Monday, January 31, 2005

The Impact Debate, Spaceball and the Zeerocks

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 – Astronomy is a science of extremes — the biggest, the hottest and the most massive. Late last week, an astrophysicist and his colleagues announced that they have linked two of astronomy's extremes, showing that some of the biggest stars in the cosmos become the strongest magnets when they die. See article.
g Abodes – The Impact Debate: Experts on asteroids and comets discuss the past, present, and future effects of asteroid and comet impacts, on life and evolution, in this four-part series, which starts at article.
g Life – A new study found that male monkeys will give up their juice rewards in order to ogle pictures of a female monkey's bottom. The way the experiment was set up, the act is akin to paying for the images, researchers say. See article.
g Intelligence – Are you optimistic about humanity’s future? You ought to be, because optimists get the last laugh. A new study shows their hearts stay healthy longer than those of grumps. People who described themselves as highly optimistic a decade ago had lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and lower overall death rates than strong pessimists, the research found. See article.
g Message – Want to get a sense of SETI’s history and varying projects? Jodrell Bank Observatory offers an easy to follow yet informative primer.
g Cosmicus – After a year on Mars, our rovers have been covered with dust. Now scientists believe one cannot understand today's changes on Mars — its weather, temperature or water — without also accounting for dust. See
g Learning – Discover the universe, its components and origins — play “Spaceball.” Here’s a Web site structured as if a championship baseball game is being played between a celestial object and a spacecraft. Besides being fun, it helps children explore our solar system and the people and spacecraft that made our adventures in and knowledge of space possible. See article.
g Imagining – A few days ago, I noted a neat science fiction alien reading list from Prof. Joan Slonczewski, who taught “Biology 103: Biology in Science Fiction” at Kenyon College in 2003. Her students, using astrobiological principles, attempted to create a number of plausible alien civilizations and worlds as a class project. Here’s another one, a microbial organism from the planet Zeerocks, which infects photo copiers and cause them to break down!
g Aftermath – Some of the best discussion of the consequences of alien contact occurs in science fiction. Here’s a novel that ranks among the most important in that dialogue: Arthur C. Clark’s “Songs of a Distant Earth.” Look for it at your library or local used book store.

Get your SF book or manuscript edited

Sunday, January 30, 2005

How Pluto got its moon and Contact, Inc.

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 – Pluto might have been hit long ago by a virtual twin in a collision that created the ninth planet's moon Charon, according to a new computer simulation. The scenario is similar to the leading theory for the creation of Earth's Moon, another cosmic crack-up that involved a Mars-sized object slamming into our own planet. See article.
g Abodes – Carbon dioxide and oxygen — not methane — were prevalent in the Earth's atmosphere more than 1.8 billion years ago, according to scientists at the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center. See article. Note: This article is from 2003 (Geochemistry just doesn’t generate the daily news output of the space sciences!).
g Life – A team of researchers has solved the riddle of one of the plant kingdom's fastest and most ferocious movements: the blink-of-an-eye closing of the Venus flytrap. See article.
g Intelligence – When an informant tells you that six people he knows are planning on detonating a dirty bomb in Boston, should you believe him? That is no hypothetical question — which is why psychologists who study lie detection are getting more calls from the government than they used to. See article.
g Message – What if we examined how to communicate with extraterrestrials from a telecommunication engineer’s point of view? That’s the approach of Brian McConnell’s book, “Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations.” Though the book has been out a few years now, it’s still worth a read if you haven’t already delved into it. For more about the book and an interview with McConnell, see article.
g Cosmicus – NASA has chosen four teams to develop a suite of advanced technologies slated for space flight validation on the New Millennium Programs Space Technology 8 Mission. See article. In addition, NASA has chosen to fund a new spacecraft, called the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, to study the edge of the Solar System, where the solar wind from the Sun interacts with interstellar particles. IBEX will launch in 2008, and take a highly elliptical orbit that keeps it away from the influence of the Earth's magnetosphere. It's equipped with two neutral atom imagers designed to spot interstellar particles as they interact with the outgoing solar wind. IBEX will also study galactic cosmic rays that pose a radiation risk to space explorers. See article.
g Learning – Here’s something the kids will like (Heck, us adults will like it, too!): Take a simulated journey from deep space into micro space with a powers of ten demo.
g Imagining – A complaint lodged again and again against science fiction aliens is that they look too much like us. Is that complaint valid? Is it so unlikely that extraterrestrials would look at least similar (though not identical) to humans? If so, then what would beings, intelligent or not so intelligent, who evolved on another world look like? That's what Cliff Pickover explores in The Science of Aliens. Though the book is a few years old, it’s still worth reading. Here’s a review of it and an interview with the author.
g Aftermath – Here’s a hidden gem about alien contact: the science fiction story “Contact, Incorporated,” about a private company that Earth’s government hires to make first contact with extraterrestrials. It’s from 1950 and appears in the seminal classic, “The Classic Book of Science Fiction,” edited by Groff Conklin (your library ought to have this volume). Despite being more than a half-century old, it remains an intriguing examination of how to communicate with aliens.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Great Dying, Big Ear and Aliens of the Deep

