Thursday, March 10, 2005

Gluey ice, primate retrovirus and the Horta

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 – How dust specks in the early solar systems came together to become planets has vexed astronomers for years. Scientists report in the current issue of Astrophysical Journal a cool answer to the planet-formation riddle: Micron-wide dust particles encrusted with molecularly gluey ice enabled planets to bulk up like dirty snowballs quickly enough to overcome the scattering force of solar winds. See article.
g Abodes – The hunt for some form of life elsewhere in our universe may spur a veritable fleet of robot orbiters, landers and rovers to study the surface of Mars in the coming years. But they might look in the wrong place. See article.
g Life – The ancestors of chimpanzees and gorillas were infected with a deadly retrovirus about 3 million to 4 million years ago, but there is no evidence it infected ancestors of modern-day humans, according to research by genome scientists. See article.
g Intelligence – Children with imaginary companions might be quicker to develop language skills and retain knowledge. See article.
g Message – Book alert: Here’s an oldie but goodie worth picking up — “SETI Pioneers: Scientists Talk About Their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” by David W. Swift. This instructive book (by a University of Hawaii sociologist) compiles Q&A interviews with 17 researchers, mostly American, who are involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. While the field, which did not attract attention from scientists until 1959, remains a fledgling discipline, it now draws physicists, astronomers, electrical engineers, chemists and an aerospace physician into its orbit. Scientists featured here discuss current methods used to investigate ETI, and others they hope to develop, but general readers will most likely value the impact of their personalities — modest, open, thoughtful, occasionally waggish — above talk of technicalities.
g Cosmicus – It's called Dawn, and in a little more than a year, this spacecraft will blast off from Florida, bound for two separate asteroids: Vesta and Ceres. Visiting the two most massive asteroids in our Solar System will be an ambitious undertaking; maybe one of the most difficult and dangerous orbital missions attempted. Dawn will bring a suite of scientific instruments to these two asteroids and serve as a time machine to help scientists understand what our Solar System looked like 4.6 billion years ago. See article.
g Learning – Here’s an interesting idea for teachers: Use science fiction to teach economics. See article.
g Imagining – Of Star trek’s varied aliens, the Horta perhaps is the most alien — and the most plausible. While most Star Trek aliens are mere variations on humanoids or some energy creature, the Horta is silicon-based. That humanoids populate the universe appears to be virtually impossible, though carbon-based life forms (such as ourselves) appear highly likely. But could a silicon-based life form exist? It’s possible though problematic; silicon possesses bonding chemistry identical to that of carbon. In addition, like carbon, it can combine with four other elements to construct a large range of various macromolecules. In fact, if life isn’t universally carbon-based, silicon probably is the next best alternative. Indeed, that the Starfleet hasn’t discovered silicon-based life forms to this point isn’t surprising: silicon is a much rarer element in the universe than carbon. For some neat discussions about the plausibility of silicon-based life, click here, here and here.
g Aftermath – Here’s an interesting, albeit “older,” personal essay that appeared right after “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the original “Star Wars” came out, which appeared in “Theology Today” about what organized religion should do in light of the growing belief of alien’s existence. See article.

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