Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

7 Earthlike Worlds Discovered Around Star Trappist-1

February 25, 2017

More awesome space news! This week, NASA announced that their Spitzer telescope had discovered a system of seven worlds orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star, Trappist-1. The star takes its name from the Belgian operated observatory, which found it. Astronomers from Liege university discovered two of these worlds. Three of these rocky worlds lie in the planet’s habitable zone, which means they could have life, and all of them have temperatures which would permit liquid water to exist. Because of the star’s small size and extremely cool temperature, they are closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun. This video from the Kepler Telescope Channel also looks forward to the development of spacecraft that will be able to reach something like lightspeed, so that humanity may at some point in the future be able to expand into space. And at just 39 light years away, Trappist-1 and its worlds are a suitable nearby target for exploration. The scientists, who made the discovery, also say that the planets are so close together, that you’d be able to see all of them from the surface of one of the planets. They would loom larger than Earth’s Moon, and it would be possible to see even clouds and geological features on their surface.

Organic Material Found on Asteroid Ceres

February 25, 2017

This is fascinating, as Star Trek’s Mr Spock would put it. Scientists at NASA have found organic molecules on the surface of the asteroid, Ceres. They can’t tell at the moment what these molecules are, but they believe they’re similar to Kerisite, and came from within the planetoid, rather than being carried to it by a comet striking its surface.

This short video from D News discusses the recent finding, pointing out that this provides further evidence to support the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Ceres is the largest of the asteroids, or minor planets, orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Most of them are quite small, and have been rightly dubbed ‘flying mountains’. Ceres, however is about 500 miles in diameter.

There has been evidence before that the organic molecules forming the building blocks of life exist in the asteroid belt. These chemicals have been found in meteorites that have landed on Earth. However, with some of these the evidence has been extremely debatable. One of these meteors came down in Orgueoil in France. However, the organic molecules they found may have had a far more mundane origin, as the person, who’d discovered it had stored it in his fridge. I think it had got covered in butter, amongst other things.

I found another video on this discovery, which suggested that there may also be an internal ocean on Ceres, and that the organic molecules on its surface may indicate that it has life, even of only a very primitive kind, underneath in its oceans. This would be, in the words of Zaphod Beeblebrox, ‘amazingly amazing!’ if true. I suspect there isn’t such an ocean and no life there either, but we won’t know for sure until this is investigated further.

Lem’s Robots and Marvin the Paranoid Android

February 15, 2017

lem-pic

Polish SF Maestro Stanislaw Lem

Remember Marvin, the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? He was the manically depressed robot with a brain the size of a planet, who also suffered from a terrible pain in the diodes all down his left side. I was reminded of him yesterday when reading one of the short stories in Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines (Harmondsworth: Penguin 2016.

Lem’s a highbrow Polish SF writer, who uses his fiction to explore deep philosophical issues, sometimes stretching and challenging the conventions of the short story form itself. One of his volumes, A Perfect Vacuum, consists of reviews of non-existent books. Another one is blurbs, also for books that don’t exist. As you can see from this, he was strongly influenced by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, after whom he’s been hailed as the ‘Borges of Science Fiction’. But he could also write straightforward stories, some of which could be hilariously funny.

Two of his works are collected short stories about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines. The stories in the Cyberiad, and several in Mortal Engines, are literally technological fairytales, in which electroknights sally forth to battle robotic dragons. Or mad robotic inventors compete with each other to create the most impressive machines, machines which usually go disastrously wrong. One of the stories in Mortal Engines, ‘The Sanatorium of Dr Vliperdius’, is about a journalist who goes to visit a mental hospital for robots. At the end of his visit, just as he is going out, the journo encounters yet another troubled cybernetic soul.

On my way back with the young assistant I met in the corridor a patient who was pulling behind him a heavily laden cart. This individual presented a singular sight, in that he was tied all around with bits of string.

‘You don’t by any chance have a hammer?’ he asked.
‘No’.
‘A shame. My head hurts.’

