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Nemesis: Does the Sun Have a 'Companion'?
SPACE dot COM ^ | 03 April 2001 | By Robert Roy Britt

Posted on 02/10/2003 11:03:23 AM PST by vannrox

Nemesis: Does the Sun Have a 'Companion'?
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 07:00 am ET
03 April 2001

"The trouble with most folks isn't so much their ignorance. It's know'n so many things that ain't so." -- A favorite quote of Richard A. Muller, by 19th century humorist Josh Billings.

When you think big, as Richard A. Muller does, you're bound to create ideas now and then that are so compelling you just can't let go of them -- ideas so outlandish that mainstream scientists are equally eager to dismiss them.

Muller, a physicist at University of California at Berkeley, has had his share of big ideas.


The predicted orbit of Nemesis

A plot of data on life extinctions, collected by Raup and Sepkoski at the University of Chicago, shows peaks in the extinction rate occurring at 26- to 30-million-year intervals, as indicated by arrows. Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
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If you don't count the restaurant he owned between 1976 and 1982 ("If anyone near and dear to you wants to open a restaurant, I can now be hired to talk them out of it."), Muller's ideas are generally rooted in solid science and genius extrapolation. He's got a gaggle of prestigious awards to prove it, with titles that say things like "outstanding" and "highly original."

But Muller's biggest idea is a real Nemesis. Or so he claims.

Like a thorn in the side of mainstream researchers, Muller's Nemesis theory -- that our Sun has a companion star responsible for recurring episodes of wholesale death and destruction here on Earth -- seems to reemerge periodically like microbes after a mass extinction.

It's a theory that has many detractors. And it's a theory that has been beaten down and left for dead in the minds of most scientists.

Yet it is a theory that just won't die.

Nemesis is cautiously supported by a handful of scientists, who often sound like ringside rooters eager for a victory but thankful they don't have to put the gloves on. Muller meanwhile acknowledges the possibility that the whole idea could turn out to be wrong, but he is nonetheless confident that Nemesis will be found within 10 years.

"Give me a million dollars and I'll find it," Muller said in a recent telephone interview.

Brave words for a bold theory that if proven true would shake up everything we know about the formation and evolution of our solar system.

Genesis of Nemesis

Muller's idea for Nemesis came to him 1983. Luis Alvarez, then an emeritus professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and his son Walter had recently put forth the theory that a giant impact had wiped out the dinosaurs. (This idea, like so many others that are now widely accepted, met with staunch criticism when it was introduced because it, too, was not mainstream).

Around the same time, two other researchers had suggested yet another controversial idea, that mass extinctions occurred at regular intervals -- every 26 million years or so. Scientists immediately folded the ideas into a new and breathtaking possibility: Impacts by space rocks were causing massive global species destruction every 26 million years.

Luis Alvarez was Richard Muller's mentor, and he suggested that Muller try to debunk the periodicity argument. Pondering this, Muller dreamed up the fanciful companion to the Sun as a possible cause, and with Berkeley's Piet Hut and Marc Davis of Princeton, worked out the details.

Muller gave the object the name of the Greek goddess of retribution -- fitting for a killer star that roamed stealthily beyond the solar system flicking comets at dinosaurs.

In the end, the idea looked surprisingly plausible to Muller and his colleagues, and the results of their work were ultimately published in the journal Nature in 1984. Muller then wrote a book about Nemesis, and he has pursued the companion star, while also doing other research, ever since.

Tossing comets at us

Periodic Mass Extinctions

Nemesis, as Muller sees it, is a common red dwarf star that would be visible through binoculars or a small telescope, if only we knew which of some 3,000 stars to look at. These are stars that have been cataloged, but their distances are not known.

Any one of them could be the Death Star, as Nemesis has come to be called by some.

Red dwarfs are the most common stars in the galaxy. They are small and relatively cool, dimmer than our Sun. The notion of companion stars is also exceedingly common -- more than half of all stars are part of such a binary system, in which two stars are thought to form out of a single cloud of gas and dust.

