The Planetary News Radio – Episode 11: Is the Moon part of Mars?

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 11 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do a Science in the News segment, and then I’ll talk briefly about some of the other projects going on with the Planetary News and a little bit about how to help support this podcast to keep it advertising free. Well, let’s get into the Science in the News segment. So again, just briefly, I’m looking at trending articles and science from various sources, and I haven’t really researched them a lot. I’m mostly just looking at the headlines and trying to understand what’s going on in the world and kind of get a sense for the pulse of science news.

And so let’s look here, Number one, “Trump prompts state of confusion over space policy with tweet”. So this is kind of funny, but it makes sense to me. I see where the confusion is. Trump actually tweeted, [paraphrasing], “That the moon is a priority. We shouldn’t be wasting time on Mars”, or something like that. But then he said, “the Moon is part of Mars” and as out of context as silly that sounds, I actually see where the confusion is from that tweet, and it’s actually not that wrong. What Trump should have said is that the development of technology and systems for travelling to Mars are also part of the development of the systems and technology for traveling to the Moon. So if we develop systems for traveling to the moon, we’re also developing systems to travelling to Mars. And that’s an important point because NASA had to make a decision on what to focus their resources on. As much as everyone would love to colonize Mars and the Moon, we have to choose one [first] because resources are limited. And so NASA’s made the decision that we will return humans to the moon first. That will be the priority.

But at the same time, this is going to help with future missions to Mars. And why So one of the things is is that NASA’s gonna be creating a new space station. So an orbital platform for sending astronauts to the moon. So now you have the Apollo missions. Historically, astronauts are restricted to launching on a rocket one way rocket, now breaching orbit, going straight to the moon. Now, with an orbital stop point, you could have a one rocket designed to exit the earth’s gravity, which is a very different process from actually just traveling across space to the moon. And so you can have the second stage of the Moon plan waiting in orbit or the second stage can be refueled. So if you can send fuel to orbit in multiple stages, you can accumulate more fuel in orbit. And then you don’t have to have everything packed on one trip on one rocket, because exiting your gravity is extremely challenging, extremely expensive, so every pound could cost thousands of dollars to get into orbit.

Having a stop point in low earth orbit on the way to the moon, it is a really good idea. And since the International space station is going to be decommissioned, it doesn’t make sense to continue adapting that. And so hopefully this new effort to build a Moon station will continue on to the building of another space station and that station will be used for future Mars missions. So, as silly as it is, what Trump said sounds silly, it’s actually fairly accurate. The mission to the Moon is part of the mission to Mars.

All right, so next up, speaking of the International Space Station (ISS), NASA and its international partners have been struggling to figure out what to do with it. What they’re saying is that NASA will open up the space station [to private tourism], and this has been talked about for a while. This is the first official announcement that NASA will open up the station to private visitors, and so they can pay cash to go visit the International Space Station. That’s great, because then if you could have enough visitors going to the International Space Station, it could support itself. NASA could afford to maintain it and then that station and another space station. The plan is to decommission the ISS by 2025 or something like that. But if it were to become profitable or break even in terms of funding and that funding came from private individuals or institutions, then I don’t see why the station would be decommissioned. And so then we’ll have NASA itself funding a Moon station in orbit, and then we’ll have the International Space Station still hanging around, so maybe we’ll have to space stations in the next 10 years, so that’s good.

A real quick astronomy note is that Jupiter will be the closest to earth it has been in some time, and so this week is a great week to see Jupiter and its Moons, or at least four of its Moons will be visible. Not necessarily to the naked eye but visible, using low magnification like binoculars or something like that. So I’m excited about that. Hopefully there is clear weather.

Here’s a headline from NBC News. Three islands disappeared in the past year. Is climate change to blame? Well, I don’t know because I didn’t read the article, but let’s think about Could that be the case? Could climate change cause an island to disappear? And the answer is yes. That is entirely possible. For a couple reasons, one would be raising water levels so the water gets hired. But there’s a lot of other forces, too, that cause islands to disappear. So erosion forces and things like that changing can suddenly transform an island that might have been growing, adding sand, actor and soil. So all of a sudden, fading away losing sand and all of these things can be influenced by climate. So again, I’m not looking into that. Too much more of us. Looking at the headline saying that sounds plausible. [In this case, it looks like sea-level rise is the most likely culprit].

There’s an exciting headline: “Incredible Pictures of NASA approved 3D homes to be built on Mars before humans arrived”. So again, back to the Moon/Mars controversy. One of the problems with getting to Mars is resource is resource transfer. Mars is a lot farther away so it’s a lot more expensive to carry materials with you. If colonists arriving on Mars could fabricate their own living structures from natural resource obtained on Mars, then that would free up a lot of space on the spaceship to bring them to Mars. In other words, if you can build your home when you get there, you don’t need to bring your home with you. And so that’s why a lot of colonization research is going into 3D printing. So if we could build homes or any type of structure, a greenhouse [for example], the ability to fabricate structures on Mars would be great, and I’m assuming that this will be tested on the Moon first. So as part of NASA’s “Moon first” plan hopefully we’ll see a 3D printer on the Moon.

