Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name, which then carried me from the Sahara to the Amazon

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Scientific Visualization Studio
There's a lot we can learn from Earth observing satellites.  For instance, the dust from the Sahara desert, the world's largest desert, has been found to travel through the atmosphere, making its way across the ocean and settling down to fertilize the Amazon rainforest.  That's quite a journey, and it probably seems a bit baffling to think that the material from a desert can then help to sustain all the diverse organisms that live in the world's largest rainforest.

A team of researchers have recently provided estimates of the amount of dust that makes the journey to the Amazon.  Of the 182 million tons of dust that gets lofted out of Africa, some 27.7 million tons of that same dust then finds its way to the Amazon rainforest.  The same team of researchers that made this discovery have also announced that the phosphorous within the Saharan dust fertilizes the rainforest.  Some 22,000 tons of phosphorous are estimated to rain down to the Amazon, far from their Saharan origin.  The researchers estimate that this influx of phosphorous makes up for the all the phosphorous lost to erosion.  Our world is truly dynamic.  Our fleet of Earth observing satellites have so much to teach us about our home.

Here is a fantastic video from NASA explaining these new discoveries:

For more information about this research, check out the NASA Press Release.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What can the craziest creatures on Earth teach us about the possibilities for alien life?

The flyer for my public talk this week at Fiske Planetarium

Later this evening I'll be giving a public talk at Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado Boulder!  I'm thoroughly stoked to give this talk.  We're going to take a journey to some of the worlds in our solar system and also some worlds far beyond and ask ourselves about the types of life that could come to live in such places using the only examples of life that we have to work with, the life from our own world.  During this talk, we will consider some of the craziest creatures on Earth and what they can teach us about the types of alien life that may exist out there.

This talk is part of the Above & Beyond: Cosmic Conversations series, organized by my friend, Morgan Rehnberg (find him at Cosmic Chatter).  These are public talks that are focused at creating conversations between speakers and the audience so that we can all share in the storied wonder of science, human history, and our place in the cosmos.  The Craziest Creatures on Earth will hopefully inspire those of us in the theater at Fiske Planetarium to engage in lasting conversations about how crazy and beautiful life can be, and about whether or not we're alone in this vast universe.  Here's a little overview of what we'll be talking about at Fiske Planetarium this Friday night:

A Multitude of Worlds

An artist's impression of what Kepler 22b might look like

Many of us have dreamed of alien worlds, wondering what planets orbiting other stars may be like.  We've created alien life in our science fiction and we've imagined what a visit to an alien biosphere might be like.  Over the last couple of decades, we have begun to discover only a fraction of the worlds that must exist in our universe.  Yet the only life that we've ever known is life here on our Earth, our home.  As our species continues to explore more of our solar system and to discover other planetary systems far away, it begins to feel like we are continually approaching a time when we might have an answer to the age-old question "Are we alone in the universe?"  What might alien life be like if it exists?  Would it be anything like the life we know here on Earth?

Life on Earth and the
Oddness of the Hummingbird

Life as we know it has been on Earth for at least 3.5 billion years, but probably even much longer.  Through that time, life has evolved to dynamically fit and fill nearly every ecosystem available on the the thin habitable shell and lower atmosphere of the planet.  Since the diversification of multicellular lifeforms during the Avalon and Cambrian Explosions, over 500 millions years ago, plants, animals, and fungi have developed unique body plans and forms of locomotion to better gain energy, fight, reproduce, and live.  

Sometimes an evolutionary adaptation comes along that seems bizarre relative to how we live.  Take for instance the hummingbird.  Hummingbirds are among the smallest birds on the planet, weighing fractions of a pound.  Indeed, the smallest known bird in our modern world is the Bee Hummingbird, which weighs less than a U.S. penny coin.  Hummingbirds get their name from the humming or buzzing sound that their wings make when we listen to them flying.  The hummingbirds's wings beat on average 50 times per second, but have been recorded as high as 200 times per second.  They beat their wings so fast that they can fly up to 34 mph (54 km/h) and they can fly backwards and upside-down.  But that's not the craziest thing about hummingbirds.  

