet (more on this later).
As well see new discoveries have opened up the possibility of native microbial life on Mars hidden from our orbital telescopes just centimeters below the dust. This may be possible even in the exceedingly dry tropical areas where Curiosity is roving, especially if martian life has a biochemistry adapted to lower temperatures than Earth life.
Some Mars colonization enthusiasts and space engineers will tell you that any life we find on Mars will be from Earth, but they have not persuaded the astrobiologists of this. The designers of instruments to look for indigenous life there are careful not to make any assumptions about its biochemistry or whether it is related to Earth life.
We cant assume that any life in a sample returned from Mars is related to Earth life unless we have studied it already on Mars.
This life could also be hazardous to humans or our biosphere. To take a simple example, legionnaires disease is an infection of biofilms that can use the same methods to infect human lungs, seeing it as a warm biofilm - it is not adapted to humans. Some strains of it are now adapting to our environments, spread by humans infected by it, but the same could happen with Martian life that invades the lungs of an astronaut.
Astrobiologists say that though it is possible that Mars life could be mystified by an alien biochemistry, its also possible that it hasnt evolved any resistance to it, never having encountered it before. Joshua Lederberg put it like this:
"If Martian microorganisms ever make it here, will they be totally mystified and defeated by terrestrial metabolism, perhaps even before they challenge immune defenses? Or will they have a field day in light of our own total naivete in dealing with their aggressins?
from: "Paradoxes of the Host-Parasite Relationship"
Our lungs might offer no resistance, not even recognizing it as life as it munches away at them, and with a different biochemistry they would be likely to be naturally resistant to our antibiotics, which target particular processes of the pathogens. There would also be risk of larger scale environmental disruption, even if the martian microbes are harmless to humans. As the National Research Council put it in 2009:
The risks of environmental disruption resulting from the inadvertent contamination of Earth with putative martian microbes are still considered to be low. But since the risk cannot be demonstrated to be zero, due care and caution must be exercised in handling any martian materials returned to Earth
Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions
These reports haven't gone into details of how the environment could be disrupted. To give some points to think over right away (I will come back to this later), would our ecosystems work the same way if eventually half the microbes in the soil, half the plankton in our oceans and half the microbes in the guts of animals and ourselves were mirror DNA, say, or PNA, or TNA, or had novel amino acids that Earth life doesn't use, or didn't use proteins, to give a few examples? How would Earth life respond to eating food with novel amino acids it never encountered before or with mirror versions of the amino acids it has already? What about accidental poisons, like the way that cyanobacteria can kill dogs and cows? This is especially so if the extraterrestrial microbes have a different biochemistry; they seem unlikely to be exact "drop in" replacements to terrestrial microbes. There would be changes in their composition and how they function. Microbes with their shorter lifespans would adapt relatively quickly, but higher lifeforms might find it a significant challenge.
The legislators would not ignore arguments such as these. There would be extensive public debate, and Earth would be protected.
Robert Zubrin (president of the Mars society) tells his space colonization enthusiasts that for Mars life to survive on Earth is like Sharks in the savannah (see What are Zubrin's arguments? in my Touch Mars? book). But they could also be like rabbits in Australia, and microbes aren't like sharks. Microbes able to thrive in extreme heat and extreme cold have been found in human belly buttons . You need to listen to astrobiologists, not space engineers, and for sure the legislators would listen to the astrobiologists. There is a reason why we protect Earth.
Yes, there are many possible scenarios according to which martian life would be harmless to us. It could be that what we find on Mars is an early form of life, so feeble it can't compete with Earth life, or it's adapted to very low temperatures and self destructs when it is warmed up. You can invent many scenarios where martian life is harmless to Earth, or even beneficial in some way. However, before an unsterilized sample return, we will need much more by way of evidence than optimistic projections and colourful analogies.
I used Margaret Races article in an attempt to work out a timeline here for return of an unsterilized sample with potential for microbial life of an unknown alien biochemistry. I assumed that there were no objections to delay the legal process. Even with that assumption, I dont see how it can be done before 2040, if you start the legal process today. This takes into account the likely time requirements for constructing the receiving facility, based on the previous sample return studies. NASA would not start the expensive build (half a billion dollars facility) until it knows what it is legally required to do.: Why we are unlikely to return an unsterilized sample before 2040. These laws don't depend on the wording of the Outer Space Treaty in any form, but are independent legislation to protect Earth.
For these reasons Im not concerned about the backwards direction as far as safety is concerned. I expect NASA to sterilize their sample if they do return those samples from Mars to Earth, or return them to somewhere isolated from contact with Earth, such as a satellite set up for telerobotic study of the sample above GEO. They can use either of those approaches within the Outer Space Treaty. If there is no possibility of an unsterilized sample contacting Earth's biosphere, or Earth entering into the chain of contact with an unsterilized sample, it wouldn't trigger this legislation to protect our Earth.
The main concern is for the forwards direction. There isnt any other legislation here to protect Martian life apart from the very weak Outer Space Treaty. It is based on a few phrases about harmful contamination.
If these proposals were adopted in the forwards direction, you could send what you like to these regions of Mars, tardigrades, and extremophile blue green algae that have already been tested in Mars simulation chambers. The only requirement would be to document what you do. Eventually you could send humans too, with this category II classification, though returning them would be another matter if they had made contact with extraterrestrial microbes on Mars.
The report is here together with a cover letter from NASA recommending to their planetary protection officer that they implement the proposal:
This new report has few cites. Incongruously, its lead author is a planetary geologist.
One of their main cites is a report from 2014 by Rummel et al which proposed the use of maps to divide Mars into special regions which need especially careful planetary protection measures such as was used for the Voyager landers in the 1970s, and others that have less stringent requirements such as is used for Curiosity:
This is the basis for their proposal that Mars could be subdivided into regions some reclassified as category II. Although they dont go into detail, presumably they would use a map like the one in the 2014 review, and classify all except the uncertain regions as category II:
Map from the 2014 report. Purple is low in elevation, and grey is higher elevation. Red and blue lines delineating regions are approximately 50 km in width
In the text overlay I summarize the objection to this map in the 2015 review "2014 map of uncertain regions of habitability. 2015 review says maps can only represent incomplete knowledge."
They dont mention the problems identified with the use of maps in the 2015 review.
Even before Rummel et als report was published, both NASA and ESA took steps to have it reviewed independently.
