Friday, December 31, 2004

Asteroid collision called off, fur vs. hair and Iapetus rising

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – With natural catastrophe very much on the minds of everyone in the wake of the Asian quake disaster, one potential hammer blow from space can now be dismissed for the foreseeable future: astronomers have just refined the orbit of near-Earth asteroid 2004 MN4 and can state categorically that it will miss our planet on April 13, 2029. See article.
g Abodes – Using altitude-dependent differences in fossil leaves, geologists have developed a tool that they say can track land elevations over geologic epochs. The scientists plan to use the new technique to better chronicle the rise and fall of mountain ranges. See article.
g Life – Water is not an essential ingredient for life, scientists claim. See article. Note: This article is from 2004.
g Intelligence – Mammals have fur over most of their bodies, but at some point during evolution, we humans lost that fur covering. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis argue that hair on the head is somehow different from fur because fur stops growing when it reaches a certain length, but our head hair continues to grow. To drive home their argument, they ask in a recent article in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology, "Have you ever seen a chimpanzee getting a haircut?" See article.
g Message – Though a repeat, CNN explores SETI in the hour-long “CNN Presents: ‘Is Anybody Out There: The Search for Life in the Universe.’” It’s an objective but basic overview of humanity’s efforts. It starts 5 a.m. CST Saturday.
g Cosmicus – NASA's Cassini spacecraft is set to cap off 2004 with an encounter of Saturn's ying-yang moon Iapetus. Iapetus is a world of sharp contrasts. The leading hemisphere is as dark as a freshly tarred street, and the white, trailing hemisphere resembles freshly fallen snow. See article.
g Learning – Digitalis Education Solutions has published 12 astronomy lesson plans for use with kindergarten through 12th grade students. Lessons are aligned with the National Science Education Standards and cover a variety of topics, including moon phases, solstices, equinoxes and debunking astrology. See article.
g Imagining – Those of you who’ve been following this blog for the “Star Trek” aliens feature may be interested to know that “Star Trek: The Animated Series” will be released on DVD come March 15. Those of us who were kids in the early and mid 1970s discovered “Star Trek” via the cartoons, which could be as good as the best episodes — and as bad as the worse — of The Original Series. To celebrate the release, beginning March 15, I’ll review an alien from each episode, in the order they appear on the DVD. So, watch an episode a day then check here for whether that alien really could exist or not. I’ll try until then to discuss aliens that appear in both The Original Series and the cartoons. In the meantime, there’s a new piece out about sex and sci fi aliens here. It focuses on the presentation of reproduction in science fiction but crosses over into some astrobiological issues.
g Aftermath – Once scientists are certain that we’ve received a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, how would we decide to respond? Read the proposal “A Decision Process for Examining the Possibility of Sending Communications to Extraterrestrial Civilizations”, made at the International Academy of Astronautics meeting in Paris during 2000.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Chimps' violent side, new "War of the Worlds" and Talosians

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – Infrared and X-ray data now provide evidence for a large amount of dust and gas along the line of sight to the cluster, DB01-42, which is located near the Galactic Center, about 25,000 light years from Earth. The cluster is Invisible to optical telescopes. See article.
g Abodes – NASA research indicates some clouds that form on tiny haze particles are not cooling the Earth as much as previously thought. These findings have implications for the ability to predict changes in climate. See article.
g Life – High-flying hummingbirds have bigger wings than lowlanders, a new study found, but when it comes to evasive and aggressive maneuvering, bigger is not always better. See article.
g Intelligence – Researchers explore the violent side of chimps — which uncannily resemble our own worst moments — on the National Geographic Channel’s “Dark Side of Chimps.” The hour-long program starts at 9 p.m. CST Friday and will be repeated twice later that night.
g Message – What’s in store for SETI next year? SETI scientist Seth Shostak explains here.
g Cosmicus – Two astronauts circling the Earth aboard the International Space Station say they’re eagerly awaiting the start of 2005, which they expect to be a busy one for the orbital platform now that it has been restocked with supplies. See article.
g Learning – There's a good op-ed by Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore in today's Iowa City (Iowa) Press-Citizen warning that America's scientific supremacy is slipping. He blames more than the education system. See column.

