April 29, 2009

The Citizen Science Journalist Hat

I've mentioned my "Citizen Journalist" hat in the past, but then it was metaphorical. But this time however, the hat's for real. I passed by Lids and thought of fashioning my own insignia to be stitched onto the hat. I was very excited when I got the hat and took a snapshot of it while I was twittering in action. This hat is special because it will be the hat that I'm gonna wear in the upcoming "Crossroads" conference in Cambridge. I am gonna play the part of a Citizen Science Journalist and I will approach these great scientists of our time: David Aguilar, David Charbonneau, Freeman Dyson, Juan Enriquez, Andrew Knoll, Dimitar Sasselov, Craig Venter, Gerrit Vershuur, Peter D. Ward and Maria Zuber. I am going to ask them questions and report it all to you via twitter and this blog.
I've never done that before that's why I am nervous. But it is an adventure for me to thicken my face, say hello, and shake the hands of these movers and shakers. Wish me luck, and please do send me any questions you might want me to ask them. Tweet them to me if you like, or write them up via the comment system of this blog. And hopefully, I will be given a chance to throw your difficult questions at these Scientists.
This Citizen Science Journalism thingy has been a great adventure for me. I am learning a lot of things and I am totally thrilled to try it. To share the experience makes it even more wonderful. And it is a great time to do it, because we are on a threshold of discovering something great. Truly we are on the Crossroads of human history. As Carl Sagan said, "somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." And I just can't wait!

April 27, 2009

Astronomer's Worlds

WorldsIn my previous posts, I've linked to some hypothetical exo-lifeforms as imagined by artists with an inclination to science, or scientist inclined to the arts. As shown in Snaiad and Expedition, those works of art--speculative as they may be--provide a glimpse of what could thrive on other planets. This time, I will take you to these worlds as imagined by an astronomer. Meet Dan Durda, a planetary scientist who paints distant worlds in his spare time while not doing daredevil acts like flying jetplanes or diving in underwater caves. Thus, what he comes up with are absolutely breath-taking worlds.

A Dwarf Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Dwarf Standing on the shoulder of giantsA few weeks ago, I pleaded that I be added on @sciencebase's list of Scientwists because I love science and the people that make it so. Sometime later, this visualization was created by 2020 Science via IBM's "Many Eyes" interface. Curious, I searched where I was on the bubblechart, and I pleasantly found myself on that yellow spot resting atop giant circles. Happily I said to myself that I am a "dwarf standing on the shoulder of giants."
I don't exactly remember from which book I read that phrase, but for my case I know that it is true. Specially that I have immersed myself in what many calls the Hive Mind. Many great ideas are being shared in this medium called twitter and I am just humbled by the fact that a swarm of scientists is my teacher. I learn profound things because of them.
Although I already subscribe to the interpretation of "standing on the shoulders of giants" as "one who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past", I would like to think that in the age of Science2.0, the thinkers of the present can have a much greater influence on the current generation than ever before.
Now if only more of them will twitter...

"Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants...so that we can see things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size."
--John of Salisbury (Metalogicon, 1159)

April 24, 2009

An Expedition into a World of Science and Imagination

If i wanted to go into an expedition of an alien safari, I would visit this place: Expedition by Wayne Barlowe.
It is speculative biology and Imaginative science at it's best, all rendered with great artistic skill by an artist with a scientific bent, or perhaps a scientist with an artistic inclination.
Whichever is the case, these exo-lifeforms are a feast to my eyes and a tickle to my imagination.
It's amazing how my foray into Astrobiology and Exobiology has taken me to awe-inspiring discoveries such as this one. The worlds opened up by the marriage of Imagination and Science is an endless adventure.
What will the discovery of thousands of exoplanets bring to the fusion of Science and Art? My mind is simply blown away.