This 2015 review overturned several of the findings of the 2014 report, and in particular, it recommended against the use of maps  saying:
In general, the review committee contends that the use of maps to delineate regions with a lower or higher probability to host Special Regions is most useful if the maps are accompanied by cautionary remarks on their limitations. Maps [of] surface features can only represent the current (and incomplete) state of knowledge for a specific timeknowledge that will certainly be subject to change or be updated as new information is obtained.
5 Generalization of Special Regions and the Utility of Maps
This new NASA report doesnt mention the 2015 review. Its an extraordinary omission from a report that is recommending the use of maps for category II.
I dont know the reason for this omission. They certainly should have looked at this 2015 review, and not just at the original 2014 report, before making this recommendation to NASA to map out large parts of Mars as category II like the Moon.
The 2015 report used the example of Recurring Slope Lineae (RSLs) to explain why maps are not enough by themselves. These are seasonal streaks that form on sun facing Martian slopes. They appear in the Martian spring, grow and broaden through the summer and fade away in autumn.
These dark features are not themselves damp and may be dust flows. However, they are associated with hydrated salts and they may also be linked with salty water (brines) in some form. Sadly the HiRISE instrument can only observe them in the early afternoon locally, the driest time for the Martian surface, because of its high inclination sun synchronous orbit. This makes it especially hard to know if there are any brines moving down these slopes.
Warm Season Flows on Slope in Newton Crater (animated)
The first ones were found in higher latitudes, but many of these have now been found in the Martian tropics, especially on the slopes of the Valles Marineres. Their status is unknown, whether they could have habitats for Earth life or not. At present they are classified as
As such they meet the criteria for Uncertain Regions, to be treated as Special Regions. [a Special region is one that Earth microbes could potentially inhabit]
The 2015 review gives the example of the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander. All HiRISE images of the landing site were inspected for the possible presence of RSL's. 
As another example of this, 58 RSLs were found on Mount Sharp close to the Curiosity landing site.
Here are some of them:
Possible RSLs on mount Sharp not far from the Curiosity rover. These photos are taken at a similar time in the Martian year, they are less prominent in the earlier one in 09 March 2010 and more prominent with some new ones in the later image August 6 2012. Photo from supplementary information for Transient liquid water and water activity at Gale crater on Mars
Importantly, these were not discovered until after the Curiosity landing in 2012. See Slope activity in Gale crater, Mars (2015) and Nature article: Mars contamination fear could divert Curiosity rover
This shows that we mightnt always be able to rule out potential uncertain regions that could be habitats at a landing site. They may be discovered later, after the landing itself.
More RSLs have been found in the Mawrth Vallis region, one of the two final candidates for ExoMars landing site
These results denote the plausible presence of transient liquid brines close to the previously proposed landing ellipse of the ExoMars rover, rendering this site particularly relevant to the search of life. Further investigations of Mawrth Vallis carried out at higher spatial and temporal resolutions are needed to , to prevent probable biological contamination during rover operations,
Discovery of recurring slope lineae candidates in Mawrth Vallis, Mars
ExoMars isnt going to Mawrth Vallis, because they chose the other candidate Oxia Planum. I cant find anything about RSLs in Oxia Planum, but how confident can we be that this doesnt have RSLs or other potential habitats? Does non detection so far mean they arent there?
This new report also doesnt mention the long running and vigorous debate on the topic of whether we should relax sterilization requirements for spacecraft sent to Mars.
This debate started in two Nature articles in 2013 and has continued in Astrobiology journal through to 2019.
Both sides in this debate were in agreement that there is a significant possibility that Earth microbes can contaminate Mars.
Surely neither side in this debate would support classifying most of Mars as category II like the Moon.
Rather, the argument in Nature and Astrobiology journal is about whether we should reduce sterilization requirements for Mars in order to study these potential habitats quickly before human missions get there and make it impossible to study them in their pristine condition without Earth life.
The other side in this debate argue that we have a fair bit of time before humans get there, and that if we relax planetary protection we risk finding Earth microbes we brought there ourselves.
Those arguing for relaxing planetary protection are:
This debate is not mentioned in this report.
Nor does it mention the many new potential surface or near surface habitats that have been proposed / indirectly detected / theorized since 2008. We have had more of these than there have been years since 2008.
The 2014 report briefly considers these. The 2015 review expands on this topic, and says that to identify such potential habitats requires a better understanding of the temperature and water activity of potential microenvironments on Mars, for instance in the interior of craters, or microenvironments underneath rocks. These may provide favourable conditions for establishing life on Mars even when the landscape-scale temperature and humidity conditions would not permit it. 
The 2014 report looked at distributions of ice and concluded that ice in the tropics is buried too deep to be a consideration
However the 2014/5 review corrected this due to evidence of ice present at depths of less than one meter in pole-facing slopes
Research since then still hasnt resolved these issues.
Even the 2014 report acknowledged limitations:
"Claims that reducing planetary protection requirements wouldn't be harmful, because Earth life can't grow on Mars, may be reassuring as opinion, but the facts are that we keep dis4g life growing in extreme conditions on Earth that resemble conditions on Mars. We also keep discovering conditions on Mars that are more similarthough perhaps only at microbial scalesto inhabited environments on Earth, which is where the concept of Special Regions initially came from."
"A New Analysis of Mars "Special Regions": Findings of the Second MEPAG Special Regions Science Analysis Group (SR-SAG2)" (PDF).
Id like to cover a couple of these potential habitats to motivate this, then Ill look at why it is so important to protect Mars from Earth life - is it really so important to make sure we dont mix Earth life with Mars life before we canstudy it?
Nilton Renno's droplets that form where salt touches ice - why did he call a droplet of salty water on Mars "a swimming pool for a bacteria"?
This is perhaps one of the most striking discoveries in recent years because of its implications for habitability of Mars. Nilton Renno found that liquid water can form very quickly on salt / ice interfaces. Within a few tens of minutes in Mars simulation
Erik Fischer, doctoral student at University of Michigan, sets up a Mars Atmospheric Chamber on June 18, 2014. These experiments showed that tiny "swimming pools for bacteria" can form readily on Mars wherever there is ice and salt in contact.
NASA’s next mission to look for ancient alien signatures on Mars, Jim Green’s prediction turning true? – International Business Times, India Edition
Posted: at 6:45 pm
WATCH | ISRO successfully launches PSLV-C46 carrying 'all-weather' spy satellite to combat terrorism
It was around a few weeks that Dr Jim Green, a chief NASA scientist, predicted that alien life on Mars will be discovered on Mars within 2021. After making the prediction, Green also added that humans are not prepared to accept the reality behind extraterrestrial existence. Now, NASA has revealed that its upcoming 2020 Mars Rover mission will explore the Jezero Crater to look for ancient signs of life on the Red Planet.
