Monday, February 28, 2005

Saturn updates, Vision for Space Exploration and Fermi’s Paradox, 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 – Scientists view Saturn and its ring/moon system as a miniature solar system during its early days. To better understand the origins of our solar system, we then might want to better understand what’s happening near Saturn today. While cruising around Saturn during the past few months, the space probe Cassini captured a series of images that have been composed into the largest, most detailed, global natural color view of Saturn and its rings ever made. See article. For other recent Saturn stories, see: "Treasures among Saturn’s rings, moons" and "24 surface features named on Saturn’s moon Phoebe".
g Abodes – Try to imagine this, a scene unwitnessed by any thinking being from our world, although it could play out every few weeks somewhere in the Milky Way: You are on the curdled, hot surface of a new-born world, an unknown cousin of Earth only a few millions of years old. The landscape is a sweltering, fulminating jumble of soft rock, as sterile as space itself. See article.
g Life – NASA and its partner organizations are studying the potential for life in such extreme zones to help understand the limitations of life on Earth and to prepare robotic probes and, eventually, human explorers to search other worlds for signs of life. That search is a key element of the Vision for Space Exploration. See article.
g Intelligence – Be sure to catch Tuesday’s episode of “Living Wild” on National Geographic cable channel. It explores social exchange in the Great Apes, revealing important clues about its evolution in our own species. The show specifically discusses a gorilla choosing a mate, chimpanzees playing political games and orangutans sharing food secrets. The hour-long program starts at 11 a.m. CST.
g Message – Fermi’s Paradox, Part II: Could galactic empires exist? In a previous article, we noted that there has been plenty of time for aliens keen on colonizing the Milky Way to pull it off. However, we see no signs of galactic federation ("Star Trek" aside). Why does the cosmos look so untouched and unconquered? What is keeping advanced extraterrestrials from claiming every star system in sight? See article. Note: This article is from 2001.
g Cosmicus – We need to broaden our approach in the new Vision for Space Exploration to include the development of the Moon and its resources. In the end, commerce is not NASA’s job. However, NASA and the government as a whole must take into account the development imperative and its importance to humanity’s collective future. See article.
g Learning – There may be numerous intelligent civilizations on planets throughout our galaxy. That's the hypothesis driving SETI research. We seek evidence of extraterrestrial technology using optical and radio telescopes to search for signals that emanate from other civilized worlds. These places are far, far away. But, when discussing the search with school children, they often simply ask, "Why don't we just go there?" This can be a teachable moment. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Imagining – While science fiction has come a long way from the days of bug-eyed monsters, the genre still hasn't gone far enough in presenting well-conceived alien beings. As a derivative genre, role-playing games have an even poorer record. See article.

g Aftermath – If we encountered an intelligent species on another planet, could we understand them? In turn, could extrasolar species decipher one of our 8,000 terrestrial languages in use today? See article. Note: This article is from 2004.

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

HabCat, deep-sea tube worms and Fermi’s Paradox, Part I

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 – When the Allen Telescope Array comes online in a few years, its thousand-fold better radio search capabilities will soon exhaust previously cataloged stars with potentially habitable planets. So Margaret Turnbull and Jill Tarter have a new list, called HabCat: A Catalog of Nearby Habitable Stellar Systems. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Abodes – Three-quarters of the 250 Mars science experts meeting to analyze the results from U.S. and European Mars probes believe life could have existed on Mars in the past, and 25 percent think life could be there even now, according to a poll released Friday. See article.
g Life – With an incredible lifespan of up to 250 years, the deep-sea tube worm, Lamellibrachia luymesi, is among the longest-lived of all animals, but how it obtains sufficient nutrients — in the form of sulfide — to keep going for this long has been a mystery. See article.
g Intelligence – Following the Asian tsunami, scientists struggled to explain reports that primitive aboriginal tribesmen had somehow sensed the impending danger in time to join wild animals in a life-saving flight to higher ground. While some scientists discount the existence of a sixth sense for danger, new research from Washington University in St. Louis has identified a brain region that clearly acts as an early warning system — one that monitors environmental cues, weighs possible consequences and helps us adjust our behavior to avoid dangerous situations. See article.

g Message – Fermi’s Paradox, Part I: Is there obvious proof that we could be alone in the galaxy? Enrico Fermi, an icon of physics, thought so — might he have been right? Fermi is best remembered for building a working atomic reactor in a squash court. But in 1950, Fermi made a seemingly innocuous lunchtime remark that has caught and held the attention of every SETI researcher since (How many luncheon quips have you made with similar consequence?). See article. Note: This article is from 2001.
g Cosmicus – Rat pups learn by exploration, but their journey may be less random and more convoluted that a robot can mimic. Now experiments with sensors on the snout of a mobile robot shows that robots may be less random explorers than one might first suppose. What effect will this have on space exploration? See article
g Learning – Are you a future SETI scientist? See article. Note: This article is from Feb. 2001.

