Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fall colors on alien planets, spotting signals from extraterrestrials and photosynthesis revealed

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 - Chandra observations of the galaxy NGC 1365 have captured a remarkable eclipse of the supermassive black hole at its center. A dense cloud of gas passed in front of the black hole, which blocked high-energy X-rays from material close to the black hole. This serendipitous alignment allowed astronomers to measure the size of the disk of material around the black hole, a relatively tiny structure on galactic scales. See article.
g Abodes - If plant life exists on other planets, they may not be predominantly green. Scientists have found that the predominant color of foliage on Earth-like worlds could be a range of other colors depending on the star that the planet orbits and the composition of its atmosphere. See
g Life - Through photosynthesis, green plants and cyanobacteria are able to transfer sunlight energy to molecular reaction centers for conversion into chemical energy with nearly 100-percent efficiency. Speed is the key – the transfer of the solar energy takes place almost instantaneously so little energy is wasted as heat. How photosynthesis achieves this near instantaneous energy transfer is a long-standing mystery that may have finally been solved. See
g Intelligence - An international consortium of researchers has published the genome sequence of the rhesus macaque monkey and aligned it with the chimpanzee and human genomes. Published April 13 in a special section of the journal Science, the analysis reveals that the three primate species share about 93 percent of their DNA, yet have some significant differences among their genes. See
g Message - Is anyone out there? The chance of spotting signals from extraterrestrials is about to soar, say SETI Institute scientists, who, together with radio astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley have begun building the first telescope to look around the clock for life on other planets. See article.
g Cosmicus - The most heated space race since the Cold War is under way in Asia, where countries are concluding that a space program is no longer just an expensive status symbol but a matter of national security. And they are scrambling to keep abreast. See
g Learning - Calling attention to itself as soon as the Sun goes down, Venus shines brilliantly in the west-northwest sky about one-third of the way up from the horizon. Pointing out Venus is a great way to get kids interested in astronomy. See
g Imagining - Here’s an interesting critical examination of science fiction aliens that’s worth reading: Gregory Benford’s "Aliens and Knowability: A Scientist's Perspective," in “Bridges to Science Fiction” (George E. Slusser, George R. Guffet and Mark Rose, eds., 1980).
g Aftermath - Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence depends as much upon social support for the project as upon appropriate engineering design and upon the actual existence of a nearby extrasolar civilization. The results of a sociological survey of 1,465 American college students provide the first detailed analysis of the social and ideological factors that influence support for CETI, thereby suggesting ways that support might be increased. Linked to the most idealistic goals of the space program, notably interplanetary colonization, enthusiasm for CETI is little affected by attitudes toward technology or militarism. Few sciences or scholarly fields encourage CETI, with the exceptions of anthropology and astronomy. Support is somewhat greater among men than among women, but the sex difference is far less than in attitudes toward space flight in general. Evangelical Protestantism, represented by the "Born Again" movement, strongly discourages support for CETI. Just as exobiology begins with an understanding of terrestrial biology, exosociology on the question of how interstellar contact can be achieved should begin with serious sociological study of factors operating on our own world. See