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wundayatta's avatar

If our planet was full of volcanic dust in the air, would it help if we could "see" Xrays?

Asked by wundayatta (58349 points ) October 17th, 2009

How much Xray activity is there normally? How sensitive would an “eye” have to be to see in the xray conditions of earth? Would it help if there was a much higher Xray environment? If so, what kind of sun would put out a lot of Xrays?

Also, how do xrays hurt cells? Does it degrade the ability of the cell to reproduce decent copies? If so, what kind of redundancy would be necessary in order to assure high quality reproductions?

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6 Answers

BhacSsylan's avatar

Not sure what volcanic dust has to do with anything. because x-rays would penetrate? still there are not a lot of X-Rays around, probably not enough to ‘see’ by.

There is not a huge amount of X-Rays normally. They do damage cells, and high levels would be noticeable. That was part of the problem with the Ozone layer hole, Ozone absorbes/reflects most harmful rays (x-rays included). So, i don’t know precisely how much, but it’s not a lot.

sensitivity is not the word you’re looking for. An incredibly sensitive eye would simply be very good at seeing visible range. X-rays are just not in that range. X-Rays have higher energy and lower wavelength then visible light rays, and would require a very different sensing mechanism. As far as I can tell, no natural source is capable of detecting X-rays in the way an eye senses visible rays.

What kind of sun? er, don’t know enough astrophysics to answer that one. Sorry.

X-Rays ionize atoms, and cause the formation of reactive species in cells. These reactive ions can then damage dna (or the DNA can be ionized, itself), in a myriad of ways. The general end result is that the data in the DNA is lost, mutations occur, and every once in a small while, it becomes cancerous. So yes, it does degrade the ability for cells to reproduce, but that isn’t actually the danger. the mutations is causes right then and there are more important, since it can change what is happening in the cell. keep in mind, DNA is not just important for replication. it has all the instructions for how the cell behaves at (almost) all times.

Redundancy at that point becomes subject to a hell of a lot of variables. depends on the amount of X-Rays and the tolerance for cancer and so on, so it can’t really be answered.

So, hope that helped. What brought the question up, by the way?

wundayatta's avatar

So a planet without ozone might have a lot more xrays? What causes the ozone screen to form? What kind of atmosphere would be needed to keep one from forming? Would a planet with a lot of seismic activity keep throwing a lot of dust in the air?

Hmm. I suppose if xrays don’t work, then perhaps a creature that had evolved internal magnetic resonance equipment might also be able to “see” where there is little visible light.

When I spoke of sensitivity, I was thinking that our eyes can see a certain breadth of the electro-magnetic spectrum. I don’t know how wide the visible spectrum is compared to the xray spectrum. However, it seems to me that in an environment where there is little or no meaningful light, and anyway, everything is constantly obscured by dust, that an organ may develop that “sees” using the xray spectrum.

Of course, the ability to see depends on the way the brain interprets the data collected by either the xray detector or the magnetism detector. So even if xrays can travel through more material, it can still be deflected, although perhaps to a lesser degree than light. That is, fewer things are opaque to xrays than are to light. Despite that, a really sophisticated xray interpreter could build a pretty useful model of surroundings, it seems to me.

However, in an environment filled with xrays, it seems to me that due to the process you explained, xrays destroy the ability of cells to function properly. So the problem isn’t so much bad replication, but needing a way to constantly repair the damage that xrays do. Some internal mechanism that monitors the integrity of the atomic structure of each cell, and can put things right when xrays mess them up.

It could be that, or I suppose, we might posit an organism that is very tolerant of cells that mess up. Perhaps it contains a large redundancy in cells, and can easily eliminate cells that don’t match specs. Thus, with an ability to reproduce or create cells with uncorrupted code, and an ability to instantly identify and eliminate cells that have been corrupted, it seems to me that a creature might be able to survive in a hard radiation environment.

In fact, such an organism might relish sunspots which would send up electromagnetic storms on a planet, which might create a suitable environment, say, for procreation. I need an environmental trigger that would create such a situation.

I am thinking that the creature would have a significant amount of iron in it. The planet would therefore also have a lot of iron running around on the surface and in the atmosphere. Or maybe just the surface. I wonder if there are any plants or animals that are good at separating iron out from other elements. In any case, I am positing a creature that contains a brain and sensing equipment that is encased in a hard shell of iron (which might also protect the cells inside from the effects of ionizing radiation. Surrounding this shell is a mass of soft tissue that is used for locomotion and contains appendages that are suitable for sensing the environment, and using tools.

I’m world building, is what I am. I’m going to try to imagine a culture that such an environment would create. The creatures have some habits that humans would find absolutely disgusting. In fact, many humans might find them so disgusting, they would think of these creatures as evil.

