03 December 2010


PIONEER 10. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft are among the marvels of space exploration. On this day in 1972, Pioneer 10 became the first manmade object to make direct observations of the planet Jupiter, on its way to also becoming the first manmade object set on a trajectory which would carry it entirely out of the solar system. All these remarkable craft were feats of design and engineering, using technologies which today seem primitive. Yet they surpassed by many years their assigned lifespans. The last weak signals from Pioneer 10 was received in January 2003, when it was 7.5 billion miles from Earth (more than eighty times the distance from Earth to the sun). The information gained was invaluable in planning future missions, in understanding the makeup of our solar system, and even in developing the study of chaos theory. Pioneer and Voyager, wherever you are, long may you sail.

FRINGE SCIENCE. Most of us are by now aware of NASA's discovery of GFAG-1, a rod-shaped bacterium which, when deprived of the essential chemical element phosphorus, appears to be capable of substituting highly toxic element arsenic into its DNA makeup. This is not unlike discovering an alien species among us. (The discovery took place at Mono Lake in California -- see the image below, click to enlarge.) Many scientists may reconsider their assumptions about how life can evolve, and in what conditions it may exist -- not only on our home planet, but elsewhere in the universe as well. The possibilities are remarkable.

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I constantly marvelled to myself, "What could possibly be more fascinating that biology, literally the study of life?" I still think that.

On another front, thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for a heads-up on Niall Firth's article on the development of bioluminescent trees. According to Firth, "Scientists are developing ways of making trees glow so that they can be used as natural streetlights without the need of electricity. A team of researchers is experimenting with genes to allow the trait that causes fireflies to glow (bioluminescence) to be implanted into a variety of different organisms."

Shades of the Tree of Souls in the movie Avatar.

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