Saturday, April 28, 2007

Observing atmospheres of alien worlds, meta-cognitive monkeys and how aliens might search for us

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 - The race for the first direct detection of dark matter will move into a new phase in the coming months as the ZEPLIN-II instrument is joined by ZEPLIN-III, the world’s most sensitive dark matter detector. See
g Abodes - In 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft released a probe that blasted a crater in comet Tempel 1, spilling its elements into space so scientists could discover its composition. The assault was justified because comets are thought to be leftovers from the formation of our solar system, so learning more about them helps to understand how our solar system came to be. Now, a proposed extended mission for the spacecraft would observe the atmospheres of alien worlds, and to visit another comet. See
g Life - The bones of a camel between eight and 10,000-years-old have been unearthed near Phoenix by a construction crew building a new Wal-Mart store. See
g Intelligence - New research from Columbia's Primate Cognition Laboratory has demonstrated for the first time that monkeys could acquire meta-cognitive skills: the ability to reflect about their thoughts and to assess their performance. See
g Message - Can aliens find us? With a really nice pair of binoculars, the Great Wall of China (not to mention less romantic constructions, such as interstate highways) does become visible from orbit. Any curious aliens that made it to within a few hundred miles of Earth would have no trouble seeing the artifacts of our civilization. They would know, without doubt, that technologically competent beings roamed our world. But how visible are we to aliens that are farther away? See html. Here’s the follow-up to the article from 2003: html.
g Cosmicus - The private rocket company, UP Aerospace, launched their suborbital booster April 28 from New Mexico’s Spaceport America. All indications suggest a highly successful flight and payload recovery - although severe bad weather in the area delayed retrieval operations until Monday. See
g Learning - Kurt Fischer and his colleagues looked at the revolution in brain scanning, genetics, and other biological technologies and decided that most teachers and students weren’t getting much benefit from them. Brain scans are now available to watch what’s going on when someone is learning — or not learning. Finding genes that are involved in leaning disabilities is a hot area. Why, they asked, aren’t the powers of such technologies helping teachers in classrooms? See
g Imagining - Like first contact stories? Then be sure to read Isaac Asimov’s “The Gods Themselves” (published by Ballentine in 1972).
g Aftermath - Could religions survive contact with extraterrestrials? The Medieval Church didn't think so, as this would challenge mankind's central role in the cosmos. Today such ideas are considered old fashioned, and many theologians welcome the discovery of life - even intelligent life - among the stars. But if scientists were to find microscopic Martians or a signal from another world, would established religions really take it in stride? See
for a podcast of this SETI Institute “Are We Alone?” program.