Binary stars settle into a gravitational dance around a common point in space. The smaller of the two stars does most of the orbiting, whereas the larger one is much closer to the center of the dance routine. It's like two kids on a seesaw. For the thing to work properly, the heavier child must sit closer to the center of the apparatus.

Muller figures Nemesis' orbit ranges from 1 to 3 light-years away from the Sun.

On its closest approach, the lethal companion would pass through a vast, but sparsely populated halo of primitive comets called the Oort Cloud, which surrounds our solar system from beyond Neptune's orbit out to nearly a light-year away. (The Sun's nearest known star, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.25 light-years away).

During this passage through or near the Oort Cloud, the gravity of Nemesis would scatter a furious storm of primordial comets that had been relatively undisturbed for 4.5 billion years, since the solar system came into being.

Dislodged from their once-stable orbits, millions or billions of these comets would travel to the inner solar system over millions of years, pulled toward the Sun by its gravity. A handful would run into Earth along the way, and the flurry of would result in mass extinctions.

Simple enough. But Nemesis has for years been dogged by a misunderstanding, Muller says. Most researchers think the theory was long ago dismissed by competing data that claimed its orbit was not possible.

Far-out idea

The orbit assumed for Nemesis is an unusual one, Muller admits. No star has ever been found to orbit so far from a companion. "And that really bothers people," he said. "It makes them think that this is a really far-out idea, literally."

Our Planetary Companion

But computer models developed by Muller and his colleagues predict that such an orbit must occur at some point in the evolution of most binary star systems. "We just haven't found such systems yet," he said.

And while Muller appreciates the natural and healthy skepticism of other scientists, he figures they are not interested in funding a search because they erroneously assume that Nemesis cannot be found.

Jonathan Tate is the director of Spaceguard U.K., which lobbies for a government response to the threat of asteroids. Tate is among those who see no rush to find Nemesis. He would rather see money spent on more immediate searches for asteroids closer to Earth that might prove to be humanity's undoing in coming decades or centuries.

As Tate points out, proving that mass extinctions occur every 26 million years, regardless of the cause, is only of academic interest: Humans may not likely to be around to care, as many researchers don't expect our species to last that long. If we do survive, there will likely be plenty of time to worry.

Questioning periodicity

Meanwhile, many scientists see little or no credibility to the studies alleging periodicity in mass extinctions, and hence no need for a Nemesis theory.

Numerous studies have reported cycles in either impacts or mass extinctions. The period between peaks in these studies mostly range from 26 million to 35 million years. Andrew Glikson of the Australian National University says that trying to pin down things that happened so long ago is no simple challenge. For one thing, space rocks that land in the ocean leave few clues, Glikson points out, and Earth is roughly two-thirds water.

And Earth has always had a crust that is on the move. Evidence gets buried, destroyed, and folded into oblivion by the same process that creates mountains and moves continents.

"Some of the suggested periodicities are more likely to represent statistical artifacts than robust observations," Glikson said.

David Raup, a University of Chicago paleontologist, made the original mass-extinction periodicity argument two decades ago along with colleague J. John Sepkoski. The pair studied marine fossil records over a 250 million-year period that they say showed significant spikes every 26 million years.

"To me, the periodicity idea is as well supported as many ideas that have been adopted into the conventional wisdom, but the scientific community is heartily skeptical," Raup told "Of the 15 or so re-analyses of our data published since the original paper, about half support periodicity and half reject it. It's is still very much in the eye of the beholder."

Muller supports the statistics more emphatically.

"There is a peculiar pattern in mass extinctions, something that cannot be dismissed as a statistical fluctuation," Muller said. "It requires some explanation."

Raup, now retired from active research, would not venture a guess as to when or whether Nemesis might be found, but he expressed hope in the idea: "I am glad Rich [Muller] is still working on it because it may take a lot of effort, and he's the best."

The galactic plane, Planet X and black holes

Other ideas have been put forth to explain the alleged periodicity in mass extinctions.

The most widely accepted is the suggestion that the solar system, as it revolves around the center of the Milky Way, bobs up and down through the plane of the galaxy. This plane is full of gas and dust that never became stars, which collectively has a certain amount of gravity that some expect might dislodge comets from the Oort Cloud.

