Thursday, March 31, 2005

Life from galaxy collisions, implications of ammonia and moon dust into solar cells

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 – Data from ISO, the infrared observatory of the European Space Agency, have provided the first direct evidence that shock waves generated by galaxy collisions excite the gas from which new stars will form. The result also provides important clues on how the birth of the first stars was triggered and speeded up in the early universe. See article.
g Abodes – Arizona's Jonathan Lunine presented a lecture entitled "Titan: A Personal View after Cassini's first six months in Saturn orbit" at a NASA Director's Seminar on Jan. 24. Lunine discusses the broader implications of ammonia in astrobiology. See article.
g Life – After decades of laboratory work studying how animals evolve, researchers sometimes need to put on the hip waders, pull out the fishing net and go learn how their theory compares to the real world. According to a Stanford University School of Medicine study, Mother Nature is more predictable than lab experiments suggest. See article.
g Intelligence – An international team, led by researchers at the Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, have extracted and sequenced protein from a Neanderthal from Shanidar Cave, Iraq dating to approximately 75,000 years old. See article.
g Message – It has become somewhat accepted that an extrasolar contact could be interpreted as a good “artificial” signal if it arose from certain branches of mathematics. If another galactic civilization decided to reach us, they would send a beacon of bleeps akin to the digits of “pi” or only prime numbers, because they would realize that no natural process could mimic them. Renowned author and MacArthur “genius” award winner, Stephen Wolfram, argues for a new kind of science, and argues that the line between “artificial” and “natural” signals is not nearly so clear as first supposed. See article. Note: This article is from 2004.
g Cosmicus – Space shuttle Discovery, its external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters have been joined together as one atop a mobile launching platform inside Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building. See article.
g Learning – A study finds grade school students are capable of providing scientists with perfectly valid aerosol data. See article.
g Imagining – Science fiction authors produce a lot of very strange critters. In the desperate dash to be different, many go way overboard to invent fantastic, outlandish species unlike anything anyone has ever seen. It’s an admirable expression of their artistic abilities, but there’s an inherent problem: they almost always lose the reader along the way. Sure, it sounds ultra-cool to have a whole herd of 80-foot quasi-limbed orb-stasis beings, but unless you draw me a picture of these things, the reader often has no idea what you’re talking about. However, if you write that your alien has four wings, 10 eyes and looks a little like a kangaroo, the reader is right there with you. Most readers need at least something familiar to draw on for their imagination, or they get lost. See article.
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.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Life from dying stars, machine intelligence and Epona

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 – Dying stars may warm previously frozen worlds around them to the point where liquid water temperature exists long enough for life to form, according to a new analysis of the evolution of habitable zones around stars by an international team of astronomers. See article.
g Abodes – The asteroid that struck the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago presumably initiated the extinction of the dinosaurs. The huge collision also unleashed a worldwide downpour of tiny BB-sized mineral droplets, called spherules. See article.
g Life – Would life forms on other worlds have to possess eyes, ears and limbs like higher organisms on Earth? Would they have to have a similar genetic code? Or can life exist not as we know it? These questions may be unanswerable now, but astrobiologists are anxious to answer the underlying question: How do you define life? See article. Note: This article is from 2000.
g Intelligence – Researchers at The University of Manchester's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences are studying the relationship between the biology of the nervous system, anxiety symptoms and behavioral problems. In particular they are interested in generalized anxiety disorder and anti-social personality disorder. See article.
g Message – SETI scientists speculate on whether or not the first extraterrestrial intelligence they contact will be machine intelligence or biological intelligence. See article. Note: This article is from 2000.
g Cosmicus – NASA announced last week the first two cash prizes offered as part of the agency’s Centennial Challenges program. Its mission is to encourage the commercialization of space transportation. See article.
g Learning – Bringing Mars into your classroom fosters an appreciation of the beauty of another world and offers the excitement of discovery. At “Mission to Mars,” children with interests across a wide spectrum can have fun learning about the Athena mission. Whether you're teaching astronomy or biology, you'll find ideas and inspiration for bringing the science of the solar system to your students here.
g Imagining – You may recall from the “Learning” entry of a few days ago that for several years a “game” called COTI has been available, in which the “players” design an integrated world, alien life form and culture and simulate contact with a future human society. Here are the results of one of those simulations, the creation of the world Epona. See article.
g Aftermath – Book alert: A couple of years back, Hugo and Nebula award-winning author David Brin teamed up with illustrator Kevin Lenagh to offer “Contacting Aliens: An Illustrated Guide to David Brin's Uplift Universe”, the definitive guide for any fan of the Uplift series or, as Brin would have it, a training handbook for Terragen Field Agents. It’s also a great science fiction examination of what happens when two alien species contact one another.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Life’s treeline, mind reading and the fascination of the alien

