Mystery anomaly weakens Earth's magnetic field, report scientists

A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.

ESA
  • "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
  • The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
  • The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
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The mystery of moving, mossy, ‘glacier mice’

Atop certain glaciers are herds of small mossy balls that somehow move together when no one's looking.

Image source: Carsten ten Brink/flickr
  • Weird but cute, "glacier mice" are actually balls of moss, dirt, and more.
  • The balls move, oddly, in packs through some unknown means.
  • A new study tracked 30 glacier mice but still couldn't figure out what's going on.

Scientists have known about them at least since the 1950s, when Jón Eythórsson named them "jökla-mýs," which translates as "glacier mice." However, they're not actually mice. They're smallish balls of moss, and there are lots of them atop Alaska's Root Glacier. They can also be found on ice in Iceland, Svablard, and even South America, presumably places with just the right conditions, though researchers don't know what those conditions are.

The really odd thing about them is that they apparently move in some unexplained way, though no one has observed them doing so. It's just that repeated visits find them in different places.

And that's not the coolest part. "The whole colony of moss balls, this whole grouping, moves at about the same speeds and in the same directions," geologist Tim Bartholomaus of University of Idaho (UI) tells NPR. "Those speeds and directions can change over the course of weeks."

Bartholomaus and two colleagues have published their research on glacier mice in Polar Biology.

Mice but not mice

Image source: Steve Coulson/ The University Center at Svalbard

The "glacier mice" nickname has stuck perhaps because glaciologists are so fond of the fuzzy things. They are pillow-like, soft, squeezable objects, comprised of different species of moss, but that is not all.

A 2012 study found entire thriving habitats inside the mice. "I had expected to find some animals, but not so many," said study author and arctic biologist Steve Coulsonto to the New York Times. His research revealed springtails (six-legged insects), tardigrades (of course), and simple nematode worms. In a single mouse, there were 73 springtails, 200 tardigrades, and 1,000 nematodes.

Co-author of the new study, wildlife biologist Sophie Gilbert of UI describes them:

"They really do look like little mammals, little mice or chipmunks or rats or something running around on the glacier, although they run in obviously very slow motion."

Clues and an unsolved mystery

Some glacier mice are found perched on ice pedestals.

Image source: Fanny Dommanget/The University Center at Svalbard

Her report recounts the efforts made by Bartholomaus and his co-authors, which also included biologist Scott Hotaling of Washington State University, to figure out how the mice are getting around.

The 2012 study outfitted some mice with accelerometers and confirmed that they do rotate, but that's as far as its authors went into the balls' means of travel.

For Bartholomaus and his cohorts, there were some clues going into this.

For example, occasionally, balls are found perched on a pedestal of ice as seen above, perhaps shading that spot from melting sunlight until it finally melts and the ball rolls away.

Another clue is the intact nature of the healthy moss that serves as each ball's surface — it's a sign that they all have their turn in the sun. "These things must actually roll around or else that moss on the bottom would die," says Gilbert.

One obvious explanation was quickly ruled out — they're not simply rolling downhill, because many of them were found to be on level surfaces.

For the study, the researchers tagged 30 of the mice with a loop of wire and colored beads that identified each ball. They tracked their position for 54 days in 2009, and again in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Bartholomaus explains, "By coming back year after year, we could figure out that these individual moss balls were living at least, you know, five, six years and potentially much, much longer."

Although the researchers expect the movements of the balls would be individualized and random, that's not what they found. The balls moved about an inch a day, and together, like a herd of animals.

Also, they periodically changed direction. "When we visited them all, they were all just sort of moving relatively slowly and initially toward the south," Bartholomaus said. "Then they all started to speed up and kind of start to deviate toward the west. And then they slowed down again and progressed even farther to the west."

Wind, maybe? Measurements of the dominant winds in the area ruled that out. Sunlight patterns also failed to account for the movement of the packs.

So, what's going on? Admits Barholomaus, "We still don't know. I'm still kind of baffled."

Suggestions

Given scientists' affection for the little balls, other people are also rolling the idea around in their minds. Ruth Mottram of the Danish Meteorological Institute suggests to NPR, "I think that probably the explanation is somewhere in the physics of the energy and the heat around the surface of the glacier, but we haven't quite got there yet."

Another theory put forward is that the moss on a ball's underside grows and pushes it over and forward, cueing up the next moss to begin growing in the same way. If growth rates from ball to ball are similar, this could explain their herd-like movement.

The mystery is reminiscent of the "sailing stones" of Death Valley that perplexed scientists for years unit their secret was revealed: They're pushed around by the wind as they temporarily float on wet melting ground ice.

Scientists observe strange lights in the heart of the Milky Way

Astronomers spot periodic lights coming from near the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Credit: Keio University
  • Astronomers in Japan observe periodic lights coming from the region near the black hole at the center of our galaxy.
  • The twinkling may be produced by hot spots in the accretion disk around the black hole.
  • The mysterious region studied features extreme gravity.
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A 2016 particle revealed a parallel universe. Or not.

But wait: Time runs backward there. Other physicists are not convinced.

