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Alien Communication

Nanelia: The Sonar Tank. They’re wearing sound baffles in case they get in front of it. Even if we plug our ears, we can’t get any closer.
Cowboy: [to the nearby Kelvin, who are trying to get his attention] Will you two radiators stand back? It’s hard enough to think!
Nestor 1: It seems they’re volunteering.
Cowboy: Yeah, what can THEY do?
Nestor 1: Well, for one thing, the Kelvin have no ears.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Science fiction is full of unique ways alien species communicate. In the 1980 Roger Corman movie, Battle Beyond the Stars, the Kelvin have no ears because they communicate by radiating body heat. In China Mieville’s Embassytown, a race of insectoid creatures communicate using two mouths and a language that is utterly inhuman in its construction. And in the film and book Close Encounters of the Third Kind. scientists use Solresol, a language based on musical tones.

In real life, communication even within species can occur in a number of ways. Humans communicate verbally (though language, accent, tone of voice, habitual voice quality, etc.) and nonverbally (communication other than through than speech, including facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, postures, positions, and various movements of the body or the legs and feet).

Other primates communicate through vocal behavior (functional reference, call combinations, and vocal learning), olfactory signals to mark territories, screams to recruit help while fighting, gestures to request food and facial expressions to initiate play. Some fish can communicate using noises that include grunts, chirps and pops.

Even plants have been shown to be able to communicate. When bugs chew leaves, studies have shown they release volatile chemicals through their leaves and roots when damaged by herbivores that other plants can perceive and respond by increasing production of chemical weapons or other defense mechanisms. But now a unique method of communication has been discovered between a parasitic plant and it’s hosts.

Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech in a study published August 15th in Science found that plants may also communicate on a molecular level. Westwood examined the relationship between a parasitic plant called a dodder, and two host plants, Arabidopsis (small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard) and tomatoes.

The dodder wraps itself around its host, then uses an appendage called a haustorium (think of a vampire’s fangs) to penetrate the plant and suck the moisture and nutrients out of the host plants. Professor Westwood had previously shown that during this parasitic interaction, there’s a transfer of information using RNA between the dodder and it’s host. But the new study expands on that, finding that a surprising amount of messenger RNA (mRNA) is constantly being exchanged between both plants during the parasitic relationship.

Dodder attacking a sugar beet

Dodder attacking a sugar beet. Credit: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sceinces

Westwood believes the dodder may be telling the host plant what to do, such as lowering its defenses so that the parasitic plant can more easily attack it. “The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” Westwood said in a recent release. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’”

Of course, creating an alien language involves more than just determining the method of communication. There’s the sentence pattern (for English, that’s Subject/Verb/Object, while in Japanese it’s Object/(particle)/Subject/Verb), vocabulary, and grammar. And you need to think outside of whatever your cultural norm is. For example, Marc Orkand, a former linguistics professor who created the Klingon language, notes in the introduction to The Klingon Dictionary:

…there are no words for greetings, such as hello, how are you, good morning, and so on. It seems apparent that such words and phrases simply do not exist in Klingon. When two Klingons meet each other (except in cases where military protocol determines behavior), if anything of an introductory nature is said, it is an expression that can best be translated as What do you want? Unlike most speakers of English, who begin conversations with greetings, inquiries about the state of health of the conversants, and remarks about the weather, Klingons tend to begin conversations by simply stating the main points.

But coming up with a unique method of communication is a good start.


Liebal, Katja, Waller, Bridget M., and Burrows, Anne M. 2013. Primate Communication: A Multimodal Approach. 2013, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Okrand, Marc. The Klingon Dictionary. 1992, New York, NY: Pocket Books

Alien Inspiration

Science fiction is full of aliens. There’s Larry Niven’s Pierson’s Puppeteers, Valentine Smith, the stranger in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Gordon R. Dickson’s Aalaag, Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx, and H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzies, to name just a few. The Star Trek, Star Wars, And Dr. Who universes are full of them. However, as bioethicist Kyle Munkittrick wrote in Discover a few year back:

Science fiction has a problem: everyone looks the same. I know there are a few series that have aliens that look unimaginably different from human beings. But those are the exception, not the rule. Most major sci-fi series – Star Wars, Babylon 5, Mass Effect, Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate – have alien species that are hominid.

Following are five species on earth that may help you better design aliens for your stories.

The Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

Mimic Octopus

Credit: Wikipedia – licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

First discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia on the bottom of a muddy river mouth, the mimic octopus is the first known species to take on the characteristics of multiple species. Even more surprising, the mimic octopus is able to discern which dangerous sea creature to impersonate that will present the greatest threat to its current possible predator. For example, scientists observed that when the octopus was attacked by territorial damselfishes, it mimicked the banded sea snake, a known predator of damselfishes. The creatures they’ve been observed to mimic include:

  • Jellyfish: To mimic the jellyfish, the octopus swims to the surface and then slowly sinks with its arms spread evenly around its body.
  • Lion fish: To mimic the lion fish, the octopus hovers above the ocean floor with its arms spread wide, trailing from its body to take on the appearance of the lion fish’s poisonous fins.
  • Sea Anemone: The mimic octopus raises all of its arms above its head with each arm bent in a curved, zig-zag shape to resemble the lethal tentacles of the anemone.
  • Sea Snakes: The mimic octopus changes color taking on the yellow and black bands of the toxic sea snake as it waves 2 arms in opposite directions in the motion of two sea snakes.
  • Sole fish: This flat, poisonous fish is imitated by the mimic octopus by building up speed through jet propulsion as it draws all of its arms together into a leaf-shaped wedge as it undulates in the manner of a swimming flat fish.

