Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing" - Helen Keller

Seems like it's been non-stop action these days.  Amanda will be defending her Masters thesis tomorrow!  I've been jumping around like crazy trying to review apps for the Soffen Travel Grant while reading articles in the RNA World hypothesis and preparing for next week's trip to the Mojave Desert.  Feels like regardless of how busy we are, I still feel like I'm not doing enough.  Hopefully I will have that sulfur spring up and running within the coming weeks.  I'd like to have an idea of how the spring will function before I depart to head back to Pennsylvania for xmas time.

On another note, today would be Carl Sagan's 87th birthday!  The Secular Students and Skeptic Society here at CU Boulder have put together an event for this evening in the planetarium for watching an episode of Cosmos on the dome.  I think, regardless of the work I have to do, that I will have to partake in this event!

Monday, November 7, 2011


Just watched this video, a TED talk from Mark Pagel:

I found the discussion to be intriguing.

I don't necessarily agree with everything he said.  Indeed, I wonder if some anthropologists cringe and shudder when he suggests that chipanzees cannot "ape" the actions they see.  I think the fact that many of them can use a stick to get ants out of the ground in the first place is a sign of some level of sharing of ideas between individuals.  Also, it is curious to wonder if the evolution of language is a necessity for intelligent/conscious organisms to create civilizations.

I do like how the speaker links the development of language to our mental capacity for not only "aping" the acts of others, but also of sharing our acts with others.  Language is a technology.  Many people may not see it as such; they may take speaking and language for granted.  But language is a tool we developed within ourselves.

We are now developing languages in new ways.  We're building mathematical languages and computer languages which have allowed us to increase our capacity for computation, modeling, and data structuring.  Looking forward to a future where we may one day come into contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings, I have to wonder about the role language will play in our exchanges.

Will it be as simple as creating some "galactic rosetta stone" which will allow us to translate our languages together, or will the language barrier be so complex, so different, that we will feel utterly disconnected from whomever else is out there?  We use manipulations of air and our internal organs to create sound.  We can use tools, such as musical instruments and computers, to create other sounds.  This is our language.  We also have gesturing, which can very much be a part of our language.  I wonder how an intelligent extraterrestrial being may perceive our language.  Would it be common that developing biological and mechanical devices for creating vibrations in the local medium is the primary source of language?  What if E.T. phones home with something other than sound?  What if other beings have evolved a biological ability to speak through pulses in electromagnetic radiation (beyond our simple computer screens and written language; I mean a real ability to transmit and receive light signals as a form of language)?  What if other beings have language on the level of producing structure in molecules and then transmitting those molecules?  That would make "shaking hands" a whole new experience.  It is intriguing indeed to wonder what the language barrier will be between ourselves and any other intelligent organisms we may one day meet.

Just more to ponder.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

I just took a survey for a young student who is interested in astrobiology.  One of the questions was about whether or not the surveyed individual believed we were "alone" in the universe or not and why.  Here is the short answer I supplied after clicking the option for "I believe it is highly likely that we are not alone":

I'm sure most people in my profession would answer this with the traditional "waste of space" quote, but I'll try to be a little more from-the-heart with my answer.  From the years I've spent earning degrees in biology, chemistry, and now geology, as well as the time I've spent reading and thinking about myself, about our species, about our place in the universe, I have come to believe (yes, a scientist can have beliefs) that life, life as we know it and maybe even life as we don't yet know it, is extremely likely to exist in our universe outside of Earth.  With the billions upon billions of stars in our known universe, many of which we are slowly but surely learning have their own planetary systems, it is highly likely that there are other places where life may have originated and where biological evolution may have begun.  These places need not be Earth-like.  There may be a multitude of ways in which life can originate and develop.  However, that remains as well-founded speculation.  To be even more forward, there likely are many planets in our known universe which have near-the-same planetary dynamics as our Earth and which may have allowed for the origination and evolution of life as we know it.  I do not believe our Earth is rare.  I do however believe our Earth is special.  It's special because it's our home, our cradle.  One of the drivers in my growth as an astrobiologist has been is my sincere wish to understand our world better, and to maybe help humanity in understanding ourselves as we slowly begin to look out at the cosmos that lie beyond our cradle.