Mars global mosaic shot by the MCCISRO
It should be noted that the Jezero Crater which is almost 28-miles wide has sufficient deposits of minerals that are good at preserving microfossils here on Earth. Scientists believe that the Jezero Crater had apparently hosted a lake in the ancient past, and if alien lifemight have thrived there, this new mission could help to find ample micro-fossilized evidence. NASA scientists also revealed that exploring the Jezero Crater will begin in February 2021.
"The possibility that the 'marginal carbonates' formed in the lake environment was one of the most exciting features that led us to our Jezero landing site. Carbonate chemistry on an ancient lakeshore is a fantastic recipe for preserving records of ancient life and climate. We're eager to get to the surface and discover how these carbonates formed," said Ken Williford, Mars 2020 Deputy Project Scientist of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a recent statement.
Side-by-side movies shows how dust has enveloped the Red Planet, courtesy of the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) wide-angle camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Mars 2020 rover will be launched in July or August 2020 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA's Mars 2020 is basically the part of a larger program that includes a manned lunar mission aimed to land humans on earth's natural satellite by 2024. This mission named NASA's Artemis lunar project aimed to build a human base on the moon which is widely considered as the first step to achieve the ultimate goal, Mars colonization.
A few months back, a study conducted by researchers led by Regina Dass, a researcher at the Molecular Fungal Genetics and Mycotoxicology Laboratory, Department of Microbiology, School of Life Sciences, Pondicherry, India had suggested that alien life form in its basic form might be living on Mars. Scientists who took part in this study made this conclusion after analyzing Martian images taken by NASA's Curiosity Rover. The research report revealed that they have spotted algae, lichens, and mushrooms in 15 Martian images captured by Curiosity Rover.
Posted: at 6:44 pm
Even if you havent heard the term biohacking before, youve probably encountered some version of it. Maybe youve seen Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey extolling the benefits of fasting intermittently and drinking salt juice each morning. Maybe youve read about former NASA employee Josiah Zayner injecting himself with DNA using the gene-editing technology CRISPR. Maybe youve heard of Bay Area folks engaging in dopamine fasting.
Maybe you, like me, have a colleague whos had a chip implanted in their hand.
These are all types of biohacking, a broad term for a lifestyle thats growing increasingly popular, and not just in Silicon Valley, where it really took off.
Biohacking also known as DIY biology is an extremely broad and amorphous term that can cover a huge range of activities, from performing science experiments on yeast or other organisms to tracking your own sleep and diet to changing your own biology by pumping a younger persons blood into your veins in the hope that itll fight aging. (Yes, that is a real thing, and its called a young blood transfusion. More on that later.)
The type of biohackers currently gaining the most notoriety are the ones who experiment outside of traditional lab spaces and institutions on their own bodies with the hope of boosting their physical and cognitive performance. They form one branch of transhumanism, a movement that holds that human beings can and should use technology to augment and evolve our species.
Some biohackers have science PhDs; others are complete amateurs. And their ways of trying to hack biology are as diverse as they are. It can be tricky to understand the different types of hacks, what differentiates them from traditional medicine, and how safe or legal they are.
As biohacking starts to appear more often in headlines and, recently, in a fascinating Netflix series called Unnatural Selection its worth getting clear on some of the fundamentals. Here are nine questions that can help you make sense of biohacking.
Depending on whom you ask, youll get a different definition of biohacking. Since it can encompass a dizzying range of pursuits, Im mostly going to look at biohacking defined as the attempt to manipulate your brain and body in order to optimize performance, outside the realm of traditional medicine. But later on, Ill also give an overview of some other types of biohacking (including some that can lead to pretty unbelievable art).
Dave Asprey, a biohacker who created the supplement company Bulletproof, told me that for him, biohacking is the art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you so that you have full control over your own biology. Hes very game to experiment on his body: He has stem cells injected into his joints, takes dozens of supplements daily, bathes in infrared light, and much more. Its all part of his quest to live until at least age 180.
One word Asprey likes to use a lot is control, and that kind of language is typical of many biohackers, who often talk about optimizing and upgrading their minds and bodies.
Some of their techniques for achieving that are things people have been doing for centuries, like Vipassana meditation and intermittent fasting. Both of those are part of Dorseys routine, which he detailed in a podcast interview. He tries to do two hours of meditation a day and eats only one meal (dinner) on weekdays; on weekends, he doesnt eat at all. (Critics worry that his dietary habits sound a bit like an eating disorder, or that they might unintentionally influence others to develop a disorder.) He also kicks off each morning with an ice bath before walking the 5 miles to Twitter HQ.
Supplements are another popular tool in the biohackers arsenal. Theres a whole host of pills people take, from anti-aging supplements to nootropics or smart drugs.
Since biohackers are often interested in quantifying every aspect of themselves, they may buy wearable devices to, say, track their sleep patterns. (For that purpose, Dorsey swears by the Oura Ring.) The more data you have on your bodys mechanical functions, the more you can optimize the machine that is you or so the thinking goes.
Then there are some of the more radical practices: cryotherapy (purposely making yourself cold), neurofeedback (training yourself to regulate your brain waves), near-infrared saunas (they supposedly help you escape stress from electromagnetic transmissions), and virtual float tanks (which are meant to induce a meditative state through sensory deprivation), among others. Some people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these treatments.
A subset of biohackers called grinders go so far as to implant devices like computer chips in their bodies. The implants allow them to do everything from opening doors without a fob to monitoring their glucose levels subcutaneously.
For some grinders, like Zoltan Istvan, who ran for president as head of the Transhumanist Party, having an implant is fun and convenient: Ive grown to relish and rely on the technology, he recently wrote in the New York Times. The electric lock on the front door of my house has a chip scanner, and its nice to go surfing and jogging without having to carry keys around.
Istvan also noted that for some people without functioning arms, chips in their feet are the simplest way to open doors or operate some household items modified with chip readers. Other grinders are deeply curious about blurring the line between human and machine, and they get a thrill out of seeing all the ways we can augment our flesh-and-blood bodies using tech. Implants, for them, are a starter experiment.
On a really basic level, biohacking comes down to something we can all relate to: the desire to feel better and to see just how far we can push the human body. That desire comes in a range of flavors, though. Some people just want to not be sick anymore. Others want to become as smart and strong as they possibly can. An even more ambitious crowd wants to be as smart and strong as possible for as long as possible in other words, they want to radically extend their life span.