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 – Why is the universe expanding at an accelerating rate, spreading its contents over ever greater dimensions of space? An original solution to this puzzle, certainly the most fascinating question in modern cosmology, has been put forward by four theoretical physicists. See article.
g Abodes – Planetary scientist Chris McKay describes one of the driest place on Earth and how one might test for the equivalent of a bacterial “treeline,” a region so harsh in the Andes Mountains where even microbes cannot thrive. See article.
g Life – When male animals strut their stuff — the rainbow plumes of peacocks, the mighty tusks of an elephant — they might be flaunting their potential for fatherhood, researchers in Spain say. See article.
g Intelligence – Can people read minds? No — but they can play head games. See article.
g Message – Scientists find it hard enough to pin down evidence of early life on our own planet. How on Earth do we plan to determine whether life exists elsewhere? See article. Note: This article is from 2004.
g Cosmicus – About five minutes after space station commander Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov wrapped up a successful early morning spacewalk, one of the station's two operational control moment gyroscopes, used to stabilized the complex and change its orientation, experienced an unusually high vibration. See article.
g Learning – Here’s a neat classroom activity: Explore the necessity of using special tools and equipment to do work and solve problems in space. The activity is for grades 2-5.
g Imagining – The alien fascinates us. Tolkien's elves, Asimov's robots, Niven and Pournelle's Moties: They all serve the same essential function — to draw us outside ourselves and present us with something that is other. Compelling aliens are bulwarks of science fiction and fantasy that entice readers back again and again. But what fascinates the reader often frustrates the writer. On the one hand, it is both unwise and exhausting to allow the aliens to overwhelm the story. Hardened science fiction readers may be willing to follow your thought experiment through to the bitter end, but most readers will grow bored of technical details and aliens so strange that they cannot empathize with them — particularly when writers become so fascinated by the aliens that they forget to lavish the same care and attention on the humans in the story. On the other hand, modern readers are also demanding about the details of aliens. Bug eyes and feathered crests are no longer enough to make an alien; pointy ears and a lisp cannot make a convincing elf these days. See article.
g Aftermath – What should we say to an extraterrestrial? Try the World Wide Web. SETI astronomer Seth Shostak opines here.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

Law of inheritance, Project Target and alien blood

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 – Book alert: Some people sit in the tub, yell "Eureka" and come up with a brand new view of matter. Others can be riding a trolley home and at the sight of a clock initiate a whole new concept of time. Yet another more pedantic method is to follow government procedures to resolve riddles. Steven Dick and James Strick in their book, “The Living Universe - NASA and the Development of Astrobiology,” narrate how this occurred for the new academic field of astrobiology. Though perhaps not as film worthy as instantaneous flashes, the four decades of meetings, workshops and programs described therein show that this distinct academic area had an eventful and exciting coming of age. See article.
g Abodes – Some of Earth's oldest rocks contain intriguing layered structures. Were living organisms responsible, or was it merely a random chemical process? The answer, says one researcher, may be a simple matter of compressing a computer file. See article.
g Life – Challenging a scientific law of inheritance that has stood for 150 years, scientists say plants sometimes select better bits of DNA in order to develop normally even when their predecessors carried genetic flaws. See article.
g Intelligence – Development of the brain involves a babel of messages that must speak to the formation and integration of hundreds of different types of nerve cells. If such messages could be separated from the "noise" of other brain activity and clearly understood, researchers would be closer to repairing damage caused by a number of nervous system diseases, paralyzing injuries and combat wounds. See article.
g Message – Here’s something neat: A site about Project Target, or the Telescope Antenna Researching Galactic Extraterrestrial Transmissions, from Hay River Radio, which boldly proclaims that such signals indeed exist! See article.
g Cosmicus – Since March 19, the study entitled Women International Space Simulation for Exploration has been fully under way. All participants in the first of two campaigns have been lying in bed, tilted head down at an angle of 6ยบ below horizontal, so that their heads are slightly lower than their feet. See article.
g Learning – A team of master teachers, university faculty, and NASA researchers have created a series of Web-based astronomy and astrobiology lessons for the CERES Project. These classroom-ready activities for K-12 students represent a robust combination of contemporary teaching/learning strategies from the National Science Education Standards, exciting and current NASA science data, and Internet pointers to an endless supply of accurate and timely resources. Here’s one of them: “Sky Paths.” By using these activities in K-4 students will have the concrete experiences of observing, organizing, comparing and describing the movement of objects that they observe in the sky. See article.
g Imagining – In Star Trek, Klingons have purple blood and Vulcans green. But what might extraterrestrial blood really look like? See article.
g Aftermath – Search for Life in the Universe: In this two-part essay, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, reflects on the scientific and cultural implications of finding life elsewhere in the cosmos. See Part II. Note: This article is from 2003.

