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Very smart birds, and Freeman Dyson thinks we should look for flowers on Europa May 8, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Extraterrestrial life.
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Here‘s a great article by the BBC about how birds are much smarter than we give them credit for. The first video is amazing. The crow sees food at the bottom of a short “chimney,” so takes a piece of wire and bends it into a hook to pull the food out!
For a long time I thought great apes and humans were the only animals that used tools. Now we see that not only do birds (specifically corvids, ie crows, ravens etc) use tools, but they can actually make them too. I had no idea.

Also, check out Freeman Dyson’s argument about methods for searching for extraterrestrial life (especially on Europa) in this New Scientist article. He uses flowers that grow in Antarctica as an example to suggest that we should look where it would be easier to detect, instead of trying to figure out how and where it would have evolved.

As the article mentions later though, the surface of Europa is bombarded with a huge amount of radiation from Jupiter, which could make life very difficult for flowers.

Space.com has an interesting article about how the radiation bombardment might actually give life a boost by producing a wider variety of chemicals that small life-forms could live off.

Freeman Dyson is a climate sceptic, and The New York Times has a very, very long article about him and his views here. Discover magazine blog Intersection has a scathing review of the article here.


Fusion power, new battery technology, and shadow-life March 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Biology, Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There’s a great story in New Scientist this week discussing other forms of life on Earth. There have been a few stories recently speculating on the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing among us unbeknownst to us. I’m not talking about ufo conspiracy theories, I’m talking about microscopic life whose ancestors were carried in on meteorites after life had already begun on Earth.

New Scientist writer Bob Holmes introduces two other possibilities. The first he dubs shadow-life, which is life that began independently from that which came to dominate the planet. If life got going spontaneously once here, why wouldn’t it have happened again? This would be life of terrestrial origin, yet unrelated to most other life on the planet. Also, Holmes predicts that life will soon be created in a laboratory entirely artificially. For a gallery of what shadow life may look like, click here. You can read more about looking for shadow life here.

People have been talking about fusion power (in theory a source of limitless, clean energy) for a long, long time. Scientists have also been saying that fusion power is only fifty years away for a long, long time. However, it might be closer to becoming reality than a lot of people think. Read this very exciting article from The Times Online for more. The comments are good too. I wonder how much of this is journalistic hype and how much is real science.

New battery technology is promising for practical electric cars, among other things. One of the problems with batteries is their charging time. This new technology would charge cell phones in seconds and cars in minutes. Read about it more at New Scientist and The Economist.

Here‘s an interesting piece of information. The idea for linking computers to share information (ie the internet) originally came from Tim Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN in the eighties, planning the Large Hadron Collider. I had no idea that the two were connected.

The Telegraph has a bizarre story of an old Korean man who claims the fish in his backyard pond have human faces. You can decide for yourself.

Finally, a friend of mine sent me this BBC article just before my 28th birthday. Thanks Jane…guess it’s all downhill from here…

Going to Europa February 19, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Extraterrestrial life, Space.
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Great news! After much deliberation, scientists at NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) have decided to send their next major mission to Jupiter’s moons, with Europa as a top priority. The debate had been between checking out Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s moons, but in the latest news they seem to have decided to hell with it, let’s do both.
This is good news because Europa is generally seen as one of the most likely places for extraterrestrial life to exist in the solar system. Read a short article discussing the possibility of life on Europa here. A shell of ice covers its surface which scientists have estimated could be anywhere between three and one hundred kilometres thick, with the concensus suggesting it’s about twenty-five. Europa has next to no atmosphere, but the ice covering could protect the inner ocean from otherwise lethal radiation.
Although the moon is so far from the sun that liquid water cannot survive on the surface (we’re talking -165C), readings sent back by the Galileo spacecraft, which explored the Jovian system between 1995 and 2003, suggest that there is a warm, liquid ocean of salt water beneath the ice.
Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull puts huge tidal pressure on Europa. This makes the moon’s rocky core compress and shift, which might produce enough heat to keep the ocean warm. Take some warm salty water, toss in some of the organic compounds often found on meteors, and stir.
Scientists are so convinced of the possibility of life that they sent the Galileo probe plunging to its death in Jupiter’s atmosphere rather than crashing into Europa and potentially contaminating any life there.
NASA and ESA will each launch an orbiter in 2020, and it will take six years for the probe to reach the Jovian system. We’ve still got a long time to wait…in the meantime you can read more about the mission here.
Also, here’s a Jet Propulsion Laboratory paper discussing the different possibilities of a Europa lander. It was published in 2003 so may have dated a bit but it’s still worth a look.

Satellites Collide February 17, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Space, The Future.
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Two satellites collided in low Earth orbit last week, prompting worries about the likelihood of other space collisions as the number of orbiting satellites grows.
There are a lot of bits and pieces floating around up there, and they are all moving at incredible speeds. For example, a while ago the space shuttle suffered a half-inch crater in its windscreen from nothing more than a paint chip. This paint chip was travelling at more than twenty thousand miles an hour.
What worries me is this: The two satellites exploded into two clouds of debris that orbit the Earth, gradually becoming rings. Now it’s much more likely for another satellite to travel through one of those rings and be hit by shrapnel big enough and fast enough to destroy the satellite, leading to a new ring of debris and increasing the chances of collision even more. This is called a cascade effect, in which a single event can lead to an accelerating chain of other events, with huge consequences. Imagine dropping a single grain of sand on a sand dune. It hits two grains, they hit four grains, and on and on until you have a sizeable landslide. It’s that kind of thing. The more garbage you have up there, the harder it will be for satellites to avoid becoming clouds of garbage themselves. This could have severe consequences, considering how much of our communications technology relies on satellite relays. Let alone the risk for big guys like the Hubble Telescope or the International Space Station.
The New Scientist talks about it in this good article.

Finally fans of informed speculation should check out this website. It’s a collection of intellectuals and experts from various fields answering the question “What will change everything?”
Especially check out George Dyson’s article on interstellar viruses.

So long for now.