MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!

A Tale of Two Planets

"No one would have believed..." Photo: JPL/NASA

 

A Tale of Two Stories

My dear readers might expect the opening lines of a post bearing the title with such an obvious play on the most-published original English story in the world to follow the path of Dickens’ immortal words.  In this case, however, I ask your indulgence to open with the words of another world-famous piece of literature, known for its dramatic presentation, but far fewer have ever read its introductory sentence:   

NO one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

These words written in 1898 by the equally immortal English author, H.G. Wells, open his universally known War of the Worlds. I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that like many, if not most contemporary Americans, I know Wells’ story through its radio and cinematic productions, but have never read the book.  I had to look up a copy of the text on-line, because unlike Dickens’ opening salvo in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, Wells opens his   

War of the Worlds, 1st Edition, 1898. Image: Public Domain

 

at a much more subtle and cerebral level, “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…”  Watched by whom?  Martians: perhaps the first modern depiction of alien life prescient of the field of astrobiology.  Amazingly, many would have believed it; millions did.  Mars was the planet of fanciful speculation, with good reason.  But I will return to that later.  Nevertheless, the universe was still a relatively small and cozy place.  Science, as we know it today, was a toddler awkwardly running to and fro, counting and building things.   

Yet a revolution was brewing, pushed by industry through the 1700s and 1800s, astonishing breakthroughs on how to build things big, how to make an inconceivable jump from the strength and power of humans and beasts to the harnessing of natural elements into machines with the power of a thousand beasts and ten thousand laborers.  That however was prelude, for another force was being created and directed, a force that would not only create power but carry information.   

Though this revolution grew, another vortex formed like a gathering tropical storm, from an unexpected province, not over the consequences of the growing industries that were rapidly building on each step of the toddling sciences, but from the increasing rotation of the storm creating winds and havoc–its target–the very ground and the life that lived upon it:  Geology.  Biology.  Evolution.  The age of the earth.  The origin of life.  Bones, now stone, dug from the ground.  Ocean shells on mountain peaks.  That confluence of the science of the human mind and the science of the divine mind created a cyclone that like the Great Red spot on far distant Jupiter’s gaseous oceanic atmosphere, has now raged for over a century and a half.   

As the turmoil over the origin of the world and life raged across the world, something much more quiet and solitary was happening after dark.  For 300 years, since a Dutch oculist placed two pieces of curved glass into a tube and realized it could magnify the image at a distance, and soon after an upstart Italian mathematics professor pointed it at the sky, a select group of men, (almost always supported by women, from a sister who was devoted to her brother’s work, to a room filled with highly educated astronomers, but denied access to the telescopes even as these instruments were growing in sophistication), began counting what they saw in the sky.  What they saw amazed them.  Very slowly it began to dawn upon them that these views of the heavens were going to change the universe in ways so profound that the debate over evolution or divine creation would pale almost to insignificance.  Now, if they could just figure out why.   

War of the Worlds Title Page, 1st Edition, 1898. Photo: Public Domain

 

In the three decades that followed Wells’ words, Science matured at staggering rate, accomplishing more in those thirty years than perhaps had been achieved in the previous thirty centuries.  It is difficult to describe in words the sheer magnitude of the transformation of reality itself.  The universe was not small, it was huge beyond comprehension.  It was not young but old, so old that nothing in the cherished scriptures of three of the world’s greatest religions gave the slightest hint of that age.  And that included an ancient age of the very Earth itself.   

That was only the beginning of the stunning revelations.  As the discoveries of science accelerated through the Twentieth Century, Edwin Hubble in 1929 proved the Milky Way galaxy was but one island universe among, not thousands, but billions, and they were not suspended motionless in the cosmic void, but were moving, and moving at speeds unimaginable previously to any human in history.  Away from each other. Which led to only one other even more stunning conclusion: There had been a beginning.  But what that beginning looked like was so close to being beyond human comprehension that nearly a century later, millions of people still cannot bring themselves to accept it.   

It would make no difference though to those who stepped into the staggering reality of the universe.  Within that one stupendous century powered flight was invented and human technology leapfrogged from aircraft barely able to climb into the air, to a machine of such great power and thrust, that humans broke the gravitational bonds of Earth.  A scant 40 years after Hubble discovered the true nature of the universe, two humans would step upon the surface of Earth’s moon.   