Like I said, [in the Science in the News segment], I’m just looking at headlines. The reason why I do this is because here is a trending article that appears to be fake news. “Alien life search bombshell exo-moons may be home to extraterrestrial life”. So first of all, I wouldn’t call that a bombshell because the idea that any exo-planet or exo-moon could house life has been a major component of astrobiology for 30 or 40 years, since the first exo-planets were discovered. Scientists have always thought it possible that if there is alien life, either microbial or other, that it could possibly exist in a planet that is in the habitable zone.

In other words, if the planet is not too close to its star, has the right temperature for organic synthesis to occur, and has some solvents like water or ammonia, then it’s entirely plausible that life could exist. Now, that’s my criticism here: [the wording of the headline]. This headline is “Alien life search bombshell”. Not really a bombshell. The problem with exo-moons and exo-planets is that even if they did have life on it, how would we know? So we’d have to find a way to detect the signature of life on a planet only from its atmosphere, because that’s all we can really see from a telescope. So these planets are many light years away, typically so we can’t visit them and see if there are living organisms there. So we need a system to detect the signature of life from a telescope.

And there’s some work that’s been done on that because we know if we were to point a telescope at earth, what would we look for? Could we determine that Earth had life if we were pointing to telescope at Earth from a light year away? And so, yes, we do know there is some signatures we can look for, like really high oxygen content in the atmosphere would be a suggestion, but again, we won’t be able to confirm that [with physical data]. In our lifetimes, we’ll never be able to confirm that [because of the extreme distance of even the closest exoplanet, which is over 4 light years away]. So that’s why this title, I think, is a little disingenuous and so I’m calling out this article. I’m not naming it, just calling out the headline as [potential fake news].

And so that’s it today for the Science and the News segment. I’ll just talk real quick about one of the other projects I’m starting, which is the Planetary Information Engine (PIE), which is sort of like a three stage process. It’s beginning as a wiki, and so the wiki is going to be constructed to gather scientific knowledge, kind of like an encyclopedia, but a more directed encyclopedia – a little less free-form than Wikipedia. [It will have] more structure towards natural language processing (NLP). And so the idea is that an information engine is something that could be used by an artificial intelligence system to augment your own intelligence or a person’s own intelligence. And so that’s the [new] project I’m starting as well, the Planetary Information Engine, and I’ll have more about that as I get further along.

Hope you enjoyed this podcast. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News signing out.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 8: New Fracking Methods, a Hidden Ocean on Pluto, and Other Science News

Hello. Welcome to The Planetary News Radio Episode 8 with your host, Bryan White. Today I’m going to do a segment called Science in the News, and this is kind of like taking the pulse of the internet in regard to science. What I have is just a list of headlines of recent science based trending articles and I haven’t researched the articles, I haven’t read them. All I’m doing is I’m just looking at headlines, and I’m taking the pulse. I just want to know what’s going on in a general sense, just to get an idea of where things are at with popular topics in science and so I don’t miss anything major or important.

The first thing up on this list is “PhD Programs drop standardized exam”. That’s important because PhD [(and other graduate)] programs historically have required a GRE (graduate record examination) to get into graduate. It’s a standardized way to measure capacity or ability and there’s been a lot of criticism about using standardized tests and measure graduate level capacity. And so you see a lot of institutions are dropping GREs entirely for [entry into] graduate programs. One of the first places to do this was UC Berkeley, which dropped the GRE for its biology program and now presumably we are seeing more schools dropping this, and I see that is a good thing for science. I think that if you create a standardized test and people train themselves to pass and do well on standardised tests, then all you end up with our people who are really good at doing standardized tests. So I’m glad to see that a lot of institutions or shifting away from this and maybe taking a more holistic approach to graduate entry, let’s see what’s next.

“Elon Musk’s 12,000 StarLink satellite network has a big problem”. I’ve been seeing a lot about this. So Elon Musk wants to create a satellite Internet called Starling and could presumably have hundreds or thousands of satellites. He’s launched 60 so far, so there’s a string of 60 satellites now orbiting around the earth, and they’re in a very low orbit right now. And so I believe the orbit slowly adjusts itself, but right now they’re in a low orbit, and so you can see the satellite’s fairly easily from the ground, so that’s a problem. It’s [potentially] very distracting for astronomers, and you see a lot of complaints about this network. So the concern is that when the full system is 12,000 satellites long, how much of the sky will be blocked out by this network? So it’s a legitimate concern, but we don’t really know yet. Some other uses of the network might offset that. For example, Elon Musk has said that this network would also be capable of removing space junk. So maybe as the satellites age, they can be repurposed to collect and bring down other pieces of debris in orbit and maybe balance out total space junk floating around Earth. So in general, space junk is a problem. That’s really good topic to talk about later.

