Tuesday, October 22, 2002

That Dinosaur in the Atlanta Airport or how My Blog Got Its Name

I wrote the Last Gasp Theory of dinosaur extinction several years ago and posted it on several newsgroups, and also sent it to some paleontologists. Since then, further dinosaur discoveries have added to the evidence that supports my conclusions.

Last weekend, while returning from Washington DC, I passed through the Atlanta Georgia airport. There was a full scale reproduction of a dinosaur skeleton. It was a Chinese dinosaur, a meat eater, named Yaung-something. (I think of it as Young And Restless Saurus.) It towers over you as you walk next to it. The sign says it is over 32 feet in length - about ten meters. And the rib cage is too small for a high speed hunter. It doesn't have breathing room, it's lungs are too small - if they work as our lungs do.

I think that scientists could use the lung size of the different dinosaurs to work out how much more oxygen transfer is occurring, in dinosaurs compared to mammals. It would be interesting to see if there is a constant ratio of lung size to presumed mass for each type of dinosaur.

The dinosaurs died because they ran out of breathing room. They were adapted to an environment with a much greater amount of avaliable oxygen, and when the air thinned, all the creatures that shared that metabolic advantage, on land, in the sea, and in the air, died.

How this Missing Mass of The Universe Killed the Dinosaurs Part II of II

by Brad Jensen brad@elstore.com

Continued from Part I

There's an interesting phenomenon in our Earth/ Moon system. The tides on Earth are causing the Moon to accelerate in its orbit and gradually move farther and farther from the Earth. The bulge of water that is the tide results in a gravitational pull on the Moon that speeds it up.

I think the same thing happens with the Sun and Jupiter, except that the bulge is on Jupiter. This tends to accelerate Jupiter and move it farther from the Sun.

However, Saturn is in the way, and tends to slow Jupiter back down. In effect, the Sun is transferring momentum to Jupiter, and Jupiter is transferring momentum to Saturn. Meanwhile the gravity of Jupiter is helping to hold the asteroids and the inner planets
in fairly stable orbits.

In the meantime, interstellar debris continues to pass through the system. I do not think it is any accident that Pluto's orbit crosses Neptune. I think that in the natural course of things,
perhaps in several hundred million or a few billion years, Pluto would be where Mercury is now.

Suppose that 66 million years ago, you have an Earth with a thicker atmosphere and a Moon that is much closer to the Earth than it is today. Suppose a lot of material comes through the
solar system at once, like an interstellar shotgun blast. Some material hits the earth, in the form of multiple large meteorite strikes. A lot of that kinetic energy turns into heat, and the
atmosphere expands. Perhaps meteors also strike the Moon, and it decelerates a small amount, coming closer to the Earth. Or perhaps the orbit of the Moon is affected, and temporarily
becomes more elliptical, coming closer to and farther from the Earth. A large body passing near the Earth/Moon system could have this effect without ever bumping into either the Earth or the

In any case, the Moon starts stripping some of the atmosphere from the Earth. (Actually what happens is the gravity of the Moon accelerates atoms and molecules of gas in the upper atmosphere, so that they reach escape velocity.)

Some of the water vapor in the atmosphere of the Earth is scooped up temporarily by the Moon. A small part of the vapor freezes and falls as snow on the dark side of the Moon. As the moon turns, the snow evaporates and then refreezes. Most of it escapes into space. A small part of it collects in areas of permanent darkness, at the poles of the Moon.

But the major effect of this, as far as we are concerned, is that
the atmosphere of the Earth suddenly becomes thinner.
This is in
a matter of decades, centuries, or at most a few hundred thousand
years. The mammals' main competitors for environmental niches,
the dinosaurs, suddenly are short of breath, if they can breath
at all. The animals that are adapted to higher altitudes, which
are the mammals and one group of birds, are suddenly adapted to
everyday conditions. Dinosaurs on land and sea, and some of the
dinosaurs that have become birds, have their Last Gasp.

