CCNet 129/2000 - 8 December 2000

"Some time ago, I reflected wryly that it was about time that the
universal infection brigade seized on BSE as an illustration of
interstellar infection, and sure enough, up it popped."
      -- Jon Richfield, 7 December 2000

"We have no idea whether the origin of life was a gigantic chemical
fluke, unique in the universe, or an expected result of inherently
bio-friendly laws. Given this uncertainty on the likelihood of life
emerging, it is clearly more plausible in the current state of our
knowledge to conjecture that life may have survived multiple impacts by a
lifeboat mechanism, or other refuge, rather than re-emerging from
scratch in each window of opportunity."
           -- Paul Davies, 7 December 2000

"We're learning all the time that life, in some form or other, is
incredibly resilient, albeit fluid -- episodically morphing into new and
better adapted forms rather than succumbing fragilely to the
slightest little stress."
     -- Paul Renne, UC Berkeley, 7 December 2000


    Liverpool Echo, 7 December 2000

    Larry Klaes <>

    The Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2000

    ScienceWeek, 1 December 2000

    Bad Astronomer <>

    Jon Richfield <>

From, 7 December 2000

By Robert Roy Britt

Mounting evidence from seafloor critters to ancient soil and even Moon rocks
suggests that life on early Earth survived heavy bombardment from space
rocks, pointing to an earlier origin for terrestrial life and opening wider
the window of possibilities for where life might exist in the cosmos.

The Moon preserves a record of the pummeling it took 4.1 to 3.8 billion
years ago. Earth got nailed by even more space rocks back then, but the
planet swallowed the evidence by recycling it into the interior over the
Early Earth was a lousy place to live. The young solar system was teeming
with comets and asteroids; many ended their travels by slamming into our
fledgling planet, destroying entire continents and kicking up deadly clouds
that circled the globe.

The chaos ended about 3.8 billion years ago. And some scientists have long
held that only after things quieted down did life get going. But while
others have argued for years of fossilized evidence that life existed as far
back as 3.5 billion years ago, efforts to pin down an exact date for the
origin of life on Earth have so far proved elusive.

In one recent study, scientists found signatures of biological activity in
rock estimated to be 3.85 billion years old. While not a discovery of life,
or even fossils, the finding is among the oldest evidence that life was
around back when things were rough.

"We're learning all the time that life, in some form or other, is incredibly
resilient, albeit fluid -- episodically morphing into new and better adapted
forms rather than succumbing fragilely to the slightest little stress," says
UC Berkeley geologist Paul Renne.

The 3.85 billion-year-old rock, from an island in Greenland, was dated by
researchers from the Australian National University.

Steve Mojzis, of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, studied the rock and found
higher-than-normal amounts of carbon-12, a form of carbon that is used by
microorganisms to construct their own organic building blocks. Finding a
bunch of it crammed between layers of rock is a strong hint that life may
have been present.

Meanwhile, a paper in the December 1 issue of the journal Science reports
strong evidence to support the belief that these microorganisms, if they
existed 3.85 billion years ago, would in fact have found themselves on a
planet under attack.

Attack from space

Barbara Cohen of the University of Tennessee analyzed four rock fragments
that had been blasted off the Moon and found on Earth. Cohen and her
colleagues found evidence of at least seven separate huge lunar impacts
between 2.76 and 3.92 billion years ago, bolstering the already strong
belief in the cataclysmic period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Previous studies of rocks returned by Apollo astronauts had already
established the time frame, but those rocks all came from the near side of
the Moon, near the equator. Cohen analyzed rocks that were randomly ejected
from the Moon, showing that the bombardment was a total lunar event.

Cohen and others agree that if the Moon was getting pummeled, so was Earth.
Because Earth is larger, it would have been hit by at least 10 times as many
space rocks.

"And we're talking large impactors that would make craters the size of
continents," Cohen told "During the cataclysm, 17,000 craters
were created in 200 million years [on Earth]. It would not have been a great
time to be living on the Earth's surface."

So maybe whatever critters that might have been around weren't on the
surface. Three possibilities have been put forth: Life warmed its
hypothetical hands on deep-sea hydrothermal vents; it burrowed deep inside
the Earth; or -- in an exotic twist -- microbes took a hiatus in space.

Biologists have created a tree of life showing that all living things can be
traced back to heat-loving organisms, called hyperthermophiles. Studying
genetic material to create the tree, they say that life either began in hot
water, or it spent some time there before evolving into slugs, oak trees,
and rocket scientists.
These "original organisms," clustered around deep-sea hydrothermal vents,
where Earth belches hot water and minerals into the ocean, might have
endured for long periods without even noticing the dismal surface

But physicist Paul Davies, author of The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the
Origin and Meaning of Life, dismisses hydrothermal vents as potential
hideouts. He says the largest impact events would have boiled the oceans
dry. Seafloor microbes would have been naked to the chaos.

In his book, Davies suggests that huge impacts, known to fling dust and
rocks into space, might have also carried microbes to safe refuge. Years
later, after the planet became livable again, a few lucky microbes might
have returned from the heavens to recolonize. Recent studies have shown that
microorganisms could in fact survive the brunt of an impact and the rigors
of space travel.