Friday, October 28, 2011


When I first named this blog "A Cosmobiologist's Dream", I really had intended to use the word Astrobiologist instead. However, had already been taken and I thought that this would be just as fitting.  

Well, it turns out that the term cosmobiologist has been used for a little bit of time to imply a certain type of astrology, something I have no interest in being too closely connected with. I have been considering changing the name of this blog and the URL, but I think that would be giving too much credence to those zany astrologers out there. No, I think I'll keep this term and use it the way I think it should be used. If others wish to use it in an astrological (pseudoscientific) sense, than that's their prerogative, but the term appears as though it should be scientific and so I will use it as a scientific term.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it."  ~John Steinbeck

Good night world!
The Thing

We're about to head off to the theater to see the new film "The Thing"!  This is supposed to be a prequel to the 1982 film (The Thing, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell).  The new film looks pretty sweet:

Back to work...

I leave on Tuesday for Switzerland.  We'll be using the Swiss Light Source ( to do some sulfur XANES (x-ray absorption near edge structure) spectroscopy.  I'm totally stoked to see if the thin sections I have will produce good data (and, more importantly, what those data will show us).

Should be an awesome trip, but before we leave I need to get all of my work for my classes finished.  That means this exam for planetary surfaces and my homework for cosmochemistry need to be finished today.  Ugh.  Good thing I can watch old sci-fi movies and do these assignments at the same time.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Parenthood as an American Excuse for Apathy

I had a rather funny exchange with a friend on Facebook yesterday.  Have a look:

I just got a psp and 2 new god of war games it is a good day

 ·  ·  · 16 hours ago via mobile · 

    • Ryan-Nikki Wissler psp an xbox bitch!!! GO IRISH!
      16 hours ago · 

    • Graham Lau I just ran a 5k in 20.5 minutes. Almost broke 6 minutes on the first mile. Priorities.

      "Look at your thumbs. They're way too well defined. That is a powerful index of incompatibility!"

      15 hours ago · 

    • Ryan-Nikki Wissler well there mr lau.....IF i was able to run or had the free time that u do to run MAYBE....i would. my prioritie is beign home at night after working all to be with my sons while my wife goes to school at night. me playing xbox is a way to take out aggresion and have some kind of a social life. SO in and your big words can go fly a kite!!!
      15 hours ago · 

    • Graham Lau Dude, I was trying to pick on Nick. Don't get your panties in a bunch. I'm pretty busy myself. I'm traveling to Switzerland next week to do some xray spectroscopy on a particle accelerator, so I've been prepping samples non stop. That on top of my graduate classes, reading books, and trying to move forward in my research so that I can get my Ph.D. before I turn 35... Sometimes we get busy. But that's no excuse for letting our physical and mental abilities fade. I play XBOX, too. I find it to be a good way to keep my mental abilities sharp. But I still read, write, exercise, go out, and spend many hours in my lab (and still find time to sleep). Here's a fun idea, play XBOX for about an hour to relieve your stress and then play some physical games with your kids. They can get strong while you keep yourself in shape.
      14 hours ago · 

    • Steph Ison Ladies ladies it will be ok lol
      11 hours ago · 

I consider Ryan to be a friend, and I'm sure he loves his children, but I have no sympathy for his excuse for his lack of exercise.  For all of the people I've met in my life who've used their children as an excuse for not exercising or challenging themselves, I have known just about as many who have children and yet make the time to keep themselves healthy and strong.  Indeed, it generally seems that the parents who manage to maintain enough discipline to devote time to their children while finding time to exercise their bodies and minds tend to have children who learn to do the same.

One common theme I've seen amongst some parents in America is the attitude that parenting is so 'hard' that it excuses any negative attitudes, lacking health, or failures on the part of the parent.  That to me is the equivalent of not accepting the consequences of the decision to have children.  Apathy cannot be excused through children.  Indeed, that attitude just creates more apathetic children who then turn into apathetic parents themselves one day.  Break the cycle.  Get off the couch.  Take the kids for a walk, read a book with them, teach them how to do cartwheels, etc.  Children live what they learn.     

