Life On Earth 2

Desert Varnish
Desert Varnish (Photo credit: arbyreed)

In its science section today, the Guardian / Observer ran a story about a mysterious sheen found on the rocks of many deserts:

These layers of manganese, arsenic and silica are known as desert varnish and they are found in the Atacama desert in Chile, the Mojave desert in California, and in many other arid places. They can make the desert glitter with surprising colour and, by scraping off pieces of varnish, native people have created intriguing symbols and images on rock walls and surfaces. […]

Professor Carol Cleland, of Colorado University, has a very different suggestion. She believes desert varnish could be the manifestation of an alternative, invisible biological world.

The suggestion is that alongside life on Earth as we know it there may be other forms that arose entirely separately and remain virtually invisible to us. It’s a very interesting story and I urge you to read it all. I really only have one problem with it.

It’s not science.

There’s a serious debate going on right now about what is good science journalism, what forwards public understanding. This doesn’t. It’s presented in a science column, it concerns science-oriented things like biology and geology, it even seems to be putting forward a hypothesis. But it isn’t science. Actually it’s philosophy.

And as philosophy, I like it. I don’t mean that as any sort of faint praise. Philosophy is important, and too much these days it seems – bizarrely – to be afraid of the big issues. This is as bravely speculative as good science fiction, which I also mean as a high-order compliment. It’s an interesting idea, and I have no reason to doubt that a wholly alternative form of life could exist on Earth.

The problem is, that is the only argument being offered here – that it could exist. The desert varnish thing is placed in the article as if it were some sort of pointer to, even evidence of, its existence. But it’s not. The process here is actually running in the opposite direction, not from the phenomenon but from a question: “Logically the chemistry of life could work in different ways, so why doesn’t it?”

It’s a good question. “What if it does, and we’ve just missed it?” is an excellent answer to that question.

The problem I have is with the next step. “Maybe the evidence for it is this other thing we can’t explain.”

That is only speculation. If there is no falsifiable hypothesis being made about how shadow bioforms could be causing the desert varnish then it’s really nothing to do with science. A best it’s just a suggested area of enquiry. It sounds more like a guess.

And this question matters – both scientifically and philosophically. It’s challenging in fact to imagine a bigger one we might ever be able to answer by means of science. Just how likely is it that life came into being, that chemicals somehow arranged themselves in a self-replicating way? If we had evidence of a “shadow biosphere” so different from the one we know that it couldn’t possibly be related to us, it would strongly suggest that life arose more than once even on a single planet. And therefore, that we probably live in a crowded and lively universe.

It would also suggest that the tendency to self-organisation is somehow innate to the laws of nature. Perhaps our minds, our culture and civilisations, are manifestations of that tendency too.

When we don’t find evidence for alternative life, that lends weight to the view that its appearance here in Earth was extraordinary, a trillions-to-one chance event. In that case, this planet may hold the only life in the universe. Which is interesting, scary, inspiring – and quite a responsibility.

It is a vast question of almost unimaginable consequence, so it is exasperating to find something held up as the answer when in fact there is no evidence at all. No one could write an article like this who thought it really mattered.

The New Calendar Starts Here

17th century lubok calendar of moon phases, Russia
There's gotta be an easier way

So nature has provided us with a year and a month that refuse to divide evenly into each other. To make it worse, neither is a whole number of days. At the same time it has given us the unquenchable desire to find order and symmetry in this mess. How are we to square the wobbly ellipse?

Well I thought long and hard about this a couple of years ago, and something struck me. The real lunar month is very close to being 29.5 days long. If we had 29.5-day months, every other one would begin at midday rather than at midnight. And while that would be kind of cool, I predict it would quickly drive people nuts.

So why not have alternating calendar months of 29 and 30 days? That way they’ll stay in step with the real ones – starting when the moon is new, ending as it fades out – without being too different from our current system.

But twelve of those only add up to 354 days, falling short of a full solar year. That would leave us with a situation not unlike the Muslim lunar-only calendar, with annual events coming around eleven days earlier every time. Which may be all right in climates without a lot of weather, but we want a calendar that stays in time with the seasons.

For this, we need an extra month. Not a silly mini-month like February, but a full-length one so that we stay in sync with the lunar cycle. What will we call it? Well, modesty forbids I suggest you name it after me. So until someone else suggests that, let’s just call it Etc. As in November, December, Etc. The trick is that this month doesn’t occur every year, but only as necessary – which will be almost (though not always) every third year. Its insertion will make sure that the other months keep falling at the same time of year, and so have the same weather, as we’re used to. Not precisely of course, but weather is not precise.

Thus we get all the advantages of our current solar calendar, plus the natural rhythms of the moon, and everything stays in tune. Quite brilliant, eh? More details tomorrow.

Or the day after.

Rip Up That Calendar

Our Wobbly Sky Clock

It’s easy to think up alternative calendars. The hard part is inventing one that people might actually bother to adopt. For this it must be a significant improvement over our current system – not as simple as it may sound. For though the Gregorian calendar is a bit of a mess, it is a good-enough solution to a surprisingly difficult question.

Think of how it evolved. Nature provides us with a rich system of clocks. Our orbit around the sun gives us our year, divided into days by the turning of the Earth, months and weeks by the phases of the moon. All very balanced and tidy and comforting – the universe is clearly organised.