Astronomers spot Forbidden Planet in Neptunian Desert”. So this is a planet that’s been spotted where it’s not supposed to exist, and that probably means that the planet is too close to its star. In other words, it hasn’t been obliterated by the star. That’s interesting, because planets that are close to their stars lose matter and mass slowly gets stripped away by radiation, so you see planets [that orbit to close] slowly getting absorbed by their stars. So you would not expect a planet to persist for very long in that range. That suggests, interesting things about this planet. Either there’s something strange about the star or something strange about the planet, and I don’t know, So this makes me curious. I want to go look at it more. But right now I’m not. This is just the headlines, So this isn’t really interesting thing to go look at later. [Scientists hypothesize either the planet began much larger than it currently is or it only recently migrated into the Neptunian zone (< ~1 million years ago)].

“Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film”. A year 1900 total solar eclipse. The oldest one ever [recorded]. So there’s a video of a solar eclipse, but not only a solar eclipse, the first ever video of a solar eclipse, has been released. That’s interesting because the year was 1900 and it kind of makes you think for a minute how long humans have been doing astronomy, much before film was invented. We already had a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, and so we think this film is something hi tech [compared to a simple 1900’s telescope], but astronomy, in all of its complexity, really needed only a low tech solution [(telescope)] to collect data. And so we’ve had telescopes for hundreds of years but only movies for only 100 years. That’s an interesting fact to know.

[This story again, “Ancient supernova prompted human ancestors to walk upright”. I talked about that an entire episode last time, which, if you missed, is the idea that a supernova caused a increase risk in forest fires or an increased rate of forest fires. And that might have driven humans to walk upright in ancient humans to walk upright. And so a new theory in the arena of human by P does and theories so that I would expect to develop more.

The James Webb telescope emerges successfully from final thermal vacuum test. So the James Webb telescope is going to be the new Hubble, the new most advanced telescope that we put into orbit around the Earth. So the fact that that’s getting close to being completed is really important and hopefully will begin to see amazing results from that fairly quickly.

Now here’s an interesting one, “Swapping water for CO2 could make fracking greener and more effective”, fracking being a short word for hydraulic fracturing, which is the act of injecting high pressure fluids under ground in order to cause fractures. So it’s a hydraulic fracture, and as those fractures are caused, then oil and gas will seep through into the cracks, and then that oil and gas could be extracted from the rock, but only under the [presence] of that fracturing. And so how you do that fracturing? Historically it has been done with water. So you inject the ground with water and what this article is suggesting that that could be done with carbon dioxide instead of water.

Why is that important? Well, for one hydraulic fracturing absolutely wrecks the water and ecosystem anywhere that it’s done at, because once you use the water, you can’t just dump it back in to a river or a stream. That water is now toxic, so you need two things: You need, one a source of water, and that water cannot go back, and then: Two, you need a place to put the water because not only can you not put the water back, it’s now toxic, and so it’s worse than just being used up. It’s completely unusable for some period of time, so there’s all sorts of ways that this could be done. Either the water is reused and could be used multiple times, but then presumably eventually the chemistry of the water would be altered such that it can only be reused a certain number of times and eventually has to be stored somewhere. And the other way is to just store the water in a pool and wait for to evaporate. And so when you do that, all the chemicals are left behind which creates a waste pit that is highly toxic. And a lot of these toxic components, like radio nuclides bio-accumulate in the environment. So if that pit leaks, if ground water leaks from that and carries the concentrated toxins from the hydraulic fracturing, that will bio-accumulate because fish will absorb the radionuclides and then animals eat the fish, so on and so forth [up the food chain].

These waste pits really jeopardize entire ecosystems. So hydraulic fracturing is really damaging to the ecosystem outside of the [actual] fracturing [itself]. So on top of all of that [above-ground] damage, you’re also cracking the earth in a way that can cause earthquakes. The idea that the water component might be able to be removed, if we could use a CO2 instead of water as the fracturing material, that would be great. As I discussed previously, it’s really tough to make moral change in America’s current political spectrum. So the moral issue here being that hydraulic fracturing is bad for the environment and things that are bad for the environment are bad. But we can’t stop because we need the oil and we need the gas because our economy depends on it. But if we could do something small, like shift away from water and [use CO2 instead], that could help offset some of that damage. That would be great. So I support that. If that is the case, that could be done. That’s great. We could see an immediate lessening of the damage of hydraulic fracturing. You’re still causing permanent damage to the ground. We don’t know what the long term effects will because it’s only been done for the past, say, 50 years routinely, so we don’t know the long term damage of fracturing these rocks underground. We do know that short term they do cause earthquakes.

All right, let’s look at what’s next. “Mysterious SpaceX crew dragon explosion is still being investigated”, so the SpaceX Crew Dragon is SpaceX’s human piloted, reusable component of the SpaceX fleet. There was an explosion recently during the testing of this module, which is maybe a setback on the timeline for when that module will become usable. We don’t know this [happened and it] is still being investigated. It’s not necessarily good or bad news. You would expect explosions that happen during early testing phases, although with a crew module of an explosion happening is really bad because you will have people in the system. So this system has to be way better than the automated ones. The automated ones might crash all the time, or more frequently. That’s fine. There’s no people on there. The risk of loss of life is much more important. So hopefully SpaceX will be able to achieve the same result as it has with its automated systems as with its crewed systems, and so that we can have safe crewed spaceflight again, which we haven’t had, really, at least in the United States. We have been dependent on other countries, mostly Russia, since the space shuttle program was ended which has probably been 10 years now, or something like that.