Basic Toolkit for Exogazing

Exogazing ToolkitBehold an Exogazer's basic toolkit: Binoculars, Planisphere, and Star Finder Chart.
My Binoculars is a Canon 15x50 Image-Stabilized (IS), 4.5° FOV. It provides a great experience for panning across the sky when star-hopping. The image-stabilization feature prevents jittering to help avoid dizziness, and it's great for following a comet, a satellite, a meteor, or an iridium flash across a backdrop of stars.

The Planisphere is a very handy tool for knowing which constellations will be visible to you at a given date and time. In the background are the printed Kepler Star Wheel. It is a customized planisphere that also show the stars with known exoplanets.

Finally, the star finder charts provide some more detailed information about the host star, such as it's magnitude. And it gives more details about the vicinity around the target star. It helps navigate the star field when the view is zoomed in by the binoculars.
Note: The IYA2009 sticker and pin on the binoculars was given to me by @LunarMark when I visited the LVAAS during one of their star parties (Feb 2009). There was a wonderful presentation about exoplanets at that time. And a planetarium session.

What is Exogazing?
Exogazing is gazing at the stars and "spotting" which stars have known exoplanets orbiting around it. It's just like stargazing but you have an added goal: locating which stars have known exoplanets.
More info about exogazing can be found here.

My One and Only

Dear Earth,
You will always be my one and only. Even if we find another planet that looks like you. We love you even more.


April 23, 2009

A World in Progress: Snaiad

What happens when Imagination glues together Speculative Biology and Exoplanetology? You get Snaiad, a compilation of hand-drawn creatures straight from an imagined world.

"Snaiad is one of Humanity's first off-world colonies, the jewel in the sky, the realm of the sublime. The hopeful colonists arriving from the war-weary Mediterranean found themselves not in a second Garden of Eden, but an unusual new world they had to understand and adapt in order to survive. Understand it they did, and here is what they found."

The world of Snaiad is given life in this site. It has a timeline history nicely chronicled, and even extends up to 550 years later from today. According to this "legend-in-progress", its not until 250 to 433 years from now that extrasolar colonization will occur. It also has a map and geography of the planet.
The Snaiadi creatures are given detailed information regarding their physiology, anatomy and biology. An explanation is also provided on how they are created in a step-by-step process straight from the artist's mind. It is truly amazing!
But here's the best part: You can actually go into this world right now. Yes! You can join the further development of Snaiad. It has a venue for collaboration. It is somehow connected to DeviantArt and some other projects of a similar vein. I am currently pondering how i can contribute to these awesome endeavors. As such, I would gladly recommend these types of projects to spacehack in a kind of off-beat category.
I will continue to explore Snaiad and others like it for I am truly delighted by the discovery of incredible Worlds borne of Imagination and Science.

Snaiadi Creatures
Links: Alien para-tetrapods of Snaiad

April 21, 2009

How to Detect Left-Handed Aliens!

Recently, I have been thinking about other ways of detecting biosignatures from Alien Worlds. Suddenly Wired Magazine came up with a very interesting article that is worth looking into.
The key is that "Circular polarization has the potential to be a signature of life", according to astrobiologist Neill Reid.
It turns out that some photons adopt a corkscrewed rather than up-and-down wavelength after bouncing off photosynthesizing cells.
Therefore, all we need is to put a spectrometer calibrated to detect life-specific circular polarized light on a telescope, and viola we have a powerful remote sensing technique for generic life searches.
Critical to their system is the tendency of all living creatures to be made from groups of so-called homochiral molecules. Chirality refers to the "handedness" of molecules, which often contain the same constituent atoms arranged in mirror-image forms. Organisms on Earth happen to contain only left-handed amino acids, and that property produced the circular polarization wavelengths identified in the species of photosynthesizing bacteria studied by Reid's team.
When you think about it, although most people on Earth are right-handed, other planets may host "left-handed" and "right-handed" organisms that may coexist together in equal numbers. And assuming that photosynthesis is common across the universe, then you have a larger and more diverse set of biosignatures. That truly increases the possibility of detecting Life even more.
It is indeed an ingenious idea that ties together the Circular Polarization of light and Chirality to detect Life in other worlds.

