R.I.P. Carl Sagan

On this day in 1996, Carl Sagan lost his battle against pneumonia at age 62, and although I didn’t hear about him until after he had passed away, I miss him. I miss him greatly — more and more, year after year.

Carl Sagan profoundly changed how I view the world, and re-ignited a passion for cosmology and science in general that’s always been lurking at my core. He changed my life’s goals and aspirations. He taught me about so many things I never learned or grasped in school — perhaps most importantly how crucial critical thinking is, and how and when to apply it. He showed me right from wrong. He has been, without a shred of doubt, the greatest influence in my adult life.

I can only dream of becoming a tenth of the man Carl Sagan was. A great scientist and an amazingly charismatic and enthralling educator. A hopeless romantic who, despite a constant stream of criticism and the Cold War raging, never betrayed his dreams for humanity, and who ended up loved by millions of people for it. A person who’s unfailingly referred to by all contemporary popularizers of science as a hero and an inspiration.

In the future I might have children who aren’t interested in science, and who don’t share my view of the world, but I will make damn sure that none of them go through life without having watched the Cosmos TV series from beginning to end.

Thanks to Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, Demon-Haunted World, and all his other work, I feel humbled, amazed, and inspired by our world and our universe. And I’m a much better person for it.

“For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions, and by the depth of our answers.”

Thank you, Carl.

Nevermind the Arsenic

It turns out that the claims that an arsenic-based lifeform had been found were grossly exaggerated — perhaps to meet some unrealistic public expectations (to which I subscribed, I admit).

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Amid a flurry of criticism, a NASA-funded team on Thursday backed off the more extravagant, textbook-changing claims they’d made about a bacterium that had allegedly substituted arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA.

The original announcement, made at a NASA news conference Dec. 2, seemed to break a cardinal rule of biology that all organisms need some phosphorus to survive. NASA researchers claimed to have discovered an exotic organism in California’s Mono Lake that lived instead on arsenic, thus broadening the types of life that may exist in the universe.

On Thursday, the researchers issued a more modest claim. Instead of saying the microbes had completely substituted arsenic for phosphorus, a new statement says the arsenic replaced “a small percentage” of the phosphorus.

A number of biologists say they’ll be surprised if even this stands the test of time.

The claims “do not follow from their results,” said Simon Silver, a University of Illinois microbiologist who specializes in heavy-metal resistance in bacteria. “This conclusion is not merited from what they did and measured and I think it most likely is a mistake and should never have been claimed or published.”

The findings were published in the journal Science, which also issued the researchers’ latest statement. Most of its 16 pages were responses to critics.

At the original NASA news event, the team leader, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, had been vague about how much arsenic had substituted for phosphorus, but several times she implied that arsenic had replaced all the phosphorus in the bacterial DNA and other crucial biological molecules.

PZ Myers sums it up pretty well, too.

A good example of the need to be critical of authority, even if that authority is NASA.

We Don't Know Anything

Unless you’ve been sleeping for the past few hours, or just haven’t been near an apparatus capable of capturing radio waves or receiving digital signals, you know that NASA just announced that they’ve discovered a new lifeform which has substituted phosphorus with the poisonous element arsenic, right here on Earth.

This could be monumental. Phosphorus has always been considered an essential building block of all life on the planet. If this finding stands up to the post-hype public scrutiny, it will be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of this century. It will actually deserve a tagline coming from Apple’s PR department. But it’s significant for another reason than “just” forcing us to think of “the tree of life” in plural. It underlines something more important than any single scientific discovery: The fact that we don’t know anywhere near as much about the universe as we like to believe. Heck, we don’t even seem to know enough to speak confidently about the attributes of our own planet and the life on it.

Do We Care?

The popular argument against exploration in science has always been that we don’t need to know anything else. That surely we don’t need to study fruit flies in Vienna or microbes in California lakes; that we should be satisfied with our modern, stationary lives, our couches, our televisions, and our Internet; that there’s nothing significant, only minor details, left to discover. But Felisa Wolfe-Simon, unimpressed by the comfort we’ve developed, serves us with a striking reminder that that just couldn’t be further from the truth. She thought it would be interesting to look for microbes in a peculiar lake, and ended up changing one of our core presumptions about life.

