It is quite possibly every middle-aged geek's wet dream, aside of a working hover-board: That fateful day when humans finally get to shake hands, claws or tentacles with ambassadors from another world; the watershed moment when we'll finally know for certain that we're not alone in the universe, and a new chapter --or rather, an entire volume-- in the history of our species would commence.
I've been ready for that moment all of my life, ever since I heard that seminal 5-tone sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what about humanity as a whole? That's what Gabriel G. De la Torre, a professor of psychology from the University of Cádiz in Spain, sought to find out. His conclusions: We still need a looot of growin' up to do before we can hang out with the big boys of the galactic playground.
De la Torre is a corresponding member of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and has been part of several committees related to space-oriented projects. In a paper published on the IAA's Acta Astronautica titled Toward a New Cosmic Consciousness: Psychoeducational Aspects of Contact with Extraterrestrial Civilizations, he analyzed the preliminary results of a written questionnary he applied to 116 college students from Spain, Italy & the USA, to assess whether our current level of awareness would be capable of handling the deep psychological impact, of discoverying and/or contacting an extraterrestrial civilization. His concern is that several cultural factors --religion in particular-- would tend to skew our opinion & expectations about the aliens; are they friends or enemies? conquerors or saviors? Like anything else we interact with, there would be an unconscious tendency to anthropomorphize these non-human entities.
We estimate that this type of event will have not only a social effect but also on both consciousness and biology as well. Some authors  believe that an anthropocentric vision can influence the benevolent or malevolent perception of a possible EC.The variables that produce these misperceptions or interpretation biases with regard to this type of event are related to what we called modular aspects of cosmic consciousness.
I must say that after reading De la Torre's paper, I found it something of a mixed bag. Yes, organized religions tend to color the prejudice of a great percentage of the population --although it must be pointed out that all the participating students in his study were living in Christian nations, and that he initially focused on the 80 of them who were from Spain, where Catholicism still has a great influence-- but I think most Grailers would agree with me when I say you can also find a lot of biased opinions among non-religious individuals. When Louis Pasteur was trying to support the case for germ theory, arguing that diseases like cholera or anthrax were caused by a whole realm of tiny organisms which are invisible to the naked eye, I hardly suspect whatever resistance he encountered was fueled by the lack of mention of microbes in the Bible…
What's more, De la Torre seems to follow the party-line assumption that alien contact has yet to occur, even though a significant amount of his study subjects considered UFOs "are a real phenomenon that explains that beings from other worlds are visiting us today;" and yet further along on the paper he states that although an open contact would be the most likely scenario, "a covert or unconscious contact is another possibility we should not discard." If De la Torre is so preoccupied with the social & biological effects of alien contact, perhaps he should pay more attention to Jacques Vallee's 'cultural thermostat' theory of UFOs, and his ideas of how this phenomenon acts like a control system slowly shaping our cultural, and perhaps even physical evolution.
Not that De la Torre is a hard materialist per se, mind you. There's a part in the paper where he gives a little shout-out to Roger Penrose & Stuart Hameroff's quantum consciousness theory, and he even speculates whether consciousness may play a bigger role in the structure of the Universe than we're currently aware of. Like I said, mixed bag.
In the end I guess the matter is something of a paradox: Nothing could ever fully prepare our world for the cultural shock of ET contact, and realizing it's not just us floating about in all this 'wasted space'; and yet facing that truth would greatly accelerate our shift from a local awareness to thinking in a much, much broader scale. Like Richard Dolan & Brice wrote in their book After Disclosure: The People's Guide to Life After Contact, when they equated it to parenthood --no matter who you are, you're NEVER ready to become a parent, but when the time comes you learn the ropes as you go along.
While he tries to continue with his research, applying his little questionnaire to more students from other nations, De la Torre has already found a deficiency in astronomy & space-related knowledge among the subjects studied so far; he proposes that aside from scanning the skies in search of that long-waited ET tweet, SETI should also focus some of its efforts in devising strategies to improve the education of astronomy is school curricula.
Extensive education outreach and efforts to increase awareness of Space related topics and existent relationships between Cosmos, Earth and life can be extremely helpful. SETI can take an important role in this regard.
