Monday, January 16, 2017

Hypotheses, Theories, Laws and all that jazz

When I was in high school, I learned about hypotheses, theories, laws and principles.  The problem is that I was taught that these were hierarchical.  It took a long time for me to learn on my own that is not the case. They aren't necessarily stages in the understanding of our Universe.  A single hypothesis does not become a theory.  A theory does not eventually become a law.  A law does not eventually become a principle.  Furthermore, this list is missing the category of models.  Each of these are different things that serve the Scientific Method in different capacities.  Berkeley University of California states,
"Hypotheses, theories, and laws are rather like apples, oranges, and kumquats: one cannot grow into another, no matter how much fertilizer and water are offered. Hypotheses, theories, and laws are all scientific explanations that differ in breadth — not in level of support."[001a]
Hypothesis 
Question mark
A hypothesis is a proposed or suggested explanation for a phenomenon.  The hypothesis is stated in such a way as to allow for scientific testing for specific expectations.  The hypothesis must be testable in a falsifiable manner.  That means, to test the hypothesis, you must be able to conceive of and test methods that can potentially disprove the hypothesis.

The value of the hypothesis is that it allows us to simplify initial observations into a testable statement so that we can determine if the basis for the hypothesis is true or false.  You can test to find supporting evidence for the hypothesis.  You can also test to find refuting evidence which disproves the hypothesis.  

Hypotheses are typically formed by one or a few persons who then conduct tests as experimenters to prove and disprove it in the pursuit to solve a problem.  A hypothesis is often not a single point in research.  Experimenters may test and reject several hypotheses before solving a problem.  Disproving one particular hypothesis is just as important to Science is proving another hypothesis.[001b]

There is a subcategory of hypotheses called working hypothesis, which have some evidence to support them.  As such, they are tentatively accepted as a basis for further study.

Theory
Barbara McClintock in her lab conducting genetic research
A theory is a substantiated and unifying explanation for some aspect of the natural world.  Substantiation is acquired through the Scientific Method, with repeated testing and confirmation using written and predefined protocols for observations and experiments.

Theories are testable and make falsifiable predictions.  They allow for predictions to be made about a phenomenon, and they also explain the causes for the phenomenon.  

Science historian Stephen Jay Gould said, 
“...facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world′s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”[002]
Theories are typically formed by consensus by many different people over a substantial period of time.  Theories aren't just thought up by one individual and then magically accepted by everyone else.  They are often heavily debated while they are being formed.  This debate drives further hypotheses and experimentation that eventually helps develop the theory.

Theories are not absolute points.  Once you have a theory, that doesn't mean the matter is settled.  It just means that the evidence up to that point allows you to create a structure that provides both reliable predictions and explanations for phenomenon.  Theories are often modified or replaced when better structures allow for better predictions and explanations.

A classic example of the process of debate to come to an eventual consensus is the Big Bang vs. Steady State theories debate, in which experimentation on both sides eventually lead to a much better understanding of our Universe.[003]

Model
Atmosphere composition diagram representing a scientific model
A model is a often overlooked scientific tool to make a particular aspect of the natural world easier to understand, define, quantify, visualize or simulate based on commonly accepted knowledge.  Modelling requires selecting and identifying relevant aspects of a situation in the real world, then applying techniques such as conceptual models to better understand, operational models to operationalize, mathematical models to quantify and graphical models to visualize the subject.

A model seeks to represent empirical objects, phenomena, and physical processes in a logical and objective way. All models are in simulacra, that is, simplified reflections of reality which allow for useful approximations.

A model is evaluated by its consistency to empirical data.  Inconsistency or irreproducibility of observations must force modification or rejection of a model.  A model must be able to explain past observations, predict future observations and have refutability, just like theories from which the models are typically built.

Law
Thermodynamics and negative resistance
A law is a description of a phenomenon in a particular situation without considering the cause.  Peter Coppinger of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology states,
"Laws are descriptions — often mathematical descriptions — of natural phenomenon; for example, Newton’s Law of Gravity or Mendel’s Law of Independent Assortment. These laws simply describe the observation. Not how or why they work."[004]
Laws are compact generalizations about data.  As with other scientific elements, laws are not immutable.  As more information is learned, laws can be changed.

It is important to note that laws can exist without theories.  Sometimes laws exist for many years before theories explain their causes.[005]

Principle
A principle is really just a law that is true by definition.  The terms law and principle are often used interchangeably in Science.  A principle is not a higher grade above a law.  In fact, if you look up "Scientific Principle", your searches will inevitably lead to information regarding laws.