The strangest thing about hummingbirds is that they have a ridiculously high metabolism.  For their little body size, they have a massive caloric intake.  Hummingbird's will eat between 3 and 8 calories each day in nectar.  3 to 8 calories sounds small relative to us, that's really only a couple of grapes worth of energy, but if we consider caloric intake vs. bodyweight, then we can see that hummingbirds eat 77 times more than us.  This is the equivalent of a human eating about 155,000 calories each day.  That's a bizarre caloric intake.  It makes the hummingbird a crazy creature in my book.  

This video discusses research on how hummingbirds maintain their metabolisms

Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pennsylvania makes some gigantic cheeseburgers.  One of them, The Belly Buster, weighs just over 20 pounds and holds 25,000 calories worth in energy.  If we had the caloric intake of a hummingbird, then we would need to eat 6 of these calorie-loaded burgers and then, on top of that, we would need to wash it down with 6 800-calorie milkshakes.  And we would need to do this every single day.  That seems bizarre relative to how we understand our place in the world.  

When we consider what crazy creatures like the hummingbird can teach us about the possibilities for alien life, we have to keep in mind that not all organisms function the same way and we may one day find that alien life is wholly bizarre to us.  Maybe there are worlds out there where most organisms have hummingbird-level metabolisms.  Maybe there are worlds where vision or hearing have never evolved.  Perhaps our alien neighbors have forms of locomotion, sensory organs, and even body structures that are adapted to environments with only limited similarities to our world.  To constrain such speculations about alien life, we can take a look at some of the unique environments in our solar system and consider whether Terran organisms could survive in such places.    

Storybots jam vid about the planets of our solar system

Venusian Planets:
A Hunk, a Hunk of Burning Love

Venus is our sister planet.  It's very similar to our Earth in size and overall composition and it even has clouds, but, unlike Earth, Venus is a world completely obscured by clouds.  The thick, clouded atmosphere surrounds and blankets Venus.  That's because Venus has the densest atmosphere of any of the terrestrial planets.  However, if we strip away the cloud layer and take a look at the surface of Venus using radar imaging (from spacecraft as well as Earth-based instruments), we see a chaotic terrain on a geologically young surface.  The surface of Venus is a marred desertscape of volcanoes and plains with ridges appearing as cracks.  From orbital observations as well as from a few spacecraft that landed on the surface, we know that the surface pressure of Venus is 92 times greater than that of Earth at sea level.  Not only that, but the surface temperature of Venus is a sweltering 863 degrees Fahrenheit (735 Kelvin)!

Currently, we know of no life that could survive in the high temperature and high pressure environment on the surface of Venus, yet there are organisms on our planet that have adapted to high temperatures.  Take for instance the microorganisms living along the margins of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.

Grand Prismatic Spring: a thermophile's oasis
The center of Grand Prismatic is a beautiful blue of burning hot water, reaching temperatures up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  As the water approaches the edges of the spring, it cools to temperatures that can be survivable for certain types of organisms.  The yellows, oranges, and greens at the edges of the pool are pigments within microbes that live in microbial films at the pool's edge.  These organisms are considered extremophiles, as they've come to inhabit an environment that is extreme relative to us.  We know of extremophiles that have come to life in many of the extreme environments of our planet: from places that are hot to places that are cold, places that are acidic or alkaline, and places that are super-salty or even very high in pressure.  Extremophiles have become a target for astrobiologists when it comes to understanding how life may have come to live and to thrive in various environments.  

"The Toughest Microorganism": In the Red

One of the most intriguing worlds in our solar system is our little neighbor, Mars, the 'Red Planet'.  Mars has long held the fascination of scientists and the public.  In the late 1800's, the astronomer Percival Lowell announced he had made observations of striations on Mars that he thought were canals built by an intelligent extraterrestrial species.  Lowell's speculation led to H.G. Wells' story The War of the Worlds and, in many ways, launched the early era of alien science fiction.