So what else? “Sonic black holes produced Hawking radiation may confirm famous theory”. So hawking radiation is really interesting because when black holes were first discovered, the idea that the black hole would infinitely continue increasing in Mass was really it was important to know if that were the case. And so eventually hawking decided or determined that it’s not the case that black holes actually do lose energy in the form of radiation. They named Hawking radiation after Stephen Hawking’s theory that black hole could even evaporate eventually. So a very large black hole that’s still gaining mass is not going to evaporate, but a small one, [or shrinking one], once it goes past a certain point, if it’s not gaining any more mass, it’s only losing energy through hawking radiation energy being converted from mass, [at which point it could evaporate]. The very small black hole might evaporate very quickly, and so that’s interesting that hawking radiation is being confirmed. We’re always looking for empirical confirmations of these theoretical concepts, especially with theoretical physics.

Here’s another one, “Ammonia detected on the surface of Pluto’s hints at subterranean water”. This is really interesting because we keep finding out that planets and moons and dwarf moons and even large asteroids might have water on them. Not just water in the rocks but actual underwater oceans or frozen surface oceans frozen, and now Pluto is in the list of celestial bodies that might have an underground ocean along with Europa and a few others.

And that’s a good segue way to this next one, “Without a champion Europa Lander falls to NASA’s back burner, and another one on that big space challenges could put NASA’s European missions on ice”. That is not good to hear. Europa, as I just mentioned, is one of the first moons in this in our solar system that has water has an ocean under its surface. So we really want to explore Europa. That’s one of the places we think has a high probability of having at least microbial life. Even there on the surface or underwater in the ocean. So Europa should be a really high priority target. It sounds like NASA’s losing that priority. Maybe moon missions are being pushed up. So we should track that we should follow up on that.

“Your sea floor may be destined to become diamonds”. Well, that makes sense because the sea floor rotates and subducts under the continents and goes down to the core of the Earth, where it would presumably undergo conditions to form diamonds in some cases. So I’m not sure why it may be I’d have to look at the article again. I’m just looking at the headline and just going off, the headline says. And what I would think about it. And so my question now would be why, with the sea floor not become diamonds, that’s my question.

What’s next? “NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover finds a clay cache”. Oh, that’s interesting. Why would play be important? So one of the theories for the origins of life is focused around clay because clay has some interesting electromagnetic properties that might allow things like ions and it’s early cellular proto-cell structures to develop [into cells]. The other, more popular, theory being hydrothermal vents. So the clay itself could be [considered an] organic material. So if you think of clay as something that is related to organic materials, if Mars has a cache of clay, that could be a cache of organic materials. It could also contain bio-materials. So that’s why finding clay would be really interesting. And presumably Mars should have clay because it had a water cycle. If there’s some exposed clay on the surface, that would be a really lucky find.

And it looks like that’s all I had on my list today. So thanks for listening again. I’m going to keep mentioning these two things. That’s Bryan White signing off with The Planetary News Radio. Thanks for listening.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 3: Space as a Visual Science

Hello and welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 3. The date is still May 26th. I recorded an episode a little bit earlier today, and it’s so nice out that I could not resist traveling to a park and recording another episode. The weather is just amazing here in Oregon today, and so I’m in a good mood and ready to talk about science. So where was I [at the end of last episode]? The the other [topic] is actually a really important point that I’ve been developing for awhile. So at the end of last episode, I mentioned Space Science is a very popular science in the news. And so the question is, why is space so popular? And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and these are my thoughts.

One of my thoughts is that space is very visual. Astronomy is very visual, and it always has been. If you think about it, astronomy is probably one of the oldest real sciences. Maybe the first real science mixed in with physics. If we consider that Isaac Newton was one of the true founders of the scientific method, not necessarily science in terms of understanding the natural world, Aristotle being one of the first people to record his understanding of the natural world in a way that was meaningful to other people. Aristotle, Euclid, those types of early natural science philosophers. However, they didn’t really employ the scientific method. So we think of Isaac Newton as one of the first people to employ the scientific method along with Galileo in that [meaning of the phrase “scientific method”]. Astronomy was at this focal point.

Biology [might also be thought of as one of the oldest sciences], while something that Aristotle focused heavily on, and Plato thought a lot about the philosophy of biology. Biology was not really conducted in a scientific manner probably until around Darwin’s time, so astronomy and geology were becoming rigorous sciences and chemistry much earlier than biology. But again, and, that’s part of my idea, is that astronomy is so popular because it is a visual science and that this is tied in with human evolution.

