Читать онлайн "Broca's Brain: The Romance of Science" автора Саган Карл Эдуард - RuLit - Страница 53

 
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Whichever model we select is consistent with the red clouds. But what are they made of? If we take an atmosphere of methane and hydrogen and supply energy to it, we will make a range of organic compounds, both simple hydrocarbons (like the sort that are needed to make Danielson’s inversion layer in the upper atmosphere) and complex ones. In our laboratory at Cornell, Bishun Khare and I have simulated the kinds of atmospheres that exist in the outer solar system. The complex organic molecules we synthesize in them have optical properties similar to those of the Titanian clouds. We think there is strong evidence for abundant organic compounds on Titan, both simple gases in the atmosphere and more complex organics in the clouds and on the surface.

One problem with an extensive Titanian atmosphere is that the light gas hydrogen should be gushing away because of the low gravity. The only way that I can explain this situation is that the hydrogen is in a “steady state.” That is, it escapes but is replenished from some internal source-volcanoes, most likely. The density of Titan is so low that its interior must be almost entirely composed of ices. We can think of it as a giant comet made of methane, ammonia and water ices. There must also be a small admixture of radioactive elements which, while decaying, will heat their surroundings. The heat conduction problem has been worked out by John Lewis, of MIT, and it is clear that the near-surface interior of Titan will be slushy. Methane, ammonia and water vapor should be outgassed from the interior and broken down by ultraviolet sunlight, producing atmospheric hydrogen and cloud organic compounds at the same time. There may be surface volcanoes made of ice instead of rock, spewing out in occasional eruptions not liquid rock but liquid ice-a lava of running methane, ammonia and perhaps water.

There is another consequence of the escape of all this hydrogen. An atmospheric molecule that achieves escape velocity from Titan generally does not have escape velocity from Saturn. Thus, as Thomas McDonough and the late Neil Brice of Cornell have pointed out, the hydrogen that is being lost from Titan will form a diffuse toroid, or doughnut, of hydrogen gas around Saturn. This is a very interesting prediction, first made for Titan but possibly relevant for other satellites as well. Pioneer 10 has detected such a hydrogen toroid around Jupiter in the vicinity of Io. As Pioneer 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 fly near Titan, they may be able to detect the Titan toroid.

Titan will be the easiest object to explore in the outer solar system. Nearly atmosphereless worlds such as Io or the asteroids present a landing problem because we cannot use atmospheric braking. Giant worlds such as Jupiter and Saturn have the opposite problem: the acceleration due to gravity is so large and the increase in atmospheric density is so rapid that it is difficult to devise an atmospheric probe that will not burn up on entry. Titan, however, has a dense enough atmosphere and a low enough gravity. If it were a little closer, we probably would be launching entry probes there today.

Titan is a lovely, baffling and instructive world which we suddenly realize is accessible for exploration: by fly-bys to determine the gross global parameters and to search for breaks in the clouds; by entry probes to sample the red clouds and unknown atmosphere; and by landers to examine a surface like none we know. Titan provides a remarkable opportunity to study the kinds of organic chemistry that on Earth may have led to the origin of life. Despite the low temperatures, it is by no means impossible that there is a Titanian biology. The geology of the surface may be unique in all the solar system. Titan is waiting…

CHAPTER 14

THE CLIMATES OF PLANETS

Is it not the height of silent humour

To cause an unknown change

in the earth’s climate?

ROBERT GRAVES,

The Meeting

BETWEEN 30 and 10 million years ago, it is thought, temperatures on Earth slowly declined, by just a few Centigrade degrees. But many plants and animals have their life cycles sensitively attuned to the temperature, and vast forests receded toward more tropical latitudes. The retreat of the forests slowly removed the habitats of small furry binocular creatures, weighing only a few pounds, which had lived out their days brachiating from branch to branch. With the forests gone, only those furry creatures able to survive on the grassy savannas were to be found. Some tens of millions of years later, those creatures left two groups of descendants: one which includes the baboons and the other called humans. We may owe our very existence to climatic changes that on the average amount to only a few degrees. Such changes have brought some species into being and extinguished others. The character of life on our planet has been powerfully influenced by such variations, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the climate is continuing to change today.

There are many indications of past climatic changes. Some methods reach far into the past, others have only a limited applicability. The reliability of the methods also differs. One approach, which may be valid for a million years back in time, is based on the ratio of the isotopes oxygen 18 to oxygen 16 in the carbonates of shells of fossil foraminifera. These shells, belonging to species very similar to some that can be studied today, vary the oxygen 16/oxygen 18 ratio according to the temperature of the water in which they grew. Somewhat similar to the oxygen-isotope method is one based upon the ratio of the isotopes sulfur 34 to sulfur 32. There are other, more direct fossil indicators; for example, the widespread presence of corals, figs and palms denotes high temperatures, and the abundant remains of large hairy beasts, such as mammoths, indicate cold temperatures. The geological record is replete with extensive evidence of glaciation-great moving sheets of ice that leave characteristic boulders and erosional traces. There is also clear geological evidence for beds of evaporites-regions where briny water has evaporated leaving behind the salts. Such evaporation occurs preferentially in warm climates.

When this range of climatic information is put together, a complex pattern of temperature variation emerges. At no time, for example, is the average temperature of the Earth below the freezing point of water, and at no time does it even approach the normal boiling point of water. But variations of several degrees are common, and even variations of twenty or thirty degrees may have occurred at least locally. Fluctuations of a few degrees Centigrade happen over characteristic times of tens of thousands of years, and the recent succession of glacial and interglacial periods has this timing and temperature amplitude. But there are climatic fluctuations over much longer periods, the longest being on the order of a few hundred million years. Warm periods appear to have occurred about 650 million years ago and 270 million years ago. By the standards of past climatic fluctuations, we are now in the midst of an ice age. For most of the Earth’s history, there were no “permanent” ice caps, as in the Arctic and Antarctic today. We have, over the past few hundred years, made a partial emergence from our ice age caused by some as yet unexplained minor climatic variation; and there are certain signs that we may plunge back into the global cold temperatures characteristic of our epoch as seen from the perspective of the immense vistas of geological time. It is a sobering fact that 2 million years ago the site of the city of Chicago was buried under a mile of ice.

     

 

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