Its mimicry also allows it to prey on animals that would ordinarily flee an octopus. For example, it can imitate a crab as an apparent mate, only to devour its deceived suitor.

Several videos of the octopus in action can be found on YouTube: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4, Video 5

Pacific Barreleye Fish

Barreleye Fish

Credit: MBARI/Youtube

Also known as the spookfish, they get their name from their large, barrel shaped eyes topped by huge green lenses inside a round, transparent, fluid-filled head. Found 600 meters (a little over a third of a mile) or more down off the coast of California, barreleye fish use their eyes for locating planktonic crustaceans and the other small animals on which they feed. Because these organisms are often trapped in the stinging tentacles of jellyfish, it’s believed that the fish’s head helps protect their eyes from stings.

The eyes are tubular because a tubular eye allows the eye to collect a lot of light and focus it the right distance away without the eyes having to take up the whole head. The lower the level of light, the larger the lens needs to be to collect the maximum amount of light. But the larger the lens, the longer the focal length of the lens. Although for a long time it was thought the fish’s eyes were fixed in place, but in 2009 researchers Bruce Robison and Kim Reisenbichle at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute found that they can rotate behind the transparent shield on the fish’s head. This allows the fish to peer up at potential prey or look forward when the fish is feeding. The researches also found that

In addition to their amazing “headgear,” barreleyes have a variety of other interesting adaptations to deep-sea life. Their large, flat fins allow them to remain nearly motionless in the water, and to maneuver very precisely (much like MBARI’s ROVs). Their small mouths suggest that they can be very precise and selective in capturing small prey. On the other hand, their digestive systems are very large, which suggests that they can eat a variety of small drifting animals as well as jellies. In fact, the stomachs of the two net-caught fish contained fragments of jellies.

Pistol Shrimp

Pistol shrimp

Credit: Wikipedia/U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Also known as the snapping shrimp and the alpheid shrimp, these are small shrimp (1 -2 inches long) that have asymmetrical claws, with one claw larger than half the shrimp’s body. What makes this large claw (referred to as a snapping claw) unique is that rather than having a pincer at the end as most shrimp do, it is pistol like, with a joint allows the “hammer” part to move backward at a right-angled position. When released, it snaps into the other part of the claw, creating a cavitation bubble at up to 62 miles per hour. When the cavitation bubble collapses:

1) it reaches temperatures of over 5000 Kelvin
2) this temperature produces a bright flash of light that lasts for a fraction of a second
3) generates a sound reaching close to 220 decibels at a pressure of up to 11.7 psi (here’s a chart to put that in perspective).

If a shrimp losses the snapping claw, it will regenerate into a smaller claw. In turn, the original smaller claw will grow into a new snapping claw. Research has shown that severing the nerve of the snapping claw induces the conversion of the smaller limb into a second snapping claw.

Zombie Worms (Osedax)

Zombie Worms

Credit: Yoshihiro Fujiwara/JAMSTEC

Zombie worms, also known as boneworms or bone-eating worms, were first discovered living in the bones of a rotting gray whale on the deep sea floor nearly 10,000 feet deep in 2002. Only females consume bones – the microscopic males live inside the female bodies. After the worm larvae land on the palps of female worms, they develop into male worms, then find their way into the tube that surrounds the female’s body. Dozens live in this space, releasing sperm that fertilize the female’s eggs, but never eating. Eventually the female worm sends thousands of fertilized eggs out into the surrounding water, and the cycle begins again.

Although zombie worms eat the bones of whales and other large marine animals, they don’t have a no mouth, gut or anus. Instead, the worms use what researchers call a “bone-melting acid” that frees up the nutrients within whale and fish bones. The acid releases and absorbs collagen and lipids within the bones. Additionally, bacteria that live symbiotically within the worms are involved in helping the worms consume nutrients from the bones, although exactly how this happens isn’t fully understood.

Tardigrades (Tardigrada)


Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Goldstein Lab

Also known as water bears or moss piglets, they’re rarely longer than one millimeter in length, and have eight legs. There are more than 1,000 identified species of tardigrades, and they have the ability to survive in physical or geochemical conditions that would kill most other life on Earth. Experiments have shown they can survive being frozen at -328 degrees Fahrenheit, and heated to more than 300 degrees F. They can also withstand pressures up to 6000 times that of earths atmosphere, and can survive radiation doses that are thousands of times stronger than the fatal dose for a human. They have even been shown to be able to survive in outer space.

In 2007, European researchers exposed a sample of dehydrated tardigrades to the vacuum and solar radiation of outer space for 10 days. When the specimens returned to earth and were rehydrated, 68% of those shielded from the radiation survived, and a handful with no radiation protection survived and produced viable offspring. Then in 2011, Italian scientists sent tardigrades on board the International Space Station along with other extremophiles. They determined that microgravity and cosmic radiation “did not significantly affect survival of tardigrades in flight, confirming that tardigrades represent a useful animal for space research.”

