2019 02 – Blog on Science


Beyond Earth, We Seek Wisdom

I wish I could say that the Chinese landing on the moon’s Far Side was a sign of China displacing America globally.  There was a mix of hope and panic on that score, depending on the viewpoint.  But it’s no more true than the popular notion that the Far Side is also the Dark Side.

The moon has no Dark Side.  One side always faced the Earth, but both sides are in sunshine half the month, and in darkness the other half.

A camera sitting beyond the moon at the moon’s stable L2 point would see the Far Side go from new to full to waning to dark.  Phases would be reversed from what we see from Earth.  And from the L2 point, Earth would be seen beyond the moon and showing exactly the same phases.

I don’t think anyone has yet done this, apart from passing space-probes taking brief snaps.  It would be a good idea: almost as iconic as the view of a half-Earth rising over the moon that was famously taken 50 years ago.[1]

(Since writing this, I have learned of one rather good photo showing this, and with the distance Earth looking tiny.  The first of many, I hope.[2]) Blog Picture

Apart from needing a relay satellite, there were few unusual technical problems for the Chinese in landing on the far side of the Moon.  Much less hard than a soft landing on Mars, which so far only NASA has managed, though both China and Europe have plans.[3]

But this probe should do some good science:

  1. Why is the Far Side older, with more craters and no dark areas? Is it because the crust is thicker?  If so, why?
  2. How suitable is the Far Side for a radio telescope, shielded from the radio chatter of Planet Earth?
  3. Can one grow food-crops in a sealed chamber on the moon?

There are some other lesser experiments, with contributions from many different nations.  Forbidden to contribute to the USA’s International Space Station, China is making its own network of scientific links.  Spending vast amounts on science, while the West is mired in doubt.

Ultima Thule – the Furthest Visited Object

There is still much good science being done in the west.  As I write – 14th February – news is trickling in from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.  With limited bandwidth, it slowly sends vast amounts of data stored after its flyby of Ultima Thule.

The New Horizons mission was always intended to do something like this.  For most of its 248-year orbit, Pluto would be either well above the rest of the Kuiper Belt, or well below.  Luckily it was possible to send a craft that would meet Pluto in 2015 and then stay within a region well-populated with other smaller Kuiper Belt objects.  But ‘well-populated’ for the bleak outer reaches of the solar system does not mean the sort of crowded sky you see in films about asteroid belts.  Nothing was known at the time that the space probe could have got close to with the small amounts of fuel it had.  An urgent search was made and a few turned up, with ‘Ultima Thule’ chosen as the best.   And there is hope for another fly-by for a third object, though no candidates are yet known.

Note also that the name ‘Ultima Thule’ remains unofficial.  It has not yet been confirmed by the International Astronomical Union, who are the only body entitled to give names.  (Companies offering to let you name a star if you pay them a fee are a con.)  Officially, the body is still (486958) 2014 MU69.

There have been concerns with ‘Ultima Thule’, since it comes from Norse tradition and was picked up and used by the Nazis.  Myself, I see no need to demonise the brutal but interesting traditions of the Pagan Norse, nor its later adaptations into Christianity.  As Tolkien put it back in 1941, one needs to defend the ‘noble northern spirit’ against ‘that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler’.[4]  I am happy to acknowledge the good point of that tradition, which is part of my ancestry.  But I also insist on mentioning awkward little facts like the Vikings being extensive slave-traders, selling people we’d now class as White or Nordic as slaves.  Often selling them to the Islamic world, which at the time was much richer – and I note that such things are not included in the ‘realism’ of the Viking historic drama.  (Or not at least anything up to the first half of Season Five.)

I’d really like to see someone do a television series dramatizing the Norse myths in all of their original crudity and occasional brilliance.  As a frame for the telling, I would have an English slave-woman telling versions of those Norse myths to a curious Muslim audience in North Africa.  Then show the myths as admitted fiction, but suitably dramatised.