These goals have a way of escalating. Once youve determined (or think youve determined) that there are concrete hacks you can use by yourself right now to go from sick to healthy, or healthy to enhanced, you start to think: Well, why stop there? Why not shoot for peak performance? Why not try to live forever? What starts as a simple wish to be free from pain can snowball into self-improvement on steroids.
That was the case for Asprey. Now in his 40s, he got into biohacking because he was unwell. Before hitting age 30, he was diagnosed with high risk of stroke and heart attack, suffered from cognitive dysfunction, and weighed 300 pounds. I just wanted to control my own biology because I was tired of being in pain and having mood swings, he told me.
Now that he feels healthier, he wants to slow the normal aging process and optimize every part of his biology. I dont want to be just healthy; thats average. I want to perform; thats daring to be above average. Instead of How do I achieve health? its How do I kick more ass?
Zayner, the biohacker who once injected himself with CRISPR DNA, has also had health problems for years, and some of his biohacking pursuits have been explicit attempts to cure himself. But hes also motivated in large part by frustration. Like some other biohackers with an anti-establishment streak, hes irritated by federal officials purported sluggishness in greenlighting all sorts of medical treatments. In the US, it can take 10 years for a new drug to be developed and approved; for people with serious health conditions, that wait time can feel cruelly long. Zayner claims thats part of why he wants to democratize science and empower people to experiment on themselves.
(However, he admits that some of his stunts have been purposely provocative and that I do ridiculous stuff also. Im sure my motives are not 100 percent pure all the time.)
The biohacking community also offers just that: community. It gives people a chance to explore unconventional ideas in a non-hierarchical setting, and to refashion the feeling of being outside the norm into a cool identity. Biohackers congregate in dedicated online networks, in Slack and WhatsApp groups WeFast, for example, is for intermittent fasters. In person, they run experiments and take classes at hacklabs, improvised laboratories that are open to the public, and attend any one of the dozens of biohacking conferences put on each year.
Certain kinds of biohacking go far beyond traditional medicine, while other kinds bleed into it.
Plenty of age-old techniques meditation, fasting can be considered a basic type of biohacking. So can going to a spin class or taking antidepressants.
What differentiates biohacking is arguably not that its a different genre of activity but that the activities are undertaken with a particular mindset. The underlying philosophy is that we dont need to accept our bodies shortcomings we can engineer our way past them using a range of high- and low-tech solutions. And we dont necessarily need to wait for a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, traditional medicines gold standard. We can start to transform our lives right now.
As millionaire Serge Faguet, who plans to live forever, put it: People here [in Silicon Valley] have a technical mindset, so they think of everything as an engineering problem. A lot of people who are not of a technical mindset assume that, Hey, people have always been dying, but I think theres going to be a greater level of awareness [of biohacking] once results start to happen.
Rob Carlson, an expert on synthetic biology whos been advocating for biohacking since the early 2000s, told me that to his mind, all of modern medicine is hacking, but that people often call certain folks hackers as a way of delegitimizing them. Its a way of categorizing the other like, Those biohackers over there do that weird thing. This is actually a bigger societal question: Whos qualified to do anything? And why do you not permit some people to explore new things and talk about that in public spheres?
If its taken to extremes, the Whos qualified to do anything? mindset can delegitimize scientific expertise in a way that can endanger public health. Luckily, biohackers dont generally seem interested in dethroning expertise to that dangerous degree; many just dont think they should be locked out of scientific discovery because they lack conventional credentials like a PhD.
Some biohacks are backed by strong scientific evidence and are likely to be beneficial. Often, these are the ones that are tried and true, debugged over centuries of experimentation. For example, clinical trials have shown that mindfulness meditation can help reduce anxiety and chronic pain.
But other hacks, based on weak or incomplete evidence, could be either ineffective or actually harmful.
After Dorsey endorsed a particular near-infrared sauna sold by SaunaSpace, which claims its product boosts cellular regeneration and fights aging by detoxing your body, the company experienced a surge in demand. But according to the New York Times, though a study of middle-aged and older Finnish men indicates that their health benefited from saunas, there have been no major studies conducted of this type of sauna, which directs incandescent light at your body. So is buying this expensive product likely to improve your health? We cant say that yet.
Similarly, the intermittent fasting that Dorsey endorses may yield health benefits for some, but scientists still have plenty of questions about it. Although theres a lot of research on the long-term health outcomes of fasting in animals and much of it is promising the research literature on humans is much thinner. Fasting has gone mainstream, but because its done so ahead of the science, it falls into the proceed with caution category. Critics have noted that for those whove struggled with eating disorders, it could be dangerous.
And while were on the topic of biohacking nutrition: My colleague Julia Belluz has previously reported on the Bulletproof Diet promoted by Asprey, who she says vilifies healthy foods and suggests part of the way to achieve a pound a day weight loss is to buy his expensive, science-based Bulletproof products. She was not convinced by the citations for his claims:
What I found was a patchwork of cherry-picked research and bad studies or articles that arent relevant to humans. He selectively reported on studies that backed up his arguments, and ignored the science that contradicted them.
Many of the studies werent done in humans but in rats and mice. Early studies on animals, especially on something as complex as nutrition, should never be extrapolated to humans. Asprey glorifies coconut oil and demonizes olive oil, ignoring the wealth of randomized trials (the highest quality of evidence) that have demonstrated olive oil is beneficial for health. Some of the research he cites was done on very specific sub-populations, such as diabetics, or on very small groups of people. These findings wouldnt be generalizable to the rest of us.
Some of the highest-risk hacks are being undertaken by people who feel desperate. On some level, thats very understandable. If youre sick and in constant pain, or if youre old and scared to die, and traditional medicine has nothing that works to quell your suffering, who can fault you for seeking a solution elsewhere?
Yet some of the solutions being tried these days are so dangerous, theyre just not worth the risk.
If youve watched HBOs Silicon Valley, then youre already familiar with young blood transfusions. As a refresher, thats when an older person pays for a young persons blood and has it pumped into their veins in the hope that itll fight aging.
This putative treatment sounds vampiric, yet its gained popularity in the Silicon Valley area, where people have actually paid $8,000 a pop to participate in trials. The billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel has expressed keen interest.
As Chavie Lieber noted for Vox, although some limited studies suggest that these transfusions might fend off diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinsons, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis, these claims havent been proven.
In February, the Food and Drug Administration released a statement warning consumers away from the transfusions: Simply put, were concerned that some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies. Such treatments have no proven clinical benefits for the uses for which these clinics are advertising them and are potentially harmful.