Building A Better Alien-Detection System
Left-handed Amino Acids Prevail in Early Meteorites

Gliese 581e: The Most Earth-like Exoplanet in terms of Mass

Gliese 581eToday, a ground-breaking discovery was announced by Michel Mayor: A 1.9 Earth mass exoplanet has been found. It's name is Gliese 581 e, located only 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra (“the Scales”). Gliese 581 e is the lightest known exoplanet to date. Among the 346 exoplanets known so far, it is the most similar to earth in terms of mass.
It has a period of 3.15 days, it lies very close to it's host star and orbiting so fast that a full year on that planet takes only 3 earth-days.
It is most likely a rocky planet, says Xavier Bonfils. If that is true, Gliese 581 e may have hills and mountains similar to Earth. And you could probably walk on it's surface but you'd weigh almost twice heavier, so you won't get very far. And because it orbits so close to it's parent star (at 0.03 AU) it probably won't have any atmosphere or air to breathe, and it's surface is probably scorchingly hot. Obviously it's not within the Habitable Zone of the Gliese star system.
Not to be taken lightly, the discovery of the lightest exoplanet just twice the mass of earth is a tremendous progress in just 14 years. It provides a big hint of what is to come soon: The discovery of a truly earth-like planet within the Habitable Zone.

Links: ESO Press Release

April 19, 2009

A Baby's First Light

Kepler's First LightI remember that summer night when I held my new-born son as I stepped outside for a walk. Eon was crying because he could barely see. Until the light from a lamp-post caught his gaze, and he became silent. He then fixed his eyes upon it as if feeding upon the light, groping to get a bearing of what that strange light is, his mind racing to absorb all the information of what's happening, where he is, and perhaps even what he is.
Humanity is a baby. The emergence of man's consciousness is just a fraction of a second old from Earth's history if it were scaled down to 24 hours.
And now we have just seen the First Light from Kepler as we grope to know our place in the Cosmos. Is there a planet similar to Earth somewhere? Are we alone?
Kepler is our baby. Like a new-born, it has just opened it's eyes to absorb the first bits of information to help to answer many of our questions.
I saw the pictures, Kepler's First Light. They are awe-inspiring. Yet somehow I wanted to see with my own eyes.
I woke up at 5am to gaze at the constellation Cygnus and Lyra at the same patch of sky that Kepler stares at. I kept my 15x50 binocular steady for a few seconds and slowly, they all started to show and awe: Like innumerable grains of sand behind the brighter points of light, thousands of distant faint stars can be discerned. This patch of sky is truly one of the most star-studded among the night sky.
Are there exoplanets similar to Earth orbiting any of them? What does it mean for me? For Humanity?
Like a baby, I grope in the dark and vast expanse of the cosmos: Who am I?
Asking questions takes time, and time has caught up on me. The sun is coming and I'm tired of all the asking for now. The answers can wait as I go back to bed and sleep like a baby.

April 12, 2009

Happy Easter! A Greeting to take to Brave New Worlds!

