Archive for: June, 2011

SETI: The Search For Ourselves

Jun 29 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

In April 2011 funding shortfalls in the budget of the State of California resulted in the 'hibernation' of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) north of San Francisco. The ATA was primarily used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, a not-for-profit scientific organisation that investigates the origin and nature of life in the universe. Scanning the sky for radio signals from distant alien civilisations, the ATA was an integral tool in our quest to uncover some of the mysteries of our astronomical neighbourhood and to answer a fundamental paradox that has puzzled scientists for over 50 years. Where is everyone? Everything we observe about the nature of universe suggests that life, and eventually technologically advanced civilisations, should be prevalent across the cosmos, yet we have no evidence suggesting that life exists anywhere except here on Earth.

What does this apparent isolation say about us and our planet? Are we the product of an extremely fortunate evolutionary accident resulting from the interplay between our astronomical and planetary environment? On some distinguishable level, the search for other intelligent species is a thinly veiled search for our own place, both physically and philosophically and convincing proof of a co-existent alien civilisation would most likely have significant social, political and religious ramifications as well as the potential to cause deep psychological distress at the level of the individual. I have no doubt however, that  religious and philosophical doctrines will be reinterpreted by scholars and priests to incorporate these monumental findings in an effort to remain pragmatic and to provide guidance for their respective followers and adherents

We have nothing to fear when we listen. Could there be a more relevant or important allocation of public money than to attempt to answer some of the most fundamental questions of our time? Who are we, where did we come from and are we alone? Are we the only extant advanced civilisation in the universe? Are we the only species capable of uncovering the meaning behind their very existence at a level otherwise completely out of the reach of most organisms?

Or, like a moth alone in the dark are we seeking the comforting light of ignorance; is it better not to know at all rather than to uncover the true scale of our isolation? The burden of the knowledge that help will not come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves may be, for some, too much to bear. The weight of our responsibility to ourselves, our children and our planet will put strain on our collective psyches; mired by loneliness on an unprecedented, truly universal the scale we have only ourselves to blame for our significant shortcomings and failures.

But with this knowledge also comes perspective. Perhaps this will be the perspective required to finally rid ourselves of our incessant propensity to view different races, genders or ethnic groups of our species with contempt, mistrust and hostility. As the only species able to discover and preserve the secrets of the universe for future generations, or future civilisations, we owe it to ourselves and our children to unite as a single species with a truly global heritage.


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Our Pale Blue Dot

Jun 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Pale Blue Dot, the image recorded by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of c. 40 AU, or 6 billion (6 x 109) kilometres from Earth. You are on the tiny, blueish pixel, centre right.

Above is the image known as the Pale Blue Dot. It was taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as the spacecraft was leaving the Solar System on its indefinite journey into interstellar space. At over 40 astronomical units (AU), or 6 billion (that's 6 x 109) kilometres from Earth, the image that was beamed back to us is incredible in its portrayal of our tiny world against the vastness of the cosmos. Although taken two decades ago, I feel that this image is still as significant and poignant as when it was first released.

The image was the inspiration for Pale Blue Dot, a book written in 1994 by renowned cosmologist and science populariser Carl Sagan.  Rarely has a work of non-fiction elicited such a powerful emotional response as Pale Blue Dot. Sagan’s reputation as a distinguished author as well as respected scientist was justly deserved; his prose is beautiful, almost poetic in its fluency and rich in vivid imagery and clarity. In particular the opening chapters, entitled ‘Wanderers’ and ‘You Are Here’, are some of the finest examples of science writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Sagan's interpretation of the significance of the above image is so powerful that little I can say here to paraphrase will do his delivery justice.

To illustrate my point I will reproduce one of my favourite passages from the book:

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

The reason that these words are so striking is that they epitomise the ability of science to amaze and humble, but also to provide sensible perspective when tackling difficult questions and to reconcile our differences in opinion and ideology. It is often said that a life dedicated to science makes you cold, pessimistic and unattached; absorbed in grey objectivity and burdened by the realisation of the insignificance and futility of our fleeting existence. This book, and in particular this paragraph, prove otherwise. These words are truisms, not empty conjecture, but rather statements of fact catalysed by the perspective garnered from the above image. Earth is a small watery planet in an otherwise uninteresting star system, itself tucked away in a remote corner of a common barrel-spiral galaxy. It is the only home we have ever known and we therefore have a responsibility to care for it and each other, because on the scale of the universe our differences are minuscule and unidentifiable, our existence brief and uneventful and our impact on the vastness of space, practically nil. No religion was required to reach this conclusion, no scripture needed, no proverbs recited or prayers offered. These words were penned by the careful hand of science, yet they dispel our fundamentally flawed sense of self-importance and reveal our basic evolutionary solidarity with each other as well as with all other terrestrial organisms, past and present, that we have had the privilege to share our planet with.

