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Stellar Habitable Zones: Don’t Forget the Sunscreen

Astronomers concerned with the origin of life on earth have long thought about the “habitable zone” (sometimes called continuously habitable zone, or CHZ) of our solar system.  They’ve discussed this aerobee-shaped zone around our sun – or any star – mainly in terms of locations where the temperature would permit water to exist as a […]

Theory Battles Observations in Near-Field Cosmology

Which is more important in science: a consistent model, or a good fit with observations?  Clearly both would be the ideal.  A report in Science1 this week revealed that astronomers are having trouble holding the two together.  The problem is especially acute for near-field cosmology that deals with nearby galaxies.     It may seem […]

Paper View:  Why SETI Hears Only a “Great Silence”

Enrico Fermi posed a curious question in 1950: “Where is everybody?”  If life emerges on planets as a consequence of evolution, there should be other intelligent civilizations out there, and some of them must have colonized other worlds.  He thought there must have been plenty of time for galactic colonizers to achieve technologies far beyond […]

Reach Out and Touch Some Robot

The news media were excited to report an advance in materials science last week that could pave the way for touchy-feely robots (see BBC News, News @ Nature, LiveScience and National Geographic News, for instance).  Two scientists produced a thin film with touch resolution comparable to that of a human finger, an order of magnitude […]

Paper View:  Cosmic Questions, Personal Implications

A good question provokes good thinking.  It stimulates the imagination and inspires reasoning about profound issues.  It focuses attention on problems, calls for clarification of assumptions, and leads to good follow-up questions, too.  Such a good question was asked in four simple words by Sean M. Carroll1 (U of Chicago, Enrico Fermi Institute) this month […]

The Porridge Before the Soup: Too Hot?

In the evolutionary theory of everything, there is a soup before the primordial soup we normally think of.  It’s the solar nebula, the whirling disk of dust, gas and ice that preceded the planets.  Scientists used to think the nebula was differentiated like chemicals in a giant centrifuge, with the rocks close to the sun […]

Unconstant Constant Could Challenge Basic Physics

“Shifting constant could shake laws of nature,” said Mark Peplow in Nature.1  “From the speed of light to the charge on an electron, the fundamental constants of physics had been assumed to be immutable,” he continued.  “But that comfortable assumption is being challenged.”  The latest challenge is ratio of the mass of a proton to […]

Paper View:  Cambrian Explosion Damage Control

Like some federal official holding a press conference after a disaster, a Harvard paleontologist has tackled the unenviable job of explaining what Darwin called the most severe challenge that could be levied against his theory: the fossil record. The challenge starts with a bang...

Planet-Making a Lost Art

Exclusive  Solar system theorists are trying to reverse engineer the planets without the recipe.  Planets exist, but they can’t get from a rotating disk of dust and gas to a solar system from their models.  They are at a loss to explain Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and a host of Jupiter-class planets around other stars. […]

Stardust Finds Burnt Rock in Comet Dust

In a surprise upset, scientists analyzing cometary material returned from the Stardust mission found minerals that must have glowed white-hot when they formed.  Comets were long thought to have formed in the outer fringes of the solar nebula or in the Oort Cloud, far from the sun where it’s icy cold and calm.  They were […]

Keeping Icy Moons Warm for Billions of Years

Each spacecraft that has explored the outer solar system has yielded surprises.  It is common knowledge that Voyager scientists were blown away by the first views of active moons they expected to be cold and old.  Recent discoveries have only intensified the surprises.  Richard Kerr wrote recently in Science,1 Why is there geology on Saturn’s […]

Alien Engineering: Is It Intelligent Design?

The SETI Institute finished airing a 2-part series on the History Channel called Alien Engineering (it will be rebroadcast on Feb. 18).  The series, featuring SETI Institute scientists Seth Shostak and Frank Drake, asks the following questions: Prepare for an exercise in imagination.  Suppose that an alien spacecraft crashed in the desert and we humans […]

Keeping Saturn’s Moons Old

The Saturn system has a problem: young moons.  The current consensus on the age of the solar system (4.5 billion years) cannot handle such young objects.  Richard A. Kerr in Science last month described the vexing problem:1 Why is there geology on Saturn’s icy satellites?  Where did these smallish moons get the energy to refresh […]

Space Travel Too Hazardous for Humans

Astronomy magazine’s March 2006 issue contains a couple of sobering articles for those who like to dream of humans mastering the universe.  Asking “Will moon dust stop NASA?”, Trudy E. Bell described the dangers of space dust: “it sticks to spacesuits, wreaks havoc on equipment, and may be physically harmful,” she wrote, citing the experiences […]

Can Caves Record Climate History?

Many geologists and climatologists have assumed that cave formations, forming slowly over long ages, preserve a record of climate changes.  These assumptions have been challenged by University of Texas researchers who experimented with water dripping from stalactites in a cave in Barbados.  Their work was published in GSA Bulletin.1     Climate history could be […]
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