That's all well & good, but if we're REALLY serious about achieving that cosmic consciousness of his, how about we start including some magic mushrooms in school lunches, too? ;)
"Don't beam me up, aliens". That's what William Shatner – the man who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original series of Star Trek - might be saying each night after researching the topic of alien abductions for a novel he is currently working on. In a conversation with Larry King (embedded below), the original captain of the Enterprise noted the work of Harvard professor John E. Mack on the topic, before veering into other fringish topics such as the mysteries of quantum physics.
When King first asks Shatner whether he is writing a sci-fi novel involving UFOs, the 83-year-old actor hesitates, then answers "yes". King then asks him to explain why he paused before answering, and Shatner's reply references John Mack's troubles after delving into the subject:
The hesitation is this: do you remember a man by the name of John E. Mack? John E. Mack was a psychiatrist, a tenured professor at Harvard. Was given by a friend of his, an opportunity to interview some of the people who said "we've been abducted by UFOs". After 200 interviews he concluded they were right...
He almost lost his tenure at Harvard. He lost his wife and children over it. And he walks out of the door not too long after that, and he's hit by a hit-and-run driver and killed.
There's a bit of hyperbole in there (e.g. John Mack was killed by a drunk driver in 2004, some ten years after the publication of his book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens), but that's part of the package with good old Bill. Great to see him still producing quotes that are sure to make rationalist geeks froth at the mouth (he's previously hosted shows looking into paranormal mysteries, such as Weird or What).
Sure, you may have some cool selfies, but do you have one of you on another planet?! Here's the latest self-portrait from the Mars Curiosity Rover (click for larger version), just to help us all remember the mind-blowing fact that we have a robot driving around on the surface of another planet...
If you're wondering how the rover can take a selfie without any visible 'arm' in the shot, it's actually stitched together out of 75 separate images. For more information on this, see this 2013 post from Emily Lakdawalla where she explained a previous selfie taken by Curiosity.
(Image reprocessed by @Doug_Ellison)
Update: There's another very cool wide-angle Curiosity selfie!
Not far up the road from the top secret military base Area 51 (aka 'Groom Lake', 'Dreamland' etc) lies Area 69 - another location with secrets, though of a different kind: it's a brothel. Said to cater to the sci-fi enthusiast, incorporating sex into an array of role-playing settings from famous sci-fi films and TV shows, the house of alien repute is now suspected by some to be targeting other clients - namely, workers from Area 51, in order to pump them (no pun intended) for secret information:
“Because of its close proximity and location, the brothel, gas station and convenience store will see a lot of truck and vehicle traffic from and to ‘the base’ – which official [sic] doesn’t exist. It is conceivable that a femme fatal or spy could work at the brothel and target men thought to work at the base in some capacity. Men get lonely and form relationships sometimes with whores at the brothel. Ply them with drinks and ask leading questions and they could reveal secrets about what they do at the facility at Groomlake…”, says Tony Gibbs of Charlotte, N.C. a private security consultant for high level corporate executives. “Why else would you set up such located out in the middle of nowhere but America’s most secret research facility”, he said.
You can find out more about Area 69 in this 2012 video report from ABC News:
Next time the Pleiadeans land in your backyard, use this handy chart (created in 1967) to identify their craft type and previous visits.
(via Bruce Sterling)
Last month, in a post about hummingbird singing slowed down by a factor of eight, I asked whether "our human-based perception of events in time blind us to certain aspects of 'reality'". That principle isn't limited in one direction to things too fast for us to see or hear though - see the stunningly beautiful video below (fullscreen and HD that thing) showing 'slow life', made observable in our natural timeframe only by speeding up timelapse observations:
"Slow" marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Corals and sponges are very mobile creatures, but their motion is only detectable at different time scales compared to ours and requires time lapses to be seen. These animals build coral reefs and play crucial roles in the biosphere, yet we know almost nothing about their daily lives.
...To make this little clip I took 150000 shots. Why so many? Because macro photography involves shallow depth of field. To extend it, I used focus stacking. Each frame of the video is actually a stack that consists of 3-12 shots where in-focus areas are merged. Just the intro and last scene are regular real-time footage. One frame required about 10 minutes of processing time (raw conversion + stacking). Unfortunately, the success rate was very low due to copious technical challenges and I spent almost 9 long months just to learn how to make these kinds of videos and understand how to work with these delicate creatures.