g Imagining – Star Trek’s very first alien, the Talosians, pose quite an evolutionary challenge: Their heads are oversized because of large, powerful brains capable of telepathy and even mind control of others. First off, a brain of that size must demand a lot of energy. This is somewhat addressed through the large arteries and veins apparent on their bald heads; their frail bodies also indicate fewer cells below the neckline for oxygen-carrying blood to support. But they probably also need greater lung capacity to cycle more oxygen into their bodies as well as a larger heart for pumping that oxygen-laden blood to and through the brain. Their bodies don’t indicate larger lungs, however. Another problem with their head/brain size is giving birth. The enormity of the head is limited by the size and shape of the pelvis — and their human shape and gait indicates they couldn’t give birth to an infant with a head any larger than ours. A possibility is that their the brain primarily develops outside of the womb; perhaps they grow in their telepathic powers as they age. Another possibility: They are not born naturally but artificially created, indicating a separation from among the most basic instincts – mating. The Talosians, after all, are fairly unimaginative creatures, dependent upon probing the minds of others for new experiences! As for their telepathic and power of illusion capabilities, we’ll just have to presume that somehow their brain lobes have evolved sections capable of connecting and interacting across the medium of air with another creature’s neurons.
g Aftermath – “War of the Worlds” revisited: H.G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi novel of a Martian invasion, which inspired Orson Welles' public-panicking 1938 radio broadcast, is soon to be a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. The new “War of the Worlds,” slated for release on June 29, takes place in the early 21st century and carries the tagline "They're already here." It remains to be seen whether the aliens will rely upon the intense Heat-Ray described by Wells or whether extraterrestrial technology has improved during the past century. See article for details.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A shorter day, a new primate and Klingons

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – The weekend earthquake that struck Indonesia may have had yet another impact: It may have shortened the day. See article.
g Abodes – Can planets orbiting red dwarf M-type stars support life, perhaps even intelligent creatures? So far, most scientists emphatically have said “No.” For a different perspective, see article.
g Life – A species of monkey previously unknown to science has been discovered in the remote northeastern region of India, according to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Named after the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh where it was found, the Arunachal macaque — a relatively large brown primate with a comparatively short tail — is described in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Primatology. See article.
g Intelligence – Among the Drake Equation’s factors is the length of time that technological civilization exists before destroying itself or facing some extinguishing natural calamity. Our brief technological period already has been laced with near disasters. A History channel program examines this in “The Doomsday Clock,” which was created in 1947 to symbolize the threat of nuclear war. The hour-long show is on at 4 p.m. Thursday with a repeat at 11 p.m.
g Message – What sort of signal would satisfactorily announce an extraterrestrial intelligence as detected by radio-emission or light reception? For an opinion article on what sort of signal is a SETI hit, click here.
g Cosmicus – NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has returned to its discarded heat shield, which crashed to the planet's surface during the craft's descent and landing last January. Opportunity has been on Mars 325 days. See article.
g Learning – From the Science Ignorance Files: Turns out most psychics’ predictions for 2004 were wrong. Of course, the ones they got right had pretty good odds of happening (such as a 50 percent chance that George W. Bush would be re-elected). See article.
g Imagining –About those forehead ridges on “Star Trek” Klingons: One of the great evolutionary mind puzzles is “Star Trek”’s Klingons. Originally, they had no forehead ridges. Then, when the first movie came out and in all subsequent versions of the show, they did. For years, fans have been trying to explain it logically, using sociological, genetic engineering and evolutionary concepts. There’s a lengthy description of these theories here. Read it soon, however. The latest “Star Trek” incarnation plans a two-part episode in January that once and for all resolves the discrepancy (click here).

g Aftermath – It’s a quite old news story (8 years!), but the issues raised remain relevant and greatly underexamined: If E.T. phones home, will it be safe to answer? See article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Captured moon, Ediacara fossils and Species 8472

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – Jupiter's moon Amalthea was probably captured: The first ground based infrared spectrum of Amalthea reveals that it must have formed far from its current location. This new finding sheds light on our solar system's turbulent past. See article.
g Abodes – Historic Himalayan ice dams created huge lakes, mammoth floods: Ice dams across the deepest gorge on Earth created some of the highest-elevation lakes in history. New research shows the most recent of these lakes, in Tibet’s Himalaya Mountains, broke through its ice barrier somewhere between 600 and 900 AD, causing massive torrents of water to pour through the Himalayas into India. See
g Life – There’s a fascinating transcript of an Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s interview with those involved in discovering the Ediacara fossils, which are the oldest evidence of animal life on Earth. See
g Intelligence – Finally, some quality television programming: Set your VCRs to the National Geographic cable channel for Wednesday’s episode of “Naked Science,” which will examine the evolution of humanity. The hour-long program starts at 4 p.m. CST.
g Message – There’s a local news update on construction of the Allen Telescope Array in northern California
. It’s basic but gives you a sense of where the project is as of this past weekend.
g Cosmicus – For NASA’s “Year in Review 2004”
. It covers NASA’s vision for space exploration, Cassini-Huygens, the space shuttle, space station and the astronaut class of ’04.
g Learning – A strong, pro-science editorial, “A Sputnik America fails to see”, appears this morning in the san Jose Mercury News
. Bravo to the Mercury News’ editorial board for its foresight.
g Imagining – There’s an intriguing article online about how Species 8472 of “Star Trek: Voyager” fame was created. Read between the lines: Thoughts about our biases and expectations, as shaped by popular media and entertainment, played a role in designing the alien. See
g Aftermath – For some provocative reading, pick up “Sharing the Universe,” by Seth Shostak, at your local bookstore. SETI scientist Shostak almost single-handedly is outlining social and political issues that will arise once we make contact with extraterrestrials.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Monday, December 27, 2004

