Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Titan’s tholins, how Martians might have existed in an atmosphere of nitric oxide

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 - Scientists have pinpointed the precise locations of a pair of supermassive black holes at the centers of two colliding galaxies 300 million light-years away. See article.
g Abodes - Scientists have long known that the lower atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan contains organic aerosols, or tholins, formed from simple organic molecules, such as methane and nitrogen. But Cassini spacecraft has shed new light on where and how the molecule formation happens. See http://spaceflightnow.com/cassini/070510tholin.html. For related stories, see “Cassini finds that storms power Saturn's jet streams” at http://spaceflightnow.com/cassini/070508saturnjets.html and “Frictional heating explains plumes on Saturn moon” at http://spaceflightnow.com/cassini/070516enceladus.html.
g Life - Molecular studies recently revealed new genetic information concerning the long-disputed origin of the "European potato." Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of La Laguna, and the International Potato Center used genetic markers to prove that the remnants of the earliest known landraces of the European potato are of Andean and Chilean origin. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070515074810.htm.
g Intelligence - Scientists report a genetic mutation, appropriately called "after-hours" (Afh), which affects our internal body clock and might help explain why some of us are “evening people”, only falling asleep in the early hours of the morning. The research has important implications for human health in an increasingly 24/7 culture, where shift work and continental travel (and the associated jet lag problems) are already linked to several diseases. It can also be important for the many brain disorders, such as dementia, bipolar disease and mental retardation, which are associated to disruptions in the sleep/awake cycle. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070510120713.htm.
g Message - Book alert: In “Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations,” author Brian McConnell examines the science and technology behind the search for intelligent life in space, from the physics of inter-stellar laser and radio communication to information theory and linguistics. If you've ever wondered whether it really would be possible to communicate with other civilizations, you'll want to read this book. For more reviews and sample chapters, see http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/alien/.
g Cosmicus - Quote of the Day: “The universe belongs to those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out.” – Carl Sagan
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom activity courtesy of NASA: Who Can Live Here? Students explore the limits of life on Earth to extend their beliefs about life to include its possibility on other worlds. See http://btc.montana.edu/ceres/html/ExtremeEnvironment/Extreme.htm.
g Imagining - Like short stories about alien biology? Larry Niven’s “Eye of an Octopus” examines how Martians might have existed in an atmosphere of nitric oxide. The story is collected in Niven’s “Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven.” See http://www.google.com/searchhl=en&q=E2809CTales+of+Known+
g Aftermath - The job of a planetary protection officer is to make sure that humans don’t contaminate other worlds, and that Earth is kept safe from the potential harmful effects of extraterrestrial life. For NASA, Dr. Cassie Conley currently holds that job. Astrobiology Magazine recently interviewed Conley to find out what she actually does. See http://www.astrobio.net/news/modules.phpop=modload&name

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