Well, thanks for your ideas, and if you have any more comments about the issues raised here, I’d sure appreciate them.

BhacSsylan's avatar

wow. okay, lets see if I can keep up. Yes, if our planet had less ozone, we’d have more x-rays. another type of atmosphere may also reflect x-rays, though. Volcanic ash may do that, or just obscure them a lot, I’m not sure of the properties there. seismic activity would cause problems with it, but that wouldn’t cause that much problem on an earth type planet, that i know, since ozone is constantly formed by various processes. I believe ionization from cosmic rays actually produces a lot, and other ionizing sources, like lighting, cause some. You’d mostly need to not have oxygen to stop one forming. But, if you didn’t have oxygen, one would definitely not form. Oxygen is usually O2, and ozone is just O3. I’m not a atmospheric chemist, though, so keep in mind I could be wrong on some of these.

In general, it is possible that either magnetic resonance or X-ray equipment could evolve in a place with no visible life, but keep in mind, at least as far as we’ve used them, one is fiendishly complicated (MR), and the other involves materials which tend to be poisonous. Not that a theoretical creature couldn’t evolve around that particular issue, though. The main problem of X-Rays is mostly that they are hard to detect, they pass through most matter, and with as low levels as the earth has no creature (that we know of) has had reason to develop one. But, given another environment, I won’t say it’s not possible.

As to the EM, here’s a good image. Visible spectrum is the tiny slice in the middle there, and X-rays are the large chunk off to the left. X-Rays ability to show the environment are heavily dependent on the reflection. The more reflection the better, as far as seeing. An X-Ray detector would work best at differentiating between X-Ray permeable and not, and also spend a lot of time bumping into things that are X-Ray permeable, since then the animal would have no idea that they’re there.

Oh, we already have a way to repair damage, that’s why we don’t get cancer every time we go to the doctor’s office to get one done. X-Rays don’t necessarily always ionize, or even do it often, but long exposure to high amounts (like, if you were locked in an X-Ray room for an hour) will increase the damage done, and eventually it will lead to a mutation event that results in cancer. In our case, the monitoring events are all done intracellular, and usually result in either full repair, or apoptosis, in which the cell recognizes it’s diseased state and kills itself. it’s the stuff in the middle, where either the cell’s route to apoptosis is mutated away, or the cell’s recognition pathway is messed with, that you start leading to cancer. If you had a more robust extra-celluar solution, it may be easier to deal with, but our immune system has problems dealing with our own cells going bad usually, since they’re better at recognizing external hazards. Cancer rates in younger people are low enough that there’s never been evolutionary pressure to anything else.

The real issue is the strength of the immune system to determine it’s own flaws. If it was very good at this, and in an environment you posit, there would be pressure to be so, then it’s certainly possible, at least in my mind.

The relishing of some change in the environment depends on the specifics of the creature, at that point. Is there evolutionary pressure for that activity? Does procreating in that environment have benefits to the species? If you can make a good reason there, then it’s entirely possible to occur. Sunspots don’t send up radiation on their own, by the way. They’re cooler spots on the sun. Solar flares, though, that may be what you’re looking for. Also, check out neutron stars. They may send out X-Rays, but I can’t remember.

Anything in a high-iron environment would become good at separating it out, either for use or to excrete, I think there’s some earth-type examples of that. Also, all mammals and some other oxygen-using creatures use iron for transport of oxygen in the blood, so we’re already good at separating and using Iron, just probably on a smaller scale then what you’re thinking. But the groundwork is there. And I could see it evolving an iron ‘skull’ or similar equipment. And i think that would have benefit of blocking x-rays, but you’d have to check that out. If that works, though, you could also consider an iron exoskeleton, and so cut down on X-Ray damage.

And seems like an interesting idea. You just need to work out kinks, and if you’re writing sci-fi, they don’t all need working out, but in my opinion it does make the world more robust when it’s actually possible. Any more questions (or responses), and I’ll try and keep helping.

wundayatta's avatar

I like the exoskeleton idea. However I also need to have some equivalent of hands. I’m imagining two appendages that are somewhat like an Elephant’s trunk, only with much more sensitive fingerlike digits at the end of each trunk. One of these appendages contains the creature’s organs for sensing smell and taste—shall we say the chemical composition of things in the near environment. They also are very sensitive in the sense of touching things—determining shape in a very precise way.

This first appendage is also capable of creating a quick-hardening gumlike substance, which is spit on the ground to communicate with others. The shape, smell and taste of the “spit” contains information on a number of levels. This trunk also serves as an ingestion mechanism, although I’m not sure what they “eat” yet. I’m thinking other creatures that separate out important elements from the environment, or even maybe they “poop” the stuff that my creatures need to eat (the whole idea is to make these things cause humans to shudder, and have a real problem wanting to deal with them).