Darwin sets sail, top stories of the year and exopolitics

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – NOVA continues its examination of the quest for a Grand Unification Theory on Tuesday at 7 p.m. CST. The hour-long PBS program examines the unification of five different string theories into a single theory in “The Elegant Universe: Welcome to the 11th Dimension.” Physicist and author Brian Greene hosts.
g Abodes – Scientists have sequenced the genome of the microorganism Silicibacter pomeroyi, which will provide insight into the earth's carbon and sulfur cycling. See article.
g Life – For a great overview of how life has evolved in the one sample we know, and how this knowledge applies to astrobiology, see’s “Life on Earth and Elsewhere” at article.
g Intelligence – Today in 1831, naturalist Charles Darwin set out on a voyage to the Pacific aboard the HMS Beagle. Darwin's discoveries during the trip helped form the basis of his theories on evolution. WGBH has a great overview of Darwin’s life, his time aboard the Beagle and the evolutionary theory here.
g Message – To know where we’re going, we must know from where we came. We may find the two are one and the same. To that end, Astrobiology Magazine offers its list of the top 10 stories in the field for 2004, including exploring Mars, Saturn, comets, and planets beyond Pluto. See “Genesis: In the end” at “Space and the willingness to die”, on the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 8’s launch. Zimmerman authored “Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8” and last year’s impressive "Leaving Earth."

g Learning – Chemistry has never been so unpopular. Universities are lining up to close their chemistry departments and schoolchildren in droves are opting for less demanding subjects. On top of this, chemistry has suffered from a welter of New Age propaganda targeted against unnatural, artificial substances. For many people even the very word "chemicals" has become inextricably linked with environmental pollution and unhealthy toxins. Is there a future for teaching chemistry? See article.
g Imagining – I need a little more time researching our next “Star Trek” alien, the Talosians. So for your daily dose, let me send you to Team 18’s musings on science fiction aliens.

g Aftermath – I offer the following Web site entry on “exopolitics” only as a basis for us to think about how people might react once we know an extraterrestrial civilization exists. Certainly many will give ufology more credence and make fantastical conclusions based upon images in the popular media. Question: How do we counteract this now? Obviously we want people discussing the topic of “exopolitics,” even if it’s in a vacuum. But how do we move beyond silly paranormal notions?

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Rare alignment, bad headline and the salt vampire (part II)

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – And some of you thought there was no good reason to visit Iowa (especially during winter): Mercury, Mars and Venus will align each morning through Wednesday, giving Iowans a glimpse at something they haven't seen for at least 100 years. See article.
g Abodes – Going on vacation? Hop a plane to Hawaii — but forget the tropical ocean beaches and opt for a night in a volcanic crater. It’ll give you a real sense of the earth’s most fundamental forces at work. The Arizona Republic offers some trip tips here.
g Life – An unknown catastrophe nearly 2 million years ago changed the ecosystem of the Western Atlantic, according to a research paper published this past week in "Science." See article.
g Intelligence – Ugh — You’ve got to hate today’s headline on “New fossil study contradicts the theory of evolution”. The piece is a biased rewrite of a story released a couple of months ago about the discovery of a dwarf hominid species on an Indonesian island. The discovery actually supports evolution by showing that creatures in isolation adapt to their environment; in this case — as has been the case with many dinosaurs separated from the mainland onto an island — the species evolved proportionately smaller as the space available to it was limited. This is just another example of the general ignorance about the fact of evolution. Please contact WebIndian123 and ask them to at least correct their headline if not the story itself.
g Message – The Toledo Blade has written an editorial about the last year’s signal emanating from a point in deep space between the constellations Pisces and Aries, more than 1,000 light years away (the infamous SHGb02+14a signal). It’s a positive sign to see mainstream media treat astrobiology seriously — an indication that the general public also is becoming more accepting. See editorial.
g Cosmicus – The International Space Station is visible in the early morning. Information about how, when and where to see it is available here.
g Imagining – A reader has pointed out that I overlooked one of the most significant features of the salt vampire alien discussed in the Dec. 18 entry of this section: the ability to change appearance. I skipped it primarily because of its incredible unlikeliness, but the feature does play a significant role in the episode. While possessing chameleon-like qualities certainly would be plausible, the salt vampire has the ability to read a mind and from that project an image (as well as voice, touch, scent, etc.) of what the observer imagines. This might be accomplished through some type of holographic imaging beyond our technology, and raises the issue: If the salt vampire possesses this knowledge, certainly manufacturing salt isn’t beyond its abilities! There’s more, though: The salt vampire can simultaneously read multiple-minds and project the image each wants to see. Presuming this is possible, the salt vampire might not be projecting these images so much as reading the observer’s mind then tricking it into false interpretations of from the various senses, in a sort of hypnosis. Still, of all the creatures we’ve discussed so far, the salt vampire appears to be the least likely to have evolved — though Balok, merely because of his human-like qualities, is a close second.
g Aftermath – Could Martian research samples carry diseases? Certainly this is an issue for the first time we make contact with extraterrestrial life, whether it is intelligent or microbial. See article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Mistletoe, Star of Bethlehem and superconducting magnet technology