Still, Davies figures there was an easier way for life to endure

"The most plausible refuge is the deep subsurface, by which I mean more than
1 kilometer (0.6 miles) down in the crust, either in the basalt of the
seabed, or on any land that may have existed during the bombardment," Davies
told "Merely being on the sea floor [near a hydrothermal vent]
would not have provided adequate protection from the largest impactors,
since these would have created a rock-vapor atmosphere that would have
boiled the oceans dry."

If any of these scenarios is true, then catastrophe could be called the
mother of evolution. It remains unknown, however, whether the events of the
Late Heavy Bombardment forced life to evolve, or if it got wiped out several
times and had to spring forth over and over.

"We have no idea whether the origin of life was a gigantic chemical fluke,
unique in the universe, or an expected result of inherently bio-friendly
laws," Davies says. "Given this uncertainty on the likelihood of life
emerging, it is clearly more plausible in the current state of our knowledge
to conjecture that life may have survived multiple impacts by a lifeboat
mechanism, or other refuge, rather than re-emerging from scratch in each
window of opportunity."

Maybe it wasn't so bad after all

More new research supports the idea that life could have hidden out long
enough to hang on during the worst of times. Kevin Zahnle of NASA's Ames
Research Center, working with Mojzis and Ariel Anbar at NASA's Astrobiology
Institute, used computer models to study the effect of impacts during the
Late Heavy Bombardment.

In taking measurements of the 3.85 billion-year-old terrestrial rock from
Greenland, Ph.D. student Gail Arnold, working with Anbar, did not find any
signs of iridium in the rock, which should have been present if there had
been any large impact events around that time. (The element iridium is
prevalent in comets and asteroids.)

Their work, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of
Geophysical Research, suggests that impacts large enough to cause worldwide
disaster were few and far between. And even after the worst events, life
would only have needed to hang on for about 10,000 years before Earth rolled
out its bio-welcome mat again, according to the computer models.

"As long as life could hold out in niches during episodic catastrophic times
(every 30 million years or so), it could have inhabited the surface during
most of the 'heavy bombardment' era," says Anbar, a University of Rochester

The growing view of life's tenacity means life itself may have grown, and
still be growing, in more places than scientists previously thought.

"This greatly extends the number of potential habitats in the solar system
and beyond," says Davies, the author and physicist. "For example, life may
still exist deep beneath the surface of Mars. Subsurface life on Europa is
also possible. Even lunar subsurface life is not totally absurd, if liquid
water can exist."

Copyright 2000,


From Liverpool Echo, 7 December 2000

POLITICIANS have joined the growing band of support for Liverpool's bid to
build an early warning system against asteroids threatening earth.

The funding and building of a super telescope was recommended by a task
force set up by Science Minister Lord Sainsbury.

It wants a three-metre survey telescope designed to spot much smaller
objects than those now detected by existing instruments.

Spaceguard UK is lobbying the government to commission John Moores
University's Telescope Technologies Ltd (TTL) for the project.

Science fiction writer Sir Arthur C Clarke, creator of 2001: A Space
Odyssey, has already pledged his support in an open letter to the people of

Dr Benny Peiser, a researcher for JMU and spokesman for Spaceguard UK, said
he has now received a letter from 11 North West MPs , MEPs Den Dover and
Brian Simpson, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Wade of Chorlton, pledging
their full support for the campaign.

He said: "The broad and enthusiastic response by politicians from all
parties and regions in the North-West shows that there is not only
widespread support, but real expectation that the recommended spaceguard
telescope will be built on Merseyside.

"Clearly this is a golden opportunity for TTL and Merseyside to become one
of the world's top producers of high-technology telescopes and their
associated equipment."

TTL is a subsidiary of JMU and is the only company in the UK designing and
producing professional astronomical telescopes.

The Department of Trade and Industry is expected to make an announcement
early next year.



From Larry Klaes <>

Harvesting asteroids -- for everything from platinum to oxygen to water --
has long been the stuff of science fiction. JoŽl Glenn Brenner investigates
the efforts to make it a profitable fact.

WHEN THE FIRST OCCUPANTS boarded the International Space Station on November
2, there was none of the excitement or awe that marked the heady days of
Gemini or Apollo. The station is being touted as man's first step toward a
continual presence in space, but who cares? Didn't the Russians already
accomplish this with the Mir? And what's the point of putting more humans in
earth-orbit, especially when it's accompanied by a price tag of more than
sixty billion dollars?

While NASA hails the prospect of scientific breakthroughs flowing from ISS,
researchers are skeptical. Few believe that the station's scientific value
will ever justify its astounding cost -- much of which is due to the need to
haul into orbit every gram of material used to build the station and keep it

The station will weigh some 900,000 pounds when it is finally completed in
2006, resulting in launch costs alone of about ten billion dollars, and that
doesn't even account for astronauts, food, fuel, supplies or additional
research equipment.

But suppose we didn't have to carry everything up there? What if we used the
station to learn how to process resources from space itself? It may sound
far-fetched, but this could be the most profound and significant payoff to
result from ISS, allowing us to build future stations, research facilities,
factories and living quarters at a fraction of the cost of space enterprises



From The Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2000

By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent
BRITAIN is on course to send a spacecraft to Mars in 2003 to search for
alien life, beating a rival Nasa mission by weeks.
The team behind Beagle 2, the most ambitious British space mission in
history, say the probe should bounce on to the surface of the Red Planet on
Boxing Day, 2003. Prof Colin Pillinger, the Open University academic
researcher leading the project, said yesterday that he had backers to
underwrite the £30 million cost.

