Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mars holds its breath, Hobbit debate and how a signal from another planet could change humanity

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 Abodes - Rather than having had its air knocked out into space, Mars might just be holding its breath. A new finding suggests the missing atmosphere of Mars might be locked up in hidden reservoirs on the planet, rather than having been chafed away by billions of years' worth of solar winds as previously thought. See http://space.com/scienceastronomy/070125_mars_atmosphere.html.
g Life - Researchers studying the cholera pathogen have shed new light on how bacteria generate the energy they need to live. The findings could help scientists understand how bacteria are able to find energy to survive in some of the harshest environments known. See http://www.astrobio.net/news/modules.phpop=modload&name
g Intelligence - New computerized casts of abnormally small Homo sapiens brains are reigniting the debate over the skeletal remains nicknamed "The Hobbit." See http://www.livescience.com/human
g Message - Interstellar spacecraft are superior to electromagnetic wave propagation for extrasolar exploration and communication. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence should include a search for extraterrestrial probes. See http://www.rfreitas.com/Astro/The
. Note: This article is from 1983.
g Learning - Here’s a neat interactive Web site for kids: “Are Humans All Alone in the Universe?” In the program, kids get to search for ET — and learn some principles of science along the way. See http://jvsc.jst.go.jp/universe/et_e/index_e.htm.
g Imagining - Certainly among the most interesting of Star Trek’s aliens is the neural parasite that attack the Deneva colony (for picture and more background, see http://www.memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Neural_parasite_(TOS)). But “interesting” doesn’t equate to good science. First problem: The creatures are “unicellular.” That’s a problem because the laws of biology and physics demand that any creature larger than a microbe be multi-cellular — yet these creatures are about as large as a dinner plate Limits exist to an organism’s size because of diffusion, or the principle that substances from outside the organism must pass into and throughout the creature; the larger an organism, the greater the distance to its center, and hence diffusion slows. Hence, nutrients couldn’t reach all of the cell’s/creature’s being. Second problem: They’re nervous-system parasites that apparently can cross species. Spock points out early in the episode that the creatures have traversed several planets, and with the timeline given, have been doing so for longer than humanity has had interstellar capabilities. That a creature which evolved on an entirely alien world could so easily adapt itself to other extraterrestrial species as a host seems entirely far-fetched. Third problem: These creatures fly. With no apparatus for flight, somehow the parasites are able to flit about through the air as if birds. Spock does say they likely evolved in a place where our physical laws apparently don’t apply (perhaps an alternative universe?), but even if able to fly in their place of origin, they are bound by our physical laws when here.
g Aftermath - What would an intelligent signal from another planet change about human destiny? This large question is the topic of the book “The SETI Factor,” by Frank White, who also analyzes how to announce such an historic finding and whether it would unite or divide nations. See http://www.astrobio.net/news/article646.html. Note: This article is from 2003.