Another biohack that definitely falls in the dont try this at home category: fecal transplants, or transferring stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of an unhealthy recipient. In 2016, sick of suffering from severe stomach pain, Zayner decided to give himself a fecal transplant in a hotel room. He had procured a friends poop and planned to inoculate himself using the microbes in it. Ever the public stuntman, he invited a journalist to document the procedure. Afterward, he claimed the experiment left him feeling better.
But fecal transplants are still experimental and not approved by the FDA. The FDA recently reported that two people had contracted serious infections from fecal transplants that contained drug-resistant bacteria. One of the people died. And this was in the context of a clinical trial presumably, a DIY attempt could be even riskier. The FDA is putting a stop to clinical trials on the transplants for now.
Zayner also popularized the notion that you can edit your own DNA with CRISPR. In 2017, he injected himself with CRISPR DNA at a biotech conference, live-streaming the experiment. He later said he regretted that stunt because it could lead others to copy him and people are going to get hurt. Yet when asked whether his company, the Odin, which he runs out of his garage in Oakland, California, was going to stop selling CRISPR kits to the general public, he said no.
Ellen Jorgensen, a molecular biologist who co-founded Genspace and Biotech Without Borders, two Brooklyn-based biology labs open to the public, finds antics like Zayners worrisome. A self-identified biohacker, she told me people shouldnt buy Zayners kits, not just because they dont work half the time (shes a professional and even she couldnt get it to work), but because CRISPR is such a new technology that scientists arent yet sure of all the risks involved in using it. By tinkering with your genome, you could unintentionally cause a mutation that increases your risk of developing cancer, she said. Its a dangerous practice that should not be marketed as a DIY activity.
At Genspace and Biotech Without Borders, we always get the most heartbreaking emails from parents of children afflicted with genetic diseases, Jorgensen says. They have watched these Josiah Zayner videos and they want to come into our class and cure their kids. We have to tell them, This is a fantasy. ... That is incredibly painful.
She thinks such biohacking stunts give biohackers like her a bad name. Its bad for the DIY bio community, she said, because it makes people feel that as a general rule were irresponsible.
Existing regulations werent built to make sense of something like biohacking, which in some cases stretches the very limits of what it means to be a human being. That means that a lot of biohacking pursuits exist in a legal gray zone: frowned upon by bodies like the FDA, but not yet outright illegal, or not enforced as such. As biohackers traverse uncharted territory, regulators are scrambling to catch up with them.
After the FDA released its statement in February urging people to stay away from young blood transfusions, the San Francisco-based startup Ambrosia, which was well known for offering the transfusions, said on its website that it had ceased patient treatments. The site now says, We are currently in discussion with the FDA on the topic of young plasma.
This wasnt the FDAs first foray into biohacking. In 2016, the agency objected to Zayner selling kits to brew glow-in-the-dark beer. And after he injected himself with CRISPR, the FDA released a notice saying the sale of DIY gene-editing kits for use on humans is illegal. Zayner disregarded the warning and continued to sell his wares.
In 2019, he was, for a time, under investigation by Californias Department of Consumer Affairs, accused of practicing medicine without a license.
The biohackers I spoke to said restrictive regulation would be a counterproductive response to biohacking because itll just drive the practice underground. They say its better to encourage a culture of transparency so that people can ask questions about how to do something safely, without fear of reprisal.
According to Jorgensen, most biohackers are safety-conscious, not the sorts of people interested in engineering a pandemic. Theyve even generated and adopted their own codes of ethics. She herself has had a working relationship with law enforcement since the early 2000s.
At the beginning of the DIY bio movement, we did an awful lot of work with Homeland Security, she said. And as far back as 2009, the FBI was reaching out to the DIY community to try to build bridges.
Carlson told me hes noticed two general shifts over the past 20 years. One was after 2001, after the anthrax attacks, when Washington, DC, lost their damn minds and just went into a reactive mode and tried to shut everything down, he said. As of 2004 or 2005, the FBI was arresting people for doing biology in their homes.
Then in 2009, the National Security Council dramatically changed perspectives. It published the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, which embraced innovation and open access to the insights and materials needed to advance individual initiatives, including in private laboratories in basements and garages.
Now, though, some agencies seem to think they ought to take action. But even if there were clear regulations governing all biohacking activities, there would be no straightforward way to stop people from pursuing them behind closed doors. This technology is available and implementable anywhere, theres no physical means to control access to it, so what would regulating that mean? Carlson said.
Some biohackers believe that by leveraging technology, theyll be able to live longer but stay younger. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey claims people will be able to live to age 1,000. In fact, he says the first person who will live to 1,000 has already been born.
De Grey focuses on developing strategies for repairing seven types of cellular and molecular damage associated with aging or, as he calls them, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. His nonprofit, the Methuselah Foundation, has attracted huge investments, including more than $6 million from Thiel. Its aim is to make 90 the new 50 by 2030.
Wondering whether de Greys goals are realistic, I reached out to Genspace co-founder Oliver Medvedik, who earned his PhD at Harvard Medical School and now directs the Kanbar Center for Biomedical Engineering at Cooper Union. Living to 1,000? Its definitely within our realm of possibility if we as a society that doles out money [to fund research we deem worthy] decide we want to do it, he told me.
Hes optimistic, he said, because the scientific community is finally converging on a consensus about what the root causes of aging are (damage to mitochondria and epigenetic changes are a couple of examples). And in the past five years, hes seen an explosion of promising papers on possible ways to address those causes.
Researchers who want to fight aging generally adopt two different approaches. The first is the small molecule approach, which often focuses on dietary supplements. Medvedik calls that the low-hanging fruit. He spoke excitedly about the possibility of creating a supplement from a plant compound called fisetin, noting that a recent (small) Mayo Clinic trial suggests high concentrations of fisetin can clear out senescent cells in humans cells that have stopped dividing and that contribute to aging.
The other approach is more dramatic: genetic engineering. Scientists taking this tack in mouse studies usually tinker with a genome in embryo, meaning that new mice are born with the fix already in place. Medvedik pointed out thats not very useful for treating humans we want to be able to treat people who have already been born and have begun to age.
But he sees promise here too. He cited a new study that used CRISPR to target Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a genetic disorder that manifests as accelerated aging, in a mouse model. It wasnt a total cure they extended the life span of these mice by maybe 30 percent but what I was very interested in is the fact that it was delivered into mice that had already been born.
