Thursday, July 27, 2006

Quasars defined, liquid water on planets and secretive commercial space venture

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 - In the distant, young universe, quasars shine with a brilliance unmatched by anything in the local cosmos. Although they appear star-like in optical telescopes, quasars are actually the bright centers of galaxies located billions of light-years from Earth. See
g Abodes - One of the fundamental requirements for life as we know it is the presence of liquid water on (or below) a planet’s surface. See
g Life - Once upon a time, a 2-ton wombat lumbered across the Australian Outback. Around the same time, mammoths and saber-toothed tigers had the California coastline all to themselves. Millions of years before any of these animals existed, Tyrannosaurus rex and other colossal dinosaurs ruled the world. These and some of the other largest and most fantastic creatures ever to walk the planet are long gone, victims of mass extinctions of large beasts. And for reasons poorly understood, often the animals to fill the voids were tiny by comparison. See
g Intelligence - Researchers at Yale School of Medicine and the University of Oxford have identified the very first neurons in what develops into the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that makes humans human. See
g Message - Dan Werthimer, director of the SERENDIP SETI program and chief scientist of SETI@home at the University of California Berkeley, predicts we’ll make first contact with an alien civilization in 50-100 years. See Note: This article is from 2004.
g Cosmicus - Plans for a secretive commercial space venture backed by founder Jeff Bezos were coming under public review Tuesday at a government hearing. See
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom activity courtesy of “Extraterrestrials.” In the activity, a digital radio message, intended to alert any intelligent life in space to the existence of intelligent life on Earth, has been electronically transmitted into space by the Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico. Students must ensure the message is effective by showing that the senders (humans from Earth) are capable of advanced thinking — but it must not depend on the ability of extraterrestrials to understand any Earth language. See
g Imagining - Britain's Manchester Evening News termed it a hoax that "fooled the world." Well, not exactly: Skeptical Inquirer magazine was on to the 1995 "Alien Autopsy" film from the outset. But now the reputed creator of the fake extraterrestrial corpse used for the "autopsy" has publicly confessed. See
g Aftermath - Book alert: Science fiction writers have given us many fine novels contemplating humankind's first contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. But our nonfiction world has not thought much about what to do if we are actually faced with this situation. In “Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” Jean Heidmann, chief astronomer at the Paris Observatory (and self-styled bioastronomer), offers a book on the subject that is at once serious and fun. Heidmann's obvious joy in raw speculation - all of it grounded in real science - is contagious. If aliens send us a message from many light years away, for example, how should we respond? Heidmann reviews the protocols established in the SETI Declaration and then offers his own suggestion: send them the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. See