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 – Although mass ranks as the most important property of stars, it has proved very hard to measure for the lowest mass objects in the universe. Thanks to a powerful new camera, a very rare, low mass companion has finally been photographed. See article.
g Abodes – Most scientists are convinced that what killed the dinosaurs, and the majority of their biological brethren 65 million years ago, was a rock from space. But there was an even larger wipe out nearly 200 million years earlier — the Permian extinction. Some researchers believe that a stone from the sky caused this, too. But now two teams of scientists are suggesting another cause: global warming. This Sunday’s installment of SETI’s “Are We Alone?” broadcast talks to researchers of extinction distinction about "The Great Dying," the biggest catastrophe life on Earth has ever experienced. Peter Ward, paleontologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Luann Becker, geochemist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Click here for station listings and times.
g Life – A genetically unusual population of ants is changing some of the fundamental ways researchers think about insect colonies. See article.
g Intelligence – Harvard Medical School researchers have applied a new microscopy technique in a living animal brain that for the first time reveals highly sophisticated time-lapse images of many neurons coordinating to produce complex patterns of activity. The approach will open up new avenues for analyzing neurodegenerative diseases and other aspects of the brain. See article.
g Message – In late 1997, after almost 40 years of operation, the Ohio State University Radio Observatory and its "Big Ear" radio telescope — which picked up the famous “Wow!” signal — ceased operation. The land on which the observatory was sitting (owned by the Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio) was sold in 1983 to land developers who later claimed their rights to develop the property. The telescope was destroyed in early 1998. Here's a Web page memorial to Big Ear.
g Cosmicus – Like Earth and Venus, the night side of Mars emits a subtle glow. In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine, Jean-Loup Bertaux, principal investigator for the Mars Express SPICAM instrument, explains what lights up the Martian evening sky, and why our understanding of that process could aid future missions to Mars. See Sector 001, that reviews the appearance of dozens of Star Trek aliens. It also includes some speculations about each one, particularly why so many are humanoid.

g Learning – Looking for a way this weekend to keep the kids entertained yet prepare them for our future? Then find this movie at the nearest IMAX theater — “Aliens of the Deep.” In the film, director James Cameron plunges into the depths of the sea for a 3-D documentary of the exotic life on the ocean floor and the potential for even more extreme creatures on other worlds. See article.
g Aftermath – Scientists and governments are vigorously searching for signs of life in the universe. Will their efforts meet with success? Award-winning author Paul Davies, an eminent scientist who writes like a science fiction novelist, explores the ramifications of that success in his fascinating book, “Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life.” "The discovery of a single extraterrestrial microbe," he writes, "would drastically alter our world view and change our society as profoundly as the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. It could truly be described as the greatest scientific discovery of all time." Though a decade old, the book still is a great read. For more about it, see article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Friday, January 28, 2005

Sedna’s origins, primeval woods and artificial intelligence

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 – Initial studies of the planetoid Sedna's origin speculated that it might have been ejected from the giant planets region of our solar system far inside the orbit of Pluto, or perhaps was captured from a passing star's Kuiper Belt. In a report in this month’s The Astronomical Journal, a planetary scientist proposes how Sedna could have formed far beyond the distance of Pluto. See article.
g Abodes – Ancient woodlands in Europe may have been remarkably similar to the dense, dark forests of ancient folklore according to a paper published today in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Ecology. See article.
g Life – Microbes living in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park use primarily hydrogen for fuel, a discovery researchers say bodes well for life in extreme environments on other planets and could add to understanding of bacteria inside the human body. See article.
g Intelligence – Scientists have unearthed skeletal fossils of a human ancestor believed to have lived about 4.5 million years ago. From the Gona Study Area in northern Ethiopia, the fossils will help scientists piece together the mysterious transformation of primitive chimp-like hominids into more human forms. See article, which discusses the Radio Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, The Arecibo Search for Early Hydrogen and Optical SETI.
g Cosmicus – Experiments on moss grown aboard two space shuttle Columbia missions showed that the plants didn't behave as scientists expected them to in the near-absence of gravity. See article.
g Learning – A victory for our children today in Kansas: A committee rewriting the state's science education standards rebuffed efforts to expose students to stronger criticisms of evolution. The committee, appointed by the state board, is revising the Kansas' standards for science education, which currently describe evolution as a key concept students should learn. See article.
g Imagining – A few days ago, I noted a neat science fiction alien reading list from Prof. Joan Slonczewski, who taught “Biology 103: Biology in Science Fiction” at Kenyon College in 2003. Her students, using astrobiological principles, attempted to create a number of plausible alien civilizations and worlds as a class project. Here’s another one, about a form of “life” that many scientists think we’ll more apt to meet in the cosmos than extraterrestrials: artificial intelligence. See article.
g Aftermath – Will we ever find a primer for decoding messages from extraterrestrials? Last month, anthropologists who gathered for a major conference in Atlanta heard some news that will be sobering for SETI enthusiasts: it may be much more difficult to understand extraterrestrials than many scientists have thought before. See article.

