Aliens Riding Meteorites: Arsenic Redux or Something New? (updated)

The suspected microbe remains in the Orgueil meteorite, from J of Cosmology

Note: This story exploded after I posted this, often in strange ways. Several updates are at bottom.

A new paper has claimed signs of alien microbial life in a meteorite, setting the science press abuzz and leading some in the blogosphere and the twittersphere to wonder if this going to be like taking arsenic all over again. (See Phil Plait, at Bad Astronomy, for a judicious quick first look.) Even before the science itself has played out, I think I can safely say No on the Arsenic Redux question. The publication of this assertion already sharply differs from that of the notorious Arsenic Lives paper. And it differs because the journal publishing it — the Journal of Cosmology — is different. Which puts it mildly.

The Journal of Cosmology is in fact so different from any other journal, so otherworldly, that I don’t know quite know what to make of the thing. But in a way, I like it, even as it’s dying. The J of C drew my attention with the peer-reviewed paper, Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex in Outer Space, which was part of a special issue on Mars published last fall. Here’s the abstract’s first sentence:

Humans are sexual beings and it can be predicted that male and female astronauts will engage in sexual relations during a mission to Mars, leading to conflicts and pregnancies and the first baby born on the Red Planet.

Fair enough. Here’s the first paragraph of the article proper. (Forgive the comma; perhaps it was inserted to create a pause at the moment of maximum anticipation.)

Performance of the sex act during a journey to Mars, may require potentially complex sexual gymnastics. On the other hand, any difficulties associated with sexual intercourse in space may turn out to be an easily solved problem of docking and entry as human are notorious for inventing ways of having sex despite all manner of logistical impediments (Joseph 2000a). However, what impact will sexual activity have on team dynamics and morale? And what if an astronaut became pregnant during the journey? Would the fetus be viable? How would this impact the crew?

Okay so right away we know this isn’t the usual deal. The rest of the issue, frankly, I didn’t get through, but  not because it was bad or good (I didn’t read enough to judge), but because it concerned space exploration, and I don’t write about space or rockets and had my own work to do. Yet this brief brush with the J of C  — I read the masthead, did a bit of Googling — made it obvious it was an unusual publication. It wasn’t run by one of the big science publishers, like Nature or Elsevier, nor a university. It has a funky, 90s-feel website. It had voice, which alone distinguishes it from most journals.

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Why Do We Love the Robotic Packmule?

Dangerroom ran this robotic packmule video last year, commenting mainly on the engineering. The thing is a wonder: When it’s given a bump or slips on the ice, it reacts incredibly fluidly to stay afoot.

As amazing as that is, however, I find myself agog even more at how we feel (how I feel, anyway) as we watch it scramble to stay upright.

This doubtless happens because the engineers, obviously taking their mechanics from real animals, programmed reactive motions that make the thing look incredibly lifelike. In fact, this beast never seems more lifelike than when it’s struggling. Watch, for instance, when the engineer gives the mule a kick (40 seconds in) and then when it slips on ice (at 0:53).

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Delightful Shuttle-launch Vid mashes NASA with Eisenstein

Karen James, who someday will become the first person to sail on both the Beagle and a spacecraft, created this fetchingly geeky, giddy video (gideo?) recording her and her friends waiting and then watching the Discovery launch. James is a shameless space geek anyway, and took special interest here because the Discovery contained a friend of her, mission specialist Michael Barratt.

Be patient; you may even think something’s wrong with it. Breaks all the rules: One shot. Low-X, maybe no-X zoom. No people shown. But it’s the only film of any succcessful shuttle launch that has given me goosebumps.

Update 8 Mar 2011: James sent me a note recounting her hi-tech, film-grad-school-level technique:

Deets: I used a Gorillapod to mount a point & shoot (loaned to me by @JetForMe) on the leg of @therealdjflux‘s tripod, pressed ‘record’ and then left it there for the duration while I watched from about ten feet away. I also recorded a separate audio track as a ‘voice memo’ on my iPhone, which I held in my hand throughout. I used iMovie to combine and edit the video and the two audio tracks.

Eisenstein would approve. If you’re wondering WhoTF that is, now you know.

Charlie Sheen, Life & Genes, A Terrible Fall. Compare and contrast.