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Toastmasters Competent Communicator Project 4

Tonight I will be giving a prepared speech for my Toastmasters group (See You Speak).  I was reading through the requirements for the speech I will be giving.  It is project number 4 from the TM Competent Communicator manual.  While reading through it, I was perturbed to see a short section on jargon.  Now, when it comes to jargon, I do think we all need to be aware of our audiences when we speak, write, or express ourselves.  If we want to be understood we have to communicate in ways that the people we wish to reach can understand.  That said, I think that some words that are considered jargon, have less to do with being characterized as being specific to a certain field of study or aspect of life and culture, but have more to do with the fact that they are not easy words to learn and that most people never get far enough in their own education to use those words with confidence.  For instance, in the manual the authors suggest replacing "conceptualize" with "imagine", "finalize" with "finish", and "implement" with "begin" or "use".  WTF?!  I disagree completely.  I think we should feel free to use words that are a little harder and are a little more specific.  Yes, some audience members may not feel exactly comfortable with using a certain term themselves, but a good speaker should be able to convey the word (and what it is expressing) within the context of their speech anyway.  I will not limit myself to words that are 'easy'.  Screw that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

When a person dies, what becomes of their digital self?

I logged into my Facebook yesterday, and was surprised.  Beyond the huge news that Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and leader in the modern tech revolution, had died at the age of 56, I also found news that a Facebook friend, who went by the digital name Ginger Snaps (real-world name: Melissa Hayes), had also died (the SUV she was driving crashed into an abandoned home, killing her and her cousin in the passenger seat).

Ginger Snaps' death surprised me in a weird way.  I am quite comfortable with death and loss (living without religion makes death far easier to deal with).  The reason I was surprised was because I felt myself unsure of whether or not the person I knew was really gone yet.  Let me explain:

In our modern world, with our social networking accounts and projections of ourdigitalselves through the internet, the person we project is not necessarily the same person we are in our real lives.  Melissa dies yesterday.  Her physical self is no longer extant.  But, much as we are preserved after our deaths through the memories of others and the impacts we've made in the world, her Facebook account still exists and her digital self is still there; silent, but there.  There are now many people posting their condolences and such on her FB wall.  It makes it seem like her account is still somewhat active.  I'm sure over the next few days and beyond, that traffic to her account will slow down to a trickle and then stop.  And her digital self will slowly fade as well.  But the account will remain active unless someone comes along and deactivates it.  Without someone to put an end to our digital selves after our physical deaths, then I suppose that digital self will remain, like a shadow.

Makes me wonder about where we're going.  The future is always far more exciting and surprising than what we ever thought possible.  Most people who lived in America in the early 1900's C.E. could never have guessed that we would have digital computers and internet with social groups which would allow for us to create digital selves.  There are always dreamers.  The sci-fi writers, the speculators, the scientists...  But our thoughts about what will come are usually only small tips of the icebergs that wait in the distance.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Listening to the soundtrack for the film "The Fountain".  Moving music.  Clint Mansell did the entire soundtrack.  His compositions are full of emotion.  They are cerebral and smooth, yet every now and then the songs get powerful enough to make me feel energized and alive.


Monday, September 26, 2011

"Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.
-Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

It definitely seems like there are some of us on this planet who look to the stars and dream about what lies ahead (for us on this planet and for our lives beyond) and then there are many who look no where but to the present.  I truly have been wondering more and more lately about the nature of humanity.  Are we bound to diverge so much that we become new, distinct species?  We already have groups of people who will not breed with other groups.  The far-right, conservative christians have entrenched themselves pretty deeply in some areas and seem to indoctrinate their children so heavily that those children don't fit in with modern day thinking.  How will our society continue to evolve when groups within cannot work together?  If Earth is our cradle, perhaps it is nurturing and raising us to be very different.  Perhaps part of biological evolution for conscious species is to diverge into new varieties.  I wonder if, when we do come to leave the cradle and "grow up", if a good proportion of what was humanity will remain behind, stuck in their ways and unwilling to change.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gearing up to move forward with building a sulfur spring analog in the lab.  I realized I have forgotten a lot of what we covered in geochemistry for equilibrium constants, dissolution in solutions, solubility, and the like.  Going back and reading "Thermodynamics of Natural Systems" to try to build up a sound idea of the theory once again.  I hope I can get this thing moving forward before too long.