Our desperate isolation, so clearly revealed, is almost painful to comprehend. Our species’ egotistical machinations pale in comparison to the disproportionate emptiness of space. Our fragile, fleshy frames are much too delicate to withstand the abuses of even interplanetary travel; our cells and DNA destroyed by radiation, our bodies and minds distorted by the passage of time and our lungs suffocated by vacuum and cold. The logical and philosophical constructions that have served us so well in the past break down – the anthropic principal, the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation are all examples of how little we know about what is out there, and how incapable we are of providing a conclusive answer in the near future. We lack the technology to leave, barely demonstrate the responsibility and insight to justify the exploration of other planets and are probably centuries away from considering their colonisation. Firmly rooted to our contemporary astronomical location, for now at least, we are alone in the dark.

I would urge every person on our planet to read this book. It has humbled me, but also made me proud to be a member of a species that has ventured out into the cosmos, landed on other planets and sent messages to the stars. Voyager 1 remains a testament to human engineering, currently the most distant man-made object from the Earth (at 113 AU) and still obediently cruising through interstellar space in perfect working order 33 years after launch. We clearly possess great potential but there is a chance that we will squander these opportunities in their infancy if we remain focused on differences in race, religion and culture. These are inconsequential and vitriolic human constructions which will stunt our growth as a species and keep us perpetually rooted in the anachronistic superstitions and philosophies of the past. My advice would be to try to keep the above paragraph fresh in your mind, its message floating gently through your subconscious, quietly reminding you to maintain a rational perspective regarding the struggle for our continued existence whilst seeking to dispel our unfortunately innate tendency towards ignorance and presumption.

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Jun 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, it sure is quiet around here. Our astronomical neighbourhood is very much a sleepy suburb on the outskirts of the stellar conurbation that is the Milky Way galaxy, our quiet corner of the cosmos is mostly inhabited by middle-aged stars like our Sun and their teenage planetary families. Few stars are born out here in galactic suburbia, and a few are close to death.

So far, Earth is the only planet we are aware of that harbours life of any kind. That does not necessarily mean that life does not exist on other planets, only that we have yet to discover conclusive proof of its existence. What does this apparent isolation tell us about the Earth? Is it possible to infer that our planet’s orbital, geophysical or astronomical environment is in some way unique or especially conducive to the synthesis of precursor proteins essential for life?

Upon considering these questions, a fundamental limitation presents itself. At present our catalogue of known extra-solar planets is populated by an ever-growing 562 members in 471 star systems. Due to limitations in contemporary astronomical technology and survey capabilities, none of these planets appear to be suitable proxies for Earth; most being too large or too far from their parent star. Smaller, Earth-sized planets are difficult to detect using the indirect methods currently employed by astronomers carrying out exoplanet surveys but improving observational technology may resolve these issues in the near-future.

However, this means that at present we have a sample size for life-harbouring planets of n=1, and as any statistician will tell you this is a very unrepresentative sample indeed. Therefore, it is difficult to infer any meaningful conclusion regarding the likely distribution of life in the Universe based on just this one planet. However, our insatiable curiosity tends to require us to make this assumption and this unfortunate circumstance gives rise to the many guises of the anthropic principal. The universe is as it is because we observe it to be so; if conditions in our solar system had been slightly different we may never have evolved the intelligence required to develop sentience and ask questions pertaining to our existence in time and space in the first place. All of our conclusions as to the nature of the universe have to be compatible with the life currently known to exist within it. As products of our astronomical environment, our existence remains permanently and irreconcilably incorporated into the logical framework of our understanding.

To most people, the fact that we have no discovered life on other planets is not surprising. Philosophy and religion have constructed elaborate logical mechanisms to explain our apparent isolation and confirm our fundamental, almost universal centrality and importance as an intelligent species. However, given the fact that there are possibly 1024 stars in the observable universe, it is certainly a statistical possibility that another Earth-like planet exists somewhere out there and that intelligent life may be flourishing elsewhere in the vastness of the cosmos. At least there is no reason, be it physical or chemical, it shouldn’t be possible.

