Aliens in the Mist

By Corey S. Powell | December 7, 2017 3:09 pm
A meeting of minds between Dian Fossey and one of the mountain gorillas she was studying (or the other way around?). Credit: ROBERT I.M. CAMPBELL

A meeting of minds between Dian Fossey and two of the mountain gorillas she was studying (or was it the other way around?). Credit: Robert I.M. Campbell

What would happen if we found an intelligent alien civilization that was less advanced than our own? I posed this as a hypothetical question in a recent blog post. But really, it doesn’t need to be posed as a hypothetical. The answer is playing out right now in the forests of Africa, and it doesn’t reflect very well on us.

The gorillas of Rwanda and Congo are some of our closest living relatives. They are intelligent, socially complex primates. They are also critically endangered. Poaching, hunting, warfare, land competition, and other human activities have brutalized the gorilla populations in Africa, sending them into a long decline. Starting in the 1960s, Dian Fossey stood up to protect the gorillas. In 1985 she was murdered, almost certainly because of those efforts.

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That Interstellar Asteroid is Pretty Strange. Could It Be…?

By Corey S. Powell | November 23, 2017 10:36 am
Illustration of `Oumuamua, the first-known interstellar asteroid. Its unusual shape and color offer cryptic clues about the nature of objects from other solar systems. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Illustration of `Oumuamua, the first-known interstellar asteroid. Its unusual shape and color offer cryptic clues about the nature of objects from other solar systems. The challenge now is to find more of these messengers from the stars. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

It isn’t aliens. It’s never aliens.

That’s the only sensible answer whenever astronomers spot something truly weird in space. That unusual radio blip from the planet Ross 128b? Not aliens. Potential SETI signal SHGb02+14a? Not aliens. The mysterious ‘alien megastructure’ star? Probably not aliens, either. There are so many unexplored natural explanations for unusual phenomena, and so many ways to make errors, that the starting assumption has to be no, no, a thousand times no, it is not aliens.

Then astronomers observed `Oumuamua, the first known interstellar asteroid, as it raced out of the solar system. Its wildly elongated shape resembles that of a rocket stage or–even more enticingly–the interstellar ship from Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama. Soon sober-minded reporters (including this one) were exchanging curious messages: Could this ‘asteroid’ actually be an alien artifact? How would we know?

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An Astonishing Return to Jane Goodall’s Chimp Eden

By Corey S. Powell | October 23, 2017 3:56 pm
Jane Goodall at Gombe with Hugo van Lawick and his omnipresent camera. (Jane Goodall Institute)

Jane Goodall at Gombe with Hugo van Lawick and his omnipresent camera. (Credit: Jane Goodall Institute)

During the 1960s, humanity’s place in the universe changed dramatically as Soviet and American astronauts ventured off the planet and (for the Yanks, at least) onto the surface of the Moon. During those same years, humanity’s place on Earth changed rather dramatically, too, as scientists took a closer look at our primate relatives and discovered that they are a lot more like us–far more complex and sophisticated–than anyone had suspected.

One of the scientists most responsible for the latter revelation was not, by traditional standards, a scientist at all. Jane Goodall was all of 26 when she arrived at the Gombe Stream in Tanzania in 1960 to study the local chimpanzees. She had no college degree, no formal stamp of high academia. What she had was extraordinary perception, persistence, and a lack of blinding preconceptions. Due to a felicitous combination of circumstances, we are now able to relive her singular discovery process in the electrifying, astonishingly beautiful documentary Jane.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: genius, moons, NASA, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized

Last Days of Cassini: An Insider’s Story

By Corey S. Powell | September 16, 2017 6:15 am
Enceladus setting behind Saturn, as seen on September 13. This is one of the final images from Cassini. (Credit: NASA-JPL)

Enceladus setting behind Saturn, as seen on September 13. This is one of the final images from Cassini. Data from the mission revealed that Enceladus has an ice-covered ocean that could potentially support life. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The death of the Cassini spacecraft marked the end of an era–not just the end of a mission, but the end of a whole style of exploration. Cassini was a multi-billion dollar probe, a versatile scout in the style of the Voyager and Galileo probes. It bristled with instruments that allowed it to take the measure of every part of Saturn’s staggeringly complex system of moons, rings, clouds, and magnetic activity.

