Speciation Driven By Cosmic Cycles?

Scientists at UC Berkeley found that biodiversity in the fossil record seems to wax and wane according to a 62 million year cycle. Now, University of Kansas researchers theorize that the Earth's travels through the galactic plane may be the cause.

Our Sun moves closer and further from the center of our galaxy, as well as up and down through the galactic plane. The timing? A cycle of about 64 million years - very close.

Adrian Melott and his colleague Mikhail Medvedev, both KU researchers, speculate that as the Milky Way hurdles towards the Virgo Cluster, it generates a so-called bow shock in front of it that is similar to the shock wave created by a supersonic jet.

“Our solar system has a shock wave around it, and it produces a good quantity of the cosmic rays that hit the Earth. Why shouldn’t the galaxy have a shock wave, too?” Melott said.

The galactic bow shock is only present on the north side of the Milky Way’s galactic plane, because that is the side facing the Virgo Cluster as it moves through space, and it would cause superheated gas and cosmic rays to stream behind it, the researchers say. Normally, our galaxy’s magnetic field shields our solar system from this “galactic wind.” But every 64 million years, the solar system’s cyclical travels take it above the galactic plane.

“When we emerge out of the disk, we have less protection, so we become exposed to many more cosmic rays,” Melott told SPACE.com.

Science fiction fans are gloating, though, because this kind of big picture thinking is right up their alley. In Poul Anderson's classic 1954 novel Brain Wave, everyone on Earth suddenly gains a hundred IQ points. Even animals acquire human-like intelligence. The explanation?

"...we're pretty well agreed here at the Institute that Dr. Corinth's theory is the right one. This postulates a force-field of partly electromagnetic character, generated by gyromagnetic action within atomic nuclei near the center of the galaxy. It radiates outward in a cone which, by the time it has reached our section of space, is many lightyears across. Its effect has been to inhibit certain electromagnetic and electrochemical processes, among with the functioning of certain types of neurones is prominent. We suppose that the Solar System, in tis orbit around the galactic center, entered this force-field many millions of years ago - hardly later than the Cretaceous. Doubtless many species of that time died out. However, life as a whole survived - adapted nervous systems compensated for the inhibiting force by becoming that much more efficient...

The general effect of the world's coming out of the inhibitor field was, of course, a sudden zooming of intelligence in every life form possessing a brain. Suddenly the damping force to which every living organism was adjusted, was gone."

If you like big-picture astrophysics with a science-fictional twist, see

Read more at Space.com.

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