The Drake Equation is “an attempt to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come in contact.” It was theorized by Dr. Frank Drake, who is best known for being the founder of SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence. Drake proposed the equation in 1960, the same year the physicist Enrico Fermi proposed his Fermi Paradox, which asks why “if a multitude of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the Milky Way galaxy, evidence such as spacecraft or probes are not seen.” One suggestion for the reason for this is called the Zoo Hypothesis, which suggests that aliens may be present but that they might “generally avoid making their presence known to humanity, or avoid exerting an influence on human development, somewhat akin to zookeepers observing animals in a zoo.” Another suggestion is known as The Great Filter, which “acts to reduce the great number of potential sites to the tiny number of intelligent species actually observed (currently just one: ours). It might work either by one or more barriers to the evolution of intelligent life, or a high probability of self-destruction.” While SETI implies a more passive search, METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), is described as follows: “The science known as SETI deals with searching for messages from aliens. METI science deals with the creation of messages to aliens. […] [METI] pursues not a local and lucrative impulse, but a more global and unselfish one—to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation ‘You are not alone!’” Attempts at METI include the beautiful Arecibo Message and the highly symbolic Pioneer Plaque, both well worth a look.
“The advent of teeth demanded protection against those teeth, and the earliest skulls were little more than thousands of tiny teeth fused together. Through the pairing of sense organs up front, in the well-shielded head, fish gained spectacular new powers to seek food and slink from the seekers.” NYT on the many innovations we owe to fish. I couldn’t agree more.
Clarke’s Three Laws from “Profiles of the Future” (1962): “1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke passed away this Wednesday. He will be missed.
One of the most fascinating scientific findings I’ve come upon in awhile relates to a group of cells in our brain known as mirror neurons. These neurons were discovered almost by accident in a lab in Parma, Italy when researchers studying neurons relating to motion noticed that a monkey’s neurons fired almost identically when either performing an action or watching an identical action being performed. This simple observation has dramatic consequences, basically allowing us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, and their role in the brain has been tied to the understanding of intentions, empathy, gender difference, and language acquisition, as well as to certain disorders like autism and the phantom limb pain that follows an amputation. More in this NYT article (complete with beautiful illustrations by Leigh Wells) and in this hugely informative short clip from PBS’s Science NOW featuring RadioLab’s Robert Krulwich. Interviewed for the Science NOW segment is the very colorful Vilayanur (or V.S.) Ramachandran, who has done some of the most inventive and groundbreaking work on both mirror neurons and the human brain as a whole. His lecture from last year’s TED Conference is well worth checking out.
“Scientists now agree that the classical five senses are not the only avenues through which we gather information about the world around and, equally important, inside us. Aristotle failed to specify proprioception (the sense of how our body parts are positioned in space relative to one another), equilibrioception (the sense of linear acceleration and head position), thermoception (the sense of heat and cold) and nociception (the sense of pain).” A new book by Scott McCredie sets out to prove what one of my doctor friends was passionately explaining to me the other day: that balance was very mistakenly left off of Aristotle’s famously repeated list of the “five senses.” Read the NYT review of McCredie’s book here.