Artificial Life or Artificial Hype? And the Big Bang Gets Another Boost.
Scientists announced last week the first creation of artificial life in the laboratory. And the media breathlessly reported the news before moving on to other things, since the average human attention span these days seems to be approaching the planck limit. (For the non physicists reading, a Planck Time Unit is the smallest measurable length of time.) When I heard the news my first reaction was … haven’t they already created artificial life, like Geralda Rivera and Glenn Beck? I guess this means that they had mothers and were conceived and born in the usual fashion. Yikes. My second reaction was, hmm, this is sure a headline grabbing story, I wonder how much truth there is to it? I mean now that any big study involving genetics and bioengineering can mean buckets of money for the discoverer, one has to keep an open mind. Remember the announcement of the first cloned human a few years back?
So I looked into it, and this isn’t really a story about artificial life, it’s mostly a story about artificial hype. Yes, once again the media has credulously repeated a story without bothering to do any sort of critical analysis or ask any questions at all apparently. I guess since people will believe anything on TV, they figure it’s not worth the trouble to be even remotely factually accurate? The Weekly World Newsification of the media continues apace.
OK, so what exactly did esteemed scientist Dr Craig Venter do? In sum, he copied the DNA from an existing organism, made a few minor changes in it, and inserted it into a preexisting cell from which the DNA had been removed. Uh huh. This is like making a copy of a computer’s operating system, changing a few files, then sticking it into another computer from which the operating system has been removed, and claiming to have made a whole new type of computer! *blinks* As one might expect, reaction from the scientific community is mixed. While it is a remarkable technical accomplishment, and a step towards the day when bacteria with custom written DNA will be produced, it’s a little premature to call this “synthetic life.”
Moving from the creation of life to the creation of the Universe (how’s that for a segue?) scientists last week announced further evidence for the Big Bang. Well, to be more accurate, they may have explained one of the long standing problems with the Big Bang theory. And that problem is, where is all the antimatter? Antimatter is the opposite of matter, in that the electron has a positive charge, and the proton has a negative charge. In other respects antimatter is normal matter, and one can have antimatter atoms, molecules, and on up to antimatter suns, life, and galaxies. However, when matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate each other in an explosion of nuclear dimensions. This is why antimatter is a popular explosive or starship fuel in fiction, a pound of antimatter could power the USA for two days. And while scientists can make small amounts of antimatter, there’s as yet no way to contain it in large quantities for such purposes. Antimatter is used for PET scans though, so it has some use. And other than the tiny ephemeral amounts created by radioactive decay there don’t seem to be any antimatter stars or galaxies floating around, and astronomers have looked for them.
So why is this a problem for the Big Bang theory? Well, according to the theory, when the Universe was expanding and matter formed out of energy, there should have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Which should have then mutually annihilated, which should have been the end of that. Instead, for some unknown reason, a universe made entirely out of matter came into being, eventually turning into stars, galaxies, and the readers of this blog. Well, the problem has been solved, or at least a solution is in sight. Scientists working at Fermilab and the University of Chicago have discovered that when B-mesons (a subatomic particle) decay, they make about 1% more muons (another subatomic particle) than antimuons. This may not seem like much of a deal, but apparently it’s far more than enough to account for a universe made entirely of matter.
Granted, this discovery hasn’t been integrated with the Big Bang theory yet, and may in fact turn out to be irrelevant. What it does do though is show that on some levels there is a measurable bias towards matter in the Universe, so a solution to the “missing antimatter” problem is possible. This is one of the things the LHC (the Large Hadron Collider) will be looking into if scientists can ever get it up to full power.
So, two promised topics covered already, and it’s only Monday! Sometime during the week I will cover the third, since it’s harder to explain and I want to get it right before being pilloried. Basically cosmologists are starting to understand how the Universe created itself! I threw down the “no God required” clause because this has always been one of the “objections” to the Big Bang theory, the idea that there has to be a creator, since nothing can create itself. I use the word “argument” in quotation marks because it’s not really an argument, since it begs the question. If one can’t have anything without a creator, and if God created the Universe, what created God? Nonetheless, what created the Big Bang is a real scientific question, theological implications aside. And there is now a theory that just might do the trick. Stay tuned.
So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. Credit and copyright: MotivatedPhotos.com. It’s an illustration of an alternate cosmology, one where the Ceiling Cat God created the Universe. I can’t claim the theory has a whole lot of observational evidence behind it, but it has a certain appeal.)