Felisa knew what she was looking for. Most don’t. Most breakthrough discoveries are accidents. But all of them, whether intended or not, are the product of something that’s been within us since we first discovered fire: An unfailing craving to explore and experiment with the unknown — to find out more about that which we do not understand. To quote Carl Sagan:

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game — none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our ability to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few — drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

It’s been in our nature for millions of years, but a sad fact distorts this picture: Most of these breakthroughs were made with very little, if any, funding. We spend almost no money on science. As Brian Cox points out in his TED talk, Why We Need the Explorers, the U.K. and other western countries allocate less than two percent of their budget to all scientific efforts, of which exploratory projects constitute only a fraction.


I never saw as much public interest in science as I did these past few days. Everyone were so ready, so hopeful, to hear about life elsewhere in the universe. For a short while, all the world’s eyes were on NASA and on science, almost like they were on July 20th, 1969.

The world didn’t see extraterrestrial life, but perhaps what they saw was even more profound — an alien lifeform right under our noses. A cold reminder that not only do we have so much to learn about where to look and what to look for, but that we’re not nearly finished scrupulously investigating our own planet. That we shouldn’t put our insatiable craving to explore on the back burner.

We don’t know what we’re going to discover. We cannot try to perceive what’s to come. What we can do is insist that there is more, and that exploration is absolutely essential for our development, our well-being, and, indeed, our survival!

In a few weeks, most people will go back to not caring. What about you?

Update: The claims that an arsenic-based lifeform had been found were greatly exaggerated. My sentiment wasn’t, though :-)

NASA Redefines Life

Update: NASA has officially confirmed the following; more at the bottom!

We always hold true that the building blocks for life as we know it are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur, but what if there are other materials and combinations?

Astrobiologists at NASA may be about to announce that they’ve discovered another building block and, indeed, at least one other recipe for life, previously theorized about but never seen. A finding that would radically change our understanding of biology and of what makes life possible here at home and elsewhere in the cosmos.

Earlier this week NASA issued a curious press release which stated:
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

While only a few people know the specifics of NASA’s discovery, Gizmodo seems rather sure in its case that what has been discovered is a lifeform which consists of arsenic rather than phosphorous, the backbone of nucleic acid:

Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same. But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic.

My gut tells me not to buy into the hype prematurely, but it’s just not possible to not get excited about something like this. This would significantly widen the scope of what we look for in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

The press conference will be streamed live on NASA TV at 2pm EST. Then we’ll know.

Update: Several independent news outlets are now backing up Gizmodo’s claim that a completely new lifeform made up of arsenic has been discovered in Mono Lake. From Nature News:

A bacterium found in the arsenic-filled waters of a Californian lake is poised to overturn scientists’ understanding of the biochemistry of living organisms. The microbe seems to be able to replace phosphorus with arsenic in some of its basic cellular processes — suggesting the possibility of a biochemistry very different from the one we know, which could be used by organisms in past or present extreme environments on Earth, or even on other planets.

Scientists have long thought that all living things need phosphorus to function, along with other elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. The phosphate ion, PO43-, plays several essential roles in cells: it maintains the structure of DNA and RNA, combines with lipids to make cell membranes and transports energy within the cell through the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

But Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a geomicrobiologist and NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow based at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, and her colleagues report online today in Science that a member of the Halomonadaceae family of proteobacteria can use arsenic in place of phosphorus. The finding implies that “you can potentially cross phosphorus off the list of elements required for life”, says David Valentine, a geomicrobiologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Update 2: The statements given at the press conference confirm that a new lifeform which has substituted phosphorous for arsenic has been discovered. You can find NASA’s official press release here.

It wasn’t hype after all. If it stands up to scrutiny the implications are enormous.

And, oh yeah, yesterday we discovered that there’s quite possibly three times as many stars in the universe as we thought. It’s been a good week.

Update 3: Rollercoaster. It wasn’t that amazing.

Inside the Mind of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange

Just found a post by redditor tree_in_forest who dug up Julian Assange’s old blog, IQ.org (via Archive.org), and I have to say it’s rather exciting to see the thoughts of a person so popular yet so shrouded in mystery as Julian Assange. One post in particular stands out:


Wed 03 Jan 2007

Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.

If we have brains or courage, then we are blessed and called on not to frit these qualities away, standing agape at the ideas of others, winning pissing contests, improving the efficiencies of the neocorporate state, or immersing ourselves in obscuranta, but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.

The whole universe or the structure that perceives it is a worthy opponent, but try as I may I can not escape the sound of suffering. Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them.

Not surprisingly, his blog’s main themes were physics, math, logic, intelligence, psychology, literature, and freedom. Take a look at the version of IQ.org available through Archive.org. (The current IQ.org is just a blank page.)

To add to the mystery he lists a Harvard email address, yet none of his numerous biographies seem to bear any mention of him attending Harvard University.