So a type of animal that evolved for a niche environment of thin
air and rapid temperature variation, becomes the breeding stock
for the suddenly changed conditions. The animals that evolved to
take advantage of high oxygen content (by today's standards)
don't have time to evolve for the sudden new condition. The
missing mass of the universe, the planetary pieces from between
the stars, has changed the course of evolution. If it hadn't
happened, we'd all be speaking Dinosaur. (That is a joke.)

Can we find proof of this? I think so. Maybe all we need to do is pressurize a chicken. Perhaps we can find unique but dormant parts of avian DNA, by comparing it with mammalian DNA. Perhaps there are geologic studies that can tell us about atmospheric pressure at the KT boundary. Perhaps there are fossil shorelines that can show us the extent of tides at that time.

(Note: January 2005. Since posting this two years ago, I've read that
they have determined that the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere prior to the dinosaur's demise was much higher than it is today. I remember the figure as 54%, where it now is roughly 25 or 33% [I don't remember the exat figure now.] So the linchpin of my theory seems to be established. I don't know if this was known when I originally published this in the newsgroups, but I was unaware of it at that time.)

If this speculation is true, perhaps in a thicker atmosphere the early dinobirds could fly with smaller wings. Perhaps the larger dinosaurs could get more energy from less food, explaining how they could live with mouths too small to feed themselves with by our current way of thinking. Perhaps the higher metabolism lets them grow faster, explaining how some of them could get so big without dying of old age first.

It may very well be that the dinosaur-killing event was a blessing to mammalian evolution in more ways than one. It is likely that the unique mutation that made the mammals adaptable
to higher altitudes and therefore greater temperature variations, was hair. Over the course of millions of years of evolution, the dinosaurs couldn't come up with anything to preserve body
temperature so that they could expand into the mammal's environmental niche.

(I realize I'm discussing evolution as if it were intentional, I'm only doing so as a convenient shorthand.)

Then finally, they came up with feathers. Feathers, like hair, were an adaptation that serendipitously provided insulation (although I think both feathers and hair were
originally selected as a method of cooling, not keeping warm.) So the dinosaurs began living side by side with the mammals at high altitude, perhaps for the first time. Feathered dinosaurs first
developed soaring, then flying, as they hopped around in the mountains, in pursuit of or being pursued as, prey.

The most important idea to come out of all this speculation is that the solar system is a much more dynamic system than we have considered it to be. We know now that life can exist anywhere there is liquid water. That might be at great pressure deep in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet, that later becomes a small stony planet. It may be that the effect of life over billions of years, is to strip the dense atmosphere of such a planet. It may also be that the orbit of the Earth around the sun has changed significantly during the existence of life on Earth, which might explain why life didn't change very much for a couple of billion years.

Perhaps the life-induced 'evaporation' of our heavy atmosphere upset the orderly process of planetary progression and saved us from the solar hothouse that otherwise would be our destiny.

It is a strange idea to consider that microbes may be a factor in the evolution of astrophysical systems, but there you are.

There is also an idea that I call Ontological Laissez Faire. Over the course of billions of years, if there is nothing to prevent something from happening, it will happen. So ice accumulates on
the Moon, and life accumulates on Earth.

I do think, with 400 quadrillion planetary systems out there, that the same conditions that have occurred in our solar system, are occurring other places, even as we speak.

In any case, at the end of this philosophical speculation, I would like to remind my readers that this is not scientific theory, although it may lead to such efforts on the part of other people. If you turn this in as your school report or as part of a term paper, the teacher will probably make you sit in the corner.

For those of you who think that the Earth appeared suddenly on a Thursday afternoon in 4523 BC, I'd like to point out that I do believe in God, and I can't argue with Paul the Apostle when he says that the stories in the Bible are allegories. I do not think the idea that 15 billion years of orderly development have led to the existence of man, decreases either the glory of the Creator
or the dignity of man in any degree. We are here to love and be loved.

I apologize to those of you who find these speculations fantastic and irresponsible. I will say I went so far as to leave out my ideas of quantum transmutation and oil on the Moon. Why don't we see gravity waves? All those interstellar planets are damping them out. Don't get me started.