Here's a fun link.  Syd Mead is the guy who developed the futuristic scenery for films such as Blade Runner, Tron, Alien, and Minority Report.  His art is fantastic!  Check his site out:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mmmmmm.  Big ol' cup of coffee and a relaxed morning.  Just what I needed.

Was just reading about yet another awesome discovery made using the Kepler space telescope.  Astronomers have discovered a saturn-size planet which orbits in a binary star system.  Much like the fictional Tatooine from "Star Wars", this planet experiences double-sunsets from its surface (and other cool variations of the two stars rising and setting at different distances from each other relative to the planet).  Too cool!    

Here's an image (artist rendering of course) from the NASA press release:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Decade Past

Have been thinking a lot lately about this past decade, from where I've come to where I am going.  Ten years ago, when I was 17, I was still using a lot of drugs, still expelled from high school, still doing a lot of self-discovery, and I had just given my son for adoption.  I think my son's birth, the three days we had with him, and his adoption were moments that strengthened me.  They made consider my own mortality and my own ambitions. When I was a kid I had such great dreams of becoming a scientist and sharing my knowledge with the world.  I wanted to go to space, I wanted to learn about life and the cosmos, and I wanted to be a great person.  My adolescence was a change from that ambition.  my adolescence really taught me humility; taught me about who I really was and what it would take for me to excel.  Ten years ago I realized, to quote from Star Trek: First Contact, that I should not "try to be a great man" but rather "just be a man, and let history decide the rest".  I intend to be the best human being I can be, knowing that I will make mistakes and sometimes fall to my own wants, needs, and simple pleasures along my journeys, and accepting that.  These past ten years have taught me so much about what it means to be human, to have to work for something you want, and to feel unsure about the future.  I wonder where these next ten years will take me.  What will I be doing when I'm 37?  I hope, whatever it is that I am doing in ten years from now, that I will be doing something far different than what I'm doing now and exploring and discovering new things about myself and others.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Island of Dr. Moreau

I had never before read The Island of Dr. Moreau (H.G. Wells, 1896), but I had seen two film versions.  I was very curious to see how it was the Moreau had turned the animals on his island into humanesque creations.  I was a little surprised to learn of the method.  Moreau created the Beast Men by tinkering with adding and removing body parts through vivisection (live surgery).  Wells speculated that in his near future that the process of tissue graphing and tissue manipulations that a simple surgeon could be capable of making animals walk as bipeds and think and speak like humans.  Of course, this idea is very fallacious, but then you have to consider the time in which Wells wrote his story.  The novel was first published in 1896, though Wells' end-note to the book claims that the story stemmed from a short essay he had written for The Saturday Review in Januray of 1895.  At that time, vivisection was becoming hotly debated as a current issue of scientific morality in England.  It seems that Wells was triggered by the topic and inspired to dream what could happen if tissue graphing through vivisection allowed for the creation of new organisms, such that were alike to humans.  In the modern time, our knowledge of physiology and biology make it apparent that such manipulation is just not possible, but it is still a fun flight of fantasy to read the story.  I feel now that I must watch the films again.  If I recall correctly, the 1996 version (with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) changed the basic premise such that Moreau uses modern genetic engineering to create his beasts, which is far easier to 'swallow' for the modern science-savvy person.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Time Machine

Just finished H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" for the third time in my life.  I love this story.  Such a provocative consideration of how social distinctions may drive the future differentiation of our species from the view of an educated man living in the late 1800's C.E.  I think a reading of "The Time Machine" is probably obligatory for anyone interested in ideas of time travel.  Though very dated, and lacking in scientific explanation for the underpinnings of the actual machine itself, "The Time Machine" shows how a rational thinker could view time before the beginnings of modern physics and without all of the inundation of temporal travel we see in modern sci-fi media.  I won't take up too much space here appraising the value of this fantastic read, but I will quote one line from the story that I found very interesting:

"There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it."

I thought this line was interesting for two reasons.  1) Wells' wrote this story in 1895, yet he is thinking fully in the realm of space-time, with time only serving as another dimension of space as we perceive it and possibly just as physically tangible of a dimension as the others, and 2) Wells wrote that our consciousness moves along in time, but implies that our consciousness does not necessarily move along in space.  I found this second bit to be really intriguing.  Was Wells implying that our consciousness is just that part of us that moves in time (the way our body moves in three-dimensional space), or was Wells stating something deeper about his take on what consciousness is?  I'm not sure what Wells meant to say with this, but I do have to wonder.  Any thoughts?

