Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Air You Breathe, the Food You Eat

Cyanobacteria, a kind of blue-green algae, live in water, manufacture their own food, and, during the Archaean Age, were responsible for creating the oxygen we breathe.

If you were able to travel back 3.5 billion years to the Archaean period in the earth’s history, you would think you were in hell. The atmosphere was made up of methane, ammonia, and other gases toxic to most life on our planet today. And then along came the cyanobacteria. They turned hell into the Garden of Eden.

Cyanobacteria are busy little buggers and it’s a good thing for us that they are. In addition to creating the air we breathe, proterozoic oil deposits can be attributed to the activity of cyanobacteria, and they are also important providers of nitrogen fertilizer in the cultivation of rice and beans. The other great contribution of the cyanobacteria is the origin of plants. The chloroplast with which plants make food for themselves is actually a cyanobacterium living within the plant's cells.

Cyanobacteria are one of very few groups of organisms that can convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into an organic form, such as nitrate or ammonia, which plants need for their growth, and must obtain from the soil. Fertilizers work the way they do in part because they contain additional fixed nitrogen which plants can then absorb through their roots.

Interestingly, many plants, especially legumes, have formed symbiotic relations with nitrifying bacteria, providing specialized tissues in their roots or stems to house the bacteria, in return for organic nitrogen. This has been used to great advantage in the cultivation of rice, where the floating fern Azolla is actively distributed among the rice paddies. The fern houses colonies of the cyanobacterium Anabaena in its leaves, where it fixes nitrogen. The ferns then provide an inexpensive natural fertilizer and nitrogen source for the rice plants when they die at the end of the season. Azolla has been used as a green manure crop in Vietnam and China for centuries.

Like so many other aspects of our earth’s ecosystem, cyanobacteria work their wonders in relative anonymity. One can only hope that we humans come to understand Mother Earth well enough to appreciate and preserve her essential life processes. Live long and prosper, little cyano!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Universe and all that Stuff

Hubble Photo: Giant Disk of Cold Gas and Dust Fuels Possible Black Hole at the Core of NGC 4261

In proposing an alternative to the conventional "Big Bang" theory of cosmology, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok point out that "the standard model does not explain the beginning of time, the initial conditions of the universe, or what will happen in the long-term future." For me, these are reason enough to consider other explanations for the nature of the reality we refer to as our universe.

For as long as I can remember pondering the imponderables -- when did the universe come about, when will it end, how big is it, and what is my place in the nature of its reality? -- I have been uncomfortable with the idea that all existence came about suddenly in a massive explosion spewing matter into the void -- the so-called cosmic singularity. What exploded? Where did it come from? Now what?

Steinhardt and Turok propose a cosmological model with an "endless sequence of cycles of expansion and contraction." In their scheme of things, there is, by definition, neither a beginning nor end of time, nor is there a need to define initial conditions. This appeals to me, because I've always felt that my views of reality are inextricably entangled with my experience. That's how I came to understand that touching the glowing red spiral on the stove top would cause pain, but it's also why I am predisposed towards believing that, like me, things are finite, have beginnings and endings, and exist in three dimensions. Truth is, it ain't necessarily so.

Steinhardt and Turok's description of their cosmic model involves black holes, dark matter, string theory, M-theory, quantum theory, branes (short for membranes), gravitational and microwaves, and other challenges for the lay person, like myself. But their cyclic model deals directly with the cosmic singularity, explaining it as a transition from a contracting to an expanding phase.

Of course physicists argue with each other about whose theory best represents "truth." Their arguments are based on evidence already assembled, testable theories/hypotheses, and mathematical proofs. And then there are religious proponents who by and large favor the Big Bang theory because it's a "creation event" -- presumably the big bang happened in the first nano second of the first day and a week later we had physicists arguing about dark energy -- and they weren't referring to Lucifer.

In any case, we have at least two distinct theories of our universe, one in which the universe has a definite beginning, and one in which the universe is made and remade forever. For me, based on nothing more than aesthetics, I believe in an infinite number of parallel universes passing into and through each other -- maybe through black holes -- in an unending blending of energy, dark energy, matter, and anti-matter, all of which looks very nice on God's flat-panel display.

Hubble Photo: Orion Nebula

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tapteal Greenway Association

Thursday night, February 5th, in Richland, the Tapteal Greenway Association held one of two "Rivers to Ridges" public workshops it is conducting in 2009. The other workshop will be held Thursday, February 12th, in Kennewick. The purpose of the workshops is to obtain public input on a long-term plan for developing a rivers to ridges open space network of the Mid-Columbia.

The Tapteal Greenway Association is a private-public partnership of government agencies and groups like the Friends of Badger Mountain, the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, and individual citizens working together to coordinate open space planning for the Mid-Columbia Region. The Association's vision is a network of natural features, open spaces and connecting trails that complement residential and commercial development in the Mid-Columbia Region in order to:
Enhance the region's ability to attract/retain people and businesses that grow and sustain our economy
Provide easy access to increase recreational use
Preserve natural and aesthetic values that promote education and special events.

More information can be found on the Association's web site, which also includes a survey that allows individuals to express their thoughts on what the Association's priorities should be.

February 5th Ridges to Rivers Workshop