Sort and combine those title elements as you like. Here’s what’s aglitter in my net today:

This guy climbs a pinnacle to ski down — but slips while clipping in. Amazingly, he’s apparently okay. I felt a little sick watching this, but not during the fall: It was the wide-angle shots at the pinnacle that got me. And I’m not scared of heights. Via BoingBoing.

More serious fare:

Nature’s Helen Pearson has written a stunningly good story on the ’46 UK birth cohort, rich with science & humanity. Gorgeous. Hope to write more about this later, but go there now. One of week’s top 5, no doubt.

Neuroskeptic offers a nicely balanced take on the Decline Effect. John Schooler delivers another.

Tim Carmody ponders the notion that Radiohead has been producing serious stuff longer any other pop band has.

Ian Leslie takes aim at the nocturnal urinal.

Amy Wallace, with whom I almost had dinner in Los Angeles back in November (would have been lunch with Jonah Lehrer, dinner with Amy, quite a day … but Amy had to bail), is on quite a roll this wk. She has a raucous, astonishing Charlie Sheen interview at GQ, and a deeply haunting story of U Ala shooter prof at Wired. If you have to choose one, go the latter.

Speaking of Sheen, I’ve held off long enough. Get the good stuff:

Charlie Sheen Quotes As New Yorker Cartoons. Guy may (or may not) be nuts, but he can sure talk.

ChrisBohjalian offers (via twitter): Martin Sheen’s opening monologue APOCALYPSE NOW is telling. “Every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger.”

Incredible. German defense minister resigns over plagiarized PhD; and Saif Gaddafi’s thesis also questioned Via @alicebell

Ima try to do these more regularly. They’re fast and fun.

Gatsby Inspires Time Travel: A Tale of Weird Convergences

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about a strange convergence of the characters of Jay Gatsby and Bill Clinton. That post either created or revealed, I’m not sure which, another strange convergence, this one involving F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote Gatsby; my best friend, his five-year-old daughter, and his grandfather; and me. I thought I’d pass it on.

The Gatsby post described how, in the scene in which the narrator Nick Carraway first meets Jay Gatsby, Gatsby’s power to connect with people reminded me of the same empathetic power so many people attribute to Bill Clinton:

[Gatsby] smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

To illustrate the same in Clinton, I mentioned what my friend Richard Ober saw when he had breakfast with Clinton:

When he turns to you and asks you what you think, you feel utterly, completely listened to. Part of you knows it probably doesn’t really matter. But the experience of it, the thing you feel while he’s looking at you, nodding and listening and asking questions, tells you it matters more than anything else in the world. And when you watch him listen to someone else it’s clear they’re feeling the same thing.

Thus Richard, unawares, snuck into my post. I quoted him only because he had said this about Clinton. But I had forgotten that, as Richard had told me years ago, Richard himself stood only one degree of separation from Fitzgerald himself (and thus two, I suppose, from Gatsby). Richard reminded me of this after reading the post:

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Is Cognitive Science Full of Crap?

Is cognitive science full of crap? A biophyics researcher recently asked this of a cognitive science researcher. The latter answered with spirit. My own answer is that of course cog sci is full of crap — except when it’s not. Which makes it like most science, only more so.

It started when Cambridge University memory researcher Jon Simons posted a lament about how proposed UK science-funding cuts especially threaten young, developing researchers. The cog-sci debate broke out when University of College London biophysicist David Colquhoun suggested that perhaps precious funding might be better used if less were spent on cognitive science:

I couldn’t agree more about the very real danger posed to early-career and even mid-career scientists by the lack of smallish responsive mode grants.

But being in a different area, I may see the problem slightly differently. At the risk of being lynched, I’ll have to admit that I sometimes sigh when see the next “new phrenology” study come out. Only too often the results are uninterpretable (though university PR departments love the fact that, however trivial, they make headlines). The equipment is enormously expensive and perhaps some of that money could be better spent (for example, on fundamental biophysics!).

When pressed for examples, Colquhoun named a couple of studies, most prominently a 2000 study about the “taxi drivers’ hippocampus.” He was referring to work at the lab of Eleanor Maguire, who found that London taxi drivers, who to earn their licenses must pass a horrifically difficult navigational and geographic exam called The Knowledge, had bigger hippocampuses than most people did.

