Sunday, August 31, 2008

Possible Models for Encounters With Extraterrestrials

Picking up from my last post, having established contact with an alien civilization, what lies in store for our descendants?

The only precedents we have to guide us come from our own history here on Earth. And I have to say that if our history is any guide, encounters with intelligent life elsewhere is not likely to be a pleasant experience in the long run.

Having considered the matter, I believe there are three possible scenarios when it comes to encountering extraterrestrials.

1. The extraterrestrials are technologically much more advanced than we are.

2. Humans are technologically much more advanced than the extraterrestrials.

3. The extraterrestrials and humans are on a similar technological level.

Scenario 1 is the scariest one from a human perspective. Ever since H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, science fiction has given us countless stories of advanced and malevolent extraterrestrials violently conquering the Earth. And when one looks at our own history here on Earth, whenever an advanced civilization encounters a primitive civilization, it seems that the more advanced society cannot help but attempt to either destroy or dominate the inferior society. Think of Cortes and the Aztecs or Pizarro and the Incas, to name two infamous examples.

Whenever I have mentioned this prospect in a conversation, someone will invariably respond by saying something like, "But if the aliens are so advanced as to be able to travel here, they will have a more evolved sense of morality and would not treat us that way." Sorry, but I have my doubts about that. For one thing, the alien civilization would not necessarily even need to be malevolent. They could view us the same way some European colonialists viewed technologically primitive people in the rest of the world in the 19th century, determined to save us from our own ignorance and backwardness. They might mean well, but their patronizing attitudes could generate a backlash and resistance. Just imagine how religious fundamentalists might react if the extraterrestrials have their own religion and start proselytizing us. Ultimately, the outcome of scenario 1 depends on the mindset of the technologically superior aliens.

In the second scenario, the tables are turned. The alien civilization we encounter is as primitive to us as the Aztecs were to Cortes, or they have become stagnant like China in the 19th century prior to its encounters with the European colonial powers. How will our descendants handle the situation? Will they bully and dominate the aliens? Or will they have adopted something like the Prime Directive from the original Star Trek series and refrain from interfering in the affairs of an extraterrestrial civilization that lacks the capability to contest us in space? Presumably, at some point in the future, our descendants will have devised guidelines for such a situation. Encountering technologically inferior aliens could bring out the best or the worst in us, or more likely, a little bit of both.

The third scenario envisages humans and extraterrestrials being approximately equal in technology. In the most optimistic version of this scenario, humans and extraterrestrials, realizing neither can dominate the other, arrive at a modus vivendi, engaging in trade and cultural exchanges with one another, preferably at locations far from each others home worlds. Of course, it is possible that such a state of affairs will not last forever, and a situation might arise where the two sides come to blows. One movie that reflects this possibility is Enemy Mine, wherein humans and Dracs fight for possession of uninhabited worlds for access to minerals.

A possibility that could arise from any of the above mentioned scenarios is the spread of disease from human to alien or vice versa. When one considers the catastrophic loss of life from smallpox that took place among the natives of the Americas after coming into contact with Europeans, the potential loss of life from disease transmitted from the inhabitants of one planet to another must be at least as great. This scenario was played out in The Martian Chronicles, wherein the Martians succumbed to chicken pox, which they picked up from the first two human expeditions to Mars. Below is a gratuitous clip from the series:

I think it is safe to assume that both the extraterrestrials and our descendants will be fully aware of the dangers of transmitting lethal pathogens to one another (unless of course one side specifically intends to use them as bio-weapons to exterminate the other) and take the necessary precautions. It is likely that when human and extraterrestrial first meet in person, they both will be wearing some form of biohazard suit.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is Anybody Out There...And Do We Really Want to Meet Them?

Following on the heels of my previous posts The Goldilocks Zone and Travelers In Endless Space, I now want to consider in greater detail the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy (the rest of the galaxies in the universe being too far away for it to matter).