Beagle 2, named after Charles Darwin's ship, will be stowed on the European
Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft, which is due to be launched from
Baikanour, Kazakhstan, in June 2003. The 130lb craft is really a small,
stationary laboratory, designed to detect organic matter, water, minerals
and evidence of long-extinct alien bacteria.



From ScienceWeek, 1 December 2000


In astrophysics, the term "dust" refers to various entities: a)
interplanetary and cometary dust are found in the Solar System; b)
circumstellar dust is found around stars; c) interstellar dust
is found between stars. Individual dust particles are usually called "dust
grains" and range in size from approximately 10 nanometers up to the micron
range (with an average size about the
size of particles in cigarette smoke). Interstellar dust extinguishes and
reddens starlight, can be detected by its absorption and emission of
infrared radiation, and can be detected by its polarizing effect on
starlight. The exact composition of interstellar dust is uncertain, but
infrared absorption measurements indicate that a significant fraction of the
material is organic. In general, interstellar dust is believed to be carbon,
iron, and silicates mixed with or coated
with frozen water.

* J. Mayo Greenberg (University of Leiden, NL) presents a review of recent
research on interstellar dust and cometary dust, the author making the
following points:

1) The extinction curve for interstellar dust, which indicates the reduction
of light intensity at each wavelength, indicates there must be 3 types of
dust grains:

a) The particles that block light in the visible spectrum are elongated
grains nearly 0.2 microns in diameter and approximately 0.4 microns in
length. These particles account for approximately 80 percent of interstellar
dust, with each grain containing a rocky core surrounded by a mantle of
organic materials and ice.

b) A hump in the ultraviolet part of the extinction curve suggests the
presence of smaller particles of approximately 5 nanometers diameter, which
comprise approximately 10 percent of the total dust mass. These grains are
most likely amorphous carbonaceous solids that probably contain some
hydrogen but little or no nitrogen or oxygen. c) Finally, an even smaller
type of particle, approximately 2 nanometers in diameter, is apparently
responsible for blocking light in the far ultraviolet region. These smallest
particles, which constitute the remaining 10 percent of the dust mass, are
believed to be large molecules similar to the polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons emitted in automobile exhaust.

     2) The author postulates a 100-million-year "dust cycle", which dust
grains undergo approximately 50 times before their destruction:

a) In diffuse dust clouds, where gas is sparse, the dust is a mixture of
core-mantle grains, carbonaceous particles, and polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbon-like (PAH-like) molecules.

b) When the dust enters a dense gas cloud, atoms and molecules of gas adhere
to the core-mantle grains and form an outer mantle of ice. The carbonaceous
particles and PAH-like
molecules also accrete on the core-mantle grains.

c) Ultraviolet radiation affects the material in the ice mantle, creating a
layer of complex organic compounds of yellowish color.

d) As the cloud of dust and gas contracts to form a star, some of the
core-mantle dust grains clump together and become comet nuclei. But the vast
majority of the dust is dispersed.

e) Returning to a diffuse cloud, the core-mantle grain is exposed to harsher
radiation that evaporates the ice mantle and further processes the organic
material. The complex of organic compounds turns from yellowish to brown.

f) Supernova shock fronts accelerate the dust grains, causing violent
collisions that shatter the organic mantles. The debris becomes the
carbonaceous particles and PAH-like molecules.

3) The author points out that as astronomers make new discoveries about the
chemical composition of both comets and interstellar dust, they are becoming
convinced that comets originally formed as clumps of dust grains. In
addition, comet dust may have played a role in seeding life on Earth. Each
loose cluster of comet dust not only contains organic materials, but also
has a structure that is ideal for chemical evolution once it is immersed in
water. Experiments have indicated that small molecules could easily
penetrate such clumps from the outside, while large molecules would remain
sequestered in the interior. The author states: "Such a structure could
stimulate the production of ever larger and more complex molecules, possibly
serving as a tiny incubator for the first primitive life forms. A single
comet could have deposited up to 10^(25) of these 'seeds' on the young

J. Mayo Greenberg: The secrets of stardust. (Scientific American December
QY: J. Mayo Greenberg, University of Leiden, NL
Summary by SCIENCE-WEEK 1Dec00
For more information:

Related Background:

Carbon is a major factor in the evolutionary scheme of the Universe because
of its abundance and its ability to form complex chemical entities. It is
apparently also a key element in the evolution of prebiotic molecules. The
different forms of cosmic carbon range from carbon atoms and carbon-bearing
molecules to complex solid-state carbonaceous structures, and evidence
gathered during the past decade has considerably enhanced our understanding
of the physical and chemical properties of carbon materials in space. *Th.
Henning and F. Salama (2 installations, DE US) present a detailed review of
the subject, the authors making the following points:

1) More than 75 percent of the 118 *interstellar and circumstellar molecules
identified to date are carbon-bearing molecules, and one component of
interstellar dust is evidently carbonaceous. The cosmic evolution of carbon
from the interstellar medium into *protoplanetary disks and *planetesimals,
and finally into habitable bodies, is intrinsic to the study of the origin
of life.