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – A nice review of great achievements in astronomy during the past year appears at New Scientist’s Web site. See article.
g Abodes – The world's biggest earthquake in almost four years, measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale, was registered off the coast of Australia's southern island state of Tasmania yesterday. See article.
g Life – What part does mistletoe play in evolution on our planet? Well, it’s not just for kissing. See article.
g Intelligence – Presuming the Star of Bethlehem isn’t just a metaphor, what astronomical event some 2000 years ago could account for it? See article.
g Message – If ET ever phones us, would we recognize the call as anything other than random noise or a star? See article. Note: This article is a couple of weeks old.
g Cosmicus – New research recently has begun to examine the use of superconducting magnet technology to protect astronauts from radiation during long-duration space flights, such as an interplanetary mission to Mars. See article.
g Learning – Hopefully you received (or gave!) some great astronomy gifts this holiday season. offers a nice collection of articles introducing newcomers to the field, such as how to read star maps and how to use that new telescope. See article.
g Imagining – There’s a fun discussion going on in the forums about the possibility of hybrid extraterrestrials, specifically Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame. See discussion.

g Aftermath – We measure our place in the universe based on the part of it we sense around us. See article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Friday, December 24, 2004

Model rocketry, heading to Titan and would ET vote?

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – Astronomers have produced some amazing pictures from the Orion constellation thanks to a remarkable new instrument on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope in Hawaii. See article.
g Abodes – We’re closing on Saturn’s most intriguing moon, Titan. Later today, the Huygens probe should detach from the Cassini mother craft. Titan is fascinating because its thick, nitrogen-containing atmosphere is rich in organic compounds and is considered similar to the conditions that existed on Earth when life first evolved more than 3.5 billion years ago. See article.
g Life – Shedding feathers early may enhance sex appeal, a new songbird study shows. See article.
g Intelligence – Among the key factors in the Drake Equation is how long a technological civilization might exist before it destroys itself or falls victim to some major calamity, say an asteroid collision. A recently discovered asteroid that crosses Earth's orbit has been given a higher impact hazard rating than any other seen so far, scientists announced today. Fortunately, they also say the risk likely will be eliminated as further observations refine projections of its orbit. See article.
g Message – There’s an update on the Allen Telescope Array at the SETI Institute’s Web site. See article.
g Cosmicus – A Russian cargo ship carrying badly needed food supplies for a U.S.-Russian crew on the international space station blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome earlier today (see article). It’s sad that this is what our space program has been reduced to.
g Learning – If you need a last minute Christmas idea, here it is: Model rocketry is a great way to get children interested in science and engineering. After buying that starter kit, head to the National Association of rocketry’s outstanding collection of resources for getting started in the hobby and teaching it in school at article.
g Imagining – I’ve mentioned in previous posts that extraterrestrials won’t follow the pattern of Earth vertebrates, especially the facial features of eyes above and mouth below a central nose. So why shouldn’t aliens look like us? See article.
g Aftermath – Would ET vote? What effect will ET’s political philosophy have on ours once contact is made? See article. It’s an older piece but well worth the read.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Thursday, December 23, 2004

SETI: 'We'll detect an extraterrestrial transmission within 20 years'