Get your SF book or manuscript edited

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The case of the missing disks and spray-on space suits

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 announced that they have a lead in the case of the missing disks. Presented during a report earlier this month at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego, this lead may account for the missing evidence of red dwarfs forming planetary systems. See article.
g Abodes – A broad look at possibilities for climate change suggests Earth could heat up much more significantly than other leading studies have predicted. In fact, the global temperature could rise between 3.6 and 19.8 degrees Fahrenheit, scientist report in today’s issue of the journal Nature. See article. The report follows an announcement Monday that global warming is approaching the critical point of no return, after which widespread drought, crop failure and rising sea levels would be irreversible (see article).
g Life – Experiments at the University of Chicago and Chicago's Field Museum have validated some controversial rocks from Greenland as the potential site for the earliest evidence of life on Earth. See article.
g Intelligence – Instinct has the power to hush reason. But when is it safe to go with your gut? Researchers may remain uncertain about the reliability of intuition, but it is a difficult force to deny. In Psychology Today, social psychologist David G. Meyers explores this mystery in an adaptation from his new book, “Intuition: Its Powers and Perils”.
g Message – How did the SETI program come to be? For a timeline of the program’s history, see article.
g Cosmicus – Future explorers on the Moon and Mars could be outfitted in lightweight, high-tech spacesuits that offer far more flexibility than the bulky suits that were used for spacewalks in the 1960s. Research is under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a “Bio-Suit System” that incorporates a suit designed to augment a person’s biological skin by providing mechanical counter-pressure. The “epidermis” of such a second skin could be applied in spray-on fashion in the form of an organic, biodegradable layer. See article.

g Aftermath – How can we predict reactions to proof of an otherworldly intelligence? Some scientists argue that any unpredictable outcomes can only be judged against our own history. See article.

Read this blogger’s books

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Earth without people, new microgenerator and Ralinius’ ecosystem

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 – Clear evidence in a Chinese meteorite for the past presence of chlorine-36, a short-lived radioactive isotope, lends further support to the controversial concept that a nearby supernova blast was involved in the formation of our solar system, according to a report forthcoming in the Feb. 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. See article.
g Abodes – Given the mounting toll of fouled oceans, overheated air, missing topsoil, and mass extinctions, we might sometimes wonder what our planet would be like if humans suddenly disappeared. Would Superfund sites revert to Gardens of Eden? Would the seas again fill with fish? Would our concrete cities crumble to dust from the force of tree roots, water, and weeds? How long would it take for our traces to vanish? And if we could answer such questions, would we be more in awe of the changes we have wrought, or of nature’s resilience? See
g Life – For the giant Australian cuttlefish, mating is a complicated undertaking complete with fighting, sneaking and deception. In this week's issue of the journal Nature, a Marine Biological Laboratory scientist and his colleagues demonstrate that for this species, deception while mating pays off. See
g Intelligence – Intellectual capacity in early adulthood is strongly related to subsequent risk of suicide in men, finds a study in this week's British Medical Journal. Few previous studies have assessed the association of measures of intelligence with suicide, and results have often conflicted. See
g Message – Just exactly how does SETI work? See primer
g Cosmicus – It may be tiny, but a new microgenerator developed at Georgia Tech can now produce enough power to run a small electronic device, like a cell phone, and may soon be able to power a laptop. What effect might this have on space exploration? See
g Learning – Once again, the creationists are threatening the science
education standards of our public schools. For 2 ½ years, Cobb County, Ga., has had a disclaimer inserted in their biology textbooks stating that evolution is just a theory and should be treated as such. In Dover, Penn., the school board wants science teachers to talk about an “alternative” theory of creation called Intelligent Design. See this excellent op-ed, which appeared in yesterday’s Quad City (Iowa) Times.
g Imagining – A few days ago, I noted a neat science fiction alien reading list from Prof. Joan Slonczewski, who taught “Biology 103: Biology in Science Fiction” at Kenyon College in 2003. Her students, using astrobiological principles, attempted to create a number of plausible alien civilizations and worlds as a class project. Here’s another one, about the life in the ecosystem of planet Ralinius
g Aftermath – Here’s an interesting book for some astrobiological reading: “After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life” by Albert A. Harrison. See

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Clockwork orange planet, chicken’s missing link and how to build an alien

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 – Clockwork orange planet: As the Mars rovers blow out the candle on their one-year anniversary, they continue to make new discoveries on the Red Planet. How long they'll keep running is an open question, but NASA has several programs in the works for an encore. See article.
g Life – Chicken’s missing link: Newly published North Carolina State University research into the evolution of birds shows the first definitive fossil proof linking close relatives of living birds to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. See article.
g Intelligence – The importance of stars to our psyches: Though many prefer the big city's bright lights, those of us in Midwest who actually can see the night sky know we've got something that those bathed in the neon glow are missing. We realize that without the stars, we lose a little of our humanity. See my column on the importance of stars.
g Message – SETI research isn’t limited to a single facility listening to radio signals. A significant dimension of the program is SERENDIP, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations. To learn more about it, see article.
g Cosmicus – Shanghai plans to build a "space city" to assist China's ambitious astronaut program, which includes a space walk within the next few years. The country's largest city will invest more than $120 million in the research facility, the China News Service reported. See article.
g Learning – Some good news: After a 1998 high, the number of science and engineering doctorates awarded by U.S. institutions has been declining, but according to new data from the National Science Foundation, the 25,258 S&E doctorates awarded during the 2002-2003 academic year represent a 2.8 percent upward tick. Now the bad news: Despite that increase, the number of S&E doctorates awarded remains 7.4 percent below the 1998 peak. See article.

