Ancient martian flood channels revealed in 3D

Ancient martian water channels revealed in 3D by the SHARAD instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. [Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Sapienza University of Rome/Smithsonian Institution/USGS]

Ancient martian water channels buried beneath the volcanic region, Elysium Planitia, are revealed in 3D by the SHARAD radar instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. [Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Sapienza University of Rome/Smithsonian Institution/USGS]

A team of scientists has used data from the SHARAD radar instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft to create 3D maps of buried water channels on Mars, and in the process discovered that the channels are twice as deep as previously thought. The channels were carved out billions of years ago by an ancient megaflood, but have since been covered by lava from volcanic activity. Radar allows scientists to penetrate the layers of lava to obtain information about the depth of the channels underneath. More details about this discovery at the Smithsonian blog.

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SETI is once again listening for E.T.

Dr. Frank Drake, author of the famous Drake Equation, estimates there are at least 10,000 advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Drake came up with this equation more than 50 years ago, at a time when astronomers weren’t even sure there were planets beyond our solar system. Now that we have observational evidence of more than a thousand planets orbiting other stars — and there is reason to believe that most of the 200 billion or more stars in the Milky Way host planetary systems — Drake’s estimate doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

However, contact with any advanced civilizations that may be out there may depend on whether we here on Earth are listening. One group that’s been listening for decades is SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but their efforts were halted last year due to a lack of funding. Thanks to donations solicited through its website — including a sizable donation from actress Jodie Foster — SETI is now back up and running at the Allen Array in Hat Creek, California, and it plans to keep listening for as long as funding holds out. Negotiations are currently underway for the U.S. Air Force to share the array for tracking satellites and space junk, which would give the SETI program the financial stability it needs to continue for the foreseeable future.

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Mapping the human brain

Scientists are making strides in their understanding of how the human brain is wired, but given its complexity they’ve still got a long way to go:

Among the most complex structures in the universe, the average brain contains about 100 billion specialized cells called neurons—as many cells as stars in the Milky Way— linked by 150 trillion or so connections known as synapses. By current means, it could take researchers years to trace the 10,000 or so synapses that branch from just a single neuron. By comparison, the scientists who sequenced the first human genome had to map only three billion base-pair sequences of DNA.

Where in this structure will consciousness be found? It’s one of the greatest mysteries of existence.

This is Surak’s field of interest, but my thought on this is, as we improve our ability to build sophisticated machines and other functioning things, we’re producing closer approximations of what already exists in nature. Someday in the far future, when we’ve constructed the perfect machine, I think we’ll be shocked to discover that all we’ve managed to do is recreate the human body.

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An invalid equation

Scientists working in the Netherlands and the U.S. who developed a more transmissible strain of the deadly bird flu have temporarily suspended their work to allow governments around the world time to assess the risks to “biosecurity.” The Dutch and American scientists, who produced their work separately, have submitted their results for publication. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, has requested the omission of important details over fears that the information could be used by terrorists to unleash a potentially genocidal attack in the future.

Keep this in mind as you consider what atheist writer and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, says about his “extinction equation”:

religion + science = human extinction.

He argues that religion is the source of all great conflict. Continued conflict with the destructive tools provided by science will result in the destruction of humankind. Therefore, all those who are dedicated to science must work to eliminate religion if humankind is to avoid extinction.

Yet as Christian writer, Vox Day, stated in his book, The Irrational Atheist, if we take Sam Harris’ Extinction Equation seriously, historical evidence shows that the most prudent action we can take is to eliminate science. As a professional astrophysicist who has dedicated her life to science, I must grudgingly concede that Day is correct if we are limited to an either/or choice between religion and science.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it’s not difficult to choose which variable to set equal to 0 in Harris’ Extinction Equation. It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate religion, which has existed in myriad forms for at least several thousands of years. Even religion’s greatest opponents, secular humanists devoted to Darwinism, recognize that the human species demonstrates a deep and enduring need for religion, so much so that even today as much as 90% of people in the world claim to be religious in some form or fashion.

Science by comparison has only been around in its modern form since the time of Galileo. It is understood, supported, and practiced by vastly fewer people around the world than religion is. The scientific method does not come easily to most people, which is why it takes many years of education and training to effectively instill it even in the small minority of humans who are predisposed to it. Science would simply be much easier to eliminate from humankind than religion.