g Imagining – Book alert: Of course, quality science fiction is really less about aliens than the human condition. That’s why you ought to scour some used bookstores for this rare edition: “Star Trek on the Brain: Alien Minds, Human Minds,” by Robert Sekuler and Randolph Blake. An educational and entertaining nonfiction work that uses Star Trek to explain the workings of the human mind, the authors (both psychology professors) have put together an excellent and highly readable neurology primer. Their two-pronged task is to give a Star Trek example and then link it to contemporary science of the nervous system. Do you want to better understand emotions, their cultural implications and universal expressions? Then this is the book. See reviews.
g Aftermath – Douglas Vakoch is one of a relatively small collection of scientists addressing the question of how to talk back to extraterrestrials. While most researchers involved in the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence come from physics and engineering backgrounds, Vakoch draws on a background in linguistics, sociology and psychology to explore SETI-related issues. Here’s an interview with him from Aug. 2003 about communicating with ET.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Black hole signatures, not so useless DNA fragments and aliens on film

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 – European astronomers succeeded for the first time in confirming the signatures in the light of the cosmic X-ray background near black holes predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. See article.
g Abodes – How does an arid and bone-dry landscape form the largest canyon in the solar system? The question on Mars maps to the Valles Marineris, a crack in the planet so large as to dwarf the Grand Canyon and a primary imaging target for the Mars Express spacecraft. See article
g Life – One of the key motivations for revisiting the probability of life elsewhere in the universe is the surprising proclivity of life in hostile places on Earth. New findings suggest that modern organisms may possess useless DNA fragments today that once saved their ancestors’ lives in extreme environments. See article
g Intelligence – A study by UCLA neuroscientists featuring functional magnetic resonance imaging and a well-stocked tea service suggests for the first time that mirror neurons help people understand the intentions of others — a key component to social interaction. See article.
g Message – If we are not alone in the Universe, why have we never picked up signals from an extraterrestrial civilization? Known as the Fermi paradox after physicist Enrico Fermi, who first posed the question, this long-standing puzzle remains one of the strongest arguments against the existence of intelligent aliens. But two physicists say they have come up with a solution. They suggest a way in which aliens could send messages to each other across space that not only disguises their locations but also makes it impossible for a casual observer to even distinguish the messages from background noise. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Cosmicus – The Japanese H-2A rocket returned to space today with its long-awaited mission to launch a multi-purpose satellite to serve pilots and weather forecasters throughout Asia and the Pacific. The crucial resumption of launches came 15 months after a painful failure that added to the woes that country's space program encountered in recent years. See article.

g Learning – The next few days is a great time to get kids interested in backyard astronomy. Why? There will be a stellar eclipse on Thursday (see article). Also, here’s a great set of tips for better stargazing.
g Imagining – During the past several years, evolutionary biologists have proved that the disparate creatures of our planet are, at a fundamental genetic level, very similar to one another. The genes that differentiate the top and the bottom of a bug, for instance, are the same ones that differentiate our fronts from our backs. According to the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, this new understanding is among "the most stunning evolutionary discoveries of the decade," and is clearly "a dominant theme in evolution." The same law applies, it appears, to the extraterrestrial creatures that come out of Hollywood. See article.
g Aftermath – One of our natural tendencies when we make contact with strangers is to try to impress them. Sloppy dressers might polish their shoes for a job interview, hopeful suitors will wash their cars for a first date and prospective children-in-law will be on their best behavior in the presence of the parents of their intended. Wouldn’t we want to do the same in our first contact with ET? Lewis Thomas, in his book “Lives of a Cell,” suggests that if we want to impress an alien civilization, we should send "Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again." See article.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