Again, however, our sampling bias presents us with another problem; our entire understanding of life is formulated by studying that which exists on the Earth. The molecular backbone of terrestrial biochemistry is based on carbon and the effectiveness of liquid water as a solvent, and we therefore assume, not unreasonably given the ubiquity of water and carbon compounds in space, that is will be the likely form that extraterrestrial life will take. It is hypothetically possible however, that other forms of biochemistry may exist to exploit different planetary environments, using different solvents and electron donors, or operating on a spatial or temporal scale that would be difficult to reconcile with our understanding of life.

However, it is also equally possible that we are in fact the only intelligent life ever to have emerged in the temporal and/or spatial dimension that we inhabit; the evolution of our superlative intellect may only possible under very limited, serendipitous and fortunate circumstances, the kind of which has never arisen on any other planet in the past. The evolution of simple life may be a relatively easy step; intelligence however may be another matter. We may therefore be sole custodians of the meaning of life, even if we haven’t uncovered it yet. In this case we have an enormous responsibility to protect and preserve our planet for future generations who may be better equipped technologically to answer these fundamental questions regarding our existence and uncover the deep-seated meaning embedded in our seemingly chaotic existence.


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An Introduction

Jun 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi there. Welcome. Please, come in and make yourself at home but try not to touch anything as this part of the internet is very expensive, and mostly still under construction. My name is Andrew and I’ll be your host for the next two weeks here at Scientopia’s Guest Blogge, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to regale you with wonderful tales of science, mystery and magic. Mainly science though, if I’m honest.

I am 23 years old, and I live in the lovely city of Norwich on the East coast of the United Kingdom. In October this year I will be starting a doctorate at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, an internationally recognised centre for climate, atmospheric and geographical sciences. In the meantime, I write about things that fascinate me over at my blog II-I-

My research will be in the field of geochemical modelling of extrasolar planets; their atmospheres, oceans and geology. Our repertoire of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, currently stands at 562 and is rapidly growing. A further 1235 planet candidates announced by NASA’s Kepler Mission early this year are currently under analysis and awaiting confirmation before their acceptance into the exoplanet league. This burgeoning discipline, at present comprised mainly of astronomers, is evolving rapidly with each new discovery. By adapting current geochemical and physical models applicable to the Earth, it may be possible to begin to resolve some of the complex interactions between the stellar and the planetary environment and bring exoplanet science very much within the reach of environmental scientists and geologists. Perhaps most importantly however, study of these planets may alter our understanding of the distribution of life and its perceived prerequisites in the universe. Is it possible that these planets could harbour life as it exists on Earth, or is the habitat of planet Earth unique?

Apart from my love of exoplanets, I’m also interested in the philosophy of science, how politics affects science and the development and implication of science policy, mainly here in the UK. In my spare time I enjoy cycling, gardening, playing the bass guitar and strategy computer games.

Thank you for reading; I hope that you’ll continue to do so, for the next two weeks at least! I’d like to leave you with an excellently made and humbling video by Reid Gower paying tribute to one of my scientific heroes, Carl Sagan, with excerpts from his excellent book, Pale Blue Dot. I feel that this video, and the rest in the series, epitomise the ability of science to provide sensible and objective perspective and humility without the need to resort to superstition or blind faith.

The Sagan Series: Chapter 3 - A Reassuring Fable


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Things I love

Jun 10 2011 Published by under Uncategorized when the science works. You know, when somebody publishes something, and you try it too. Because you want to build off their observations and the knowledge they added, taking it in a direction that will shed light on your own problem. A problem you've been working on for a long time, bullheadedly continuing to fight it.

And damn it if it doesn't work the first time you try it! Hot diggity dog.

Of course I did the actual control first. I know, I know, imagine that. I'm good that way. Now it's onto the real test.

On the other hand, hey you Series Resistance....SCREW YOU!


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Jun 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The exhalted Goddess Herself Isis posted a poll for the masses asking how often PIs should meet individually with their trainees, divided into grad student and postdoc levels. As implied by her initial separation, the poll respondents feel PIs ought to meet with their grad students more frequently than their postdocs. Of course that's not surprising. Presumably you've learned something as a grad student. Though, I've seen enough in my time to know that's not 100% correct. It's also notable that people seem comfortable relying on the postdoc to bring issues to the PI's attention.