There are doubts, however, about the amount of mass in the galactic plane and whether or not the timing coincides with the periodicity of mass extinctions.

Others have suggested a dim failed star known as a brown dwarf might be lurking in the distant fringes of the solar system. Muller called the increasing rate of discovery of brown dwarfs, including one that is just 13 light-years away, "extremely discouraging." For if Nemesis were a brown dwarf, it would be harder to find.

Yet another enduring idea is that another large planet lurks beyond Pluto. This so-called Planet X would be a gas ball up to five times the size of Earth, according to some predictions. Even the possibility of a black hole has been raised. Few researchers support these two ideas.

Evidence from the Moon

The best evidence for periodic impacts on Earth may ultimately come from the Moon. While the Earth's crust has been stretched, squashed and folded violently its whole life, the Moon is relatively static, preserving a far more accessible geologic record.

A year ago Muller, Berkeley geologist Paul Renne and then-graduate student Timothy Culler found the Moon underwent a flurry of impacts between 400 million and 600 million years ago. The active period (which may still be going on) presumably affected Earth as well since both bodies are in roughly the same spot in the solar system.

Muller says the sudden increase offers indirect evidence for a sudden change in the orbit of Nemesis, which might have been caused by a passing star.

But the study did not turn up evidence for the 26 million-year periodicity, as hoped. Muller says there was not enough data. The study involved 155 microscopic glass beads formed in the intense heat of lunar impacts and later brought to Earth, in a single gram of soil, by the Apollo 14 crew.

But given that there are "several hundred pounds (kilograms) of [lunar] dust and rocks that have not been analyzed," Muller plans another more detailed study.

Whether or not he finds evidence for Nemesis in Moon dust, it's clear that Muller won't stop looking. He is a man of enduring confidence. But he is also a remarkably conservative scientist, quick as anyone to point out that there is no proof until there is proof.

"I'm realistic," he said. "I may be wrong."

And he recognizes that if the Death Star is not found, the whole idea could become a real Nemesis for the big thinker who dreamed it up.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Extended News; Foreign Affairs; Government; News/Current Events; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: animal; archaeology; catastrophism; darkstar; earth; extinction; ggg; godsgravesglyphs; history; mass; nemesis; periodic; planet; plant; ten; twelth; xplanets
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To: new cruelty
"Makes sense. I noticed the old thread was locking out new post."

It's an old thread. These old threads were locked when JohnRob made the last major format change to FR.

21 posted on 02/10/2003 9:19:51 PM PST by blam
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To: Cool Guy
"We can either look it as a second start of the solar system or, maybe the rotation, of the solar system around the galaxy, causes it to pass some area in the galaxy that cause this Catastrophy."

LOL. All kind of possibilities. My favorite is a huge comet with a long period.

22 posted on 02/10/2003 9:21:44 PM PST by blam
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To: RadioAstronomer
So, what do you think? ;)
23 posted on 02/10/2003 9:26:55 PM PST by Aric2000 (Are you on Grampa Dave's team? I am!! $5 a month is all it takes, come join!!!)
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To: vannrox
Cool theory. Here I was thinking that smoking killed off the big guys.
24 posted on 02/10/2003 10:31:54 PM PST by PatrioticAmerican (Arm Up! They Have!)
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To: blam
Yeah, I picked up on that.
25 posted on 02/11/2003 5:50:09 AM PST by new cruelty
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Just adding this to the GGG catalog, not sending a general distribution.
Please FREEPMAIL me if you want on, off, or alter the "Gods, Graves, Glyphs" PING list --
Archaeology/Anthropology/Ancient Cultures/Artifacts/Antiquities, etc.
The GGG Digest
-- Gods, Graves, Glyphs (alpha order)

26 posted on 05/19/2005 8:57:10 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (FR profiled updated Tuesday, May 10, 2005. Fewer graphics, faster loading.)
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To: PatrioticAmerican
Here I was thinking that smoking killed off the big guys.

27 posted on 05/19/2005 9:06:35 AM PDT by ASA Vet (Never argue with an idiot. Bystanders won't be able to tell the difference.)
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To: annie laurie; garbageseeker; Knitting A Conundrum; Viking2002; Ernest_at_the_Beach; mikrofon; ...
an oldie, from 2001.

