Category Archives: science

The search for extraterrestrial life

Many years of robotic exploration of Mars have not produced evidence of life on the Red Planet.  During the next twenty years, NASA will conduct several missions to try to determine whether life ever arose on Mars.  NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission Curiosity rover, will launch in late 2011 and land on Mars in August 2012.  The search will focus on places where there may be liquid water at sources of geothermal energy.  There is great expectation that there may be Martian microbial life, but it would really be surprising to find multicellular organisms.  Some scientists think that life on Earth may have had its start from microorganisms that traveled on rocks ejected from Mars after meteorite impacts.  If life is found on Mars, DNA analysis will be used to identify similarities to Earth organisms.

The search for intelligent life has been a dream of science fiction.  The Star Trek television series started each episode with the prologue “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Establishing a technologically advanced society has a great number of special requirements.  We have been able to achieve this because we live in an oxygen atmosphere where we can make fire that makes it possible to smelt metals.  Our manual dexterity enables us to manipulate objects easily and to build tools.  Had we been relegated to the realm of the sea with flippers instead of hands with opposable thumbs, even with all our brain power we would not have been able to build the technology to send a probe to another world.  The Neanderthals who preceded us were able to use fire for cooking and for warmth, but in the 250,000 years that they were on Earth they did not advance beyond the stone age.  Modern humans have existed for about 60,000 years, and civilizations were only established 10,000 years ago.  In the last 250 years, our industrialization has managed to pollute the atmosphere to the point that we may trigger a global warming event within a couple of hundred years and cause the extinction of many species, perhaps even our own.

Learn more about the evolution of life on Earth

The Moon stood still for twelve hours

On November 6, 2010 I posted a theory that Mare Moscoviense on the far side of the Moon is the result of overlapping impacts from comet fragments. The image above highlights what I think are four of the major impacts.  So far, I am the only person who believes in this idea.

On the one hand, geologists are of the opinion that impacts have to retain specific shock characteristics from the high impact forces.[1]  The reason for this is that, on Earth, many volcanic features can be easily confused with impact craters, and the shock characteristics can help to differentiate between volcanic and impact features.  This works fine when a single isolated impact is involved, but the criteria do not take into consideration multiple overlapping impacts which would be very different because impacts after the first would fall on a surface melted by a previous impact.

A second prevalent idea is that ancient craters can be flooded by lava so that only the rims remain visible.[2] This may be true, but impacts on viscous fluids also produce what appear to be “flooded craters”, but this mechanism has never been considered because impacts by a cluster of impactors would be a very remote possibility.  In 1994, we saw the fragments of comet Shoemaker Levy 9 strike Jupiter, so the possibility of multiple impacts is small, but real.  Unfortunately, Jupiter is a gas giant; there were no impacts on a solid surface that we could use for comparison.

In trying to make the case for an impact origin for Mare Moscoviense, I have tried to identify the characteristics that would differentiate volcanic lava from impact lava.  Interestingly, the 40,000 square kilometers covered by Mare Moscoviense are very smooth and there does not seem to be any volcanic cone from which such a great quantity of lava could have come.  I have also experimented with impacts on soft clay to show that these impacts may have some morphological similarity to impacts on molten rock. I then estimated the volume of molten lava in Mare Moscoviense and calculated that the proposed impacts could have had enough energy to melt all that rock.  The last thing that I accomplished was to identify a viable collision trajectory between a string of cometary fragments and the Moon.  In this trajectory, the Moon appears to remain still for at least a period of 12 hours while the string of fragments has the opportunity to hit the Lunar surface repeatedly in the same location.  The figure below shows a tangential collision during the first quarter or third quarter Moon that fulfills these requirements.

Several months ago, I notified two of the main Japanese scientists who worked on the KAGUYA Lunar mission about my theory, but I have not received a reply.  I expect that many years will pass before this idea is considered seriously.

Learn more about Mare Moscoviense

[1] French, B.M.; Koeberl, C., 2010, “The convincing identification of terrestrial meteorite impact structures: What works, what doesn’t, and why” Earth-Science Reviews, 98 (2010) 123–170.
[2] Morota, T., et al., 2009-b, Ages and Thicknesses of Mare Basalts in Mare Moscoviense: Results from SELENE (KAGUYA) Terrain Camera Data, 40th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, (Lunar and Planetary Science XL), held March 23-27, 2009 in The Woodlands, Texas, id.1280

Weight-Loss Ring

I received in the mail a catalog of household goods and trinkets.  The cover had an advertisement for a “weight-loss ring” that is claimed to target weight loss in specific problem areas such as the tummy, hips or buttocks.  The adjustable ring is supposed to work on the principle of acupressure.  The ad claims that the Japanese apply pressure on different fingers to target weight loss in specific areas.  This miraculous ring costs only $3.99!

