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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS

Fuck yes! That’s all I can think right now about the awesome news that came from NASA a few hours ago. The Curiosity rover has found evidence in samples of rock gathered a few weeks ago that Mars once had an environment suitable for microbial life. The rover drilled out samples from inside a rock in an area dubbed “Yellowknife Bay” by mission scientists. Those powder samples where then analyzed by specialized instruments on board, and the results showed that sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, and carbon are all present in the rock. The range of minerals actually surprised the mission scientists, who weren’t expecting to find quite such a wide range of minerals.

“Were conditions on Mars ever suitable for life?” is one of the core questions the Curiosity mission, and now that question has been answered with a big YES. This is very exciting news, and hopefully there will be even more clues into Mars’ past discovered on this mission. For the full report, check out the press release on NASA’s website.

In other, less-exciting science news, beware of media reports claiming that fossils of diatoms (microscopic plant life) were recently found inside a meteorite. The claims come from Chandra Wickramasinghe, who is a scientist known for outlandish claims that don’t stand up to real scientific scrutiny, and are largely intended to stir controversy. This latest report claims that the fossilized diatoms were found inside a fragment of a meteorite that fell over Sri Lanka in 2012. Except they don’t prove that a) the sample was from said meteorite, or b) that the sample was from a meteorite at all! Also diatoms are EVERYWHERE on earth, and can very quickly contaminate any meteorites that make it to the surface. Thankfully there are skeptics like Dr. Phil Plait out there who regularly and thoroughly debunk such things when they pop up. Head over to his blog Bad Astronomy to read more on how Wickramasinghe’s experiments were flawed, and why his claims just don’t hold water.

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Curiosity’s amazing self-portrait from a few weeks ago. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA scientists have created lots of buzz over the past two days because of an NPR story in which Curiosity’s chief investigator John Grotzinger is quoted as saying the latest round of data from Curiosity’s soil analysis instrument is “gonna be one for the history books.” That’s all the information we’ll get, though, at least for a few weeks. While the scientists are very excited about what they’re seeing, they have to run multiple tests and replicate the results in order to be sure the initial interesting result is not a fluke or a glitch. The instrument in question (SAM) looks for organic molecules in the Martian soil, which are the basic building blocks of life as we know it. While none of the instruments on Curiosity can directly detect the presence of life on Mars, they CAN detect basic organics. Even a confirmation of organic molecules would be a huge, MONUMENTAL discovery.

In the past, scientists that have “blown their load” by prematurely announcing exciting results have been burned by it, so this team really wants to be sure of the accuracy and interpretation of their data before going public. One needn’t look further than NASA’s Martian meteorite fossil fiasco in 1996, or their arsenic-based life announcement in 2010 to know that letting your excitement/amazement at your discovery get in the way of un-biased, fact-based analysis can be disastrous.

I certainly hope that the results they’re guarding/confirming point to organic molecules in the soil they’ve analyzed. Curiosity’s findings thus far prove that large amounts of water once flowed on the surface, right where the rover is exploring. It would make sense to me that some form of basic life once existed there. It also wouldn’t surprise me if one day we discover that the DNA from life there mixed with DNA from life here, and that we’re all part Martian, as the idea of panspermia suggests. Those discoveries are likely years or even decades away from happening, but this is still a very exciting time for science!

This will be my last post before Thanksgiving, so have a happy one!

This weekend in Nashville

December 3, 2010

Before I get to my picks for what to this weekend in Nashville, I must very briefly mention the famous Arsenic bacteria that NASA announced yesterday. It’s all over every news site in the universe, so I feel no need to say anything other than- this is totally awesome and it will force biologists and astrobiologists to rethink their theories of what type of life might exist on other worlds. It also proves that life can be much more adaptable than we ever thought. And I can’t help but post this great comic from XKCD:

Now for this weekend’s picks:

FRIDAY:

Charlie Louvin, w/ Porter Hall, TN at Foobar. This will be in the new Foobar expansion room, not the tiny stage at the main bar. And it’s fucking Charlie Louvin! Dude’s a living legend. 9pm I would assume… but I can’t find a definite time listing anywhere, so you might wanna show up early- dude’s a legend but he’s also very old, and old people tend to go to bed early.

