Monthly Archives: May 2013

May 2013 Revisit: Roadkill Amphibians from Atlantis… or Something

Lots of updates this month, so let’s get to it!

In March we took a look at the most spectacular feats of regeneration in the animal kingdom while simultaneously realizing such superpowers are likely beyond our reach.  Enter the axolotl salamander and its mighty macrophages.  The specialized immune cells are present in human beings too, but in the axolotl they seem to foster the regrowth process in ways ours don’t.  Amphibious amputees depleted of their macrophages by an Australian group developed stumps and scarring like we do, instead of brand new limbs.  When the stump itself was lopped off and the macrophages reintroduced, voila!, the magic was back!  There’s obviously something else at work here that we don’t quite understand, but seeing the role that similar cells play in another animal’s miraculous recovery at least drives our prospects from “impossible” to “really goddamn unlikely.”

Earth and planetary scientist Michael Wysession sees something fishy about the “Brazilian Atlantis,” and not just the way its discoverers went about publicizing the find.  He quibbles with the interpretation that the uncovered continental crust submerged when Africa split off from South America, noting that it could have alternatively been brought to that location by ice rafts or glaciers.  But hey, there is a lost underwater city off the coast of Suffolk, England, or at least what’s left of it.  Much like Hurricane Sandy deposited New Jersey’s Jet Star roller coaster in the Atlantic, storms in the 1200′s brought down much of the port city of Dunwich.  The burgh was abandoned in the 1400′s and its buildings continued to slip away as erosion ran unabated.  New surveys show the ruins  in greater detail than ever.  Obviously a very slow disappearance, and not one involving the fracturing of crust.

Despite the tricky tactics of the cliff swallow, it seems roadkill rates may actually be rising, according to numbers provided by the Insurance Information Institute.  And that’s just the big stuff; the animals that do enough damage for a claim to be filed.  Not many people care about turtles and some of the other guys least likely to get a quick evolutionary boost.  That’s why Matt Aresco made the problem a priority in Florida.  He and supporters were eventually able to leverage the state into employing engineering controls such as high roadside fencing and additional crossing culverts to facilitate the reptiles’ safe transport, dramatically reducing turtle death on the highway.  If nature can’t give its critters a fast kick in the pants, we may have to take it upon ourselves to devise other solutions.

Going back to February, new research may show that a protein-lipid complex found in human breast milk may actually make antibiotic resistant bacteria more vulnerable again.  And if that doesn’t work, we might be able to send OTHER bacteria against their malevolent brethren.  Fight fire with fire!

MRSA may soon meet its match.  From the-scientist.com

On a more personal note, I had the opportunity to practice what I preach earlier this month.  I had been burdened by throat and chest congestion for over a week before finally breaking down and seeing the doctor.  Not being able to tell if my infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, the young physician handled the situation admirably.  She wrote me a prescription, but told me to wait and only take it if I hadn’t “turned the corner” in a couple days.  Sure enough, I was feeling much better two days later, and I let the scrip set.  Conversely, if she had just blindly given me antibiotics without thought… what would I have done?  I may have made the wrong decision.  This was instead a great example of doctor and patient working together to avoid unnecessary drug consumption.  We can all manage that!

June starts off on Monday with an actual look at an electron orbital!  No shit!

James McCormick and the ADE 651 Bomb Detector: Don’t Think It Can’t Happen Here

This one hits close to home, mostly for reasons unrelated to my geographic location.  In fact, the sad and frustrating story takes place on the other side of the world, although I do see the same dangerous attitudes in the course of doing my own job far too often.

A little background on me, first.  I work in the field of underground detection, using electromagnetic instruments to locate subsurface utilities and other items of possible interest, such as storage tanks or building foundations, in support of future remediation or construction projects.  The principles behind these devices have been understood for hundreds of years and they pass trials every time an excavation is done to remove an identified gasoline tank or to repair a traced utility.  Most of the machines rely on the conductivity of the metallic objects to carry a signal, although the oft-touted ground penetrating radar (GPR) is also useful in finding non-metallic targets. The instruments unfortunately have unavoidable detection limits, as the resistance of the ground works to attenuate the signals.

