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A Times Editorial

Universe opens up to new understandings

Two remarkable science stories surfaced last week alongside prosaic discussions of Washington politics, Wiki-Leaks and the Irish financial bailout. First, our universe may contain three times as many stars as originally thought, as many as 300 sextillion, or 3 trillion times 100 billion — as if this number were fathomable. And second, organisms may be able to exist without all the biochemicals thought essential, a discovery that could change everything about our understanding of what extraterrestrial conditions are necessary to support life. If these findings are borne out, our conception of the universe and life within it will have been inexorably altered.

Those of us who are mere spectators of astrophysics or astrobiology can nonetheless appreciate how discoveries like these can wobble established scientific understanding. The new astronomical findings say we have significantly undercounted the number of stars in the universe by presuming that galaxies outside the Milky Way are similar to our own. According to this discovery, elliptical-shaped galaxies, as opposed to the Milky Way's spiral one, are quite different. The ratio of small dwarf stars to sunlike stars is more like 1,000 or 2,000 to 1, instead of the 100 to 1 in the Milky Way. If true, it would mean that galaxies formed earlier and faster than thought.

Moving from the incomprehensibly large to the microscopic, a researcher at NASA is challenging the idea that all life needs six chemical elements to exist — phosphorus, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur. After taking bacterium from the arsenic-rich environment of Mono Lake in California, Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon was able to train it to eat and grow using arsenic when starved of phosphorus, even to the extent that arsenic atoms appeared in the microbe's DNA. Until now, that was thought to be impossible. This suggests that life may be sustained elsewhere even absent some of the biochemicals needed for earth-bound life.

Albert Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious." He would have reveled in this gallery of awe-inspiring discoveries and the vistas they open up for a better understanding of our physical world.

Universe opens up to new understandings 12/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, December 5, 2010 8:29pm]

    

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