Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Star snacks, Martian dust storms and message to ET

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 - For the last two years, astronomers have suspected that a nearby white dwarf star called GD 362 was "snacking" on a shredded asteroid. Now, an analysis of chemical "crumbs" in the star's atmosphere conducted by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has confirmed this suspicion. See http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n0704/01starsnacks/.
g Abodes - Shifting dust storms on Mars might be contributing to global warming there that is shrinking the planet's southern polar ice caps, scientists say. See http://space.com/scienceastronomy/070404_gw_mars.html.
g Life - Microbiologists are rethinking the ways in which they define and classify microbial species. Studying microbes and understanding how they are related to one another throughout evolutionary time is important in determining how life originated on our planet. See http://www.astrobio.net/news/modules.phpop=modload
g Intelligence - People who believe they have lived past lives as, say, Indian princesses or battlefield commanders are more likely to make certain types of memory errors, according to a new study. See http://www.livescience.com/othernews/070406_past_lives.html.
g Message - The Harvard SETI Group have conducted several searches for extraterrestrial life since 1978. For a history of those searches, see http://seti.harvard.edu/seti/setihist.html.
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 - Science fiction authors produce a lot of very strange critters. In the desperate dash to be different, many go way overboard to invent fantastic, outlandish species unlike anything anyone has ever seen. It’s an admirable expression of their artistic abilities, but there’s an inherent problem: They almost always lose the reader along the way. Sure, it sounds ultra-cool to have a whole herd of 80-foot quasi-limbed orb-stasis beings, but unless you draw me a picture of these things, the reader often has no idea what you’re talking about. However, if you write that your alien has four wings, 10 eyes and looks a little like a kangaroo, the reader is right there with you. Most readers need at least something familiar to draw on for their imagination, or they get lost. See http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue10/themealiens.htm.
g Aftermath - If we find other civilizations, what will we say to them? Crafting a message that represents Earth and humanity and can be understood by another life form is no minor endeavor. SETI Institute psychologist Douglas Vakoch has been charged with this formidable task, and has enlisted the help of mathematicians, artists, astronomers and anthropologists. Hear the messages he helped compose and learn about the thinking behind them at http://www.exploratorium.edu/origins/arecibo/tools/vakoch.html.