This is a big story about a little snail. Biologist Helen Scales relates an epic tale that spans the globe and involves calamity, tragedy, extinction and we hope, salvation. It stars the tiny tree-dwelling mollusc from French Polynesia, Partula, a snail that has captivated scientists for centuries. Like Charles Darwin studied finches on the Galapagos, Partula became an icon of evolution because, in the living laboratories of the Pacific islands, it had evolved into multiple species. But a calamity drove Partula to extinction, when a botched biological control, the predatory Rosy Wolf Snail, was introduced. It was supposed to eat another problem mollusc, but in a cruel twist, devoured tiny Partula instead. An international rescue mission was scrambled to save a species and from just one or two rescued individuals, populations of this snail species have been built up over thirty years in captive breeding programmes in zoos around the world. And now, in the nailbiting sequel, we track Partula’s journey home.
After suffering serious brain injuries, Scott Routley spent 12 years in a vegetative state. But his family were convinced that he was still aware – could a pioneering ‘mind-reading’ technique prove them right?
The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt is one of the greatest wonders of the ancient World. It is the largest pyramid ever built and even today, with advanced satellite and thermal imaging and other high tech science, we don’t know everything about the pyramid- exactly what’s inside or how it was built. To explore the history of The Great Pyramid - also known as the Pyramid of Khufu, after the Pharaoh who commissioned it as his tomb, Rajan Datar is joined by Professor Salima Ikram, Distinguished University Professor and Egyptology Unit Head at the American University in Cairo, space archaeologist Dr Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic fellow and associate Professor at Birmingham University Alabama in the USA and Dr Joyce Tyldesley, an archaeologist and Egyptologist from the University of Manchester in the UK.
If we find, anywhere in the universe, one more instance of life besides what evolved on Earth, then we are bound to conclude that life is common throughout the vastness of this galaxy and the 200 billion other galaxies.
The discovery would change how we think about everything.
Most of the search for life beyond Earth, Porco explained, is the search for habitats.
They don’t have to look comfy, since we know that our own extremophile organisms can survive temperatures up to 250°F, total desiccation, and fiercely high radiation, high pressure, high acidity, high alkalinity, and high salinity.
In our own Solar System there are four promising candidate habitats—Mars, Europa (a moon of Jupiter), Titan (a moon of Saturn), and Enceladus (“en-SELL-ah-duss,” another moon of Saturn).
They are the best nearby candidates because they have or have had liquids, they have bio-usable energy (solar or chemical), they have existed long enough to sustain evolution, and they are accessible for gathering samples.
On Mars water once flowed copiously.
It still makes frost and ice, but present conditions on Mars are so hostile to life that most of the search there now is focussed on finding signs of life far in the past.
Europa, about the size of Earth’s Moon, has a salty ocean below an icy surface, but it is subject to intense radiation.
Photos from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that occasional plumes of material are ejected through Europa’s ice, so future missions to Jupiter will attempt to fly by and analyze them for possible chemical signatures of life.
The two interesting moons of Saturn are Titan, somewhat larger and much denser than our Moon, and tiny Enceladus, one-seventh the diameter of our Moon.
Both have been closely studied by the Cassini Mission since
Titan’s hazy atmosphere is full of organic methane, and its surface has features like dunes and liquid-methane lakes “that look like the coast of Maine.”
But it is so cold, at 300°F below zero, that the chemical reactions needed for life may be too difficult.
Enceladus looks the most promising.
Cassini has sampled the plumes of material that keep geysering out of the south pole.
The material apparently comes from an interior water ocean about as salty as our ocean, and silica particles may indicate hydrothermal vents like ours.
“I hope you’re gettin excited now,” Porco told the audience, “because we were.”
The hydrothermal vents in Earth’s oceans are rich with life.
Enceladus has all the ingredients of a habitat for life—liquid water, organics, chemical energy, salts, and nitrogen-bearing compounds.
We need to look closer.
A future mission (arriving perhaps by the 2030’s) could orbit Enceladus and continually sample the plumes with instruments designed to detect signs of life such as complexity in the molecules and abundance patterns of carbon in amino acids that could indicate no biology, or Earth-like biology, or quite different biology.
You could even look for intact organisms.
Nearly all of the material in the plumes falls back to the surface.
Suppose you had a lander there.
“It’s always snowing at the south pole of Enceladus,” Porco said.
“Could it be snowing microbes?”
(A by-the-way from the Q&A:
Voyager, which was launched 40 years ago in 1977, led the way to the outer planets and moons of our Solar System, and five years ago, Porco pointed out, “It went beyond the magnetic bubble of the Sun and redefined us as an interstellar species.”)
In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with John Whalen, chief experience officer at 10 Pearls, a digital development company focused on mobile and web apps, enterprise solutions, cyber security, big data, IoT, and cloud and dev ops. We talk about the “six minds” that underlie each human experience, why it’s important for designers to understand brain science, and what people really look for in a voice assistant.
Elon Musk thinks we definitely could be, and it seems he is not alone. The idea that we might simply be products of an advanced post-human civilisation, that are simply running a simulation of our universe and everything it contains, has taken hold over the last few years. Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined on stage by comedian Phill Jupitus, Philosopher Professor Nick Bostrom and Neuroscientist Professor Anil Seth to ask what the chances are that are living in some Matrix like, simulated world and more importantly, how would we ever know?
Our increasingly smart machines aren’t just changing the workforce; they’re changing us. Already, algorithms are directing human activity in all sorts of ways, from choosing what news people see to highlighting new gigs for workers in the gig economy. What will human life look like as machine learning overtakes more aspects of our society?
Alexis Madrigal, who covers technology for The Atlantic, shares what he’s learned from his reporting on the past, present, and future of automation with our Radio Atlantic co-hosts, Jeffrey Goldberg (editor in chief), Alex Wagner (contributing editor and CBS anchor), and Matt Thompson (executive editor).
The Institute of Arts and Ideas: A Goldilock’s World | Chiara Marletto, Bernard Carr, Massimo Pigliucci
Copernicus and Darwin taught us to be skeptical of feeling we were special. Yet from the size of the electron to the cosmological constant our universe is strangely fine-tuned for life. Is this a spectacularly fortuitous accident? Has the universe been tailored for us or do the theories just make it look that way?
New York philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, M-Theorist and author of Universe or Multiverse? Bernard Carr, and Oxford constructor theorist Chiara Marletto wonder why we are here.
An island associated with summer rest and relaxation is gaining a reputation for something else: Lyme disease. Martha’s Vineyard has one of the highest rates of Lyme in the country. Now MIT geneticist Kevin Esvelt is coming to the island with a potential long-term fix. The catch: It involves releasing up to a few hundred thousand genetically modified mice onto the island. Are Vineyarders ready?
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