Some persons have suggested that laws can typically be reduced down to precise math formulae, such as the Laws of Thermodynamics and Ohm's Law.  Conversely, the suggestion is that principles are more general descriptions of the nature world.[006]  Examples of such principles are Principle of Original Horizontality and Pareto Principle.

However, even this comparison is not an absolutely held distinction.  For example, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is highly mathematical in nature. Conversely, the Law of Superposition has no mathematical reduction.  So even math provides no real distinction between the use of the words principle and law in Science.

Confusion
I guess the confusion about the relationships between laws, principles, hypotheses, theories and models is that it is not hierarchically ordered.  It seems counter-intuitive that Science, being the mechanism that has brought so much order to our understanding of the world, is itself not similarly ordered.  But, there's good reason for this.  Science doesn't work in absolutes.  Nothing is absolutely knowable.  As such, everything we know is subject to be revised based on what we later learn.  Having some sort of truth gradient would slow down the progress of learning since managing such grading would be an unnecessary distraction from the search for knowledge.

Response:
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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Factors a planet needs for suitability of life; perhaps

There are many notions about what life might be like on other worlds.[001]  However, from the limited examples of what we know about life, it would seem to us that there is a preference for life that is based on carbon and water.  As the study On the probability of habitable planets says,
...exploring the wide field of modern chemistry and challenging the most open-minded chemists reveals that with our present knowledge it is difficult to imagine any alternative chemistry approaching the combination of diversity, versatility and rapidity afforded by liquid water-based biochemistry. This results from the unique ability of carbon to form complex species, and the unique characteristics of water as a liquid solvent...[002]
Another factor is that that carbon and the molecules that are formed from carbon seem to be very common in our galaxy, being found in interstellar space, other planets, comets, asteroids and space dust.  Organic material seems to be everywhere.[002]  There is a nebula that is practically made of alcohol.[003]

Perhaps are search for exoplanet life needs to extend beyond simply looking for water.  Maybe our search should include crosschecking with a search for carbon.

Concept illustration of Kepler-22b, which may be a good
place to search for life
According to On the probability of habitable planets, there are four types of habitability on planets that may harbor life in some form.

  • Class I - Habitats where conditions allow for water on the surface, and where energy is primarly provided by the planet's sun.  This is the most Earth-like class.
  • Class II - Habitats where the planet may have had water on the surface early on, but conditions did not allow the planet to retain that water.  This is most Mars-like class.
  • Class III - Habitats where significant water exists below the surface, and where such underground oceans can interact with a silicate-rich core.  This planets may be too far from their sun to have surface liquid water, but via some process, such as geothermal heating, liquid water is present within the planet.  This is the most Europa-like class.
  • Class IV - Habitats where a lot of liquid water exists above an icy layers. Oceans may actually be sandwiched between ice layers.  Ganymede and Callisto may represent this class.
Is complex and even intelligent life possible on any of these classes?  It seems that the most likely class that would have complex life is Class I.  But, of course that is based on assumptions and biases born from our own example.  Classes II, III and IV may extend the limits of what is considered to be the Habitable Zone around a star.

Another factor is the CO2 cycle.  Perhaps the CO2 content of a planet will allow that planet to retain more heat from its sun.  
It turns out that a thick CO2 atmosphere may be one of the most efficient solutions for keeping a planet warm. This is not only due to the properties of the CO2 gas itself.
However, taking into account the radiative effects of the CO2 ice clouds, which tend to form in such thick CO2 atmospheres allows further increases in the warming of the surface thanks to a cloud “scattering greenhouse effect”.  Taking into account this process, the outer edge of the habitable zone has been extended as far as 2.5 AU.[002]
In other words, CO2 in the right mixture within a planet's atmosphere may extend the outer limit of how far a way a planet can be from its sun and still be warm enough to support life.  But, other factors must be explored.
[A planet] staying in the habitable zone is obviously not sufficient for a planet to continuously maintain liquid water on its surface: it must have an atmosphere which keeps the surface pressure and the surface temperature (through its greenhouse effect) in the right range, for billions of years.[002]
In addition to forming the correct atmosphere necessary to support life, a planet must also be able to keep that atmosphere for a very long time. Also, that atmosphere may need to change over time in order to adjust to changes in stellar output.  For example, a planet has to be large enough (or have enough gravity) to keep its atmosphere from escaping, not just as a result of simply drifting away, but also to counter the effect of stellar wind and other star related phenomenon.[002]

Plate tectonics is another factor that may be important to a planet's ability to support life.  Plate tectonics manage planetary cycles, such as CO2.[004]  The process of how a planet develops plate tectonics on a global scale is not well understood.  However, when examining the two examples of planets of similar size within our own solar system, Earth and Venus, the key difference appears to be water.  Perhaps the higher water content of Earth enables plate tectonics.  How special is Earth, after-all?[002]  

Would an equivalent to plate tectonics be necessary on class III and IV planets?  For those same classes, atmospheres may not be a factor at all, since oceans would be underground.  What other cycles would be necessary in such classes?  How many class I planets with a long term atmosphere and plate tectonics are in Habitable Zones?  There's a lot of open questions.  Another question I have, would we be able and willing to seed Terran lifeforms on these other classes planets (and moons), even within our own solar system, even if we do not intend to colonize them for ourselves?