Tardigrades survive primarily by entering a dehydrated state that closely resembles death. It curls up into a dry ball called a tun, reducing its metabolic activity to as low as .01 percent of normal levels. To achieve this state, they produce trehalose, a protective sugar that forms a gel-like medium that suspends and preserves the organelles and membranes that make up the animal’s cells. A tardigrade can survive for decades or longer in this state.

Once immersed in water, it to a normal metabolic state over the course of a few hours. Although a group of dehydrated tardigrades were reportedly taken from a museum sample of dried moss that was more than 100 years old and revived, the longer it’s dehydrated, the lower the chances it will successfully be revived afterward.

Tardigrades have additional survival strategies as well. If the oxygen content of their water medium drops too low to extract enough oxygen for respiration, they stretch out into a long, relaxed state, their metabolic rate reduced, and the relaxation of their muscles allowing as much water and oxygen to enter their cells as possible. If the temperature drops below freezing, they form a special cold-resistant tun, with molecules that prevent the formation of large ice crystals that could damage cell membranes. And their resistance to shortwave UV radiation is due is in part to their ability to efficiently repair damage to their DNA resulting from that exposure.

These are just a small sampling of the truly odd and unique life you can use as inspiration when you design your alien culture, but they should give you a place to start.


Helfman, G. S., Collette, B. B., and Facey, D. E. 1997. The Diversity of Fishes. 535 pp. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.

Wiley, E. O. and Johnson, G. D. 2010. A teleost classification based on monophyletic groups. In J. S. Nelson, H.-P. Schultze, & M. V. H. Wilson (eds) Origin and Phylogenetic Interrelationships of Teleosts. Pp. 123-182, Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, München, Germany.

Maurice Burton & Robert Burton (1970). The International Wildlife Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Marshall Cavendish.

First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation!

The imprint of the Big Bang

The imprint of the Big Bang: B-mode polarization (the swirls) of light coming the first fraction of a second after the birth of the Universe itself. Photo by BICEP2 Collaboration

A team of astrophysicists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have announced that, for the first time, they have directly confirmed the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation, as well as the first images of gravitational waves, the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. Working the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) microwave telescope located at the South Pole, reported their results in a scientific briefing at the Center for Astrophysics here on Monday, and in a set of papers submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

The BICEP team detected peculiar fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, distant radiation left over from the beginning of the universe itself, not in its temperature, but in its polarization. Like visible light waves, this early radiation can be polarized, wiggling and oscillating in a given direction, or even in a spiral. By analyzing the particular pattern of that polarization, we can then walk backwards and figure out what gave rise to those patterns in the very, very early universe.

Back in 1978, when he had just gotten his Ph.D., physicist Alan Guth scribbled a “spectacular realization” in his lab notebook that predicted the results reported today:

Alan Guth spectacular realization

He formally proposed inflationary theory in 1980, when he was a postdoctoral scholar at SLAC. Instead of the universe beginning as a rapidly expanding fireball, Guth theorized that the universe inflated extremely rapidly from a tiny piece of space and became exponentially larger in a fraction of a second.

For more in depth explanations, check out the following links:

Brightest Lunar Explosion Ever Seen

On 2013 September 11 at 20h07m28.s68 ± 0.s01 UTC, two telescopes operated in the framework of our lunar impact flashes monitoring project recorded an extraordinary flash produced by the impact on the Moon of a large meteoroid at selenographic coordinates 17 ?.2 ± 0 ?.2 S, 20 ?.5 ± 0 ?.2 W. The peak brightness of this flash reached 2.9 ± 0.2 mag in V and it lasted over 8 s. The estimated energy released during the impact of the meteoroid was 15.6 ± 2.5 tons of TNT under the assumption of a luminous efficiency of 0.002. This event, which is the longest and brightest confirmed impact flash recorded on the Moon thus far, is analysed here. The likely origin of the impactor is discussed. Considerations in relation to the impact flux on Earth are also made.

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2014.

record-breaking meteorite strike on the moon

The impact of a large meteorite on the lunar surface on Sept. 11, 2013, resulted in a bright flash, observed by scientists at the MIDAS observatory in Spain.
Credit: J. Madiedo / MIDAS

On Sept. 11, 2013, a pair of telescopes from a project called MIDAS (Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System) monitored the blast from a meteoroid crashing into the lunar surface. The meteorite hit at a speed of 37,900 mph (61,000 km/h), gouging out a new crater roughly 131 feet (40 meters) wide in an ancient lava-filled lunar basin known as Mare Nubium. The energy released by the impact was comparable to an explosion of roughly 15 tons of TNT, and was at least three times more powerful than the largest previously observed event. The flash, which lasted for about 8 seconds, was about as bright as Polaris, the North Star. The high-speed collision was recorded on video and would have been clearly visible to anyone on Earth who happened to look at the moon at the right time.

