Friday, May 18, 2007

Ghostly return of dark matter, cores of supergiant planets and ‘Life signs’

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 - An international team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a ghostly ring of dark matter that was formed long ago during a titanic collision between two massive galaxy clusters. It is the first time that a dark matter distribution has been found that differs substantially from the distribution of ordinary matter. See article.
g Abodes - Combining diamond anvils and powerful lasers, laboratory researchers have developed a technique that should be able to squeeze materials to pressures 100 to 1,000 times greater than possible today, reproducing conditions expected in the cores of supergiant planets. This technique can also help researchers better understand the processes of Earth's core. See article.
g Life - Quote of the Day: “The search for extraterrestrial life must begin with the question of what we mean by life." — Carl Sagan
g Intelligence - Johns Hopkins scientists have discovered to their surprise that nerves in the mammalian brain's white matter do more than just ferry information between different brain regions, but in fact process information the way gray matter cells do. See
g Message - Let us assume that civilizations enjoy a long stay on their parent planet once their initial technological teething problems are past. In that case, they are likely to be plentiful in the galaxy. How might we become aware of their existence? See
g Cosmicus - Space shuttle program officials have affirmed a new launch schedule to accomplish six flights over the next 12 months that will expand the space station to include the international science laboratory modules. See Note: This article is from early 2007.
g Learning - During the past several years, evolutionary biologists have proved that the disparate creatures of our planet are, at a fundamental genetic level, very similar to one another. The genes that differentiate the top and the bottom of a bug, for instance, are the same ones that differentiate our fronts from our backs. According to the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, this new understanding is among "the most stunning evolutionary discoveries of the decade," and is clearly "a dominant theme in evolution." The same law applies, it appears, to the extraterrestrial creatures that come out of Hollywood. See
. Note: This article is from 1997.
g Imagining - Book alert: Get thee to a used bookstore if you haven’t read “Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek,” by Susan and Robert Jenkins. The Jenkinses focus on the biological logic (or illogic) behind the alien ecologies in Star Trek — the original TV series and all of its sequels and movie spinoffs. The best parts are the biological bloopers, even though only a fan will truly appreciate them. For instance, how did the Klingons evolve forehead ridges between the original and the new series ... and why do all the planets look like California? The science in the book helps the authors hypothesize about how humanoid life might have evolved throughout the universe (panspermia revisited). They offer simple evolutionary theories to explain the various head shapes and behaviors of fictional alien species. See
g Aftermath - While formal principles have been adopted for the eventuality of detecting intelligent life in our galaxy, no such guidelines exist for the discovery of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life within the solar system. Current scientifically based planetary protection policies for solar system exploration address how to undertake exploration, but do not provide clear guidance on what to do if and when life is detected. Considering that Martian life could be detected under several different robotic and human exploration scenarios in the coming decades, it is appropriate to anticipate how detection of non-intelligent, microbial life could impact future exploration missions and activities, especially on Mars. See