g Imagining – Many science fiction story lines involve alien life forms. From a literary prospective, aliens often serve as metaphors for something more familiar. From a practical prospective, they make stories more interesting and TV more eye-catching. But what of scientific accuracy? A professor offers his advice about “How to Build an Alien”.
g Aftermath – What would be the affect on humanity following contact with alien life? Portions of a Brookings Institute report offer some insights. Click here for either the entire report or the relevant excerpts.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Monday, January 24, 2005

Black hole born and mass extinction

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 NASA-led Swift mission has detected and imaged its first gamma-ray burst, likely the birth cry of a brand new black hole. "This is the first time an X-ray telescope has imaged a gamma-ray burst, while it was bursting," the lead scientist says. See article.
g Abodes – For the last three years evidence has been building that the impact of a comet or asteroid triggered the biggest mass extinction in Earth history, but new research from a team headed by a University of Washington scientist disputes that notion. See article.
g Life – Another important piece to the photosynthesis puzzle is now in place. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley have identified one of the key molecules that help protect plants from oxidation damage as the result of absorbing too much light. See article.
g Intelligence – Just two minutes of magnetic stimulation can alter the brain for an hour, according to a University of College London study in the Jan. 20 issue of Neuron. The UCL team has been studying methods to improve a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. They're currently exploring the use of their adapted version of TMS as a possible treatment for Parkinson's disease or stroke. See article.
g Message – SETI research isn’t limited to a single facility listening to radio signals. Another dimension of the program is The Mega-Channel Extraterrestrial Assay, which searched the Southern Hemisphere's skies briefly during the 1990s. To learn more about it, see article.
g Cosmicus – If there is life on Mars, our robotic probes may have brought it there. In 1976, NASA sent two Viking landers to the red planet. They set down on the surface and searched the soil for signs of life. The results were inconclusive. But, what if the spacecraft and others like them brought tiny forms of Earth life to Mars? Could it have survived there? If so, what does this mean for the future exploration of Mars? See article. Note: This article is from 2001.
g Learning – Here’s a neat Web site to introduce kids who go ga-ga over movie aliens to the science of astrobiology.

g Aftermath – What do modern explorations reveal about alien life and the role that humans play in the story of the cosmos? Join internationally recognized planetary scientist David Grinspoon for his lively discussion of recent findings in astrobiology. WBGH recorded the discussion earlier this month in Boston. See audio or video feed.

Get your SF book or manuscript edited

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Egg-shaped Regulus, SpaceX and Hollywood 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 – For decades, scientists have observed that Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, spins much faster than the Sun. But thanks to a powerful new telescopic array, astronomers now know with unprecedented clarity the terrible distortions that occur to this massive celestial body that revolves once on its axis in just 15.9 hours. See article.
g Abodes – Since the remarkable landing of the Huygens probe on the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, planetary scientists have wondered anew about the discovery prospects in our own solar system. As part of the Cassini Imaging team studying the atmosphere on Saturn, NASA's Anthony Del Genio explained to Astrobiology Magazine his interests in the giant ringed world and its strange moons. See Part I and Part II.
g Life –
Be sure to pick up the latest issue of Discover magazine, whose cover story examines a digital experiment that mimics, and adds to the volumes of existing proof of, evolution. If not near a magazine rack, then click here.
g Intelligence – Human complexity and diversity may spring from a surprisingly few number of genes, relatively speaking. RNA editing, the process by which cells use their genetic code to manufacture proteins, can greatly increase the number of gene products generated from a single gene. See article.
g Message – SETI research isn’t limited to a single facility listening to radio signals. Another dimension of the program is “Optical SETI,” consisting of two efforts based at Berkeley and two at Harvard. To learn more about it, see article.
g Cosmicus – Elon Musk conceived SpaceX to offer low-cost access to space, give a boost to what he calls a "stagnate" industry that has failed to evolve since Apollo and build toward the goal of launching human space voyages. See article.
g Learning – After many years of reading about the universal dictionary (Robert Heinlein), the city fathers (James Blish), the house records (Frank Herbert), and the hitchhiker's guide (Douglas Adams), to name just a few, Google has finally decided to put all there is of human knowledge online. All right, not quite all of it. But Google is working with the University of Michigan, Harvard and several other libraries to put millions (that's millions!) of books — scanned, spidered and ready to read — online. See article.

g Imagining – Hollywood loves movies about extraterrestrials, but most silver screen aliens — from E.T. to Star Wars — are remarkably anthropomorphic. Scientists say the real aliens may be far stranger than we think. But intelligent life elsewhere in the universe almost certainly won't resemble Tinseltown's take. An episode of SETI’s “Are We Alone?” radio series recently discussed the matter with guest Phil Plait, an astronomer and author of Bad Astronomy. For an archive of the broadcast and go to “Hollywood Aliens: What’s Right and What’s Wrong.”
g Aftermath – Here’s a fascinating idea: A group of serious scientists, writers, military leaders and others discussing how to establish a constructive dialogue between humanity and ETI, once contact is made. See article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Star factory and the Zlerin