Pirmary reference:
F. Forget. International Journal of Astrobiology, 13, Issue 3, July 2013, pp. 177-185, arXiv:1212.0113 [astro-ph.EP], On the probability of habitable planets

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Monday, January 09, 2017

Copying mapped network drive locations to email for someone that doesn't share your mapping

For the better part of score years, I've been fumbling around to copy mapped network folder locations to emails for those people within the same organization who do not share my network mappings.  This is particularly annoying when the files are too big or too many to simply email.

It's not obvious in Windows on how to copy the raw network location, such as \\grt.peanuts.fspt.com\Shared1$\MyPlace when that same folder is mapped on the current computer as simply S:\MyPlace.  To allow another person to see my files at MyPlace, I need to somehow copy the "UNC" or raw address, so that I can paste it into my email.

I finally discovered how to do this.  It's not hard, but discoverability is nearly zero.

  1. Open Windows Explorer.
  2. Within Windows Explorer, navigate to the network folder location that you wish to share.  (This assumes you've already set up that folder to be shareable.)
  3. Start a new email from Outlook.
  4. Make sure both Windows Explorer and your email windows are open and visible on the screen.
  5. Within Windows Explorer, right-button click and hold on any file within the shared folder, or right-button click and hole on the folder icon to the far left of the address field.
  6. Folder icon of address bar
  7. While still holding down the right-mouse button, drag the selection over to the body of your open email and release the button. A new dialog appears.
  8. Copy here dialog
  9. From this dialog, select Create Hyperlink Here.
  10. Voile!  You automatically have a hyperlink to your folder location.

Friday, January 06, 2017

First round of life in the Universe might have been possible extremely early

Cosmic background radiation
I've posted other articles about the possibility of life in our Galaxy based on what is known right now.  For this article, after going into some concepts from a somewhat recent study, I'm going to speculate a bit based on the suggestion by that study that life was possible for a very specific period of 10 million years to 17 million years after the formation of the Universe.  The study is The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe.

What is significant about this very specific period after our Universe's formation?  According to the study, the cosmic microwave background provided a uniform heating source that was between 0 to 100°C (the melting point and boiling point of water at 1atm) during 10-17 million years after the formation of our Universe.  This means that there was no Habitable Zone around stars since the entire Universe was one gigantic habitable zone (except maybe being too close to a star).[001]
Hypothetical earliest stars in our Universe
Hypothetical earliest stars in our Universe

Challenges for Earliest Stars and Planets

There's a catch.  Stars that formed immediately after the Big Bang were very different than the stars we now see.  The only two elements available in the Universe were Hydrogen and Helium.  These early stars are referred to as being metal-poor, lacking access to elements heavier than than Helium.  There is speculation that the very first stars where actually extremely metal-poor.  Material from which terrestrial planets could have formed simply wasn't available yet.  When these first stars died, they produced the elements necessary for the formation of planets and metal-rich stars.  The death of these stars had to happen very quickly in order to meet the criteria necessary to consider life being possible so early in our Universe's existence.
In order for rocky planets to exist at these early times, massive stars with tens to hundreds of solar masses, whose lifetime is much shorter than the age of the Universe, had to form and enrich the primordial gas with heavy elements through winds and supernova explosions.[001]
Cosmic simulations suggest the formation of massive early stars that explode relatively quickly.[001]  Gravitational lensing also suggests the formation of such stars in the earliest galaxies.[002]  Given the possibility for such stars and such explosions of such stars, planet formation early in the Universe was also possible.[001] Given the cosmic microwave background heat of the Universe, the likelihood of planets with water on their surface was again also possible.