And so humans are a very visual species. We have color vision. A lot of mammals don’t have color vision. We don’t necessarily have very good distance vision, but we have very good 3D vision. We have lots of things that can help us see depth perception. We have very good depth perception. Our eyes are focused forward, which would make us in line with predator vision like a dog or a hawk, as opposed to, say, a cow or a goat whose eyes are on the side. Humans are very visually orientated in terms of their biology. And so this is obviously something Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are always talking about – looking out at the stars is something that humans have done for thousands, if not millions of years. And it’s part of our nature. It’s part of our biology. It’s part of how our brain evolved. We evolved with the stars. We evolved with fruit. We evolved having to identify food using color. Using depth perception, too, we evolved in the trees – we had to be able to judge a leap.

We evolved language, which is potentially related to the use of tools. So as we evolved fine motor skills to manipulate the world in front of us, we evolved language, and so even language is potentially tied to human’s ability to visualize. And so what’s happened is that astronomy and spaces so visual, so easy for us to see, that it resonates with people. And that’s good. I appreciate that. I love space. I love astronomy, even cosmology. Even things that we can’t see in space. We can imagine them. It’s easy for us to imagine a galaxy, and a star, and other planets because we’ve seen our own planet, we’ve seen Mars, the moon, and the sun. And so we know what planets in our solar system look like and we can imagine what planets in other solar systems might look like.

And so, you see the Trappist systems a great example, I think has five or six planets or so all rocky planets, but about the size of Jupiter Earth. So giant rocky planets much closer to their star than Earth. We can imagine them orbiting the star and we don’t have to be a scientist to do that. I am not an astronomer by training, but I can imagine seeing these planets all very close to each other. So imagine if instead of the [Moon right next to us, we had Mars instead]. That would be amazing. So we have this fascination with these star systems and space and travel, and that’s another human nature. To travel. We like to travel. And so space is a traveling science because we can see it, but then [we can] only imagine if we could travel there. Imagine if we could travel to the moon or travel to Mars or travel to the Trappist system.

Space just pulls at our natural emotions that we have as humans to travel, to journey, to adventure, and to beauty. We see these planets and we imagine them, and when you see an artist’s rendition of a planet that we’ve never seen before, it’s always very beautiful. Humans tend to conceptualize things, in an artistic fashion when we’re imagining them. And so space is also an art, or the visualization of it is an art on. Probably the greatest examples of that is the visualization of the black hole that was done for the movie interstellar. Some physics calculations were made or formulas were invented to understand what black hole looks like, and this has been going on for many years, and as we’ve collected more data, these models have gotten better, and now, with increased computational power, we’re able to produce this model that was good enough for Hollywood. And so it’s an art, and it’s beautiful when we look at it, when we think of imagining seeing a black hole, or at least from a safe distance, imagine seen what that looked like. The disc, the accretion disc around the black hole, reflecting light in all directions towards us. It sparks something inside of us.

So space is fascinating at so many levels for humans, and that’s good because it gets people excited about science. And I think that’s why you have people like Carl Sagan who were so successful because the science that they championed was easy for people to understand [at a visual level]. Now imagine trying to champion something that is not so intuitive. Maybe not so beautiful. Biology is [less intuitive at certain levels]. People can connect with animals on an emotional level. We can connect with [the idea of] a panda bear going extinct. We can connect with the polar bears going extinct, so humans can connect with biology. It takes some [work to understand the more] abstract concepts though. Evolution is an abstract concept, and you can’t see evolution happening. You also can’t see the formation of the solar system, but you can see the solar system and you can see rocks. And so in rocks, you can see the history of the planet, whereas in a polar bear I can’t see the history of its evolution, at least not easily. Not until maybe you look at its genome, and so within the genome you can see evolutionary history.

The genome is like a rock in the sense that it’s recorded some of the history and, like rocks, they lose pieces of their history is they go through processes, heating and deformation, under the earth. Genomes also lose information, although genomes lose information in a different way then rocks. When a genome loses a gene, it’s gone forever completely from that individual. You might be able to find remnants of it or in other species. And so piecing together evolutionary history becomes an abstract process similar to archaeology, digging and finding different artifacts in layers through time. And so archaeology is a good example of visual science that we understand easily. Again we understand artifacts, we understand history, and archeology, of course, is the study of humans. So we, [as humans], understand humans.

Archaeology lends itself well [to visualization], and so you see National Geographic, [which is] an extremely popular publication, and a lot of its focus when it comes to science is archaeology. You see Egypt, mummy’s, and things like that are always popular National Geographic topics. Undiscovered tribes in the Amazon. Things like that again. Visual. But let’s look it something less visual again. [For example,] Chemistry, chemical bonds. So understanding what’s happening at the nano-scale is less intuitive for humans.

Why think space science is so popular and why things like biology are not now [in the news]. So we see biology not as popular. And so the question, is, maybe that’s because biology doesn’t have a great human, [scientific] impact. Well, arguably a species, say for example, the existence of the species polar bears is probably as important as the existence of the Moon. Let’s think of the moon as a species and Mars as a species. And so if we lost the Moon, the entire Earth would suffer or at least change. We lose a lot of our things that are affected by gravity, like the tides and things like that, and our orbit around the sun could be altered, so losing the Moon would cause an immediate major impact on the earth. And we would notice that immediately. Losing polar bears, we might not notice immediately. However, the long term scientific impact of losing the species [could be great]. That means that we’ve lost that species’ genome at a minimum, and we’ve lost the genome in its native form. We’ve lost the animal. [Essentially,] we’ve lost what we can learn from a polar bear.