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Gamma Earth, the search for Dyson spheres and the Mossbacks

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 – Among the most humorous scenes in “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is when aliens, about to destroy the Earth to make way for an interstellar freeway, are told that no one here knew about the road plans. The alien commander incredulously responds that the plans have been on display at Alpha Centauri for a half-century. We’ve never been to Alpha Centauri, a human responds. Well, the alien commander says, if we can’t bother to take an interest in local affairs, that’s our problem — and in a flash Earth is gone. Here’s a site to help you figure out our local neighborhood. It includes superb maps and descriptions of each star system.
g Abodes – A NASA-funded scientist has produced a new type of picture of the Earth from space, which complements the familiar image of our "blue marble." This new picture is the first detailed image of our planet radiating gamma rays, a type of light that is millions to billions of times more energetic than visible light. See article.
g Life – A construction crew has unearthed what appear to be at least 10,000 years old mammoth bones north of this central Washington town and northeast of Yakima, the company owner says. See article.
g Intelligence – Your brain cells change channels sort of like a television, scientists say. See article.
g Message – Here’s a new take on searching for extraterrestrial life: A U.C. Berkeley student is looking for signs of advanced civilizations that have enclosed their home star within a giant sphere at In Search of Dyson Spheres. See article.
g Cosmicus – The world's revolutionary first solar sail — named Cosmos 1 — is creeping closer to flight as tests are checked off one-by-one in advance of its launch aboard a converted ballistic missile in the next one to two months. See article.
g Learning – What could be better than seeing the first Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered? Watching it being taken apart. Visitors to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which has one of the oldest and largest dinosaur collections in the nation, will be able to watch as the museum's collection of fossilized dinosaur skeletons are taken apart before a renovation of the museum's almost century-old Dinosaur Hall. See article.
g Imagining – You may recall from the “Learning” entry of a few days ago that for several years a “game” called COTI has been available, in which the “players” design an integrated world, alien life form and culture and simulate contact with a future human society. Here are the results of one of those simulations, in which humanity encounters the Mossbacks — picture a warm blooded, hermaphroditic, tool-using, horny toad as big as a grizzly bear, with colorful algal symbiotes imbedded in thick tissue of its naked skin. See article.
g Aftermath – Search for Life in the Universe: In this two-part essay, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, reflects on the scientific and cultural implications of finding life elsewhere in the cosmos. Read Part I. Note: This article is from 2003.

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

T. Rex soft tissue, what defines a species as intelligent and space viruses

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 – Until now, super star clusters were only known to exist very far away, mostly in pairs or groups of interacting galaxies. Now, however, a team of European astronomers has used ESO's telescopes to uncover such a monster object within our own galaxy and almost, but not quite, in our own backyard. See article. For related story, see “Young and exotic stellar zoo".
g Abodes – When a volcano blows and you think you're safe by the sea after the main event subsides, watch your back. That's the message in a new study of a Caribbean eruption. See article.
g Life There's no cloning or mysterious tropical islands involved, but U.S. paleontologists have come closer to seeing a real-life Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh than anyone else. See article. For related stories, see “Soft tissue discovered in bone of dinosaur” and “Scientists recover soft tissue from T. Rex".
g Intelligence – What does it mean to be intelligent? This question arises a lot, given the fact that "intelligence" is the last word of the SETI acronym. "Is there intelligence on Earth?" wags will ask (and by so doing, make their query relevant). What defines a species as intelligent, and how do SETI researchers decide? See article. Note: This article is from January 2002.
g Message – If alien astronomers from a nearby star system pointed their version of the Hubble Space Telescope at Earth, astronomer Markus Landgraf believes they would not see our planet but they would find hints of our presence. See article. Note: This article is from 2002.
g Cosmicus – Space shuttle Discovery's payload bay doors have been closed as final preparations continue for the ship's departure from its processing hangar sometime Monday. See article.
g Learning – Nearly one-third of science teachers who participated in a national survey say they feel pressured to include creationism-related ideas in the classroom. And an alarmed science establishment is striking back in defense of teaching evolution — as we should. See article.
g Imagining – The avian flu is not just making headlines — it's making health officials nervous. The flu is a dangerous disease that illustrates just how adaptable viruses can be. Sunday’s edition of the SETI radio show “Are We Alone?” talks with experts on the behavior of viruses on Earth, and the possibility of viruses in space. See station listings.
g Aftermath – The recent brouhaha over whether there’s compelling evidence for life on Mars offers a stark lesson about research life: A major scientific discovery is a temptress as beguiling, and as dangerous, as the Sirens that beckoned Ulysses, says SETI’s senior astronomer. See article.

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Friday, March 25, 2005

Steppe mammoth’s origins, pink socks or blue and plasma-based life

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 – Peculiar outbursts of X-rays coming from a black hole have provided evidence that it has a mass of about 10,000 Suns, which would place it in a possible new class of black holes. The timing and regularity of these outbursts, observed with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, make the object one of the best candidates yet for a so-called intermediate-mass black hole. See article.
g Abodes – A different style of coastal barrier islands that forms under lower-energy conditions than classic ocean-facing barriers, such as North Carolina's Outer Banks, has been identified by coastal geological researchers at Duke University and the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. The new style of islands is typically found in protected bays and lagoons. See article.
g Life – A study by Chinese and British paleontologists has found that the Steppe mammoth may have originated near Zhangjiakou, a city in north China's Hebei Province. See article.
g Intelligence – When given the opportunity to choose the sex of their baby, women are just as likely to choose pink socks as blue, a new study shows. See article.
g Message – Hear about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence from an insider's personal perspective in this Interview with Dan Werthimer, SETI@home Chief Scientist. See interview.
g Cosmicus – North Carolina scientists have found that "thinnest" is not necessarily "best" in rating structure and function of carbon nanotubes, the molecule-sized cylinders that show promise for futuristic technology scaled at a billionths of a meter. What effect might this have on space exploration? See article.
g Learning – The filmmaker who made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name in the 1977 film "Pumping Iron" is making an IMAX documentary about NASA's dual rover mission to Mars. See article.
g Imagining – You’ve heard of carbon-based and silicon-based lifeforms in science fiction. But what about plasma-based life? Is it plausible? See article.
g Aftermath – Book alert: If you have been interested in scholarly theories concerning extraterrestrial intelligence but have not had the opportunity to read the books, journal articles and conference reports on the subject, this is the book for you. In “Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence,” editor Edward Regis, Jr., science writer and associate professor of philosophy at Howard University, brings together the reflections of notable scientists and philosophers concerned with the existence and nature of ETs. One essay specifically discusses the philosophical and sociological impact of contact. See article. Note: The book was published in 1990.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

