April 30, 2004


Scientists Announce Cosmic Ray Theory Breakthrough (SPX, Apr 30, 2004)

University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory have proposed a new theory to explain the movement of vast energy fields in giant radio galaxies (GRGs). The theory could be the basis for a whole new understanding of the ways in which cosmic rays - and their signature radio waves - propagate and travel through intergalactic space.

In a paper published this month in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists explain how magnetic field reconnection may be responsible for the acceleration of relativistic electrons within large intergalactic volumes. That is, the movement of charged particles in space that are originally energized by massive black holes.

"If our understanding of this process is correct," says Los Alamos astrophysicist Philipp Kronberg, "it could be a paradigm shift in current thinking about the nature of GRGs and cosmic rays."

Researchers still do not fully understand why magnetic field reconnection occurs, but this much is known: a deeper understanding of the mechanism could have important applications here on Earth, such as the creation of a system of magnetic confinement for fusion energy reactors.

If the Los Alamos scientists' theory is correct, the discovery also has wide-ranging astrophysical consequences. It implies that magnetic field reconnection or some other highly efficient field-to-particle energy conversion process could be a principal source of all extragalactic radio sources, and possibly also the mysterious "Ultra High Energy Cosmic Ray particles".

Giant radio galaxies are vast celestial objects that emit a continuum of radio wavelengths detectable with radio telescopes like those at the Very Large Array in Socorro, N.M. Using comprehensive data on seven of the largest radio galaxies in the Universe gathered over the past two decades, the researchers were able to study cosmic ray energy fields that are expelled from the GRGs centers - which are almost certain to contain supermassive black holes - outward as much as a few millions of light years into intergalactic space (1 light year = 5,900,000,000,000 miles).

What the Los Alamos researchers concluded was that the high energy content of these giant radio galaxies, their large ordered magnetic field structures, the absence of strong large-scale shocks and very low internal gas densities point to a direct and efficient conversion of the magnetic field to particle energy in a process that astrophysicists call magnetic field reconnection. Magnetic field reconnection is a process where the lines of a magnetic field connect and vanish, converting the field's energy into particle energy. Reconnection is considered a key process in the sun's corona for the production of solar flares and in fusion experiment devices called tokamaks. It also occurs in the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field and is considered a principal cause of magnetospheric storms.

Cosmic rays will also eventually turn out to be the main force driving evolution.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2004 7:57 AM

I would very much settle for cosmic rays as the driving force for Global Warming.

Posted by: MG at April 30, 2004 8:26 AM

Don't forget the important role of gamma rays from supernovas.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 30, 2004 9:34 AM

David said what I was going to say.

In considering what, other than Natural Selection, may drive evolution, I doubt cosmic rays will be on the list. As far as I know, they don't penetrate the atmosphere very well. And, in any event. there aren't any potential cosmic ray candidates close enough to have been a factor.

One shouldn't forget viruses. They have been doing amateur genetic engineering for billions of years.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 30, 2004 9:45 AM

Jeff: Bacteria rule the world. Viruses are just random proteins.

Posted by: Chris at April 30, 2004 10:01 AM


They don't penetrate very well, but that just means you need more. A moderately nearby supernova could kill us all, or at least those pesky dinosaurs... check David's link.

Sounds to me like a driver for punctuated equilibrium, or what in another context I'd call annealing.

Posted by: mike earl at April 30, 2004 10:43 AM

Probably genetic copying errors are the biggest cause of mutations, and among radioactivity-caused mutations probably naturally occuring radioactive isotopes cause more mutations; but cosmic rays also do it. When a cosmic ray interacts with atmosphere, the energy doesn't disappear, it continues downward in the form of a shower of particles and radiation that can themselves cause mutations.

Also, the radiation exposure doubles with a mile of elevation, so mountain residents may evolve faster.

Posted by: pj at April 30, 2004 11:09 AM

I am really tired of these science articles that don't sufficiently explain what they are reporting. It sounds to me like this proposed magnetic field reconnection would violate one of Maxwell's equations, meaning our entire theory of electromagnetic waves is incorrect and they (i.e., em waves) would not propogate forever in empty space. Color me skeptickal, but then I'm only a simple electrical engineer, not a hi-falootin' astrophysicist.

Posted by: jd watson at April 30, 2004 11:58 AM

Most of you are confusing "gamma-rays" with "cosmic rays." Gamma-rays are a specific region of the EM spectrum, and don't penetrate the atmosphere, but do produce the cascading radiation effects mentioned by pj. Cosmic rays are charged particles at all sorts of energies and do indeed reach the surface of the Earth. Any astronomical CCD image that is exposed for very long has huge numbers of cosmic ray impacts that require removal by comparing multiple images (they show up at random, in comparison to actual objects).

We're all getting blasted by CR all the time. I see no reason that an impact with the right energy at the right spot couldn't affect a DNA splicing enough to cause a new and interesting mutation...

Posted by: brian at April 30, 2004 1:34 PM

It worked for the Fantastic Four.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 30, 2004 2:31 PM

Not evolve faster, pj, mutate faster. There's a big difference.

If cosmic rays created mutations once a week, that's 100 billion.

Big numbers.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 30, 2004 7:54 PM

No mutation, no evolution. & since it's so clearly punctuated there would appear to be a threshhold you have to meet before the mutation occurs in enough of the population to stick.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 8:10 PM

There's plenty of mutation.

And since species evolve by selection of individuals, the threshhold is one. Easy to meet.

For speciation to occur, some form of isolation then has to occur, which happens more rarely. Mutations are carried along in their tens of thousands in each organism, so they're always available in abundance.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 30, 2004 10:19 PM

and lots of fairy dust...

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 11:45 PM

It could well be that radiation bursts from space briefly and substantially increased mutation rates. Or even, as could happen from a supernova that doesn't have to be partcularly close by, wipe out a substantialy portion of terrestrial life.

That still leaves natural history hostage to random, materialistic, processes.


That's as may be. Viruses happen to be an agent for natural, albeit haphazard, genetic engineering. Bacteria are not.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at May 2, 2004 7:47 AM


Yes, Darwinism isn't untrue because it "leaves natural history hostage to random, materialistic, processes." It's simply untrue.

Posted by: oj at May 2, 2004 8:52 AM

Darwinism isn't untrue--it could only be so if the facts on the ground contradicted it, which they don't. However, it is virtually certain that it is incomplete, just like Newtonian mechanics is true, but incomplete.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at May 2, 2004 11:04 AM

Find a fact.

Posted by: oj at May 2, 2004 11:07 AM