Historical evidence also shows that religion, all by itself, poses far less of a threat to humankind than science does. It is true that throughout history religious groups have made war against each other. But the whole truth is that humans have always fought one another for territory and dominance beginning long before the appearance of modern religions. There is little or no evidence of peaceful coexistence on Earth at any time or place with or without religion. Monotheistic religion is therefore not a basic cause of conflict, but rather a relatively recently added element in the ongoing chaos and conflict of human affairs.

During the thousands of years that religion has existed, the human population has risen from a few million to almost seven billion. Since the time of the Reformation, human prosperity has improved to the point where 75% of humankind has risen out of its natural state of poverty, and there is a well-founded hope that the remaining 25% will follow in the next 50 years. The only threats to human survival during the time of religion were the possibility of an errant asteroid, such as the one that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, and naturally-arising contagious diseases that periodically ravaged civilizations.

Science and technology has changed all of that — there can be no doubt that they’ve had a much greater and more negative impact on human violence than religion ever had. An explosion of technology beginning in the 15th century made it possible for the ongoing conflict to enter the era of modern warfare resulting in new levels of slaughter which eventually led to the horrors of the First World War. The determination of the Nazis to use science to destroy its enemies in World War II rushed humankind to the point where scientific knowledge could result in its utter destruction.

Realistically speaking, and regardless of the dangers, we can’t put the scientific genie back in the bottle. Nor can humans live without some spiritual/moral system. As the world seems on the brink of a preemptive attack (possibly nuclear in nature) to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability, there is good reason to be pessimistic about the future of humankind. Some kind of moral system must function to prevent scientific knowledge from causing the end of conscious life on Earth. As Vox Day observes, “the more pressing question facing the technologically advanced societies today is Quis eprocuratiet ipsos scientodes? Who will supervise the scientists?”

Does such a moral system exist? Yes, and that’s why I don’t think we face Harris’ either/or choice. Surak explains why here.

ALMA opens her eyes

This wow-inducing image was just released by astronomers at the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, which has finally opened its eyes to the stunning long-wavelength sky. The image, a combination of submillimeter ALMA imaging and optical imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the stunning Antennae Galaxies — two spiral galaxies in the process of colliding.

The “millimeter/submillimeter” refers to the range of wavelengths of light to which the ALMA instruments are sensitive. Millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths are much longer than the optical wavelengths our eyes detect, and thus can’t be seen by our eyes; but they can be “seen” by ALMA’s instruments, and translated into understandable data, like the image above. Astronomers are keen to observe the sky at these wavelengths, because some important astronomical processes produce light only at these wavelengths, including the births of stars and planets and the fiery birth of our universe.

ALMA is situated at an altitude of more than 16,000 feet on the Chajnantor plain in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. This may seem like a strangely inconvenient location for an observatory, but for observational astronomy you want high and dry. This reduces attenuation (dimming) of astronomical light and absorption by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere — mainly CO2, oxygen, and water.

ALMA is currently only partially operational, and not due to be complete until 2013. Once complete, it will have at least 66 radio antennae. Long-wavelength astronomy (this includes radio wavelengths) frequently makes use of arrays, because this is a relatively easy and cost-effective way to simulate a single gigantic antenna. These antennae, or radio dishes, are arranged in a configuration that can be moved in and out to create baselines of different length, essentially allowing the simulated gigantic antenna to change its size.

When the baseline of the array is small (~160 m), this allows greater sensitivity for extended sources, such as the Antennae Galaxies shown above. When the baseline is large (16 km), it produces exquisitely fine detail. The length of an array’s baseline typically cycles over a period of several months, as it’s quite a job to move the telescopes in and out.

If any of this seems familiar, it may be that you’ve seen a similar facility in the movie Contact. Some of the movie’s scenes were filmed in the fall of 1996 at the Very Large Array (VLA; soon to be the Extended Very Large Array) near Socorro, New Mexico. The VLA is a sibling of ALMA, whose parent organization is the Virginia-based National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

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Physicists apparently break the speed of light

The big news coming out of CERN is that scientists there have apparently exceeded the speed of light. The experiment, carried out repeatedly over a period of three years, involved the acceleration of neutrinos — tiny, neutrally-charged particles — over a distance of nearly 500 miles and timing their travel. Surprisingly, the neutrinos arrived 60 billionths of a second faster than light would have. It may sound like a miniscule difference, but considering that light travels over 186,000 miles per second, it’s actually quite significant.

If confirmed, the discovery would undermine Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which says that the speed of light is a “cosmic constant” and that nothing in the universe can travel faster.

