Tag: astronomy

Science Week 2009!

It’s that time again! From August 15 to 23, it’s Science Week here in Australia, our yearly celebration of all things scientific. Among the major events are the light pollution survey and “Hello from Earth“, a project where you can send brief Twitter-style messages into outer space, courtesy of NASA. I have to say that, cool though the latter is, some of the press coverage has erroneously claimed that this is something that’s never been done before. I have already signed up for more or less the same thing as part of a promotion for And Another Thing…, Eoin Coifer’s forthcoming sequel to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But there are differences, and no doubt the Science Week effort will be a little less tongue in cheek…

While I will be out and about, enjoying the activities on offer, sadly I won’t be performing or speaking at any events this year. I do have a few projects on the boil, though, and I promise to update here more often; I have six unfinished draft articles lying around, all of which are now badly dated! Watch out for something new appearing here before too long…

Despite my lack of Science Week involvement, I am putting in a public appearance this weekend.  This year Freeplay, Melbourne’s computer games festival, returns, and tomorrow at the Victorian State Library I will be moderating two of the panels: Games and Screen Culture at 10:30, and The Black Sheep at 3:30. Both aim to offer different perspectives on how games function in the larger and more traditional culture of  film and television. Freeplay continues on Saturday, and if you have any interest in computer games beyond just playing them, I encourage you to check it out!

Cat people and crinkly foreheads are not inevitable

Today’s Age has that rare thing – a news story about science. Specifically, astronomer Dr Alan Boss’ assertion that the existence of extraterrestrial life is “inevitable”. (ET? There goes the neighbourhood, Richard Alleyne of The Telegraph, Chicago; printed in The Age, February 17 2009.) Dr Boss is from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, and they don’t have any such announcement listed as news; Dr Boss does have a lecture scheduled for early March, however, talking about this idea in the context of his new book, The Crowded Universe…but while there’s a shade of self-promotion, I think we can assume it’s all for science.

Dr Boss (and his students must love that name) reckons the aliens must be out there because of “the new belief that there is an abundant number of habitable planets like Earth” – according to the article, there could be “100 billion trillion Earth-like planets in space”. The most interesting bit – why this “new” belief has come about – is entirely absent from the article, so all we get is a retread of the old “well, if there are so many planets out there, there must be life on some of them!” routine. That argument may hold some water (if you’ll excuse the pun, which you’ll get as you read on), but as I’ve been reading in What Does A Martian Look Like? (Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Ebury Press, 2002; I’ll be talking more about it on my book blog) this is the least interesting reason to believe life is out there.

The standard idea in astro-biology is that life can exist on planets in the “habitable zone” around a star: that is, the range of orbital distances in which the temperature variation allows water to exist as a solid, liquid and gas. This is rubbish for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the existence of water in various forms is dependant on a vast number of things beyond just a planet’s distance from the star. In our own solar system, now that Mars has proven barren, Jupiter’s moon Europa is the most likely candidate for extra-terrestrial life, with it’s liquid ocean safe below the huge ice-sheets on its surface.

But that’s assuming you even need water for life to exist. And why should you? Just because Star Trek and Star Wars prefer aliens who look like humans with ill-conceived cosmetic surgery or anthropomorphic animals, it doesn’t mean that’s what life will look like. Stewart and Cohen argue that astro-biology is really just the application of Earth-based biology on other planets. It’s parochialism on a grand scale; the galactic equivalent of travelling the world but spending the whole trip in “Irish” pubs and eating at McDonalds.

How do we get past this? Jack&Ian (this is how they refer to themselves in the book) say we need a new discipline, “xenoscience”, to properly consider what aliens will be like. An essential ingredient of xenoscience is imagaintion, and in a sense this is where science fiction, or at least the popular kind – where the “science” really translates to “physics buzzwords and folk biology as window dressing on a fantasy story” – has failed us. Yes, some authors have thought about what life might really be like, but mostly the point of an “alien race” is just to act as a stand-in for some aspect of human culture. For my money, the biggest proof of this is that no-one stops to think about what it really means to have half-human half-Vulcans. Even if alien life did, impossibly, look very similar to us, it doesn’t mean we can shag it, marry it or build a picket fence and have 2.4 children with it; that people accept this in Star Trek is a clear sign they don’t really think of Vulcans, Klingons and the rest of them as truly alien; I’m sure if you suggested the same sort of “first contact” or “close encounter of the fourth kind” with a more realistic ET, you’d probably be blocked by the Great Australian Internet filter.