The uncertainty of the impact is fairly high, the team who made the discovery said in their paper, and the team cautioned that specifics about the meteorite’s impact were difficult to nail down, in part because its origin cannot be determined. “Two sources have been considered for the impactor,” they write. “The event was compatible with the impact geometry of the September Epsilon Perseids minor shower, but it could also be associated with a sporadic meteorid.” If it was part of the September Epsilon Perseids meteor shower, it would have a very high velocity relative to the moon, and wouldn’t need as much mass to cause an impact with this energy. In this case, the rock would have been about 45kg and 36cm across. If, however, it was a sporadic meteoroid, the velocity would be lower and the mass greater, perhaps a mass of 450kg, and a diameter as large as 1.4 meters.

The MIDAS project has been running since 2009, and has an automated pipeline for identifying impacts. The statistics it has generated suggest that some early estimates of the rate at which Earth is bombarded may be low by as much as a factor of 10. In their paper, the team noted “Thus, the impact energy of the lunar impact flash would be equivalent to an impact energy of 28.3 ± 4.5 tons of TNT on Earth for the sporadic meteoroid and 24.3 ± 3.8 tons of TNT for the SPE meteoroid. So, by performing the corresponding surface area scaling between both bodies, the impact rate on Earth for events with an energy above these values would be of about 1680 ± 1050 events per year.”

“Our telescopes will continue observing the Moon as our meteor cameras monitor the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Madiedo and Ortiz in a press release. “In this way we expect to identify clusters of rocks that could give rise to common impact events on both planetary bodies. We also want to find out where the impacting bodies come from.”

A video of the impact has been posted on YouTube.

Close Encounters Of The Sexual Kind

A good bit of imagination has gone into attempts to represent close encounters of a sexual kind. Major authors, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Jose Farmer, and Octavia Butler, have written critically-acclaimed novels in which deep emotional, intimate, and sexual relations between humans and aliens form the central narrative. Significant episodes of the various Star Trek series have also shown intimate relations among aliens — sometimes between humans and aliens, sometimes among different alien species (such as the relationship between the Klingon Whorf and the Trill Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine). Star Trek’s own Mr. Spock was the product of a marriage between a human female and a male alien from the fictional planet Vulcan.

The human/alien sex trope typically assumes that an alien species would reproduce in a manner that’s compatible with how humans reproduce, but that can be a dangerous assumption, judging by the way many species on earth reproduce. The male of the deep sea anglerfish, for example, attaches to the female permanently, fusing with her blood stream and gradually atrophying until they are just a pair of gonads that release sperm into the female in response to hormonal cues in her blood, a process known as sexual parasitism. Other species, such as the New Mexico whiptail, are an all-female species. Adult female New Mexico whiptails reproduce solely through parthenogenesis (a type of asexual reproduction in which a female gamete or egg cell develops into an individual without fertilization), laying unfertilized eggs that develop into other female whiptails.

There are organisms without distinctive male and female forms. The black mold Rhizopus nigricans, displays an unusual form of reproduction known as “heterothallism.” This species of fungus requires two organisms are for fertilization and replication to take place. However, the two sexes are physically indistinguishable. There are no constant differences between members of opposite mating groups other than their reciprocal behavior when crossed. Thus, it is impossible to designate one form of the black mold as male and the other as female. Customarily the complementary groups are labeled merely “+” and “-” for convenience during experiments.

If some species have no distinctive examples of male and female forms, others have more than two sexes. Some species have one female and two male genders include red deer who have two male morphs (distinct forms of an organism or species), one with antlers and one without, known as hummels or notts, as well as several species of fish such as plainfin midshipman fish and coho salmon. Others have one female and three male genders, including bluegills, where four distinct size and color classes exhibit different social and reproductive behaviors, the spotted European wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), the Oreochromis mossambicus cichlid, and the ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus).1 Slime mold has thirteen sexes, while the fungus Schizophyllum commune has over 28,000 sexes.

Other organisms lack specific maleness and femaleness, but exhibit an alternating or intermediate condition. For example, simultaneous hermaphrodites possess at once both female and male sex organs. Ovaries and testes are present together in the same individual. Matings occur in pairs, with each partner serving both sexual roles at the same time. Planarians, earthworms, sponges and snails fall into this category, as well as a few among more highly evolved vertebrates are known, such as the belted flamefish (Serranus subltgarius). Some simultaneous hermaphrodites form harems, in which a single male supervises a school of females. If the male is killed, the dominant female in the harem transitions and takes his place. In such harems, the male is usually responsible for defending the school from invaders and protecting his territory to ensure that his flock does not wander astray or encounter potential dangers.

There are also species where individuals start life as one sex and finish it as another, called sequential hermaphrodites. There are two types of sequential hermaphrodites. Animals which are born male with the ability to become female exhibit a trait of protandry. Protogyny, on the other hand, is a trait in which animals are born as females, with the ability to become males later in life. Depending on the species, simultaneous hermaphrodites may change sex only once, or they may be able to flip back and forth between genders several times. Oysters, for example, are born as males, then spend the rest of their lives switching back and forth between male and female in irregular cycles a few months long.

Given these tremendous potential biological differences, would or could copulation be possible at all between humans and extraterrestrials?


There are well-documented cases of attempted and successful sex between different species. These include dolphins and humans. seals and penguins, otters and seals, sheep and deer, orangutans and humans, and humans with various farm animals. This suggests that, if humans were to mingle socially with alien races, interspecies sexual contacts are at least possible.

Even if such activity were possible, how likely would it be? Could humankind and an alien race derive sexual pleasure from mutual physical encounters?

