Monday, October 24, 2005

‘Planets for Man,’ earliest flowering plants and brain as time machine

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 - Book Alert: In the course of millions of years the human species has adapted itself to the narrow ranges of temperature and air pressure, the availability of food and water, the chemical and physical components of our earthly environment. Now that the means are at hand for mankind to transcend this environment, the questions arise: Where else in the universe can such physical conditions be found? Does our medium-sized planet, circling a medium-sized star in the outer reaches of a typical spiral galaxy, have a counterpart among the countless heavenly bodies, which surround it? What will men find as they gradually extend the range of their explorations? In speculating on some future consequences of manned space flight, "Planets for Man," by Stephen H. Dole and Isaac Asimov, looks forward to a time when human beings will be able to travel the vast distances to the other stars. It then attempts to determine — on the basis of our present biological and cosmological knowledge — whether there are other worlds where man can survive or where human life may even now be flourishing. See article.
g Abodes - If ET is out there, whether in the form of intelligent beings or much simpler organisms, scientists may soon be hot on its trail. In 1995, astronomers using Doppler detection—a method that scientists have used to reveal Saturn-sized (or larger) planets close to their parent suns, discovered the first planet around another sun-like star. Today, astronomers know of more than 100 candidates for such worlds. See article.
g Life - A team of Stanford geochemists has found evidence that flowering plants may have evolved 250 million years ago — long before the first pollen grain appeared in the fossil record. See article.
g Intelligence - The brain is a "time machine," assert two Duke neuroscientists — and understanding how the brain tracks time is essential to understanding all its functions. See article.
g Message - The assertion that extraterrestrial intelligences do not exist, based on the apparent contradictions inherent in the Fermi Paradox, rests upon an unproven and untenable presumption: That ETI are not now present in the Solar System. The current observational status of the Solar System is insufficient to support the assumption that ETI are not here. Most advanced civilizations also would be either invisible or unrecognizable using current human observational methods, so millions of advanced societies may exist and still not be directly detectable by us. Thus the Fermi Paradox cannot logically be raised as an objection to the existence of ETI until these major observational deficiencies have been corrected. See article.
g Cosmicus - It’s true: NASA has an exobiology division. The Exobiology Branch conducts research in Exobiology seeking to increase our knowledge of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. Answers are sought to questions such as: To what extent did chemical evolution occur in the primitive bodies of the solar system? How did life originate on the Earth, and what role did minerals play? What evidence exists regarding the early interplay between biological and environmental evolution? What do molecular fossils tell us about early microbial evolution? How can the study of contemporary microbes or geochemical samples inform us of past events? The work of the staff in this Branch also provides the conceptual basis and measurement criteria for future spacecraft missions to other solar system bodies such as Mars, Titan, and comets, in search of answers to such fundamental questions in non-terrestrial settings. For NASA’s official exobiology Web page, click here.
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom activity courtesy of NASA: "Planets in a Bottle." The lesson plan involves yeast experiments intended for 2nd through 4th grade students. See lesson.
g Imagining - Like stories about communicating with aliens? Then be sure to read Jack Vance’s "The Gift of Gab" (1955), which involves "talking" with intelligent cephalopods. See review.
g Aftermath - Book alert: "Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Theological Implications," by Steven J. Dick (ed.), is a provocative collection examining science's impact on theology. Based on a 1998 conference sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, this collection of essays opens with the observation that the Copernican revolution looks insignificant when compared to the discoveries made about the earth and the universe in the last century: we now know, for example, that the universe is billions (not thousands) of light-years big; that it is expanding, not static; that our galaxy is just one of many, not the entirety of the universe. But from looking at modern theology, you wouldn't think anything had changed. The contributors (who include physicists, philosophers, historians of science, and theologians) suggest that cosmological advances might reshape the very fundamentals of theology. Paul C.W. Davies argues that if the universe turns out to be biofriendly (i.e., if given enough time and the right conditions, life will emerge as a matter of course), scientifically savvy thinkers may be compelled to reject atheism and embrace intelligent design theory. The contributors are especially interested in extraterrestrial life: philosopher Ernan McMullin, for example, argues that extraterrestrial intelligence will force Christians to do some hard thinking about original sin, the human soul, and the Incarnation. See article.

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