Sunday, September 10, 2006

Photographed exoplanet, decoding alien messages and ‘Star Trek’ lives

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 - Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have photographed one of the smallest objects ever seen around a normal star beyond our Sun. Weighing in at 12 times the mass of Jupiter, the object is small enough to be a planet. The conundrum is that it is also large enough to be a brown dwarf, a failed star. See
g Abodes - Jupiter's four largest moons were discovered by Galileo in 1610. Three of them might hold oceans of liquid water beneath their icy exteriors. Liquid water is a prerequisite for life. See http://www.
. Note: This article is from 2001. For related story, see “Visual Confirmation of Moon SMARTs.”
g Life - Scientists have unveiled a replica of a skeleton they say was from the largest dinosaur species yet discovered in Brazil - a mid-sized herbivore that roamed central Brazil some 80 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period. See
g Intelligence - By discovering that particular rat brain neurons combine or "integrate" dissimilar pieces of information (e.g. location versus reward), researchers have begun to learn how the brain controls decision-making and goal-oriented behaviors. Examples of these include foraging and navigation in animals and - in humans - whether to buy a particular second home or, in general, whether to favor a long-term benefit over immediate gratification. See
g Message - Here’s an intriguing hypothesis concerning the nature of extraterrestrial messages to Earth. It is based on the assumptions that aliens exist in abundance in the galaxy, that they are benevolent toward Earth-based life forms and that the lack of any human detection of extraterrestrials is due to an embargo designed to prevent any premature disclosure of their existence. It is argued that any embargo not involving alien force must be a leaky one designed to allow a gradual disclosure of the alien message and its gradual acceptance on the part of the general public over a very long time-scale. The communication may take the form of what is now considered magic, and may therefore be misinterpreted as “magic” or a hoax by contemporary governments and scientists. See
g Cosmicus - During the Apollo moon missions, 15 out of 29 astronauts developed infections. Subsequent experiments aboard Skylab and several space shuttle missions confirmed that T-cells do not activate properly in microgravity. A new experiment being sent to the International Space Station will help scientists learn why the human immune system goes bad in space. See http://www.astro
g Learning - Forty years ago a science fiction show debuted on television with a paltry budget and a bold mission to go where no one had gone before. See
g Imagining - Book alert: Following Athena Andreadis’s “To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek” and in the manner of Lawrence Krauss's “The Physics of Star Trek,” the husband-and-wife Jenkinses, he a molecular geneticist, she a psychiatrist, set out on a simple mission: "to entertain, to teach, and to share some favorite “Star Trek” moments" intheir book “Life Signs: The Biology of ‘Star Trek.’” Their compact but informative book succeeds in all three tasks. Each of the nine chapters takes on a related set of biological issues raised by the “Star Trek” TV series and films, explaining how the world created by the “Star Trek” writers meshes with that of our own. A discussion of the differences in mating habits among Vulcans, Klingons, Ferengi and Trills, as well as a host of other aliens, leads to an interesting discourse on complications arising from human sexuality, with distinctions made among genetic sex, phenotypic sex, core gender identity and sexual roles. Similarly, an examination of the "puppet-master parasites" (parasites that appear in a number of episodes and that have the disconcerting ability to take control of their hosts' minds) segues into a review of how the human brain functions. See
g Aftermath - Book alert: Pick up “Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations,” by inventor and software developer Brian McConnell. The book examines whether and why we might find something out there, who's doing what to look for it and — once some ET picks up on the other end — what we might say and how we might say it. This last problem, which occupies the final half of the book, proves to be the most thought provoking. See for reviews.