Tim & Eric Awesome Tour Great Job! Featuring Tim & Eric, Pusswhip Banggang, and Neil Hamburger at the Cannery Ballroom. 9pm, but I hear it’s sold out. So hopefully you already have tickets…

SATURDAY:

Duh! Where else would you be besides La Paz? As I mentioned yesterday, I’m throwing a tacky sweater holiday disco party at La Paz with DJs Potamus and Vitalic Noise. La Paz is now at 2214 Elliston Pl., where Ombi used to be. It’s 21+, is FREE between 10-11pm, and $3 after 11pm. We’ve got $2.50 PBRs, $4 margaritas, and a round of $2 jello shots coming out at midnight. We’ll also have a disco ball, fog machine, and plenty of dark corner makeout sessions.

BUT if you MUST do something else tomorrow night-

Old 97’s w/ Hayes Carll at Mercy Lounge. 9pm but it’s sold out.

Black Cab Sessions day show: in-store at Grimey’s with Tristen and We Were The States (who have a new album out!)

Black Cab Sessions night show: at the Basement with PUJOL, Tristen, Cheap Time, Altered Statesmen, and more. If you don’t know what the Black Cab Sessions are, go here.

Have a great weekend!

Credit: NASA

Universe Today is currently running a pretty cool blog series called “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13.” They talked to NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill who came up with 13 key things that led to their survival. Yesterday’s post was part 2 of the series, focusing on the hatch between the Command Module and lander that wouldn’t shut initially. This malfunction actually turned out to be a blessing, because if they’d been able to shut it, it would’ve slowed down the later efforts that were vital to their survival. I look forward to the rest of this series.

One day over the weekend my girlfriend pointed me to an article about an east TN father who asked the Knox County schoolboard to remove a biology textbook that uses the phrase “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days” (regarding creationism) from its curriculum. That sounded like just the type of thing Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy would pick up, and sure enough he did. Thankfully the board and review committee is standing behind the book and it will remain in the curriculum. Let me re-iterate how important it is that creationism stay out of public school curricula- IT IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL. These are public schools! The separation of church and state is crucial to our democracy and teaching anything from the Bible as a viable scientific theory in public schools is a clear violation of that. This book states that the story of creation in the Bible is a myth, and by strict definition that is completely true. I would even say that the statement doesn’t go far enough. It should go on to say that creationism is simply not true. Decades of research and cold, hard scientific evidence have proven beyond any and doubt that our planet and solar system is roughly 4 billion years old. The stories in the Bible are parables that have absolutely no scientific basis. Let’s keep them out of scientific discourse in the classroom, because they are NOT SCIENCE.

In the past 10 years or so, I’ve become more and more of a skeptic. Especially in the last 5 or so years, the American public has become increasingly susceptible to scaremongering and inflated fears about health issues, doomsday nonsense, and other junk science that has no basis in reality. The myth about cell phone radiation causing brain cancer is one example of this. The flat truth is that there had been no proven link between cell phone use and brain cancer. In fact, according to Christopher Wanjek’s column on LiveScience there has been no significant increase in brain cancer that correlates in any way with the increase of cell phone usage. We all know how much cell phone usage has risen in the last 2 decades… if they cause brain cancer, why the hell hasn’t there been a corresponding increase in the disease? Because there’s no connection. That being said, this article on NewScientist is one of many covering research into the effects of cell phone radiation on the brain, and in fact it does affect brain tissue, and there have been some hints that extremely prolonged exposure could cause some degree of tissue damage, but tissue damage is not the same thing as brain cancer. Furthermore, another recent study actually showed that cell phone radiation reversed the effects of Alzheimer’s disease in mice! (And if you look at the bottom of that article, you’ll see that the study wasn’t funded by any cell phone companies…) We might even soon be seeing cell phone radiation used as a treatment for the disease. So, the jury may still be out on whether it causes tissue damage or has therapeutic effects on memory, but with as many studies as have been done on the link between the radiation and brain cancer, it’s pretty obvious that cell phones don’t cause brain cancer. Unfortunately some companies have tried to capitalize on the scaremongering by marketing products that are supposed to “protect” you brain from the radiation. These don’t work, and several have been shut down by the FTC.