H.G. Wells: Seven Novels

Amanda and I recently went on another book-buying binge.  Wanted to get some more sci-fi for the shelves (well, more for the brain, but then for the shelves).  I came upon an H.G. Wells collection book at Barnes & Noble which contains seven of this famous authors most fantastical works.  Included are The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods, and In the Days of the Comet.  The book is bound in a beautiful purple cover with exceptional, classic sci-fi graphics.  Totally stoked to read all of Wells' classic writings.  Expect reports on this in the coming days/weeks.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Life Out There

David Grinspoon

Amanda and I went down to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last Friday to check out a show called "Life Out There".  Here's a little snippet from the museum's webpage about the show:

State-of-the-art digital visuals and live musical interpretation by House Band to the Universe is your key to a mind-blowing trip through space and time. Search for the clues to life with space scientists David Grinspoon and Ka Chun Yu, PhDs, from the infant Earth to the mysterious, promising depths of Saturn's strangely vibrant moons. Presented with support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

The show was awesome!  The instruments in the band were a saxophone, trombone, flute, vibraphone, drums, bass guitar, lead guitar, and rhythm guitar.  Their sound was fantastical and the show was intense.  I can't recall all of the names of the songs, but if they put this show on again I am definitely going to be there to feel that groove.  Here's what I can recall:  With their song "Lightbubble", they led us on a tour of the early universe, from the formation of atoms to the first quasars and superclusters, to the formations of galaxies, leading us to our own Local Group and spiraling us into the Milky Way Galaxy (with sounds and visuals that made my head spin in a psychedelic, thought-provoking way).  Their second movement was a journey into our solar system and toward our sol.  They brought us into a vibe with their third song, set to a sweet African sound, while they led us through the development and evolution of life on Earth, leading us to explore fractals both in nature and produced by mathematical modeling.  They took us out with a trip to Saturn's large moon, Titan, in a song they called "Titan Haze".  The music was almost a call for action; a call to learn about Titan and to be mystified by the processes occurring on that moon.  I walked out of the show feeling inspired by the eclectic mix of thought and feeling.  

Update: 6 March 2015

I recently wrote about a concept design for a submarine to explore the lakes of Titan. Check out that post here: 

A NASA team is working on a submarine robot for deployment on Titan. Whoa!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Early migration of Jupiter to within 1.5 AU?

Just read an article from Astrobiology Magazine.  Researchers from Southwest Research Institute have recently released findings from many simulations of solar system formation and orbital dynamics which suggest that Jupiter may have, at one time, migrated to within 1.5 AU of Sol.  This may explain the small size of Mars relative to Earth and Venus, as well as the mixed population of the asteroid belt.  Very interesting.  I'm sure this new model will be tested and re-tested before anyone is certain of its likelihood, but it is still interesting.  If Jupiter could have migrated inward long ago and then later migrated back out to where it is now, that may shed some light on solar system dynamics in the universe.  We've found many large planets that are very close to their stars in the hunt for exoplanets.  Perhaps these planets may one day migrate back away from their stars to sit in positions much like our gas giants do now.

New Office and Kicking Off the Grad Student Life

Well, I finally have my very own office!  So excited about that.  Now it's time to (slowly) merge myself into the grad student life.  Starting off by taking the morning to sit and catch up on astrobiology and geology news from around the globe.  In the picture above (sorry for the blur) you'll notice the large chunk of sulfur and the bowl full of space rock candy on my desk.  What can I say, I guess I'm a bit into nostalgia.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Beamline 4-3 and the start of my grad research

This weekend I am officially getting started on collecting data which I may use for my graduate research.  I'm sitting on beamline 4-3 at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL).  Behind me a synchrotron particle accelerator is producing a constant 3 billion electron volts of energy.  Beamline 4-3 is good for doing x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) on samples containing elements like sulfur and chlorine.

