Monday, March 14, 2005

Latest on Titan, gregarious bacteria and Trelane

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 – Powerful but unknown forces are at work in a small companion galaxy of the Milky Way, astronomers reported in the latest issue of the journal Science. Something is keeping the structure and magnetic field of this the Large Magellanic Cloud strong and ordered, even while the Milky Way's gravity works to tear them apart. See article.
g Abodes – Titan's surface appears to be as complex as planet Earth's, though the rates at which the various forces modify its surface may be much slower than on our planet. Imaging scientists, analyzing images of Titan designed to allow views of the surface and lower atmosphere, have discovered that the winds on Titan blow a lot faster than the moon rotates. Together, these results suggest a more Earth-like dynamic moon. See article For related stories on Titan, see “The Missing Methane”; “Investigating Titan’s Surface”; “Cassini reveals active, Earth-like world”; and “Cassini discovers windy, wavy Titan atmosphere”.
g Life – Bacteria are more gregarious than previously thought. Not only do they routinely engage in small talk among themselves, but research is showing that many are also multilingual and can communicate with members of other species. See article.
g Intelligence – Neuroscientists already know that brain neurons can and do form specific rather than random connections with each other to generate the observed wiring diagram of the brain. Still, the precise patterns of such non-random connections, how the patterns are formed and how these patterns underlie the brain's extraordinary information processing capacity remain unclear. New research findings, however, may be providing some answers. See article.
g Message – Several big hunts are seeking radio and laser emissions from other civilizations. From Project Phoenix to SETI@home, here's a complete rundown of all the searches now under way or recently conducted.
g Cosmicus – Driven by budgetary and technical issues as well as science goals, NASA’s Mars program could undergo major alterations. See article.
g Learning – Today is Albert Einstein’s birthday, so I asked some local residents buying beauty products to say the first thing that came to mind when hearing the words “Albert Einstein.” The most common answers: Genius; E=mc(squared); science; crazy hair; and light bulb. See my column, published last year, about Einstein’s affect on the modern world.
g Imagining – While the personality traits of Trelane in Star Trek’s “The Original Series” always made him an intriguing alien, the advent of Q in “The Next Generation” brought about the possibility that the two might come from the same omnipotent species (see picture and background on Trelane). Quite a number of arguments already have been posted at other Web sites about why this couldn’t be, and I quite agree. Indeed, Trelane, the child of two (apparently) energy-being aliens, appears to be a denizen of this galaxy. While discussing the Thasians in an earlier entry, I noted that such energy beings were possible. But what particularly is intriguing about this episode is how the writer ensured scientific principles were adhered to. For example, Dr. McCoy notes that Trelane isn’t a carbon-based life form (which surprises the crew, as life almost invariably appears to be based on carbon, though some silicon creatures might exist). In addition, Trelane’s powers aren’t left to the realm of magic but rely on the university’s physical properties. Trelane’s ability to alter matter and energy at will relies on a mechanical apparatus, and while that may sound like magic, I suppose today’s nuclear power plant would look like magic to the ancient Egyptians. One interesting difference between the Trelane aliens and humans, however, is emotion. The aliens do possess emotion — the parents a sense of fairness and respect, Trelane a sense of frustration and delight — but apparently “primitive” emotions such as rage and fury (one might say the emotions from the reptilian aspect of our brains) are almost out of reach. At the very least, they cannot be sustained for long. Trelane is hardly omnipotent or all knowing; he is merely an alien that is more technologically advanced.
g Aftermath – Even before an extraterrestrial signal had been deciphered, humanity would have to deal with the discovery that we are not alone. But, in a sense that would take us back to the situation that existed before Europe launched its great exploration of the world, when each society knew that others existed beyond its borders, following different customs and speaking mysterious languages, and none understood fully the strange voices that surrounded them. See article.

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