Image source: Thomas Daems/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • NASA's ANITA observatory searches for neutrinos traveling with cosmic rays as they arrive on, and crash into, Earth.
  • ANITA detected high-energy particles that seemed to be coming out of the Earth, which isn't supposed to be possible.
  • After years of inconclusive hypotheses, the ANITA team published a paper claiming the particles reveal a parallel universe where time runs backwards.

An Antarctic particle-observation experiment conducted in Antarctica in 2016 has produced what its scientists say may be evidence of a second universe parallel to ours, an anti-universe in which time runs backwards. On the other hand, maybe not. While there's little doubt about what the searchers saw, nobody has quite figured out what it was, and some imply the parallel-universe idea may be as much an expression of frustration over the unresolved mystery as a serious hypothesis.

Here's what happened

ANITA getting ready

Image source: Balloon Program Office/NASA

Ever since Austrian physicist Victor Hess realized that cosmic rays were bombarding the Earth from above in 1912, scientists have sought out ways in which they can be detected and studied without the distortion introduced by Earth's magnetic field. Fortunately, cosmic rays are accompanied by a detectable beacon: neutrinos, and neutrinos don't care about magnetic fields — they travel in a simple straight line.

Antarctica presents an interesting opportunity to learn about cosmic waves. When low-energy neutrinos hit the ground ice there, they pass right through along with their cosmic-ray partners. However, high-energy neutrinos, such as those that accompany cosmic rays, can't pass through and crash into the ice, producing a shower of charged particles.

NASA's Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) is designed to detect and measure these bursts, allowing scientists to figure out a neutrino's trajectory, and thus its source and that of its accompanying cosmic ray. ANITA is a collection of antennas sent aloft in a large balloon some 1-4 kilometers above McMurdo Base in Antarctica. It's made three month-long flights so far, hunting for signs of neutrino impacts over a million square kilometers of ice, but the only thing ANITA detected are what seemed to be bursts of background noise.

However, as disappointed scientists waited on the surface during ANITA's third flight, they decided to go over the data from the first two missions one more time to see if there was anything they missed. The researchers found, in what they'd previously assumed to be noise, the signature of a strangely high-energy particle, with a charge of 0.6 and 0.56 exaelectronvolts (a billion billion electronvolts).

The particle's trajectory is what made no sense: It apparently didn't come down from space — it was exploding outward from underneath the ice. Since high-energy particles can't pass through the Earth, ANITA's observation has puzzled the physics community for the last couple of years. (Since that time, three other similar particles have been observed by ANITA.)

In March, since no definitive explanation has yet been put forward, experimental particle physicist Peter Gorham of the University of Hawaii and principle investigator with ANITA and his colleagues provided one. It's a stunner: The paper asserts that ANITA caught a "right-handed neutrino." The detection of such a particle would signify the presence of an anti-universe. In this scenario, the particle's direction would be explained as a reversed-in-time arrival of the particle on Earth from space.

Just a sec, or anti-sec...

Image source: NASA

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." — Carl Sagan

In the case of the hypothesis proposed ANITA's team, theirs is more a matter of an extraordinary lack of proof in the form of convincing explanations that would be justify an extraordinary claim. Sagan would likely be unimpressed.

"We are absolutely sure that there is new physics out there to be found," radio Astronomer Clancy James tells Jackson Ryan at c/net, explaining why it's not shocking that physicists can't explain the four reported observations detailed in the team's paper. Even so, astrophysicist Geraint Lewis point out, "There are a number of potential candidate particles that could account for the results from ANITA." There is also a theory that the geomagnetic current in the Antarctic ice distorts particle trajectories, potentially producing a head-scratching detection such a ANITA's.

It's also true that one approach to an unanswerable question is to think outside of the box. "In such a situation you start exploring even more extreme possibilities," says Ekers.

While astroparticle phenomenologist Pat Scott admits the anti-universe explanation is "plausible" — an interesting word in the mind-blowing arena of physics — he cautions, "There's nothing that necessarily makes it a detection of a parallel universe."

Ron Ekers, of Australia's national space agency, suggests Gorham and his colleagues may just be sick of waiting for another answer: "The unusual ANITA events have been known and discussed since 2016. After four years there has been no satisfactory explanation of the anomalous events seen by ANITA so this is very frustrating, especially to those involved." He suggests the anti-universe idea is "a somewhat cheeky explanation ... born out of the frustration of having nothing else that worked."

Concludes Lewis, "Whilst parallel universes sound exciting and sexy when discussing the ANITA signal, alternative ideas are still on the table."

For now, the reaction of the larger physics community suggests we'll have to take the anti-universe theory with at least a grain of salt and consider ANITA's baffling observations a genuinely intriguing puzzle awaiting a provable solution.

Astronomer calculates the odds of intelligent alien life emerging

A new study discovers the likelihood of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

Image by IgorZh
  • A Columbia University astronomer calculates the odds of extraterrestrial life emerging.
  • The probability comes out in favor of aliens existing.
  • The search for life in space should be encouraged, concludes the scientist.
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