Could there be 'slow life' at the extremes, moving on the scale of millennia, all but unobservable to beings like us limited to a century of life?
I am constantly amazed at how quickly I take amazing technology for granted which would have seemed like science fiction just a decade previous to their invention (iPhones, 60+ inch flat screen TVs etc). I guess it's just the way we're wired. But this still boggles my mind - we have put robots on to other planets, such as Mars, and in some cases we can even see those robots via other amazing technology, such as the above shot (click to telescopenate) of the Curiosity rover from the HiRise camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Amazingly, the HiRise camera has previously even imaged these robots parachuting down to the planet on their arrival.
Now, if we could just see an image of the landscape to the top left of this one, where the 'Mars light' (if it was a physical object) seemed to be shining from in those anomalous images last week...
(If there wasn't an Earthly robot on the Red Planet in that spot, I wonder if NASA would investigate further, or if the line would simply be that it's obviously some sort of shiny, mineral outcrop, and that the tracks leading to it are some sort of natural, wind-created striations in the Martian soil)
While today's 'blood Moon' lunar eclipse occurred in the middle of Monday night for people in the United States, here in Australia the eclipse rose in the east - over the ocean for me here in Brisbane - right on the stroke of sunset on Tuesday evening. We took the kids down to the pier with a camera and tripod and grabbed a few images, including the one above. Bonus points for this shot, because it includes the star Spica (above the Moon) and the planet Mars (out to the left). Did you get clear skies and the opportunity to walk outside and take a look?
The Red Planet may well be a dead planet, but deep down we all seem to want to find that extraterrestrial intelligence is (or at least was) present on Mars. From the Face on Mars through to Bigfoot on Mars, news stories continue to be written about photographic anomalies on our second-nearest planetary neighbour (no doubt assisted by the relatively large number of missions that have placed satellites in orbit and rovers on the ground there).
The latest anomaly creating a buzz is a 'light on the horizon' snapped by NASA's Curiosity rover four days ago (April 3) soon after reaching a new study area known as the Kimberley (see the pic above - click for full-size image). But before you get too excited, there's a problem: Curiosity takes stereo pictures with two different cameras, and the 'light' only shows up in the right hand camera, despite both taking pictures simultaneously. This suggests that the 'light' is not truly out there on the horizon, but is instead an imaging artifact of some kind. Indeed, Doug Ellison, visualisation producer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explicitly stated on Twitter today that it was an artifact caused by "a cosmic ray hit". Such glitches have caused Mars confusion before, such as this story about a Martian base.
What I found odd though is that another image taken by Curiosity, a day earlier, also showed this 'light' artifact - and this glitch too was precisely on the horizon line:
The camera is positioned differently, it was taken a day earlier, and yet the 'light' is on both occasions on the horizon. I thought perhaps that such glitches might manifest in areas of high contrast (e.g. where ground meets sky/distant mountain range) in an image, so I asked Doug Ellison on Twitter whether that was the reason for the similarity in location. His reply was that it was actually, quite simply, a coincidence that was bound to happen at some stage:
@DailyGrail Doesn't need a reason. Statistically over 100,000's of images, that will happen (and any other coincidence you fancy)
— Doug Ellison (@doug_ellison) April 8, 2014
@DailyGrail The fact that it's in one 'eye' but not the other means it's an imaging artifact and not a real 'thing' in the terrain. Period.
— Doug Ellison (@doug_ellison) April 8, 2014
I bow to the experts on these matters, but I still find that explanation slightly unconvincing. Maybe there's a better one: the Martians are trying to blind the rover...
(Caveat for the sake of those without a drop of humour: that last statement was a joke).
Update: Last night I checked Curiosity's track maps and consulted Google Earth's Mars view to get a feel for the direction the images are looking. What I found piqued my interest even further. The bottom image in my post was taken on Sol 588, the top image a day later on Sol 589. During that time the Rover moved slightly to the south, and in both cases is looking west(ish), firstly from the north-side of a mound in the foreground and subsequently on the south-side. If you look at where the light is in relation to the mountain range in the background (use the quite recognisable 'two-level' mountain directly behind the 'light' in the top pic for reference), you'll notice that the 'light' would be in pretty much the same position on the terrain a couple of hundred metres away, if parallax is taken into consideration. Which tends to lift the possibility in my mind that it could very well be a physical object (shiny rock, electrostatic dust devil, Nephilim) rather than a cosmic ray camera artifact (though the issue of only being in one of the stereo cameras remains suggestive of a cosmic ray artifact).