Suppose, for example, we discovered an alien race that is sequential hermaphroditic. In this society, individuals spend their early life neither male or female, then attain puberty and enter their first sexually active phase as functioning males. After a certain amount of time, latent ovaries within them ripen into maturity, and the individual, now considered an adult, spends the remainder of its life as a female.

In such a society, monogamous marriage as we know it would be impossible. Husbands would change into wives, and males would be too immature psychologically to be treated as anything other than young lovers. Since all fertile middle-aged females in a family in theory could mate with any or all male children, it’s likely there would be complex incest prohibitions. To offset the negative effects of inbreeding, exchanges of matriarchs would occur between families. Love as humans understand it probably would not exist. In such a society, females would likely have strong affective and familial non-sexual ties with other females. Human concepts of male/female romantic relationships would be quite incomprehensible to them. Even if their sexual organs were compatible with those of a human, and neither species found the physical appearance of the other repellant, the sensitivities of the alien race would likely be such that there wouldn’t be any desire on their part to have any type of sexual contact with humans.


1. See Roughgarden, Joan (2004). Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24073-1 Especially chapter 6, Multiple Gender Families, pp. 75–105.

Further Reading

The Sex Is Out of This World: Essays on the Carnal Side of Science Fiction, edited by Sherry Ginn, Michael G. Cornelius, Donald E. Palumbo, and C.W. Sullivan III

Alien Sex: From Ming the Merciless to “The Lovers, David Lumb and Jonathan Alexander, Los Angeles Review of Books

Alien Sex Acts in Feminist Science Fiction: Heuristic Models for Thinking a Feminist Future of Desire“. Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan, PMLA, Vol. 119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium (May, 2004), pp. 442-456

NASA’s Crowdsourced Search for Planetary Habitats

NASA Goddard announced on January 30th that it’s sponsoring a new project and website, Disk Detective, which allows people to discover “embryonic planetary systems” hidden in the data generated by NASA’s Wide-field infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The data mining and analysis effort is NASA’s largest ever crowdsourcing project, and the agency says its main goal is to produce publishable scientific results.

“Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope,” said James Garvin, the chief scientist for NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate.

WISE was designed to survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths. From a perch in Earth orbit, the spacecraft completed two scans of the entire sky between 2010 and 2011. It took detailed measurements on more than 745 million objects, representing the most comprehensive survey of the sky at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available.

WISE was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed, but was reactivated in September 2013, renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), and given a new mission, to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions.

Developed alongside Zooniverse, a network of scientists, software developers, and educators, the project will make sifting through the astronomical data easier. From 2010 to 2011 WISE, which is locked in Earth orbit, scanned the entire sky in infrared, measuring some 745 million objects in detail. NASA is in the process of searching through this data for planets that form and grow in “dust-rich circumstellar disks,” which shine brightly in infrared wavelengths.

The problem is that other objects, such as galaxies, interstellar dust clouds, and asteroids, also shine in infrared. This infrared noise makes it difficult to identify planet-forming environments – Young Stellar Object disks (gaseous and less than 5 million years old), and debris disks, which are 5 million years or older and contain little to no gas. The former are found in or near young star clusters, while the latter contains “belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts” found in our solar system.

To deal with this problem, Disk Detective takes images from WISE and other sky surveys (the James Webb Telescope will contribute data in the future) and converts them to brief animations the website calls flip books. Volunteers then classify objects according to specific but simplecriteria, such as whether the image is round or includes multiple objects. Working on this cataloged image analysis, astronomers will then decide which objects deserve greater attention.

Herbig-Haro 30

Herbig-Haro 30 is the prototype of a gas-rich young stellar object disk. The dark disk spans 40 billion miles in this image, cutting the bright nebula in two and blocking the central star from direct view. Volunteers can help astronomers find more disks like this through [Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Burrows (STScI)]

For more information, you can watch the NASA | Disk Detective: Search for Planetary Habitats video, and this Hubble Space Telescope Google hangout.

Jellyfish-Like Flying Machines

Jellyfish-;ike robot

Credit: Dr. Leif Ristroph / NYU

Researchers have built a small vehicle whose flying motion resembles the movements of a Jellyfish.

inventor Dr. Leif Ristroph, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, wanted to determine if he could invent a winged flying machine that was inherently stable, with no sensors or artificial nervous system needed. After trying several designs, he ended up creating a cone-like machine made of four wings that are hinged at the top approximately 3 inches (8 centimeters) long, surrounding a small motor, a commercially available component about the size of the vibrator in a cell phone and which accounts for about half the mass of the device. The motor, located at the at the top, opens and closes the wings together not-quite-simultaneously at a rate of 20 times a second.

Other flying robots, like the tiny robotic bee built at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, or the H2bird flapping-wing drone built at a lab at Berkeley, sense the direction and location and adjust their movements to stay in the air. But the lightweight, electrically powered flyer keeps itself right side up without the benefit of sensors or any righting mechanism. Instead, the stability is a result of the shape and the movement of the wings.

Dr. Ristroph and his colleagues detailed their invention in the January 15th in the Journal of the Royal Society. They also presented the robot at the 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics last November. In addition to showing that the flying device is stable, Ristroph and Stephen Childress, also at NYU, found that the size of the machine mainly depends on the weight and power of the motor.