As Cassini’s program manager and a veteran of the mission since 1993, Earl H. Maize of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a unique perspective on the last days of this remarkable spacecraft. There is no other comparable mission on the drawing boards; given current political realities, there may not be another like it in our lifetimes. And yet, Cassini is a beginning as well as an end. Maize notes that omnibus missions like Cassini allow more targeted follow-ups, like the upcoming Europa Clipper and (here’s hoping) future visits to the moons Enceladus and Titan.

I spoke with Maize just ahead of Cassini’s heroic final plunge. He offered an insider’s view of how it all ended: a story of pride and scientific triumph much more than one of sadness. [For updates and other science news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell]

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How Big is the Biggest Possible Planet?

By Corey S. Powell | August 4, 2017 5:37 pm
KELT-11b, one of the physically largest objects known, is 40 percent wider than Jupiter and has the density of styrofoam. (Credt: Walter Robinson/Lehigh University)

KELT-11b, one of the physically largest objects known, is 40 percent wider than Jupiter and has the density of styrofoam. (Credit: Walter Robinson/Lehigh University)

Last week, a team of astronomers reported the first potential discovery of an exomoon–a satellite orbiting a planet around another star. Part of what is so striking about the report is the scale of this possible planet-moon system. In this case, the “moon” appears to be about the size of Neptune; the planet it orbits is some 10 times the mass of Jupiter, or about 3,000 times the mass of Earth!

The system pushes at the limits of how we normally categorize objects in space and invites questions about where we stand in the scale of things. What is the biggest possible planet? Viewed through the full range of possibilities, is Earth a big planet or a small one?

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The Strangest (and Second-Strangest) Star in the Galaxy

By Corey S. Powell | June 30, 2017 11:25 pm
Two ways to look at Tabby's Star: as intriguing data, or as an invitation to flights of fancy. (Credit: Tabetha Boyajian, left; antasyWallpapers.com, right)

Two ways to look at Tabby’s Star: as intriguing data, or as an invitation to flights of fancy. (Credit: David Kipping, left; FantasyWallpapers.com, right)

There’s an old saying: “Great discoveries don’t begin with ‘eureka!’; they begin with ‘that’s funny…’” I’ve long attributed the quote to the renowned science popularizer Isaac Asimov. Jason Wright gently corrects me. He has researched the line, he explains, and could find no evidence that Asimov ever spoke or wrote those words. It was a tidy encapsulation of what Wright is about. He is attracted to the peculiar side of science, and he is also a relentless sleuth.

Wright, an astronomer at Penn State, is one of the lead researchers investigating the decidedly peculiar flickering object commonly known as Tabby’s Star or, in the popular press, as the “alien megastructure star.” The star’s behavior is so puzzling that Wright included among the possible explanations that a huge construction project is orbiting around it. (Note that he never suggested aliens were the best explanation, merely that the hypothesis could not yet be ruled out.) Lately Tabby’s Star has been acting up again, providing intriguing new data but, so far, still no definitive answers.

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What if We Discovered an Alien Civilization Less Advanced Than Our Own?

By Corey S. Powell | May 10, 2017 11:47 am
Never mind the Squire of Gothos; what if we really found an alien civilization at a 16th-century level of technological development? (Credit: Paramount)

Never mind Star Trek‘s Squire of Gothos; what if we really found an alien civilization at a 16th-century level of technological development? How would we know? How could we make contact–and should we? (Credit: Paramount)

Readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of Quora, because it lets non-experts raise the kinds of speculative questions that don’t normally come up in formal scientific discussions. One frequent theme that comes up is the issue of what we would do if we found intelligent life on a planet around another star. A recent posting in particular caught my eye: “What would we do if we found an Earthlike planet with intelligent life that is 500 years behind us in technology and advancements?”