P.T. Barnum, the 19th century American circus entertainer, said “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute”.  His incisive bit of wisdom is still true in the 21st century.  If you believe that you can lose weight by putting on a ring, and that it does not matter how much you eat, then you are a sucker.  If you believe that you can lose weight in specific areas, then you are misinformed.  Weight loss cannot be targeted.

The advertisement is selling a dream.  Many people will pay $3.99 on the chance that the ring might work.  The amount of money is small enough that customers will not complain if it does not work.  The effort to try to get a refund will cost more than the ring itself, so probably none will be returned.  The manufacturer makes a profit of about 1,500%, since a little piece of twisted wire that costs $0.25 can be sold for $3.99.  Good business!

This is clearly a scam.  Why doesn’t a government agency stop it?  The answer is that it is not clear which agency would have jurisdiction.  The Food and Drug administration cannot do it because the ring is not a food or a drug.  The Consumer Protection Agency probably will not get involved unless someone is injured.  So the consumers are left to fend for themselves.

Learn how to lose weight

Lava splash confirms impact origin of Aïr Massif in Niger

For many years geologists have considered the formation of the Aïr Mountains in Niger to be the result of magma accumulation.  The area has no craters typical of meteorite strikes, and the circular features that hint that the formation could have been caused by meteorites have been explained as the result of complex tectonic activity.[1]

A new theory proposes that a large meteorite cluster melts the surface of the Earth thereby preventing meteorite impacts from forming craters.  The interpretation of the geological features has to rely on the waves created by meteorite impacts on the molten surface.  The theory states that the circular waves created by meteorite impacts on the molten surface and the resulting overlapping circular rings can be used to distinguish meteorite strikes from volcanic or tectonic events.

Application of the new theory has found a splash zone, shown above, that confirms that the Aïr circular formations are the result of impacts by a large meteorite cluster.  The splash is typical of what you would find by the edge of a swimming pool after someone does a cannonball dive.

Read about the impact theory for meteorite clusters

[1] C. Moreau, D. Demaiffe, Y. Bellion and A.-M. Boullier, A tectonic model for the location of Palaeozoic ring complexes in Aïr (Niger, West Africa), Tectonophysics, Volume 234, Issues 1-2, 15 June 1994, Pages 129-146. //

Meteorite Craters near Agadez, Niger

There is a spot in the Niger Sahara Desert that looks like the surface of the moon, and for good reason.  It appears that at least twenty meteorites struck this part of Africa millions of years ago.  One crater is 60 kilometers in diameter, and another is 42 kilometers wide.  The combined areas of all these impacts is probably greater than the impact that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Considering that the impact features are relatively black compared to the desert sand, it is remarkable that the craters have not been recorded in the Earth Impact Database of the Planetary and Space Science Centre, University of New Brunswick.  The largest of the circular areas is 60-kilometers wide with its center at Latitude: 18.820749, Longitude: 8.75553. The Northwest edge of the area is very distinct and located at Latitude: 19.072668, Longitude 8.602214. The Southeast edge of the area is at Latitude: 18.652018, Longitude: 8.980622.

These prominent features are considered to have been formed by lava flows because impact craters usually have features created by the shock of the impacts.  However, the impacts of a dense meteorite cluster are so intense, that the surface melts and many of the meteorites fall on the surface that has been melted by previous impacts.  Consequently, typical impact features like brecciation and shatter cones are not present in the Aïr Mountains of Niger.  Instead, the surface has overlapping rings and splash zones that are characteristic of impacts on liquids.

Learn more about the Agadez craters

Forest Fires in Russia and Floods in Pakistan

The Earth’s weather patterns are changing.  Floods in Pakistan have destroyed many villages and killed thousands of people.  A heat wave in Russia has started forest fires, burned grain fields and filled the air in Moscow with smoke that has doubled the death rate from heart and lung ailments.  These extreme meteorological conditions are examples of events that provide further evidence that global warming is a real threat in our lifetime.

Moscow in the Western part Russia typically has summer temperatures that average 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but this summer has been very hot and very dry with temperatures as high as 100 degrees.  More than 500 forest fires have filled the air with smoke and ignited underground peat-bog fires.  The smoke has filled many buildings, and the State Historical Museum on Red Square was forced to close because it couldn’t stop its smoke detectors from going off.  The cloak of smoke turned the picturesque spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral into gray outlines.  The pedestrians that had to be outdoors had their faces hidden by surgical masks and water-soaked bandanas.

The heat and smoke in Moscow have nearly doubled the mortality rate in recent days.  The health minister, Andrei Seltsovsky, said that the daily death toll had risen from an average of between 360 and 380 to around 700. Ambulance calls were up by about 25% because of increases in heart and lung ailments and strokes.  Many residents are leaving the Moscow area temporarily to escape the polluted air.

