Some Anniversaries and a Challenge
CHAPTER 47 New Questions and Some Answers
Was it too good to be true? A couple of months ago, in my column posted on April Fool's day, I wrote about the hugely important finding of a pattern of polarization of the cosmic background radiation emanating from the Big Bang. The BICEP2 team reporting these results claimed their data not only confirmed the existence of Einstein's long sought gravity waves but also confirmed Alan Guth's postulated rapid inflation of our universe in the minutest fraction of a second after the Big Bang. In that column, I noted that the BICEP2 scientists who reported the work said they expected to be challenged and they looked forward to others confirming their results, which almost certainly would get somebody a Nobel Prize.
Well, there has indeed been a challenge to these results. The BICEP2 team reported that their observation of a "swirly" pattern of the polarization was the expected pattern caused by the rapid inflation and the gravity waves generated by the inflation. Now it seems that at least some of the swirly pattern can be explained as coming from "dust"! This is cosmic dust and, after perusing articles in Science and various Web sites, I conclude that the argument against the BICEP2 work goes something like this. The BICEP2 workers pointed their telescope deliberately at a region of the sky away from the part of the sky dominated by the Milky Way so as to avoid the dust.
However, the critics of the BICEP2 work say that the researchers failed to take into account other cosmic dust arising from outside our own galaxy and have not considered properly the "foreground" pattern of dust, which happens to be an object of study by another team of researchers associated with the European Space Administration's Planck space mission. Apparently, the Planck team has held its findings close to the vest and is not slated to release its results until October. I frankly don't understand all this but it seems that the Planck team has been searching the sky for the same swirly pattern of polarization and speculation abounds. Will they find the swirly pattern to be totally due to dust, partly due to dust and partly due to inflation or totally due to inflation? If partly due to dust and partly to inflation, who gets the Nobel Prize, Planck or BICEP2?
Let's get back down to earth. Last week at our Old Guard meeting, we had a very interesting talk by a local travel agent who described a recent tour she took to Rwanda for a close-up look at mountain gorillas. For me, Rwanda seemed a dicey place to visit in view of the horrible genocide that took place there back in the 90's. Indeed, our speaker noted that one of the places visited on the tour was a genocide memorial site where over 250,000 victims of that genocide are buried! She also said that the Rwandans are remarkably forgiving in that today both perpetrators of the genocide and those whose relatives were their victims are living together in relative harmony.
Judging from the movies that she took on the tour, our speaker must have gotten very close to the troop of gorillas they observed. She did say that one gorilla brought down a banana tree that fell on her. The gorillas are accustomed to humans being nearby and don't seem to be bothered by their presence. The troop included at least one huge silverback. I certainly would have been uncomfortable being close to that fellow but she said there is a well defined margin of safety. If disturbed, the silverback has a set pattern of behavior he will exhibit before attacking. As I recall, she said there are some nine steps in this pattern, which involves such actions as hooting, throwing vegetation, beating his chest, and some other actions I've forgotten. The point is that once you see him start the routine move away or stop doing whatever you were doing to annoy him.
Speaking of our primate cousins, I saw in my July issue of Scientific American that 50 years ago, in the July 1964 issue, there was mention of Jane Goodall reporting in the journal Nature that she had observed something interesting in her stay in a Tanganyika reserve in Africa. Her observation was that wild chimpanzees there were actually engaging in tool making and tool use. Her report of the chimps taking twigs and stripping off the leaves to make probes to use to fish out termites from termite nests is a classic, one of the first reports indicating our chimp relatives could use their brain to come up with solutions to a problem. Goodall also reported seeing young chimps closely observing the adults making and using these tools, an example of chimps passing a culture on to their progeny. I'm happy to see that Goodall is still quite feisty 50 years later; she more than held her own with Stephen Colbert on an appearance earlier this year on the Colbert Report. She has branched out from chimps to plants in her new book "Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants".
There's another anniversary cited in July's Scientific American in an article "Centennial of a Calamity" by Daniel Schlenoff. Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This event, of course, gave rise to World War I, with over 10 million soldiers dying. Schlenoff, who edits the "50, 100 and 150 Years Ago" column in Scientific American, is concerned in the article with Scientific American's coverage of the war in those days when it was published once a week. What intrigued me was his calling attention to an item in the magazine the month before the war ended in 1918. The item was a report from the Munich Medical Union on a new pandemic termed "Spanish Influenza", which was to kill some 50 million people in the next two years! With the current spreading of diseases such as MERS and Chikungunya, let's hope none evolves to be as deadly as that horrific flu following World War I.
Finally, one more anniversary. Recently, on June 24, the remarkable Curiosity Mars rover celebrated its one Martian-year anniversary traveling around and sampling the surface of that planet. A Mars year is 687 Earth days. And what a year it has been. Soon after landing, Curiosity had already accomplished its main goal - to determine if there were ever conditions on Mars that could have supported life of some sort. Curiosity found the landing site once was a riverbed in which relatively mild water flowed. Drilling into and analyzing stones in that former riverbed, the intrepid rover also found the chemistry of that long ago era on Mars would have been conducive to sustaining microbes of the type we have here on Earth.
Other accomplishments during its first Martian year include data on radiation levels on Mars and during the flight to Mars, data that will be of value should we ever actually try sending humans to Mars. Curiosity also has detected little or no methane in the Mars atmosphere; methane would be a possible sign of life if present today on Mars. I'd still bet on Europa or Enceladus, with lots of water, as being better targets for finding some current form of life. Curiosity is in tune with the times; it has taken photos of itself and going online to the NASA/JPL site you can see what a complex machine it is. I still marvel at the fact that our scientists and engineers could construct and land such a vehicle on another world.
Next column will be posted, hopefully, on or about August 1, 2014.
Allen F. Bortrum