What has actually come down to us is not quite what the racists would wish for – nor indeed what Marvel Comics made of them.  They include the god Thor going through a form of marriage with a male Frost-Giant.[5]  The supposed realism of the Vikings series made by the History Channel is actually heavily doctored to suit modern tastes.[6]

Regarding the outer-space Ultima Thule, the news so far is much as expected.  Astronomers had long believed that comets came in two sorts: short-period comets from the Kuiper Belt and long-period comets from the Oort Cloud.  That the Kuiper Belt was much nearer, and was mostly in what they call the Plane of the Ecliptic: a broad pancake of space centred on the sun and containing the orbits of the planets.  Containing also the orbits of almost all asteroids and objects in the Kuiper Belt.  By contrast, the distant Oort Cloud is a sphere spread all around the sun, explaining why long-period comets can come from almost any direction.

The Oort Cloud is so distant that Voyager 2 will not enter it for another 300 years.  The Voyager probes have not really left the Solar System: they have just left the Heliosphere, the blob of space where the ‘Solar Wind’ dominates.[7]  The sun’s gravity still dominates interstellar space beyond that, out until the influence of other stars becomes more important.

As an extra complication, short-period comets like Halley’s Comet are suspected of being originally long-period comets.[8]  Such comets probably fell into a shorter orbit after an encounter with a giant planet.

Bodies in the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt are assumed to become comets when some outside influence or run of chance knocks them off of their normal orbits and they fall towards the sun.  This warms them, so that they produce the gas and dust that makes a comet’s visible tail as it nears the sun.  Comets themselves are tiny bodies, and few in number compared to the vast clouds of objects from which they come.

Data from Ultima Thule has so far confirmed this picture.  It appears to be what all short-period comets are before they fall into the Inner Solar System: a frozen blob of ices and a little dust and rocks.  Or rather two blobs that may have formed from the same small cloud and then bumped into each other.  There could be other fragments orbiting them: these are still being looked for.  It will be months before all of the data held by the New Horizons probe is sent back, and then it will need a lot of analysis.

Ultima Thule is two joined blobs, or a snowman, or technically a Contact Binary.  That makes it similar to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which the European Space Agency studied and made a part-successful landing on back in 2014.  But that comet had lost a lot of its ices and had accumulated dust  and rocks on its surface, so that it is now dark and uneven.

The fly-by of Ultima Thule was an extra after New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto and its moons.  And it showed them to be complex worlds with a lot of geological changes since they were formed.  Ultima Thule is believed to have remained much the same since the very early days of the solar system.

The fly-by caused some tense moments.  At the speed New Horizons travels, it would have been wrecked by colliding with a snowflake, if there are snowflakes out there.  Fluffy ice grains are a real possibility, but seem to be rare and seldom met in the vastness of space.

The latest news is that the two lobes of this ancient body are rather flattened.  No one can yet explain why this should be so.  It would be bad news if the conclusion is that they, like Pluto, have been changed a lot since the early days of the solar system.

New Horizons is still travelling through the Kuiper Belt, and with luck will be able to get a close look at another Kuiper Belt object in a few years.  With most of its fuel used up, it can only change its course a little; but that little may be enough.  And later on, it will get its own view of the boundaries of the Heliosphere.

Other Space News

A lot more is happening in space.  A Nasa probe has reached the ancient asteroid Bennu, which looks like a veritable ‘diamond in the sky’.[9]  (Or a rough-surfaced body like two pyramids stuck back to back.)  Another NASA probe intentionally landed on one of the most boring places on Mars: a safe spot to study Mars’s unknown interior.  Also to bore down and just possibly find signs of life.[10]

Several separate projects to take rich tourists to the fringes of Low-Earth Orbit are making progress.  Rather wasteful, and part of the general distortions of wealth that began in the 1980s.  They have money to waste of personal jaunts, and had they paid it as tax the money could have been spent on much better things, including more science.

But things are being done.  Including more and more exoplanets discovered, mostly showing that solar systems round other stars are quite different from ours.


Gene Therapy – Not Making Superhumans

“A Chinese scientist’s claim that he has created the world’s first genetically edited babies has prompted global outcry and an investigation by Chinese health authorities.

“In a video posted on Sunday, university professor He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls whose DNA had been edited to prevent HIV infection. He said the twins’ DNA was modified using CRISPR-Cas9, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint precision.

“Editing the genes of embryos, which can alter other genes, is banned in many countries because DNA changes, which will be passed to future generations, could have unforeseen effects on the entire gene pool.”[11]

The problem is, if you tinker with genes you can create unexpected side-effects.

