Saturday, May 07, 2005

Solar nebula lifetime, extraterrestrials on Mars and designing 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 – The oxygen and magnesium content of some of the oldest objects in the universe are giving clues to the lifetime of the solar nebula, the mass of dust and gas that eventually led to the formation of our solar system. See article.
g Abodes – Bernard Foing, Chief Scientist for the European Space Agency, provides on overview of the most notable discoveries made during the Mars Express mission, Europe's first trip to the Red Planet. In part two of this overview, Foing looks at how these discoveries could help pinpoint the prospects for life on Mars. See article. For related stories, see “Big Iron to Mars” and “Mars: Tilting Toward Life?”
g Life – Scientists have been able to follow the flow of excitation energy across both time and space in a molecular complex using a new technique called two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy. While holding great promise for a broad range of applications, this technique has already been used to make a surprise finding about the process of photosynthesis. See article.
g Intelligence – The 'L' factor in the Drake equation, which estimates the period of time a civilization capable of extraterrestrial communication is detectable, is widely understood to account for most of the variance in estimates of the number of ETIs that might be contacted. It is also among the hardest to quantify on the basis of any empirical information. Failure to achieve contact to date has led to speculation concerning the propensity of technological civilizations to destroy themselves or to loose interest in communication, thus producing relatively short L’s. An examination of such discussions of the L factor in the popular and technical SETI literature suggests that attempts to think about L involve a variety of potentially conflicting assumptions about civilization lifespan that tend to reflect hopes and fears about the human future. Hopes for an indefinitely prolonged civilization, even if an insular one, is the other side of the coin of fears about self-destruction. In addition, arguments for short L’s prove to be difficult to square with the assumption of mediocrity and anti-anthropomorphism. See article.
g Message – Communicating with Aliens, Part I: The SETI debates have included cautionary arguments about the possibility that aliens might be hostile. But this perspective, most easily dealt with by military attitudes, tends to be set aside in favor of an assumption that aliens would necessarily be intelligent and motivated to communicate in a way that fits comfortably into Western assumptions — to the point of commercializing the dispatch of personal messages into deep space at a charge of $14.95 each. Unfortunately the assumptions associated with this process do not seem to have been explored. Reliance on number theory as a basis for developing communication could easily be interpreted as a convenient projection by a psycho-socially unchallenged scientific milieu — which has its own internal communication problems between disciplines for which no common language has yet been developed. The nature of the challenge can perhaps best be scoped out by exploring the difficulties of communicating with the "aliens" that are frequently encountered in the daily life of a global society. See article.
g Cosmicus – The next time you look at the Moon, pause for a moment and let this thought sink in: People have actually walked on the Moon, and right now the wheels are in motion to send people there again. Whether a moon base will turn out to be feasible hinges largely on the question of water. Colonists need water to drink. They need water to grow plants. They can also break water apart to make air (oxygen) and rocket fuel (oxygen+hydrogen). See article.
g Learning – Eighty years after the first famed "Monkey Trial,'' a second one of sorts opened last week, but this time with evolution in the dock. See article.
g Imagining – Designing aliens and alien cultures is easy. It can even be profitable. Look at ET or the barroom scene in “Star Wars.” Nothing to it. Tack some funny appendages on a basically human form, paint the creature an unusual but not unappealing color, and go. Simple, right? Designing aliens and their cultures rigorously, though, building their worlds according to scientific rules, carefully and logically extrapolating extraterrestrial evolution and cultural development, creating an alien species that is believable and self-consistent, that's a different matter. That's hard. See article. Note: This article is from 1992.
g Aftermath – The scientific discussion of the evolution of life in the universe raises some key philosophical and theological issues Will life and intelligence be found throughout the universe, or will it turn out to be exceedingly rare? Will intelligent life be capable of both rationality and moral agency? Will evolutionary biology determine its moral content or will it merely bequeath intelligent life with moral capacity, leaving moral content to be determined independently of biology? If moral agency evolves, will these species inevitably exhibit moral failure, or is our generic human experience of moral failure strictly the result of our particular evolution, leaving us to expect there to be other civilizations that are entirely benign? The discussion of these issues, though largely hypothetical, can offer insight into the theological and cultural implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence as well into a better understanding of the human condition. See article.

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