Invisible galaxy, Saturn’s oxygen story 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 – Astronomers have discovered an invisible galaxy that could be the first of many that will help unravel one of the universe's greatest mysteries. The object appears to be made mostly of "dark matter," material of an unknown nature that can't be seen. See article.
g Abodes – Oxygen along with water are considered interesting biosignatures to look for when encountering other planets. On Saturn, the oxygen story can be misleading, if one speculates that its presence gives biology a leg-up. See article
g Life – The discovery that zinc contained in the hemoglobin of deep-sea tubeworms is used to bind and transport nutrients to symbiotic bacteria will be published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science earlier this month. Further research with the hemoglobin could lead to its use in a variety of ways, including as an artificial substitute for oxygen carriers in human blood. See article.
g Intelligence – Book alert: Seeking alternatives to the conventional approach, which uses psychometric intelligence tests to explore the nature of intelligence, in “The Evolution of Intelligence,” by Robert J. Sternberg and James C. Kaufman, 15 contributions from professionals involved with evolutionary psychology discuss various aspects of how intelligence evolved and what (as well as whether or not) evolutionary theory helps in understanding the nature of human intelligence. Topics include the primate origins of human intelligence, evolution of the generative mind, evolutionary contagion in mental software, evolution of avian intelligence (with an emphasis on gray parrots) and intelligence as predisposed skeptical induction engines. See reviews.
g Message – Most SETI programs scan the sky looking for strong radio signals. Any signals that are deemed interesting are put on a list for follow-up observations weeks, months — even years later. Long delays in verification of potential ET signals sometimes generate tantalizing, but ultimately frustrating, stories. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Cosmicus – Reusable spaceplanes that propel ticket-holding passengers to the edge of space are slowly becoming reality. Among several firms literally hammering away at this prospect is Rocketplane Limited, Inc., an Oklahoma corporation. The spaceliner’s first commercial passenger flight? Early 2007. See article.
g Learning – Here’s a neat lesson plan, “E.T. Can’t Phone Home”, that teaches some basic principles of astronomy.

g Imagining – The current episodes (last Friday’s and today’s) of “Star Trek: Enterprise” deal with the complex issue of how Klingons got ridges. They didn’t have them in The Original Series but did in all other incarnations, including the prequel. So how did it happen? With some genetic engineering and mutating flu viruses. Say, if you like Klingons, check out this Web site. It’s got a load of links about Star Trek’s most famous alien race, which is a little more human that most of us will admit.
g Aftermath – We humans are familiar with the back-and-forth of face-to-face contact — something we likely will not have in an interstellar conversation. The timescale of a human life may well not be enough for a meaningful dialogue with another species. Interstellar dialogue may make sense only across generations. See article.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Earth’s childhood attic, emergence of intelligence and the biology of Star Trek

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 moon is sometimes referred to as Earth's childhood attic, a rich repository of what the early terrestrial geology might have promised prior to the advent of life. Europe's Chief Scientist, Bernard Foing, looks at what the moon can tell us about our past. See article.
g Abodes – Data from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft suggest that Titan, a moon of Saturn, is a world with the potential of life that was frozen in its youth, prevented by deep cold from ever developing into a livelier place. See article.
g Life – A new study investigating the respiratory system of insects may have solved a mystery that has intrigued physiologists for decades: why insects routinely stop breathing for minutes at a time. See article.
g Intelligence – Language, foresight, musical skills and other hallmarks of intelligence are connected through an underlying facility that enhances rapid movements. But creativity may result from a Darwinian contest within the brain. See “The Emergence of Intelligence”. Note: This article is from 1994.
g Message – Here’s an article in which Dave DeBoer, project engineer for the Allen Telescope Array, discusses what the unique telescope will offer. The development of the Allen Telescope Array is marked by many innovations crafted with the express purpose of building a world-class state-of-the-art astronomical facility at a fraction of the price of existing radio telescopes. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Cosmicus – An initial step towards the creation of mass transit beyond our planet is the emerging public space travel market. At present, a number of technologies are being developed for other applications by non-aerospace industries deemed useful in fostering space colonization. These technologies will automate many aspects of large-scale space system development, as well as drive down costs — thereby advancing the onset of colonization. That’s the view among a group of visionary practitioners of the future taking part in the Space Technology & Applications International Forum held in New Mexico earlier this month. See article
g Learning – Researchers at the University of Chicago have developed a technique for teachers to use that increases student understanding of mathematics: explain how to solve a problem in one way, and also provide an alternative approach through gesture. See article.
g Imagining – Book alert: Get thee to a used bookstore if you haven’t read “Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek,” by Susan and Robert Jenkins. The Jenkinses focus on the biological logic (or illogic) behind the alien ecologies in Star Trek — the original TV series and all of its sequels and movie spinoffs. The best parts are the biological bloopers, even though only a fan will truly appreciate them. For instance, how did the Klingons evolve forehead ridges between the original and the new series ... and why do all the planets look like California? The science in the book helps the authors hypothesize about how humanoid life might have evolved throughout the universe (panspermia revisited). They offer simple evolutionary theories to explain the various head shapes and behaviors of fictional alien species. See reviews
g Aftermath – Will ET be altruistic or hostile? An Internet poll found a strong connection between people’s beliefs about extraterrestrials and their feelings about how meaningful life is. What makes the results even more compelling is that they match the findings of an earlier study conducted under more stringent testing conditions. See article. Note: This article is from 2002.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Dark energy, Mars sea-ice and ‘Nightfall’