So we laugh when we receive flyers for impossible products that claim to detect any material at preposterous depths, with no explanation of how such a miracle is performed.  It’s not so funny when similar “devices” are used in a FUCKING WAR ZONE to detect BOMBS at security checkpoints.  Such was the ADE 651, a plastic handgrip with a swiveling antenna and no electronics beyond a $20 novelty golf ball finder, that was sold to the Iraqi army by the despicable James McCormick for as much as $40,000 apiece.  McCormick was sentenced by a British court to 10 years in prison on fraud charges earlier this month, and at least 7 million pounds (almost 10 million dollars) of his over 75 million dollar fortune will be distributed to victims and surviving relatives of those killed by bombs that slipped by.  Hollow solace, to be sure, especially to the “hundreds and thousands” of Iraqi civilians who also perished.

The ADE 651 was supposedly powered by the user’s “static electricity,” and could detect nearly anything, including explosives, drugs and money, from thousands of feet away, simply by inserting the appropriate “programmed substance detection card” that could “tune in” to the particular material’s “frequency,” whatever that means.  Science-y sounding nonsense that tries to move something into the realm of “plausible” from “too good to be true.”  The ADE 651 doesn’t work.  It can’t work, unless they also change the laws of physics as they function.  Yet, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the Iraqi military still employs them!  And they’re not the only ones!  How can anyone continue to believe in their efficacy?

Does this look like a device that can locate ANYTHING?  From the BBC

Benjamin Radford offers some explanations.  Chief among them perhaps is that after spending a small fortune on the props, the officials no doubt want them to work.  They’re literally and figuratively invested in their performance.  It’s easy to say, “well, we haven’t had many bombings since we got it” when there aren’t many bombs to begin with, and when something does evade detection?  “Hey, no system’s perfect.”  Or the guy wasn’t using it right.  Operator error.  But man, you find one bomb (which can sure happen if you search enough people), and that confirmation bias kicks in, assuring you that the plastic stick can somehow do magic.

But if it doesn’t work, how were the “positive readings” even obtained?  The so-called antenna is mounted loosely and can easily swing when prompted, consciously or unconsciously.  The same phenomenon driving the spooky Ouija board, the ideomotor efffect, is likely to blame.  It’s been shown that a person’s expectations can subconsciously influence small, almost unnoticeable motions, in favor of what you want to find.  And I’ve seen it in person.  Many times, baselessly confident guys with “witching sticks, ” essentially two bent metal rods, have gone over what I’ve done and “confirmed” it when the pins pivot together.  “Yep, there it is!”  Funny how they’ve never tried that before I put paint on the ground for them to see.  Not once.

Well, except for when similar dowsers are EMPLOYED by the TOWN to mark utilities.  I’ve seen that, too.  Several years ago I was tasked with investigating multiple gas stations in a New Jersey city, and found that the publicly-funded water service markouts were often wildly inaccurate, sometimes not even entering the site building on the same side as depicted.  I offhandedly mentioned this to another public locator, and he confirmed the worst.  Tax dollars spent on the easily disproven and, more importantly, huge potential for damage and even loss of life fostered.

Image proudly promoted on dowsers.com.  Would you trust your life to these?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

We’re good at fooling ourselves when we want something to be true, and there are terrible people who leap at the chance to take advantage of that.  James McCormick got 10 years in jail, but how is that enough when so many have died at his hands?  People often ask “what’s the harm” in believing unsubstantiated or improbable claims.  I can’t imagine a starker example.

And as unlikely as it may seem, such things can hit close to home.  The dowsers I encounter are completely convinced that their “methods” work, and no amount of reason or recounting of failed tests will convince them.  They’ve seen it, so they know!  We must all remain eternally vigilant in our own ways to keep crazy from endangering us and others.

Special thanks to Sharon Hill and Doubtful News for continuing to hound this story while it simmered in the background


Does size really matter? What’s so special about our brains?

Closing out an evolutionary trifecta for May.  Our ramshackle remodeling has brought us a big, beautiful brain, but is it really the size that gives us our smarts?  If overall mass were all that mattered, you’d have to open an underwater chapter of MENSA, as the sperm whale’s brain swells past all others at nearly 20 pounds.  Ours, by comparison, is only about 3 pounds.  It should be obvious, though, that absolute size can’t be the dominant indicator, as a lot of that real estate is needed just to communicate with a body that big.