2) Carbon plays an important role in the physical evolution of the
interstellar medium because it is the main supplier of free electrons in
diffuse interstellar clouds, thus contributing to the heating of
interstellar gas.

3) The observation of unidentified ubiquitous molecular and solid-state
features in astronomical spectra, and the realization that these features
are linked to carbonaceous materials, have resulted in major scientific
progress in the past decade. Laboratory and theoretical studies stimulated
by these astronomical observations have led to a better understanding of the
various forms of cosmic carbon such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
carbon-chain molecules, carbon custers, and carbonaceous solids. These
investigations have also led to the detection of novel forms of carbon and
laid the foundations for the chemistry of *fullerenes.

4) The authors present the following categorization of carbon in space:
a) Carbon-rich circumstellar envelopes around *red giant and *asymptotic
giant branch (AGB) stars: CO, C(sub2)H(sub2), complex hydrocarbons,
gas-phase polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
b) Diffuse interstellar medium: C+, simple diatomic molecules, gas-phase
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and carbon chains.
c) Dense interstellar medium: CO, complex hydrocarbons.
d) Interstellar material in primitive meteorites: polycyclic aromatic

5) The authors suggest that the widespread distribution of complex organics
in the interstellar medium has profound implications for our understanding
a) the chemical complexity of the interstellar medium,
b) the evolution of prebiotic molecules,
c) the impact of this evolution on the origin and evolution of life on early
Earth through the exogenous delivery (by cometary encounters and meteoritic
bombardments) of prebiotic organics.

Th. Henning and F. Salama: Carbon in the Universe. (Science 18 Dec 98
QY: Th. Henning, Astrophysikalisches Institut und Universitats-Sternwarte,
Schillergabchen 2-3, D-07745, Jena DE.

Text Notes:
*interstellar and circumstellar molecules: In this context, an interstellar
molecule is any molecule that occurs naturally in clouds of gas and dust in
space. In general, a circumstellar molecule is any molecule that occurs in gas and
dust surrounding a star.

*protoplanetary disks: These are dust disks surrounding young stars; it is
from these disks that planets presumably form.

*planetesimals: Planetesimals are bodies with dimensions of 10^(-3) to
10^(3) meters that are believed to form planets by a process of accretion.
The term "accretion" refers to an
aggregation, an increase in the mass of a body by the addition of smaller
bodies that collide and adhere to it, provided the relative velocities are
low enough for coalescence. As the mass
of the agglomerate increases, so does the rate of accretion, and this
accretion process is believed to generally occur in the form of a disk. A
stellar accretion disk is a swarm of dust grains that evolve into
planetesimals and then planets.

*fullerenes: Fullerenes are large molecules composed entirely of carbon,
with the chemical formula C(sub n), where n is any even number from 32 to
over 100. They apparently have the structure of a hollow spheroidal cage
with a surface network of carbon atoms connected in hexagonal and pentagonal

*red giant: A red giant star is a star in a late stage of evolution. Having
exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core, the star is burning elements heavier than hydrogen. It has
a surface temperature of less than 4700 degrees Kelvin and a diameter 10 to
100 times that of the Sun.

*asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars: These are stars that occupy a strip in
the *Hertzsprung-Russell diagram that is almost parallel to and just above
what is called the "giant branch" off the

*Main Sequence. Stars evolve from the horizontal H-R branch to the
asymptotic giant branch when they have exhausted the helium in their cores
and are instead burning helium in a shell.

*Hertzsprung-Russell diagram: The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram is a plot of
stellar absolute magnitude against spectral type, and is perhaps the most
useful diagrammatic aid in astrophysics. It allows the portrayal of the
evolution of a star as occurring along various paths in the diagram.

*Main Sequence: The Main Sequence is a region on the Hertzsprung-Russell
diagram where most stars lie, including our own Sun. The evolution of a star
can be diagrammed as a movement along the Main Sequence and an eventual
branching off the Main Sequence to regions associated with various types of
old stars.

Summary & Notes by SCIENCE-WEEK 26Feb99
For more information:

Copyright 2000, Science Week



From the Bad Astronomer <>


The article about a New Hampshire fire possibly sparked by a meteorite in
the December 6 CCNet caught my attention. As most of your readers
undoubtedly know, meteorites (at least, ones under a hundred meters in
diameter!) are generally cool when they hit, and will not spark a fire. The
story had enough merit, however, for me to follow it up. I talked to
Stephanie Hanes, the Concord Monitor staff reporter who wrote the original
story, as well as Sandt Michener, who works at the Christa McAuliffe
Planetarium in Concord. They directed me to some of the witnesses.

Dick Szopa, a local resident of Salisbury, New Hampshire, was probably the
first person to see it. I talked with him about what he saw. Some of his
description was consistent with a meteor, but some was decidedly not. The
object was falling  from the sky when he first saw it, but he stated several
times that it "arched" across, and went so far as to compare it to a
basketball thrown at a hoop. That alone would indicate it was not a meteor,
which would have been falling straight in.