I'm here to do x-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES) spectroscopy and maybe even some extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) spectroscopy on sulfur-containing compounds from the lab (such as lab sulfur, sodium nitrite, sodium tetrathionate, iron sulfide, etc) and from samples taken from our research site in the high arctic by some of my soon to be colleagues.  It's so exciting to be here and to be running samples of my own for the first time.  The last three times I was here were an adventure, but this is the first time I get to be on my own with my own beamline and my own samples.  So awesome.  I would write more, but I'm too darned busy with all there is to do.  Expect lots more info about this research in coming months and years :)  

This is the interior of the hutch at BL 4-3 at SSRL.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Where's the love for the awkward?

So this happened the other day, and I just wanted to write about it here...

I was sitting in the engineering center at CU, waiting for class to start and enjoying a sandwich, when I overheard a weird conversation. Normal chit-chat for some folk, but I always tend overthink everything.  I found their conversation to be comical, alarming, and disheartening; all at the same time.

Here’s the conversation:

A: “…so they just made their roommate wait out in the car?”

B: “Ya, dude, he just sat in there doing whatever.”

A: “how long were they gone?”

B: “Dude, they were in there for like a half an hour."

Shared laughing.

B: “They told [person who they were visiting: let's say person C] that he was out in the car, but when C asked why they just said, ‘you don’t want him in here’”

A: “What? Really?”


B: “Ya, dude, well, he’s so socially awkward. They wouldn’t want to hang out with him anyway.”

More laughing. They walk away.

I found it comical because I could imagine making one of my friends sit for a half hour in a car while I was hanging out and doing something, even though it wouldn't really be fair to my friends.  I found it alarming because these two guys (A and B) were so disinterested in how the person sitting in the car probably felt.  I mean, imagine sitting and waiting for someone you think is your friend while they insult you and disrespect you.  If you found out about it, you would be pissed off.  I don't think I would have stayed in the car the whole time.  Maybe I would have hit the horn or maybe got out and found something else to do.  I found it disheartening because there are a lot of socially awkward people in this world who have a hard enough time talking to people and fitting in that they shouldn't have to deal with some jerks who pretend to be their friends.  I don't know, just thought it was silly that these guys were so openly uncaring for someone who they choose to spend their time with.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dogon Dance and the Celebration of Death

Just watched a video in my ancient astronomy course today.  The video was about the Dogon people of Mali.  These people have a certain cosmology which is ingrained in their spirituality.  Also, the Dogon people consider all of life to be a dance.  They dance to celebrate life.  
The highlight of the video dealt with the Dogon’s dance for death.  They dance to celebrate death.  They dance people into their death and beyond.  So unlike the modern technological society I am a part of.  In western society, the propagation of the judeo-christian religions brought the idea that suicide was wrong, that death was bad and not a part of life, that death could be dangerous.  Jack Kavorkian was put in jail because he wanted to help people in pain to find their death.  We have forced death as far outside of our realm of thought as we could, as if death is wrong or bad.  I love how the Dogon celebrate death.  I love the idea of dancing our loved ones into their death.  Why should we fear death?  Why should we consider suicide to be wrong?  It makes no sense to fear a natural part of life.  
Of course, the Dogon don’t wish for death or seek it, but they respect death as part of life and they dance in honor of death.  I wish more people in this modern technological culture were open with death and unafraid.  It’s hard to deal with that.  I'd like to be open about death.  I'd like to dance to celebrate death.  And, I hope that when I die someone will dance to celebrate my death.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Human breeding programs

I'm reading the book "The Science of Dune" right now.  It's a very intriguing collection of essays from scientists of many backgrounds which discuss certain aspects of the Dune saga as they are related to modern science and possible future science.  I've read so far about the possibility for synthetic eyes, about the use of hallucinogenic drugs and if we'll ever have a hallucinogen which also extends life, about the possible biology of the sandworms of Dune, and about the actual physics of the dunes of Arrakis.