Well, that’s a fun thought experiment! It’s not one question, really, but a whole set of nested questions about how to find alien life, how to determine the presence of alien intelligence, how to determine the nature of that intelligence, and then how we would study it, or even try to make contact with it. There’s a big moral issue at the end, but a lot of juicy scientific ones along the way. And that got me thinking…

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Real Genius

By Corey S. Powell | April 25, 2017 7:40 pm
Old Einstein and young Einstein both get their close-ups in Genius. (Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

Old Einstein and young Einstein both get their close-ups in Genius. (Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

If you are going to create a television show called Genius, you had better grapple with the nature of genius. If you are going to do that kind of grappling, you might as well focus on the very first face that comes to mind when people say “genius.” And if you are going to do a show about Albert Einstein–which is exactly where the creators of the new series Genius ended up–you’d better have some fresh things to say about the most famous figure in the history of science.

I’m familiar with the challenges. In my book God in the Equation, I attempted a novel interpretation of Einstein’s views on cosmology and theology–with mixed results, I’ll confess. I’ve also written about Einstein’s cultural impact in Discover magazine, and edited articles exploring everything from his family tree to his commercial impact. So I was relieved and intrigued to see that Genius (premiering tonight on National Geographic) does indeed add some new elements to the mix.

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MORE ABOUT: Einstein, genius

Calvin the Martian, and the True Meaning of LIFE

By Corey S. Powell | March 26, 2017 11:40 am
Calvin the alien: young and full of life. What could possibly go wrong? (Credit: Skydance/Columbia Pictures)

Calvin the alien: young, curious, and full of life. What could possibly go wrong? (Credit: Skydance/Columbia Pictures)

LIFE the movie is both predictable and full of surprises, much like…er…life itself. In the broad sense, it is a monster-run-amok genre film. No spoilers there; you already know that if you’ve seen the trailers or even just the promotional posters. The interesting parts lie in the movie’s details, which deviate from expectations in provocative ways.

The setting of LIFE is not far away in a far-off future, as in Alien (an obvious source of inspiration), but aboard the International Space Station sometime within the next few years. The monster is not some arbitrarily conceived extraterrestrial, but (mild spoiler) a revived organism retrieved from Mars by a NASA spacecraft. And the monster’s targets are not some hapless set of spaceship employees but a highly trained crew who nevertheless (hardly any spoiler at all) make a series of terribly bad decisions.

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Gore Verbinski Diagnoses His Own “Cure for Wellness”

By Corey S. Powell | February 17, 2017 4:24 pm
Sometimes all it takes is one glance to realize checking out will be harder than checking in. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Sometimes all it takes is one glance to realize that checking out will be a whole lot harder than checking in. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

If you feel like there is something deeply unhealthy about the modern world, director Gore Verbinski has just the movie for you. If you roll your eyes at New Age cures, he’s got you covered, too. And if some mornings you wake up wondering if you sleepwalked into the wrong corner of the multiverse…yes, he’s on top of that one as well. Verbinski’s new A Cure for Wellness is a rich stew of psychological themes, mythologies, medical musings, and surrealist flights of fancy. It is utterly bonkers, and I say that as a sincere compliment.

The premise of A Cure for Wellness begins with a ladder-climbing young executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who goes to a remote Swiss spa on a seemingly straightforward mission to retrieve the wayward CEO of his firm. As soon as he arrives, though, Lockhart’s plans start to unravel. Soon his reality seems to be unraveling as well. Is the spa’s enigmatic director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), conspiring against him? Does Hannah (Mia Goth), the sole young patient at the spa, hold the answer? And why does everybody here keep gulping down so much water?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: cosmology, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized
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