To be specific, Einstein’s theory says that particles with mass can be accelerated to speeds arbitrarily close to the speed of light in a vacuum — say, 99.9999999999% of the speed of light — but never at the speed of light in a vacuum, and certainly not exceeding it. In some cases, particles with mass can exceed the speed of light in certain types of material, for example high-energy electrons traveling through water in pool-type nuclear reactors. When this happens, the particles emit an eerie glow called Cherenkov radiation. (Fun fact: As you can see below, this glow is blue in color, not neon-green as seen on The Simpsons.)

As for the implications of breaking the speed of light, some physicists are holding off on scrapping the theory of relativity until the results are confirmed at other facilities.

Alvaro De Rujula, a theoretical physicist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research outside Geneva from where the neutron beam was fired, said he blamed the readings on a so-far undetected human error.

If not, and it’s a big if, the door would be opened to some wild possibilities.

The average person, said De Rujula, “could, in principle, travel to the past and kill their mother before they were born.”

Even in the face of such wild possibilities, I admire the restraint and humility of the CERN research group that conducted the experiment:

But Ereditato [spokesman for the CERN research group] and his team are wary of letting such science fiction story lines keep them up at night.

“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” he told the AP. “Everybody is free to do what they want: to think, to claim, to dream.”

He added: “I’m not going to tell you my dreams.”

Compared with the wild speculation of some other scientists over similarly startling results in the recent past, this is refreshing.

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SETI is okay to go

The search for alien intelligence in the cosmos is back on, thanks in part to a donation by actress Jodie Foster. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI, was forced to halt its operations in April after losing government funding.

Foster portrayed an astrophysicist who searched for radio signals from intelligent beings in the 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. I recommend both highly, as they portray the interrelation of science and faith in an intelligent and balanced way.

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New Mars rover will look for signs of liquid water

An enhanced-color image of the Gale crater (Credit: NASA/Steven Hobbs)

Scientists at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory have selected the crater ‘Gale’ as the landing site of the rover, Curiosity, when it visits the Red Planet next year to search for signs of historical liquid water.

This will mark the 15th time the U.S. has visited Mars since it was first photographed by the Mariner 4 orbiter in 19651. Mars is of great interest to scientists, not only because of its proximity to Earth (it’s our second-closest planetary neighbor after Venus), but because the Red Planet has been the subject of intense speculation about the presence of alien life for over 200 years.

Speculation about Martian life started in the late 1700s with German-British astronomers and siblings, William and Caroline Herschel, who observed the Red Planet and noticed that it had some features in common with Earth, including axis tilt, length of day, and seasonal changes in its appearance. Moved by these similarities, William speculated that Mars had inhabitants. From his address to the Royal Society in 1784:

It appears that this planet is not without considerable atmosphere; for besides the permanent spots on the surface, I have often noticed occasional changes of partial bright belts; and also once a darkish one… These alterations we can hardly ascribe to any other cause than the variable disposition of clouds and vapors floating in the atmosphere of the planet… Mars has a considerable but modest atmosphere, so that its inhabitants probably enjoy a situation in many respects similar to our own.

In the late 1800s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli added to this speculation when he observed what he thought were canals on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli’s observations inspired the construction of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to further study the phenomena. Astronomer Percival Lowell, who founded the observatory, became convinced that the canals were signs of advanced, intelligent life on Mars. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to science fiction stories about Martian life, including H. G. Wells’ dark tale, The War of the Worlds, and C. S. Lewis’ Christian-themed Out of the Silent Planet.

Despite the fervor over possible Martian life, there were astronomers who questioned whether there was any credible visual evidence for the canals. These questions persisted until Mariner 4 was sent to Mars and failed to detect any signs of the infamous canals. Since then, the focus on the search for life on Mars has shifted to evidence for historical, probably much more primitive, forms of life. If such life ever existed on Mars, it would have required the presence of liquid water, which is why scientists are so eager to find signs of the stuff.

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There it is! Wait … no … er, maybe?

New results from the Large Hadron Collider have physicists wondering if they have actually, for reals now, detected the signal of a Higgs boson, aka the “God particle.” Earlier this year, scientists at Tevatron (an accelerator at Fermilab) thought they might have picked up the signal of a Higgs boson, but excitement turned to disappointment as it was revealed last month that the result could not be replicated with Tevatron’s other detector.

The Higgs boson is the lynchpin of the Standard Model of particle physics, explaining as it does why particles have mass, so physicists are trying like all get-out to find it. This latest hint at its existence is interesting, but nobody at LHC will be making any definitive statements about the result until they’ve analyzed the data and determined whether these fluctuations are statistically important.

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