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 – Dark energy — a mysterious force that causes matter to accelerate away from other matter — fuels the expansion of our universe, but it's an oddly small force. But if it were bigger and caused matter to fly apart any faster, you would not be here to read these words. See article.
g Abodes – Recent observations from the orbiting Mars Express probe may show the characteristic rippling expected from past sea-ice. When coupled with findings that methane may be generated today on Mars, this sea-ice finding enriches the debate over modern prospects for life-supporting conditions on the Red Planet. See article.
g Life – How the Earth adapted to life has much to do with the generation of a stable oxygen atmosphere. But how life adapted to Earth often hinges on whether oxygen is a poison. New research on insect oxygen use highlights the novel ways that life has shaped the Earth, and vice versa. See article
g Intelligence – For Ingrid Carey, confusion is orange, July is bluish-green, and chocolate makes her breath smell dark blue. Scientists no longer think people like her are crazy. See article.
g Message – Just as our own robots reach out beyond the solar system, searching for life elsewhere may well involve hailing some kind of space artifact in our own neighborhood. At least one style of life search is about looking for the technological evidence of life, rather than its wet biology. See article. Note: This article is from 2004.
g Cosmicus – What will it be like for our future astronauts, traveling through the dark expanse of space to the Moon, Mars and beyond, millions of miles from everything they know and love? It could get a little lonely out there, surrounded by gray walls, knobs and computer screens. But scientists at Kennedy Space Center in Florida are trying to provide NASA's space travelers with a connection to Earth by growing and caring for live plants they also can eat. See article.
g Learning – The voice of science is being stifled in the Bush administration, with fewer scientists heard in policy discussions and money for research and advanced training being cut, according to panelists at a national science meeting. See article.

g Imagining – For a fascinating speculation about how one’s environment (in this case, astronomical surroundings) affects a race’s psychological evolution, be sure to read the classic short story “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov. Most science fiction fans consider it among the best — if not the best — science fiction story ever written. In this story, where the aliens’ planet is in a six-star system, the world’s inhabitants believe that life “is fundamentally dependent upon light.” You can find the story in “the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. One.”
g Aftermath – Should we really expect extraterrestrials to be sympathetic to our pleas to be altruistic because of the symbolic kinship we might share with them? See article. Note: This article is from 2003.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Mars' subterranean frozen sea, the biology of memory and alien linguistics

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 comparatively runty black hole that has perplexed astronomers for years because of its unusual mass is actually heftier than thought, but it is still the least massive of its type ever detected. Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and a mapping technique akin to Doppler radar have pinned down the mass of the stunted "supermassive" black hole 14 million light-years away, finding it about 300,000 times more massive than the Sun. See article.
g Abodes – A frozen sea surviving as blocks of pack ice may lie just beneath the surface of Mars, the New Scientist magazine said, citing observations from Europe's Mars Express spacecraft. See article.
g Life – For the first time, scientists have shown precisely how weather conditions cause multiple populations of a species within a large geographical area to have simultaneous increases or decreases in their abundance, a process known as "spatial synchrony." A paper published last week in Nature (Feb. 17) reveals that occasional severe weather conditions directly cause the rapid increase or decrease in abundance and mobility of an intestinal parasite that infects populations of an important game bird hunted on country estates in Northern England, causing them all to either decline or thrive simultaneously in breeding success. The research is the first to pinpoint the specific role of climate in causing such incidents of spatial synchrony in animals. See article.
g Intelligence – Understanding the biology of memory is a major goal of contemporary neuroscientists. Short-term or "working" memory is an important process that enables us to interact in meaningful ways with others and to comprehend the world around us on a moment-to-moment basis. A study published last week in Science (Feb. 18) presents a strikingly simple yet robust mathematical model of how short-term memory circuits in the brain are likely to store, process and make rapid decisions about the information the brain receives from the world. See article.
g Message – What would be a sign of alien intelligence? Forget mathematics — try a simple, pure-tone radio signal. See article.
g Cosmicus – Bernard Foing, chief scientist for the European Space Agency, kicks off a regular essay series exclusive to Astrobiology Magazine. In this part, he takes a tour of the novel ion propulsion employed by the current lunar orbiter, SMART-1. See article
g Learning – Here’s a neat set of lessons, designed for at-risk students: “The Plausibility of Interstellar Communication and Related Phenomena Depicted in Science Fiction Literature and the Movies”. The curriculum has four major objectives: first, to educate students to develop concepts about the proximity of our solar system in relation to other probable solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy; second, to give students the opportunity to use these concepts to evaluate the plausibility of interstellar communication depicted in science fiction literature and movies; third, to create an opportunity for students not only to look out on the universe but to turn it inward to look at the world, their own society, and themselves as individuals; and fourth, an objective that will be integrated with all of the others is to give students to opportunity to learn and/or sharpen skills in: using the scientific method, research, reading, writing, collaboration, discussion and in critical thinking.