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – Tucson scientists are racing to build the world’s largest telescopes. Ten times more powerful than current scopes, the devices are expected to usher the world into astronomy’s next age. See article.
g Abodes – Recent volcanic and glacial activity on Mars could establish conditions that support life there. See article.
g Life – For a good editorial exposing the flaws of the “intelligent design” crowd, click here. The editorial appeared in Men’s News Daily.
g Intelligence – Scientists have decoded chromosome 16 in the Human Genome Project. See article.
g Message – SETI scientists today predicted, “We'll detect an extraterrestrial transmission within 20 years.” See article.
g Cosmicus – NASA has selected six proposals to provide instrumentation and associated exploration/science measurement investigations for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the first spacecraft to be built as part of the Vision for Space Exploration. See article.
g Learning – We've lost something by not having to rise at the crack of dawn to get a head start on the farm chores. We no longer witness the sky's slow shift from indigo to blue as the rising sun lifts night's shadows from the Earth. This holiday season, introduce a child to astronomy with the gift of a telescope. See my column, published last June just before Venus’ transit, about the importance of looking to the skies.
g Imagining – A short entry today on the early “Star Trek” alien Balok (click here and then on “The real Balok”): Creatively speaking, this alien was a disappointment compared to the previously presented Alfa 117 canine and salt vampire. Balok only possesses two real visual differences from humans: He’s shorter and possesses more child-like features (teeth and facial). As to the first trait, of height, Balok may come from a planet with heavier gravity than Earth. Or perhaps there was shorter grass on the savanna (his hominid frame indicates a primate-styled path to intelligence), so height actually may be an evolutionary disadvantage on his world. Possibly his planet is slightly cooler, as that would encourage stockier traits, though the shapes of his nostrils don’t indicate his kind regularly breathes cold air, nor does the Enterprise crew note or physically show that they’re on a cold ship. As to the second trait, of child-like features, presumably it holds some evolutionary advantage (after all, adults even in smaller mammals appear much more angular in their faces than their infants), though not enough hints were provided to offer speculation. Any ideas out there?
g Aftermath – Given the plethora of New Age/UFOlogy Web sites about alien contact, it’s refreshing to find one that’s serious. Try the “extraterrestrial intelligence, implications following first contact” entry at astrobiologist David Darling’s site “The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy, and Spaceflight”. It includes some links and a mini reference list.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Baby galaxies, Evolutionary Ignorance Files and the Old Ones

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – NASA scientists have discovered dozens of baby galaxies, bringing astronomers a little closer to one of the field’s Holy Grails: A complete understanding of how galaxies, including our own Milky Way, formed. See article.
g Life – A lesson from the past: Researchers investigating life’s recovery from the second largest extinction in Earth's history at the end of the Ordovician 443 million years ago see some parallels to today's extinction crisis. See article.
g Intelligence – Subtle wobbles in Earth's cosmic motions over thousands and millions of years may have influenced the long-term evolution of human beings and their ancestors. See article.
g Message – The venerable Planetary Society hopes to take the search for extraterrestrial life to the stars with space-based platforms. See article.
g Cosmicus – Is NASA finally moving toward a new vision of space exploration? See article.
g Learning – From the Evolutionary Ignorance Files: See Tuesday’s letter in the Baleridge (Ga.) Post-Searchlight. I urge any readers in the Post-Searchlight’s circulation area to correct the letter writers’ false statements. You can reach the editor by clicking on “Voice Your Opinion” at the top of the letter.
g Imagining – Another early “Star Trek” alien is the Exo III android makers. We really don’t know what the android creators (aka “the Old Ones”) looked like, but we can presume by the way human duplicates were created with the android-making machine that they appear like Ruk (click here and then on “Ruk is shot by phaser”). Their height indicates that the planet’s gravity is slightly lighter than Earth’s, and there isn’t a discernable difference in the way humans step on this world. Possibly the savanna grass was taller than in our Africa (their hominid shape indicates a primate-oriented evolution). The whitish pallor probably is due to the lack of sunlight (though not the cold, as that also would make their bodies more compact); the aliens did go underground when a global ice age gripped their world. One interesting question is if they possessed the ability to build androids, why didn’t they just leave their planet when its habitability was lowered? Perhaps some religious or cultural belief prevented them from considering or pursuing space travel; possibly they developed the android-making machine when residing underground. While the show’s creators did a good job of making the Old Ones evolutionarily sound given the world’s climate of the past several eons, the aliens fall short on the Earth vertebrate factor: It’s highly unlikely that the exact facial arrangements as those of Earth’s vertebrates when first leaving the water for land would be so exactly duplicated.

g Aftermath – Here’s an intriguing short story for you to look up: Frederick Pohl’s “The Day after the Day the Martians Came.” It examines racial prejudice and raises an interesting point about how we might react to one another following alien contact. Pohl’s story is anthologized in the classic “Dangerous Visions,” edited by Harlan Ellison.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Happy winter solstice!