On the plus side for these planets, once the cosmic microwave background cooled down after the 17 million year mark, the planets themselves may have been able to keep warm enough on their own for quite awhile, even without a nearby star.
[Thermal gradients needed for life] can be supplied by geological variations on the surface of rocky planets. Examples for sources of free energy are geothermal energy powered by the planet’s gravitational binding energy at formation and radioactive energy from unstable elements produced by the earliest supernova. These internal heat sources (in addition to possible heating by a nearby star), may have kept planets warm even without the cosmic microwave background, extending the habitable epoch...[001]

Speculation

Although the study The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe suggests that life may have been possible in the early Universe, much of that life may not have survived past 17 millions years after the Big Bang unless it was lucky enough to be in the Habitable Zone within a solar system that included a very stable star.  However, even if the life didn't survive, the organic matter from which the life formed may have survived.  The survival of this life or its material could have seeded the later Universe, drastically increasing the chances of life reemerging.   Some speculate life on Earth originates from extra-solar system sources.  Perhaps the material necessary for the emergence of life was already in the mix from which our Sun formed.  The mechanism for such transference of life and materials is called Panspermia, or specifically, Pseudo-panspermia and Lithopanspermia.

What if aliens have been around much longer than us? Would we be able to find them?It seems there would have been a substantial gap between the first wave of early life and the next wave of life; this next wave presumably being the epoch within which we find ourselves now.  How might species from the early epoch be viewed by species of the current epoch?

From a Science Fiction perspective, such early life may have evolved to sentience very early in our Universe's existence.  Being so close to our Universe's beginning and having so long to evolve may have allowed these early species to development god-like powers by now.  Such species may be Q of Star Trek: TNG, Time Lords of Doctor WhoNibblonians of Futurama, and perhaps less god-like Precursors of Star Control II and Progenitors, also of Star Trek: TNG.

Would signs of god-like species be discernible to us young species?  We wouldn't likely see evidence in the form of direct radio signals, as such species would have long since evolved beyond such primitive methods of communication.  Perhaps we could catch a glimpse of these early species in the earliest days of their development via EM signals they emitted billions of years ago, from distance galaxies.

We'd have to know where to point our detectors.  Signals from ancient civilizations within our own galaxy would have passed us by billions of years ago.  However, signals from ancient civilizations in galaxies billions of light years away would be reaching us at the same time as the rest of the light from those galaxies.  Such signals would be faint and scattered, but they may be just distinct enough to discern from the background noise.  For example, at certain times of the year, Earth glows at certain EM frequencies much brighter than any other object in our galaxy.  A similar civilization billions of years ago in a galaxy billions of lights away might be obvious to us once we start looking for such phenomenon.

The idea that life may have developed so early in our Universe's existence opens up a Universe of possibilities.  Our understanding of our origins may be even effected by this concept.  On the other hand, maybe life in our Universe wasn't possible at all until very recently.  Maybe we are one of the first species to develop sentience in all of the Universe.  I'll cover more about this in a later article.

Primary reference:
A. Loeb, International Journal of Astrobiology, 13, no. 4, (Sept., 2014), arXiv:1312.0613 [astro-ph.CO], The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe

Response:
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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

How many Earth-size planets are orbiting Sun-like stars?

Size and number of Kepler Planet Candidates
Size and number of Kepler Planet Candidates
In the search for planets that may be habitable outside of our own solar system, one of the elements that should be considered is planet size.  Planet size is important for various reasons. There is evidence that suggests that plate tectonic activity on a global level is a necessary factor for supporting life on a planet similar to Earth.  Planets must be of a particular size in order to allow for global plate tectonics.[001] Larger planets (between the range of Mars and Earth) may be necessary to maintain an atmosphere with the right composition to support life.[002] Based on the limited examples available within our own solar system, life may require specific conditions that are associated with Earth's size.

So, how many Earth-size planets exist?  Well, to start with, small terrestrial planets drastically outnumber larger Earth-size and Jupiter-size planets.  That being the case, recent observations suggest that Earth-size planets are fairly common around Sun-like stars.[003] There are so many such planets, the 2013 study Prevalence of Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars states that (given certain circumstances),
...the nearest such planet is expected to orbit a star that is less than 12 light-years from Earth and can be seen by the unaided eye.[003]
That's not only a lot of planets, 12 light-years is a distance that seems at least somewhat reachable with technology that is currently being investigated.  Recently, such a planet seems to have been discovered around the closest star to our own, Proxima Centauri.[004]  Technically, Proxima Centauri cannot be seen with the unaided eye on its own, but rather as part triple star system that appears as one the dot in the Southern Hemisphere sky called Alpha Centauri, but close enough (literally).[005]

