Saturday, March 12, 2005

Next ice age, the Rio Scale and Deneva’s neural parasite

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 report that they have measured the slowest ever motion of a galaxy across the plane of the sky. This distant whirlpool of stars appears to creep along despite its actual speed through space because it is located so far from the Earth. Measuring this galaxy's glacial pace of only 30 micro-arcseconds per year stretched current radio astronomy technology to its limit. See article.
g Abodes – What causes the slow-motion chills of the ice ages? New research suggests that dark space clouds may have thrown our planet into the mother of all deep freezes many millions of years ago. The effect was worldwide, with a thick layer of frost covering our planet pole to pole. Could it happen again? Are ice ages, even of the milder form experienced as recently as 15,000 years ago, in our immediate future? The next ice age is the topic of Sunday’s “Are We Alone?” SETI’s weekly radio program. Click here for program information.
g Life – Ecologists know that size matters where habitats are concerned. 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 Intelligence – Anthropologists have built a "Frankenstein" Neanderthal skeleton, the first and only full-body reconstruction of the species. The result, announced Thursday, is a shape no one expected. See article.
g Cosmicus – The White House says President Bush intends to nominate Michael D. Griffin to be the new NASA administrator. Dr. Griffin currently serves as Space Department Head at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He replaces Sean O'Keefe who left the space agency last month. See article.
g Learning – Here’s something we could use more of on TV rather than the mindless prattle that now passes for “entertainment”: Real kids doing real science on “DragonflyTV”. See article.
g Imagining –Certainly among the most interesting of Star Trek’s aliens is the neural parasite that attack the Deneva colony (for picture and more background, click here). But “interesting” doesn’t equate to good science. First problem: The creatures are “unicellular.” That’s a problem because the laws of biology and physics demand that any creature larger than a microbe be multi-cellular — yet these creatures are about as large as a dinner plate Limits exist to an organism’s size because of diffusion, or the principle that substances from outside the organism must pass into and throughout the creature; the larger an organism, the greater the distance to its center, and hence diffusion slows. Hence, nutrients couldn’t reach all of the cell’s/creature’s being. Second problem: They’re nervous-system parasites that apparently can cross species. Spock points out early in the episode that the creatures have traversed several planets, and with the timeline given, have been doing so for longer than humanity has had interstellar capabilities. That a creature which evolved on an entirely alien world could so easily adapt itself to other extraterrestrial species as a host seems entirely far-fetched. Third problem: These creatures fly. With no apparatus for flight, somehow the parasites are able to flit about through the air as if birds. Spock does say they likely evolved in a place where our physical laws apparently don’t apply (perhaps an alternative universe?), but even if able to fly in their place of origin, they are bound by our physical laws when here.
g Aftermath – A SETI detection will have important consequences for society. So at the International Astronautics Federation’s annual get-together in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, Hungarian astronomer Ivan Almar and SETI Institute researcher Jill Tarter proposed the Rio Scale for ranking both the importance and credibility of claims that evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence has been found. See article.

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