There were two fires, separated by a couple of meters. There is no
indication of any remaining object that might have started the fires. If it
had been a meteor, it would either have had to split into two pieces or
bounce, both of which strike me as highly unlikely given the lack of a

The owner of the property on which the object hit is David Ayoub. He said a
pass with a metal detector gave a positive reading the night of the impact,
but the next day around noon there was no reading at the same spot. He
admitted he had not used the detector for some time, but did test it on some
coins and it worked properly (even identifying which coin was which). There
were a lot of people there (media and the like) between the two times he
used the detector, so it's possible that someone found an object and took

Szopa said that there was no noise despite his being only 200 yards away,
and it was moving quickly. Yet there is no crater, and the only holes in the
ground look to be from burrowing animals, according to people that were at
the scene.

All the accounts are more consistent with something that was thrown from a
short distance away. Several of the witnesses said it looked like a firework
of some kind, but it was falling quickly with no sound. The location is
fairly rural, with a few houses on 3 acre lots abutting a large deep forest.
It's possible that some people were in the woods and launched some sort of
fireball (a Roman candle or some such thing). That would explain the arcing
trajectory, two fires with no remnant and the lack of noise and crater.
Eyewitnesses also describe it as being red, more consistent with fireworks
than a meteor.

There are some unconfirmed accounts of witnesses 40 miles away spotting
something in the sky at about the same time, but I have not substantiated
these yet. I will not dismiss them out of hand, but it seems this is more
likely coincidence given the other accounts.

In my opinion, this is still worth following up, but most likely will end up
being something more mundane than a meteorite.

Followup articles can be found at
(which mentions CCNet and a few familiar names!) as well as

-Phil Plait


From Jon Richfield <>

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe and Professor Sir Fred Hoyle are quoted as
having written to the Times in terms that resurrect suspicions that they are
indulging in satirical japes. They exploit a dilemma that leaves them
winners either way: whether their parody of panspermic hypotheses is
intended seriously or satirically, we find ourselves compelled to respond
willy-nilly. We cannot let either a challenge or a tease pass, because either would be an equal
betrayal of other readers. Some time ago, I reflected wryly that it was
about time that the universal infection brigade seized on BSE as an
illustration of interstellar infection, and sure enough, up it popped. It is
a weary theme. Consider a few items from their Times letter.

"Diseases of plants and animals have a long history of mysterious
appearances without any satisfactory explanation being offered of
where they have come from."

A quantitative argument presented as usual as a real knock-down, together
with a few qualitative question beggings. How much explanation is needed to
satisfy the auditors? Suppose that a new strain of microbe undergoes a minor
series of mutations, whether by corruption or by deletion or duplication of
genetic material, and this produced a new strain of epidemic infection; How
rare was the ancestor? Was it known to microbiology? Does it get discovered
at all? (Some germs never do, you know!) Suppose it does not get discovered
soon. We isolate and identify the mutant strain. We speculate on its origin.
We say: "Well, we don't know you, but you might have derived from such and
such a microbe, which possibly we also do not know."

How satisfactory is that? Not perfectly, surely. But for most biologists it
would do for most practical purposes.

Cosmologists are less easily satisfied. They demand that instead of wild
guesses at mutations, we make the simpler assumption instead that the new
microbe must have come from space. Two centuries ago if we were assured that
the new disease came from space, we would have said: "Jeepers and Odzooks!
What they won't discover next!" and only Thomas Jefferson would have dissented. One
century ago and we would have said: "Pull the other one; we know all about
space and microbes and that idea is nonsense."  In the last decade or three
we should be saying: "Come off it china! It doesn't seem impossible in
principle, but really! There is a lot of nonsense that is not technically

If everything for which we can detail no "satisfactory" explanation must
come from space, it is a constipated, sterile, constrained world we inhabit
in the midst of a bounteous, teleological and whimsical universe.

"Life on Earth is far too intricate to have evolved here in
isolation from the rest of the Universe."

Once again an absolute assertion of a quantitative proposition. As for its
merits, I have demonstrated in another essay, without any sociological
appeals, that not only is there no support for the denial of Earth's
capacity to produce life, but if we assume instead that all life or living
novelties stem from exotic sources, we wind up with ludicrous conclusions
for both the nature of and continuing prospects for our life, its evolution
and ecology.

All this without invoking any spontaneous common-sense allergies to the
ideas of alien life, or anal-retentive appeals to Occam.

"Recent studies have shown that much of the material escaping from
comets is in the form of organic particles that cannot be
distinguished from biomaterial. The input to the Earth is estimated to
be several tens of tonnes of cometary material per day, sufficient, if it
was all in the form of bacteria, to give a daily incidence of several
hundred thousand bacteria per square metre of area."

This is surely a joke? "Cannot be distinguished from biomaterial" sounds so
ingenuous that one blushes to ask what the accessible diagnostic criteria
might be. To read the phrase, one would swear that Buck Rogers and Flash
Gordon had retrieved and tested a few kilos of the material on a routine
space walk! And yet, it seems we are speaking mainly of spectroscopic
evidence and a few collisions of microscopic particles with collecting plates. On
earth we (H&C included) would not accept anything so tenuous as evidence for the vicar
having farted in church, but in space we proceed directly to go, without
stopping in Jail, and collecting on the way: "sufficient, if it was all in
the form of bacteria..." 

IF it really is a major proportion, IF it is biological, IF it is living, IF
it is microbial...