“What’s cool is you can actually build these flying things yourself,” Ristroph told LiveScience. “All the components I used to make this, they cost about $15 and they’re available on hobby airplane websites.”

The top figures illustrate the body and wing design; the bottom figures detail the motor assembly (left), and the wingspan assembly (right).

The top figures illustrate the body and wing design; the bottom figures detail the motor assembly (left), and the wingspan assembly (right). Images © Journal of The Royal Society

The prototype doesn’t include a battery, so the ornithopter, as they call it, requires a wire for power. More engineering work is necessary to get power and a radio receiver onboard so that an operator can control the ornithopter from a distance. It also can’t steer, either autonomously or via remote control.

You can view a YouTube video of the ornithopter in action here.

Is The Universe A Hologram?


The holographic principle is a property of quantum gravity and string theories which states that the description of a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a boundary to the region—preferably a light-like boundary like a gravitational horizon. In other words, all of three-dimensional reality can be described as a two-dimensional sheet or surface of information that extends to the limits of the observable universe – what theoretical physicist and string theorist Raphael Bousso calls “a universal relation between geometry [surface area] and information” in space-time.

So what makes at least some theoretical physicists think that the universe may be a hologram, or at least be best described as a hologram.

It all starts with black hole physics. When an object becomes part of a black hole, two things happen. First, information about that object is lost. Second, the surface area of the black hole’s event horizon (the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape by both matter and energy impossible) grows. The first fact appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics, since one of the lost details was the object’s entropy, or the information describing its microscopic parts. But the second fact offered a way out: if entropy must always grow, and a black hole’s surface area must too, perhaps for the black hole they’re one and the same, and information is somehow stored on the horizon.

The beginning of the attempt to resolve the black hole information paradox within the framework of string theory, Charles Thorn in 1978 developed an approach to string theory based on the idea of string bits, observing that string theory admits a lower-dimensional description in which gravity emerges from it in what would now be called a holographic way. Then in 1993, Gerard t’Hooft proposed what is now known as the holographic principle. Quantum mechanics starts with the assumption that information is stored in every volume of space. But any patch of space can become a black hole, nature’s densest file cabinet, which stores information in bits of area. Perhaps, then, all that’s needed to describe a patch of space, black hole or no, is that area’s worth of information. t’Hooft argued exactly that – that the information contained within a region of space can be determined by the information at the surface that contains it. Mathematically, the space can be represented as a hologram of the surface that contains it.

In 1995, Leonard Susskind a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, combined his ideas with previous ones of ‘t Hooft and Charles Thorn in a paper suggesting that the entire universe might be a hologram in which people are just seeing a projection of the real thing. Susskind suggested that the entire universe could be seen as a two-dimensional information structure “painted” on the cosmological horizon, such that the three dimensions we observe are only an effective description at macroscopic scales and low energies.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed a model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. Called the anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence, or AdS/CFT correspondence In this model, the mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.

Maldacen’s model did two things: it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and general relativity, and it provided a way to translate back and forth between the two. Unfortunately, while Maldacena made a compelling argument, it was a conjecture, not a formal proof.

Now, two papers have come out demonstrating that the conjecture works for a particular theoretical case. In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true.

In the first paper, Hyakutake computes the internal energy of a black hole, the position of its event horizon (the boundary between the black hole and the rest of the Universe), its entropy and other properties based on the predictions of string theory as well as the effects of so-called virtual particles that continuously pop into and out of existence. In the second, Hyakutake and his collaborators calculated the internal energy of the corresponding lower-dimensional cosmos with no gravity. The two computer calculations match.

It’s important to note that the papers don’t suggest that our universe is a hologram. The computations describe a universe with ten dimensions in the realm of the black hole and a single dimension universe when calculating characteristics of a gravity free two-dimensional universe. It does, however, suggest that what can be calculated using different dimensional universes could one day be calculated for our own, and is one more step showing that the holographic principle could be useful in understanding the universe.


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My Clone Sleeps Alone

“As you must have guessed by now,” the man took over, “I am, we are, clones of a single individual. Some two hundred and fifty years ago, my name was Kahn. Now it is Man…I am over ten billion individuals but only one consciousness…No other humans are quickened, since I am the perfect pattern.” Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

In nature, some plants and single-celled organisms produce genetically identical offspring through a process called asexual reproduction. In asexual reproduction, a new individual is generated from a copy of a single cell from the parent organism. For example, water hyacinth produces multiple copies of genetically-identical plants through a process known as apomixis, or asexual seed formation.

Archaea, bacteria, and protists reproduce asexually by binary fission, where a cell divides giving rise to two cells, each having the potential to grow to the size of the original cell. Finally, some plants, invertebrates (such as water fleas, aphids, stick insects, some ants, bees and parasitic wasps), and vertebrates (such as some reptiles, amphibians, fish, and few birds) reproduce using parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction where an unfertilized egg develops into a new individual in the absence of the male gamete.

Natural clones, also known as identical twins, occur in humans and other mammals. Natural clones are produced when a fertilized egg splits, creating two or more embryos that carry almost identical DNA. Identical twins have nearly the same genetic makeup as each other.