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 – Using NASA's orbiting Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, a team of astronomers from Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere has taken an unprecedented peek at a star factory and come away with observations that may lead to enhanced knowledge of how interstellar dust absorbs and scatters ultraviolet starlight. Understanding interstellar dust is important — after all, it is the stuff out of which planets, stars and even people are made. See article.
g Abodes – For scientists tempted to imagine a sensory experience on Titan shaped by carbon instead of terrestrial oxygen, the sights, sounds and smells on such an alien world appear to resemble just enough of Earth's geology and weather. Methane rain and ice-spewing volcanoes are just two of the surprises that await the Titan tourist. See article.
g Intelligence – Men and women do think differently, at least where the anatomy of the brain is concerned, according to a new study. The brain is made primarily of two different types of tissue, called gray matter and white matter. New research reveals that men think more with their gray matter while women think more with white. Researchers stressed that just because the two sexes think differently, this does not affect intellectual performance. See article.
g Message – Veteran "Wow!" signal hunter Robert Gray's turned south this time in his efforts to track down the elusive signal. In collaboration with the University of Tasmania, Gray used the 26-meter dish in Hobart, Tasmania, to record radio signals from the "Wow!" location for long hours at a time. See article. Note: This article is from 2002.
g Learning – Evolution is fact, not “religion” or “theory” as understood in the vernacular sense of the word. Unfortunately, when obstructing science education in our schools, “intelligent” designers and creationists like to falsely claim that no evidence exists to show evolution is fact. For a variety of excellent papers outlining the case for evolution, see list.
g Imagining – A couple of days ago, I noted a neat science fiction alien reading list from Prof. Joan Slonczewski, who taught “Biology 103: Biology in Science Fiction” at Kenyon College in 2003. Her students, using astrobiological principles, attempted to create a number of plausible alien civilizations and worlds as a class project. Here’s one of them, on the Zlerin.
g Aftermath – According to astronomer Allen Tough, even before a signal is detected, six positive consequences will result from the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence, usually called SETI. (1) Humanity's self-image. SETI has enlarged our view of ourselves and enhanced our sense of meaning. Increasingly, we feel a kinship with the civilizations whose signals we are trying to detect. (2) A fresh perspective. SETI forces us to think about how extraterrestrials might perceive us. This gives us a fresh perspective on our society's values, priorities, laws, and foibles. (3) Questions. SETI is stimulating thought and discussion about several fundamental questions. (4) Education. Some broad-gauge educational programs have already been centered around SETI. (5) Tangible spin-offs. In addition to providing jobs for some people, SETI provides various spin-offs, such as search methods, computer software, data, and international scientific cooperation. (6) Future scenarios. SETI will increasingly stimulate us to think carefully about possible detection scenarios and their consequences, about our reply, and generally about the role of extraterrestrial communication in our long-term future. Such thinking leads, in turn, to fresh perspectives on the SETI enterprise itself. For the full paper, see article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Friday, January 21, 2005

Ancient deathblow and carbon-based life forms

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 – Although mass is the most important property of stars, it has proved very hard to measure for the lowest mass objects in the universe. Thanks to a powerful new camera, a very rare, low mass companion has finally been photographed. The discovery suggests that, due to errors in the models, astronomers have overestimated the number of young "brown dwarfs" and "free floating" extrasolar planets. See article.
g Abodes – A catastrophe 250 million years ago nearly extinguished life on Earth. Did the deathblow come from space, or did the Earth turn from hospitable to poisonous on its own accord? See article.
g Intelligence – Relative to their size, humans have the biggest brains on the planet. Check out the guy sitting next to you on the bus: hunkered beneath a fringe of moussed hair and a few millimeters of skull are three crinkly pounds of brain — the only substantive difference between us and those species we regard as food or pets. But how did this happen? What special circumstance, what unperceived evolutionary force, nudged our hulking, hairy ancestors toward intelligence, and silently trebled the size of their brains in 2 million years or less? This question is seductive not only because it tells us something exquisitely interesting about ourselves, but also because the answer could give us insight into whether other intelligent beings really exist. See article. Note: This article is from 2002.
g Message – An earlier entry noted that New Scientist magazine named the reception of mysterious signals from 1000 light years away as the top science story of the year. Alas, SETI scientists say the story is misleading. See article.
g Cosmicus – More than 20 meteorites from Mars have been discovered in Antarctica, so why shouldn't it be possible to find other chunks of our solar system sitting somewhere on the Red Planet, too? But the Martian surprise of finding an off-world sample while driving has scientists inching towards a closer look. See article.
g Learning – Though so much of our world’s economic activity today involves air travel (and one day hopefully space travel!), most people know surprisingly little about aeronautics. Here’s a Web site to help correct that among our children by offering a variety of activities, experiments and lesson plans to explain some of aeronautics’ basic principles. See article.
g Imagining – Will Star Trek’s carbon-based life forms be the norm for alien chemistry? See article. Note: This article is from 2004.