That’s why a better rule is the ratio of brain size to body size.  We start to sit a lot prettier from that viewpoint, as primates boast brains 5 to 10 times larger than the “average” animal proportion.  Then again, a person’s brain size to body size ratio is just about the same as that of a mouse.  Birds and ants actually come out ahead of us.  There must be something else yet still at play.

 Is it how the organ is organized?  A March study from Jeroen Smaers and Christophe Soligo of the University College of London seems to show, through analysis of 17 primate species that span 40 million years of evolutionary history, that we really started to take off with an accelerated growth of a specific region of the brain, namely the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe, is accepted to be where our thoughtful “executive functions” take place.  In other words, the bit that makes us human.

Three pounds of goo that makes you you.  From scientificamerican.com

Hold on a second, say Robert Barton and Chris Vendetti in an even more recent study!  With their data they counter that, contrary to popular wisdom, the size of our frontal lobes isn’t any bigger than what you’d expect for our bodies.  They argue that previous investigations didn’t tackle the “scaling” issue properly.  Instead, the pair propose we take a closer look at our heightened connectivity between different brain areas.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

What was once “common sense,” that a big brain makes for a brighter being, hasn’t been taken seriously for a while, and even the ideas that supplanted it, like size ratios and organizational complexity, have come under criticism.  We’re not lacking for new ideas on the subject, as British researchers Seth Grant and Richard Emes once presented yet another alternative hypothesis, that it’s the number of different protein interactions in our synapses that set us apart from the rest.

It goes to show just how knotty the study of intelligence can be.  What seems obvious isn’t always true and each successive assertion needs to scrutinized by the community.  New ideas are always cropping up and should be considered.  Our thoughts have gotten us far, but how we got them is still not completely certain.

Forget the swallows. Why couldn’t evolution build US a better body?

I write about evolution a lot here, and there’s a good reason for that.  As Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously opined, nothing in biology makes sense without it.  But that doesn’t mean evolution itself makes sense.  It’s kind of a constant jury-rigging around a basic shape to adapt for ever-changing environmental conditions, whereas a lot of modern organisms would probably function a lot better if they were re-designed from the ground up.  Imagine throwing some snow chains and a plow on a Corvette and driving it through Alaska instead of just buying a goddamn truck like you ought to.  That’s pretty much how we got the bodies we have.  And subsequently why we hurt so much.

I’m talking about major morphological changes, not the shortening of a cliff swallow’s wingspan to better avoid speeding vehicles.  Evolution’s tinkering has taken us from lowly bacteria to the simplest swimming vertebrates and finally to the omni-talented bad-asses we are today (right?), but all that has come at a cost, which is most popularly documented in biologist Neil Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish.  Besides humorous descriptions of how hernias form due to the weakness created in the abdominal wall by descending testicles (our ancestors didn’t have the temperature-finicky sperm that we do, so their gonads were safe within their bodies, while ours have to make the trek outside during development), he also offers a personal account of what a tragic junkyard the human knee is.  Our frequent knee problems are one symptom of a wonderful yet destructive innovation.

There are at least 12 competing hypotheses as to why man picked his knuckles up off the ground and decided to walk upright, but some advantages are tangible, such as raising the head for a greater field of vision and the freeing of the hands for other purposes, like using tools.  You can feel the negative consequences, too.  Besides knees, our ankles also tend to fall apart, but the worst disaster area is the human back.  The curves in our spines’ S-shape concentrate stress and can lead to scoliosis and spontaneously ruptured discs, a malady more or less unique to humans.  Taking a seat won’t eliminate the problem, either; it just shifts the stress concentration to the lower back.