Mars has been our most visited neighbor.  We've sent orbiters, landers, and rovers to the Red Planet to learn more about it's geology as well as the possibilities for it to once have had life or to perhaps even currently have life.  Mars has a great volcanic mountain, Olympus Mons, which is almost 3 times taller than Mount Everest.  Mars bears one of the largest canyons in the solar system, Valles Marineris, which is a distinguishing feature when Mars is viewed from far away.  The Martian surface is a cold, dry, and dangerous place for most of life as we know it.  The surface has an average temperature of around -80 degrees Fahrenheit and there's only around 200 parts per million water vapor in the atmosphere (the Earth's atmosphere has an average of about 10,000 parts per million water vapor).  We've known for some time that the surface of Mars is bombarded by intense radiation, since Mars doesn't have the strong magnetic field or the atmosphere that Earth has to protect us from radiation.  However, we've recently learned from the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument on the Curiosity Rover that the surface of Mars has even more radiation than we had previously thought.  The first astronauts that we send to Mars will most likely have to employ shielding of various types to protect themselves from the radiation.  

Although the Martian surface will be a dangerous place for humans, there are some organisms on Earth that could easily survive the radiation on Mars' surface.  Take for instance Deinococcus radiodurans.  The Guinness Book of World Records title holder for "the world's toughest microbe", D. radiodurans is an extremophile that can withstand environments with limited nutrients and extreme dryness and, most importantly, can withstand extremely high doses of radiation.  This microbe can withstand a radiation dose over 1,000 times more than what would be lethal to a human.  It can survive in the cooling fluids of nuclear reactors.  The microbe's very name stand for "strange little berry that can withstand radiation" while some people like to call it Conan the Bacterium.  Indeed, D. radiodurans can even survive in the empty vacuum of space.  D. radiodurans would have no problems surviving a trip to Mars and even sitting on the Martian surface.

The extreme radiation resistance of D. radiodurans might even make us wonder about alien life that could survive long-term within the emptiness of space.  Perhaps there are biospheres where life has learned to launch itself out into space, like little spores traveling between worlds.  Perhaps some alien has even adapted to the space environment and become a fully space-fairing creature.  What would such a creature look like?  Perhaps it would be something like the Tin Man from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Moya from Farscape or perhaps something utterly strange.  Would such a creature be anything remotely similar to life as we know it.  Would it need to stay close to stars and planets to maintain itself?  Those are the questions that bridge between science and science fiction.  But we do have good reason to wonder about how organisms get their energy and how biospheres are built.  Much of life as we know it here on Earth is built upon the primary productivity garnered by organisms that utilize the light of the Sun for energy, but not all life on Earth requires sunlight to survive.

Life in Deepest Seas and the Curious Blobfish

My graduate advisor, Alexis Templeton, is the head of a team of researchers centered here at the University of Colorado Boulder and including members from several other institutions which have recently been awarded a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute to study what they are calling "Rock-Powered Life".  Their work will focus on understanding how biology on Earth has come to utilize chemical reactions between water and rocks for sustenance.  Life as we know it does not inherently require sunlight to drive primary production.  Rock-powered life may be the base of biospheres on other worlds.  Take for instance the Galilean moon Europa.

Europa (NASA)
Europa is a small moon of Jupiter that might have some big surprises in store for us.  The surface of Europa is a cracked icy shell, maybe 1 to 10 km in thickness, underlain by a deep subsurface ocean.  The ocean of Europa may be as deep as 120 km, making it one of the largest oceans in our solar system.  In fact, all of the water in the ocean of Europa is more voluminous than all of the water in all of the oceans, and rivers, and lakes of Earth!

Comparison on water on Europa vs. Earth (Kevin Hand)
Many of us now wonder if the subsurface ocean of Europa holds a subsurface ocean biosphere.  Perhaps there are hydrothermal vent systems on Europa's seafloor.  Perhaps, much like on Earth, those hydrothermal vent system have become oases of life, where rock-powered life sets the stage for the development of other organisms.  Could there be deep sea marine animals on Europa?  What would they be like.