g Imagining – Book alert: Here’s an oldie worth finding in a used bookstore: Walter E. Meyers’ “Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction.” It examines how science fiction treats aliens using languages, aptly pointing out fallacies and offering some intriguing speculations. See review.
g Aftermath – If some day we decide to transmit intentional messages to the stars, rather than solely listen as current SETI programs do, what would we say? What sort of first impression would we want to give our celestial correspondents? See article.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Global warming’s side effects, Big Bang of human brain evolution and X-Files aliens

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 – Comet and asteroid impacts may not be a threat to our civilization in a couple of hundred years, as we should then have the technological know-how to detect and deflect such large potentially impacting bodies. However, of greater long-term concern are: the evolution of the Sun, the Moon’s stabilizing influence and the evolution of nearby giant stars, as well as events on an intergalactic scale. See article. Note: This article is from 2001.
g Abodes – Rising seas, melting polar ice caps and strange weather tend to grab headlines, as Earth's climate grows warmer. But there are other dramatic outcomes that scientists are only beginning to grasp and that could damage structures in northern areas, reconfigure towering mountains and alter biology. See article.
g Life – Whale songs can travel thousands of miles, but an increasingly noisy ocean is drastically cutting down their ability to communicate, shows new research that suggests ever-increasing noise could impede the beasts' ability to navigate and find mates. See article.
g Intelligence – Nearly 3 million years ago, our ancestors had brains about as big as modern chimps. Since then the brain that would become human grew steadily, tripling in size. But this extra cranium capacity may not have resulted in smarter hominids. As far as tool making is concerned, there is little evidence of improvement over much of the period that the brain was growing. Then came the Big Bang of human brain growth. See article.
g Message – Picture Jodie Foster, her eyes closed and a mildly bored look on her face. She’s wearing earphones and listening to the dull roar of the cosmos. Now imagine Jodie 20 seconds later, when she hears something sounding like an unpleasant accident in the Boston Pops’ percussion section. Jodie knows she’s scored big: The aliens are on the air. Still, how can she be sure she’s picked up intelligence, and not just the cosmic gurgle of a completely natural object? How can she know she’s not merely harkening to the ticking beat of a pulsar, the whoosh of a quasar, or perhaps the lasing bray of a molecular gas cloud? See article.
g Cosmicus – Supercapacitors that can deliver a strong surge of electrical power could be manufactured from carbon nanotubes using a technique developed by UC Davis researchers. What effect could this have on space exploration? See article.
g Learning – Are we alone? Are humans unique in the universe, or is our existence the natural outcome of universal processes that produced complex life on Earth and elsewhere? As we observe the universe beyond Earth, we find that we are fundamentally a part of it. To understand the relationship of humanity to stardust requires understanding evolution in its broadest sense. See article. Note: This article on teaching evolution in schools is from 2001.
g Imagining – What about the invading aliens from the X-Files: Are they plausible? A book released a few years ago that addresses the topic is “The Science of the X-Files,” by Jeanne Cavelos. There’s a review of the book (look near the end for a discussion on the extraterrestrial biology) here.
g Aftermath – In our everyday lives, we sometimes emulate computers, though typically without their full precision. When we do a favor for someone, more often than we’d like to admit, we keep an informal tally of who owes us, and how much. According to sociobiologists, who attempt to explain behavior in terms of its value for survival, such calculations might have a biological basis. And as we will see, they may also provide some clues to communicating with life beyond Earth. See article.

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Regulating galaxy growth, seeing mountains 50 light years away and alien individuality

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g MARS LIFE UPDATE: NASA has issued a statement calling the reports that evidence exists for life presently existing on Mars incorrect — but scientists speaking off the record say the original report was accurate.
g Stars – Using a new computer model of galaxy formation, researchers have shown that growing black holes release a blast of energy that fundamentally regulates galaxy evolution and black hole growth itself. The model explains for the first time observed phenomena and promises to deliver deeper insights into our understanding of galaxy formation and the role of black holes throughout cosmic history, according to its creators. See article.
g Abodes – To map the mountain ranges on a world 50 light-years distant —what’s required? See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Life – The discovery of a nearly intact fossil of a prehistoric crocodile is teaching scientists what the world was like before oceans separated the continents, a Brazilian paleontologist said. A reproduction of the previously unknown creature —dubbed Uberabasuchus Terrificus, or the terrible crocodile of Uberaba — was unveiled last week. See article.
g Intelligence – Sharing 99 percent of a chimpanzee's DNA code does not tell the story of its distance from humans, according to a new report in Science Magazine. The code itself is just part of the story. The cut points or hotspots that combine mates to yield the next generation may determine the difference between species. See article.
g Message – When does asking the right questions tell more than necessarily knowing the right answers? Perhaps when crossing the fertile boundary between biology and astronomy. See article.
g Cosmicus – Since 1976, more than 1,300 NASA technology spin-offs can be found in many industries and in daily life. For example, computer-chip miniaturization, an outcropping from many of the early manned spaceflight activities, has revolutionized items we commonly use today — cell phones, personal data assistants and cordless screwdrivers, just to name a few. See article.
g Learning – What’s the latest in backwards Cobb County, Ga., where a lawsuit was necessary to stop the school board from telling students that evolution wasn’t good science? See essay from the Skeptical Inquirer.