First light captured from extrasolar planets, a Mars landing site and dracogenetics

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 – What do you get when you turn the temperature up to a trillion degrees? Physicists claim that at this temperature nuclear material melts into an exotic form of matter called quark-gluon plasma – which is thought to have been the state of the universe a microsecond after the Big Bang. See article.
g Abodes – Most of the 150 known extrasolar planets were discovered and studied through techniques such as finding the telltale wobble of a star tugged by an orbiting planet, or the blink of a star as a planet passes in front of it. Now for the first time scientists have observed an extrasolar planet through the light it emits in the infrared. See article. For related stories, see: “Light detected from two planets outside solar system"; “First detection of light from extrasolar planets”; “Glow of alien planets detected in ‘milestone’ observations”; and “First light captured from extrasolar planets”.
g Life – A group of scientists have identified habitats and microbial life using a robotic rover in Chile's arid Atacama desert, one of the harshest environments on Earth. Their findings may bode well for future missions to Mars. See article.
g Intelligence – New research into how the brain controls movement reveals a location of thoughts that determine what you will do. See article.
g Message – Aliens will be glad to know that if ever they need to find an apartment here on Earth, someone has got them covered. On March 11 at 6:30pm, a company called Deep Space Communications Network beamed the first commercial transmission of a Web site into space. See article.
g Cosmicus – What role will the President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond play in humanity’s drive to seek a future in space? Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of the PBS/NOVA Series "Origins,” discusses the topic.
g Learning – Here’s a neat classroom activity: Gather observations and data to generate a model that illustrates a landing site on Mars. The activity is for grades 5-12.
g Imagining – Could the legendary dragons of Pern from Anne McCaffrey’s famous science fiction novels actually exist? Welcome to the theoretical science of dracogenetics. See article.
g Aftermath – How would believers in the Muslim faith generally react to an announcement that we’ve made contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? See article.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Origin of light, equine evolution and the Squitch

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 – Light as we know it may be a direct result of small violations of relativity, according to new research. See article.
g Abodes – Since people began clearing valleys and slopes for agriculture more than 9,000 years ago, we have been altering landscapes. University of Vermont geologists explore the link between human actions and landscape — and reach some important conclusions — in the cover article of the April/May issue of GSA Today. See article.
g Life – No single domesticated species has changed human evolution as much as the horse. Long-standing hypotheses about equine size, range and age are thus intimately tied to understanding our own cultural origins. But new fossil evidence points to an older and perhaps smaller ancient horse that adapted from leaf eating to grazing. The result may rewrite the anthropological textbooks as well as the equine ones. See article. For related story, see “Fossil horses undergo evolution in thinking”.
g Intelligence – A gene which is likely to be one of the causes of dyslexia in children has been discovered by researchers at Cardiff University. They believe the major find will give researchers a better understanding of what causes the brain disorder that disrupts reading and writing skills. See article.
g Message – Contrary to a SETI astronomer’s prediction a few weeks ago that we’re about 25 years from receiving an extraterrestrial signal, during an August 2004 symposium at Harvard searchers for life in the universe concluded that we've got a long, long way to go. See article.
g Cosmicus – What if the next space shuttle winds up in trouble, too? What if, like Columbia, it's damaged at liftoff and the astronauts are up in space with a maimed rocketship? Could they be saved? When Discovery is launched in a few months, a four-man rescue squad will be standing by. It's a plan for the unthinkable. See article. For related story, see “Wiring work delays roll over milestone for Shuttle Discovery”.
g Learning – Using an iPod or any portable MP3 player, you can now explore the universe while driving, jogging, waiting in line ... just about anywhere. It's easy: tune in to the NASA podcast.
g Imagining – You may recall from the “Learning” entry of a few days ago that for several years a “game” called COTI has been available, in which the “players” design an integrated world, alien life form and culture and simulate contact with a future human society. Here are the results of one of those simulations, in which humanity encounters the Squitch, a bipedal alien with long, triple-jointed hind legs, which, when extended, scissored out to more than twice the length of the body pod. See article.
g Aftermath – As we begin the new millennium, large elements of both the scientific and lay communities are sensitive to the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere. Whereas it is sensible to be cautious as to when unmistakable evidence of ETI will be acquired, some searchers expect this discovery to occur in the near future. From the perspective of our descendants 1,000 years hence, initial contact will be part of history and their attention will be directed somewhere else. At that time, any difficulties or dislocations that occurred during first contact will be long past. Interacting with other civilizations will be no more unusual than interacting with human colonies that will be sprinkled throughout our solar system. One thousand years from now people will be quite different than they are today. Human interaction with ETI could account for only some of these differences. See article.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mars’ frozen sea, the human circadian clock and ammonia-based life