I engaged him in conversation. He was a robot-hypochondriac. On his squeaking cart he carried a complete set of spare parts. After ten minutes I learned that he got shooting pains in the back during storms, pins and needles all over while watching television, and spots before his eyes when anyone stroked a cat nearby. It grew monotonous, so I left him quickly and headed for the director’s office. (P. 131).

There’s a serious philosophical issue here, apart from Lem’s literary exploration of the kind of delusions mentally ill robots could suffer from, such as the robot earlier in the story, who believes that he’s really organic, but that somebody has stolen his human body and replaced it with the machine he inhabits. If humanity ever creates genuinely sentient machines, which are able to think and reason like humans – and that’s a big ‘if’, despite the assertions of some robotics engineers – then presumably there will come a point when these machines suffer psychological problems, just as humans do.

Mortal Engines was first published in America by Seabury Press in 1977, roughly at the same time Hitch-Hiker came out on radio over here. Hitch-Hiker is full of references to philosophical problems, such as the debate about the existence of God, so clearly both he and Lem saw the same potential for using robots to explore spiritual malaise, and the psychological implication of genuine Artificial Intelligence.

Trump Puts Iran ‘On Notice’

February 4, 2017

It seems that Drumpf is gearing up to start another war, this time with Iran. Yesterday the Trumpists’ National Security advisor, Michael Flynn, stated that they were putting Iran ‘on notice’ following an attack by Houthi rebels on a Saudi warship and the Iranians’ testing of a ballistic missile. The Houthis are supported by Iran. Under UN resolution 2231, Iran is barred from developing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The missle launched by Iranians was not capable of carrying such a weapon. The rocket flew 500 miles before crashing. Iran has tested ballistic missiles before, and while they are observing the letter of the resolution, Obama’s administration condemned them for violating the convention’s spirit. This was because the results from these tests could be used to construct a missile that would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The former Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, said that ‘this is not the first time an inexperienced person has threatened Iran … The American government will understand that threatening Iran is useless. Iran does not need permission from any country to defend itself.’ He also stated that the weapon was not covered by the nuclear accords, and that they would not use missiles produced in Iran to attack another country.

Trump also made a statement attacking Obama’s agreement with Iran, in which frozen assets were returned to the country in return for the regime abandoning any effort to development nuclear weapons. I think the monies returned to Iran was about $180 million. Trump declared that until Obama gave them the money, the country was on its last legs. There’s no evidence for that, and Drumpf misrepresents the payment as some kind of gift. And like his Republican predecessors, Drumpf also seems to want to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. Despite the fact that it is preventing Iran from developing nuclear arms, and international monitoring agencies have confirmed that Iran is abiding by the agreement.

In the video, John Iadarola and Ana Kasparian also state why an invasion of Iran would be a bad idea. They make the point that the Iraq invasion and consequent occupation has been bad enough, but Iran would be much more difficult as it has a larger army and is better armed and equipped.

There are also a number of other points that could be made here. Firstly, any invasion of Iran would not only face difficulties presented by confronting a much better armed country, but would also cause the same ethnic blood bath that broke out in Iraq. 51 per cent of the Iranian population speak Farsi, but the country is also a mosaic of other tribes, including Arabs in Khuzestan, Kurds, Baluchis and various nomadic tribes speaking languages related to Turkish. Many of these have also waged war in the recent past for their independence. The Kurds have been fighting for their independence since the reign of the Shah, and several of the Turkish tribes rose up in revolt in the 1970s after the Iranian regime confiscated their tribal lands as part of a programme of land redistribution.

It’s hardly known in the west, but there is also a massive, growing underground Christian church in Iran similar to underground church in China. Apostasy from Islam is forbidden, and converts to Christianity imprisoned and persecuted. It has got to the point that the Iranian regime is posting armed soldiers around the ethnic Armenian churches, so that Iranians don’t sneak in to participate in their worship. If America invades Iran, this already persecuted minority will suffer even worse harassment and victimisation as they will be identified with the invaders. And the same will be true of the Bahai’is. They see themselves as a separate religion, which has grown out of Islam, in the same way that Christianity developed from Judaism. Mainstream Islam, at least in Iran, sees them as a heresy, and they have been savagely persecuted. Because Baha’ullah, one of the religion’s founders, was imprisoned in Haifa, which is now in Israel, there’s a conspiracy theory grown up about the Bahai’is, which accuses them of being spies and saboteurs working for Israel. It’s rubbish, but this hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of Bahai’is being killed in pogroms. Any American invasion of Iran will see these people suffer even worse persecution.