Here's a crazy creature that might help us answer that question: the Blobfish.  These organisms inhabit deep sea environments off the coasts of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.  Living where the pressure is several dozen times greater than at the surface, the Blobfish has developed a unique way to maintain its buoyancy.  While many fish use gas bladders to control their position in the water column, the Blobfish has body of gelatinous flesh that is slightly less dense than water, allowing the Blobfish to control its buoyancy in deep sea settings.  However, when the Blobfish is removed from its natural setting, the one to which it has adapted so well, and brought to the surface, its body structure changes and it basically slumps into a gelatinous mass.  This has earned the Blobfish the vote as "The World's Ugliest Animal".

The Blobfish can survive the extreme pressure of the deep sea, but it's only adapted for that environment.  When we consider what alien life may be like, we need to be sure we're considering the types of environments where life might have come to be and where life might be best adapted.  For instance, what kind of life, if any, could come to live in the environments of gas giant worlds?

Sagan's Floaters and Hunters...  and Blowfish

In Carl Sagan's television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, he discussed speculations about what types of organisms could come to thrive in the vast atmospheres of worlds like Jupiter:

Floaters and Hunters.  What might they look like?  Giant balloon organisms?  Giant floating whales?  In my mind I wonder if maybe such atmosphere-bound life might develop develops defense mechanisms like a blowfish.  Maybe the floaters are giant blowfish-like balloons that can change their position in the atmosphere by bringing in or pushing out gas, and maybe they even look something like blowfish, with spikes and other defense mechanisms adorning their bodies to keep them safe from the Hunters.

As Carl Sagan said, we can constrain our thoughts about the possibilities for extraterrestrial life through physics and chemistry, but these are truly speculations.  Until we have examples of alien life to work with, the best we can do is work to understand life on Earth and try to use what we know of life to understand which environments alien life may have come to call home.  We can look at worlds like Venus, Mars, Europa, and Jupiter and ask these questions.  We can also look further, to other worlds around stars far away.

Exoworlds and the Possibilities of Perception: The Greater Wax Moth and the Mantis Shrimp

Since the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, the first extrasolar world we've found, our conception of the number of alien worlds that exist in our universe has been radically expanded.  As of today, we have found over 1800 exoplanets and that number is always growing!  The worlds we've detected around other stars exist in only a small fraction of the space within our galaxy.  Considering the number of planets we've found thus far, it has been estimated that every star in our galaxy should have, on average, at least one world.  Of course, some may have none and some may have many, but this still leaves a great number of possible worlds and possible environments for the development of extraterrestrial life.  What might those aliens look like?  Astronomer and artist, David Aguilar of Aspen Skies has been using his artwork to propose some ideas.  He creates models of speculative alien life based on his knowledge of life here on Earth and then places those modeled aliens into digitally created worlds.  In what ways can we constrain such work, such speculations?  Perhaps we can consider something like sensory perception.

Take, for instance, the Greater Wax Moth.  This organism has the greatest range of hearing of any known organism on our planet.  Not only that, but the Greater Wax Moth has a hearing range that lies outside of the range of sounds that we humans hear.  It has alien hearing here on Earth.  It's evolved such hearing so that it can hear at frequencies up to 300,000 Hz, allowing it to "out-hear" it's natural predator, the bat.  Bats use high-frequency sounds in their echolocation.  It allows them to "see" what they hear.  The Greater Wax Moth has evolved to hear and to speak above the frequency at which bats echolocate.

An even crazier creature might be the Mantis Shrimp.  The Mantis Shrimp has the greatest perception of light and color of any known organism.  While we humans only have 3 color receptors in our eyes, Mantis Shrimp have 16!  Writing in his webcomic, The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman has said of Mantis Shrimp that their sight is like a "thermonuclear bomb of light and beauty"!  Not only do Mantis Shrimp have the greatest vision of any known organism, but they also happen to pack the hardest punch:

The Mantis Shrimp is a crazy creature.  It sees in ways that we can't comprehend and it kills using a deadly knockout punch.  Might there be alien worlds where the vision of the Mantis Shrimp is only the beginning?  Or worlds where the deadly force of the Mantis Shrimp's punch would be considered puny?

What Beings May Come?