But when most people think about cloning, they think about scientists cloning animals, especially Dolly the cloned sheep. Few people understand that scientists have been working on cloning for over 100 years.


The first cloned animals were created by Hans Driesch, a philosopher and biologist who cloned a sea urchin in 1891. He took a two-cell sea urchin embryo, shook it apart, and showed that each cell developed into a complete individual, refuting the then prevalent idea that if the cells from a two-cell embryo were separated, each could create only half a creature. Then in 1902, embryologist Hans Spemann used a hair from his infant son as a noose to constrict the egg of a salamander into a dumb-bell shape, with the nucleus in one half and only cytoplasm and other cellular material in the other, pioneering the process of nuclear transfer. In this process, the nucleus is removed from an egg, and replaced with the nucleus of an older donor cell. A new clone – a genetic copy of the donor – forms when the egg starts to divide.

In 1951, a team of scientists in Philadelphia working at the lab of Robert Briggs cloned a frog embryo, taking the nucleus out of a frog embryo cell and used it to replace the nucleus of an unfertilized frog egg cell. Despite claims in 1977 by German development biologist Karl Illmensee that he had cloned three mice (never independently replicated), and the claims of author David Rorvik in his 1978 book “In His Image: The Cloning of a Man” that the world’s first human clone had been born (a claim later admitted by the publisher – but not Rorvik – to be a hoax), no progress was made until 1986, when two teams, working independently but using nearly the same method, announced that they had cloned a mammal. One team was led by Steen Willadsen in England>, which cloned a sheep’s embryo. The other, led by Neal First in America, cloned a cow’s embryo.

On July 5, 1996, Dolly, a Finn Dorset lamb, was born at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, cloned from a frozen mammary cell from another adult sheep. The team that created her, led by Scotsman Ian Wilmut, hoped to create an animal whose cells were genetically young again, rather than prematurely adult. When Dolly was euthanized nearly six years after her birth, concern was raised that her progressive lung disease was caused because her cells were already old; she also had premature arthritis. Over the course of her life, Dolly gave birth to four lambs, proving clones can reproduce.

In 1997, Teruhiko Wakayama and Ryuzo Yanagimachi of the University of Hawaii created Cumulina the cloned mouse. She was cloned from cumulus cells (cells which surround developing egg cells) using traditional nuclear transfer, a technique now known as the Honolulu Technique. The nucleus was taken from the cumulus cell and implanted in an egg cell from another mouse. The new cell was then treated with a chemical to make it grow and divide. The scientists repeated the process for three generations, yielding over fifty mice that were virtually identical by the end of July, 1998, with a success rate of 50:1, compared to the Roslin Institute’s technique (used to create Dolly) which had a success rate of 277:1.

Cloning Today

Cloned animals have showed up in a variety of places in the past few years. In 2007, South Korean scientists produced drug-detecting dogs that are clones of a prized security dog named Chase. Because only 30 percent of natural-born sniffer dogs can normally pass the required training, researchers hoped cloned dogs would significantly improve this rated. In 2011, it was reported that all of Chase’s clones passed the required training.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2008 that meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. Currently, two U.S. companies, Trans Ova Genetics and ViaGen, offer cloning services to cattle breeders.

In 2007, two clones (Show Me and Shawnee) from the mare Sage, awarded “best playing polo pony” at the 1997 International Gold Cup, were born. Earlier this December, polo superstar Adolfo Cambiaso rode Show Me in the championship match of the Argentine National Open, which his team La Dolfina won. Polo horses are hard to find and extremely expensive. Each world-class rider may have dozens, the best of which may cost more than $200,000 each. Cambiaso teamed up with Alan Meeker of Crestview Genetics, a Texan firm, to clone eight of his mounts. Although polo’s various governing bodies approved clones for competition, no clone had yet been tested in a match prior to this, since polo horses seldom compete until they are five years old. In June 2012, the Fédération Equestre Internationale lifted a ban on cloned horses, making them eligible for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Cloned racehorses aren’t popular because the U.S. Jockey Club, with which horses must register to race in North America, bans cloned horses.

Finally, there is a growing interest in cloning extinct species. In 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists used frozen skin to clone a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, a subspecies of Spanish ibex that went extinct in 2000. Unfortunately, the clone died minutes after birth. Researchers will make another attempt using the 14-year-old preserved cells from the last animal, which was named Celia. Celia’s cells have been frozen during the last 14 years in liquid nitrogen, and if the cells prove to be intact, an attempt to clone embryos and implant them in female goats

In Australia, the genome of an extinct Australian frog has been revived and reactivated by a team of scientists by implanting a “dead” cell nucleus into a fresh egg from another frog species, although none of the embryos survived beyond a few days.

One of the questions being raised about such cloning is whether such cloning techniques “bring back” an extinct species, or just create a new one that looks exactly like the old one. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists and conservationists met to discuss the so called ‘de-extinction’ of a number of species, as well as the ethical, moral and technical questions of doing so. According to one of the conference organisers “That remains to be seen. It is one reason to do the research: is the genome the species? The answer will vary from species to species. De-extincted plants should flourish as if they’d never left, if suitable pollinators are still around. But if California condors had gone extinct, it’s unclear if they could be brought back fully, because the young rely on parental training.”