Iadarola and Kasparian also make the point that Trump’s belligerence also threatens to miss a golden opportunity to turn the country into an ally. They make the point that it’s a young country, with a burgeoning middle class, who want western consumer products. It should be possible to draw Iran into the international community, and neutralise any threat they may pose simply through friendly relations. But Trump is taking the much easier route, of turning it into another North Korea, isolated from the rest of the world.

The peoples of the Middle East have suffered too much. The last thing they, and indeed the rest of the world need, is another wretched, stupid war of aggression. And let’s forget the rhetoric about Iran being a ‘rogue state’ and part of the ‘Axis of evil’ as George Dubya put it. The Iranian theocracy is brutal. But it is still more liberal than many of the other countries around it, like Saudi Arabia. There is a democratic component to their constitution, which there is certainly isn’t in the Wahhabi kingdom. And I’ve also heard that if the Iranians were developing nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t be to use against Europe, but to defend themselves against the Saudis.

If America were to invade Iran, it wouldn’t be to spread democracy. That would be another lie, the same that has been used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The reality would be that it would be another attempt by the Neocon political and economic elite to loot another Middle Eastern country, and steal its oil and industries. While the Saudis would back it in their campaign to advance their kind of repressive Sunni Islam against Iranian Shi’a.

Scientists and Hackers Back Up Climate Data to Prevent Trump Deleting It

January 30, 2017

Here’s another act of resistance against the Trump regime. In this very short video, Farron Cousins from The Ring of Fire explains how, during Trump’s inauguration, a group of 60 climate scientists and hackers got together to go through the US government’s website to back up all the data on climate change. This information is now stored on servers in Europe. The scientists, technicians and hackers did so to prevent the information from being deliberately purged by Trump. The group intends to compare this with future releases of information on climate by Trump and his cronies in order to prevent him from falsifying evidence against climate change.

Cousins makes very short work of Kelly-Anne Conway’s statements that Trump believes in climate change. Conway is Trump’s spokeswoman, and she’s claimed that he believes in it, as he’s talked about it in the past. Well, no, he hasn’t actually. The only time the Permatanned Duce talked about it, he declared that it was ‘a Chinese hoax’.

Cousins shows how the Republicans not only do not believe in climate change, but they confuse it with weather. Conway apparently says that Trump’s aware that climate change is occurring, because the weather also changes. Cousins shows that while the weather does change from day to day, the climate is rather different. But as he says, the Republicans don’t believe climate change is real, because it still snows, so this obviously disproves global warming.

This is excellent news, as Trump has already shown his determination to expunge and falsify information on climate change through imposing gagging orders preventing officials working for the Environmental Protection Agency from publishing data that does not match the Trump-approved party line.

Other scientists are planning to organise a march on Washington as a protest against Trump’s and the Republicans’ attacks on climate science, evolution and renewable energy.

It’s great that so much is being done to defend climate science from attacks from Trump and the Republicans. And this is just one facet of a general movement by millions of people throughout the world against Trump and his policies.

American Scientists Plan March against Trump

January 28, 2017

After the massive numbers of people involved in the women’s marches against Trump held around the world last weekend, American scientists are also planning to organise their own demonstration against the Orange Caudillo in protest at his disastrous environmental and health policies.

In this video, TYT Nation’s Jeff Waldorf discusses a report in Forbes’ discussing the formation of the new group of scientists planning this march. The group has it’s own internet page, and in five days its members grew from 200 to 200,000 +. The group says it will include non-scientists as well as scientists, and is intended to advocate the greater involvement of science in government. It’s purpose is to defend climate science, evolution, and alternative energy. Waldorf states that he too believes strongly that science should be more involved in government. He also quibbles with the phrasing in the Forbes’ article, taking issue with the magazine’s description of the scientists as ‘believing’ in the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel industries. Waldorf argues that scientists’ in these areas don’t believe, because they have proof that oil pipelines, such as DAPL, can rupture, creating massive oil spills and environmental destruction.

