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Our cosmic ray connection – Part 1

By J.K. Obatala
02 June 2016   |   1:40 am
Scientists call them “cosmic rays”. But these “bullets of radiation” are really connecting cables, carriers of information and physical influence, from cosmic cataclysms dated billions of years back.
Cosmic Inkblot Test

Cosmic Inkblot Test

As you read this column, some 10,000 particles, from outer space, are penetrating your body every minute—part of an ongoing cosmic interface, between you and the greater universe.

Scientists call them “cosmic rays”. But these “bullets of radiation” are really connecting cables, carriers of information and physical influence, from cosmic cataclysms dated billions of years back.

Indeed, if an omniscient draftsman were to diagram the physical forces linking us to the universe, his sketch would be a daunting web-work of coiling and crisscrossing strands, woven around Earth.

The connecting influences are many. “Cosmic rays” would stand out though, from other forces depicted in the sketch: A reflection of their perceived importance, in the evolution of life on Earth.

Just how important, is controversial. But investigators generally agree, that life wouldn’t be the same, if these “bullets,” as astronomer George Abell once called them, were not fired continually from space.

This notion, of course, is counterintuitive. Because cosmic rays come from vast distances—deep inside the Milky Way galaxy, far beyond the boundaries of our solar system.

That such remote and un-sensed forces are shaping our destiny, runs counter to popular conceptions of the universe as an abstraction—materially relevant, only to poets, lyricists and astronomers.

Cosmic rays are anything but irrelevant. In fact, they are not “rays” at all, but rather atomic nuclei, which zip through the universe, at close to the speed of light.

These “primary” cosmic rays consist of about 90 percent protons (hydrogen nuclei), while heavier elements (especially helium) make up nine percent and electrons one.

Scattered by the Galaxy’s pervasive magnetics fields, the primaries hit Earth from every direction—shattering the nuclei of atmospheric molecules, to create showers of “secondary” particles. “Every square centimeter on the top of the Earth’s atmosphere is hit by several cosmic rays per second,” Brian Fields, a University of Illinois astronomer, told Space.Com. “This is forever going on.”

Few primaries reach the surface. But Billions of highly penetrating secondary cosmic rays—which physicists call “muons”—rain down from Earth’s upper atmosphere continually.

Muons are the fall guys, so to speak. They’ve taken the rap for a litany of geological, climatic and biological perturbations, including Ice Ages, mass extinctions and particularly DNA mutations.

“Mutation” means “change” or “alteration”. In biology, this refers to a situation where chemicals or ionizing radiation corrupts the coded messages carried on chromosomes, in the nuclei (centre) of cells.

The codes are inscribed on DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) chips, or “genes”. They pass crucial survival assets (intelligence, weaponry, dietary tips) to the offspring, along with blueprints for self-construction.

But accidents happen in nature, just as they do on roads or in the home. And like a fender-bender or burnt food, genetic mishaps too, are usually bad news—causing cancer, idiocy, deformity, etc. “At sea level,” wrote Michael Schirber, in Space.Com, “… Some of these muons will ionize molecules as they go through our flesh, occasionally leading to genetic mutations that may be harmful”.

Whether harmful, helpful or neutral, many researchers believe cosmic ray-induced mutations have been a seminal influence on the evolution of terrestrial life.

“A knowledge of these particles is important…,” Abell observed, in Exploration Of The Universe, ”for they probably cause many of the mutations in living cells that are responsible for biological evolution…”

Likewise, Franco Ferrari, a scientist at the University of Szczecin, in Poland, declared to Schirber: “It is clear that in some way cosmic rays shaped evolution of organisms on Earth.”

To be continued.