RAYS AND THE CYGNUS MYSTERY
Cosmic Radiation change evolution and kick-start religion?
by Andrew Collins
since the discovery in the 1920s
that radiation can cause gene mutations, scientists have speculated
on the role that high energy cosmic rays might have played in evolution.
Indeed, as early as 1930 it became the theme of a science-fiction story
in which cosmic rays were harnessed by a mad scientist in order to rapidly
transform himself into a super being millions of years ahead of his
ideas must have been behind the entrance of the alien black monolith
among a community of ape-men in Arthur C Clarke's classic '2001:
A Space Odyssey'. Moreover, one of the greatest scientific minds
of the twentieth century, American astronomer Carl Sagan wrote
in 1973 that human evolution was the result of incoming cosmic
rays from some distant neutron star, demonstrating how everything
in the universe affects everything else. It was a bold notion,
but one destined not to find favour among geneticists, simply
because there was no hard evidence that cosmic rays - first confirmed
during a series of balloon ascents in 1912 by Austrian physicist
Victor F Hess (1883-1964) - have any real impact on evolution,
whatever their origin (since there is no consensus on this fact).
Indeed, H J Muller
(1890-1967), the American geneticist whose work with the fruit fly Drosophila
led to the realization that radiation (he used X-rays and later radium)
was a mutagen, addressed the topic in a paper published in 1930 and
again in 1952. He concluded that the cosmic ray flux penetrating the
upper atmosphere and reaching ground level was inadequate to explain
spontaneous mutations in life forms, whatever their type. Muller was
not wrong, but had he been privy to modern scientific data that clearly
demonstrates that at certain times in the Earth's history it has been
bombarded with high levels of cosmic rays then he might have thought
from the Ice
Information of this order comes from the fact that when so-called
'primary' cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere almost all of them
break up when they collide with nuclei of oxygen and nitrogen, the
process producing a plethora of charged secondary particles. Many
disintegrate in milliseconds, but others with much longer half lives
plummet to the ground and are preserved in everything from lake
sediments to stalagmites and, more crucially, the ice that forms
to great depths in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. One such isotope
called Beryllium 10 (10Be) is clearly traceable in ice cores. Since
individual layers of ice form each year the levels of Beryllium
10 can be counted to provide accurate indications of cosmic ray
activity in the upper atmosphere.
cores in Greenland.
In recent years, an
analysis of ice cores extracted from polar stations in Greenland and
Antarctica have clearly demonstrated that over the past 100,000 years,
there have been three periods when the cosmic ray flux has increased
Institute's spectral analysis of Be-10
cores from the GRIP project, Greenland.
Note fluctuations and peaks corresponding to 40 KY and 60 KY (climbing
also to 17 KY towards end)(Pic Credit: Meinel Institute).
first was around 60,000 years ago, the second occurred approximately
40,000-35,000 years, and the third and last peak began around 17,000
years ago. Each one lasted for a period of approximately 2,000 years.
Similar results have been determined from a stalagmite removed from
a submerged blue hole in the Bahamas. An examination of its Beryllium-10
content indicates that between 45,000 and 11,000 years ago the Earth
was bombarded by twice the amount of cosmic radiation than it is
Where's the Cosmic
The first question one must ask is where this influx of cosmic radiation
might have come from. Was it really a neutron star, as Carl Sagan suggested,
or could it have been another astronomical source such as a black hole,
which produces jets of particles that reach out far across galaxies?
was there some other, more prosaic solution to this enigma? The
more of less regular gaps between the spikes of Beryllium 10 activity
noted in the ice cores might well indicate some kind of cyclic force
in action, most obviously that of the sun. Cosmic rays are known
to be partially deflected by the solar magnetic field that stretches
out far into the heart of the solar system, and it is believed that
the rate of Beryllium 10 production in the upper atmosphere is dependent
on the strength of the solar field, which is itself connected with
Solar magnetic field, reaching into the solar system (Pic credit:
Was it an Exploding
In addition to this, the sun's long term climate cycles of 100,000,
41,000 and 23,000 years, first noted by Serbian geophysicist Milutin
Milankovic (1879-1958), must also affect the production of Beryllium-10
for similar reasons, i.e. the influence of the solar field upon the
Earth's upper atmosphere. This said, there might easily have been other
factors behind the sudden increase in cosmic rays hitting the earth,
the most catastrophic being a supernova, the death of a star as it expels
the last of its nuclear fuel and collapses to form a high-mass compact
object, either a white dwarf, black hole or neutron star.
remnant SN1987A, which
exploded in 1987 and is here seen by the Hubble telescope in 1995.
produce enormous bursts of gamma rays and cosmic rays which are
sent out across dozens if not hundreds of light years of space.
