Explosive news of life on Jupiter’s erupting moon, and in Indonesia

While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.

This column won’t be of much comfort to the thousands displaced by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. Lava flows are reaching as far as five kilometres from Mount Sinabung, which has been erupting since September, and the Indonesian government has said that any settlements within three kilometres of the mountainside will be relocated permanently. But even if there is no human habitation in the area, we know that there will be much new life emerging in the shadow of the volcano.

This is what happened on the Japanese island of Nishinoshima. Created by a volcanic eruption 40 years ago, it is now home to four species of plant and plenty of insects.

Volcanoes are a great boon to biology. According to a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Geology, volcanic eruptions and other side effects of the earth having a hot, molten interior are responsible for the vast range of life on our planet.

The evidence comes from zircons, crystals that are formed only in volcanic eruptions. Geologists have found a glut of zircons in rocks that formed just before the period biologists call the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion occurred 540 million years ago, when a huge number of new animals suddenly appeared. Most of the body forms of today were formed in this ten-million-year evolutionary spurt – after the zircons appeared. The conclusion? Volcanic eruptions are one of the earth’s vital signs: an indication that life is about to get interesting.

That is largely because eruptions throw huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warming effect this produces affects the climate and provides a change in conditions that favours the emergence of diversity. Put simply, the organisms that were suited to the old earth fall by the wayside, creating space for new life experiments.

That is especially fascinating given observations of one of Jupiter’s moons. The ice-world Europa has long been seen as a good potential home for extraterrestrial life. That candidacy just got much stronger: it was reported last month that astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on Europa have spotted evidence of volcanic activity.

Europa’s ice crust, which is thought to be a few kilometres thick, covers a watery ocean over 100 kilometres deep. Nobody knows whether life exists in that ocean, but if it does it would require a source of energy. As so little sunlight penetrates the ice crust, that would have to come from within. That is why the signs of intermittent plumes of vapour erupting from the ice have so excited hunters of extraterrestrial life: it suggests that some kind of life-giving volcanic energy is at work inside the icy moon.

We won’t find life on Europa any time soon. Though the plumes rise high enough that passing spacecraft could sample the vapour spurting from the ocean – and perhaps detect life within it – the next scheduled flyby of Europa will take place in 2031.

It is sobering to think that, if the astronomers’ conclusion is right, Europa is only the fourth body in the solar system to exhibit volcanism. The other three are its neighbouring moon Io, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and, of course, Planet Earth. These are very special places: volcanoes bring misery and death but they also usher in the possibility of complex biology. While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.
 

More than 25,000 people have fled their homes following a series of eruptions and lava flows from Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra. Photo: AFP/Sutanta Aditya/Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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