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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