And so this would be the question I would pose to people. And I say, well, do you have nothing to learn from a polar bear? And if that’s the case, if you believe that humanity has nothing to learn from a polar bear, well, then that’s fine. Then let them go extinct. Why waste the effort to keep them alive if they have no benefits of humanity other than their own life and their own feelings as a vertebrate? Well, [in that scenario] then, that’s fine. The ones that are alive today let them live, the ones that will not be born because of climate change, well, they’ll never feel pain, so the extinction of the species is not important. But that is if the answer to the question “Do we have anything to learn from a polar bear?” is nothing. And I would argue that we do have something to learn from a polar bear.

At a minimum, we can learn how to live like a polar bear. And so you can ask a question: Well, why would you want to learn to live like a polar bear? Imagine all of the bio-molecules in the genome of the polar bear that [the animal] produces and humans, [or any other anima], don’t produce. And so imagine we understood 10% of [polar bear physiology] today, based on current technology, which is probably a generous estimate. Now you lose the polar bear and you say, “Well, okay, well, we have the genome in the computer. We can use simulations. We can understand some proteins”. You could understand how the polar bear made its skin and made its hair. And we might have 10% of the information of what a polar bear was today. And then we might say, “Well, okay, that’s good enough. We have some information about other bears. We can learn, you know, a little bit about genomics from bears”. And we might say, “Well, we’re happy with that. And it’s too bad you know, that the polar bears went extinct, but they’re not alive suffering”, at least so you could say that.

Or you could think about it in terms of the future of the human species and think over the course of the next 500 years, think of what we can understand with a more sophisticated understanding of genomics. So imagine we were still developing a technology that could give us a tenfold increase of the understanding of genomics, but that this technology did not develop until the next 100 years. And by the time this technology were developed, polar bears were extinct, and so are 1,000 other vertebrate species. And so we lost all of that data forever because this technology was not developed [while the animal was still alive]. And so my point is, we don’t know what we can learn from a polar bear. We don’t know what we can learn from bald eagles, or a red panda, or a regular panda. We don’t know what we can learn from these animals because we are still in the early phases of developing genomic technology and all of the other omics, proteomics, and things like that.

We don’t know what we can learn. And so there’s hidden secrets in all of these animals because biology is still, to this day, the most sophisticated producer of molecular machinery on the planet Earth. No human can create more sophisticated molecular machinery than a single cell. To do so would be to do so using a cell. So when we create sophisticated molecular machines we’re using cells or were modifying a cell. We have a lot to learn from cells, so we should keep as many different kinds of cells [alive] as we can in order to learn the most. And that’s [the core of] my argument for preserving biodiversity: Because we don’t know what we have to lose. We don’t know what we have to [gain], and so we should preserve as much of that as we can, and we should do that in the living organism.

In other words, an ark of [refrigerated] DNA is not enough. An ark of frozen DNA/tissue is not enough. We need the living animal alive to learn from it. My argument is – I don’t care if you don’t like polar bears. I mean, I don’t wanna hang out with a polar bear. I think they look nice. I think they’re fascinating creatures. I would not want to be in the same room as a polar bear because it would probably attack me. I mean, unless I was the zoo trainer, right? But in the wild, I would not approach the polar bear. You know, I have no interest in interacting with polar bears. They do their thing. I do my thing. However, from a scientific perspective, I want to learn from this animal in a controlled setting. [If you agree with this line of reasoning, then you’d agree] there is a benefit to keeping them alive.

So for me personally, keeping [polar bears, as a species,] alive satisfies two things. My own personal belief that I think they’re fascinating animals in their own habitat and so it makes me happy to know that they’re alive and well. And on the other hand, it allows us to study them and learn from them in the future when we have the technology to do so. This is where I depart from some people who you know want to live with animals and things like that. That’s not me. That’s not my argument. I’m not saying that you have to go live with the polar bears and love polar bears. Now I don’t say that because I do not love [polar bears]. I like them and I’m fascinated by them [from a scientific perspective]. But I don’t love them, not in the same way that I feel about human friends and family. And I’m not saying that people who do love animals in the same way they love humans are wrong or bad. I might feel that way about a dog. Certainly a dog is a companion that I could have a human type bond with. But I don’t think that everybody has to have a human level companionship with an animal just to support keeping that animal [species] alive.