Waldorf also argues that, although he understands why people in America’s coal country wish to retain the industry for as long as possible for the sake of their jobs, renewables are now becoming cheaper than oil for the first time. It’s time to move from the horse and buggy to the automobile, is the metaphor he uses. He also notes that 75 per cent of Trumps’ own supporters are also in favour of solar and wind power, and natural gas. Waldorf himself is not in favour of natural gas, as it’s still a fossil fuel, with the environmental problems that poses. At the moment, the movement is still in the planning stage, but hopes to issue a mission statement soon. In the meantime, they state that a government that sacrifices science to ideology is a threat not just to America, but also the world.

I wish the scientists the best of luck in their campaigns against Trump’s attack on climate change and green energy. I think, however, Waldorf has a rather too optimistic view of science. There’s quite a debate in the philosophy of science over what constitutes ‘proof’. In one view, articulated by the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, science advances through falsification. You can’t prove a particular theory. What you do instead is show that other explanations are false. In many areas of science, the observable effects of experiments, may be tiny and ambiguous. This is why scientists have developed very sophisticated statistical methods for sorting through their observations in search of factual evidence that will support or disprove their theories. Thus, at the risk of nit-picking, it might be fairer to say that climate change and environmental damage by the fossil fuel industry is far better supported by the available evidence, than the minority view that no such change or damage is occurring.

I also think you have to be careful about relying too much on science to solve social problems. The British philosopher, Mary Midgeley, in one of her books pointed out that in some areas, what is needed is a social and industrial solution to a particularly issue, rather than scientific innovation. For example, it could be argued that in the struggle against world hunger, what is needed is not new, genetically engineered crops which produce vast yields, but better transportation methods and infrastructure to supply people with the food that has already been grown.

Despite these very minor quibbles, it is true that orthodox, respectable science in the above areas has been under attack for a long time to serve powerful interests in the fossil fuel industries. Trump this week imposed gagging orders preventing scientists and government workers in the Environmental Protection Agency from revealing their findings. Climate change is happening, and is a real danger to America and the globe. But this awareness frightens the Koch brothers and their wealth in the petrochemical industry. So they, and millionaires like them, are spending vast sums to keep the facts from ordinary peeps. America’s scientists are right to challenge this. Let’s hope their march in support of proper science goes ahead and is well-attended.

Trump Imposes Gag Order on Government Environmental Scientists

January 28, 2017

The Republican party since the 1980s, if not before, has a bitter hatred of environmentalism and loathes just about any and all laws, movements or protests to protect Earth’s precious natural resources, and the creatures with whom we share our beautiful world. Now Trump’s taken it to its latest development.

In this video, The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian discuss Trump’s imposition of a legal ban gagging members of the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing details of their work to the general public. Trump has also frozen official funding, so that the Agency may only publish its results and findings if these meet the official, ideological approval of his administration.

Uygur and Kasparian point out that this is intended to keep people ignorant, powerless and deprived of decent science education before Trump’s government. They also point out that this action by the Orange Dictator shows without question that the Republicans are anti-science. It doesn’t matter whether individual Republican voters support Trump’s policy, or they merely have to go along with it because they agree with his others reforms. The Republicans are anti-science, and they should now own it.

They also make the point that in any jobs that may actually be brought back to America through these bans, Americans will be fighting for scraps. The jobs in the petrochemical sectors drilling for oil, which the attacks on the EPA are designed to protect, will not be such to give Americans the standard of living they want. It would make far greater sense for the government to begin investigating in renewables – a whole new industry. At the moment, even the Chinese are beating America in investment and research into renewable energy, because, says Uygur, ‘the Chinese are smart’. But there’s no reasons why America shouldn’t be no. 1 in renewable energy. They’ve got enough sun in Arizona and wind in Chicago, the notorious ‘windy city’.

