Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rocky worlds beyond Neptune, Project Orion moniker and if a signal is found

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 - A fundamental force that holds electrons inside atoms and governs how charged particles and light interact is a little weaker than previously thought. See
g Abodes - Dozens of rocky bodies that are part of a sea of small rocky fragments never observed before have been spotted in the suburbs of our solar system beyond planet Neptune, thanks to a novel technique. See
g Life - Songbirds use multiple sources of directional cues to guide their seasonal migrations, including the Sun, star patterns, the earth's magnetic field and sky polarized light patterns. To avoid navigational errors as cue availability changes with time of day and weather conditions, these "compass" systems must be calibrated to a common reference. Experiments over the last 30 years have failed to resolve the fundamental question of how migratory birds integrate multiple sources of directional information into a coherent navigational system. See
g Intelligence - Exploring exactly why some individuals' memory skills are better than others has led researchers at Washington University in St. Louis to study the brain basis of learning strategies that healthy young adults select to help them memorize a series of objects. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers uncovered brain regions specifically correlated with the diverse strategies that subjects adopt. See
g Cosmicus - As first reported last month, NASA's new Crew Exploration Vehicle and moon landing program is expected to adopt the moniker Orion. The space agency hasn't yet announced the name, but a logo bearing the title has now been seen in a NASA internal document that labels the insignia as "approved." See For related story, see “Readiness review clears Atlantis pending final issues” at
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom activity, courtesy of NASA: “The Drake Equation.” Students estimate the number of civilizations in the galaxy by first estimating the number of craters on the Moon and then by performing estimates of multiple-variable systems culminating in the use of the Drake Equation. See article.
g Imagining - Like first contact stories? Then be sure to read Isaac Asimov’s short story "Not Final!" published in the Oct. 1941 edition of Astounding.
g Aftermath - In the next two dozen years, the Allen Telescope Array will parse the nearest thousand light-years of space. If there are other occupants of this galactic neighborhood, we could turn up a signal. But then what? Would the discovery be put under wraps, either voluntarily or by government edict? If we found a signal, would you know? See article.