Monday, January 16, 2006

Methane’s rise, feel for flying and killer electrons

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 have found new evidence that black holes are performing the disappearing acts for which they are known. A team from MIT and Harvard has found that a certain type of X-ray explosion common on neutron stars is never seen around their black hole cousins, as if the gas that fuels these explosions has vanished into a void. See article.
g Abodes - The first survey in 1971 on the possibility of inadvertent human modification of climate stated that "Methane has no direct effects on the climate or the biosphere [and] it is considered to be of no importance." The gas did not even appear in the index of the major climatology book of the time. Yet in the 2001 IPCC report, large parts of multiple chapters are dedicated to examining the sources, sinks, chemistry, history and potential future of this humble molecule. New papers are published every month relating paleo-climate changes to methane variability and discussing the possibility of significantly reducing future anthropogenic climate change by aggressively managing methane emissions. New hypotheses such as the "clathrate gun hypothesis" place methane variability at the center of the debate on rapid climate change. What has fueled the rapid rise of methane from an obscure trace gas to a major factor in past, present and future climate change? As is usual in science, it is the conflation of multiple lines of evidence, that only when taken together do the connections and possible feedbacks seem obvious. See article.
g Life - Bats have an "ear" for flying in the dark because of a remarkable auditory talent that allows them to determine their physical environment by listening to echoes. But an Ohio University neurobiology professor says bats have a "feel" for it, too. John Zook's studies of bat flight suggest that touch-sensitive receptors on bats' wings help them maintain altitude and catch insects in midair. His preliminary findings revive part of a long-forgotten theory that bats use their sense of touch for nighttime navigation and hunting. See article.
g Intelligence - A team of British researchers announced that many young girls mutilate and torture their Barbie dolls. According to University of Bath researcher Agnes Nairn, “the girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity….The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking, and even microwaving.” The reason, Nairn said, was that girls saw Barbie as childish, an inanimate object instead of a treasured toy. See article.
g Message - Book alert: As many earthlings already know - including more than 2 million computer users with firsthand experience - our best hope for finding extraterrestrial intelligence might just lie with an ingenious little screensaver. So it's not surprising that “Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations (by Brian S. McConnell), an introduction to searching for and communicating with intelligent life, begins with some of the details behind UC Berkeley's groundbreaking, massively distributed SETI@home project, which processes intergalactic noise for pennies on the teraflop. But that's just the start of the story. Inventor and software developer Brian McConnell continues with an overview of whether and why we might find something out there, who's doing what to look for it (including the folks at Berkeley), and - once some ET picks up on the other end--what we might say and how we might say it. See article.
g Cosmicus - The European Space Agency's Cluster mission has revealed a new creation mechanism of 'killer electrons' - highly energetic electrons that are responsible for damaging satellites and posing a serious hazard to astronauts. See
g Learning - Here’s a neat set of classroom activities: “Switch on the Microscope.” The study of microbial communities is essential if we are to understand and manage the world around us, and such studies prepare us for the exploration for life on other planets. This site has images of microbes, classification schemes, descriptions of organisms, talks and other educational resources to improve awareness of the biodiversity of our microbial partners. 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. Find out why intelligent life elsewhere in the universe won't resemble Tinseltown's take. See podcast for this SETI Institute “Are We Alone?” program.
g Aftermath - Like “first contact” stories? Then be sure to read Lynn Abbey’s short story "The Toshita Project." It appears in “Alien Encounters,” edited by Jan Finder.