The scale of the Universe versus the complexity of life

I have often found myself contemplating which is more amazing, the sheer scale of the Universe or the complexity of life? It isn’t easy to find an answer, but I’ll do my best to very briefly explain my thinking on this.

Despite my field being biology, and despite finding nothing more amazing on Earth than the evolution and subsequent complexity of life, I have to fall on the side of the size of the Universe. I think I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I’ve given it some thought. Here is why I think what I do.

It isn’t possible for an individual to know everything about a single field. I’ve had incredible biology professors who have told me that they are lucky to understand 1/3 of what they read in scientific journal articles concerning biology. This is because in order to become an expert on anything, it requires one to focus on a relatively small subset of facts within a field. Just look at how biology breaks down: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, physiology, embryology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and so on. This sort of division is going to be true of just about any field. (I can’t think of any exceptions.) How can we expect anyone to understand it all? We simply cannot. But that isn’t to say we can’t understand it all as a species. In principle, we can understand everything that has to do with biology. We can break it down and analyze each bit, no matter how esoteric and specific. That doesn’t mean we necessarily ever will, but there is nothing preventing us from doing so. We have the ability, when we pool all our resources and minds, to understand everything there is to understand about life and its evolution.

I don’t think we can say that same thing about the sheer scale of the Universe. For the sake of argument, I will limit myself to the observable Universe. But right there. Look at what I just did. Without fear of losing any ground in my argument, I limited my scope. Yet my whole point is scope. That’s just how huge the Universe is. And how can anyone truly appreciate that? No human is going to travel any distance from Earth that is notable on the scale of the Universe. Even our space probes that are now on their way to interstellar space have done so little; being impressed by that distance would be like being impressed that an atom moved a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of its radius to the right. I would say to now imagine that analogy increased trillions upon trillions upon trillions upon…of times, but of course you can’t. No one can. We don’t have any way, in our small lives, to really comprehend something like that. The Universe is enormous. Just enormous.

We can pool our minds together as a species and come to a great understanding of all that surrounds us. All our physicists and astronomers and cosmologists can give us a tremendous understanding, via science, of how it all works. They can even describe, with numbers on paper, how large the observable Universe is. They can show us incredible pictures of thousands of galaxies (in just a small sliver of the sky), each with billions of stars and billions of planets. And it really all is wonderful. But no matter how many brilliant minds we put to the task, we can never appreciate the sheer scale of what is. It is, in every meaning of the word, beyond us.

Okay, I have to steal this one

via PZ

Hubble, WISE, and VISTA

Hubble is great and all, but it’s better in a bundle.

In order: Hubble, WISE, VISTA. And no, not the OS.

20 year Hubble anniversary

My favorite thing about showing up 3rd for searches of “Hubble” in Google image is that whenever Hubble is in the news, I know it pretty quickly thanks to the sharp increase in hits. (Right now the third result is some website that has swiped my Hubble image, but it still links back to FTSOS.) For instance, tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the launch of Hubble.

The universe was a different-looking place 20 years ago. The most powerful optical telescopes on Earth could see only halfway across the cosmos. Estimates for the age of the universe disagreed by a big margin. Supermassive black holes were only suspected to be the powerhouses behind a rare zoo of energetic phenomena seen at great distances. Einstein’s cosmological constant, a hypothesized repulsive property of space, was merely a skeleton in the astrophysics closet.

But astronomy was kicked-started into fast-forward on April 24th, 1990 when NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope left the blurry skies of Earth for the stars. Tucked away inside the space shuttle Discovery’s cargo bay, the telescope was set free into low earth orbit on April 25th.

Of course, this naturally means eye candy on FTSOS.

CO2 found on exo-planet

I need to get back to some science. Fortunately, CO2 was recently detected on an exo-planet.

NASA said its Hubble Space Telescope has discovered carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of “hot Jupiter” planet HD 189733b, which orbits a nearby star 63 light-years from Earth.

The planet is itself too hot to support life — its surface is about 1,800 degrees F (1,000 degrees C).

But the astronomers said the observations are a proof-of-concept demonstration that the basic chemistry for life can be measured on planets orbiting other stars.

So the CO2 itself doesn’t mean anything particularly important, but it does lend credence to the idea that it is only a matter of time before astrobiology becomes an enormous field. How exciting would it be to finally confirm that we aren’t all alone, afterall? Granted, we may never make contact with any life we find, most obviously if it isn’t intelligent, but also simply because it may be so far away. This CO2, for example, was produced at 63 years ago. Assuming there was life that close (which would be almost as tremendous as the discovery of the life itself) – and it was intelligent – it would be 126 years before we could make two way contact; that’s 63 years for our (presumably) radiowaves to travel at the speed of light, reach the life-bearing planet, and then 63 years for a return message, provided the exo-life even gave a damn.

Hubble captures another great image

With such a large and spectacular Universe, doesn’t it seem a tad arrogant for humans, such a small piece of a small planet next to an average star, to believe it to have been made entirely, or even in part, just for us? Surely we aren’t so grand.

The Hubble telescope has captured a spectacular image of a pair of colossal stars, WR 25 and Tr16-244, located within the open cluster Trumpler 16. This cluster is embedded within the Carina Nebula, an immense cauldron of gas and dust that lies approximately 7500 light-years from Earth.

Hubble image

Just a little more astronomy

This is a bit much astronomy for a primarily biology blog, I know. Unless something great pops up, this will be the last astronomy post for at least a little while.

Some new research into the tidal forces of stars and their planets has yielded some interesting results.

Planets around small mass stars may only have a billion-year window during which life can form. This is the implication of research into the tidal forces that can pull a planet into a tighter orbit around a star.

The so-called habitable zone around a star is loosely defined as planetary orbits in which water would be liquid, not vapor or solid, on the planets’ surface. These orbits are closer-in for smaller (less bright) stars.

However, habitability is not a permanent property of a planet.

“For some planets around low mass stars, they are not going to hang around in the habitable zone forever,” says Rory Barnes of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the University of Arizona. “They are going to be pulled out.”

The pulling is due to tidal forces that arise because the gravitational attraction between planet and star is not uniform over their surfaces.

Barnes and his colleagues have shown that the tidal forces around a small mass star can draw a planet from the habitable zone on the order of a billion years, as reported in a recent issue of Astrobiology Journal.

If some of these migrating planets can be detected, they could provide a test of the Gaia hypothesis, which says that life can force changes to a planet in order to keep it in a habitable state.

So basically life may only have a 1 billion year window to form. That certainly isn’t the case across the board since this research applies specifically to low mass stars. But is it at all surprising that life on Earth originated somewhere between 200 million and 1,000 million years ago, i.e., within the first billion years of the planet’s existence?