As a child, I was fascinated with the possibility of meeting beings from outer space after seeing the movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. At 8 or 9 years of age, I became a voracious reader of books about extraterrestrial encounters and UFO sightings. Not content with just reading about the experiences of others, I would spend many nights searching the sky for UFOs. While in retrospect, I don't believe any of the stories today that I eagerly devoured and believed as a child, I do credit my interest in UFOs with spurring my interest in reading books in general.

Eventually growing up and becoming a skeptic, my interest in alien visitors to our planet waned. I recognized that the sheer distances between us and any other planets in other solar systems was so vast as to make alien visitation to our planet highly improbable. Besides, I came to the conclusion that I still hold that if beings possessing the technology to visit our planet at will actually were visiting our planet, they would have conquered us by now. And any beings that had such capability could not be kept hidden from us by the United States government.

As for the question, "Are we alone in this galaxy?", the most famous attempt to quantify a possible answer is the Drake Equation. Below is a video of the late Carl Sagan explaining the equation.

In this interesting interview on Point of Inquiry with DJ Grothe, Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research, describes the limitations of the Drake Equation:

"On the other hand, as you go through this equation, you end up putting in guesses. So it is really not something that you can use as a tool to calculate anything meaningful. It is a wonderful way to organize our ignorance, and it is a very useful tool in that sense. But any answer you get out is just based on the biases and the guesses of the person who is using the equation and trying to get an answer."

But suppose SETI does detect a signal sent from an extraterrestrial civilization. Then what? It will obviously have a profound impact on Earth. We will know that we are not alone after all. It will cause us to reappraise ourselves and our place in the universe. The prospect of meeting or at least communicating with intelligent beings in another part of the galaxy is bound to be a cause for excitement, though I should think the wonder of the possibility will walk hand in hand with a certain sense of dread. Will these beings be benevolent or malevolent? Can we trust them and will they trust us? Of course, given the technological limitations we face with respect to space travel, if we were to find proof of an advanced alien civilization tomorrow, it could be centuries before unmanned probes could reach the source of the signals we received. And then our descendants will have to sit back and wait with anticipation.

Monday, August 25, 2008

On The Possibility of a Universal Designer

In my recent post The Goldilocks Zone, I mentioned an argument I got into with someone going by the name of Thomas in the comments section of one of Vjack's posts on Atheist Revolution. Well, Thomas seems to have become a frequent haunter of Atheist Revolution (I have been mercifully spared thus far here at Exercise in Futility!), as I got into another back and forth with him in Vjack's post Faith As A Virtue Part 1.

In the combox of this post, Thomas played the design card. I replied that even if I accept the possibility that the universe might have been designed by someone or something, it does not mean automatically it was the god of the Bible. To that, Thomas answered "You can tell alot (sic) about the designer by looking at the things he designed."

Fine, let's play that game. Let us take a look at the universe and see what it tells us about a hypothetical designer. We know the universe is so vast as to be practically infinite in its expanse. Ours is one of many planets orbiting the sun in our solar system, which is itself one of countless solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from this that other galaxies in the universe are also filled with stars orbited by planets. It also seems reasonable to believe that there is at least the possibility that there is life in some form or other on other worlds in this universe. When I consider this, it seems absurd to believe that planet Earth represents the "central front" in some epic battle between good and evil.

When you look at the two largest monotheistic religions in the world, Christianity and Islam, they both seem to thrive on violence. Of course, Christians are not strapping on bomb vests or flying planes into buildings. But a segment of them look forward to living in the time of the Rapture, of the coming of the Anti-Christ and the Last Judgment. These are people who do not see a future for humanity. I don't know about the rest of you, but that is something I find very depressing.

However, the flip side of this is that portion of the human race since before the dawn of recorded history that has been curious about its place in the universe, seeking to explore and understand the world and the heavens around us. If my hypothetical designer created the human race for a purpose, then maybe that purpose is not to embrace some superboy that was birthed to a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee some 2,000 years ago as our personal savior, but something more like this:

I created this vast universe for you to explore and discover and there is room enough that a million years from now your descendants will still have explored only a fraction if it. As long as the universe endures, so humanity itself will endure if it embraces peace, unity and progress. The choice is yours.