By the end of the 20th Century, these two stories, one by Dickens and the other by H.G. Wells still command the literary attention of the world.  At the same time, the two stories of reality, one guided by a devotion to a divinely inspired word, and the other guided by an inspired effort of humans to describe in words what they observed still have not found a way to comfortable accommodate each other, although growing numbers are searching for that integrative spark of the fusion of the two.  It is among these seekers that the tale of two planets becomes a revelatory event, a new genesis, indisputable in its truth and its impact.   

A Tale of Two Planets

Earth and Mars to Scale. Photo: JPL/NASA

 

When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, the photos above did not, could not, exist.  What Wells had at his disposal were maps such as this drawing by the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877:   

Mars Map by Schiaparelli, 1877. One of the first attempts to map the Martian surface. Originally published in "Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (German encyclopaedia), 1888." Photo: Public Domain

 

A century later, through the combined efforts of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites orbiting the Red Planet, using sophisticated imaging equipment, the true topography of Mars has been revealed:   

Mars Composite Topography Map of the Surface. Photo: JPL/NASA/ESA

 

The story, however, is a tale of two planets.  In similar fashion, Earth-orbiting satellites have also mapped the topography of our own blue planet:   

Earth Composite Topographic Map. Image: GFSC/NASA

 

One of the most interesting facts about Mars and Earth is that Mars has almost the same amount of land area as Earth.  The difference is that Earth’s oceans cover about 71% of the planet.  Land accounts for 148.94 million square kilometers  on Earth.  Mars has 144.80 square kilometers of land.  Where, then is the water?  That’s a question that has been relentlessly pursued since, well, Schiaparelli labeled surface details on his map “canale”, which was inaccurately translated into English as “canals” rather than “channels.”  Earth-based telescopes could see that the north and south poles of the planet had what appeared to be ice-caps, which grew and shrunk with the seasons (which are about twice as long as Earth’s due to Mar’s orbit being about 80 million km on average farther from the Sun).  But was it enough to have once given Mars vital oceans?  Those hopes were dashed (though prematurely) when in 1964 NASA’s Mariner 4, the first space probe to make it to Mars sent back pictures of a dry, dead, world.  Still, the prospect of a once wetter Mars remained tantalizing.  Over the course of the next half century as more robotic missions were flung toward this enigmatic world, the possibility of water, in great quantities continued to lurk just under the surface.   

The breakthrough finally came in the first decade of the 21st Century, as ever-increasingly sophisticated space probes, some in orbit, some as landers, photographed, radar-probed, scratched the soil, traversed the surface testing thousands of samples of rock and soil.  The chemical hints of water were everywhere, but the proof seemingly nowhere.  Schiaparelli’s channels were there, as were volcanoes of a height that stunned planetary scientists.  Mars bears the scar of the largest canyon known in the solar system, Valles Marineris, as wide as the continental United States, deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon on a scale so massive as to make the great rift in the Earth look like a scratch by comparison.  Ice on the poles was confirmed, too, although the amount of carbon dioxide ice “dry ice” mixed with the water is substantial.  Still, the volume of water seemed too small, even accounting for evaporation and sublimation (liquid turning from ice to gas without going through a fluid state).   

Mars: Valles Marineris with U.S. Map Overlaid. Photo: NASA

 

In 2008, JPL/NASA/University of Arizona in partnership with multiple countries and international companies successfully landed Phoenix at 68.2° North.  Although it was not designed to traverse the martian surface like the wildly successful rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, it had a shovel to scrape through the soil.  On July 31, 2008, in a trench dug no deeper than a child might dig in the sand on a beach, images from Phoenix proved, once and for all that Mars had water:   

Evaporating Ice on Mars, Phoenix Lander, 31 July 2008. Photo: JPL/NASA/Univ of Arizona

 

Ice exposed in the trench on Sol 20 (the designation of a day on Mars), had evaporated/sublimated away on Sol 24.  What if the Red Planet had once been the second Blue Planet?   