“Crispr often inadvertently alters genes other than the one being targeted, and there are also circumstances, called mosaicism, where some cells contain the edited gene and others do not.”[12]

The peril is not in creating superhumans, as happens in SF horror films.  The risk is causing some genetic illness that the unfortunate newborn will be burdened by.  Which is why the Chinese authorities, taken by surprise by the work, have now banned it.[13]

Western sources say that the relevant Chinese regulations are much vaguer than those in the West.  But the Chinese now insist that there was definite illegality:

“Preliminary investigation into the claimed ‘genetically edited babies’ shows that Chinese researcher He Jiankui had defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain…

“With a fake ethical review certificate, He recruited eight volunteer couples (the males tested positive for the HIV antibody, females tested negative for the HIV antibody) and carried out experiments from March 2017 to November 2018.

“As HIV carriers are not allowed to have assisted reproduction, He asked others to replace the volunteers to take blood tests and asked researchers to edit genes on human embryos and implant them into the females’ body.”[14]

Chinese Communism has always allowed a lot of private initiative, provided there is no actual defiance of Party authority.  That was a lot of what Mao’s Great Leap Forward was about: it ended badly because too many people falsely reported splendid results at a time when bad weather had caused a below-average harvest.  This led to a food shortage, which the hundreds of foreign reporters in China at the time accurately reported.  Some were fluent in Chinese.  All reported strict rationing, rather than the horrible famine that most Western sources now claim:

“With the establishment of the new government in Peking in 1949, two things happened.

“First, starvation – death by hunger – ceased in China.  Food shortages, and severe ones, there have been, but no starvation.  This is a fact fully documented by Western observers…

“In May 1962 an unusually large number of Chinese refugees flocked to Hong Kong… official British government statements attest to the fact that the refugees were not suffering from malnutrition, nor did any of them seek political asylum or claim that they were fleeing Communism as such…  Food shortages and the general discomfort of life in this period were undoubtedly some of the causes for this exodus, but not starvation.”[15]

In the end, Mao’s efforts to get Chinese thinking for themselves got them thinking things quite contrary to his intentions.  Marxism can be very misleading there, suggesting that capitalism was just about to expire and that the Working Class would automatically have Good Thoughts.  Still, in the longer run China might end up with something like what he was aiming at.  China has never departed from the basic idea that people have a duty to look after each other.

Returning to the ‘Designer Babies’, could such research be carried on secretly, by any of a dozen countries that might have the resources?  Or even by private groups in the USA?

If there were dangerous possibilities, I have no doubt that someone would realise them.  Atomic weapons, poison gas and germ warfare have all been developed so.  But I am skeptical that ‘Superior Humans’ would be possible for decades to come.  Maybe not for centuries, if it is even permitted.  And probably no more superior than the best natural humans.

So far, ‘genetic engineering’ has not gone beyond adding a single gene with well-known effects in some other organism.  Bacteria are engineered to start producing some useful medicine, or to break down plastics, or even to make silk.[16]  Plants are induced to be resistant to a herbicide, or to produce a frost-resisting chemical that is no part of their heritage.

For humans, the aim has been to replace defective genes or defective mitochondria with a healthy version.  This effort, which has not always succeeded, produces just a normal human baby.  A baby with no more chance of being superior than anyone else.

Some people are naturally resistant to HIV.  Perhaps one or other of the relevant genes could be added to embryos.  But you could be giving them something equally nasty by random changes to their other genes.  Just avoiding exposure to HIV makes more sense – and there are anyway a range of increasingly effective medicines for sufferers.

Selective breeding since humans invented agriculture 12,000 years ago has produced animals that look rather different from their wild ancestors – astonishingly so in the case of dogs, the first animals we took into human society and changed even before agriculture.  As for plants, many are quite unlike their wild ancestors.  Maize is so different that it took a hard search to find its wild ancestor.

Selective breeding of humans has never happened in the real world.  Only powerful men are in a position to monopolise large numbers of females: mostly they liked variety.  They were also not likely to ‘cull’ their own offspring to produce a superior breed.  When heirs got executed, it was mostly those bold or talented enough to be plausible replacements.