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 discovered the most distant massive structure yet detected in the universe, a fully formed galaxy cluster containing hundreds, if not thousands, of galaxies. The discovery is evidence that the universe's elegant hierarchal structure of stars, galaxies and clusters formed quickly after the Big Bang, far earlier than most astronomers thought possible just a few years ago. See article. For related story, see “Massive old galaxies starve to death in young galaxy”.
g Abodes – Mars isn't as sleepy as scientists suspected. An international research team has found evidence of recent glacial movement and volcanic eruptions in 3-D images from the Mars Express mission. The team's latest work, laid out in three Nature papers, also includes evidence of a frozen sea close to the equator. These and other Mars Express findings are stoking debate about the possibility of life on the Red Planet. See article. For related story: Mars Express finds glaciers and “hourglass” craters, click here.
g Life – What we think and what we don't know strongly affect our method of studying life in the universe — perhaps more than what we know. See article. Note: This article is from 2002.
g Intelligence – The human circadian clock, comprised of about 20,000 time-keeping cells, has mystified scientists since it was pinpointed in the brain about 30 years ago. Now a University of Calgary researcher is getting a little bit closer to understanding how it ticks. See article.
g Message – How scientifically accurate was the ultimate astrobiology film, “Contact”? See article.
g Cosmicus – A full-scale quantum computer could produce reliable results even if its components performed no better than today's best first-generation prototypes, according to a paper by a scientist at the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology. What impact might this have on space exploration? See article.
g Learning – Some IMAX theaters foolishly are refusing to show movies that mention evolution or the Big Bang because of protests by religious groups who say the ideas contradict the Bible. See article.
g Imagining – You may recall from the “Learning” entry of a few days ago that for several years a “game” called COTI has been available, in which the “players” design an integrated world, alien life form and culture and simulate contact with a future human society. Here are the results of one of those simulations, in which humanity encounters the Alchemists, sea creatures of a new taxon combining many characteristics we find in the cetaceans, crustaceans and mollusks of Earth. See article.
g Aftermath – Book alert: The authentic discovery of extraterrestrial life would usher in a scientific revolution on par with Copernicus or Darwin, says Paul Davies in his book “Are We Alone?” Just as these ideas sparked religious and philosophical controversy when they were first offered, so would proof of life arising away from Earth. With this brief book (160 pages, including two appendices and an index), Davies tries to get ahead of the curve and begin to sort out the metaphysical mess before it happens. Many science fiction writers have preceded him, of course, but here the matter is plainly put. This is a very good introduction to a compelling subject. See reviews.

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Monday, March 21, 2005

Challenges facing NASA, virtual mission to Mars and panspermia

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 – Unlike humans, stars are born with all the weight they will ever have. A human's birth weight varies by just a few pounds, but a star's weight ranges from less than a tenth to more than 100 times the mass of our Sun. Although astronomers know that stars come in a variety of masses, they are still stumped when it comes to figuring out if stars have a weight limit at birth. See article.
g Abodes – A geologist says he may have figured out what caused mysterious gullies on Mars: water trickling from the melting of snow that had built up over thousands of years. His theory may help scientists figure out where to seek signs of life on the planet. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Life – Do you think macroevolutionary theory explains little, makes few or no testable predictions and has not been scientifically demonstrated? Then you be wrong. See article.
g Intelligence – Common behaviors are innate rather than learned, study suggests. See article.
g Message – SETI researchers have long had to beg time on instruments built for conventional radio astronomy. Now they're building one of their own. See article.
g Cosmicus – The brainy rocket scientist nominated by President Bush and endorsed by key members of Congress to lead NASA as it shifts from space shuttles to moonships seems to have it all and know it all. But Michael Griffin will need every one of his seven degrees plus political savvy to take on the monumental challenges ahead of him. See article.
g Learning – Here’s a neat classroom activity: Carry out a "virtual Mars mission" just like the one Mars Pathfinder's rover, Sojourner, performed then apply that new knowledge to future Mars missions. Activities are for grades 4-12. See lesson plan.
g Imagining – What is panspermia, a concept that appears in a number of science fiction stories, and how plausible is it? See article.
g Aftermath – Here’s an intriguing essay that discusses what might happen if we do too little to contact extraterrestrials; as the authors argue, “…skepticism regarding SETI is at best unfounded and at worst can seriously damage the long-term prospects of humanity. If ETIs exist, no matter whether friendly or adversarial (or even beyond such simple distinctions), they are relevant for our future. To neglect this is contraryy to the basic tenets of transhumanism. To appreciate this, it is only sufficient to imagine the consequences of SETI success for any aspect of transhumanist interests, and then to affirm that such a success can only be achieved without trying if they come to us, which would obviously mean that we are hopelessly lagging in the race for galactic colonization.” See article.