What could organisms like the Greater Wax Moth and the Mantis Shrimp teach us about alien life?  What about the Hummingbird, extremophiles like Deinococcus radiodurans, or the Blobfish?  When there are aliens such as these living amongst us, perhaps it suggests that the possibilities for life in the universe are endless.  

I didn't even start to touch on intelligence and consciousness, robots and machine life, or even some of the myriad ways in which microbes might dominate alien biospheres, and yet there are great examples to be found in those realms as well.  The bridge between science and science fiction lies not only in imagination, but in considering what may yet come to be.

As Carl Sagan mentioned in that video from Cosmos, there is no predictive theory of biology.  Not because it doesn't exist, but because we don't yet have enough to go on to determine if there could be one.  Maybe life does follow certain rules and we will one day find that many aliens are very similar to us, or maybe life follows few rules and alien life will appear utterly and wholly alien to us.  Considering all of the crazy creatures on Earth can help us to constrain our speculations about alien life, but, until we determine if we are or are not alone in the universe, all we can do is continue to look at our one example of a biosphere and say "what might this mean?"

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Automata: I Robot Meets Blade Runner

We just watched Autómata the other night on Netflix and found it to be a kick-ass dystopian story of death, acceptance, and evolution.  It was a little formulaic and we were left with a lot of questions about the world they built for the story, but it was definitely a fun watch and one that I recommend to anyone interested in dystopian tales.  Carl Franzen, reviewing Autómata for The Verge, avers that the film is "the most atmospheric sci-fi film since Blade Runner".  I can get down with that.  Autómata sets a story within some of the typical dystopian frameworks, specifically reminding the audience of the I Robot books and the film Blade Runner, but takes the story in a fun, if predictable, direction.

The film is set in 2044 in a world where solar flares have obliterated much of the life on the planet, specifically knocking off 99% of the human population.  In this world, the remnant humans have built robot workers, known as Pilgrims, to assist humanity and to also stay the encroaching desertification around the remnant population (which we are only ever shown as living in one dying city).  Unfortunately, the robots cannot save the world for humanity, and many humans become very "anti-robot".  Also, in a very Asimov-esque approach, the Pilgrims have two "unalterable" protocols: they cannot harm a life and they cannot modify themselves or other robots (very much like the "Three Laws of Robotics").  The robots are rather clunky, which is kind of a drawback for the film, but they used that to give the robots their personalities.

The story follows Juan Vaucan (played by Antonio Banderas) who works for the corporation that builds and operates the Pilgrims.  Vaucan lives in the tech-noir city with his pregnant wife and spends his days fixing problems with the Pilgrims (which appear more to be problems with people).  The city, by the way, is dark, gritty, and has large projections of dancing woman as advertisements that are projected from the tops of buildings: it's pretty much the urban future of Blade Runner after the city begins to die.  The audience is shown early that Vaucan, and just about everyone else, is dissatisfied with their dying city and their dying species (though no one really seems to want to accept it), so we are given a glum image of this human future.  

From this setting, the story really begins when a dirty cop kills a Pilgrim which is repairing itself.  This robot leads Vaucan on a chase to figure out how the robot could bypass the "unalterable" second protocol and builds a really enjoyable sci-fi story.  Here's the trailer for the film:

Spoiler Alert: If you're one of those people who believes in spoilers, then don't read what follows

The story develops as the audience learns that several robots have alterations within their programming that allow them to bypass the second protocol.  Vaucan sets out to hunt down the person responsible for the altered programming, only to learn the robots have altered the programming themselves.  We're never told how this happens, but the film basically sets out the idea that the robots themselves are evolving to a new level.  It's revealed that the two protocols were themselves developed by a robot that had been built and was observed to be advancing too fast for the humans of the corporation to control it.  The humans asked the robot to devise a scheme for controlling future robots and that's when it developed the two protocols, just before it was shut down and dismantled by the people of the corporation.  This led me to wonder about whether the advanced robot developed the two protocols knowing that they would eventually become a problem and would lead other robots to overcome them.  Perhaps the robot knew that it was in danger due to how it scared the humans and decided to give them comfort in their development of the Pilgrims while using the two protocols to provide a system for the future development of robots.  I think this open possibility is what I enjoyed the most about 