All of my PIs up to this point in my life (5 of them to be exact) have generally been of the "when they have new issues/data to dicuss" variety. Only my very first lab job, 17 years ago (*headdesk* that f'ing long, really? Seriously?) was more directly supervised. Perhaps a bit too supervised, now that I think of it. Let's just say you shouldn't walk up behind me, rub your hands together and say, "So are you at loose ends?" You're liable to get a glass pipette stuck in your neck.

Every other person has had a hands off approach. In fact, I have more formalized meetings with my current PI, though I suspect that's simply a function of sheer lab size. But that's works for me. Gimme some time to try and figure it out on my own, to muddle through for a bit. Chances are I'll get there. Sure, I might waste some time in the short term, but it will be something I never forget. As the old saying goes, nothing instructs like failure.

Classic example: Nat is a fresh faced graduate studet (well part deux grad student, more on that later perhaps). I was recording currents from nociceptors, and I was giving multiple stimuli with the intent of averaging the currents. You know, reduce the noise by 1 over the square root of # traces, that sorta stuff. But the currents were changing rapidly sweep to sweep, which made the average currents look weird to my naive eyes. I thought it might be the solutions, unhealthy cells. whatever. I spent a few weeks trying some different approaches, but never really got anywhere. Finally I went to my advisor. His immediate response, "Well, increase the interstimulus interval, and it's ok to just average fewer sweeps." And of course that worked like a charm. The currents weren't quite as pretty, but they were more meaningful. And it let me get on with the intent of the experiments.

You might say  I wasted those few weeks. But there were important benefits. First, it seared the importance of stimulus rate into my brain. It's something I'm always cognizant of in my own experiments, or in critiquing others'. And secondly, it led to two projects that explicitly examined why there was so much use dependence to the currents in the first place. Turns out the sodium current and the potassium currents both have a lot of inactivation, which strongly influces the cell's firing pattern. So really that time was only "wasted" in a very narrow analysis.

On the other hand, you don't want to let your trainees flounder. The fine art of balancing benign neglect with overbearing control freak is why you PIs get paid the big bucks, amirite?

Speaking of control freaks, who are these assholes saying that post docs should meet weekly with their PIs? What the hell for? "Well, you've been here another week, how much closer are you to that Nature paper? You're gonna need that to get job you know." Yeah, that's pretty damn helpful. I guess that's what I've been missing all these years. There's nothing for the creative spirit than being reminded of your failures weekly. Hell, let's make it thrice weekly. You wouldn't want any shred of self confidence to stick around, right?

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And now for something completely different

Jun 06 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, I suppose an introduction is in order: so, who the hell am I? My name's Nat Blair, and for some reason the folks here at Scientopia saw fit to open up the Guest Blogge for me to post some inanities and half proofread ravings. Normally I'm posting those over at my home blog of the Junction Potential. Of course, posting there has been sporadic as of late, given, you know, life and all. When I have posted, I've talked about things like:
-Being a postdoc. Now, being a senior postdoc. And old postdoc. A crotchety old post doc. But I and my comrades are part of the scientific endeavor too (or part of the Tribe, as some might phrase it), so let's represent!

Being a dad and a husband. I have two little kids and a great wife. But splitting the time between those aspects of my life and science work ain't easy (as anyone doing so amply knows).

Being a rig jockey. I'm an electrophysiologist, neurobiologist, and ion channel afficionado. I'm also a anal retentive, demanding experimentalist, who loves talking details. I <3 sausage making.

Being a Yankees fan in Mouth Breather Nation (or Red Sox, for those unaware). Hell, not just in the Nation (was there ever a more annoying term for a fan base than to add "Nation" to it?) but in viewing distance of their crappy, dilapidated park. *cough* Sorry, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. What a dump.

Being a metal fan. If you're passing through our lab and hear the driving, pounding beat of Brann Dailor's drums (or 55 ga. drum for the intro the "Crystal Skull." YES!), the relentless rhythm attack of James and Lars, or the sweet, dulcet sounds of Bruce Dickinson, then you must near my little hole in the wall. Nothing goes with a little patch clamping like a good dose of heavy metal. It's also good for annoying the Boss.

I hope some of you out there will swing by over the next two weeks to check out what's going on here in this locale. I'll see what I can do to get you all riled up and stuff.

Now, I'll leave you with a song that I usually turn up to 11 whenever starting a road trip, or something new in general:


"it's a speed metal song about the Battle of Britain ferchrissakes!!!"



9 responses so far