Now that is a god to whom I would not mind giving my respect.

More Cosmic Music from Enigma

In the spirit of the previous post, below are a series of videos set to songs from Enigma's 2006 album A Posteriori. The album and the accompanying videos all have to do with things cosmic.

20,000 Miles Above The Sea

Eppur si muove

Sitting on the moon

Travelers In Endless Space

Astounding as it may be, our solar system barely registers as a blip in the Milky Way galaxy, as pictured above.

As anyone who knows anything at all about astronomy knows, our Earth is one of eight planets (or nine, for those Pluto loyalists!) that orbit that gaseous ball of light and heat at the center of our solar system that we call the sun.

But if one is to take the Book of Genesis literally, the God of the Bible made the planet Earth on Day One and the sun, all of the planets and other bodies in our solar system, all of the stars (and the unmentioned planets that orbit them) in the Milky Way galaxy, and all of the billions of galaxies filled with their billions of stars and planets three days later! However, there is absolutely no evidence outside of the Bible that any such thing occurred at all.

Of course, a Biblical literalist will likely counter that by retorting that there is no evidence that it did not happen that way. If God is all powerful, then God could have made the Earth first before making the sun around which the Earth revolves. Perhaps, but not likely. Maybe it's just me, but when it comes to judging such claims, I have this annoying little quirk of requiring supporting evidence to provide independent confirmation. What criteria might suffice? How about making the Earth the only planet in the solar system, or better yet, the only planet in the Milky Way galaxy? With the discovery of increasing numbers of exoplanets, that is, planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system, it is obvious that planets are a common phenomena in our galaxy, and presumably in other galaxies as well. Therefore, if planet Earth was the first thing created in the universe, then why is it just one among presumably countless numbers of planets orbiting a star?

According to Genesis 1:16-18, "God made two great lights - the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness." In other words, the rest of the universe, according to the Bible, matters only in its relation to the Earth, amounting to little more than some sort of cosmic window dressing. The lesser light that governs the night is generally believed to be the moon, but whoever wrote the creation account in Genesis fails to note that (1) the moon has phases, and in the "new moon" phase it does not provide us any light at all, and (2) quite often the moon appears during the daytime. And while I am in a quibbling mood, the Almighty did not seem to see fit to telling whomever He passed on this tale about the creation that at certain times of the year in the polar regions, there is no lesser light to rule the night sky because the sun does not set.

As for the stars, if they provide any light at all to the Earth, it is but a bare fraction of the light they provide for their own planets. If there are any intelligent beings living on another planet in the Milky Way, I think they would find it quite amusing to be told that the star that gives light and warmth to their planet really only exists in order to provide humans with a point of reference for navigating at night on an Earth that is some hundreds or thousands of light years away. Talk about a geocentric bias!

Beyond that there are all of the stars in the Milky Way that we cannot see with the naked eye, either because they are too far away or their light is obscured by clouds of gas and dust. And then we have the other galaxies in the universe filled with their countless stars. Of course, there are a handful of galaxies that can be seen in the night sky, most notably the Magellanic Clouds. The Andromeda Galaxy can also be perceived without the aid of telescopes, though to the naked eye it appears as nothing more than a tiny fuzzy patch. That Andromeda is a star filled galaxy on the scale of the Milky Way would have been beyond the imagination of anyone before the advent of the telescope. As for the rest of the galaxies and all else that the universe contains, their existence could not even be guessed at by the priesthood of a confederation of semi-nomadic tribes who deluded themselves into thinking that they must be the chosen people of the being they believed created all that they could see. It would be analogous to an ant surveying the visible world from the top of his ant hill and assuming that everything he saw was created with him in mind.