g Imagining – Here’s a set of interesting musings about “characterization and aliens” in science fiction. The point made in the essay is apt: Too many alien species presented in sci-fi are monocultures and lack any individuality. We should presume that if not cultures then certainly individuals of extraterrestrial species will be as diverse as they are in humanity.
g Aftermath – Among scientists involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, it’s quite common to be focused on the future, ever mindful that it could take years, or even decades, to find a signal from otherworldly intelligence. But if historian Steve Dick has his way, astronomers will also turn their attention toward the past as they search for life beyond Earth — to discover the aftereffects of contact between two intelligent cultures. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Flash of light, pushing back Homo sapiens’ birth and Beta III humanoids

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 – Scientists have detected a flash of light from across the Galaxy so powerful that it bounced off the Moon and lit up the Earth's upper atmosphere. The flash was brighter than anything ever detected from beyond our Solar System and lasted over a tenth of a second. See article.
g Abodes – The past four weeks have been heady ones in the planet-finding world: Three teams of astronomers announced the discovery of 12 previously unknown worlds, bringing the total count of planets outside our solar system to 145. See article.
g Life – Researchers in California, Israel and Germany have compared three distantly related species — baker's yeast, a worm, and the fruit fly — and reported that protein "wiring" connections in one species are often conserved in all three. See article.
g Intelligence – A new analysis of two human skulls previously found in Africa shows they date from nearly 200,000 years ago, making them the oldest known examples of our species. The finding suggests our ancestors spent a long, long time wallowing in an uncultured era with no music, art or jewelry. See article.
g Message – Interstellar communication took a giant leap forward a few months ago when a Ukrainian space center sent several messages across the cosmos hoping to reach extraterrestrials 30-40 light years away. See article. Note: This article is from July 2003.
g Cosmicus – NASA managers set May 15 as the target launch date for the first post-Columbia shuttle mission, saying on Friday they are confident remaining technical issues, an independent review and a mountain of paperwork can be closed out in time for flight. See article.
g Learning – With the weather beginning to warm across the United States, it’s a great time to get kids interested in amateur astronomy. Here’s a great Web site with a lot of details about how to get started.

g Imagining – Among the earliest Star Trek alien races that were exact duplicates of homo sapiens were the Beta III humanoids (click for picture and click on “Spock and Kirk fire”; look for orange robed man). But the chance of extraterrestrials looking exactly like us is nil. Why? See article for the answer. A note here: The Beta III humanoids show up fairly late in Star Trek’s very first season; until that episode, the series was quite conscious of at least making humanoid aliens different in shape and color — or at least producing an excuse, such as the aliens “assumed” human form for some nefarious purpose. With this race, however, exact duplication of Homo sapiens becomes commonplace in the show.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Happy birthday, Pluto!

