Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Black hole swallowing a neutron star, magnetotactic microorganisms, New Horizons spacecraft

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 - Scientists using NASA's Swift satellite have found evidence of a black hole swallowing a neutron star. This rare event created a gamma-ray burst that lasted only for a few milliseconds. However, observations of the lingering afterglow provided evidence of what could have been the demise of a neutron star orbiting a black hole. See article.
g Abodes - Earthlings can rest easy. The likelihood of a doomsday scenario in which Earth is destroyed in a freak astrophysical catastrophe is remote - about once in a billion years, according to a new calculation. See article.
g Life - "Magnetotactic" microorganisms use a miniature, cellular compass made of a chain of single nanomagnets, called magnetosomes. The entire bacterium is oriented like a compass needle inside the magnetic field. Until now, it was not clear how the cells organize magnetosomes into a stable chain, against their physical tendency to collapse by magnetic attraction. See article.
g Intelligence - When you forget a face or can't find your car keys, it's not because your brain is out of storage space. You just aren't filtering out other thoughts well enough, a new study finds. See article. For related story, see “Discovery Disproves Simple Concept Of Memory As 'Storage Space'”.
g Message - Book alert: Exobiology (or cosmic biology), the scientific search for life beyond Earth, "resembles a brainstorming session, with many discordant voices," according to “Here Be Dragons : The Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life,” by David Koerner, Simon LeVay, a book mirroring that ferment. Koerner, a planetary scientist, and LeVay, a neuroanatomist, favor the view that technologically advanced civilizations are common in our galaxy and beyond, though many of their colleagues disagree. Their heady tour skips from "extraterrestrial environments" right here on Earth (Antarctica, Death Valley, etc.) where NASA scientists are investigating extreme environments believed to resemble conditions on other planets or moons, through the SETI Institute in California, whose radio telescopes scan the skies for transmitting civilizations, to the Bios Group, a Santa Fe start-up company that uses complexity theory to explore the intrinsic rules underlying the growth of evolving organisms or human institutions. Koerner has used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the birth of planets, and the book presents the latest evidence that planetary systems do indeed swirl around many stars besides our sun. Their open-mindedness within the establishment field of exobiology, an area that is now the "recipient of huge government resources," is manifest as they contemplate multiverse models of coexisting universes or attend a NASA workshop where astronomers, engineers and futurists discuss antimatter propulsion and laser-powered craft. Koerner and LeVay have a gift for helping the uninitiated over technical terrain, aided by clear writing, intuitive examples, color photos and drawings. See article.
g Cosmicus - NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is nearing a liftoff into the unknown. This first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt—a distant district of ancient, icy, rocky objects on the solar system’s outer banks—is assured to transmit back to Earth numbers of revelations. See article. For related story, see “New Discoveries Await Out on the Horizon”.
g Learning - Here’s a neat Web site, courtesy of NASA: “Smart Skies.” For grades 5-9, in these activities students use hands-on math to avoid air traffic conflicts. See article.
g Imagining - Here’s a cool Web site: The Exorarium. At the Exorarium, visitors get a chance to mix and match the same ingredients that brought about human life, shaping their own unique intelligent life forms. For example, you might start with a hot or cool star, a heavy or light planet, one with lots of water or a desert world, and so on – until a unique ecosystem takes shape before your eyes … a family tree leading to the ultimate outcome, a species of intelligent life. See article.
g Aftermath - If, as “The X-Files'” Fox Mulder might say, "The truth is out there," then the researchers running the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program are likely to be the first ones to find it. On the other hand, there are numerous people who believe they've already been in contact with aliens. National Geographic's video ”Phantom Quest: The Search for Extraterrestrials” studies the claims of both groups, ultimately seeking to reveal precisely what an encounter with beings from another planet could mean for humanity. See article.

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