Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Uncharted territory

There isn't much of it anymore, at least on Earth. Although we continue to discover new things (like arsenic bacteria!), mankind's boots have pretty much stepped everywhere they can.

Off the planet, though, it's a whole different story. And one of the first space probes is on the verge of taking the biggest step in the history of the species. It's leaving our neighborhood--the Solar System--for good.

Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft from Earth, has reached a new milestone in its quest to leave the Solar System.

Now 17.4bn km (10.8bn miles) from home, the veteran probe has detected a distinct change in the flow of particles that surround it.

These particles, which emanate from the Sun, are no longer travelling outwards but are moving sideways.

It means Voyager must be very close to making the jump to interstellar space - the space between the stars.

On a separate note, 33 years and it can still send a strong data signal more than 10 billion miles? I want me some of those batteries.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I missed the space-boat

I lived in Florida for two years. There were many things I did, and didn't do, that went well. Others not so well. But let me tell you my biggest regret: I didn't make the three-hour drive to the Cape for a Shuttle launch.

The video below, pointed out to me by The Guy Who Sits Next to Me, really drives that point home.

Big rocket go whoosh, 1981-2010.

And now, of course, the whole program is being retired. That's a bummer (unless it is replaced with something niftier--a doubtful proposition in the short term).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmastime is here!

And I know this because carolers came to our door last night. As we were watching the latest episode of Glee, in which the cast went... caroling. Life is weird sometimes.

It was an especially surreal experience here in the Middle East, where there is no snow, are few seasonal decorations (no, National Day doesn't count) and churches are semi-required to keep it low-key. Hell, even when we lived in Chicago carolers never came to our door... of course, this is mainly because our door was up three flights of stairs and behind two buzz-in doors in the foyer.

The carolers last night were from a Filipino Catholic church here in the 'Dhabs and included our former cleaning lady. And although they were armed only with a guitar and maracas, they put on a nice, festive show.

Guess it's time to put up our non-denominational holiday wreath....

Sunday, December 5, 2010

(Very) little green men

As promised, let's dork it up.

Last Thursday, NASA announced it had discovered a new form of life. This new beastie was not found on another planet, however, but right here on Earth, in California's Mono Lake.

That environment, while not extraterrestrial, is certainly interesting. The water contains tremendous amounts of arsenic, an element that normally acts as a poison on your basic Earthbound animal. The reason (and forgive me, Mrs. Howk, if I screw this up) is that literally EVERY BIT of known life on Earth is built from and operates using six elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. All are crucial. In human biology, for instance, phosphorus is an essential part of our energy-generating mechanism, fueled by ATP, or adenosine tri-phosphate.

But look just below phosphorus on a periodic table and you see arsenic. It is remarkably similar... but dissimilar in too many ways to simply substitute. In fact, the reason arsenic is so deadly is because the body mistakes it for phosphorus and tries to use it in normal metabolic processes, which doesn't work.

Until now.

This new microbe can use arsenic to survive. Here's how one of the scientists put it:

“These data show that we are getting substitution across the board,” said Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon. “This microbe, if we are correct, has solved the challenge of being alive in a different way.”

Tiny bug, big discovery.

And what THAT means is a) all life did not necessarily evolve from a common ancestor, i.e. there were, at some point, at least two separate "tracks" viable life was taking, and b) we now have a lot more environments off our planets in which we could conceivably find life.

How cool is that?

So although NASA didn't trot out E.T., a Gray or, heaven forbid, something out of a Ridley Scott movie, it's still an exciting discovery. Here's to more big announcements. I can't wait to blog about faster-than-light travel and aliens made of silica-arsenate.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How I Spent My National Day

First of all, don't worry--I'm planning to blog, at some point, a bit about my thoughts regarding the new arsenic-metabolizing life form NASA discovered in a California lake. It is, needless to say, pretty mind-blowing considering that literally ALL life uses phosphorus (along with five other elements) as its building blocks. This new bug subs arsenic for phosphorus. It is, literally, a unique life form... at least for the time being. Awesome.

Now then. Let's talk about the last couple of days, starting with yesterday, National Day. The natives, and, let's face it, everyone else took to the streets for a colorful and noisy celebration of the UAE's 39th birthday. It's weird--you never see Emiratis acting so unreservedly happy until Dec. 2 every year. And boy do they take it to the extreme.

A VERY tame vehicle.

The fireworks were shorter this year than last year; the walk to find a cab (several miles) was longer and there was more backfiring. So much, in fact, that when I came home, Mrs. Blog--who sat it out because she was not feeling well--commented that I smelled like a gas tank. Which, upon close reflection, was accurate.

Today involved a lot less silly string and engine revving. We have wheels this weekend, thanks to a generous friend, and we took advantage by heading out for a picnic in the park. It was packed! But we found some nice shade, settled down, ate some snacks and watched a spirited game of pickup basketball at the nearby court. Mrs. Blog practiced her Arabic with me as flash-card holder and I daydreamed about walking onto the court and showing these guys how a KU grad can hoop. (in my case, slowly and with a gradually worsening limp.)

It looks like the evening will end with a delicious meal, the only kind Mrs. Blog knows how to make, and a funny movie. Not a bad start to the weekend. The UAE will be fortunate to have as good a start to its 40th year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Here's how you know it's UAE National Day

You come to work, get fitted with a patriotic baseball cap and handed a falcon.

I'm glad the falcon can't see me.

Tomorrow is when the fireworks begin (literally) and all the nation's white SUVs are decorated with stickers, decals and streamers declaring them the most patrioticest vehicles in all the land.

One of this year's celebratory Big Deals is the world's largest convoy of school buses. And yes, I'm totally serious. How can they possibly top that next year, the nation's 40th anniversary?