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Put Your Head on My Shoulder

Head transplants have been a staple for science fiction stories for a long time, from the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Pierce Brosnan and/or Sarah Jessica Parker having their head attached to a Chihuahua in Mars Attacks! to the movie Futurama: Bender’s Big Score, where Hermes is decapitated, then has Bender obtain an earlier version of his body and do a head transplant using Torgo’s Executive Powder. But how possible is a head transplant? And if it could be done, what are some of the implications?

In a paper published in the June issue of open source journal Surgical Neurology International, Dr. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group says he knows how to perform a complete human head transplant. According to Canavero, the transplant will work if surgeons can successfully link the spinal cord to the head by fusing severed axons, the nerve cells that transmit information to different neurons, muscles and glands. “The greatest technical hurdle to such endeavor is of course the reconnection of the donor’s and recipient’s spinal cords. It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage.”

Surgeons would begin by cutting the cooled spinal cords with an “ultra-sharp blade” (the GEMINI procedure), then put the recipient’s head into a “hypothermia mode” for around 45 minutes between 12°C and 15°C (the HEAVEN process). Canavero belives that such a short time would create virtually no neurological damage. Cut axons would then be reconstituted using molecules such as poly-ethylene glycol (used in areas ranging from industrial manufacturing to pharmaceutical products) or chitosan.

Dr. Canavero has made headlines by using electrical stimulation to awaken a car accident victim who’d been in a persistent vegetative state for two years.

In June of this year, Dr. Jerry Silver of Case Western Reserve Medical School and a team of scientists at Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic successfully restored connectivity in rats whose spinal cords had been completely severed. In the study, the researchers used a chemical that promotes cell growth along with a scar-busting enzyme to create a more hospitable environment for the nerve graft at the injury site.

Although the rats didn’t regain the ability to walk, they recovered a remarkable measure of urinary control, a function that many spinal cord injury patients rank as one of the most important to regain following injury. Canavero argues that such recent advances in reconnective technology give scientists reason to believe the procedure he outlines will be successful in humans. Dr. Silver disagrees.

“It’s light years away from what they’re talking about,” he said. Silver’s research involved single rats, not connecting the spinal cords to heads of other rats. In these experiments, Silver explains, the animals are still able to breath, and their circulation is left intact. “It’s complete fantasy, that you could use [PEG technology] in such a traumatic injury in an adult mammal,” Silver says. “But to severe a head and even contemplate the possibility of gluing axons back properly across the lesion to their neighbors is pure and utter fantasy in my opinion.”

It may be fantasy, but Canavero is hardly the first to look at the possibility of human head transplants.

Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov was a Soviet scientist famous for his experiments in organ transplants during the 30s and 50s. In 1960, he published the first scientific monograph on transplantology, titled “Experimental transplantation of vital organs.” It was a seminal work, starting transplant science as we now know it. He was the first to perform a successful coronary bypass, the first to transplant an auxiliary heart into a warm-blooded animal, and the first to transplant a working heart and lungs into a living animal. But he also transplanted dog heads and upper bodies onto other dogs, effectively creating two-headed dogs.

In 1954 he created the first transplant in a lab on the outskirts of Moscow by grafting the head and forelegs of a smaller dog, Shavka onto a bigger dog, Brodyaga. Both initially survived the procedure and could see and move around independently, but died four days later. None lived for more than 29 days, and they inevitably died because of the tissue rejection. You can see photos from a LIFE magazine article in July, 1959 that documented the surgery. You can also watch video of one of the operations.

Then in 1970 a group of scientists from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine led by Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon and a professor of neurological surgery inspired by the work of Vladimir Demikhov, transplanted the head of one rhesus monkey onto another’s body. The operation was so successful that once awake, the first transplant subject even tried to bite a doctor. Canavero cites White’s experiment as the first successful primate head transplant, writing that, “The monkey lived 8 days and was, by all accounts, normal, having suffered no complications.” White himself referred to it as a “whole body transplant.” (You can see a two-part interview with Dr. White with some snippets of footage of the operation here and here, and more footage of the surgery here.)

Despite Canavero’s description, Dr. Silver. who was a part of Dr. White’s transplant group, remembers it differently.

“I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. The head will stay alive, but not very long,” the Case Western Reserve University neurologist told When doctors attempted to feed the re-connected head, the food fell to the floor. “It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again.”

Even if such a transplant could be done, it would be fraught with ethical issues. Canavero estimates the procedure would cost about $13 million, likely placing such an operation out of the reach of all but the wealthy. He adds that a risk could develop whereby people with adequate funds try to secure the bodies of healthy young individuals on the black market and have them transplanted by dishonest surgeons.

Then there’s the philosophical questions. Dr. Christopher Scott, a bioethicist and regenerative medicine expert at Stanford notes “What is the donor and what’s the recipient? We all have an idea of personhood, right? Of what a person is. You know, a baby or a human becomes a person. And this procedure turns it on its head. Is this a person that the body belongs to, or the person the head belongs to? It’s a chimera, a hybrid person. …Those are some of the deeper questions that we should have a real discussion about.” And what if the body recipient has children? Should we attach a living man’s head to a woman’s body, or vice-versa?

I suspect head transplants will be the fodder of science fiction stories for some time to come.


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