But there is better to come: "For the most part the material simply washes
away." What on earth does this mean? Washes away from what? Washes off the
Earth and back into space? Washes off the backs of polluted cattle? I assume
that the Hoyle and Wickramasinghe mean that the invader germs land on places
where they get rained off or something.

"But, in rare cases, a connection may occur and if this escalates a
new disease can be born."

More woolliness. More handwaving or what "rare" means. Once every many cows?
Once every many years?

"Small particles of bacterial and viral sizes descend through the
Earth's stratosphere mostly during the winter months, and we believe that
the nearly unique English and Welsh practice of out-wintering cattle
explains why BSE hit English and Welsh farms more severely than
elsewhere. English and Welsh farmers move cattle frequently from field to
field, maximising their chance of picking up any pathogen that may fall
during the winter months from the air onto the grass."

I wonder where they get that idea from. Are we speaking only about northern
hemisphere winters?  What about summer rainfall regions? Where I grew up in
a warm temperate area far larger than England, and smaller than other
similar climatic areas in the southern hemisphere, cattle are commonly out
during the winter months.

Without subjecting Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle's letter to The
Times to more detailed painful analysis, I am afraid that their remarks on
agricultural matters are not only parochial, but largely nonsensical, even
more so than their biological views in general.

Jon Richfield

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"Since the collapse of the Hague conference, media organisations
which were previously swept along by the warming hype have now begun to
look more critically at the issue, including `Aunty' herself - the
   -- John L. Daily, 1 December 2000

"For the climate sceptics who doubt that human release of greenhouse
gases is the main cause of global warming, one of the more plausible
alternatives is that changes in the Sun might be responsible.
Researchers in Denmark now show how and where a link between global
cloudiness and solar activity could affect climate in unforeseen ways."
       -- Philip Ball, Nature, 6 December 2000

"If large changes in atmospheric CO2 in the past have not produced
the climate response we thought they had, that undermines the case
for reducing fossil fuel emissions."
       -- Lee Kump, Pennsylvania State University, 6 December 2000


From the BBC News Online, 8 December 2000

Senior officials from the United States, the European Union and other key
countries have failed in their attempt to salvage something from the
abortive climate change summit in November in The Hague.

The ministers have returned home after a hastily arranged two days of talks
in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, in which they had hoped to find enough
common ground to reach a deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson said: "It would have been nice
to get the officials to hammer out an agreement, but that has not happened.
That's the bad news,"


From the University of Ottawa, 6 December 2000

More than hot air: Geologist offers a new view of greenhouse gases

OTTAWA, Wednesday, December 6, 2000 - Global warming is a lot more
complicated than is generally assumed, and we may have to rethink how we
deal with the issue.

University of Ottawa and Ruhr University (Germany) geologist Jan Veizer and
his colleagues from Belgium have assembled a very different picture of the
physical and chemical conditions that have contributed to the past warming
or cooling of our planet. An increase in the atmospheric volume of
"greenhouse" gases such as carbon dioxide - which has been blamed as the
primary cause of recent increases in the world's average annual temperature
- is just part of the story.

In an article being published this week in the definitive scientific journal
Nature, Veizer and colleagues conclude that past climates and estimates of
carbon dioxide concentrations disagree. An increase in the level of
greenhouse gases may be a natural side effect of climate change. Our own
industrial contribution may enhance a given natural trend but not reverse
it. The release and consumption of carbon dioxide goes hand in hand with
other greenhouse gases. In order to mitigate our impact on this balance, we
should take into account the cumulative role of all greenhouse gases,
particularly of water vapour as the leading agent that modulates our


Jan Veizer knows it is not politically correct to suggest that carbon
dioxide is not the primary culprit in global warming. But he does argue that
it is scientifically correct to say so, and he has 20 years' worth of
acclaimed research to support that opinion.

"It needs a bit of perspective, that's all," he says.

His perspective covers the last 550 million years of the earth's history.
That's how far back he and his colleagues have been able to measure the
amounts of chemicals found in marine shells from around the world. These
reveal major changes that took place in the amount of oxygen isotopes in
seawater, a key indication of changes in temperature associated with major
climatic events such as ice ages.

It was thought that those events were restricted to certain parts of the
globe, but the work of Veizer and his colleagues has revealed that tropical
areas cooled down at the same time. Since warming and cooling trends have
usually been credited to changes in the levels of the notorious "greenhouse"
gas, carbon dioxide, and the results disagreed, the observations challenged
the existing model. In particular, Veizer wondered where the atmosphere's
excess CO2 went so that the world could cool down.

Trees and soils are often seen as the most important "sinks", where CO2 and
water are absorbed from the air and soil. That is why much of the
environmental debate that took place in The Hague last month focused on the
world's forests. If we are responsible for warming up the planet by pumping
more carbon into the air by burning fossil fuels in our automobiles and
elsewhere, then a sufficient amount of forest cover should be able to remove
this carbon from the atmosphere.

Yet Veizer suggests that the situation is much more complex. Based on work
with his former student K. Telmer, presently at the University of Victoria,
he argues that there is a crucial link between the way carbon and water each
cycle through plants, the atmosphere and the ground. In order to fix one
molecule of carbon, a plant has to transpire almost one thousand molecules
of water. Yet, the air and soils contain less than one hundred molecules of
water to each molecule of carbon dioxide. The system is therefore water, not
CO2, limited. With warmer climate, and greater humidity, forests may play an
enhanced role in the CO2 budget of the atmosphere.