I say ‘divided’ deliberately though. Imagine the feelings of the Babylonians and other early civilisations when they looked at this more closely. They were already beginning to discover the strange beauty of mathematics. Though devised to share out food and other supplies in communities that were becoming more complex than ever before, early mathematics was showing us that strange and alluring symmetries permeate creation.

And also, jarring asymmetries. Sixty, for example, was a great number because you can divide sixty things fairly between two, three, four, five or six people. But what if you have to divide sixty things between seven? Frustratingly, you cannot. Some mathematical relationships were troubling and unattractive.

You might expect that the heavens at least would be the realm of perfection, but the Babylonians were in for a shock. The number of days from one full moon to another was neither a round thirty nor a reasonable twenty-eight, but a just gratuitously annoying twenty-nine and a half. (A little more in fact, as we know now.) Nor was the number of months in a year a nice neat twelve, but a wholly unjustifiable twelve-and-slightly-more-than-one-third.

Well, that’s the moon. Why should we expect it to divide evenly into the cycles of the sun? At least the two solar cycles, day and year, would surely harmonise. But no; the year, to their immense frustration, was 365 and one quarter days long. And a bit. The heavens it seemed were not symmetrical and elegant, but a godawful mess. How did the ancient Babylonians respond? Like typical people. They ignored the ugly facts and went with the beautiful theory, declaring the year to be an eminently divisible 360 days in length, with twelve tidy months of thirty days each. It was harmonious, it was profound, it was utter bollocks. But it defended the idea of transcendental perfection.

While that may have been good enough for religion and philosophy, it was useless for agriculture or any sort of long-range planning. Pretty soon, as people found themselves going out to harvest corn on a mid-winter night in April, it was obvious that things were adrift. Their embarrassment lives on to this day, haunting your protractor, but with the missing five days restored, plus a quarter-day via the leap year and one or two other minor adjustments, Babylon’s calendar was made practical.

That surprisingly difficult question then was “Can the cycles of the sun and moon be harmonised?” The good-enough answer: “Absolutely. If you leave out the moon”. We abandoned any attempt to stay in time with the lunar cycle. Our calendar has things we still call months, but they’re too long and, unlike any actual orbit, they’re irregular. The advantage though is that unlike real months these stay locked in time with the seasons. July stays in summer, December stays in winter, and some years you can even tell the difference. This is of great practical value for farming and booking holidays.

But it’s sad that we lost the moon.

I believe the calendar can be reformed to include the lunar cycle, and that this will bring rewards. Rather unspecific rewards I admit, but getting back in sync with the lamp that lit the nights of our ancestors since the very beginning of life certainly sounds healthy. And I can promise that it will be spiritually very satisfying, if you consider it to be. At the least, we’d be able to say we found a solution to the issue the ancient Babylonians fudged.

How? Tomorrow!

Yes It’s Only A Supermoon

So last night many of you will have seen the biggest moon you ever did see. The “Supermoon” – or perigee-syzygy, to give it its even sillier proper name. Hope you enjoyed it. Despite being sandwiched between lovely days, last night was clouded and rainy here. Sadly I realize that I may not live to see a moon so imperceptibly larger than average as that one. “Almost visibly bigger!” as a FOAF said.

It might have gone largely unremarked, if someone hadn’t speculated that it caused the earthquake and tsunami. This was probably inevitable considering that tsunamis used to be called tidal waves, back when we didn’t know what really caused them. But this is actually quite an interesting idea.

It would be easy to dismiss it with ridicule, what with there being one or two salient differences between liquid water and solid rock. Though it’s enough to leave a very noticeable gap between high and low tide, all the moon’s gravity is really doing is changing the shape of the layer of water that lies on the Earth by the teeniest, tiniest fraction of an iota of a scintilla of a percentage. It’s really a very weak influence.

The Brain, An Owner's Manual - The Moon

But then again – we know the Earth’s crust is a highly complex, unstable system, and we have heard of  the “butterfly effect“, which suggests that small inputs to such systems can lead to vast, unpredictable and – yes – even catastrophic outcomes. So there might be something in it?

Might be. Isn’t though. There’s the small detail that the tsunami happened over a week ago, while the moon was still at a perfectly ordinary distance. Sort of kills the theory, that detail.

The trickier question to answer though is why there isn’t anything in the theory. It doesn’t sound unreasonable. In fact it’s a fine example of an excellent theory that just doesn’t happen to be right. Excellent, because it makes a clear, easily-tested prediction: If the moon’s orbit had any appreciable effect on plate tectonics, there would be a rhythmic pattern to earthquakes. And there isn’t.

If there were, they wouldn’t be so bloody hard to predict.

But why isn’t there…? Well I don’t know. What are asking me for, I’m not a plate tec… nician. But my guess would be that with all that roiling molten rock beneath our feet, with the huge energies of continents weighing billions of tonnes grinding against one another, with the titanic rattling and farting of volcanoes, the moon’s influence is just lost in the mix, drowned by countless stronger forces pushing unpredictably in other directions. Real, yes. But insignificant.

So dwell on that, the next time you stare up into the beautiful night sky. Space may be vast and cold and silent, but hey, you’re standing on a fucking bomb.