· X-Planets ping list · join · view topics · view or post blog · bookmark ·
and this was a catastrophism topic, but it never got pinged.

· Catastrophism ping list · join · view topics · view or post blog · bookmark ·

28 posted on 10/20/2006 10:32:25 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (Dhimmicrati delenda est!
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To: vannrox
"Zecharia Sitchin He more than anyone else, brought the Planet X theories to the forefront. Taking the Veloscosvy thoughts about Venus and discounting them as not scientifically possible, he developed a theory based on the Planet X event cycles."



29 posted on 10/20/2006 3:46:25 PM PDT by Fred Nerks ("Illegitimi non carborundum",)
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To: hattend; camle; Alkhin; Professional Engineer; katana; Mr. Silverback; MadIvan; agrarianlady; ...

Red Dwarf ping...

30 posted on 10/20/2006 3:52:28 PM PDT by null and void (Age and experience -- It makes no sense to get one without the other. - Sundog)
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To: hattend

Yes, there is a Red Dwarf ping list...

31 posted on 10/20/2006 3:53:01 PM PDT by null and void (Age and experience -- It makes no sense to get one without the other. - Sundog)
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To: vannrox
Nemesis: Does the Sun Have a 'Companion'?

Well duh! Short of a Constitutional amendment, they can't get married...
32 posted on 10/20/2006 3:55:34 PM PDT by null and void (Age and experience -- It makes no sense to get one without the other. - Sundog)
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To: vannrox

This is one of the more interesting crackpot ideas. One feature of earth's year, etc. is precession of the equinox, which could be explained by a second sun in a 26,000 year orbit. Binary stars are very common.

33 posted on 10/20/2006 3:55:42 PM PDT by RightWhale (Repeal the law of the excluded middle)
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To: All

For those interested, check out:
Andy Lloyd's Dark Star Theory

34 posted on 10/20/2006 3:58:24 PM PDT by adaven ( (The Man Show of forums))
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To: vannrox
Zyra is coming!

35 posted on 10/20/2006 4:00:41 PM PDT by Mat_Helm
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To: Mat_Helm

Work, work!

36 posted on 10/20/2006 4:14:28 PM PDT by hattend (Carpe Macaca)
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To: vannrox
Bookmark for later head scratching.
OOOOOhhhhh Fire good. Make marshmallow all melty.
37 posted on 10/20/2006 4:23:00 PM PDT by IrishCatholic (No local communist or socialist party chapter? Join the Democrats, it's the same thing.)
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To: no one in particular
From an interview with Will Wright featured in the August 2006 edition of Discover Magazine:

"You've modeled planetary dynamics, ant colonies, even the way players play your games. What's left?

Do you know about fitness landscapes? It's the idea that you can map evolutionary fitness. If you were this genetic combination, you'd be this fit. If you were that genetic combination, you'd be that fit. Any given population is basically climbing the fitness landscape. It's cross correlated: The shape of the landscape is dependent on what all the organisms are doing, so even as an organism evolves, the landscape is always changing.

I did some modeling of this -- fairly long term models of creatures evolving on different landscapes. Interestingly, the results I got were very similar to punctuated equilibrium [an evolutionary theory championed by Niles Eldridge and Steven Jay Gould]. You'd see regions of stability for long periods of time, then diversity would go up, then suddenly the whole system would go into chaos, you'd have this mass die-off, and then it would go back up pretty rapidly."

I can't help but wonder if the periodicity is ~26 million years...

38 posted on 10/20/2006 4:32:51 PM PDT by null and void (Age and experience -- It makes no sense to get one without the other. - Sundog)
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Updating the ping list info -- but the topic is still from 2001. Thanks for reading.
· join · view topics · view or post blog · bookmark · post new topic · subscribe ·
Google news searches: exoplanet · exosolar · extrasolar ·
· join · view topics · view or post blog · bookmark · post new topic · subscribe ·

39 posted on 09/15/2010 5:11:37 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Democratic Underground... matters are worse, as their latest fund drive has come up short...)
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