Friday, February 13, 2015

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


I was just doing a quick surf through my Facebook newsfeed (probably not the best thing to do when I first get to work), when an io9 article popped up with a video recently released from a concept design team at NASA showing a robotic submarine that could be developed for exploring the seas of Titan.  Check it out:

Too cool!  Here's a Discovery News article with some more info about the concept.  Of course, it's really just a concept design and is unlikely to get funded or developed any time soon, but still the idea of transcending into the depths of the hydrocarbon seas on Titan is pretty spectacular.  Pushing our known limits in technology and spacecraft development to explore our solar system and the greater cosmos beyond is what space exploration is all about.  With it's thick, hazy atmosphere and methanological cycle, Titan beckons for us to come and learn more about what's going on there.

NASA image of Titan.  Check out that atmo.  Mmmmmm

Titan is the only world in our solar system outside of our own with lakes and seas on the surface.  Unlike our own Earth, with its hydrological cycle of water changing phases and moving about, Titan has a methanological cycle, where methane, ethane, and other hydrocarbons become the clouds, the rain, and the fluids that fill the lakes:

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Nantes/Kevin Hand; find it here

We might not see a submarine mission on Titan anytime soon, but I hope we get our asses back there 'fore long.  That beautiful, hazy world is too intriguing to leave it all on its lonesome out there 'round Saturn.

I wrote a post sometime back about one of my favorite songs by The House Band of the Universe. With fellow astrobiologist David Grinspoon at the helm, the band takes the audience on an aural and visual journey into the haze of Titan with their tune, Titan Haze:

Groove on, my friends.  And imagine the coolness of a submarine robot exploring the seas of Titan.

Update February 23rd 2015: 
I just came across a great review of this concept for a Titan submarine in an article for written by Leonard David.  Check it out here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Quotes for Table Topics

I'm a member of See You Speak Toastmasters, a local public speaking group.  If you haven't heard of Toastmaster, you should definitely check it out.  Toastmasters is an international organization focused on building better public speakers, and, through that, our members also become better leaders as well.  Every Toastmasters club is a little different; ours is an informal, small club where we have a lot of fun working on our speaking skills together.  One of my favorite parts of Toastmasters is an impromptu public speaking game that we play called Table Topics.

Table Topics are short speeches that members and guests give during the meeting so that they can work on their off-the-cuff speaking.  I think of this game as the bread-and-butter of the Toastmasters speaking program.  We give longer prepared speeches (usually in the range of 5-12 minutes) that help us to work on our speechcrafting, but Table Topics gives us a chance to practice our speaking skills in the best way: unprepared.  Replying to questions or prompts without having had the time to prepare helps us to become better extemporaneous speakers.

I'm taking on the role of Table Topics Master tonight for one of our meetings.  I've decided to use the theme of "interpreting quotes".  I'm going to pick a few quotes and then have our members and guests interpret what those quotes mean to them.

Here's the list of quotes (from speech and writing) that I'll be selecting from for our Table Topics tonight:

"The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering."
-Bruce Lee

"All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."
-Pablo Picasso

"The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves."
-Victor Hugo

"I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
-Michael Jordan

"Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right."
-Henry Ford

"All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost."
-J.R.R. Tolkien

"Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear."
-George Addair

"We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained."
-Marie Curie

"If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money."
-Abigail Van Buren

"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom."
-Isaac Asimov

"It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years."
-Abraham Lincoln

We give our members and guests 1-2 minutes to answer the question or prompt for a table topics speech.  What would you say about these quotes in 1-2 minutes?

We follow our round of Table Topics at our meetings with evaluations of how we did during the meeting.  We evaluate the prepared speeches, we evaluate the timing and use of grammar for our speakers, and we have someone called the Quizmaster who's job it is to pay attention during the meeting and then evaluate the club to see if we were all paying attention.  

I highly recommend Toastmasters.  Joining Toastmasters is one of the greatest things I've done for myself in recent years.  It's improved my speaking skills but also helped me to realize that I may have it in myself to become an orator.