The most recent essay I've read was from Carol Hart, Ph.D., concerning the human breeding programs of the Bene Gesserit in the Dune universe.  This society of women with prescience were conducting a 90 generations long breeding program to produce the universe's sueper being, the Kwisatz Haderach.  Of course, for those who've read the book know, the super being Maud'Dib came a generation early and had the unforeseen side-effect of being independent and uncontrollable by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

The author of this article does a fantastic, if brief, job of highlighting the fact that we humans have spent the better part of the past 15,000 or more years domesticating wolves to make our household dog, and now we breed dogs for all kinds of traits (some of which, like in the case of the smash face pugs, is really bad for the animal but makes people think it looks cute).  However, we have not been as careful in our own breeding.  Many people will have children regardless of their own genetic pitfalls.  It makes me wonder, if at some point in the future we will need to start directing human breeding so that our species can continue to evolve.  What if we seek to colonize Mars or travel beyond our solar system.  Might it be better for us to selectively breed the type of people who will be biologically optimized for the psychological stress of space travel, or for stronger defense against radiation damage, or even for the ability to breathe less oxygen and still perform well?  This question definitely jumps deep into the realm of bioethics.  Any thoughts?


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The University Rover Challenge

Last summer I traveled with my buddy Ryan Kobrick ( down to the desert in Utah to help staff the University Rover Challenge (URC).  The URC is an annual international competition hosted by the Mars Society where teams of university/college students compete in Mars-rover style tasks using rovers that the teams have designed and built at their home institutions.  It was great to be a part of the competition.  I'll be heading out there again this coming summer for the 5th annual event.  Should be an awesome time.  I'm sure we'll have some great teams once again.  This time I hope to take some people along with me to make sure we can really get things set up quick and keep the competition rolling smoothly.  I'll be sure to take lots of awesome pictures and share them with all of my friends online.

Clip from Ames Research Center on Astrobiology

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"This thing is older than mommy!"

This past Monday evening, I drove down to the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy in Colorado Springs to share my love of astrobiology with some middle school students and their parents.  The Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy had been a failing middle school, when the Space Foundation stepped in and gave the school a purpose: to teach children the basic american middle school curriculum, using aerospace as a tool for inspiration.  The school is doing much better now.

The Festival of Science is kind of like a symposium for local people involved in the sciences to communicate with students from the school.  There was an astronomical society there, a robotics group, the Cheyenne mountain zoo, the girl scouts, the boy scouts, and several other presenters who had hands on activities and displays to get the students thinking about science.  I went down on behalf of the CU Astrobiology Club.  I also brought two members of CU-SEDS so they could share some cool stuff with the students.

At my Astrobiology Club table, I had some information about the Arecibo radio message that was sent to the M13 star cluster in 1974, a picture of organic molecules found in space, a picture of the ALH84001 meteorite and a micrograph of the debated "martian" in that meteorite that was announced in 1996.  I also had a Giant Microbe version of the "Martian Life" (pretty much a stuffed-animal worm), and I had one of my chondrite meteorites.  It was fun to talk with middle school students about extraterrestrial life and show them some of the things I had brought.

The best part of the evening was when a mother and three young children walked up to my table.  I was talking to the mother about my meteorite, informing her about the current theory of how our solar system formed, and so I told her that my meteorite likely formed over 4.5 billion years ago.  She took in her hand and showed it to her children saying, "Look guys, this thing is older than mommy!"  One of her children went wide-eyed.  I started laughing pretty hard.  She looked at me and said, "I have to put it in their perspective".  I guess everything really is relative when it comes to our understanding of our universe around us.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Need to catch up...

I haven't been maintaining this blog as much as I would like.  Gotta keep up on it :)

Here's a short thought I had that might be the beginning of a story (if I ever choose to write it):

She watched the snow drifting down from behind her glass cage.  The warmth and the light inside were reassuring, yet she felt abandoned and trapped, lost to the world and alone.  She had no means of escape, other than running out into that dark, snow-covered world beyond the glass.  She stared into the falling snow and imagined herself running.  She could see herself, cold and scared, running through the snow.  She imagined herself running further into the cold night as the dim lights of her home disappeared into the surrounding white of the falling snow.  She would disappear into the cold night and no one would know.  She felt a chill sweep down her body as the cold from the window glass reached out and grabbed her.  For a moment she was fully aware of the glass; its hard, vitreous surface, which allowed her to view the outside world, was at war with the energy imbalances between the room inside and the snowy night outside.  She felt herself moving away from the glass.  She couldn’t be part of this battle.  She let the warmth of the room fill her.  She smiled, but the action felt fake, forced.