I think a lot of the criticism of animal rights activists or leveled against animal rights activists and criticisms leveled against biologists and conservation biologist is [the critics] say, “Well, we don’t care about that animal. You know, I don’t love a wolf or whatever”. It’s like, well, you don’t have to feel the same way about a wolf that you do about a human in order to preserve it and protect it. We just have to recognize that not only are they a fascinating creature that deserves to have its own life without human interaction, but that also there is a human benefit to every animal. Every [animal] species, maybe not every bacterial species. There’s a trillion of them, if we can even define that bacteria have species, but certainly vertebrate species or fish species, jellyfish, any animal, potentially any plant, or fungus. All of these organisms can provide us another clue about evolution, another clue about how biology works, about how molecular machinery works, and so even a material scientist should be arguing for [preserving] biodiversity. Everybody should, because biodiversity is the true great wonder, not just of humanity, but of the Earth. And so, as stewards of the Earth, we should protect biodiversity, the biodiversity that evolved here that’s so rare. And so that’s my argument for protecting biodiversity. I won’t say anymore today, at least on that, and I hope you enjoyed [this podcast]. Please do you find time to send questions. I’ll try to have a link [in the feed]. I’ll try to have a way for people to submit questions and things like that soon. So if you are listening to this, maybe write them down and in future episodes, I’ll direct everyone to a link. So anyways, thanks for listening. That’s Bryan White sending off with The Planetary News Radio. Have a good day.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 2: Linguistics and Genetics

Hello. Welcome to The Planetary News Radio, Episode 2 with Bryan White. So I’m outside today. I don’t know what this is going to sound like. So I apologize if there’s any strange car noises in the background. Hopefully there’s nice bird noises in the background instead. Let’s talk a little bit about projects and let’s talk about news. So the date is Sunday, May 26. I’m in Oregon,Corvallis and so I’m taking an opportunity here to be outside while there is currently no rain. So this year was an ENSO event, which I don’t remember if it was El Nino or La Nina. But either way, the rain patterns in this part of the world, which is the Pacific Northwest, have been altered. And so what we’re getting is a longer, warmer, wetter winter, [with] less snow but much more rainfall, and you’ll see that kind of translated across the United States in different ways.

So California, for the first time, [the drought] has ended officially for the first time in seven years, so they got a lot more water [than usual]. But anyways, the point is, here [in Oregon] we are at May 26 and just barely getting in a week here without rain. So I’m happy to be outside talking about science and projects. So again, I mentioned last time I’m developing software to support this science news project. And so one of the interesting things that I’m looking at is the similarity between genetics and linguistics, or really computational linguistics and computational genetics. So why are these things similar? And so this is just an interesting idea to talk about.

In human language, [sentences have] a grammar. A document is a collection of sentences, and sentences have small ideas in them. Paragraphs have, greater ideas. When you’re constructing a paragraph, you’re weaving together a more complex idea. But you could think of a paragraph as a unit and a sentence as a unit, and a word within a sentence as a unit. And then you have the document as a whole. And so you have this multilayered system of grammar [and language] that humans have developed and evolved and is a very rigid structural part of our brains. Language is not something that is abstract completely. It is bound by our physical constraints to process information. And so we have specific areas in the brain to think about language, and that is reflected in the way in our writing systems. So maybe another time we’ll talk more about the biology of language.

But let’s just take what I just said about human language and compare it to genetics. And so, in genetics, you have DNA, which is a sugar molecule that can bond together and form very strong molecular structures that can last for potentially 1,000,000 years. Actually, the half life of DNA is such that the longest living DNA molecule could not be [more than] 1.5 million years old. So DNA is a very stable molecule, and there’s a lot of molecular properties that go into that. The interesting corollary to that is that it would be impossible for us to find dinosaur DNA because dinosaurs went extinct 65,000,000 years ago, and the oldest DNA, under the best preservation conditions, say a woolly mammoth in Siberia or something like that that died in the ice and has been frozen for 1,000,000 years. It’s DNA would degrade after 1.5 million years. And so we’re stuck without dinosaurs, unfortunately, but we have these very stable molecules, so DNA is a molecule, [a base unit in the language of genetics].

Now there’s four letters in this language. So if we think of DNA as a language, there’s an A [adenine] and T [thymine] and G [guanine] and C [cytosine]. Now, I don’t have a map sitting in front of me of the genetic code. I’m just going from memory. So forgive my memory here of the [lack of] base pairing, but DNA is a double helix. You have these four letters paired with each other in such a way that every DNA molecule has a identical copy of the same information paired to itself. And so that’s why you you have this zipper effect, so if you unzip the DNA molecule on one side, you have version A of the information on the other side, you have version B of the information [on the other] sort of like an inverse [copy]. And so you always have the information duplicated in DNA. So there’s a redundancy. If you lose 1/2 the other, the other half can be repaired. And that’s how we get mutations.

When pieces of DNA are damaged and our cellular machinery goes in and repairs it, sometimes it makes mistakes. When DNA copies itself during gametogenesis, it also makes mistakes. And so you have mutations that can happen, say, in a skin cell due to ultraviolet radiation, or you have mutations that can happen when a [gamete] is developing during gametogenesis. So those mutations [(gametic)] [will be] carried on into the next generation, whereas, somatic mutations will cause things like cancer and or be removed. That’s the brief intro to the molecular side of DNA. Now, what about this hierarchy of information that I talked about with human language? So you have DNA as the base molecule. But how is DNA arranged? In most living organisms that we know of, DNA has evolved to be arranged in genetic units, which we call genes, but we could just also call them the “basic genetic unit”. A gene is really the sentence of genetics and a lot of times we in colloquial terminology will talk about [having a] a gene for red hair, a gene for [hair] color, a gene for height or, running ability, or skin color.