In 2009, Russia was the world’s third-largest wheat exporter, but this year’s severe drought has destroyed at least 20 percent of the harvest and the fires have burned many fields.  Global commodity prices for wheat have been climbing since June as a result.  Fearing domestic deficits, Russia has imposed a ban on wheat exports and this has pushed prices even higher.

While Russia is suffering droughts and sweltering record temperatures, Pakistan has been deluged by torrential rains that brought death and destruction to many villages.  Millions of Pakistanis are affected by the worst floods to hit the country in decades, and the heavy rains make it very difficult to deliver supplies to communities in the Swat Valley that have been isolated by the high waters. According to UN estimates, as many as four million Pakistanis face food shortages after floods destroyed up to 570,000 hectares of crops in central Punjab province alone.  The prices for fruits and vegetables were reportedly soaring throughout Pakistan.

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of Earth’s oceans and surface air.  Most of the temperature increase since the middle of the 20th century has been caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide which results from burning of fossil fuels.  As warming continues, the tawing of the permafrost in the northern latitudes will release methane which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The warmer temperatures will evaporate more ocean water and create more violent storms and more unpredictable weather patterns.

Learn more about Earth’s Mass Extinctions

Some sunscreens may increase skin cancer risk

Retinyl Palmitate

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53,919 people in the United States were diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in 2006, and in the same year 8,441 people died as a result of this disease.  The rates of skin cancer are increasing as the result of unprotected sun exposure and the use of tanning beds.


Sunscreens can prevent skin cancer as well as wrinkles and skin discolorations.  Sunscreens, also known as sunblock or sun creams, are lotions, sprays, gels or other topical products that absorb or reflect some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation and help protect against sunburn.

In addition to the sun-blocking chemicals, sunscreens often have retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A, which in theory should be good for the skin.  Vitamin A is an ester, primarily retinyl palmitate, which is converted to an alcohol (retinol) in the small intestine.  Vitamin A is needed by the retina of the eye for night vision and color vision.  Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to cause approximately 250,000 to 500,000 cases of blindness per year in children of developing countries.  Retinoic acid, the oxidation product of Vitamin A, acts as an important hormone-like growth factor for epithelial and other cells.

Retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A palmitate, is the ester of retinol (vitamin A) and palmitic acid.  Retinyl palmitate is a source of vitamin A added to low fat milk and other dairy products to replace the vitamin content lost through the removal of milk fat.  Retinyl palmitate is a constituent of many topically-applied skin care products, including most popular sunscreens. After its absorption into the skin, retinyl palmitate is converted to retinol, and ultimately to retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A.

However, a possible link has been found between retinyl palmitate in sunscreens and skin cancer.  One study found that tumors and lesions developed up to 21% faster in lab animals coated with cream containing retinyl palmitate compared with cream that did not contain it.  This may be due to the formation of free radicals that are created when retinyl palmitate is exposed to ultraviolet light.[1]

Learn more about vitamins

[1] Qingsu Xia, et al., Photoirradiation of Retinyl Palmitate in Ethanol with Ultraviolet Light –
Formation of Photodecomposition Products, Reactive Oxygen Species, and Lipid Peroxides, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2006, 3(2), 185-190, PMID: 16823091
“Our results demonstrate that, similar to irradiation with UVA light, RP can act as a photosensitizer leading to free radical formation and induction of lipid peroxidation following irradiation with UVB light.”

Ginkgo Biloba does not improve brain function

Ginkgo biloba

The leaf of the maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba, has been used as herbal medicine in China since the fifteenth century. The leaves were traditionally used for benefiting the brain and for treatment of lung disorders. In modern times, Ginkgo biloba is a popular supplement that is widely used for its potential effects on memory and cognition. A standardized extract is widely prescribed for the treatment of a range of conditions including memory and concentration problems, confusion, depression, anxiety, dizziness, tinnitus and headache.

The mechanism of action of Ginkgo is supposed to be due to components that increase blood supply by dilating blood vessels, reducing blood viscosity, and reducing free radicals, but recent studies show that the purported benefits of ginkgo for the brain are exaggerated and cannot be demonstrated scientifically. One study concludes that Ginkgo biloba appears to be safe in use with no excess side effects compared with placebo, but the evidence that Ginkgo has predictable and clinically significant benefit for people with dementia or cognitive impairment is inconsistent and unconvincing.[1] A second study shows that Ginkgo biloba taken at a dose of 120 mg twice a day was not effective in reducing either the overall incidence rate of dementia or Alzheimer disease incidence in elderly individuals with normal cognition or those with mild cognitive impairment.[2]

The good news is that Ginkgo is not harmful. The bad news is that many people have been wasting their money on an ineffective supplement.

The leaves of Ginkgo biloba trees turn bright yellow in the autumn. The trees are popular ornamental trees which are survivors from the days of the dinosaurs.