Egg NebulaToday, it's either you greeted someone or you have been greeted with a "Happy Easter!". Such exchanges have a deeper meaning that goes beyond those simple words. Easter has something to do with Life, the greatest force in the Cosmos.
We seek life in every planet to know our place in the universe. And we plan to someday fare in space. The human race has a potential future bound for the stars to colonize other worlds. But as individuals, we are here for a moment, and then gone. Like a twinkling flicker, the spark of life within us is but a momentary gift. Our bodies are star stuff and we will rejoin the dust of earth. The featureless state of death is the ultimate fate, even for the most advanced lifeform that thrives a thousand galaxies away. So I suppose that any civilization that arises will have some kind of "Easter" in a similar vein, some kind of hope for immortality.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics runs true in every part of the cosmos, and Entropy is the tombstone of every living thing. The hope of the Singularity is but a life-extension fancy. And the defeat of Death is in another realm.
Easter is a great chronicle of humanity's longing to be saved--or perhaps a Saviour's longing to save humanity--from Death. Whichever is the case, such longing will remain in the human psyche wherever life takes them, even to other planets!
And wherever any form of life takes hold, perhaps in much due time the highest state of sentience and consciousness will never fail to grasp the mortality of itself. And will tend to make the most of that dwindling spark.
As such, a Happy Easter is meant to be celebrated with the utmost joy. For happiness can be had at each moment, whether you believe you will return to nothingness or whether you will attain the everlasting life that you hope for.
Hug your loved ones and kiss them, as you say those words. Revel in the wonder that your greeting will be shared by them and their children's children onward as they take it to the stars, and onto those brave new worlds.
Happy Easter!

Hands for Science Fiction

MechanikaMy whole family dropped by our local bookstore for the last time to say goodbye as it closes down. I chanced upon Mechanika: Creating the Art of Science Fiction by Doug Chiang, and bought it for my son who is a budding artist. If i had the time, I would've doodled around with the techniques of the master craftsman Dave Chiang in creating fantastic machineries of the future and other-worldly animals. But I guess it's time for the next generation to act as the hands for crafting new worlds and the stuff of the future.
This book features a step-by-step tutorial on how to create sci-fi works of art. From concept to sketch stage, all the way to rendering, painting and finishing the details of the masterpiece using Photoshop.
What's great about this tutorial is that not only does it teaches but it inspires, first and foremost. And thus the imagination then runs free.

April 6, 2009

Serendipity and Imagination

Karl KofoedA very cool bookstore called Imagine Atrium in my area is closing, and it's a very sad thing indeed. To show our support, my wife brought the whole family to take part in the last Poetry Reading session at the store. The kids loved it and we all had a blast.
I say that everyone must experience the magic of Poetry for it encompasses many of the great facets of humanity.
After the event, I looked around the store for discounted books to buy and I chanced upon a gem: Galactic Geographic Annual 3003 by Karl Kofoed. It's a highly graphic sci-fi book that set my mind careening in outer space and into the future. How it jives with the theme of Exoplanetology is unmistakeable. It touches upon Exobiology, Exoplanetary science and some bit of Archeo-Astronomy and Astrophysics intermixed with intriguing settings of futuristic fiction that might actually come true, someday.
My imagination was truly set ablaze with this find.
Karl Kofoed's art is truly masterful. I wonder how his paint strokes can evoke visions of the future. It is a work of art. And I am glad that Serendipity has given me a book to power my Imagination.

April 1, 2009

Space or Die

Carl Sagan

"All civilizations become either space-faring or extinct."
- Carl Sagan

Pitch Black when known Exoplanets were less than 50

How could i have forgotten Pitch Black?! When this film debuted in year 2000, exoplanets were nowhere near my sphere of thought. At that time there were less than 50 confirmed exoplanets on the list. By the end of March 2009, we have 344.
It would be good to visit the memory lane and see how the movies with exoplanetary settings were, back then.
The thing i remember most about Pitch Black was Riddick's goggles (which i wanted to have) and his attitude (which I also wanted to have). Although i failed to acquire both, at least I still remember that Riddick's group crash-landed on a barren planet lit by three suns. The flesh-eating local inhabitants of that planet were afraid of light.
Three suns would have ensured constant daylight to protect Riddick's group from the deadly creatures. However they discovered that every 22 years there is a total eclipse of all three suns, plunging the planet into complete darkness. Sadly for them, it was the last eclipse they will see on that planet.
Only now do I truly appreciate the beauty of this planetary setting with a multiple star system. It all jives well with the plot, and the goggles.
I will watch this film again to observe and appreciate how it was back then, to make an interplanetary sci-fi film at a time when scientific knowledge of exoplanets were just an inkling in our minds.