Thursday, August 24, 2006

Creatures that oxidize ammonia, expedition to Mars via the Arctic and social and political issues of first contact

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 Life - A genetic analysis of soil samples indicates that a group of microorganisms called crenarchaeota are the Earth's most abundant land-based creatures that oxidize ammonia, according to an international team of researchers. See
g Intelligence - Studying complex systems, such as the movement of robots on a factory floor, the motion of air over a wing, or the effectiveness of a security network, can present huge challenges. Mathematician Robert Ghrist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is developing advanced mathematical tools to simplify such tasks. See
g Message - Since the beginning of astronomical observation, science has been viewing light on a curve. In a galaxy filled with thousands of eclipsing binary stars, we've refined our skills by measuring the brightness or intensity of so-called variable star as a function of time. The result is known as a "light curve." Through this type of study, we've discovered size, distance and orbital speed of stellar bodies and refined our ability to detect planetary bodies orbiting distant suns. Here on Earth, most of the time it's impossible for us to resolve such small objects even with the most powerful of telescopes, because their size is less than one pixel in the detector. But new research should let us determine the shape of an object... like a ringed planet, or an orbiting alien space station. See article.
g Cosmicus - High in the Arctic, just below Earth's north polar ice cap, a collaboration of nearly two dozen biologists, geologists and engineers have embarked on an expedition to Mars. See http://
g Learning - How are key concepts of astrobiology treated in science fiction? See Note: This article is from 2001 and intended to be used as part of a classroom lesson.
g Imagining - Could the Pak of Larry Niven's "Ringworld" universe possibly evolve? They've got a homepage to discuss that and other questions about the intriguing fiction alien race. See
g Aftermath - For some provocative reading, pick up "Sharing the Universe," by Seth Shostak, at your local bookstore. SETI scientist Shostak almost single-handedly is outlining social and political issues that will arise once we make contact with extraterrestrials. See reviews.