Now that I’m off my skeptic soapbox, something actually interesting:

Biologists have discovered a species of sea slug that is the first know organism to be able to produce chlorophyll. This creature actually has aspects of both plants and animals, and thus sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. But it’s real. Scientists have determined that it somehow “borrowed” the plant genes that allow chlorophyll production from the algae that it consumes. Exactly how it did that in it’s evolutionary path is still a mystery. It still can’t produce the actual chloroplasts (the cells that are responsible for the conversion of sunlight into energy) without consuming algae, but it apparently can produce chlorophyll entirely on its own.

And just for kicks: How the main LOST characters would each make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. (Via Yewknee’d)

Remember that meteorite from Mars that caused a huge stir back in 1996 when NASA announced that it thought it had found remnants of fossilized bacteria in it? If you don’t, just know that this meteorite, named the “Alan Hills meteorite,” had what we initially thought was a fossilized remnant of ancient Martian bacteria. But then some other scientists came forth with an equally plausible hypothesis for a non-microbial origin of the microscopic formation. So ever since then, the scientific community has been at odds, with one camp saying “Yes, it’s an ancient Martian microbe! There really was life on Mars!” and another camp saying “Nope. That formation wasn’t biological in origin.” But new technology has shed some light on the subject that wasn’t possible back then. Researchers at the Johnson Space Center have used more sophisticated High Resolution Electron Microscopy than was available in 1996 to study the meteorite, and their findings contradict the nay-sayers. So, if no new nay-saying hypotheses come out, then we can be pretty damn certain that microbial life once existed on Mars. AND it may even still exist there, under the surface! (Via Universe Today)

Kottke.org is one of longest-running blogs in existence, and it’s almost always full of random awesomeness. In this case, it’s all about the H1N1 vaccine, and how it and other vaccines are made. I had no idea it took soooo many chicken eggs. Do yourself a favor and read all about it.

Now here’s yet another hilarious comic from xkcd:

Nashville’s own independent radio station WRLT (Lightning 100) has announced a new Thursday night concert series called “Live on the Green” that will include Ricky Young, Space Capone, Here Come the Mummies, among others. The events will be co-sponsored by the Mayor’s office and Team Green. It’s good to see outdoor live music events returning to downtown Nashville. Dancin’ in the District, River Stages, and Uptown Mix have been sorely missed these past few years. Kudos to the sponsors for making this happen. The first event will be Sept. 3rd. You can follow them on Twitter for more info.

sidnancy

Photo by James Gooding/Via Pitchfork

I really don’t know how this video clip is meant to be taken. It’s Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt redoing the famous apex scene from Sid & Nancy for a new web series called Cinemash. The sheer fact that the sexes are reversed and they didn’t even attempt to shave JGL’s scruffy chin makes me think it’s meant to be humorous, but it’s still odd. See the clip here. Via Nashville Cream/Pitchfork.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention former Titans quarterback Steve McNair’s death on here. I do follow the Titans (football is my biggest all-American guilty pleasure), and I was a huge fan of McNair. It’s hard to see through the PR spin surrounding professional athletes, but they guy seemed to be a genuinely good person, and he was one hell of a player. The Tennessean has posted a video clip of coach Jeff Fisher’s heartfelt remarks in a press conference yesterday. It deserves a look.

In what appears to be a move taken straight from the plot of I Am Legend, doctors have used the HIV virus to kill lung cancer in mice. This news is simultaneously exciting and terrifying to me. Yes, anything regarding a cure for cancer is awesome, but engineering a retrovirus to do exactly what you want is potentially one of the most dangerous pieces of technology ever created. It’s right up there with the H-bomb. It still has a long way to go before becoming a viable human treatment, though. Via io9.

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