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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Spring one day early, Zoom Astronomy and the Alchemists

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 – After 25 years of sweat and tears, a University of Southern California astronautics professor finally has his wish: a chance to probe the very edges of our solar system with a spacecraft that can measure from afar the interactions of the solar wind with interstellar dust and gas. See article.
g Abodes – Even if all industrial pollution and auto emissions suddenly ceased today, Earth's climate will warm at least 1 degree by the year 2100 and seas will rise 11 centimeters, according to a new study. The warming is likely to continue through 2400, another study forecasts. See article.
g Life – A frozen mammoth dug up from the Siberian tundra was unveiled in central Japan in a preview of the six-month World Exposition which is expected to draw millions of tourists. See article.
g Intelligence – When we were all growing up, the first day of spring always was March 21, not March 20, right? Now all of a sudden spring comes on March 20. How did that happen? See article.
g Message – Here’s a fascinating talk with Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research and the inspiration behind Jody Foster’s character in the movie “Contact.” Find out about the tools and technologies being developed for a multigenerational effort to search for other advanced civilizations beyond our solar system here; scroll to “Listening for the Long Term.”
g Cosmicus – There's still a long way to go before today's robots evolve into practical, everyday technologies, but even now, autonomous robotic vehicles are exploring uncharted or hazardous places and performing household tasks. New machines may offer the surrogate exploration frontier for extending human reach further into the solar system. See article.
g Learning – Here’s a neat Web site: “Zoom Astronomy,” a comprehensive “primer” to space and astronomy. It is designed for people of all ages and levels of comprehension. It has an easy-to-use structure that allows readers to start at a basic level on each topic and then progress to much more advanced information as desired, simply by clicking on links. See article.
g Imagining – You may recall from yesterday’s “Learning” entry that for several years a “game” called COTI has been available, in which the “players” design an integrated world, alien life form and culture and simulate contact with a future human society. Here are the results of one of those simulations, in which humanity encounters the Alchemists, sea creatures of a new taxon combining many characteristics found in Earth’s cetaceans, crustaceans and mollusks. See article.
g Aftermath – The statement that extraterrestrial intelligence exists or doesn’t can have the parallel statement that God exists or doesn’t. Some people say there’s already sufficient evidence of existence for both. If you set aside abductions and miracles, it’s true that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence for either. However, if and when humanity ever detects evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence, it will break the symmetry of these two statements and, in fact, that evidence will be inconsistent with the existence of God or at least organized religions. See article. Note: This article is from 2004.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

The meaning of methane, a chip in your brain and COTI

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 – Astrophysicists in recent years have found evidence for a force they call dark energy in observations from the farthest reaches of the universe, billions of light years away. Now researchers have used data from powerful computer models, supported by the Hubble Space Telescope, to find evidence of dark energy right in our own cosmic neighborhood. See article.
.g Abodes – The detection of methane on Mars has generated a lot of speculation about what could possibly be producing it. Is it coming out of active volcanoes? Maybe the methane results from some geologic or chemical process we don't yet understand. Or, since much of the methane on Earth is produced by biology, perhaps the faint whiffs of methane point to the existence of present-day life on Mars. See article.
g Life – Innovative research from the University of Bristol provides the strongest evidence to date that disruptive patterns do indeed protect insects from detection by birds, the predator most likely to have shaped the evolution of protective coloration in insects. See article.
g Intelligence – Our computers get faster every year — so how long will it be before they're as good as the best computer around: the human brain? SETI’s Sunday radio show “Are We Alone?” will discuss how researchers are striving to construct an artificial mind — and whether a chip in your brain might be in your future. Click here for a radio station in your area.
g Message – Here’s why the world's biggest search should reverse its strategy — and why the first signal we hear will probably come from an extremely powerful civilization extremely far away. See article.
g Cosmicus – The pieces are coming together for NASA’s first space shuttle launch in more than two years as engineers prepare to roll the Discovery spacecraft out of its protective Orbiter Processing Facility. See article.
g Learning – Here’s a great educational tool for teaching astrobiology and various principles of science: COTI. COTI is an educational experiment in creation — students design an integrated world, alien life form and culture, and simulate contact with a future human society. One team constructs a solar system, a world and its ecology, an alien life form and its culture, basing each step on the previous one and utilizing the principles of science as a guide to imagination. The other team designs a future human colony, planetary or spacefaring, "creating and evolving" its culture as an exercise in cultural structure, dynamics and adaptation. Through a structured system of progressive revelation, the teams then simulate — and experience — contact between the two cultures in real time, exploring the problems and possibilities involved in inter-cultural encounters. See article.
g Imagining – Be sure to watch the two-hour special “Dragons” Sunday on the Animal Planet cable channel. The show examines the mythology of dragons and looks at what real prehistoric creatures may have served as their inspiration. It starts at 7 p.m. CST. See article.
g Aftermath – What would be the social consequences in case a SETI-project would actually be successful or mankind would be confronted in another way with the existence of an extraterrestrial civilization? See article.