g Aftermath – Here’s a follow-up to yesterday’s Aftermath feature about how SETI is using the social sciences to decipher our thoughts on alien life. See article.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Thursday, January 20, 2005

King of Spin, radiation on Mars and Little Green Men

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 – New ultraviolet observations indicate a Milky Way star, dubbed the “King of Spin,” is spinning nearly 200 times faster than Earth's sun, the probable result of a merger between two sun-like stars whose binary orbit recently collapsed, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder astronomer. See article.
g Abodes – University of Hawaii astronomer Toby Owens spoke with Astrobiology Magazine shortly after the successful Huygens mission had completed. In this part of the interview, Owens talks about the significance of methane in Titan's atmosphere. See article.
g Intelligence – Paleontologists working in Ethiopia have discovered the remains of at least nine primitive human ancestors that are up to 4.5 million years old. The specimens belong to a hominid species called Ardipithicus ramidus, a transitional creature with significant ape characteristics. See article.
g Cosmicus – NASA has selected an instrument that will characterize the radiation at the surface of Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory, part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, will explore the viability of the surface of the red planet as a potential habitat for past or present life and for our astronauts who one day will visit. See article.
g Learning — Evolution for educators: Visit “Understanding Evolution,” a site Berkeley University’s launched in February to meet the needs of K-12 teachers. The site provides an informal on-line course covering essential science content, as well as a searchable database of resources for the classroom. See course.
g Imagining – Not so long ago, putative extraterrestrials were the color of moss. Generic space aliens were inevitably described as “Little Green Men,” probably because an avocado complexion is dramatically unlike any human skin tint. Green was alien, in other words. Today, scientists dismiss that sci fi idea. So what’s their case against “little green men”? See article.
g Aftermath – Here’s an intriguing article: How SETI is using the social sciences to decipher our thoughts on alien life. See article. Note: This article is from 2002.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Infant stars, Project Argus and recommended ET reading

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 – Hubble astronomers have uncovered a population of infant stars in the Milky Way satellite galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud (visible to the naked eye in the southern constellation Tucana), located 210,000 light-years away. Such stars day one could bear planets that support alien life. See article.
g Abodes – The percentage of Earth's land area stricken by serious drought more than doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s, according to a new analysis by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Rising global temperatures appear to be a major factor, says the study’s lead author. Understanding the affect technological civilizations have on their environments will affect the number of years they are capable of communication across space. See article.
g Life – Centuries of warfare have seen body armor develop from cowhides to Kevlar. Now scientists are using lab experiments and mathematics to discover a stronger bulletproof solution in the beautiful, helmet homes that seaweed-eating abalones make for themselves. See article.
g Intelligence – The next time you're at a party with the love of your life, don't spend a lot of time trying to identify other couples in love — chances are, you aren't very good at it. Golfers may be able to identify a sweet swing, and runners admire a lengthy stride in others, but a new study has found that when it comes to identifying couples in love, no one is worse than — well, couples in love. See article.
g Message – Project Argus, The SETI League's key technical initiative, has been called the most ambitious microwave SETI project ever undertaken without government equipment or funding. When fully operational, it will provide, for the first time ever, continuous monitoring of the entire sky, in all directions in real time. See article.
g Cosmicus – University of Hawaii astronomer Toby Owens is one of the original planners of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan. Owens talks about the history of the mission and the reasons scientists were interested in exploring Titan here.
g Imagining – Why weren’t there classes like this when I was in school? Last year, Prof. Joan Slonczewski at “Biology 103: Biology in Science Fiction” at Kenyon College. Here’s her book reading list. It’s all great reading, whether you’re in the class or not. Of course, if Slonczewski taught in Dover, Pa., her class would first have to be read the statement, “The theory that human authors wrote this book is not a fact and continues to be tested. Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of these books that differs from publishers’ views."
g Aftermath – There’s a neat transcription of a video conference interview with Dr. Frank Drake (whose famous equation this site is organized after), conducted by the class members of Penn State’s "Space Colonization” class. Drake touches on a variety of SETI topics, including the philosophical implication of extraterrestrial contact. Note: The interview took place in January 2001.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Black hole swarm, the Golden Rule and Zoom Dinosaurs

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 – For decades, astronomers have sought to pin down a source for ultra high-energy cosmic rays. The distant sources must be among the more powerful events in the universe, perhaps the creation of black holes or the mergers of galaxies. It appears the first source has been located, a finding that would be considered a major breakthrough in the field. If proved out, it represents the first time scientists have studied a known object from beyond our galaxy by examining actual material (stuff like what you and everything else is made of) instead of electromagnetic radiation (radio waves, visible light, X-rays and so on). See article.
g Abodes – In this excerpt from the new forward to the paperback edition of “Lonely Planets,” planetary scientist David Grinspoon discusses the exciting discoveries unveiled by the twin rovers on Mars. See article. And if you haven’t read “Lonely Planets,” yet, by all means do.
g Life – New research suggests that depending on how deep swordfish and other predatory fish are, and how much light is available, their eyes operate at different temperatures and shutter speeds, allowing them to better track agile prey. See article.
g Intelligence – New research shows the Golden Rule acts as human society’s glue. See article.