I am in a bit of a hurry to present this. My last fantastic idea was starving hurricanes by spreading oil on the ocean to cut heat transfer, and now I find that MIT is planning to do this. So I want to present these crackpot ideas before I wake up and read about them in the newspaper. There's an earlier and less developed version of this discussion in the newsgroup archives, go to deja.com and search for my name.

It would be a really nice idea to put an asteroid deflection system on the Moon. An asteroid doesn't have to hit the earth to affect the climate.

Might we see planet-sized objects as comets, or even hitting the sun, in the next couple of thousand years? I wouldn't say no. If you think people got excited about Y2K, wait till you see the response to this sort of event!

How this Missing Mass of The Universe Killed the Dinosaurs Part I of II

I first published this in the newsgroups several years ago. Recent findings on dinosaurs have continued to support my theory, so I thought I would share this original version, and then add my firther speculations.

How this Missing Mass of The Universe Killed the Dinosaurs Part I of II

by brad@elstore.com

Speculation has fallen so far out of fashion in these post-modern times, that I want to be sure to warn you that what follows is not a scientific theory. Instead, it is a series of logical suppositions that seem to hang together in explaining a very puzzling event in the history of life. I apologize to any serious scientists who find themselves reading this. I am really writing for the general public, for entertainment and as an example of philosophical speculation.

I have absolutely no credentials in any of the fields I am discussing. However, these ideas are so much fun, I wanted to share them with you. I hope you enjoy this exposition as much as
I enjoy writing about it.

We know that dinosaurs and mammals developed at about the same time in the history of life on Earth. Dinosaurs were much more successful than mammals, and expanded to fill many environmental niches, both on land and in the oceans, and eventually in the sky. Then some great change occurred, and the dinosaurs disappeared from the land and the oceans, and only survived in the air, as birds.

It has become a modern myth that the dinosaurs were killed by a large meteor strike 66 million years ago, that created a worldwide winter that froze the dinosaurs to death. This theory
suits our genetic pride, in that we are descended from the animals that were smart enough to grow their own fur coats, but it really doesn't make sense. What about the dinosaurs in the
sea? If it were cold enough for the seas to freeze over, it would have been so cold that all of the land animals, including mammals, would have frozen solid. What about the reptiles and the
amphibians, who certainly would have perished in the same catastrophe if it had occurred?

While many species died out, only the family of dinosaurs disappeared completely.

So the 'Big Chill' theory, that the dinosaurs were frozen out of the evolutionary parade, has to be abandoned.

I have a different idea. It's an idea that is based on a logical analysis of the existing facts, and it leads to some suggestions for future study.

We know that dinosaurs had an advantage over mammals at one time, and lost that advantage. Whatever was their advantage, became their detriment.

We tend to think of dinosaurs as animals that had a certain physical structure, but we must remember that they really had a certain biology. The structure really existed to take advantage
of the biology.

The earliest protodinosaurs were small, bipedal, high-speed hunters. The last dinosaurs, who became birds, were adapted in some ways to the same environment that produced the mammals.

The fact that all of the dinosaurs, in completely different environments, die at about the same time, has led some to speculate that there was a sudden case of 'dinosaur influenza'
that killed off everyone with a certain genetic structure. This idea is attractive because it answers the nagging question how anything could so specifically target a certain section of the
animal kingdom.

However, I think there is a simpler and more satisfying answer.

Let's go back to the time when dinosaurs and mammals developed. The Earth is warmer, the temperature is more uniform, and the atmosphere is full of oxygen from photosynthesis. I think at that point, the first dinosaurs developed based on a metabolic advantage. The dinosaur had a high-energy metabolism based on taking advantage of the high oxygen content in the air. I think the atmosphere was significantly denser than it is now. Even if the percentage of oxygen were the same as it is today, the partial pressure of oxygen would be higher. This means that there is more oxygen available through respiration, if you have the metabolism to handle it.

Meanwhile the mammals are developing for a very specific environmental niche. Mammals develop hair, warm blood, live birth, and suckling of their young, to exist in a colder environment. That cold environment is on mountains. Everywhere else is pretty warm, but high altitudes have lower temperatures - and thinner air.