That may be cold comfort to our environmental agenda, which should be more
inclusive and consider all greenhouse gases, not just CO2. In particular, it
should take into account the modulating role of the most important
greenhouse gas, water vapour.

Veizer is sympathetic to arguments that we should reduce pollution. He
simply does not want those arguments to be premised on incomplete science.
And on that basis he suggests that we should in fact continue with plans to
lower CO2 emissions, even if it is for entirely different reasons.

"In the end, I am all for it, because it is in fact pollution and we only
have one planet to live on," he says.

For more information:

Bob LeDrew, Communications Officer
University of Ottawa
Tel.: (613) 562-5800, ext. 3154


From the BBC News Online, 7 December 2000

Researchers who have examined the fossil record say it questions the role of
carbon dioxide (CO2) as the main force driving climate variability.



From th Greening Earth Society

By Robert C. Balling Jr., Greening Earth Society Science Advisor

Who doubts that during the last century that there have been significant
changes in earth's climate? Such a statement is true no matter which century
you cite in our planet's recorded history. This is the central problem for
researchers who claim to have "fingerprinted" human impact on climate in
this one.

While the near-surface thermometer record seems to show warming,
satellite-based and balloon-based measurements of temperature in the lower
atmosphere do not. It is in the nature of scientific investigation that
there will be scientific debate surrounding these differential trends for
years to come. But little debate surrounds one significant change in climate
observed across land areas all around the world: the diurnal temperature
range is declining.

"Diurnal temperature range" is the spread between high and low temperature
on a day-to-day basis. When we say, "diurnal temperature range is declining"
what we are saying is, morning temperatures are rising and afternoon
temperatures either are declining or remain unchanged. As a consequence, the
difference between the two (maximum-minimum temperature) is declining. This
pattern shows up in most land areas across the planet.

This strong and nearly universal signal receives enormous attention in the
climatological community because it may be related to the buildup of
greenhouse gases and/or highly interrelated increases in cloudiness,
atmospheric water vapor, atmospheric turbulence, or soil moisture.
Variations in diurnal temperature range even have been related to phases of
the moon!

In a recent article in Geophysical Research Letters, yet another mechanism
surfaces as a way of accounting for the observed decrease in the diurnal
temperature range. Collatz et al. note that an increase in vegetation would
produce a series of feedbacks involving water vapor, soil moisture, and
turbulence that could decrease diurnal temperature range. As an illustration
of what they are getting at, imagine the difference between daily maximum
and minimum temperatures in a forest and an adjacent parking lot.

Collatz et al. used a numerical model of climate that includes a detailed
vegetation scheme. They conclude that the observed decline in diurnal
temperature range could be related to "reported increases in vegetation
cover in the Northern Hemisphere." Identification of the few areas where
diurnal temperature range is increasing as regions where land degradation,
deforestation, and/or desertification are underway adds support to their

It is also in the nature of science that one might debate the cause of the
declining diurnal temperature range for years to come. But it is more than a
little interesting to the Greening Earth Society that an increase in
vegetation cover in the Northern Hemisphere emerges from this research as a
significant contributor to this widely-observed climate signal. We will add
that a decline in diurnal temperature range itself yields tremendous
benefits to plant life. If it's not as hot in the afternoon, the stress of
afternoon heat on plants is reduced. Higher morning temperatures would
reduce the stress associated with frost or sub-freezing temperatures.

In discussions of global climate change, there often is reference to
"feedback loops." This research points to one not often considered.


Collatz, G.J., Bounoua, L., Los, S.O., Randall, D.A., Fung, I.Y., and
Sellers, P.J. 2000. A mechanism for the influence of vegetation on the
response of the diurnal temperature range to changing climate. Geophysical
Research Letters, 27:3381-3384.


From Andrew Yee <>

From Nature News Service, 6 December 2000
[ ]

Wednesday, 6 December 2000

Solar blow to low cloud could be warming planet


For the climate sceptics who doubt that human release of greenhouse gases is
the main cause of global warming, one of the more plausible alternatives is
that changes in the Sun might be responsible. Researchers in Denmark now
show how and where a link between global cloudiness and solar activity could
affect climate in unforeseen ways [1].

Henrik Svensmark and Nigel Marsh of the Danish Space Research Institute in
Copenhagen have focused on cosmic rays. These are very-high-energy rays that
are similar to X-rays, but are packed with even more energy. In the latest
issue of Physical Review Letters, Svensmark and Marsh reveal evidence that a
decrease in solar activity allows more cosmic rays to enter the Earth's
atmosphere, and that this in turn affects cloud formation.

The idea that cosmic rays can influence cloud formation was put forward by
Svensmark in 1997 [2,3], when he showed that there was a correlation between
total cloud cover over the Earth and the influx of cosmic rays produced by
catastrophes in our Galaxy. The rays are thought to collide with particles
or molecules in the atmosphere, leaving them electrically charged, or
These ionized particles then seed the growth of cloud water droplets.

The heat output of the Sun rises and falls roughly every 11 years. This
'solar cycle' is usually traced out by the recurrent appearance of sunspots,
although the change in the Sun's heat output is tiny -- about 0.1%. This is
too small to have a direct effect on climate. But various indirect
influences are possible, and the cosmic rays fall into this category.

