Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Aliens Among Us

The other day, I read an article in Popular Science that scientists have discovered alien life. And they didn’t find it on some other planet, a moon or an asteroid; they found it right here on Earth.
Now, don’t get your nerves tied in knots. They found bacteria that is definitely alive, but isn’t life as we know it. Yeah, that old disclaimer. How many times have we heard some scientist say, “Well, if we do find life on ____, it certainly won’t be life as we know it.”?
And they didn’t even have to go off this world to find examples of life as we don’t know it.
When I was growing up, some of my favorite authors wrote about all sorts of aliens, from 3-legged, 3-gendered crabs to creatures where the male was about 1/8th the size of the female, attached himself to her, and his only purpose was to father children. And some tried to imagine creatures that didn’t use biology as we knew it, rock creatures that could move through the soil of their planet, crystals, intelligent energy.
I found them all great fun to read.
What’s so alien about this bacteria they’ve discovered? It doesn’t have the type of biology we are familiar with. It doesn’t eat carbohydrates or protein, and it doesn’t expel the type of waste products an animal or plant would. One strain eats electricity, or rather, electrons. Another expels electrons as waste.
Yes, there are probably several types of these ‘alien’ bacterium. Based on this article, at least two strains have been named, with one graduate student trying to culture at least 20 more. Even that has to be done differently, because it doesn’t grow on petri dishes. You have to supply an electrode of some kind. Or something that they would see as food.
They aren’t really aliens. They are part of Earth’s eco-system, and have been for billions of years. But they are alien from us, even more than the creatures that grow in the super-heated vents of water rising from underwater volcanoes.
That old phrase, ‘life as we know it’, always did irritate me. We would be on a different planet, so why would we expect to find Old MacDonald and Betsy the cow? Why not keep our minds open to all sorts of possibilities, and just see what’s out there?

Something a little smarter than bacteria, I hope.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pluto & Company

Sometimes, reading science fills my imagination.
Remember when Pluto was declared NOT a planet? Mercury is also tiny, I objected. Turns out, Pluto’s diameter is half of Mercury’s. They are both small, but that is a significant difference. Still, they have decided Pluto IS a planet, although they stuck ‘dwarf’ in front. I didn’t realize that until today.
Pluto has a moon. Charon is big enough, compared to Pluto, that it doesn’t revolve around Pluto; they both revolve around a point between them. Weird. I don’t know of any other planet & moon that does that. Today, I discovered Pluto has 4 additional moons. Way to go, Pluto!
There are other dwarf planets in our system, way out in the nether regions, so Pluto is not alone. At least 3 have names. Our system has more planets than the 9 I grew up learning about.
Pluto has an atmosphere. What? How can it? It’s so tiny, so little gravity, so cold- Some times. When Pluto gets closer to the sun (it comes within Neptune’s orbit), some of the surface thaws into a thin atmosphere, mostly nitrogen with methane and carbon monoxide for flavor. When it’s not that close, that atmosphere freezes and falls to the ground.
In 2006, NASA launched a probe for Pluto. It woke up in December 2014, and is seeing if it needs to correct its trajectory. In July 2015, it will reach a point 6,000 miles from Pluto, and it will snap pictures and take readings as fast as it can. At some point after that, it will send its observations to Earth. Just think, if you had snuck onto that spacecraft just before it launched, you’d... Well, you’d be dead, because it wasn’t built for passengers, but your body would almost be there to not see it for yourself!
The most interesting bit of today’s research was that frozen dwarf planets may be the most numerous type of planet in the universe. Really? I figure we should set up bases on/in ours. Why would we want to? Once we figure out how to colonize Pluto and its cohorts, we would know how to colonize frozen dwarf planets in other systems; to study, to serve as a base, a stepping stone.
Yeah, when I dream, I can dream big. I got that from the science fiction I read as a kid.