One of my standard answers to the oft' asked question by believers in the Bible "what would it take to make you believe?" is if the Bible got the cosmos right. I mean think about it. The Bible is supposed to be the revelation of the creator of this vast, practically infinite universe to us humans here on Earth. What could this god have revealed to us in revealing the creation to us? How about clearly stating that the Earth revolved around the sun? How about the existence of Australia, Antarctica and the Americas? How about the circumference of the Earth? All of these things, when discovered, would have been devastating evidence in favor of the Bible being a product of divine revelation! Instead, it would not be until the late fifteenth century and onward (the brief Viking presence in Newfoundland aside) that Christendom would even have an inkling of these things. Again, we are told to believe that the Bible is God's revelation to us, but what discoveries has humanity made about the Earth or the universe that were facilitated because of what is written in the Bible? I can't think of anything offhand, though if any reader would care to enlighten me, I should be greatly appreciative.

Below is a video of the Enigma song Morphing Through Time, which contains a softly spoken line by Sandra Cretu that provided the inspiration for the title of this post, "We are just travelers in endless space." I don't know if it was the intention of the creator of the video, but when watching the brief segment that shows a couple of Christian monks walking through their monastery, I couldn't help but think of how small their beliefs are that our affairs on this world are somehow central to the cosmos when compared to the grandeur of the universe that is evoked in the rest of the video. It reminded me of something that Carl Sagan's widow Ann Druyan said at the Center for Inquiry conference I attended in downtown Manhattan last November about what scientists had to offer in their explanations of their discoveries, "We have a much better story to tell."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday Funnies - Extreme Puke Edition

I haven't had a Friday Funnies post since I can't remember when, so I figured it's about time for a new one. The theme, as the title of the post indicates, is puking.

First up, from Family Guy, the males in the family embark on an ill-advised contest that involves drinking something called Epicac to induce vomiting, with the one who holds out the longest getting to have the last piece of a delicious pie in the refrigerator. Too late do they realize that the prize is not worth the suffering involved.

And considering that the prize in the previous video is a piece of pie, we have here a segue into a great clip from the movie Stand By Me, wherein "Lardass" Hogan plots his revenge against all of his tormentors at a pie eating contest. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How About Those Gasoline Prices - Part 2

Early Saturday morning I had a dream. In that dream, I went out of my house one day and noticed something that completely astounded me. If I recall correctly, in the dream I was walking with my wife up the road to nearby Woodbury Plaza, and in the distance I saw the price sign on display at the BP gasoline station. What caught my attention was the price that was advertised for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. It read $1.75 per gallon.

In the dream, I turned to my wife and asked her, "What the hell happened to cause the price of gasoline to go down so much? I don't understand how this is possible!"

That's about all I remember from the dream.

Anyway, this past July 11, I got an e-mail from my congressional representative Steve Israel with the catchy title "Dropping Gasoline Prices in Two Weeks or Less." In his e-mail, Representative Israel announces:

Reducing gas prices in two weeks? It’s entirely possible. And no, it doesn’t depend on a massive production increase from Saudi Arabia, or even additional drilling—which wouldn’t give us a price reduction for five to ten years.

All we need to do is draw down a limited portion of the oil in our country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), and prices will drop dramatically. Most importantly, the effect will be immediate- unlike drilling on the continental shelf or in Alaska, which will take nearly a decade to have a significant impact.

The SPR currently holds over 700 million barrels of oil- it’s highest capacity in history! Why are we hording such a massive reserve of oil when gas prices continue to rise at an intolerable rate? According to the Department of Energy, oil from SPR deployment would enter the market in less than 2 weeks. Why wait 10 years when we can have results now?

While I appreciate Representative Israel's concern about the price of gasoline, the fact is, since he sent out the above-cited e-mail, we have had results without tapping the SPR. I don't recall the exact peak price in my neighborhood, but I believe it was over $4.30 per gallon for regular unleaded. After hitting a record of $147 per barrel, the price of a barrel of oil has since declined to about $111. Slowly but surely, the price at the pump has been declining, dipping below $4.00 per gallon. The BP gas station that featured in my dream lowered its price for regular unleaded to $3.92 per gallon today. The prices in Western Suffolk are lower by about a nickel. Last night, on the way home from a friend's house in Deer Park, I filled up my tank with gas costing $3.86 a gallon.