The Sun helps to protect the Earth from cosmic rays. It constantly releases
charged subatomic particles. These stream through the Solar System as the
solar wind, carrying with them an imprint of the Sun's magnetic field. It is
these 'field rays' that interact with, and partially shield the Earth from,
cosmic rays.

The strength of the solar wind depends on the level of solar activity, and
so varies with the sunspot cycle. When the solar wind blows less forcefully,
more cosmic rays streak through our atmosphere.

Clouds have a strong yet subtle effect on climate. Clouds that form low in
the sky are relatively warm and made up of tiny water droplets. These tend
to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space. High clouds are
colder, consisting mostly of ice particles, and they can have the opposite
effect of warming the Earth by trapping heat.

By studying satellite measurements of different cloud types since 1980,
Svensmark and Marsh have found that only low-altitude clouds (less than 3.2
kilometres above the Earth) seem to vary in step with the rise and fall of
the cosmic-ray flux. Clouds higher than these appear insensitive to changes
in the flux. "It is imperative to understand which cloud types are
influenced by galactic cosmic rays," the researchers say.

They argue that the imprint of the solar magnetic field in the solar wind
has increased over the past century. So the shielding from cosmic rays will
have increased, decreasing the formation and cooling influence of low clouds
and providing a possible contribution to the observed global warming of the
past 100 years.

[1] Marsh, N. D. & Svensmark, H. Low cloud properties influenced by cosmic
rays. Physical Review Letters 85, 5004-5007 (2000).
[2] Svensmark, H. & Friis-Christensen, E. Journal of Atmospheric
Solar-Terrestrial Physics 59, 1225 (1997).
[3] Svensmark, H. Influence of cosmic rays on Earth's climate. Physical
Review Letters 81, 5027-5030 (1998).

© Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2000 - NATURE NEWS SERVICE


From C)2 Science, 6 December 2000

Tobias, S.M. and Weiss, N.O. 2000. Resonant interactions between solar
activity and climate.  Journal of Climate 13: 3745-3759.

Numerous studies have yielded high correlations between time courses of a
number of different climatic phenomena and historical trends of various
measures of solar activity (see, for example, the many entries under Solar
Climatic Effects in our Subject Index).  It is difficult, however, for
certain scientists to believe that earth's thermal and hydrologic cycles
could be so strongly influenced by so weak an influence as solar forcing
appears to be in terms of its degree of variability.  Hence, the quest to
discover how weak solar signals could be sufficiently amplified to produce
the many intriguing climatic histories that appear to be the offspring of
solar variability has become somewhat of a Holy Grail for a major branch of

What was done
Noting that "solar magnetic activity exhibits chaotically modulated cycles
... which are responsible for slight variations in solar luminosity and
modulation of the solar wind," the authors attack the solar forcing of
climate problem by means of a model in which the solar dynamo and earth's
climate are represented by low-order systems, each of which in isolation
supports chaotic oscillations but which when run together sometimes

What was learned
The authors determined that "solutions oscillate about either of two fixed
points, representing warm and cold states, flipping sporadically between
them."  They also discovered that a weak nonlinear input from the solar
dynamo "has a significant effect when the 'typical frequencies' of each
system are in resonance."

What it means
The authors' findings are best stated in their own words: "It is clear that
the resonance provides a powerful mechanism for amplifying climate forcing
by solar activity."  Hence, there need no longer be any reluctance to accept
as fact the observation that the many correlations that have been documented
between solar variability and the time histories of various climatic
phenomena do indeed have a cause that is of extraterrestrial origin.
Copyright © 2000.  Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change


Geophysical, archaeological, and historical evidence support a solar-output
model for climate change. Perry CA, Hsu KJ. PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL
7 2000

Although the processes of climate change are not completely understood, an
important causal candidate is variation in total solar output. Reported
cycles in various climate-proxy data show a tendency to emulate a
fundamental harmonic sequence of a basic solar-cycle length (11 years)
multiplied by 2(N) (where N equals a positive or negative integer). A simple
additive model for total solar-output variations was developed by
superimposing a progression of fundamental harmonic cycles with slightly
increasing amplitudes. The timeline of the model was calibrated to the
Pleistocene/Holocene boundary at 9,000 years before present. The calibrated
model was compared with geophysical. archaeological. and historical evidence
of warm or cold climates during the Holocene. The evidence of periods of
several centuries of cooler climates worldwide called "little ice ages,"
similar to the period anno Domini (A.D.) 1280-1860 and reoccurring
approximately every 1,300 years, corresponds well with fluctuations in
modeled solar output. A more detailed examination of the climate sensitive
history of the last 1,000 years further supports the model. Extrapolation of
the model into the future suggests a gradual cooling during the next few
centuries with intermittent minor warmups and a return to near
little-ice-age conditions within the next 500 years. This cool period then
may be followed approximately 1,500 years from now by a return to
altithermal conditions similar to the previous Holocene Maximum.

Perry CA, US Geol Survey, Lawrence, KS 66049 USA.
US Geol Survey, Lawrence, KS 66049 USA.
Tarim Associates, CH-8006 Zurich, Switzerland.

Copyright © 2000 Institute for Scientific Information

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