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g MARS LIFE FOLLOWUP — A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting arlier this week that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water. On Thursday, scientists said water was common across a vast region of ancient Mars, creating habitable conditions for long stretches of time billions of years ago. New data reveals water in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars extended across hundreds of thousands of square miles, at least as groundwater and possibly as shallow lakes or seas. See article.
g Stars – The planet Pluto turns 75 today. Clyde Tombaugh discovered the ninth planet in the solar system on the afternoon of Feb. 18, 1930, while he meticulously examined a pair of deep sky photographs at Lowell Observatory. See article.
g Abodes – Worldwide deforestation, mining, overgrazing and the diversion of water have combined to create huge dust clouds that carry bacteria, viruses, soot, acids, radioactive isotopes, and pesticides from Asia and Africa to the United States. See article.
g Life – New findings, made by researchers studying the outcome of a decades-long fox-breeding experiment, suggest that some aspects of social intelligence in animals are correlated with genetically selected “tame" behavior — for example, fearlessness and non-aggression toward humans. Understanding how intelligence evolved in humans and other animals remains one of the central evolutionary questions yet to be answered by behavioral scientists. Of particular interest is how social problem solving evolves; many believe it is our own social intelligence that differentiates us from all other species. See article.
g Intelligence – The evolution of the sense of fairness may have involved the quality of relationships, according to behavioral researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. See article.
g Message – Book alert: In response to Enrico Fermi's famous 1950 question concerning the existence of advanced civilizations elsewhere, physicist Stephen Webb critically examines 50 resolutions to explain the total absence of empirical evidence for probes, starships and communications from extraterrestrials in “If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens ... Where Is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to Fermi's Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life.” See
g Cosmicus – The European Union's head office on Thursday called for more international cooperation in space as plans move ahead for a combined global observation system to predict natural disasters like tsunamis and drastic weather changes. See article.
g Learning – Over and over again, science teachers at a recent convention remarked that their students are always asking about SETI and astronomy. Kids have a keen interest in astronomy, space sciences, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. What's out there? Are we alone? Ironically, this interest is not uniformly reflected in the state science education standards across the USA and these state standards drive textbook content. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Imagining – No longer can a science fiction writer create a goo-dripping alien just because a story line requires an adversary from another planet to drop in on our unsuspecting world. The average reader is not going to buy into the B-rated movies of old; it takes more than an actor in a rubber mask for them to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a story or novel. Bringing an alien species into a novel requires a bit of planning and thought on the part of the writer. See column.
g Aftermath – Clearly, if we are not alone in the universe, there are some unavoidable theological and philosophical consequences. We feel that the problem of extraterrestrial life is one of the most important questions raised in science to the present. We should reflect on the consequences of a positive result of either finding extraterrestrial microorganisms, or receiving a radio message form an extraterrestrial source: When such discovery occurs, the implications are likely to have an impact on our culture requiring adjustments possibly more radical than those arising form the evidence that humans descend from microorganisms. See article. Note: This paper is from 1999.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

The golden record and recognizing alien intelligence

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 – Cosmic gamma-ray bursts produce more energy in the blink of an eye than the Sun will release in its entire lifetime. These short-lived explosions appear to be the death throes of massive stars, and, many scientists believe, mark the birth of black holes. Testing these ideas has been difficult, however, because the bursts fade so quickly and rapid action is required. See article.
g Abodes – The next decade offers unique chances to do what might be called, comparative planetology. How is the Earth different from its neighbors and why? NASA's associate administrator for the science directorate indicates that to do this hard work, the motivation follows from something bigger than life. See article.
g Life – A 115-million-year-old fossil of a tiny egg-laying mammal thought to be related to the platypus provides compelling evidence of multiple origins of acute hearing in humans and other mammals. See article.
g Intelligence – Two members of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society have discovered an engraving in a cave in the Mendip Hills, Somerset, which may be at least 10,000 years old. See article.
g Message – When the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977, they each included a gold-plated phonograph record (a "golden record") of natural sounds, greetings in human voices, and a variety of music. The record cover has symbolic instructions that show how to use and understand the record, though scientists still debate whether other civilizations will be able to decipher them. For info on Voyager’s golden record, see article. For an explanation of the record cover diagram, click here. For an interactive module that contains greetings, sounds, and pictures included on the record (requires Flash plug-in), click here.
g Cosmicus – The priority of the space community must be bringing the Moon-Mars focus back to the near-term. The focus must be on programs that proceed in stages, each with its own perceivable goal and associated cost estimates. Because those estimates will be near-term they will be easier for Congress to ascertain and periodically review. See article.
g Learning – Considering yesterday’s news that researchers may have found life still thriving on Mars, it’s a great opportunity (no pun intended) to teach kids a little about our red sister. NASA has a great site with games and activities.

g Imagining – Here’s a neat Web page that asks “What are our chances of actually recognizing an alien intelligence for what it is?” What if ET does not say "Take me to your leader" from an obviously technologically superior spaceship? Will we know if it’s intelligent? It draws in part upon Stanley Weinbaum's famous short story, "A Martian Odyssey”.
g Aftermath – Often the advanced science and technology of alien civilizations is touted as a benefit of contact with alien civilizations. So what type of physics would an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization likely possess? See what theoretical physicist Michio Kaku thinks that civilization might have.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

BREAKING NEWS: Life likely exists on Mars

A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.
g Signs of current life on Mars, researchers claim: Methane signatures seen hinting at possibilities underground; see article and article.

g Extremophilic microbes may exist on Mars: Creatures may live in hypersaline environments.
g Is there life on Mars?: Looking for rock solid evidence; see article.
g Rovers spot strange shapes on Mars: Features first thought to have been left behind by tools; see article.
g Mars analogs may exist in Earth’s extreme environments: Scientist finds one at the world’s highest lake on Chile’s Licancabur volcano; see article (scroll to “Live from Licancabur”).

g New rock type found at Mars: 'Peace' offers new clues to planet's watery past; see article and article.
g What’s up below Mars: The use of orbiting radar to probe the first three miles underneath the Martian surface has been green lighted; see article.
g Evidence for underground water: Mars gullies likely formed by underground aquifiers; see article.

g Mars Express delivers avalanche of data: European space agency scientists review what they’ve discovered.
g Inventions on parade: NASA's Mars Rover project gave rise to an imaging tool that builds, in seconds, three-dimensional models from digital photos; see article.NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission Web page.

g Latest news from Spirit and Rover:
g The Mars Society: Private group seeks manned expedition to Red Planet; see article.
g Test your Mars IQ: Quiz.
g The Mars movie guide: What movies and videos are available about Mars; see list.