Who thought THAT was a good idea?  From www.cedars-sinai.edu

Everyone knows we get obese because the tasty (and calorie-packed) treats we crave were harder to come by before we invented vending machines and McDonald’s, but even supposedly healthy stuff can harm our undeveloped constitutions.  While a staple in our current diets, we didn’t really start to eat wheat until the advent of agriculture, and we aren’t equipped with the proper enzymes to break down the gluten in today’s strains.  As much as 70% of humanity is lactose intolerant, as the practice of drinking milk really only became popular in Europe a couple thousand years ago.  Even tooth decay is a relatively recent blight, as the specific Streptococcus bacteria at the source may have jumped to our mouths from the rats that settled down with us in towns.

And there have been trade-offs for that big, beautiful brain of ours, the most noticeable of which is a woman’s wider pelvis, needed to push that mighty melon through.  Even then, babies are still faily helpless, and that protracted maturation period requires a huge amount of caretaking time from the parents.  A deal made within the brain itself was trading a better sense of smell for our increased color vision, as studies seem to show that we wouldn’t have been able to cram both into our craniums.  Frighteningly, the ability to bring all those brain cells into existence may also be what allows us to get cancer so frequently, as other animals don’t suffer it as often as we do.  People don’t undergo apoptosis (the process of killing malfunctioning cells, often heading off the rise of tumors) as much, which is great to allow the brain to burgeon, but not so good when something goes wrong and grows out of control.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Human beings are built as if you put a modern day, computerized automobile processing system into a Model T.  Great innovation, great performance in some areas, but not nearly as functional as if you just scrapped the old standard and designed a better frame altogether.  Our extended lifespans only further illuminate how cobbled together our bodies are, as the original engine really wasn’t meant to take us past 40.  Shit starts to break down, and we didn’t pony up for the extended warranty.  Too bad we’re stuck with what we’ve got and can’t just take the brand new ’14 Sapiens out for a spin.

Why isn’t evolution erasing roadkill?

I live in the suburbs, so dodging roadkill on the way to work is a daily fact of life.  I’m also an unbridled dork, so I can’t help but wonder when I pass the poor victims when evolution is going to kick in and give these guys the sense to stand back from the highway, or come up with some other novel deterrent.  Then I put my reasoning cap back on and remember that evolution is a slow and gradual process, grinding out over vast stretches of geologic time, and that even beneficial changes can be diluted in a large population and not take hold. Maybe our vehicular death dealers are just too new on the scene to have yet prodded any progress.

But it’s not like we haven’t observed selection in action, often times resulting from our own deeds.  The easiest example is the adaptation of bacteria to resist certain antibiotics, a topic discussed at length here on WDTM?  Bombing a bug with drugs is really no different than any other environmental pressure, and those bacteria that just happen to be better equipped to weather the medicinal storm are the ones that live to repopulate the world with more robust beasties.  Bacteria aren’t the only creepy crawlies to get a boost from our well-intentioned eradication efforts, as the recent bedbug plagues in New York City and elsewhere demonstrate.  A March study in Scientific Reports observes that 14 protein-coding genes were “overexpressed” in the heartiest populations, preventing or slowing the absorption of pyrethroid, the most common pesticide used against them.

On a macroscopic level, a group of common mice in Germany have become resistant to the poison warfarin as a result of a horizontal gene transfer from the non-native, human-introduced Algerian mouse.  The unintentional poisoning of the Atlantic tomcod thanks to General Electric’s decades of inconsiderate PCB-dumping into the Hudson River has caused the feisty fish to develop a way to keep the chemical from binding to its cells.  And don’t forget the textbook peppered moth example which, despite flaws in the original methodology that have been corrected in later experiments, continues to show that the darkening of tree bark by industrial soot helped the varieties with more melanin blend in better and avoid the notice of predators, drastically decreasing the population of the their lighter colored brethren.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So what gives, guys?  I know there isn’t camouflage that would conceal certain raccoons from cars, but knowing that major changes can take place within a few generations thanks to our (often unhealthy) influence, where’s the roadkill resistance?  Charles Brown of the University of Tulsa may have found an example!  He describes in a Current Biology paper how his taxidermy hobby led him to notice that fewer and fewer cliff swallows were being hit by cars over the past 30 years, and further research showed that the ones who do meet their untimely ends have longer wingspans, on average, than the rest of the populations.  It might be that shorter wings make the birds more maneuverable, or maybe they’re just smartening up and staying away.