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars - Happy winter solstice. Quite a number of newspapers have written short editorials about the significance of today (and it goes far beyond "paganism"). See The Des Moines Register's "Solstice reborn as hope, wonder " at  and the Sun-Herald's "Yet another day to tame the monsters of chaos". Here's a little background on the winter solstice.
g Abodes - From "The Earth is unchanging - NOT" file: A high-flying observatory reveals land changing to desert. See article.
g Life - "Dino bone digger handed $100 fine": Too bad it wasn't more. "Poachers" of dinosaur bones and other fossils pose a real threat to the scientific study of past life. See article.
g Intelligence - Some monkeys possess a complex vocal tract whose shape can be adjusted to articulate sophisticated sounds - just as humans do, scientists report. See article.
g Message - It's great to see the reputable National Geographic take the search for extraterrestrial life seriously. See article.
g Cosmicus - Might antimatter, a potential ingredient for fueling future space missions, exist over the frozen wastelands of Antarctica? See article.
g Learning - A ridiculous letter to the editor claiming scientists want to "limit free speech" by not allowing creationism to be taught alongside evolution appears in today's Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette. I urge any blog readers in the Journal-Gazette's circulation area to write a letter pointing out the flaws of this argument - particularly that we shouldn't teach "2+2=5" in math class as a potential alternative to "2+2=4" and that not teaching a falsehood is hardly limiting free speech. Send letters to the Journal Gazette (scroll down to "Letters to the Editor").
g Imagining - Could "Star Trek"'s Alfa 177 canine exist? Setting aside the facial features that show the canine is an Earth-descended vertebrate, the answer is yes. The Alfa 113 biome the Enterprise crew visits is cold but dry, perhaps a summer plain set below a great continental ice sheet. In cold climates, life forms need to be compact and/or covered in thick hair or fat; this is so with this creature. In addition, the canine's short legs indicate it need not worry about snowdrifts. Based on the creature's canine teeth and jaw structure, it must be a predator; considering the canine's size, it likely preys on creatures no larger than rats - and rodents are quite abundant on the tundra. A lack of claws indicates it doesn't burrow, however, which probably would be necessary in such a climate. Perhaps caves in the area or other creature's burrows provide shelter. As for the antenna upon its head, I'll withhold speculation!
g Aftermath - For an interesting bit of speculation about alien contact, catch "The Outer Limits" episode at 8 a.m. CST Wednesday, Dec. 23: Scientists plan to save Earth from nuclear war by uniting it against a manufactured alien foe. The Sci-Fi cable program lasts one hour.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Monday, December 20, 2004

Learning sounds, space food and Thasians (part II)

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – General relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory marks the light topic of PBS’s “NOVA” on Tuesday (runs 7 p.m. CST to 9 p.m.). The 2-hour show, “The Elegant Universe: Einstein’s Dream” and “String’s the Thing” features Brian Greene, author of “The Elegant Universe.”
g Abodes – Air pollutants are fundamentally destroying the way vapor clouds form, according to a new report in today’s New Scientist. See article.
g Life – If you’re looking for a good overview of biology’s role in “astrobiology,” see “Evolution and the Origin of Life”. It includes a number of quality, reputable links.
g Intelligence – New research indicates that baby songbirds and human infants learn sounds in similar ways. See article.
g Message – If you’re not familiar with’s “Great Debates series, you’ll want to head right away to their Web site. The discussions draw upon experts in the astrobiology field. The Fermi paradox (“If there’s intelligent life out there, then why haven’t we heard from them?” is examined in six parts here.
g Cosmicus – It’s not just about crumbs floating in zero gravity: Space scientists are looking for ways to make astronaut food better tasting and longer lasting. See article.
g Learning – There’s a nice piece about stimulating student achievement in science and mathematics, with actual teacher activities, at this weekend’s RedNova. See article.
g Imagining – Thasians, Part II: It appears I was too quick to judge in my last post on the Thasians. No sooner had I posted than I began reading through an older astrobiology text, “Life Beyond Earth” (by Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro), when they introduced the notion of “plasmobes,” which could explain the Thasians. Such creatures would consist of a “central pattern of moving charges held together by its own magnetic forces, and of detached sections of charges held together and moving according to forces generated by the central pattern,” Feinberg and Shapiro wrote. “The outlying sections could act as gatherers of energy and of certain ions that are necessary to the plasmabeast’s metobolism. … the size of the whole plasmabeast would depend on the environmental conditions in which it lives, since magnetic forces would weaken when they extend in all dimensions over great distances.” This would explain the Thasians’ need for spacecraft, as they must have a shell to recreate their planet’s environmental conditions. The Thasians appear to be more plausible then the humanoid salt vampire.