The Young Turks here are right. This is all about protecting the Republican party’s corporate backers in the petrochemical industry, like the Koch brothers. These two have financed a slew of fake astroturf ‘Green’ organisations and campaigned against genuine climate science produced by independent university laboratories. Koch money has been poured into Unis and state coffers instead to produce very politicised labs that have been set up to deny that climate change is occurring, and that drilling for oil is having a harmful effect on the local landscape of the US. This is despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, such as vast stretches of Louisiana wetland now made little more than one vast oil bog. Or the fact that there were over 300 spills from the oil pipelines crisscrossing America last year. The Kochs and their dollars try to keep facts like these well-hidden from the voters and the folks that have to live with the results of their environmental pillage.

And whatever the Republicans do, the Tories are nearly always bound to follow. The Republicans have heavily embraced fracking, and so have the Tories and their Lib Dem enablers. So you can bet that at this moment, Theresa May, members of her cabinet, or perhaps the members of some Tory think tank somewhere, is looking at these gagging laws, and wondering how something similar can be introduced over here.

The US Intelligence Agencies’ Plans for Mind-Control Implants for the Public

January 28, 2017

Magonia was a small, sceptical UFO magazine running from about the 1970s to the first years of the present century. It took the psychosocial view of UFOs- that they were, in the phrase of Carl G. Jung, ‘a modern myth of things scene in the sky’. They were misperceived objects, and the reported encounters with aliens were internal events produced by poorly understood psychological processes whose imagery was taken from the culture around them. It followed John Keel and Jacques Vallee in considering that in previous ages, the mechanism responsible for producing UFO sightings had used the imagery of gods and faeries. Now that society has become industrial and technological, and the supernatural at least ostensibly given way to scientific rationalism, the beings reported by those experiencing these sightings are spacecraft and aliens as the new, psychological symbol for the cosmic Other.

It has published some of the most interesting and intelligent articles on UFOs, and other visionary experiences in contemporary urban culture. Like many small mags, it’s been overtaken by the internet and is no longer published in hardcopy. There is, however, a Magonia blog, reviewing books on the weird and paranormal at http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-nature-of-catastrophe.html. Also on-line are archives of the magazine and its predecessor, MUFOB, as well as notices of forthcoming books on the subjects it covers.

magonia-58-cover

Way back in issue 58 in January 1997, it published an article by Mark Pilkington, ‘What’s On Your Mind’, examining the belief reported by many schizophrenics that their minds are being controlled through tiny electronic implants. Similar delusions that others are controlling their minds and their thoughts through machinery have afflicted the mentally ill down the centuries. I have a feeling that there was a book reviewed by the Fortean Times about a decade or so ago about the first such recorded case. This was in the late 18th or early 19th century. The sufferers in this instance was a gentleman, who believed his mind was being controlled by a group of Jacobins determined to overthrow the government, using a machine he called ‘the air loom’.

Unfortunately, such devices have for many decades most certainly not been merely the fantasies of the psychologically ill, or of writers of spy and science fiction. Mark Pilkington’s article also briefly traced the notorious experiments carried out by the American intelligence agencies into mind control from the early 1950s under a series of covert projects such as Artichoke, Bluebird, Pandora, Mkdelta, Mksearch and Mkultra. The projects researched a variety of different methods, including drugs, hypnosis and electro-shock treatment in a variety of grossly unethical experiments. And one the avenues they explored was electronic manipulation of the brain. This resulted in the creation of the ‘stimoceiver’, a type of electrode which could be inserted into the brain to control or modify a creatures’ behaviour. Its inventor, Jose Delgado supposedly demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention by using it to stop a charging bull. Research into the electronic control of the brain was taken still further by Bryan Robinson, of the Yerkes Primate Research Laboratory, and Dr Robert Heath.

