Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gray-faced sengi visit

I went to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to interview Galen Rathbun and Jack Dumbacher for the “You Animal!” show. The new building is open, airy, light-filled. When completed, it will be the largest green building in the world; the roof, for example, is being converted to a living garden with native plants. For now, it is still very much a construction site, but the glimpse I had gives an idea of how stunning the opening will be in September.

My purpose was not to tour the new facilities, but to see the holotype of the gray-faced sengi. Galen and Jack led the way to the windowless vault that stored the collection of birds and mammals, which few people ever see. It reminded me of a locker room; row upon row of bland, locked metal cabinets. Yet the contents were more precious than sweaty towels and gym shoes.

I gasped when Jack opened a cabinet and I saw the animals, even though that’s why I was there. I wasn’t prepared to see so many, so immaculately preserved and recognizable yet exposed and vulnerable, it seemed to me, lying row upon row on the roll-out shelves. I was surprised that Jack let me hold them. The fur of the gray-faced sengi felt soft and healthy, although the animal was filled with cotton. There were birds in the cabinet that the world would never see alive again; ivory-billed woodpeckers (status still debated) and passenger pigeons in a neat row, small yellowing tags tied to their legs identifying them in handwritten scrawl. Some were over 100 years old.

They were extinct, yet still here. Their bodies had not disappeared from the face of the earth, only the life in them. They seemed so nearly alive. I couldn’t help but think that, if their bodies were still intact – although they weren’t really, because cotton has replaced their hearts and lungs – would it be so hard to put life back in and cross back? It seems such a fine line separating life and death; one moment a creature is alive, heart pumping, and then - a handful of cells cease to divide, neurons no longer exchange electric current – and it is gone forever.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Disappointed to find life?

MIT's Technology Review magazine just published a provocative article by Nick Bostrum, who appeared on our show in August 2007 (Seth's Basement). He gives reasons why he would rather that SETI was unsuccessful, even though he still supports exploration and research. Our Formula One: The Drake Equation show is included with the online article (see the sidebar on the first page).

We, of course, are very much in favor of finding alien life. Perhaps we should bring Nick back for a debate with Seth!

Star Trek Seth!

See Seth in a new communications role - on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise! Watch the the Internet Star Trek movie Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. Seth appears in Part I.

Click here for more images of Seth in costume.

What do you think of the movie, and Seth's acting abilities?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Phoenix Lights

Some people are convinced that extraterrestrials are visiting Phoenix, presumably because they like the feel of wide-open spaces or have a penchant for Tex-Mex cuisine.

On Monday, April 21, strange lights once again lit up the night sky of this sprawling Arizona burg, and hung in the air for enough time that they were seen by hundreds (and probably thousands) of residents. Most of these Arizonans remembered that more than a decade ago, in March of 1997, there were two incidents of strange luminance in the darkened skies of Arizona, events that some people still think are mysterious -- and possibly due to alien visitation. These were the original "Phoenix Lights" (which sound like a cigarette brand, but aren't.)

Those two long-ago events actually have prosaic explanations, however. The first, a triangular pattern of lights that swept in from southern Nevada, seems to have been a small phalanx of aircraft. To me, the most convincing evidence that this is true is the report of an amateur astronomer who looked at the formation with his scope, and could see that they were planes. Amateur astronomers (unlike the general public) are experienced observers of the sky. They're also clever enough to realize that if they had seen true extraterrestrial craft, nothing could be more interesting. I don't think they'd lie. I don't think this amateur did lie.

The second 1997 event was a string of lights that was visible over the city for quite a while (tens of minutes). This can best be ascribed to flares dropped during a (later announced) military exercise miles from the city. Indeed, there's confirmation that this explanation is correct from some work done by an Arizona State astronomer in which he matched the appearance and disappearance of these lights with their expected obscuration by the Sierra Estrella mountain range southwest of Phoenix. Call me biased (and in this regard I am), but I trust the work of astronomers.

So, putting it bluntly, I don't think there's any reason to believe that the luminous phenomena that were on display on March 13, 1997 were anything other than human activity. This is important, because the Phoenix Lights are frequently cited as one of the most compelling events supporting the contention that Earth is being visited by beings from afar.

As for the Phoenix Lights of this week... well, they seem to have been a "knock off" hoax by someone who set off some helium balloons to which some lit road flares were attached.

It's not impossible, of course, that aliens could come to Earth. It's also not impossible that they would choose to entertain the residents of central Arizona with their light shows. But if you think this is true, then the evidence has to be better than what it is. Ranting about cover-up and closed minds isn't evidence -- it's merely whining.

And one should always consider simple explanations first. If you find a dead raccoon on the side of a road, you might consider that it was killed by aliens. But you should also weigh the possibility that it was hit by a car.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Nerd's Nerds

Al Gore, Nichelle Nichols, Gary Gygax, and Stephen Hawking represent a veritable nerd pantheon, attempting to repair the space-time continuum with the help of an oafish pizza delivery boy.

Nerds Show

I can't believe that Seth's nerd score was lower than mine. Although he did add to my physics joke, so maybe we are tied.