What do you think? If you were designing a colony for Pluto, would you build on the surface or dig inside?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Textbook Cases

No researched science today. I feel lucky to be out of bed; I don’t have the energy to research, so this post is based on experience and observations.
Colds last 7 to 10 days. Children get ear infections, not adults. That may be what the ‘textbooks’ say, but it’s not written in stone.
In November, I thought I had an ear infection. Since the age of 30, I’ve come down with them occasionally. What I actually had was a sinus infection. Somebody in our household develops one every year, seems like. Doc gave me antibiotics for 7 days and sent me home. I dutifully took the pills and eventually felt better. But not well.
In December, I went back, saying, “Something’s still not right.” Sure enough, I had a sinus infection. The same infection? Could be. So I got antibiotic#2 for 10 days.
10 days later, as I took the last of those antibiotics, I noticed my throat was scratchy. What the-? How can I come down with anything when I’m on antibiotics? Of course, antibiotics work on bacterial infections, not viruses, so I figured I had caught a cold.
Colds last 7 to 10 days. So I tried to be patient.
Eventually, “This is day 11 of the cold I came down with the last day of those antibiotics,” I told Doc with a bass gravelly voice. Guess what! Yep. Sinus infection. The same one? Who knows. So he pulled out the Big Guns, antibiotic#3, for 10 days.
I went home and climbed into bed for 6 days. Oh, I did get up - it’s hard to push fluids when you’re sleeping - but never for long, and when I was up, I didn’t have any energy.
Supposedly, antibiotics help you feel better after 48 hours. Not this time. On day 5, my throat was not as sore, and today, I have not needed a nap. But I only have 3 pills left.
Monday, I’ll see Doc again.
I used to worry when I made a character sick that I wasn’t ‘following the rules’ for that illness. But obviously, from this winter alone, illness doesn’t always ‘follow the rules’. And when I write science fiction - or fantasy, for that matter - I can make up an illness, and define its ‘rules’ myself.
If I have a spaceship of 500 people in quarantine because somebody came down with Martian Measles, some of the crew will catch it right away, others will take longer to show any symptoms. Some might take a few days to get over it; others might take weeks. Certain crew members had it as a child, and won’t catch it at all. A few others have had Martian Mumps, which is sort of related, so they probably won’t catch Martian Measles.

I can do that. I’m the author.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It’s Fixed, Kind of

I’m always leery of doing a follow-up to a science-type blog. I still have the original article that inspired the first blog, but trying to find ‘up-dates’ can be tricky. Still, some subjects are worth the effort. Let’s hope I can find actual facts on this one, because otherwise, it’s mostly rumors.
Fact: The Kepler Space Telescope discovered hundreds of planets around other stars, and it did it by staring at just one tiny section of space. Fact?: Then, boom, it developed some kind of problem that kept it from staying aligned to stare at that one speck of space. At the time, I wasn’t sure what the problem was. A mis-firing attitude rocket? A stabilizing fly-wheel that went wonky? Not knowing the design, I had no idea, so I wasn’t even sure this wasn’t a rumor, except that the rate of newly discovered exo-planets suddenly fell to near-zero.1
Fact: No, NASA couldn’t send a team to repair it, like they did with the Hubble Telescope. Hubble is in orbit around Earth. Kepler is in orbit around the sun, at some distance from Earth. Just planning such an expedition would take years, with more years needed to develop a ship capable of such a thing. Rumor: The Kepler Telescope was dead.
Rumor: Late last summer, I heard from a convention panelist that Kepler was not actually dead, just crippled and unable to perform the same task it was designed to do. It still was a telescope2, and NASA was now developing ways to get some use out of it.3
Rumor?: Kepler is back! And to celebrate, it discovered a super-Earth to whet our imaginations.
Okay, now for updates.
1. Kepler had 2 of its 4 reaction wheels seize. These are flywheels for spacecraft, especially spacecraft that must stay focused on one thing, like a tiny patch of space.
2. Kepler’s second mission, since it couldn’t do the first, was to study whatever it could; black holes, exploding stars, whatever.
3. Somebody suggested they let the pressure of the sun’s light point the telescope. Solar wind streams past the machine anyway, why not use that wind to help stabilize it? It would always point away from the sun, and it wouldn’t be perfectly stable, but the remaining flywheels and alignment rockets could easily correct any drifting. It also would not be aligning with that original patch of space, but this gave it the chance to explore more patches of space.
Ergo, Kepler is back! Although not specifically looking only for exo-planets, it found one during a test run in February (2014, I believe), which is called HIP 116454b. HIP 11 (as I like to call it) is a super-Earth, having a diameter about 2.5 times that of Earth, and it (closely) circles a red dwarf located 180 light-years away. Its existence has been confirmed by the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.

I love a happy ending.