More Than One Right Answer

On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle examines the fascinating parallels between hummingbird and insect flight. He and/or she writes: “The researchers placed nontoxic paint on the wing of a ruby-throated hummingbird at 9 different spots then videotaped the animal flying at 1,000 frames per second with 4 cameras simultaneously.” Despite being far removed from insects on the phylogenetic tree, hummingbirds “stir up air around their wings in a way similar to insects like mosquitoes and dragonflies.” This is an example of convergent evolution, as natural selection engineers similar solutions for very distant cousins. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel attests to another kind of convergence, one also based on re-arranging the letters of a code. In the 17th century, as Galileo made his stupendous observations about the solar system, he distributed his findings in cryptic anagrams to keep them on the down-low. Johannes Kepler, a psychic savant if there ever was one, untangled Galileo’s anagrams incorrectly— but still managed to elicit unknown truths from the jumble. He interpreted one of Galileo’s missives to confirm his idea that Mars had two moons—a fact that would not be known until 265 years later. (Galileo had intended to convey that Saturn had two “ears” of a sort, which turned out to be its rings.) In another message, Galileo conveyed his landmark observations about the movement of Venus, which Kepler unscrambled to say something about a rotating red spot on Jupiter. Little did he know it actually existed.


The Dead Planet

Ethan Siegel calls Mars “the obvious first step in our journey to the stars” and “part of our dreams for reaching out into the Universe.” Last year thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed colonization effort slash reality show that plans to put humans on the red planet in 2023. But unless Mars One wants to achieve ratings by broadcasting the death of its crew, it may want to cool its jets. Ethan says that without some heretofore unknown, top secret-technology, there’s no hope for safely landing a capsule-full of “sensitive meatbags” (aka bachelors 1 through 3) on the surface. Launching from Earth is not likely to be a problem, nor traveling for nine months to the second-nearest planet in the solar system. But since Mars lacks a robust atmosphere, there’s very little drag to help decelerate a landing craft in a survivable manner. If humanity is serious about maximizing its reach in time and space, we might focus on sustaining our life on Earth first, and stranding photogenic pilgrims on a dead planet later.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to investigate the mysterious lump that turned up under Opportunity’s nose on January 8th.  Many commentators likened the object to a jelly doughnut, while Stephen Colbert dealt a blow to interplanetary peace by taking a bite out of an irresistible Martian ambassador.  Although NASA explains that it’s a rock, most likely kicked up by the rover’s maneuvering, PZ Myers reports that a chronic discoverer of life on Mars has declared it to be a fungus and legally impelled NASA to investigate further.  But NASA already knows there’s a lot of science to be done; they say we could be seeing the underside of a rock that hasn’t been exposed to the atmosphere for billions of years.  Opportunity also made headlines last week with evidence of flowing water and hospitable conditions in Mars’ distant past.  So although Mars may be dead, and a dead-end for human settlers, there’s still a strong possibility that it was once alive.