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Looking under rocks, laughter as the best medicine and an alien design bibliography

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 new theory of how planets form finds havens of stability amid violent turbulence in the swirling gas that surrounds a young star. These protected areas are where planets can begin to form without being destroyed. The theory will be published in the February issue of the journal Icarus. See article.
g Abodes – An unusual, fragmented rock called Peace appears to have been cemented by some action that the Spirit rover has yet to analyze completely. If the sulfate-rich interior represents Epsom salts, or magnesium sulfates, then the discovery may hint at a percolating water history near the Columbia Hills. See article.
g Intelligence – Laughter might be the best medicine for transforming the faintest of glimmers of hope into an eternal spring, reveals research at Texas A&M University that shows humor may significantly increase a person's level of hope. See article.
g Message – How might we become aware of extraterrestrial civilization’s existence? Click here for a fantastic overview of strategies.
g Learning – Here’s a neat set of lessons about “Life in the Universe” that teaches kids some basic astronomical facts and mathematical skills along the way.
g Imagining – Alien design bibliography: When science fiction writers set out to design a world, they usually take care that their physics and astronomy conforms to known science by reading a few physics and astronomy books. But when designing aliens, anything goes, it seems! The problem appears to be that the literature of biology is simply unknown in the SF world. Mention Freeman Dyson or Robert Forward, and most hard SF readers and writers will know whom you are talking about. But mention Steven Vogel or Colin Pennycuick, and you are likely to be rewarded with polite bafflement. Here’s a list of books that’ll give you a solid grounding in biology. See bibliography.
g Aftermath – Here’s an intriguing entry from the “Interdisciplinary Encyclopeadia of Religion and Science”: “Extraterrestrial Life”. It discusses the consequences of alien contact from a Catholic perspective.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Black hole swarm, young Enceladus and Cosmos 1

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 swarm of 10,000 or more black holes may be orbiting the Milky Way's supermassive black hole, according to new results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This would represent the highest concentration of such objects anywhere in the galaxy. See article.
g Abodes – Many of Saturn's more interesting moons are crusted with ice. The moons are often too small for a radioactive core and internal heating. The bizarre wrinkled surface on one of the moons, Enceladus, may reveal a geologically young age. See article.
g Life – The fossil record may not be perfect, but it passed a critical test with flying colors, according to a study by a University of Chicago paleontologist published in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Science. See article.
g Intelligence – A Northwestern University study is the first to suggest that delayed brain development and its interaction with puberty may be key factors contributing to language-based learning disabilities. See article. Note: This article is from 2004.
g Message – Book alert: The discovery of life on other planets would be perhaps the most momentous revelation in human history, more disorienting and more profound than either the Copernican or Darwinian revolutions that knocked the earth from the center of the universe and humankind from its position of lofty self-regard. In “Here Be Dragons: The Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life,” astronomer by David W. Koerner and neurobiologist Simon Levay offer a scientifically compelling and colorful account of the ongoing search for life beyond Earth. See
g Cosmicus – The Planetary Society's oft-delayed Cosmos 1 solar sail is finally on the verge of launching on its test mission to validate the practicality of a revolutionary propulsion method that relies on sunlight instead of chemical rocket fuels. See aticle.
g Learning – Holy evolution, Darwin! Comics take on science: In recent years, a few scientists and comic book artists have joined forces to portray the excitement of science, scientific ideas and the drama of discovery. The latest one stars Charles Darwin, explaining evolutionary theory to a tiny follicle mite living in his eyebrow. Click here to hear the story.

g Imagining – Looking for some classic science fiction alien movies? Here’s a fairly exhaustive list, with brief explanations of each. Now in how each one the aliens really are just mythical monsters that play on human psychology (specifically fear or revulsion). Such films really say less about the evolution of potential extraterrestrial lifeforms and civilizations than about the evolution of human beings and our culture. In fact, here’s an essay that examines a specific detail of that notion: “An Exploration of the Relationship Between Science Fiction Film and the UFO Mythology”.
g Aftermath – If you could send a message to an extraterrestrial somewhere across the galaxy, what would you say? Post your own message or read some of the highlighted submissions.

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