Hes also intrigued by potential non-pharmaceutical treatments for aging-related diseases like Alzheimers for example, the use of light stimulation to influence brain waves but those probably wont help us out anytime soon, for a simple reason: Its not a drug. You cant package and sell it, he said. Pharma cant monetize it.
Like many in the biohacking community, Medvedik sounded a note of frustration about how the medical system holds back anti-aging progress. If you were to come up with a compound right now that literally cures aging, you couldnt get it approved, he said. By the definition weve set up, aging isnt a disease, and if you want to get it approved by the FDA you have to target a certain disease. That just seems very strange and antiquated and broken.
Not everyone whos interested in biohacking is interested in self-experimentation. Some come to it because they care about bringing science to the masses, alleviating the climate crisis, or making art that shakes us out of our comfort zones.
My version of biohacking is unexpected people in unexpected places doing biotechnology, Jorgensen told me. For her, the emphasis is on democratizing cutting-edge science while keeping it safe. The community labs shes helped to build, Genspace and Biotech Without Borders, offer classes on using CRISPR technology to edit a genome but participants work on the genome of yeast, never on their own bodies.
Some people in the community are altruistically motivated. They want to use biohacking to save the environment by figuring out a way to make a recyclable plastic or a biofuel. They might experiment on organisms in makeshift labs in their garages. Or they might take a Genspace class on how to make furniture out of fungi or paper out of kombucha.
Experimental artists have also taken an interest in biohacking. For them, biology is just another palette. The artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the University of Western Australia were actually the first people to create and serve up lab-grown meat. They took some starter cells from a frog and used them to grow small steaks of frog meat, which they fed to gallery-goers in France at a 2003 art installation called Disembodied Cuisine.
More recently, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has used old floral DNA to recreate the smell of flowers driven to extinction by humans, enabling us to catch a whiff of them once more.
And this summer, a London museum is displaying something rather less fragrant: cheese made from celebrities. Yes, you read that right: The cheese was created with bacteria harvested from the armpits, toes, bellybuttons, and nostrils of famous people. If youre thoroughly grossed out by this, dont worry: The food wont actually be eaten this bioart project is meant more as a thought experiment than as dinner.
When you hear about people genetically engineering themselves or trying young blood transfusions in an effort to ward off death, its easy to feel a sense of vertigo about what were coming to as a species.
But the fact is weve been altering human nature since the very beginning. Inventing agriculture, for example, helped us transform ourselves from nomadic hunter-gatherers into sedentary civilizations. And whether we think of it this way or not, were all already doing some kind of biohacking every day.
The deeper I delve into biohacking, the more I think a lot of the discomfort with it boils down to simple neophobia a fear of whats new. (Not all of the discomfort, mind you: The more extreme hacks really are dangerous.)
As one of my colleagues put it to me, 40 years ago, test tube babies seemed unnatural, a freak-show curiosity; now in vitro fertilization has achieved mainstream acceptance. Will biohacking undergo the same progression? Or is it really altering human nature in a more fundamental way, a way that should concern us?
When I asked Carlson, he refused to buy the premise of the question.
If you assert that hackers are changing what it means to be human, then we need to first have an agreement about what it means to be human, he said. And Im not going to buy into the idea that there is one thing that is being human. Across the sweep of history, its odd to say humans are static its not the case that humans in 1500 were the same as they are today.
Thats true. Nowadays, we live longer. Were taller. Were more mobile. And we marry and have kids with people who come from different continents, different cultures a profound departure from old customs that has nothing to do with genetic engineering but thats nonetheless resulting in genetic change.
Still, biohackers are talking about making such significant changes that the risks they carry are significant too. What if biohackers upgrades dont get distributed evenly across the human population? What if, for example, the cure for aging becomes available, but only to the rich? Will that lead to an even wider life expectancy gap, where rich people live longer and poor people die younger?
Medvedik dismissed that concern, arguing that a lot of interventions that could lengthen our lives, like supplements, wouldnt be expensive to produce. Theres no reason why that stuff cant be dirt-cheap. But that depends on what we do as a society, he said. Insulin doesnt cost much to produce, but as a society weve allowed companies to jack up the price so high that many people with diabetes are now skipping lifesaving doses. Thats horrifying, but its not a function of the technology itself.
Heres another risk associated with biohacking, one I think is even more serious: By making ourselves smarter and stronger and potentially even immortal (a difference of kind, not just of degree), we may create a society in which everyone feels pressure to alter their biology even if they dont want to. To refuse a hack would mean to be at a huge professional disadvantage, or to face moral condemnation for remaining suboptimal when optimization is possible. In a world of superhumans, it may become increasingly hard to stay merely human.
The flip side of all this is the perfect race or eugenics specter, Jorgensen acknowledged. This is a powerful set of technologies that can be used in different ways. Wed better think about it and use it wisely.
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Josiah Zayner is a biohacker whos famous for injecting himself with the gene-editing tool CRISPR. At a time when the technology exists for us to change (or hack) our own DNA, what are the ethics of experimenting on ourselves, and others, at home? On the launch episode of this new podcast, host Arielle Duhaime-Ross talks to Zayner about how hes thinking about human experimentation today. Plus: new efforts to come up with a code of conduct for biohackers, from legislation to self-regulation.
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The researchers created simulations to show that this was possible and described their results in the journal Physical Review Letters.
On July 29, 2017, gravitational wave detectors spotted the heaviest black hole merger yet, dubbed GW170729. One of the black holes in the merger was likely more than 50 times the mass of the Sun. Black holes that are created when a dying star collapses shouldnt be this big, so astronomers think something else was probably at play. Maybe that black hole was the result of a previous merger itself.
One place where a black hole might swallow multiple other singularities is in an environment thats dense with stars. Globular star clusters, for example, pack lots of stars and the black holes they sometimes form into a relatively tight space. There, a black hole might meet and combine with other black holes multiple times.
The new paper describes another kind of environment where black holes might merge more than once. Disks of material that swirl around supermassive black holes, the papers authors propose, might shepherd smaller black holes within them into similar tracks. As in the star clusters, there black holes might eventually converge on multiple occasions.
The researchers created simulations of these orbiting black holes and found that a series of mergers would create black holes that are 50 or more solar masses, like the more massive black hole in the merger GW170729.
The mergers from black holes orbiting a supermassive black hole would probably have rotation characteristics distinct from other merger scenarios. As gravitational wave detectors spot more black hole mergers, their data might be a way to tell whether these oddly large black holes are really createdthis way.
So far, scientists have identified 10 confirmed mergers of black hole pairs. But there have been many more gravitational wave detections that are black hole merger candidates, which scientists are working to confirm.