Evasive maneuvers!  From wired.com

In either case, that’s a system working and more evidence that some organisms can adapt rapidly to selective pressure, even when it’s unnaturally introduced by us.  That’s not a reason to continue our bad behavior, though.  For example, the buffed up Atlantic tomcod may be resistant to its surrounding toxins, but the things that eat it (like HUMANS) aren’t and can subsequently still get sick.  Plenty of other fish species in the Hudson have suffered.  Pest resistance obviously isn’t something we want to encourage, either.

Atlantis discovered! What, again?!

Holy crap, did you hear the news on Tuesday?  Atlantis, the largely apocryphal, long-lost sunken island first described in Plato’s dialogues (i.e. “stories”) as the doomed home of a highly advanced civilization circa 10,000 BC, has finally been discovered!  Off the coast of Brazil!  That’s not anywhere near Greece, so Plato couldn’t have possibly known about it, but hey!  It seems that two years ago a team of Brazilian scientists dredged up some granite about 900 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, which got them giddy, and now they’ve seen some bad-ass formations in the same place while tooling around in a submersible with their Japanese colleagues.  No artifacts, just rocks.  They think it’s remnants from when Africa and South America split apart 100 million years ago!  And this sounds like the home of a thriving human society… how?

Sounds more like just a rogue piece of South American continental crust.  Many islands, like Hawaii and Iceland, are basaltic in composition, as minerals in oceanic crust are denser and made up of elements like iron and magnesium, whereas the less dense continental crust (which rises higher partly for that reason) is granitic, consisting of elements such as oxygen and silicon.  Some larger islands like Greenland are granitic, as they’re just part of the continental shelf (the extended, lower elevation perimeter of a continent) that hasn’t been submerged.

Either way, they don’t sink!  Islands don’t just sit there and float around the seven seas, like we once thought the continents pushed through oceanic crust as they moved, as in early continental drift proposals.  A strange idea, akin to pushing a piece of paper through a wall, it was replaced in the 20th century by plate tectonics, that instead has both kinds of crust anchored to massive lithospheric plates that are pushed and pulled across the Earth’s surface by underlying differences in temperature.  The edges of some plates are actually sucked into the Earth at subduction zones, like where the Pacific Plate plunges below the South American Plate, giving rise in a roundabout way to the Andes Mountains.  That’s one way to get rid of a landmass, but you sure won’t find any remnants, and it’ll take a good goddamn long time.  The Pacific Plate, to continue the example, currently moves at a rate of about 3 inches per year.  Not exactly “a single day and night,” as Plato recounted.

Erosion can grind a peak down to size; but again, good goddamn long time.  Although if it’s rising faster than the erosion rate, like Mount Everest is, your sinking hypothesis is sunk.  Hawaii too keeps growing, thanks to its active volcanic origin.  Landslides can chip away at the sides, but that still won’t unmoor an island.  A far away landslide could cause a tsunami to wash away what’s on the surface, but one event, even such a powerful one,  won’t smooth a landmass down to sea level.  And if sea level itself rose to conceal something, my God, we’d fricking notice it everywhere!  Not only would there be historical records, but we could read it in the marine rock deposits left behind.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So if Atlantis is based on a probably fictional story the account of which bears no resemblance to this discovery, where did all these weird websites get their ideas?  How does someplace called “DVICE” go from this:

real atlantis

to this?

fake atlantis

Maybe because the FRIGGING SCIENTISTS BROUGHT IT UP THEMSELVES!

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks.”

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the news website quoted Ventura as saying.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-05-scientists-brazilian-atlantis.html#jCp

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the news website quoted Ventura as saying.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-05-scientists-brazilian-atlantis.html#jCp

In a much less reported following statement, Geology Service of Brazil director Roberto Ventura Santos continued, “We speak of Atlantis more in terms of symbolism.  Obviously, we don’t expect to find a lost city in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Come on.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  From Mauritia to the “Bimini Road” to the plains of Spain (at least that’s closer), media outlets desperate for eyeballs will use any chance to turn heads with woo-woo.  These geologists played into it for reasons that aren’t totally clear.  More exposure?  Funding?  To see something more colorful when they Google themselves?  Whatever the motivation, it’s kind of messed up and unsettling that a group of scientists would willingly court crazy to get people’s attention.  It’s not like there isn’t enough of it out there already without the good guys throwing them another bone to chew apart and spew back.