If such an event occurred close enough to our own solar system then
the Earth would be showered by deadly radiation, which might damage
the ozone layer, causing not only many more rays to reach ground
level, but also the onset of high levels of UV radiation from the
sun. More conservatively, catastrophists suggest that a close supernova
would send a barrage of cosmic particles in our direction, which
would dramatically increase cloud formation, preventing the sun
from penetrating through the atmosphere, and thus bringing about
a sudden ice age.
Whatever the consequences
of a close supernova, life on Earth would suffer mass extinctions. As
terrifying a scenario as this might seem, it was the favoured theory
for the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs some 65 million years
ago until the discovery in 1980 of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico's
helped confirm the alternative theory that a super-sized asteroid
or comet had been responsible for their extinction. Indeed, this
was the opinion of Carl Sagan and his co-author Dr I S Shklovskii,
the famous Soviet astrophysicist and radio astronomer, in a scholarly
book entitled Intelligence in the Universe, published in 1966. In
fact, one wonders whether Sagan's unique view that cosmic rays accelerate
human evolution actually stemmed from his obvious fascination with
the extinction of the dinosaurs, even though we now know they were
not killed off this way.Yet the powerful idea of a close supernova
wreaking devastation on earth during some past geological age lingers,with
once believed the dinosaurs
suffered extinction through theradiation
released from a close supernova (Pic Credit: Space.com).
that it could have brought about mass extinctions during other geological
epochs, for instance at the close of the Jurassic age some 145 million
years ago, as well as at the culmination of the Pleistocene age, which
coincided with the end of the last Ice Age, some 11,000 years ago. And
such scientific speculation is where it starts getting interesting,
for when the high levels of beryllium 10 were first noted in the ice
cores at the beginning of the 1990s, scientists from the Cosmic Ray
Council of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, working alongside a team
from the University of Arizona, speculated that they resulted from a
supernova explosion just 150 lights years away; that's just 900 million,
million miles from here.
Loop or Veil, the remnant of a supernova
(Pic credit: NASA).
To back up their
dramatic claims the joint Soviet-American team cited the presence
at around 150 light years away in the northern constellation of
Cygnus of an immense formation of glowing clouds of gaseous debris
- the remnants of an immense supernova explosion - known to astronomers
as the Cygnus Veil, or Veil nebula.
Was this the
remnants of the supernova explosion that had showered the Earth
with cosmic rays for up to 2,000 years some 40,000-35,000 years
ago? Did it bring about dramatic climatic changes and bursts of
radiation that evolved humanity into what we are today?
The Emergence of
For whatever reason, the worldwide press coverage that resulted
from this dramatic announcement of a close supernova some 35,000 years
ago came to nothing. Yet, thankfully, there was one person who did take
notice, and this was British anthropological writer Denis Montgomery.
Having lived in Africa for many years, where anatomically modern humans
emerged for the first time some 200,000 years ago, he became intrigued
as to why sudden jumps of evolution occur. Was it purely spontaneous,
through chemical changes in the body, or were there other exterior factors
at play, such as environmental and climatic changes, nutritional variety
or even simple competitiveness?
though there is ample evidence that our earliest ancestors migrated
from Africa, most probably in search of new resources of food as
early as 80,000-70,000 years ago, there exist only tiny glimpses
of what we were capable of achieving at this time. For instance,
around 80,000 years ago the peoples of the republic of Congo were
making barbed bone hooks for fishing, while a community that inhabited
a large cave called Blombos on the southern coast of South Africa
would seem to have fashioned the earliest known examples of expressive
art. These take the form of incised pieces of red ochre rock, showing
cross-hatching designs, as well as perforated snail shell beads,
once strung on a cord and worn either as a necklace or bracelet.
All of these invaluable objects are thought to be around 75,000
Montgomery (Pic credit: Denis Montgomery)
Age of the Artist
In spite of the discovery of these clearly sophisticated personal
items, whether practical or aesthetic, it was not until the start of
the Upper Palaeolithic age around 40,000 years ago that something quite
dramatic began to occur. At a time coincident to when homo sapiens first
entered a Europe dominated until this time by the Neanderthal folk,
there is clear evidence for the adoption of a complex life style, the
earliest known to human kind.
in the cave of Chauvet,
c. 35,000 BP.
involved religious expression and practices, including detailed
funerary rites, as well as magnificent new forms of art, such as
the carving of animals, birds and humans in bone and stone and,
crucially, the first appearance of cave art, such as the extraordinary
painted galleries discovered as recently as 1994 at the Chauvet
cave in southern France. Dating to some 35,000 years before the
present time, they contain images and sculptures of whole menageries
of wild animals, including horses, rhinos, lions, mammoths and bison,
alongside abstract representations of the human form extenuated,
or brought to life, by the rock face itself.
of cave systems across Western Europe became full of sophisticated and
highly accomplished art forms, a tradition which continued through until
around 17,000 years ago, when suddenly there was a dramatic increase
in sacred painting deep underground. This trend ended finally around
11,000 years ago when the Upper Palaeolithic age climaxed coincident
to the cessation of the last Ice Age.