Mark Pilkington writes:

Dr Robert Heath, a neurosurgeon at Tulane University, claimed a world record after implanting 125 electrodes into a subject’s body and brain, and subsequently spent hours stimulating the man’s pleasure centres. Both scientists concluded that ESB [Electronic Stimulation of the Brain] could control memory, impulses, feelings, invoke hallucinations, fear and pleasure. Heath, and many of his colleagues, considered ESB a potential ‘cure’ for homosexuals and other ‘socially troublesome persons’; this could, of course, be you…Joseph A. Meyer, of the National Security Agency, America’s most secretive defence group, has proposed implanting electronic tags into all those arrested, for any crime, in order to monitor their behaviour at all times. He uses New York’s Harlem district as the model in his proposal. (p.4).

He then goes to discuss further refinements of the technology, and the possibility that the whole abduction phenomenon, or at least part of it, was a screen for the military testing of such technology for their possible use in warfare.

I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of the poor souls, who believe their minds are being controlled by electronic implants, whether put there by the terrestrial intelligence agencies, aliens or whoever, are simply mentally ill. Just as I similarly don’t believe that anyone has ever been physically abducted and taken aboard an alien spacecraft to be examined and abused.

But the technology to control people’s minds and brains artificially certainly does exist, and its use was promoted by senior members of the intelligence community, whose views represent a very clear and present danger to the personal freedom of just about everyone. Starting, of course, with the fringe and marginalised – like criminals, Blacks and gays, before getting to anyone else they consider socially deviant and needing necessary mental correction.

Unfortunately, the threat posed by this kind of technology is taken seriously largely by extreme right-wing paranoiacs like the infamous conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, on Infowars, with his bizarre fantasies about demonic entities, alien invasions and the coming one world superstate. And Jones is a Libertarian, who has given his vocal support to Donald Trump, who represents the very same, predatory, exploitative corporate elite Americans and the world’s citizens need protection from.

Which goes to bear out the old phrase: ‘Even paranoiacs have enemies. They just don’t know who they are.’

It also shows that organisations like the CIA and the NSA are also actively threats to human rights and personal freedoms, quite apart from the Agency’s role in overthrowing democratic regimes and installing subservient Fascist regimes across the world since the end of the Second World War.

The ‘I’ Newspaper on the Invention of Star Trek-Style ‘Tractor Beam’

January 4, 2017

The I newspaper today reported that Asier Marzo, an American doctoral student, now a research assistant at Bristol uni, has invented a tractor beam using sound which can be built by anyone with a 3D printer.

The article by Tom Bawden runs

Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek were given a huge boost last year when a doctoral student in America developed the first sonic tractor beam capable of pulling an object towards it by using sound waves. But alas its use was confined to fancy labs with expensive equipment.

Now, thanks to that same individual – who has since become a research assistant at the University of Bristol – it has become far more accessible, at least to anyone with 3D printing technology.

The tractor beam has long been a staple of science fiction, used in a series of Star Trek episodes to capture and tow other space ships, while the Death Star’s tractor beam memorably catches the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

A do-it-yourself handheld acoustic tractor beam will now become widely available, according to a new paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” said Asier Marzo, the researcher behind the developments.

“Now, we have made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter,” he said.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what’s called a metamaterial, which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths. The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.”

With an effect that is determined by the shape of the tubes, the research team focused on optimising the design to allow fabrication with common 3D printers, ensuring it could be constructed by home hobbyists. (The I, 4th January 2017, p. 23).

I think the pseudoscientific explanation for the tractor beams in Star Trek is that they use gravitons – the subatomic particles that carry the force of gravity – to pull other ships and objects towards them. In an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Wesley Crusher is shown having invented a handheld tractor beam. I think it’s in the episode ‘The Naked Now’.

There are some very clever things now being done with sound. There was a piece on The One Show or perhaps the Beeb’s pop science programme, Bang Goes The Theory, where they showed how sound waves could be used to levitate a series of small objects. I have a feeling it was the discovery of acoustic levitation back in the 1990s or early 2000s that inspired one episode of Far Scape, ‘Taking the Stone’ where Chiana joins a group of alien thrill seekers. These young people get their kicks from leaping off a cliff above an alien echo chamber while humming. If they get the tone right, the sound waves resonate and break their fall. If they don’t, they plunge to their deaths. I can’t imagine that ever catching on as sport in real life, but you never know.