Kepler's Small Habitable Zone Planets
Kepler's Small Habitable Zone Planets
Overall based on Kepler space observatory results, it is calculated that about 22% of all Sun-like stars have an Earth-size planet within its Habitable Zone.  Prevalence of Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars seems well informed in its conclusion (2013),
Future instrumentation to image and take spectra of these Earths need only observe a few dozen nearby stars to detect a sample of Earth-size planets residing in the Habitable Zones of their host stars.[003]
The number of Sun-like stars in the Milky Way Galaxy is said to be about 10%.*  The number total stars is a matter of debate, but it often stated as 100 billion stars.[006]  10% of that is 10 billion stars.  Therefore, 22% of 10 billion is 2.2 billion stars.  With that determined, how common are planets that are so similar to Earth that events naturally occur in the right sequence to spark and nurture life?  How likely is that life to evolve to develop the human-level expression of intelligence and curiosity?  What is the likelihood of any of species developing in the same timeframe as us?  Are other species close enough to us to communicate with us?  Should we really trying to reach out to these others?  Some of these questions will be addressed in further articles.

*10% is stated by multiple tertiary sources for "sun-like" stars, and 7.5% is stated for "g-type" stars, but I could not verify these percentages from any original sources.

Primary reference:
E.A. Petigura, A.W. Howard, G.W. Marcya, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110 no. 48, (Nov., 2013), 19273-19278, 10.1073/pnas.1319909110,  Prevalence of Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars

Response:
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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Habitable Worlds Around Binary Star Systems might not match Sci-fi

It's hard to talk about planets in binary (dual) star systems without mentioning Star Wars: A New Hope.  The famous scene of Luke Skywalker standing and looking off into the distance while two suns appear near the horizon is iconic.  However, there's a problem with that iconic scene.  The problem is a not full-fledged error, just an unlikelihood: both suns appear as the same size in the sky in very close proximity to each other.  The reason this is unlikely is due to the two types of planetary orbits in binary star systems: s-type and p-type.  A planet in either type of binary system would rarely see both suns as the same size in the sky and that close to each other, even if the suns are the same size.

S-type is the name for the orbit of a planet that revolves around just one of the two stars within a binary system. P-type is the name for the orbit of a planet that revolves around both stars within a binary system, having a common barycenter (or center of mass) with the suns as the suns orbit around each other.[001]

S-type orbits are interesting, but for this article, I'll cover P-type because this is more interesting to me when talking about Habitable Zones, particularly where the suns have similar masses.  Of course, even with p-type orbits, there exist many possible varieties for how the suns can orbit each other.

The ability of a planet to maintain liquid water depends on the interaction between stellar radiation and the top of its atmosphere.  Also, that interaction is complicated in a binary system.  There can be substantial difference in energy received by the dual suns.  Sometimes both suns appear side by side in the sky, providing maximum energy.   However, when one sun is eclipsed by the other, the amount of energy is lessened due to the closer sun blocking the stellar radiation from its partner.[001]

In either case, this variation in stellar radiation can limit how small a planet's orbit can be around the dual suns and still be capable of harboring life.   As stated in Calculating the Habitable Zone of Binary Start Systems II: P-Type Binaries:
This interaction strongly depends on the stellar spectral energy distributions implying that stars with different energy distributions will contribute differently to the absolute incident flux at the top of the planet’s atmosphere.[001]
Even with all of these factors, planet formation within the Habitable Zone of a binary system would be similar to that of a singular star system.[001]


Common binary system and P-type orbit
Two suns of similar mass with elliptical orbits around a common barycenter
Another common binary system and P-type orbit
   Two suns of similar mass in the same orbit around a common barycenter

Where two suns are of the same size, their location to the planet can vary greatly depending on the size of their orbit around their common barycenter.  If there is a wide orbit, it is safe to assume that one sun will provide more energy than the other sun which is farther away.  In this case, the further sun would appear smaller in size within the sky, even though both suns are of the same mass.  The graphics above suggest why the iconic Star Wars scene isn't likely accurate.  The scene is possible maybe one or two times per year if the suns are in similar orbits which are tight and circular; or in rare instances where the suns have elliptical orbits and the planet just happens to be in the right place at the right time.

Sidebar

Close up of Alpha Centauri A and B, NASA photo
Here's a close up of Alpha Centauri A and B. Their distance from each other can be as much as 11 AU's, which would make a type-p planetary orbit so large, that habitable planets would be unlikely.  Planets have been discovered in type-s orbits around Alpha Centauri B and their sibling Proxima Centauri.

HZ reference:
N. Haghighipour, L. Kaltenegger, The Astrophysical Journal, 777 (Nov., 2013) 166, arXiv:1306.2890 [astro-ph.EP], Calculating the Habitable Zone of Binary Star Systems II: P-Type Binaries 

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