g Message – A picture is worth a thousand words, especially if you're trying to get your point across to someone who doesn't speak your language. At least that has been the assumption of many proposals for communicating with extraterrestrials; in a recent image beamed into outer space, the world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, images of a human being, the double helix of DNA and our solar system were included. But would pictures necessarily be understood at interstellar distances? See article. Note: This article is from 2000.
g Cosmicus – For the second time in less than two months, Intelsat's global fleet of communications spacecraft has suffered a satellite malfunction. This latest incident occurred Friday evening and knocked out the Lockheed Martin-built Intelsat 804 craft. See article.

g Learning – Here’s a great site for children interested in dinosaurs: Zoom Dinosaurs. It’s a comprehensive on-line hypertext book about dinosaurs. It is designed for students of all ages and levels of comprehension. It has an easy-to-use structure that allows readers to start at a basic level on each topic; to progress to much more advanced information as desired, simply by clicking on links. See article.
g Imagining – Here’s an interesting tip sheet from the Science Fiction Writers of America about how to create believable aliens via scientific laws.
g Aftermath – If some day we detect a radio signal from a distant civilization, we’ll have to make some adjustments in the way we view ourselves. After millennia of knowing of no other intelligence in the universe than humankind, we could face a considerable challenge to our terrestrial egotism. In the process, will we simply gain a little healthy humility about our place in the universe? Or would it be downright humiliating to compare our own meager accomplishments with those of more advanced extraterrestrials? See article. Note: This article is from 2000.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Monday, January 17, 2005

Designer ecosystems, hibernation and the Oankali

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 have numerous technical terms and numbering systems for describing the universe, but one type of mysterious object has yet to be classified. For now, these oddities are named for their strange appearance. They are called blobs. See article.
g Abodes – If ecosystem and city seem like oxymorons, just go to Phoenix, Ariz., and look at all the lakes and canals, the year-round greenery, the multitude of birds, or listen to the coyotes howling at night. A cutting-edge seven-year study by more than 50 scientists from different fields has concluded that the profusion of bugs, birds and larger creatures roaming this one-time desert outpost represent a unique realm of nature. It is designed and built by humans but surprisingly green and prolifically populated by creatures that wouldn't last a week outside its confines. It is, the scientists say, a designer ecosystem. See article.
g Life – If you wish you could hibernate for the winter instead of facing minus-20 wind chills every day, blame our distant ancestors. Really distant. According to new research, our reptilian forebears, like reptiles today, would have been able to experience large fluctuations in their body temperatures, a key trait for a hibernating species. As humans evolved, however, we were selected for the ability to maintain our temperatures. See article.
g Intelligence – Scientists in Iceland have uncovered a genetic variation whose female carriers tend to have more children, a discovery that shows Charles Darwin's concept of natural selection at work in modern humans. See article.
g Message – In 1961 astronomer Frank Drake wrote the equation that put the search for alien civilizations on a scientific footing and launched the modern SETI movement. How do the equation's numbers look today? See this online article adapted from the December 1998 Sky & Telescope (It was updated and expanded by Sky and Telescope in May 1999.).
g Cosmicus – Just a year ago, the Vision for Space Exploration re-energized the nation's space program and charted long-term plans for sending humans and robot probes exploring beyond Earth orbit and into the Solar System. Interested in helping see that vision become a reality? Then consider joining the Coalition for Space Exploration. See article.
g Learning – Evolutionary change is a powerful framework for studying our world and our place therein. It is a recurring theme in every realm of science: over time, the universe, the planet Earth, life and human technologies all change, albeit on vastly different scales. This story is the basis of the new Voyages Through Time classroom materials. The SETI Institute, the California Academy of Sciences, NASA Ames Research Center and San Francisco State University have developed standards-based curriculum materials for a one-year high school integrated science course centered on the unifying theme of evolution and delivered on CD-ROM. Click here for more.

g Imagining – Could the Oankali of Octavia E. Butler’s “Xenogenesis” trilogy really use human genes to continue their species? For a biologist’s analysis, click here. The answers may surprise you.
g Aftermath – Visitors from other worlds – should any appear – would be enormously ahead of us from a technological viewpoint. The same is true for any aliens we might tune in with our SETI experiments. See article. Note: This article is a couple of years old.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Stellar graveyard and extraterrestrial machine intelligence