Update 2: A few about-faces today on the cosmic ray artifact explanation. Doug Ellison, who in his reply to me was certain it was a CR, is now saying "I've done a complete 180. 589 could be a CR hit. 588 isn't. It hides behind a hill behind the two eyes... if one triangulates between the two observations, one finds a point on a small ridge line. That point is also visible in Sol 580 MastCam imagery that shows a tall, thing [sic], bright rock at the exact same point". And Justin Maki, lead scientist on Curiosity's engineering cameras, has told Alan Boyle that it could be the light is the glint from a rock surface reflecting the sun.
Astronomers have extended the range of our Solar System with the discovery of a new 'dwarf planet' orbiting our Sun. The planet, currently technically labeled '2012 VP113', has an elliptical orbit that brings it to within 80AU of the Sun (an 'AU' is the unit of distance from the Sun to Earth) at perihelion (closest point in its orbit to the Sun) - some three times the distance from the Sun to Neptune - while it gets as far as 450AU away at the other end of its orbit. The object is not unique: astronomers have previously discovered another similar dwarf planet, named 'Sedna'. Indeed, the new discovery, by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, hints that there are a multitude of dwarf planets orbiting the Sun in a location known as the 'inner Oort cloud'.
An intriguing coincidence is that the current positions of both Sedna and 2012 VP113 - which are also near both their perihelions - are very similar, leading to some speculation of an unknown, massive body orbiting our Sun well beyond our current sensing abilities - a 'Planet X':
The latest work has already thrown up an intriguing possibility. The angle of the body's orbit and that of Sedna's are strikingly similar, an effect most likely caused by the gravitational tug of another, unseen body. One possibility is a "Super Earth" that traces so large an orbit around the sun that it has never been seen.
"If you took a Super Earth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have," said Sheppard.
Over at her Planetary Society blog, Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed breakdown of the discovery, the coincidences, and what it might mean for the Planet X theory. She notes that for a an object of that size to form ('accrete'), it needs to be in a circular orbit - so the elliptical orbit of these two dwarf planets suggests that they were 'scattered' by something at some point after they formed. But the 'Planet X' theory isn't the only possible explanation - the planets may have been thrown into their current orbits by a star that passed within "several hundred AU of the Sun and disturbed orbits of objects it passed near", or it may be due to the fact that Earth was born in a star cluster.
It's really quite striking how close Sedna and 2012 VP113 are to each other right now, both close to their perihelia, both at around 80 AU. Here's an illustration that I put together using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser that shows you just how close they are.
Their current proximity is mostly a coincidence, given the fact that they have different orbital periods; there's nothing about their orbits that says they should be in the same place at the same time, except for the fact that their orbits happen to take them to similar spots in the sky when they are close to the Sun. But we are more likely to discover such objects when they are near perihelion (hence brighter and moving faster), so given the proximity of their perihelia they would've been somewhat close to each other in the sky because that's where we could see them both.
The fact that they have perihelia at similar locations is an interesting observation, though. And it's one that Trujillo and Sheppard noticed, too... They went on to hypothesize that the clustering of argument of perihelia resulted from "a massive outer Solar System perturber" [and] showed that it works for a super-Earth at 250 AU, but "This configuration is not unique and there are many possibilities for such an unseen perturber."
...I have confess to a bias here: I really wanted this coincidence in argument of perihelion to be strong evidence of a planet X. I would love for there to be a planet X. So would Trujillo and Sheppard, evidently, because they spent quite a bit of space showing it could work. And so would Nature, because then the first clear indication of a planet X would be in an article published in their journal.
But Hal [planetary scientist Hal Levison] dashed my hopes, or at least my certainty. "It's a very weak result," he told me; and indeed the paper spends more column inches on what 2012 VP113 tells us about the inner Oort cloud as a population than it does about this potential "perturber."
"There may be other explanations for this, rather than the extreme position of, "it's a planet"; but I can believe there's something going on".
In other words: something threw these planets into their elliptical orbits, but we still don't know what. Watch this...errr...space.