Whatever questions were asking, were going to have a much, much better handle on answering them within a very short time period, said Imre Bartos, an astronomer at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and one of the authors of the new paper. Its super exciting.
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Astronomy: There are lessons to be learned from transit of Mercury across sun – The Columbus Dispatch
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Observing the transit of an inner planet requires a telescope with a solar filter that allows viewing the sun without eye damage. The transit appears as a small black dot that slowly moves across the face of the sun. It isnt visible without magnifying the suns image.
The transit of Mercury is a bit like what happens in a solar eclipse. Instead of the moon coming between Earth and the sun, which can entirely block the suns light, Mercury is much farther away, so it blocks only a small fraction (less than half a percent) of the sun. But even though its only a small black dot, its clearly visible with the right telescope.
The historical importance of the transit of Mercury goes back to the 1600s, when Johannes Kepler, famous for his planetary orbital laws, was the first astronomer to predict it. Back then, there was still public controversy about the model of Copernicus, where planets go around the sun, and the older view that the sun orbited Earth. The transit of Mercury was first observed in 1631 by French astronomer Pierre Gassendi, and was irrefutable evidence that Copernicus was right.
In 1677, Edmund Halley, for whom Halleys comet is named, realized that he could use the transit of Mercury to find the distance to the sun. He did that by measuring the time of the start and finish of Mercurys shadow as it went across the sun, and then used the mathematical technique of parallax to calculate the distance. This was a tour-de-force calculation for its time.
Today, the transit of Mercury is more of a curiosity than a groundbreaking scientific event. However, an interesting application of this technique has been applied to look for planets around other stars. The NASA space telescope Kepler made very careful measurements of the brightness of stars, and found periodic times when the brightness dipped by about 1%. Thats expected to happen when an exoplanet orbits the star and comes between that star and the view from Earth. Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered using the method.
The transit of planets can be used as a great teaching moment for amateur astronomers, either young or old. Its one thing to learn about the planetary orbits in a textbook, but another entirely to see a planets shadow move across the sun in real time.
Kenneth Hicks is a professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University in Athens.
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The Institute for Astronomy helped people gathered at Waialae Beach Park to observe the event. PC: University of Hawaii
The planet Mercury did its best Icarus impression last week, and students from the University of Hawai traveled to the Big Island for a chance to witness it.
University of Hawaii astronomers joined many observers around the world in tracking the transit of Mercury on Monday, Nov. 11. A transit is when a planet passes in front of a star. Mercury and Venus are the only two planets that can be observed from Earth in transit.
About 30 UH Mnoa students flew to Hawaii Island to view the event at the Subaru Telescope as part of a group of around 200 people to use solar telescopes.
UH Mnoas Institute for Astronomy held a viewing party at Waialae Beach Park for more than 100 people.
Mercury takes just 88 days to circle the Sun. It passes between the Sun and Earth frequently but usually out of view.
The transit of Mercury will not be seen from Earth again until November 2032, and not from Hawaii until 2049. The next transit of Venus will not be visible from Earth until 2117.
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Innermost planet Mercury puts on its best morning display of the year for Northern Hemisphere observers from late November to early December. Skywatchers in the British Isles should find a location offering an unobstructed view of the southeast horizon about 45minutes before sunrise to get the best views. This looping animation shows the changing configuration of Mercury, Mars and Virgos brightest star, Spica, from 18November through 3December at dawn. Note the span of a fist at arms length (about 10) for scale, but the Moons apparent size on 24 and 25November has been enlarged for clarity. AN animation by Ade Ashford.Mercurys transit of the Sun on 11November is still fresh in the memory, but it doesnt take long for the innermost planets orbital motion to carry it far enough west of the Sun to be visible low above the southeastern horizon in dawn twilight. Mercury attains its greatest westerly elongation of 20degrees on the UK morning of 28November. In fact, for Northern Hemisphere observers, the remainder of the month into early December offers Mercurys best morning viewing prospects for the entire year.
Any opportunity to get a glimpse of this elusive and fast-moving planet is well worth getting up a little earlier for, particularly when as now you get a chance to see Mars nearby at the same time. As with any observation made in the eastern sky during dawn twilight, timing is everything: you need to view late enough that Mercury gets a chance to rise high enough above the horizon murk, but not so late that impending sunrise makes the sky too bright to see it. (Never look anywhere near the Sun after it has risen.)
Observers in the British Isles need to find a location that offers an unobscured view of the southeast horizon about three-quarters of an hour before sunrise between now and the first week of December. Our interactive online Almanac gives you the time of sunrise for your nearest town or city, so just subtract 45minutes from that.The slim crescent of the 27-day-old waning Moon lies slightly less than 4degrees above magnitude +1.7 Mars at UK dawn on Sunday, 24November 2019, hence the pair will fit in the same field of view of 10 and lower magnification binoculars. On this morning, the Red Planet sits midway between magnitude -0.2 Mercury and first-magnitude star Spica in Virgo. Note that the Moons apparent size has been enlarged for clarity in this illustration. AN graphic by Ade Ashford.Mercury is located in the constellation of Libra for the period illustrated in the animation at the top of the page. The planet lies about 9degrees (almost the span of a fist held at arms length) above the southeast horizon at the optimal viewing time between 23November and the beginning of December. The Red Planet sits midway between Mercury and the first-magnitude star Spica, the brightest in the constellation of Virgo, at UK dawn on 24November.
Magnitude +1.7 Mars remains in Virgo until the morning of 1December when it crosses the constellation border to join Mercury in Libra. Mercury brightens more than fourfold from magnitude +1 to -0.6 during the 18November to 3December observing window. If clear, dont miss the binocular highlights of 24 and 25November at dawn when the old waning crescent Moon lies 4 above Mars and 3 to the lower left of Mercury, respectively.
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China made history earlier this year when its Chang'e-4 lander became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon. During the two-week lunar days, the lander and its small rover, Yutu 2, beam images and other data to an orbiter for relay back to Earth. Together theyve furnished planetary scientists with unprecedented access to the backside of our Janus-faced neighbor. But not everyone was thrilled that China crossed into this new lunar frontier, and few have been more vocal about their concerns than the scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Last month, the SETI permanent committee of the International Astronautical Association hosted its second round of negotiations about the lunar farside in Washington, DC. The exploration of the moon might seem like an issue outside the purview of this group of professional alien hunters, but the far side of the moon is the most radio quiet place in the inner solar system and they want to keep it that way in case ET calls. Indeed, they argue that the fate of the lunar farside may determine whether we ever detect a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence.