What Denis Montgomery wondered was whether that, in addition to other
environmental, climatic and human factors, the increase in cosmic rays
around 35,000 years ago, perhaps from the assumed supernova explosion
which caused the creation of the Cygnus Veil, acted as a mutagen to
effect sudden changes in the brain's neurological processes. This in
turn might have brought about the enlightened age of the cave artist
in Western Europe. It could also explain why the Neanderthal peoples
suddenly became extinct around this time, perhaps as a result of too
much competition from their competitive new neighbours, the homo sapiens.
ideas were privately published, and, inevitably, largely ignored by
the scholarly community (they can downloaded free from www.sondela.co.uk).
Adding to his problems was the realization by astronomers during the
mid 1990s that the Cygnus Veil, the nebula at the centre of what Montgomery
came to refer to as 'the Cygnus event', was found to be not 150 light
years away from the Earth, as had previously been thought, but in fact
around 1,800 light years away. This meant that from here the supernova
explosion would have been little more than a bright light source in
the northern sky lasting for a period of several days, before gradually
dying away. Doubly damning were recalculations concerning the age of
the supernova event, which now appears to have occurred as recently
as 5,000-8000 years ago (even though some astronomical sources still
reckon it took place much earlier, perhaps 10,000-15,000 years ago).
Thus there was no way that the Cygnus Veil can have been responsible
for the high levels of cosmic rays reaching Earth's atmosphere when
the first cave artists created underworld Sistern Chapels like Chauvet
around 35,000 years ago.
Enter the Meinel
It would not be until 2005 that this same cosmological conundrum
would be tackled again. At the conference of TAG (the Theoretical Archaeological
Group) in Sheffield, England, held in December that year, Dr Aden Meinel
- a retired veteran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who in the
1980s was responsible for the launch of space telescopes such as Hubble
- told a packed audience of bemused archaeologists and students that
he and his colleagues at the Meinel Institute in Pasadena, California,
had determined that the high levels of Beryllium 10 in the Greenland
and Antarctica ice cores were responsible for sudden changes in evolution
in both animal and human life around 40,000-35,000 years ago.
also reported that he had been able to use the ice core evidence
to determine the approximate coordinates for the source of the cosmic
rays, and that these pinpointed a planetary nebula (a mass of glowing
gas and cloud) known as the Cat's Eye in the northern constellation
of Draco, the celestial dragon. This the Meinel group saw as the
remnants of what was once a galactic binary system consisting of
a super giant and an active black hole spewing out jets of plasma,
or ionized gas at velocities close to the speed of light. These,
he proposed, had crossed thousands of light years of space to reach
the earth around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, causing the changes
in evolution witnessed at this time.
of the Meinel Institute (Pic credit: Aden Meinel).
The Well Scene
at Lascaux showing Cygnus as a bird on a sky-pole (Pic credit:
was a dramatic claim, and one that needed scientific evaluation,
which is where I entered this gripping story. My own research into
the emergence of primitive societies, with their own unique cosmologies
and religion, ha revealed an inordinate interest in one particular
constellation - Cygnus, the celestial swan. Indeed, it features
as the oldest known artistic representation of a constellation anywhere
in the world, for it is seen on the walls of the famous Lascaux
cave in southern France, which is known to have first been occupied
around 17,000 years ago.
also appears as a bird in Church Hole cave in Derbyshire's Creswell
Crags alongside cave art dated to 12,800 years ago, while at Göbekli
Tepe in southeast Turkey, an 11,500-year-old stone temple - the
oldest anywhere in the world - is orientated towards this same constellation.It
is the same story with ancient stone and earthen structures worldwide,
from the bird effigy mounds of North America to the Olmec centres
of Mexico, the Incan sacred city of Cuzco, the Egyptian Pyramids
of Giza, the Hindu temples of India to Avebury, the largest stone
circle in Europe - all seem to reflect an age-old interest in Cygnus,
which features also at the heart of religious symbolism worldwide,
including that of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and more
primitive forms of shamanism.