If it’s not anitmatter, what is “dark matter?” Good question.

We’re clear that dark matter is not antimatter, right?  It can’t be, or it would constantly annihilate any “regular” matter that wandered by, and we’d be able to detect the effects of those mini-catastrophes.  Instead it just sits there, unseen, not interacting with light and barely ever touching the normal kinds of stuff we know.  Hard to figure a guy out with just the impression his ass leaves on a couch cushion.  More on that later.  Antimatter we understand, partly because its existence was predicted mathematically by the legendary Paul Dirac in 1928, before it was ever observed “in the wild,” an insight for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.   Once the numbers came up, we actively went looking for it, and physicist Carl D. Anderson acquired the confirmation 4 years after, separately also earning his field’s top honor.

We came at dark matter differently, as instead of predicting it, the stuff took us by surprise.  Our conception of dark matter began largely as an ad hoc placeholder for a funny observation of the outermost edges of galaxies.  According to traditional orbital mechanics, stars way out there should move much slower than the ones closer in, as there isn’t as much mass acting on them.  While that’s true, those speeds didn’t trail off nearly as sharply as calculated, a puzzling discovery made by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, the namesake of the “Oort Cloud” of comets that envelop our solar system, in 1932 (see image below).  Fritz Zwicky made a more precise observation a year later when analyzing the rotation curve for the Coma cluster of galaxies, and determined there should be more than 100 times more mass in the farthest regions than was visible.  Zwicky decided there had to be unseen (unseeable?) matter out there gravitationally pulling those stars along.  That’s a pretty big assumption.  Could something else be at play?

Rotationcurve_3from asterisk.apod.com

In 1983, Israeli physicist Mordehai Milgrom wondered if maybe the calculated mass discrepancies exist because we don’t understand how Newton’s law of universal gravitation operates at great distances, so that it’s the equation that’s wrong, and there really is no need for “invisible matter.”  It wouldn’t be the first time Newton came under fire from advancing physics.  Does relativity ring a bell?   Since Milgrom proposed his Modified Newtonian Dynamics, though, dark matter has scored a significant win with the phenomenon of gravitational lensing.  If dark matter is massive enough to change the speeds of distant stars, than it should be able to bend light, as well.  The smearing of the galaxies in the below image is due to the bending of light as it passes through the Abell 1689 galaxy cluster, as observed with the Hubble Telescope.  Thing is, without dark matter,  there just isn’t enough mass to account for all that distortion.  There must be something we don’t see.  Observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation seem to further necessitate the presence of the mysterious material.

Grav. lensfrom wikipedia

So while we can now be pretty sure that dark matter is a real thing, we’re still unable to get much of a handle on it.  Most of it seems to be where we first noticed its effects, in enormous “halos” surrounding galaxies.  Recent research suggests however that it could be strung throughout all of space, and earthbound experiments are counting on picking out a few particles to further examine its nature.  The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) of the University of California at Berkeley made waves last month when they announced three possible dark matter signatures detected in 2007 and 2008.  The CDMS utilizes silicon and germanium crystals cooled to near absolute zero, and operates under the idea that on the rare occasion that a bit of dark matter does interact with regular matter, the displacement it causes in the crystal can be measured.  The whole apparatus is buried deep underground to minimize false positive detections.  Similar experiments using water have been used to detect neutrinos, as does the new COUPP-60 dark matter experiment.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Figuring out what dark matter is proves to be a lot more difficult than showing that it is.  In addition to terrestrial detectors, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station got some attention in early April when project scientists revealed they may have evidence that dark matter is mostly made of theoretical particles called neutralinos.  How did they make that determination?  With antimatter!  The new measurements show more positrons in cosmic rays than anticipated, which some speculate are produced from the collision of dark matter in deep space.  I guess the two things have hidden connections after all.

Okay, once and for all. What the hell is antimatter?