The dinosaurs have the metabolic advantage almost everywhere, except on mountaintops. Since the air is denser, the rate at which the air becomes thin, is higher. There is a much more rapid drop-off in pressure as you gain altitude. The dinosaur's special adaptation to high oxygen availability is a liability in thin air. So the dinosaur family tree expands to fill most of the world, the seas, and eventually they reach for the skies.

Some of the dinosaurs begin to evolve, into two different kinds of birds.

Meanwhile a major astrophysical event is coming up. The signature of this event, is the meteorite strike, the KT event, that we think somehow killed off the dinosaurs.

That somehow is by changing an environmental condition worldwide. It can't be rainfall, since dinosaurs in the sea died also. It can't be temperature, because anything extreme enough to kill
every dinosaur would kill all the reptiles also, and probably the fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals. The only other variable is air.

Something happened to make the air thinner. Dinosaurs, that had a metabolism dependent on high oxygen availability, died everywhere. Those that didn't die immediately lost their metabolic advantage over other animals.

Mammals, of course, are already adapted to lower oxygen environments because they developed in high altitudes.

Highflying birds make it through the environmental sieve. Ground-hugging birds, that are not adapted to thin air, die out.

So the mammals take their turn at family expansion, and replace the dinosaurs on land and in the oceans.

(I call this The Last Gasp Theory). I think that evidence for this theory can be found, perhaps in the geologic record, and perhaps in the mitochondrial and unexpressed chromosomal DNA of
birds. It would not surprise me to find 'fossil DNA' in birds that would show this metabolic capability. (I suspect there is fossil DNA of all kinds in complex animals. Recombine it in a
certain way and you might get a stegosaurus, for example.)

What could change the atmospheric pressure so rapidly?

The most obvious candidate would be a near miss by an asteroid, moon, or comet. My next suggestion is that interstellar space is full of planetary-sized bodies, and that our companion planets (and probably the Earth itself) did not form in the vicinity of the sun.

The recent evidence of planets orbiting nearby stars has been exciting and a little unnerving. Most of the planetary systems we have evidence of, have large planets, larger than Jupiter,
orbiting very near to their star. It's obvious in the case of some of them, that the planet could not have formed at that distance from the star, if it is anything like the large planets we know of in our own solar system.

The measurement methods we have are primitive, and can only pick up nearby planetary systems with massive planets near the star. These are probably unusual and relatively temporary situations (with the planet eventually being eaten by the star, or moving
farther from the star). The fact that there are so many nearby planetary systems that we can detect, even though we can only detect unusual ones, suggests that virtually every star has
planets. We don't know if these other systems are 'normal', and our apparently more stable system is the strange duck, or vice versa.

The prevailing hypothesis about our solar system is that the planets developed in place, attendant on the sun. I think of this as 'the Divine Right of Rings' theory, where you explain that things must be so because that is the way that they are.

In our solar system, the outermost members are the most eccentric in their orbits. Some people consider Pluto to be a captured comet. I think all of the planets are captured comets.

I am not surprised to see the recent evidence that Jupiter must have formed farther from the Sun. (This is based on the prevalence of noble gasses in the atmosphere of Jupiter.)

Comets are considered to be bodies that have been disturbed from their home in the Ort Cloud, a hypothesized ring of debris beyond the orbit of Pluto. They come zipping around the sun in long elliptical orbits.

Of course, if one of those comets should be the size of a large rotating planet, tidal forces affecting that giant comet as it passes around the sun, over and over again, would ten to make the orbit more and more spherical. In the end, you would have a planet in a conventional orbit around the sun. Of course this might take a billion years or two.

So a solar system consists of material that has collected in the space between the stars, gradually being brought inward to the nearer orbit around the sun. This material, in the form of
comets, planets, asteroids, tends to decelerate and fall into the sun over time. The reason for this deceleration is either gravitational interaction with other bodies in orbit, or outright
collisions between bodies.

You can see the effect of this in the asteroid belt, the collection of thousands of small micro planets between the orbits that has been falling into the sun for billions of years.

In other planetary systems, it seems that even Jupiter-sized planets are spinning inward to the star.

If there is anything unique about our solar system, it is in the stability of the orbits of the planets.

(continued in part II)