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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