The Cygnus Mystery: Did Cosmic Rays Affect Human Evolution?
By Andrew Collins
So much attention has been paid to the possible correlation between the stars of Cygnus and the principal pyramids at Giza that maybe it is the right time to explain what exactly my new book The Cygnus Mystery is actually about, for its interest in Giza and ancient Egypt is peripheral to the main theme. This is the question of whether or not cosmic rays might have effected jumps in human evolution in Palaeolithic times, leading to changes not only in physique and behaviour, but also in creativity and consciousness. It is a wild idea at face value, yet it is one that is beginning to appeal to main-stream scientists and astronomers. Indeed, as long ago as 1973 American astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan wrote in The Cosmic Connection that human evolution was the result of incoming cosmic rays from some distant neutron star, demonstrating how we are right to think of ourselves as part of a greater whole at one with the cosmos.
Yet is this so? Is Charles Darwin's idea of evolution caused merely through survival of the fittest and natural selection somehow flawed? The idea of cosmic radiation reaching the Earth from deep space has fascinated the scientific world since its discovery following a series of balloon ascents by Austrian physicist Victor F Hess (1883-1964) in 1912. Then when in the late 1920s American geneticist H J Muller (1890-1967) discovered that radiation (he used X-rays and later radium) was a mutagen through his work with Drosophila fruit flies, the subject of whether or not high energy cosmic rays might cause changes in human DNA was voiced for the first time. Muller himself twice wrote about the subject, concluding on each occasion that the normal background fluctuation in cosmic rays reaching the Earth 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 now confirms that at certain times in the Earth's history it has been bombarded with high levels of cosmic rays then he might have thought again.
Records 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 form isotopes that 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 known as 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.
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 dramatically. The first was around 60,000 years ago, the second occurred approximately 40,000-35,000 years, and the third and last peak began around 16,000-17,000 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 today.
Where's the Cosmic Source?
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 out there in deep space somewhere? Alternatively, 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 far out 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 sunspot activity.