The other appendage serves an elimination function. To please my son, it has a gland, somewhat like a skunk’s that can shoot sulphuric acid, as a defense mechanism. That might work well at decomposing other creatures with high iron content, except that it would take a long time. Maybe these creatures are slow movers?

The elimination trunk also has sensitive digits that are very flexible (in order to control the acid, I suppose), but this allows the creature to have two strong and sensitive appendages with which to manipulate stuff in the world.

Now here’s another thing that is designed to disgust humans. In order to procreate, the creatures each have to insert their elimination trunk inside the other creatures ingestion trunk. Then, instead of having specialized cells where one inserts dna into the other, they both have similar specialized cells that are capable of conjunction; sharing genetic material, so that all creatures are both mother and father, in our terms.

Only they mate in large groups, exchanging genetic material with numerous others. This happens in adolescence, and a number of specialized cells are formed, which are then stored inside the creature, waiting for an environmental trigger (such as solar flares) to be released into a womb-like structure, where they grow until they are released through one of the trunks.

The creatures can release several children over a life time, but they can only create new embryos once. After that, they can still entertain themselves with conjugation, but they are infertile at that point. They tend to then group in family groups where everyone is everyone else’s lover. These households also serve as corporate entities, for the groups work together in order to do whatever it is they do for their jobs.

They are natural metalurgists and have been able to develop technology fairly rapidly For a long time, they thought the sky was rather empty, since the only stars they could detect were those that were very strong xray sources. Hmmm. They probably require the xrays, and a certain level of mutation, or else they can’t adapt. However, it seems to me like there could be a very high infant mortality rate.

Religiously, they have issues with individuality and groups. Oh well. I have to think about this more.

Anyway, anything you can think of that might help explain these adaptations, or explain how they eat, drink, and be merry, or any other parts of their environment, such as food sources or other kinds of creatures. Maybe they never developed stationary plants, but these kinds of mobile plantlike creatures like are found on coral reefs. So there are all these coral-like structures all over the planet that are filled with various metals. Some specialized creatures create valuable corals made of other metals, but these are pretty rare, and difficult to find.

I haven’t really thought about politics or sociology much. Nor the relationship between environment and evolutionary pressures and sociology. It seems like they would be more cooperative and less jealous because they don’t need single mates. I’m not sure if they should be cold parents—like birth them and leave them to grow on their own. That would suggest they drop a lot of babies at once, since a lot will die, either because the mutations just don’t work, or because there is little parenting. Hmm. Maybe they could be developing parenting skills at the time the humans meet them.

The children are very dumb for several years. So much so, that the elders rarely pay attention to them. Part of the reason they are stupid is because they only have one gland (of the three) that secretes the materials they need to spit. At an age of perhaps six revolutions around their star, their second gland matures, and suddenly they are capable of much more. Then around age 18 or 20, the third gland matures, and they are capable of serious thinking and communication.

There are rituals to celebrate these events, which tend to occur at the same time for a lot of youth, since they are all born in batches. They tend to form cadre after the second gene matures, which may or may not end up being their family group after the third gland matures. The third gland maturation is also celebrated, but it is a time of serious upheaval, because a lot of proto family groups break up. There is a high suicide rate at the time, as various individuals become extremely depressed that their groupings did not survive.

At the same time, their minds are developing quite rapidly, and the society has entered them in a very intense period of schooling. They have almost no time for anything else. They do a lot of traveling in this time, and they meet other individuals all over the world, and if they are lucky, the ones that survived the break up of their family group meets other individuals they can form a new family group with.

However, some never meet individuals they can group with. Only the strongest of these survive, but if they do, they are revered by everyone else, because it indicates they are extremely well adapted. Of course, everyone wants to share dna with them. Which leads to enormous competition to share dna when the fertility time comes, and there can be large crushes around these people, which sometimes is counter-productive.

All right. Enough for now. Thanks for listening. It’s easier to invent this stuff when I’m telling it to someone, and not just sitting there on my own.

Shuttle128's avatar

I would think that it’s far more probable that an eye would develop the ability to see in infrared or ultraviolet as most stars still output quite a bit into this range of the spectrum as well as the fact that it is still possible for materials to absorb these wavelengths easily like the visible spectrum.Since most things give off infrared radiation as heat it might be helpful in an environment that would be low in visible light levels even if the star’s infrared light is reflected away due to volcanic ash in the atmsophere.

mattbrowne's avatar

Well, it might also help to see infrared light.

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