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 announced the first results of a search for extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs in an unlikely place — a stellar graveyard. A team found two candidate planets in its survey of 20 dead stars, white dwarfs at distances between 24 and 220 light-years. The research is part of an intense race to take the first "photograph" of an extrasolar planet. See article.
g Life – Findings reported last week reveal how an evolutionary innovation involving the sharing of genes between two ant species has given rise to a deep-seated dependency between them for the survival of both species populations. The new work illustrates how genetic exchange through interbreeding between two species can give rise to a system of interdependence at a high level of biological organization — in this case, the production of worker ants for both species. See article.
g Intelligence – Any extraterrestrial intelligence we detect likely will be machine intelligence, not biological like us, some scientists say. See article. Note: This story is from 2000.
g Message – How will we decode any message from ET? For some speculation and a discussion of the inherent difficulties, see article; part II follows at here. Note: This story is from 2001.
g Cosmicus – A pair of physicists have successfully managed to levitate micron-sized fluids using magnets, which could lead to new advances in medicine, chemistry, chemical engineering and other related fields. What will the effect on space exploration? For starters, imagine an entire chemistry laboratory reduced to the size of a postage stamp. See article.
g Learning – TERC and NASA are developing an interdisciplinary year-long course for middle and high school students using astrobiology as its unifying, underlying structure. Through a series of inquiry-based activities centered on the search for life on other planets, students can explore diverse concepts in chemistry, biology, physics, Earth and space science and engineering. Astrobiology provides students opportunities to master fundamental science concepts in a relevant context and apply their skill and understanding directly in a variety of investigative modes. See article.
g Imagining – Would the universe be populated by aggressive intelligent species, such as science fiction’s Alien and Predator? SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak offers some thoughts.

g Aftermath – Scientists such as the SETI Institute’s John Billingham and Jill Tarter have taken the lead in planning for the day we might receive a signal from life beyond Earth. Working with diplomats and space lawyers, they have helped develop protocols that guide the activities of SETI scientists who think they may have detected extraterrestrial intelligence. See article. Note: This story is from 2003.

Get your SF book manuscript edited

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Triple alpha reaction, Titan landing and the Kaylar

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 – All the carbon in the universe, including that needed for carbon-based life forms such as us, has been made in the hearts of stars through what is known as the “triple alpha reaction.” See article.
g Abodes – With the latest Titan images showing channels and fluid-like branching, scientists have begun the debate anew whether fluid might have shaped the Earth-like moon. Imaging science team leader for Cassini, Carolyn Porco, describes the initial surprise and excitement of seeing Titan up close. See article. Titan is of particular interest to astrobiologists. Because titan is the only known moon in the Solar System with a thick atmosphere, studying its organic chemistry may help scientists understand the origin of life on our planet. Understanding how life emerges from cosmic and planetary precursors is a primary goal of astrobiology. There’s also a great set of videos and audio feeds here.
g Life – For the first time, scientists have found that bacteria can use a sonar-like system to spot other cells (either normal body cells or other bacteria) and target them for destruction. Reported in Science’s Dec. 24 issue, this finding explains how some bacteria know when to produce a toxin that makes infection more severe. It may lead to the design of new toxin inhibitors. See article.
g Intelligence – To understand how intelligence might develop on alien worlds, we have only one example to study: The evolution of human intelligence on Earth. Since intelligent life took a long time to arrive on Earth, some believe it will take just as long on other worlds. The appearance of evolution seems aimed towards the development of intelligence, but what kinds and with what frequencies? See article. This site also has a neat feature where you can change the variables in the Drake Equation yourself. Note: This article is from 2003.
g Message – A team of American scientists note that recent astrophysical discoveries suggest that we should find ourselves in the midst of one or more extraterrestrial civilizations. Moreover, they argue it is a mistake to reject all UFO reports since some evidence for the theoretically predicted extraterrestrial visitors might just be found there. See article.
g Cosmicus – A new material designed for producing bendable transistors is practically invisible and simple to produce. It could lead to a new class of throwaway electronic devices, its inventors say. What will be the effect on space exploration? See article.
g Learning – There’s a nice beginner’s guide to astronomy at Astrocentral. It also has a section on the search for alien life.

g Imagining – Could the Kaylar (click here and then on “Kaylar on Rigel VII”), a Star Trek alien from “The Original Series’ pilot episode, “The Cage,” exist? Like the Gorn, this alien appears to be drawn from our nightmares and hence serves a more dramatic effect than offering any speculation on exobiology. A tall humanoid with intriguing jaw features, skinny legs and broad shoulders, the Kaylar on Rigel VII is reminiscent of a barbarian warrior or an ogre. Brushing aside the nearly impossible parallel evolution between Earth and the Kaylar’s home world for such a creature to come about, there are a couple of possible ways that it could have gained its great height and skinny legs. Its planet might have lighter gravity, which means an indigent alien wouldn’t fall as hard as we do on Earth; hence the supporting legs would not need to be as strong to hold up a little more weight than the typical human. In addition, we might speculate that as a humanoid, the Kaylar shared a similar primate evolution as humans, so possibly the savannah grass of its continental cradle simply was taller than on the African plain during the past few million years; that would have given taller proto-Kaylar an evolutionary advantage. Still, the Kaylar appears to be an unlikely alien.
g Aftermath – Could religions survive contact with extraterrestrials? The Medieval Church didn't think so, as the discovery would challenge mankind's central role in the cosmos. Today such ideas are considered old fashioned, and many theologians welcome the discovery of life — even intelligent life — among the stars. But if scientists were to find microscopic Martians or a signal from another world, would established religions really take it in stride? For a discussion, check out this past program of SETI’s “Are We Alone?” here. Note: An .mp3 player is required to play the audio files; you can download one at the site for free.

Get your SF book manuscript edited