Monday, July 24, 2006

Evolutionary drivers, exobiology in textbooks and political significance of announcing discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence

Welcome! “Alien Life” tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. You may notice that this and future entries are shorter than usual; Career, family and book deal commitments have forced me to cut back some of my projects. Now, here’s today’s news:
g Stars - Newly detected dust found around the burst remains of a dead star could help reveal how planets and stars formed and how life began. See
g Abodes - Slow moving "silent" earthquakes that last on the order of weeks to months could be useful for predicting when more destructive temblors will strike, See
g Life - Could a predatory relationship between two ancient species reveal an early driving force of evolution? Absolutely, according to Mark Wilson, professor of geology at The College of Wooster, and Paul Taylor of The Natural History Museum in London. See
g Intelligence - In the second it takes you to read these words, tens of thousands of vesicles in your optic nerves are released in sequence, opening tiny surface pores to pass chemical signals to the next cell down the line, telling your brain what you're seeing and your eyes where to move. Thanks to two new studies – including one spearheaded by an undergraduate biochemistry student at Rice University and published online by Nature Structural and Molecular Biology – scientists have defined the function of a key protein that nerve cells use to pass information quickly. See
g Message - In 2001, California astronomers broadened the search for extraterrestrial intelligence with a new experiment to look for powerful light pulses beamed our way from other star systems. Scientists from the University of California's Lick Observatory, the SETI Institute, UC-Santa Cruz, and UC-Berkeley used the Lick Observatory's 40-inch Nickel Telescope with a new pulse-detection system capable of finding laser beacons from civilizations many light-years distant. Unlike other optical SETI searches, this new experiment is largely immune to false alarms that slow the reconnaissance of target stars. See article.
g Cosmicus - Astronauts who travel in space are at risk for bone loss in much the same way that cancer patients who receive radiation therapy are, and both groups are more likely to develop fractures than the general population. See
g Learning - Although exobiology is of widespread interest to high school science students, it is not generally dealt with comprehensively in most textbooks. In addition, teachers often have inadequate resources available to prepare classroom presentations on how life may have begun on Earth and whether these processes might take place elsewhere in the solar system and the universe. Here’s a classroom teaching module suitable for use in both general and advanced high school biology courses: See
g Imagining - Watch the film "Alien vs. Predator” ( and you might feel there was little left to lose in seeing "Exorcist: The Beginning" ( As it happens, both movies, although undeniably bad, are thought provoking. Humans have a longstanding fascination with powerful, malevolent entities, whether extraterrestrial or supernatural, and the existence of such entities, however farfetched in its cinematic presentation, is a fair topic for inquiry and speculation. See
g Aftermath - How might we characterize the political significance of any announcement of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence? How about using the Torino Scale, which characterizes asteroid impacts, as a model to assist the discussion and interpretation of any claimed discovery of ETI? See"Interpret

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