Florence on Terraforming Mars Using Existing Microbes

January 2, 2017

One of the pieces I put up yesterday was on a paper by two scientists in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, discussing the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered microbes. Florence, one of the commenters on this blog, used to be a microbiologist, and was extremely interested in the exploration of Mars and the prospect for finding life there. She commented that there are already anaerobic microbes that can exist in comparable conditions on Earth. She felt that the experiments carried designed to detect life on the Red Planet were very inadequate. She wrote

There appears little need to create GMOs for terraforming. We already have the real deal here on earth. Back 3.6 billion years ago, when first life is thought to have arrived/ developed / etc there wasn’t an oxygen based atmosphere. It was anoxic, and the first organisms (the archeao bacteria) were very sensitive to oxygen, and there are still many that find oxygen toxic. These are still found in many places including the human gut! Some microorganisms developed oxygen tolerance and that allowed them to use new food sources, and they began adding oxygen to the atmosphere. These organisms then used this evolutionary advantage to evolve and diversify. When I studied anaerobic bacteria the main problems were sensitivity to oxygen – very difficult to remove from all materials prepared in the standard lab – and the slow growth rate (making the rapid generation of results for research funding cycles pretty difficult).

http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtmlhttp://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtml

Then there are the organisms that can grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments. These are the ones that would be useful in terraforming if the aim was to develop a breathable atmosphere for humans and other animals. These live on very basic nutrients of sulphur and iron containing minerals, plus water. I think the “red” planet would be a great place to find these organisms, and vee may not even need to send ours over, but to stimulate the environmental conditions that would allow the planet to terraform itself. I recall the so-called search for life on the early Mars probes left me speechless – they were just totally inappropriate. But that’s can other story! Thank you for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702

The paper discussing the use of GEMOs to terraform Mars did mention that some existing microorganisms had been considered, such as a variety of cyanobacteria.
Looking through the index of papers published in the Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society: August 13-16, 1998, edited by Robert and Linda Zubrin, I did find one paper by James M. Graham and Linda E. Graham on terrestrial microbes on Mars. This was ‘Physiological Ecology of Terrestrial Microbes on a Terraformed Mars’, published in the third volume of papers. Unfortunately, I don’t have that volume, and so I really don’t know anything about the paper or its conclusions, just that it exists.

As for the inadequacy of the instruments aboard the Viking probe to detect life on the Red Planet, Dr. Heather Couper and the late Colin Pillinger also believed that they were too limited to disprove the existence of life in that part of the cosmos. Heather Couper is an astronomer, writer and broadcaster, who’s written a series of books on astronomy. A few years ago I heard her talk about life on Mars at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Before she began speaking, she asked her audience how many of them believed there was life there. Only a few people put their hands up. She asked the same question again at the end of her talk, after she had explained the problems with Viking’s experiments, and the evidence for life. That time the majority of people put their hands up.

Dr. Colin Pillinger, who was a scientist with the Open University, also made a very strong case for life on Mars, life he hoped to find with the Beagle Probe. One of the ways life could be detected was through its waste gases, like methane. The Beagle Probe carried just such a detector, and Dr. Pillinger said, ‘So if a bacterium farts on Mars, we’ll find it.’ He was another speaker at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, and was well worth hearing. Sadly, the Beagle Probe was a disastrous failure. Rather than soft-landing, it crashed on to the Mars surface, and was destroyed.

Despite this, I still have immense respect for the man. He and his team seemed to be fighting a lone battle to send a British probe to explore the issue, and I am deeply impressed by the way he and his fellow scientists were able to mobilise public support, including celebrities like the artist, Damian Hurst. I got the impression that his team were rushed, and it may well have been this that caused the mission’s failure. But I don’t fault the man for trying, and I think he did a grand job in taking on British officialdom and winning a place for the probe aboard the Ariane craft, when the British authorities didn’t appear to be at all interested, at least, at the beginning.

It’s sad that he failed, but he was genuinely inspirational in pushing for the project. I hope that it will not be too long before someone else sends another, better probe to Mars. And I think we need more scientists, and science educators like him, who can pass on their great enthusiasm for their subject.