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Friday, March 18, 2005

Encounter with Enceladus, chimps as hominids and “Contact” conference

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 using the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton telescope have discovered that observing the giant planet Jupiter actually may give them an insight into solar activity on the Sun’s far side. Jupiter's X-ray glow is due to X-rays from the Sun being reflected off the planet's atmosphere. See article.
g Abodes – The Cassini spacecraft's two close flybys of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus have revealed that the moon has a significant atmosphere. Scientists, using Cassini's magnetometer instrument for their studies, say the source may be volcanism, geysers or gases escaping from the surface or the interior. See article. Related stories: “Enceladus in color” and “Cracked face of Enceladus”.
g Life – Two schools of thought exist on the question of what life (assuming there is any) will be like on other worlds. These fall under the headings of "divergionism" and "convergionism," or to use Harold Blum's terminology, "opportunism" and "determinism.” See article.
g Intelligence – A report argues that chimpanzees are so closely related to humans that they should be included in our branch of the tree of life. Chimpanzees and other apes have historically been separated from humans in classification schemes, with humans deemed the only living members of the hominid family of species. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Message – Here’s a prerecorded Web cast at Aricebo Radio Observatory in March 2003 when scientists listened to the most promising transmissions from UC Berkeley’s SETI@home search. Join the Exploratorium’s Ron Hipschman and special guest Dan Werthimer, chief scientist and principal investigator for the SETI Institute’s efforts, as they also discuss Arecibo Observatory’s search of artificial radio signals coming from other stars here; scroll to “What about Intelligent Life?”
g Cosmicus – Which gadgets can unlock the next technological revolutions? What is the next big thing? To propose answers to this question, the 16 nations of the European Space Agency commissioned a project called "Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications.” See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Learning – Here’s an interesting Web site about anthropology — it offers a very comprehensive, up-to-date resource with more than 20 tutorials, complete with photos and illustrations, about both physical and cultural anthropology. It’s hosted by Palomar College. See site.
g Imagining – In science fiction, aliens often are humanoids. Just how different will extraterrestrial life likely be from the varieties found on Earth? See article.
g Aftermath – An intriguing conference begins today at NASA Ames: ”Contact: Culture of the Imagination.” Contact is a unique interdisciplinary conference that brings together some of the foremost international social and space scientists, science fiction writers and artists to exchange ideas, stimulate new perspectives and encourage serious, creative speculation about humanity's future ... onworld and offworld. See article.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Rock’n’roll stars, Hubble’s future and what to say to ET

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 – New observations reveal that the early universe had its own version of rock’n’roll stars – galaxies that grew fast and died young. What killed these up-and-comers is not yet known. See article.
g Abodes – Ecologists know that when it comes to habitats, size matters, and now a new study finds that contrary to earlier beliefs, that maxim holds true right down to the tiny plants at the bottom of many oceanic and freshwater food chains. See article.
g Life – It is one of the mysteries of biology: How does tooth enamel, the hardest mineral in the mammalian body, emerge from soft, organic gum tissue? An important part of the answer appears in a report in the latest issue of Science. See article.
g Intelligence – Here’s a Web site, beautifully illustrated by paleoartist John Gurche, that presents "the story of human evolution in a broadband documentary experience." Users can examine fossil evidence, compare hominid anatomies and study cultural milestones. The site also offers the latest news and debates in paleoanthropology, as well as a comprehensive resource and Web guide. It’s presented by the Institute of Human Origins. See article.
g Message – "Surely one of the most marvelous feats of 20th-century science would be the firm proof that life exists on another planet. In that case, the thesis that life develops spontaneously when the conditions are favorable would be far more firmly established, and our whole view of the problem of the origin of life would be confirmed." Stanley Miller and Harold Urey wrote in 1959. Unfortunately, their dream has not been realized, and as we begin this new millennium the question of whether life exists beyond the Earth remains unanswered. However, there are reasons for optimism that in the not-too-distant future we may have an answer. See article. Note: This article is from 2001.
g Cosmicus – Next week, NASA will hold a major review regarding the Hubble Space Telescope with dozens of engineers and other experts. The gathering is seen by some industry sources as a make-or-break event for any possibility of saving the observatory. See article.
g Learning – “Bad” news for new parents: Babies are smarter than the rest of us. See article.
g Imagining – How would evolutionary theory apply to extraterrestrial lifeforms? And why should science fiction writers pay more attention to it? See article.
g Aftermath – The spaceship comes down in your backyard, crushing a bed of petunias, and out steps the alien. This is always an awkward social moment. What, exactly, do you say to someone who may hold the secrets to the universe? See article.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Lightning cleaner, mass extinctions on cycle and anthropomorphism