I’m not quite finished the book, so I can’t tell you what Jack&Ian reckon a Martian would look like. But whatever life does exist out there, odds are it will be incredibly unfamiliar to us; truly “alien”. If we’re to recognise it when we see it, let alone have any chance of conversing with it, then we need to embrace the imagination we have. Imagining something doesn’t make it possible, but science is about change, about difference, and about possibilities. Often it works by eliminating possibilities – but we can’t eliminate them if we don’t at first consider them.

The ginger science alliance

It’s not often you get to see a redheaded comedian speak about the beauty of the universe, and pictures from the Hubble space telescope in particular, and even less often that the person in question isn’t me. So it was lovely to be in the audience tonight to see Rod Quantock at the Ian Potter Gallery in Federation Square do just that.

If you don’t know who Rod is then I can only assume you’re either under the age of 20, you have no interest in the Australian comedy scene, or both. He recently did a show titled “First Man Standing” and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine he was one of the first stand-up comedians, at least in the modern sense, in Australia. If you’re my age or older, you’ll probably remember him from The Big Gig, Australia: You’re Standing In It, or possibly (and I apologise in advance, Rod) the Cap’n Snooze advertisements of the eighties.

Now, Rod being Rod, he didn’t exactly stay on topic; his style may be best described as lovingly rambly. But it was a grand half hour that featured, among other things, a model of the history of the universe contructed using only four human beings, one of whom played a dinosaur. (That might have been me, but I swear it was all Rod’s idea.) One thing he did mention, however, when sketching out his plan for establishing equilibrium in the ecologically disastrous times ahead,  was that humans are made of 80% water, and, perhaps inspired by Rod and Dr Karl, I’m going to go off on a tangent about that.

Like just about all living things of which we’re aware, we are made largely of water. There’s a lot of fluid in our bodies: blood, lymph, saliva, bile…all mostly water. Our cells are full of it, with anything up to 90% of their mass accounted for by H2O. That varies, of course; you or I have a large though uncertain number of cells in our bodies (it’s in the millions of millions), and they come in about 200 different types.

Interestingly, fat cells have a hugely lower water content than other cells: they’re only about 14% water, which is less even than bone, which is about 22% (“dry as a bone”, indeed!). This explains why in adult humans, the actual percentage of water is around 55%-65%, with men at the top of the range and women at the bottom. This varies quite a bit depending on body shape, size, health, fitness and how much you’ve had to drink. (There’s a pretty good breakdown of all this in the Wikipedia article on body water.)

Now, water is obviously pretty exciting and important for all of us, and when I say us, I mean “living things”. The Earth is in what’s known as the “habitable zone”, the narrow band in which a planet orbiting a star can have water in all three states: vapor, liquid and solid. The habitable zone varies quite a lot, depending on the size and temperature of a star; for hotter stars the zone is further away, for cooler stars it’s closer. Over a star’s lifetime the habitable zone will change, but since stars have long lives, there’s no reason to suppose life won’t usually have time to kick off and develop into complex forms. You know: like us.

The nice thing about all this rambling is that next year is both the International Year of Astronomy (much as 2005 was the Einstein International Year of Phsyics), and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (not to mention the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin). Aside from Moby’s refrain that “we are all made of stars” (the elements heavier than Hydrogen – i.e. all of ’em – which are created via nuclear fusion in stars), physics and biology are, like all sciences, inextricably linked. It’s a bold time of exploration both inside and outside of ourselves; as Rod pointed out, not only will the successor to the Hubble space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, be launched, but we’re also learning more every year about genetics and also neurology. While I don’t think humans will run out of things to investigate any time soon, in the next decade or so we’re going to find out some very exciting stuff.

How sad, Rod pointed out, that we’ve managed this only at the precise time we’re all likely to die out…