Friday, April 22, 2005

Earth Day, mice in suspended animation and the Gorn

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 – NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted what may be the dusty spray of asteroids banging together in a belt that orbits a star like our Sun. The discovery offers astronomers a rare glimpse at a distant star system that resembles our home, and may represent a significant step toward learning if and where other Earths form. See article.
g Abodes – As the world marks the 35th anniversary of Earth Day on Friday, environmentalists are debating the future of a movement that seems to be losing the battle for public opinion. President Bush's re-election, the failure to slow global warming and the large number of Americans who dismiss them as tree-hugging extremists have environmental leaders looking for new approaches. See article.
g Life – As missions to Mars continue to be planned, scientists periodically review three very successful expeditions to the Red Planet’s surface: the two Viking probes in the 1970s and Mars Pathfinder in 1997. They wonder what it might take for life detection to become part of future experimental profiles. The Viking examples however show this not to be a scientific case of “add-water-and-stir.” See article. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Intelligence – Book alert: In 2003’s The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science,” author Steven Mithen takes on the formidable task of describing how the mind of modern humans emerged from the minds of earlier hominids. The scarcity of hard evidence from prehistoric times, particularly about physical changes in the brain, makes this difficult to do. Mithen adopts the concept that there are different kinds of intelligence such as general, social, and technical. In his view, human ancestors evolved from having only general intelligence to supplementing that with other, specialized intelligences that enabled tool making and language. The explosion in cultural creativity between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago occurred when these various intelligences were integrated, making possible art, religion, and science. Consciousness adopted the role of an integrating mechanism for knowledge that had been trapped in separate specialized intelligences. See reviews.
g Message – The search for extraterrestrial intelligence could be taking the wrong approach. Instead of listening for alien radio broadcasts, a better strategy may be to look for giant structures placed in orbit around nearby stars by alien civilizations. See article.
g Cosmicus – Scientists have for the first time put mice into a state of suspended animation and brought them back to normal life. See article.
g Learning – Here’s a neat classroom activity courtesy of NASA: “A Case of the Wobbles”. Students plot and analyze NASA data to determine the period of an invisible planet orbiting a wobbling star.
g Imagining – Among the more famous alien races from “Star Trek” are the Gorn, bipedal reptilians who are much larger and stronger than humans (see picture). The Gorn are an unlikely alien species but a splendid example of how we so often portray extraterrestrials based not on scientific principles but our own psychology — like the insect alien, most humans naturally find the reptilian alien repulsive. For science fiction, it’s a good choice to create suspense: creatures out of our nightmares that we keep going back to out of a fascination over what frightens us. But could the Gorn evolve on another world? Probably not. The most troubling feature of the Gorn is the remarkable parallel evolution that would have to occur on Gorn Prime and Earth for a few billion years, at least up to our Age of Dinosaurs. Also disconcerting is the Gorn’s snout; this adds weight to the head and with a large brain size creates excessive and unbalanced weight for the neck muscles to hold up. Another problem is the Gorn’s slow movements; certainly a species that evolved to intelligence would have to move a little faster, or it could not succeed in hunting. A caveat here is that its lack of agility may in part have propelled it to intelligence, as it needed to outthink faster moving prey. Some “Star Trek” fans have speculated that Gorn Prime possesses a harsh environment and a relatively high local gravity (1.4 Gs!), which accounts for the Gorn’s increased strength and endurance levels. This seems unlikely, though, as the Gorn then would be able to move swiftly on the asteroid presented in the episode, which Kirk shifts about on as if it were Earth normal gravity.
g Aftermath – Donald E. Tarter, a consultant in space policy and technology assessment, makes a persuasive case for developing the protocols and technology to reply to an extraterrestrial signal before news of the discovery is made public, in his article, “Advocating an Immediate Response.” Delay could be costly as technologically advanced fringe groups or ambitious nations could attempt to score a propaganda victory by being the first to reply, creating a mixed and perhaps embarrassing first message. This could be avoided by settling on a quick and simple message to let the extraterrestrial source know that we had received their message. See article. Note: The piece is a few years old.

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