Well, it’s not dark matter.  I had that argument with a a co-worker whose father is a physics university professor, so he was sure he was right.  Don’t know where the miscommunication occurred.  Truth is, even though there’s almost 6 times as much dark matter as “ordinary” matter in the universe, it’s damn hard to figure out, as it only interacts gravitationally.  Light passes right through it, hence the name.  The “antimatter” moniker is also beautifully descriptive, but this time tells us exactly what the stuff is.  It interacts with light and everything else like usual, it just happens to have the exact opposite charge.  Antiprotons are the same mass as protons, but with a negative charge; antielectrons (better known as “positrons”)… well, I’ll let you guess.  While “ordinary” guys like you and me are scarily underrepresented next to dark matter, there isn’t much antimatter kicking around these days.  The reasons why are simple and yet puzzling.

The main reason is ANNIHILATION!  FUCK yeah!  When a particle and its corresponding antiparticle meet, E = mc² takes over and the bits are transformed explosively into energy, often in the form of photons.  Why this happens is a little murky, but you can kind of imagine that particles want to have as little mass as possible, and photons have zero mass.  Non-matched particles can’t annihilate each other because something wouldn’t be conserved, like spin or charge.  The deadly doppelgangers fit just right.

The opposite can actually occur through a process called “pair production,” when a high energy photon can spontaneously turn into an electron and a positron.  Holy shit!  Being in close proximity to each other, the two particles usually, you guessed it, ANNIHILATE each other and exit as quickly as they entered, but when the pair is produced near the event horizon of a black hole, sometimes the antiparticle will “fall in” while the other one flies off into space and sticks around, a phenomenon called Hawking radiation.  Freaky!

All right, so if matter and antimatter annihilate each other as soon as they come in contact, maybe the question isn’t “where’s all the antimatter,” but why is there… anything at all?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that if both kinds of matter exist, equal amounts of each would have been created?  That’s what the standard model of particle physics predicts.  So why wasn’t there a Big Boom that blew all our matter into energy?  Maybe the antimatter is still out there, but it’s hiding.  There can’t be large chunks of it in the observable universe, or we’d be able to notice the high energy photons from the annihilation at the “boundary” with all the regular matter.  It could be beyond the observable range, so far away that the light from those regions hasn’t yet reached the Earth, but why would it all be sequestered off in a corner somewhere?

If, alternatively, more matter than antimatter was created at the beginning of the universe, there must be fundamental differences between the two things we don’t yet understand.  Current experiments trying to find out if antimatter reacts differently to gravity or if the magnitudes of its magnetic charges deviate from those of normal matter at all could set us on the path to provide a backdoor reason for why regular matter eked out its counterpart.

antimatter-img1

This universe ain’t big enough for the both of us.  Image from physicscentral.com

Even though there isn’t much antimatter, more is produced every day!  Cosmic rays smashing into the atmosphere create some through pair production.  Coming from the other side, positrons are also products of certain kinds of radioactive decay.  We take advantage of this process with Positron Emission Tomography, the PET scan that produces three dimensional images of functional processes in the body.  And if that’s not enough, we can even whip some up ourselves!  Antimatter is a not uncommon product of particle accelerators, and the wizards at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) have even been able to create and isolate entire hydrogen atoms of the stuff!

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Given the tremendous amounts of energy released during matter-antimatter reactions, could we use those antiparticles for spaceship fuel or even weapons?  Well, you’d have to hold it first, and even with the best vacuums in the world, those antihydrogens don’t last very long before they find a partner to shuffle off this earthly coil with.  And you’d need A LOT of it.  According to CERN senior physicist John Eades in a 2012 Skeptical Inquirer article, if all the antiprotons EVER produced at the laboratory over its near 60 years of operation were somehow bottled and used as an energy source… it would power a sixty-watt light bulb for eight or nine minutes.  Not exactly enough to push us to the stars.  Making bombs would be an even worse proposition.  At the current viable bottling rate, you could muster enough antiprotons to make a hydrogen bomb-sized explosion in just about 10,000 times the age of the universe.

While we have a pretty good idea what antimatter is, why we don’t see much of it is an ongoing mystery.  The paltry particles we’re able to produce won’t likely even the scales anytime soon.