Here are some puzzles to exercise your mind

[1] Birks J, Grimley Evans J., Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Apr 18;(2):CD003120.

[2] DeKosky ST, Williamson JD, Fitzpatrick AL, et al., Ginkgo biloba for prevention of dementia: a randomized controlled trial, JAMA. 2008 Nov 19;300(19):2253-62.

Gout, Cancer and urinary alkalinization

Mechanism of apoptosis and a toe with gout

When body fluids, such as urine, become very acid, solids dissolved in the fluids crystallize within the body and can cause gout and create tophi in the cooler parts of the body. The pain of uric acid deposits from gout can be excruciating.  The conventional treatment for gout consists of avoiding alcohol, foods high in purines, and some medications like niacin.  Many of the prescription medicines used to treat gout have undesirable side effects.

As if the suffering from gout were not bad enough, a study published in 2009 linked the occurrence of gout to increased incidence of cancer and concluded that “hyperuricemia may be an early manifestation of the carcinogenic process”.[1]  The study found that gout patients had increased incidence of all types of cancer, including cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, colon, liver and biliary tract, pancreas, lung, skin (melanoma and nonmelanoma), endometrium and kidney, as well as of malignant melanoma.

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is frequently used as a home remedy for gout. Sodium bicarbonate works by alkalizing body fluids to increase the solubility of uric acid and permit its elimination through the urine.  It is possible that this alternative medicine treatment for gout could also reduce the risk of cancer.

In 2007, researchers identified cellular signaling pathways that become active under alkaline conditions by removing amide functional groups from key cellular proteins (Bcl-xL) thus promoting the death of cancerous cells through apoptosis.[2]  German biochemist Otto Warburg initially proposed in 1966 that abnormal energy metabolism caused cancer. He showed that tumors have an acidic extracellular environment, and suggested that a switch from oxidative respiration to glycolysis, which produces lactic acid, starts the cell transformation toward cancer. Warburg’s work stimulated interest in the possibility that there was some kind of link between pH and cancer.  The latest findings raise hope that inducing alkalinization may prove an effective strategy to treat a range of cancers.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if cancer could be prevented simply by regularly drinking some baking soda dissolved in water to keep body fluids from becoming too acidic?

[1] Boffetta P, Nordenvall C, Nyrén O, Ye W., A prospective study of gout and cancer.
Eur J Cancer Prev. 2009 Apr;18(2):127-32, PMID: 19337060

[2] Gross L (2007) Manipulating Cellular pH Suggests Novel Anticancer Therapy. PLoS Biol 5(1): e10

Native Americans wiped out by comet explosion over Canada

Clovis Spear Point
Clovis spear point

Approximately 15,000 years ago, the Earth started coming out of an ice age.  There were glaciers several miles thick in North America which trapped great volumes of water, and the sea level was 130 meters (426 feet) lower than today.  As the weather warmed, a land bridge opened between Alaska and Siberia in what is now the Bering strait.  This allowed humans to walk from Asia to America and establish new colonies.

At the time, the wildlife in North America was like Africa.  There were huge animals like mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and saber tooth tigers.  The Clovis people, who had spread throughout what is now the United States, hunted these animals with finely-crafted flint spear points and arrow heads.  And then, around 12,900 years ago, all the large animals disappeared from North America, and with them, the Clovis culture.

It was long thought that the Clovis people had annihilated the megafauna, but new studies reveal that the large animals and the Clovis people themselves were destroyed by a comet explosion over south-east Canada, around the great lakes.  The explosion was so bright and so intense that it ignited much of the vegetation of North America.  The forest fires created a layer of black dirt which became mixed with a thin dusting of microscopic diamonds from the comet.[1,2]  The smoke and dust from the impact blocked the light of the sun for many years and the global temperature dropped, creating a rapid return to glacial conditions. Without vegetation, the large herbivores could not survive, and the carnivores were left with nothing to eat.  The catastrophe started what is now called the Younger Dryas cool interval, which was a period of cold weather lasting approximately 1300 years.

band of dark sediment at Murray Spring, Arizona Younger Dryas cooling event

A band of dark sediment at Murray Spring, Arizona contains evidence for a cosmic impact that started an abrupt period of global cooling and a mass extinction in North America.  Similar deposits have been found in five other widely separated locations:  Bull Creek, Oklahoma, Gainey, Michigan, Topper, South Carolina, as well as Lake Hind, Manitoba, and Chobot, Alberta, in Canada. The highest concentrations of extraterrestrial impact materials occur in the Great Lakes area.

[1] D. J. Kennett, et al., Nanodiamonds in the Younger Dryas Boundary Sediment Layer, Science 2 January 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5910, p. 94. DOI: 10.1126/science.1162819 [link]

[2] University of Cincinnati. “Exploding Asteroid Theory Strengthened By New Evidence Located In Ohio, Indiana.” ScienceDaily 3 July 2008. [link]