Whether selective breeding happened in the millions of years that produced humans and various pre-humans from a creature much like a modern chimp is really not known.  We have found prehumen specimens that puzzle us by having different mixes of modern and archaic features from prehumens of the same era.[17]  The experts call these separate species: my suspicion is that they could and did interbreed and produced hybrids better fitted for the evolving human life-style.

We now know with certainty that all humans outside of Africa had a brief interbreeding with Neanderthals, probably in West Asia and perhaps involving rape.  A few groups also interbred with related prehumens called Denisovan.[18]  DNA studies also suggest that Denisovan were the first hominids who could tolerate the thin air of the Tibetan Plateau, and passed on the useful genes to modern Tibetans.[19]  We do know that various humans adapted to high mountains all round the world have used different methods and different genes.

Modern humans are already well-adapted to living as a technological species.  19th century White Racists supposed that peoples outside the dominant nations of 19th century industrialisation must be racially inferior.  They were even inclined to class the Catholic Irish among the unwanted breeds, which contributed to British Government inaction during the Irish Potato Famine.[20]  But the 20th century showed that the previously ‘wild’ or uncivilised people could adapt very nicely.  The Irish today are better educated and better adapted to the modern world than the bulk of the English.  In much of England, widespread reluctance to adapt to a changing world is being angrily expressed in the current row over Brexit.  The USA also has a lot of angry ill-educated people among its once-dominant WASP populations.

Humans all have much the same genetic heritage, shaped differently by the culture that raises and humanises them.  And it is only humans.  Chimps and bonobos have DNA that is less than 2% different from ours, but that 2% matters.  It was accumulated over 5 to 7 million years, and our brains are as different as our bodies.  Not just much larger – some human midgets have brains no larger than chimps, and most of them have normal and sometimes superior intelligence.  Human brains are different in kind.

An attempt to raise a chimp called Nim Chimpsky as a human failed drastically: his generally friendly nature was marred by bursts of extreme violence.  He ripped open the cheek of one of his female carers, and most people who worked with him got bitten.  When his former foster-mother tried to renew ties after many years, he attacked her and dragged her round his cage.  There’s a fascinating film about this, Project Nim, which also details how he was tragically neglected after it had been shown he could not live in human society.

Had they tried a female chimp infant, or better still a bonobo, there might have been less problems.  But it would probably still have failed, and there are now much stronger ethical controls.  And female chimps are still violent: one in the wild was seen seizing and eating the babies of other mothers in her group.  It seems that the chimp norm matches only the most unpredictably violent humans: those we generally lock up and who were probably killed or exiled and anyway eliminated from the gene pool in earlier ages.  While bonobos manage to be less violent by having a lot of promiscuous sex, which is optional for humans.

Sheep, pigs, dogs, cats and horses have all had their minds and bodies reshaped to human needs.  None of them would survive well in the wild, except perhaps cats.  Cats were originally tolerated when humans learned to value their natural habit of catching mice: the Ancient Egyptians made them sacred to stop humans treating them as a nice meat treat.  The earlier eccentric small town of Catalhoyuk never learned this, and mice were a major problem.

Cats also became pets, because their natural habit was to snuggle up to each other and to show some concern about familiar animals.  Females sometimes help raise the kittens of other females: males are more likely to kill kittens but do occasionally care for them.  Raised among humans, cats accept us as familiar animals, but mostly know the distinction between familiar humans and others.  Often enthusiastically greet the human or humans they know.  But while you can own a dog, you only ever keep a cat.

No one has ever properly tamed a zebra: the ridden ‘zebras’ you see in films are painted horses.[21]  DNA studies suggest that only a small number of male horses in unknown prehistoric times were docile enough to be useful: perhaps only one.  The females of the original wild horses would not have been as overtly violent, but probably resistant to being ridden or harnessed until selective breeding made them more docile.  ‘Mustangs’ in North America were the descendants of tamed horses, making it not so hard to break them again.

Humans, unlike other animals, are already adapted to the human societies we created for ourselves.  Intelligence definitely depends in part on genes, but there seem to be thousands of genes interacting in mysterious ways.

No one soon is going to know how to successfully tinker with these, even if we dropped our ethical rules.  Rules based mostly on stopping experiments that might produce sickly and unhappy babies, not on a risk of such babies growing up to be dangerous.