g Aftermath – Though an older Web posting, “After Contact, Then What?” shows how little we’ve thought about this question.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Exploding meteor, winter solstice musings and Thasians

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars – A meteor apparently exploded over Indonesia’s capital early this morning. See article.
g Abodes – As a multidisciplinary field, astrobiology demands an understanding of astronomy, biology, geology, paleontology and a variety of other sciences. This holiday season, there’s a great new book out examining earth’s history in a way that doesn’t make “the study of rocks”, er …dry. It’s “Earth: An Intimate History,” by Richard Fortey. See review.
g Life – From the rare international cooperation for the truth files: A pre-eminent Chicago paleontologist will join his Chinese mentor to explore a frigid plateau in Tibet, once a lush island on a multiyear expedition. See article.
g Intelligence – While Christmas is not about resurrection, it is about rebirth. I write not of the Christmas story that forms the real reason for this holiday, mind you, but about the symbols of rebirth permeating our traditions. Those influences speak to us at an almost unconscious level, telling us what it means to be human. See my musings on the topic.
g Message – Astrobiology hits the airwaves: If you haven’t heard “Are We Alone” yet, be sure to tune into the weekly SETI radio broadcast, usually on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. CST. For details and a radio station near you (you also can hear it via the Web), see list.
g Cosmicus – Several challenges face NASA’s next chief. See article about the issue. If you reside in the World-Journal’s circulation area, I urge you to write a letter to the editor defending the fact of evolution. Kudos to Erin Questad for already doing so. Submit a letter to the Journal-World here.

g Imagining – Another early “Star Trek” alien is the Thasians, who serve a deux ex machina role in one episode. The Thasians apparently are a noncorporeal life form that gave a human child incredible powers of telekinesis. Such capabilities, as exhibited by the child (now a 17-year-old teenager) appear to stem from within his own physical being, however. The Thasians themselves also are dependent on the physical reality of a spacecraft for traveling beyond their planet. Of course, how a noncorporeal life form might exist is beyond our physical science, though one might suspect it is an organized pattern of electrical impulses, somehow held together and organized without use of a physical platform (such as our brain cells) — though their powers can be transferred to such a platform, as occurs with the boy. Most likely the Thasians did not evolve as noncorporeal life forms but instead, being eons ahead of us in technology, rely on machines (using teleportation-like technology) to do their work; their own beings might be interfaced with such machines so a mere concentrated thought can command it. The Thasians, thus feeling encumbered by physical form, shifted to another dimension — again, more fiction than reality — where the very nature of that space allows the beings (electrical patterns) to remain organized, and perhaps better able to communicate with their machines. Of course, too little was said about the Thasians in the episode, though the boy did note that the Thasians do not “feel” or “touch” in the same way that humans do.
g Aftermath – For one futurist’s thoughts about what will happen to humanity when we make first contact with aliens, click here. I offer this site not for its scientific rigor but as an example of something all of us who care about astrobiology should consider: What are the trends in popular culture about first contact? Such thinking will greatly influence public reaction when first contact actually does occur.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Comets, language and the salt vampire