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 – Black holes have a reputation for voraciously eating everything in their immediate neighborhood, but these large gravity wells also affect electromagnetic radiation — and may hinder our ability to ever locate the center of the universe, according to an international research team. See article.
g Abodes – When lightning makes your favorite AM radio station crackle and pop, it’s also cleaning up a radiation hazard overhead. Lightning in clouds only a few miles above the ground clears a safe zone in the radiation belts thousands of miles above the Earth. See article.
g Life – A detailed and extensive new analysis of the fossil records of marine animals over the past 542 million years has yielded a stunning surprise: Biodiversity appears to rise and fall in mysterious cycles of 62 million years for which science has no satisfactory explanation. See article.
g Intelligence – Although they are dramatically different, words and faces are both recognized by parts, according to a study published in February in the Journal of Vision. See article.
g Message – Here’s an interesting proposal: Search for extraterrestrial intelligence by analyzing cosmic radiation for signals. See article.
g Cosmicus – Can a robot learn to navigate like a cockroach? To help researchers find out if a mechanical device can mimic the pesky insect's behavior, a Johns Hopkins engineering student has built a flexible, sensor-laden antenna. See article.
g Learning – You have to learn to crack eggs if you're going to cook an omelet. You have to jump in the water if you're going to learn to swim. And you have to get your hands on telescopes that can search for signs of life beyond Earth if you're going to study extraterrestrial biology. That's why 14 University of Washington graduate biology students will be at Kitt Peak National Observatory this week to learn observing techniques from University of Arizona and National Optical Astronomy Observatory astronomers. See article.
g Imagining – Contrary to earlier reports in this column, “Star Trek: The Animated Series” was not released on DVD Tuesday; reports now say it’s been delayed to sometime next year. We had planned to discuss the evolution and plausibility of each alien in the cartoon series; without the DVD release, however, we’ll return to “The Original Series” and continue working our way through the franchise in chronological order. So here’s today’s topic: What exactly is “anthropomorphism,” which is a major problem of “Star Trek” aliens?
g Aftermath – How would proof of extraterrestrial intelligence affect humanity’s “world” view? Astronomer Steve Dick discusses the matter in this transcribed Smithsonian Institute lecture, from 1999.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Mars update, primitive brain structures and insectoid 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 –For more than 30 years, astrophysicists have believed that black holes can swallow nearby matter and release a tremendous amount of energy as a result. Until recently, however, the mechanisms that bring matter close to black holes have been poorly understood, leaving researchers puzzled about many of the details of the process. See article.
g Abodes –At the recent European Space Agency's Mars Express conference, scientists announced they had found a frozen sea on the martian equator. John Murray, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the Open University in the UK, is lead author on the paper to be published in the journal Nature. Astrobiology Magazine editor Leslie Mullen sat down with Murray to discuss the new finding. See article. For related stories about Mars, see “Next on Mars” and “Dry signs of life”.
g Life – If ancient plants had not migrated from the shallow seas of early Earth to the barren land of the continents, life as we know it might never have emerged. And now it appears this massive floral colonization may have been spurred by a single genetic mutation that allowed primitive plants to make lignin, a chemical process that leads to the formation of a cell wall. See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Intelligence – Primitive structures deep within the brain may have a far greater role in our high-level everyday thinking processes than previously believed, report researchers at the MIT Picower Center for Learning and Memory in the Feb. 24 issue of Nature . See article.
g Message – Searches for extraterrestrial intelligence are about to expand into new realms, thanks to new advances in technology — and new thinking. See article.
g Cosmicus – Even skeptical locals, who've become wary over the years of city slickers with big ideas for their town, perked up when founder Jeff Bezos made his pitch — a spaceport for commercial travel into the beyond. Bezos said Blue Origin would first build basic structures at the Texas site, such as an engine test stand, fuel and water tanks and an office building. See article.
g Learning – Since the advent of Darwinism in the mid-19th century, a variety of movements have jousted for the intellectual high ground in the epic evolution versus creationism debate. During the last decade or so, yet another movement has forged a claim in the high-stakes contest for intellectual primacy in the apparently ceaseless battle over the origins of life. The newest combatants, known as "intelligent-design theorists," reject both theistic and naturalistic evolution and, instead, claim evidence of the hand of an unknown "intelligent designer" in the genesis of life — and it’s affecting science instruction in our schools. See article.
g Imagining – Could the insectoid alien in “Star Trek: The Animated Series” (released today on DVD) episode “Beyond the Farthest Star” exist (see picture)? Probably not. The great flaw is that a size limit exists on insects. First, insects possess a chitinous exoskeleton. The larger this structure gets, the more likely it is to collapse under its own weight. If the pod spaceship’s former inhabitants are the size of humans and descended from an insect race, their ancestors likely shed their exoskeleton tens of millions of years before. Secondly, insects distribute oxygen through their bodies via tubes and holes. The larger the creature, the less efficient is this system of respiration. If the aliens are descended from insects, their ancestors almost certainly developed a respiratory system, such as gills or lungs. In short, the insectoids may be descended from insects, but just as certainly as humans, descended from fish that crawled out of the sea and made a home on the solid earth, are no longer fish, so this alien species cannot insects. Interestingly, the author gives little thought to how this species might evolve into an intelligent, human-sized species as much as using the insect form to describe the alien qualities of the ship (which is divided into pods, as might be an insect hive or nest).
g Aftermath – When we first meet extraterrestrials, will we and they be able to converse? An MIT professor argues that we will — provided they are motivated to cooperate — because we'll both think similar ways. See article. Note: This article is from 1985.

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