Tepe, 11,500-year-old megalithic stone temple in South-east
Turkey (Pic credit: Andrew Collins).
Putting aside more
obvious astronomical reasons as to why our ancestors might have been
interested in this particular constellation, shown universally as a
celestial bird, I searched for answers as to why it might have been
depicted deep underground by the cave artists of the Upper Palaeolithic
age. In the knowledge that the work of South African anthropologist
and rock art specialist David Lewis-Williams had determined that much
prehistoric cave art was inspired by shamans in mind-altered states,
I wondered whether the stars of Cygnus had come to be seen as the source
of a primeval being, thought to have been responsible for cosmic life
and death. Moreover, did the peoples of the Upper Palaeolithic come
to associate this primeval cause with religious experiences deep underground,
where their most sacred cave art was executed? If so, then why did they
come to associate a specific star constellation with the deepest part
underground detector in Minnesota (Pic credit: Soudan)
I searched for
answers, and was intrigued to find that in the early 1980s particle
physicists using two newly-operational proton decay detectors
-Soudan, located half a mile down an old mine in Minnesota, and
NUSEX found off a road tunnel deep beneath France's Mont Blanc
- detected the presence of highly unusual cosmic rays. They bore
the distinctive 'fingerprint' of a strange binary system containing
a black hole or neutron star known as Cygnus X-3. The existence
of these high energy cosmic particles caused immediate controversy,
since they matched the characteristics of no known particle.
Cygnus X-3 was identified
as the first confirmed source of high energy cosmic rays able to penetrate
deep underground, and then in 2000 NASA announced that it was the galaxy's
first confirmed 'blazar', meaning that it was producing plasma jets
that periodically sprayed the earth with volleys of cosmic rays, something
it has been doing for anything up to 700,000 years.
The concerted reverence
for Cygnus as the bird of creation and the source of cosmic life and
death, led me to conclude that those responsible for the cave art at
Lascaux, most probably shamans skilled in achieving altered states,
had somehow become aware of incoming cosmic rays when deep underground.
Scientists have long been aware that when cosmic rays disintegrate they
produce what is known as Cherenkov radiation, which appears as an objective
burst of light as it passes through the water of the eye.
phenomenon was first noted in 1968 when astronauts abroad Apollo
11 on its journey to the moon found that in the darkness they could
see tiny flashes of light, either with their eyes open or closed.
A NASA-funded investigation was quickly launched, which found that
these light flashes were caused by cosmic rays passing through the
Apollo spacecraft. Did the Palaeolithic shamans deep underground
come to identify similar light bursts caused by cosmic rays from
Cygnus X-3 as part of some religious experience, centred on the
Cygnus constellation. Moreover, did the high levels of cosmic rays
that affected the world in Palaeolithic times come from the direction
of Cygnus, explaining why it can be found at the heart of religious
taken by the Chandra X-ray observatory (Pic credit NASA/Chandra
X-ray Observatory ACIS/HETG).
Yet now Cygnus X-3
had a rival candidate in the Cat's Eye nebula, the chosen candidate
for cosmic rays proposed by Aden Meinel and the Meinel Institute. Unfortunately,
astrophysicists are unanimous in their opinion that the Cat's Eye is
a wimpy object unable to produce cosmic rays that might reach the Earth.
of a black hole/neutron star binary system like Cygnus X-3 (Pic
What is more,
the Meinels, by their own admission, looked first in Cygnus for
a possible point source of cosmic rays, and had found none - Cygnus
X-3 being overlooked.
When in 1973
Carl Sagan wrote that cosmic rays might have been responsible
for changes in human evolution he boldly asserted that their source
was most probably a neutron star, which he saw as one of the most
fascinating stellar bodies in the whole of the universe. Today
there can be little doubt that Cygnus X-3, as a neutron star/black
hole as well as the galaxy's first confirmed blazar, is the best
candidate by far for at least a proportion of the cosmic radiation
responsible for the acceleration of human evolution at a time
when we were just beginning to emerge as modern human beings.
Yet more disturbing
is the fact that Cygnus X-3 is still out there, its cosmic gun barrel
trained on the Earth, ever ready to release a volley of cosmic particles
in our direction. It has burst into action three times already this
year, yet astronomers are waiting for what they see as the 'next big
bang', showers of cosmic particles on a level never seen before, and
when this happens, who knows, we might well be ready for the next stage
CYGNUS MYSTERY by Andrew Collins is published in the UK by Duncan
Baird Publishing on 19 October 2006. To order copies online click
here, or by cheque through
the post, click here.
For more information on Denis Montgomery's forward-thinking anthropological
ideas visit his website at www.sondela.co.uk