Mars with Oceans Current Topography. Image: MOLA & NASA/JPL/MSSS

 

And all this brings us to this photo of an unassuming-looking rock.  Looks, however can be deceiving, for this rock is a meteorite, and it is from all places, Mars.   

ALH84001,0. A Meteorite from Mars. Discovered: Antarctica, 1984, Wt: 1930.9g, Photo: JSC/NASA.

 

Although meteorites confirmed from Mars are extremely rare (only 12 have been verified), the most astonishing possibility as slices of three of these extraterrestrial rocks were subjected to electron microscopy, structures were present that appeared remarkably like microfossils found in earth rocks.   

Possible Fossilized Nanofossil from ALH84001. Photo: NASA

 

And this one from the Nakhla, Egypt Martian meteorite:   

Complex biomorphs appear on another Nakhla chip shown in this scanning electron microscope (SEM) frame. This image contains three basic forms: Broad smooth knife-shaped features, elongated features with rounded endcaps and transverse compartments or dividers, and donut shaped small features, each about 1 micrometer in diameter. One possibility is the donut-shaped features are derived from the compartments present in the elongated features (Wikipedia):   

Mars Meteorite, Nakhla Egypt, Possible Nanolife Markings. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

And, finally, this electron microscope image also from the Nakhla Martian meteorite of a possible nanofossil:   

Martian Meteorite Nakhla, Possible Nanolife Fossil Image. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

Does it not seem oddly paradoxical to recollect H.G. Wells’ opening sentence when he wrote,   

…perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

We, the humans of Earth are examining the rocks of Mars, scrutinsing them for “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water,” even if that drop of water existed billions of years ago.  We know we have found Mars’ water.  Now, are these structures the remnants of life when Mars was the second blue planet?  If that turns out to be the case, the indisputable fact that life existed on both planets, the tale of two planets will require not a new chapter, but whole new book.  For those who cling to the accounts of the Divine Word as given to a one and only act of creation, from which Homo sapiens sapiens is the capstone of the cosmic plan, they will have to grapple, as never before–regardless of the tirades of the past 150 years–with the realization that the Creator they worship is more clever and speaks with words never heard by human ears, not only on our planetary sibling, but throughout a Universe too large to comprehend, but begging us to do so, nonetheless!   

First Photo of Earth Taken from Mars' Surface by Spirit Rover. Photo: NASA

 

This is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd martian day, or sol, of its mission. The image is a mosaic of images taken by the rover’s navigation camera showing a broad view of the sky, and an image taken by the rover’s panoramic camera of Earth. The contrast in the panoramic camera image was increased two times to make Earth easier to see.   

The inset shows a combination of four panoramic camera images zoomed in on Earth. The arrow points to Earth. Earth was too faint to be detected in images taken with the panoramic camera’s color filters. Source: NASA.   

Little did H.G. Wells ever imagine that the first Martian to look at Earth would be through robotic eyes sent from Earth.   

   

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

This week I inaugurated a new blog called “DÎSCÎ,” which is the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry. (It is pronounced “dye-sigh”). The address is: http://www.disciforum.wordpress.com.  DÎSCÎ’s homebase is on The Intersection, which is a companion site for members and friends of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sponsored by DisciplesWorld, an independently published print and online magazine for the Disciples.

I have, for some time, wanted to create a forum, an online institute in which people of faith could discuss the many issues regarding religion and science.  But my idea was to move beyond the creation-evolution debate and start a conversation of what it means to be a person of faith, particularly from the Judeo-Christian perspective in a universe that is very large, very old, and to give genuine credit to the advances in science over the past nearly 500 years.

I am grateful for the assistance of Rebecca Woods, who created The Intersection and serves on the DisciplesWorld staff, for her interest and encouragement in launching DÎSCÎ.  Here, then is the Inaugural Post of the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry.

DĪSCĪ Space Theme

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

Day and night. The most important cycle that governs our lives. Our bodies are finely attuned to the light of day and the dark of night.  It is as natural as breathing.  We think of that 24 hour cycle as very simple.  The earth spins on its axis; part of its surface is always in light and part is always in dark.  It has been this way since the creation of the world.  Both of the creation stories in the Bible, in Genesis 1 and 2 use the word “day” to describe God’s creative activity.