Welcome! “Alien Life” tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation.
g Stars – NASA launch and flight teams are in final preparations for the planned Jan. 12 liftoff of the Deep Impact spacecraft, which will examine the nucleus of comet Tempel 1. The information will help us better understand how our solar system formed. See article.
g Abodes – What caused almost all Earth life to vanish roughly 250 million years ago? Scientists debate the possibilities
g Life – Did Earth and Mars swap life in their earliest days? There’s some interesting speculation
g Intelligence – The human capacity for language may have developed when our primate ancestors established calls to communicate with one another. See
g Message – Want to help SETI discover alien life? If you haven’t already done so, download the free SETI at Home software. Using Internet-connected computers, the program downloads and analyzes radio telescope data on your desktop when it is idle. The program has been so successful in plowing through data that other scientific researchers, especially in medicine, are adopting it to their fields. See for the program.
g Cosmicus – Would women make better astronauts then men? New medical research indicates so. See
g Learning – Among the greatest threats to science education is widespread ignorance of evolution. Consider a letter published in today’s Florida Sun-Sentinel
. The case for evolution is overwhelming. I urge anyone living in the Sun-Sentinel’s circulation area to critically respond to the letter, pointing out the fact of evolution; the Sun-sentinel can be reached here (here are the paper’s letter submission guidelines appear).
g Imagining – Among the first and most memorable of “Star Trek” aliens is the salt vampire. Could such a creature exist, though? Forgetting the problem of its facial arrangement (eyes-nose-mouth from top to bottom), which repeats Earth’s evolutionary path for vertebrates, the salt vampire receives a mixed review. Consider its shaggy coat, which appears to be inconsistent with bipedalism in a warm climate; humans likely lost their primate hair because doing so allowed our bodies to cool better in the African savanna — and the salt vampire’s planet is hot, probably orbiting a G-class star that has entered its red giant phase (judging by climate and sky color). Of course, the creature could be a hominid that just come down from the trees, which certainly would be sparse on such a planet. But its intelligence level indicates a much longer path of evolution. Perhaps the planet was in a cold state before the star entered its red giant phase. On another note, the creature’s need for salt is voracious for the chemical is in short supply; that seems at odds with the hot desert climate for halites would form as the sun’s expansion caused the seas to evaporate. Possibly, the creature, being the last of its kind, simply had gone mad, expressing its psychosis through murder — which explains why Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock felt no mercy for it when phasering it to death at episode’s end!
g Aftermath – How will humanity react when we receive our first interstellar phone call from ET? Though not a new piece, SETI astronomer Seth Shostak offers some intriguing thoughts.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Friday, December 17, 2004

Astrobiological-oriented mission tops year's science achievements

Welcome! “Alien Life” tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation:
g Stars – Science magazine’s “Breakthrough of the Year” rightly went to NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission. The twin rovers provided strong evidence that water once flowed freely on the Red Planet, raising hope that life could have evolved elsewhere in the universe and that at least one world may be more hospitable to colonization. See article.
g Abodes – Four-billion-year-old rocks uncovered in Greenland could provide the earliest evidence of life on Earth. If so, life may start very soon after a planet’s formation. See
Life – Does life need light and oxygen to exist? If we limit ourselves to thinking about carbon-based life, the answer has been “yes” — until now. See
g Intelligence – How long have humans had language? Try 1.6 million years, according to a new paper. See
g Message – For more than 80 years, we’ve been sending radio (and eventually television) transmissions into space, allowing anyone in space to hear war reports from London, “I Love Lucy” reruns and our latest election results. So wouldn’t hearing aliens be as simple as turning on the radio? Here’s why not.
g Cosmicus – Which space exploration missions would you select? I’d advocate dollars for all of them described here. Each one would provide valuable information about the cosmos and our place in it.
g Learning – An excellent collection of books about SETI, including some for elementary and middle school children, appears online here. These would make some great holiday gifts.
g Imagining – An impressive listing of “Star Trek” aliens exists here. Of course, most “Star Trek” aliens either are just humanoid (an unlikely scenario, though the series did explain it away by saying a previous humanoid race “seeded” worlds with their DNA) are incorporeal. Still, the series did offer some intriguing species — most notably the horta, tribble and Species 8472 — merit attention. More later.
g Aftermath – Would should we say to an extraterrestrial? Try the World Wide Web. SETI astronomer Seth Shostak opines.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Welcome to Alien Life

Every day, astonishing new discoveries, advances and lines of thought occur in the field of astrobiology - the science of extraterrestrial or alien life. Because the field is so new and draws upon a diverse array of sciences, a "clearinghouse" is needed, especially for the layman. This blog attempts to serve that need. I'll update daily, providing commentary on, links to the latest mainstream news articles and notes on upcoming television broadcasts for most of the following areas, which loosely follow the famous Drake equation:
g Stars - Cosmology and astronomy that affect our understanding of alien life
g Abodes - Geology and Earth climate that helps us grasp how life comes to be and the environments in which it may evolve
g Life - Biology, especially the evolution of life, as well as chemistry and other sciences that advance our understanding of how life exists on Earth
g Intelligence - Our understanding of how homo sapiens and, more generally, intelligence evolves
g Message - Our attempts to communicate with our other intelligences
g Cosmicus - Humanity's climb to the status of a space-faring civilization
g Learning - Science education, for humanity's future and astrobiology's success depends upon a science literate youth and public
g Imagining - Musings on the possibilities of science fiction aliens
g Aftermath - The latest speculations of what will happen after humanity and aliens make contact

This blog hopefully will appeal to a variety of interests, from teachers and parents wishing to interest children in science to science fiction writers conducting background research, from college science majors trying to keep up on the latest advances in specific fields that astrobiology draws upon to the amateur astronomy buff interested in the night sky.

Read this blogger’s books