Hippocampuses play an vital role in memory and spatial navigation. As the paper noted, the bigger hippocampi in London cab drivers might mean one of (at least) two things: That memorizing the streets and routes of London made their hippocampuses grow; and/or that having big hippocampuses to start with made you better able to memorize enough routes and streets of the Knowledge to pass it. The paper leaned toward the former explanation.

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Steve Jobs Stole My Books. I Want ‘Em Back.

Late yesterday, Tom Levenson pointed me to a MacRumors post that said the latest update of Apple’s iBooks app would disable itself — refuse to show you the books you had bought — if your phone happened to be one that was once “jailbroken.”

This made me sit up quick, because

a) I have bought a half-dozen or so iBooks

b) when I moved to the UK last August, I unlocked my iPhone (which also jailbroke it) because that was the only way to make the phone work with a UK provider. (ATT isn’t over here.)

In other words, I had unlocked and jailbroken the phone because otherwise it wouldn’t work. That’s the only reason. I’ve loaded no outside apps or any of the tweak geeky things that jailbreaking lets one do.

SO I thought: I can’t be reading this correctly. If the MacRumors post is accurate, Steve Jobs was telling told me that my swanky iPhone had to serve either as a book reader that didn’t work as a phone, or as a phone that wouldn’t show me the books that he himself had sold me so I could read them on the phone.

This confused me. It made me hope MacRumors got it wrong, so that life would be simpler.

So I decided to test it. I got up  — this was at 5 a.m., but could you sleep with such a paradox banging around in your head? — and updated iBooks on my iPhone. I opened the app. And folks, those books are *gone*. Gone gone gone.

Those cute little wooden shelves Steve puts the book on when you buy them? Steve cleaned ’em out. He took ’em all. Steve took Mickey Mantle — early in his career, because I had just started that book. Steve took Stanlislaw Dehaene, the guy who studies how to read, for God’s sake. Steve took Ethan Watters. Steve took Dan Ariely. Totally irrational! Steve took Steven Johnson and Steve Martin. Steve took Winnie the Pooh! Steve even took Keith Richards, which is deeply, nastily discordant, but unpleasantly so in this case, and which could mean serious trouble for Steve Jobs himself — Steve, I tell you this for your own good, you arrogant thief — because if he took Keith, then in some essential sense he also took Mick, and Mick has lawyers.

I hope I’m not wrong about this, and that I will not end up embarrassing myself. Or rather I hope I am wrong. I hope I’ll load another update or a sync tomorrow or drop my phone or something and pick it up and turn it back on and find this was a glitch. That Steve will have returned the books. Maybe Steve did not really mean to erase my books. Maybe he really meant, as the update’s update notes, to deliver “a number of important stability and performance improvements.” Yet I’ve restarted the phone and twice reloaded the app and re-restarted and pawed around all over those shelves till I feel stupid, and I still can’t find my books.

So it appears that Steve Jobs has stolen them.  My understanding is I could fix this by updating my phone so that it carries the latest system software from Apple — but if I did, the phone would no longer work over here. Probabaly at the bottom of some 30-page form I checked a box that gave Apple permission to do this. But really. In any sensible sense of the word, I own this phone, and I own those books. Yet Steve Jobs, having sold me both, now tells me I must choose between one or the other.

I’m traveling a lot lately, often in places where signs or announcements over the PA warn you that pickpockets are working in this area. When this happens, I often check my iPhone. (I do this subtly, so as not to reveal its location to pickpockets who watch for such cues. They do that, you know.)  When I feel it, I’m reassured. How stupid of me. It turns out the thief has entered my pocket, and left with my goods, through the phone itself.

How to Make a Subway Make Music

I should just set up a direct feed from Biophemera, where I found this.

Conductor: from Alexander Chen on Vimeo.

Alexander Chen’s Conductor turns the New York subway system into a string instrument. Using the MTA’s actual subway schedule, the program tracks and models actual train departures, accelerating the whole business so that a day’s worth of train activity is compressed into a few minutes; in the resulting video, we watch trains “launch” along the subway-map tracks and then follow their routes through Manhattan; the vid sounds a string-pluck every time a train crosses another train’s track. Voila: Trains playing music. (This’ll make sense when you watch.) The visuals are based on Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 diagram.

See Also:

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