But really, a lot of times, there’s multiple genes involved, [particularly in the cases of height or skin color]. And not only that, even when there’s only one gene, one gene [potentially] has many pieces involved on. So genes themselves can have multiple subunits. There’s really [(at least)] two layers to a gene. There are the base units of genes that can be found next to each other [(introns/exons/open reading frames)]. So called these sequences of DNA that are consecutive and these consecutive sequences are [part of] a chromosome so a chromosome could be thought of as a chapter in a book. So this is a very complex document.

If we think of a chromosome is a chapter in a book and a gene as having both paragraphs and sentences, what’s the intermediate level? What’s the page in a chapter of the book? This is where genetics is slightly different from human language. The the information hierarchy from a gene up to the chromosome is a little fuzzy. [One way to think of it is that] genes have parts of them that are like sentences, they have parts of them that are like paragraphs, and they have parts of them that are like entire pages. And so some genes are very simple. Maybe some genes are only one paragraph, and they have 10 sentences. So in [terms of language, it might be] a complex idea. [In terms of genetics, it might be] a complex protein, but it’s not super complex. Now, some genes are extremely complex, and they could take up many pages, so it might take many paragraphs to describe this protein. And I could talk more about how that process [(transcription and translation)] happens at a molecular level. But that could be later.

[Essentially,] the genome is arranged in this similar hierarchy [(sentences, to paragraphs, to pages, to chapters, to documents)]. [For example], if [a genome were a book] and you were to turn to a [page in] chapter one, chromosome one, page one might start with a simple paragraph that describes eye color. But then it might very quickly go into an extremely a complex set of paragraphs that began to talk about how to build muscle proteins. And so building muscle proteins then becomes an epic poem, [but just for that section of the chapter/chromosome]. And so that’s how the genome goes.

So we have linear chromosomes, so humans have 23 pairs of linear chromosomes. So we have 23 chapters in our book. And so you go on to chapter two and now chapter two might begin to focus more on hair structure. And so you might start with the paragraph on hair structure, and then you might go into a paragraph on fingernails, and teeth and things like that [built from keratin]. And so you could spend 30 pages talking about how to build keratin proteins, what time to activate them, where to put them, and how to make them. And that’s kind of how the human genome can be thought of as a book.

And so you go on through chapters one through 21 on and then you have these other kind of appendices we could say, [which are] the sex chromosomes. So the X chromosome and the Y chromosome in humans are the sex determining chromosomes and so we have the 21 somatic chromosomes and the 2 sex determining chromosomes. And so that’s our book. 23 chapters duplicated, you get one set of chapters from your mom and one set from your dad. And they have a little mini guide on the side – the mitochondria, which is a short little piece of DNA, well, the mitochondria is an organelle, like the nucleus, that has a piece of DNA in it. The mitochondrial genome. And so that’s how I think of the similarity between language. Sorry, I’m just checking my time here.

Language and genetics. So when I am thinking about how to use these [two concepts] in the news, what I’m looking at are algorithms that have been developed to understand genetics and apply them to human [written] language. And so we spent a lot of time since the development of the Human Genome Project creating very sophisticated computer algorithms for comparing DNA sequences. And now what I want to do is go back in and use those same algorithms to compare human written text. So that’s that’s the beginning of the of the idea [for this news project] there.

Let’s talk briefly about the news. We have, sorry, had paused for a moment there. We have one recent interesting development in science news. There’s a debate right now in the United States in Congress and NASA and probably the [scientific/space exploration] community, whether we should go to Mars or the Moon first. And so this has largely been settled by the United States government supporting the moon [first], whereas private industry supporting Mars. Now, that doesn’t mean that private industry isn’t still doing both. It’s just the priority of the federal government of the United States is currently going to be the Moon. This would be to send humans to the moon again. Recently we have the first major step here, which is the award of a contract to a company called Maxar to develop a orbital platform for [creating] an [orbital] stop point for sending astronauts to the Moon and, presumably cosmonauts and any other international collaborators to the Moon as well. So we’re seen headway there.

One of the reasons I’m doing this show is that, [for example], the top news for science news today or this week is this Moon mission. And so my question is: Why is space science always the most popular science news in the Internet? And so when I say that, I mean in terms of Google news or websites that aggregate news and science news, usually space flight announcements are very popular. So you see them capturing the biggest audience. My question to myself to solve is: Why is this [space the most popular science in the news]? Why is space so captivating in terms of Internet popularity? And so I’m going to explore that, and my first intuition is that people like space. I like space. I like the fact that we’re developing a Moon mission. I don’t know how useful going to the Moon is aside for the fact that it forces us to develop technologies that I think we should have. So I like it. I support it. I just don’t know that it’s the most important thing happening right now in on the planet Earth. In terms of scientific development, that’s something to focus on, understanding science popularity. But I’ll leave the listeners there to think about that. Why is the Moon so popular? Why is space so popular? So that’s Bryan White, with The Planetary News Radio signing off. Have a good day and thanks for listening.

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