There is, however, nothing simple about it at all.  The complex set of forces that keep us safely spinning around the life-giving warmth of the Sun are only now beginning to be understood.

Yet, because of its constancy, we take it for granted.

Let me ask you a question.  When was the last time, when you left your home after dark, that you actually looked up at the sky?  Not just a glance, but looked up with intention to see what, well, what you could see?

I’ll venture a guess: Probably only rarely.  If you live in an urban setting, the combination of light pollution and air pollution might make it nearly impossible to see much of anything.  If your home is in a rural part of the country, you may very well be able to see the starry arc of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.  And if you are fortunate enough to live or visit well away from a population center, the night sky can be so bright you hardly need a flashlight to move around safely.

Whatever you can see, though, when you look up into the sky is not the present but the past.  The photons hitting the retina in your eyes are all different ages even though every one of those photons is traveling at exactly the same speed–the famous speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 km per second.  Astronomers call this “look back time.”

The light reflected from the moon takes just a tick over one second to reach Earth.  The Sun, some 93 million miles away, takes around 8 minutes. The farther the object is from me, the older the light is when it reaches my eyes.  When Earth passes by Mars (which is the fourth rock from the sun), the light takes anywhere between three and about six minutes to reach us, because both orbits of Earth and Mars are elliptical, just slightly egg-shaped.

If I point my telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy (also called M31), which even in my suburban backyard I can easily see, I am looking at light that is over 2.5 million years old!  And Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way.  In fact, Andromeda and the Milky Way are moving toward each other and some billions of years into the future, they will collide and merge.  Astronomers call it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Milkomeda.”

Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images
Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images.  Our Solar System lives in the Orion Arm.

You get the idea.  The farther away the object is, the older the light is when it reaches Earth.

The other key concept is that everything in the universe is moving, and not just moving haphazardly, but expanding away from each other (the trajectories of some galaxies, like the Milky Way and Andromeda, will cause them to collide).  That’s what Edwin Hubble proved in 1925, using the Hooker 100 inch Telescope on Mt Wilson just up the hill from Pasadena, California, that was threatened by the huge “Station Fire” just last week.  This discovery led to the realization that the universe was expanding from a beginning point in space and time, which we now call the Big Bang.  And just a few years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe is not just expanding, it is accelerating.

What we’re interested in, though, is the Beginning, not the End.  Astrophysicists have wound the cosmic clock backward and come up with an age that the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old.  That’s old. Really old.  Can we see anything that old in the sky?  No, we can’t.  But modern telescopes have gotten so powerful that we can see a long way away and therefore back in time.  On September 2, 2009,  Prof. Tomatsugu Goto of the University of Hawaii released this photo of the most distant galaxy with a central black hole, and therefore oldest object ever observed.  It is 12.8  billion light years from us and the mass of the black hole is estimated to be  a billion times that of our sun.

QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged
QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged. 12.8 Bn LY Distant.  Photo: T. Goto, University of Hawaii.

Ponder this image for a few moments, as pixelated as it is.  This is the image of a real galaxy with a real black hole at its center (just like our galaxy has, by the way) that existed  billion years ago.

Here on Earth, which by comparison is only 4.5 billion years old, we humans–in particular we humans of the Judeo-Christian heritage–have viewed our universe as being, well, kind of cozy.  As the old saying goes, “God’s in his (sic) heaven and all’s right with the world.”  And although about 500 years ago that coziness began to be challenged and started unraveling when Copernicus published his “On the Revolutions” in 1543, we have been mostly content to think and talk about God in the way we always have.

Enter the dawn of the 21st Century. We are struck by the enormity of what  astrophysics has revealed to us; new discoveries make the news every week.  The universe is not cozy.  It is huge, old, complex, colder than we can imagine and hotter than we can imagine.  The very molecules that make up our bodies were born out of forces we can barely describe when stars blew themselves apart.

How do we talk about God in this kind of reality?  And life? Life on one planet in a universe that stretches 46.5 billion lights years in every direction?  How do you talk about God in this reality?

This is where we will start.  The Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry is officially open for discussion.

Before you answer, if you can, go outside and look up into the sky for a while, and ponder what is out there, as ancient photons hit your retina, and your brain translates them into the points of light we call stars.