Monkeys Get Cosy With Wolves

Genes selected by the breeding of pre-humans somehow made us humans.  But apes already had a lot of the same things in a more basic form.  As did our more distant relatives, the monkeys,

“In the alpine grasslands of eastern Africa, Ethiopian wolves and gelada monkeys are giving peace a chance. The geladas – a type of baboon – tolerate wolves wandering right through the middle of their herds, while the wolves ignore potential meals of baby geladas in favour of rodents, which they can catch more easily when the monkeys are present.

“The unusual pact echoes the way dogs began to be domesticated by humans … and was spotted by primatologist Vivek Venkataraman, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, during fieldwork at Guassa plateau in the highlands of north-central Ethiopia.

“Even though the wolves occasionally prey on young sheep and goats, which are as big as young geladas, they do not normally attack the monkeys – and the geladas seem to know that, because they do not run away from the wolves…

“Since the wolves usually entered gelada groups during the middle of the day, when rodents are most active, he wondered whether the geladas made it easier for the wolves to catch the rodents – their primary prey.

“Venkataraman and his colleagues followed individual wolves for 17 days, recording each attempted capture of a rodent, and whether it worked. The wolves succeeded in 67 per cent of attempts when within a gelada herd, but only 25 per cent of the time when on their own…

“It could be that the grazing monkeys flush out the rodents from their burrows or vegetation.”

It has always been assumed that humans and wolves teamed up to hunt large prey, with those wolves growing closer to us and becoming dogs.  But it could have been some much smaller.


Kilograms Leaving the Material World

“Scientists have changed the way the kilogram is defined.

“Currently, it is defined by the weight of a platinum-based ingot called ‘Le Grand K’ which is locked away in a safe in Paris.

“On Friday, researchers meeting in Versailles voted to get rid of it in favour of defining a kilogram in terms of an electric current.”[22]

19th century standards had to be based on material objects, including a carefully-protected Standard Rulers for the Imperial Foot or for the Metre.

All standard units are now be defined by the properties of individual atoms.  Kilos were the last to depend on a carefully-tended physical object.


Why I Write

For years, I have been doing regular monthly Newsnotes for the magazine Labour Affairs. But recently I find I have more to say than the magazine has room for. Hence this blog.



Previous Newsnotes at the Labour Affairs website, http://labouraffairsmagazine.com/past-issues/.  Also https://longrevolution.wordpress.com/newsnotes-historic/.  I blog every month or so at https://gwydionmw.quora.com/.  I tweet at @GwydionMW.

[1] https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/features/bm_gallery_4.html

[2] https://futurism.com/the-byte/beautiful-photo-moon-earth

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_rover

[4] Letter 45, dated June 1941, in Letters of J R R Tolkien: A Selection.  You can find more of my views on Tolkien at https://gwydionmadawc.com/57-about-tolkien/.

[5] https://www.shmoop.com/theft-thors-hammer/summary.html

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vikings_(2013_TV_series)

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliosphere

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halley%27s_Comet#Orbit_and_origin

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/04/nasa-osiris-rex-bennu-asteroid

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/26/nasas-mars-insight-probe-touches-down-on-mars

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/27/china-orders-inquiry-into-worlds-first-gene-edited-babies

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/health/crispr-gene-editing-embryos.html

[13] https://futurism.com/chinese-government-crispr-baby-experiments

[14] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/21/c_137762633.htm

[15] Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, chapter 6, pages 93-94.  Cited in China 1949: Fixing a Broken Society, https://gwydionwilliams.com/99-problems-magazine/how-chinese-communism-fixed-a-broken-society/.  See also China’s ‘Three Bitter Years’, 1959 to 1961, https://gwydionwilliams.com/42-china/china-three-bitter-years-1959-to-1961/.

[16] https://phys.org/news/2018-08-scientists-bacteria-biosynthetic-silk-threads.html

[17] Such as the ‘Flat-faced man of Kenya’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenyanthropus

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denisovan#Interbreeding

[19] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13408

[20] See Economical With The Irish, https://gwydionwilliams.com/50-new-right-ideas/430-2/.

[21] http://theconversation.com/why-zebra-refused-to-be-saddled-with-domesticity-65018 & https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/09/can-zebras-be-domesticated-and-trained.html.

[22] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46143399