At the moment, SETI is not doomed, but it might be doomed in the next 50 years and thats being optimistic, says Claudio Maccone, an astrophysicist and the chair of the IAA SETI committee. We must insist on this topic while there is still time to do something.
On Earth, radio astronomers must contend with interference from television broadcasts, cell phone signals, satellites, and the atmosphere as they scan the cosmos for faint signals from primordial stars, organic molecules, or intelligent life. This makes the lunar farside an attractive site for future radio telescopes because the moon blocks all the radio signals from Earth. Its like the difference between stargazing in New York City and stargazing in the middle of the desertin the city light pollution obscures almost all of the good stuff.
As a hedge against the unchecked proliferation of radio frequency interference, a radio astronomer named Jean Heidmann made the case for a SETI radio base on the far side of the moon back in the mid-90s. Even before cell phones became common, Heidmann realized that radio interference could eventually become so bad that searching for aliens with radio telescopes would be impossible on Earth. Moving radio observatories to the moon wouldnt require turning the entire lunar farside into a radio quiet zone, but it would guarantee that at least some portions of the moon are preserved for radio astronomy and the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Here on Earth, governments could create more radio quiet zones like the kind around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, but even then we might miss a message from ET. The Earths atmosphere starts to block out radio frequencies as you move away from a relatively narrow frequency band called the microwave window, so unless ET happens to be transmitting on one of those frequencies wed struggle to hear it. But the lunar atmosphere is virtually nonexistent, which means radio astronomers would have access to frequencies above and below Earths microwave window. And, given the moons low gravity environment, astronomers would also be able to build massive radio telescopes that dwarf those found on Earth.
After Heidmanns death in 2000, Maccone took up the cause of preserving the lunar farside for radio astronomy. He has written several papers on the subject and even gave a presentation to the United Nations, but until recently his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The reason, Maccone says, is that the issue lacked any urgency. Most national space agencies had neither the funding nor the will to launch a mission to the far side of the moon and billionaires were still struggling just to get a rocket to orbit.
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Astronomers have confirmed the first example of a galaxy cluster where large numbers of stars are being born at its core. Using data from NASA space telescopes and a National Science Foundation radio observatory, researchers have gathered new details about how the most massive black holes in the universe affect their host galaxies.
Galaxy clusters are the largest structures in the cosmos that are held together by gravity, consisting of hundreds or thousands of galaxies embedded in hot gas, as well as invisibledark matter. The largest supermassive black holes known are in galaxies at the centers of these clusters.
For decades, astronomers have looked for galaxy clusters containing rich nurseries of stars in their central galaxies. Instead, they found powerful, giant black holes pumping out energy through jets of high-energy particles and keeping the gas too warm to form many stars.
Now, scientists have compelling evidence for a galaxy cluster where stars are forming at a furious rate, apparently linked to a less effective black hole in its center. In this unique cluster, the jets from the central black hole instead appear to be aiding in the formation of stars. Researchers used new data from NASAs Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope, and the NSFs Karl Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to build on previous observations of this cluster.
This is a phenomenon that astronomers had been trying to find for a long time, said Michael McDonald, astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who led the study. This cluster demonstrates that, in some instances, the energetic output from a black hole can actually enhance cooling, leading to dramatic consequences.
The black hole is in the center of a galaxy cluster called the Phoenix Cluster, located about 5.8 billion light years from Earth in the Phoenix Constellation. The large galaxy hosting the black hole is surrounded by hot gas with temperatures of millions of degrees. The mass of this gas, equivalent to trillions of Suns, is several times greater than the combined mass of all the galaxies in the cluster.
This hot gas loses energy as it glows in X-rays, which should cause it to cool until it can form large numbers of stars. However, in all other observed galaxy clusters, bursts of energy driven by such a black hole keep most of the hot gas from cooling, preventing widespread star birth.
Imagine running an air conditioner in your house on a hot day, but then starting a wood fire. Your living room cant properly cool down until you put out the fire, said co-author Brian McNamara of the University of Waterloo in Canada. Similarly, when a black holes heating ability is turned off in a galaxy cluster, the gas can then cool.
Evidence for rapid star formation in the Phoenix Cluster was previously reported in 2012 by a team led by McDonald. But deeper observations were required to learn details about the central black holes role in the rebirth of stars in the central galaxy, and how that might change in the future.
By combining long observations in X-ray, optical, and radio light, the researchers gained a ten-fold improvement in the data quality compared to previous observations. The new Chandra data reveal that hot gas is cooling nearly at the rate expected in the absence of energy injected by a black hole. The new Hubble data show that about 10 billion solar masses of cool gas are located along filaments leading towards the black hole, and young stars are forming from this cool gas at a rate of about 500 solar masses per year. By comparison, stars are forming in the Milky Way galaxy at a rate of about one solar mass per year.
The VLA radio data reveal jets blasting out from the vicinity of the central black hole. These jets likely inflated bubbles in the hot gas that are detected in the Chandra data. Both the jets and bubbles are evidence of past rapid growth of the black hole. Early in this growth, the black hole may have been undersized, compared to the mass of its host galaxy, which would allow rapid cooling to go unchecked.
In the past, outbursts from the undersized black hole may have simply been too weak to heat its surroundings, allowing hot gas to start cooling, said co-author Matthew Bayliss, who was a researcher at MIT during this study, but has recently joined the faculty at the University of Cincinnati. But as the black hole has grown more massive and more powerful, its influence has been increasing.
The cooling can continue when the gas is carried away from the center of the cluster by the black holes outbursts. At a greater distance from the heating influence of the black hole, the gas cools faster than it can fall back towards the center of the cluster. This scenario explains the observation that cool gas is located around the borders of the cavities, based on a comparison of the Chandra and Hubble data.
Eventually the outburst will generate enough turbulence, sound waves and shock waves (similar to the sonic booms produced by supersonic aircraft) to provide sources of heat and prevent further cooling. This will continue until the outburst ceases and the build-up of cool gas can recommence. The whole cycle may then repeat.
These results show that the black hole has temporarily been assisting in the formation of stars, but when it strengthens its effects will start to mimic those of black holes in other clusters, stifling more star birth, said co-author Mark Voit of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.
The lack of similar objects shows that clusters and their enormous black holes pass through the rapid star formation phase relatively quickly.
A paper describing these results was published in a recent issue of The Astrophysical Journal, and a preprint isavailable online.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge and Burlington, Massachusetts. The NASA Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA. AURAs Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland conducts Hubble science operations. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.
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