So, why is the price of gasoline going down? While I am sure there are a lot of different explanations and theories, one factor that has to be contributing to the decline is the fact that Americans are driving less. According to an August 13, 2008 news release from the Department of Transportation:

Americans drove 4.7 percent less, or 12.2 billion miles fewer, in June 2008 than June 2007. The decline is most evident in rural travel, which has fallen by 4 percent – compared to the 1.2 percent decline in urban miles traveled – since the trend began last November.

The full report can be read here. So far, the number of miles driven for each of the first six months of this year shows a decline from the same month in 2007. It breaks down as follows:

January -1.6%
February -0.5%
March -4.3%
April -1.6%
May -3.9%
June -4.7%

One of the things this demonstrates is that prices are outside of the ability of our elected officials to control. I don't know how much Representative Israel expected the price of oil to drop by tapping the SPR, but the market price's downward trend surely renders his proposal unnecessary. And it also begs the question, how do our elected officials "know" what the price of gasoline should be? Should we slowly deplete the SPR to maintain a price of $2.00 per gallon? And if so, how are they going to encourage motor vehicle owners to reduce their driving and use alternative modes of transportation?

While I don't have any hard statistics, I have seen anecdotal evidence that more people are riding their bicycles, as I have been doing, when carrying out local errands. Even in my own neighborhood, I notice more people with Shoprite or CVS plastic bags hanging from their handle bars (to which I wince a bit, as I wear a knapsack on my back, which is much safer), and I see some Long Island Rail Road commuters making use of the bicycle lockers at the Hicksville Station. Unfortunately, I can't make use of a bicycle locker, because I have to pick my children up from day camp, and starting next month, from school.

The big question, make that two big questions, is, how low will gasoline prices fall and for how long? I think I can be pretty confident that we won't see the price I saw in my aforementioned dream. One downside of declining fuel prices is that if they get low enough, fuel conservation efforts will slacken and the demand for gasoline will increase, thereby setting the stage for the price to go up again.

Now, I make no claim to any special oracular powers when it comes to the price of gasoline. I couldn't tell you what the price of a barrel of Brent Light Sweet Crude will cost a month from now. I do expect that the price of gasoline will stop falling at some point and that it will resume its upward march and set a new record, whereupon it will decline somewhat, before rising again. From what I have read, it seems inevitable that we will eventually reach a point where production will not be able to keep pace with demand, unless we can find a significant alternative fuel sources that will steer us away from our dependence on petroleum. But that is a topic for another post.

In the meantime, I still plan to continue doing what I have been doing, using my bicycle or walking for local errands, and planning my driving routes to minimize fuel consumption.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Feelin' That Christian Love!

Last night, while surfing the Internet, I came across a Youtube segment from the short-lived Richard Pryor Show from the mid-1970's that I had dimly remembered from my childhood. From there, I clicked on another Richard Pryor video from the show wherein Richard makes a startling discovery about ancient Egypt.

After watching the segment, I read some of the comments that previous viewers posted in response to the video. One commenter, going by the name of nukecat (profile in the link), wrote "sorry to spoil all of your fun, but jews arent black and they are gods choosen (sic) people, not blacks."

I felt the need to spoil his fun, and informed him that "The Jews are not God's "chosen people" and the god of the Bible does not exist." To be honest, it was intended as a drive-by comment, and I wasn't looking to get into a debate.

Then, when I checked my e-mails a short while ago, I found that I got not one, but two responses from nukecat.

In a message received at 10:30 P.M. last night, nukecat responded with these insightful words:

sorry to say that your (sic) wrong
you dont know what the fuck your (sic) talking about

Apparently, that was not enough for him, because I received the next message from him at 10:42 P.M., in which he charitably informed me:

i hope you burn in hell asshole
its look intelligent ...but looks are deceiving
what miserable life you must lead without god

It never ceases to amuse me how some people assume that being an atheist means living a miserable life. To be honest, I am astonished at times about how good my life has turned out. It seems to me that if anyone has a miserable life, it must be nukecat. He doesn't bother to offer any factual information as to why he is right and I am wrong, and instead resorts to vulgarities and wishing me eternal suffering. If my life is miserable, then what does that make his?

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Lure of the Flesh

Today, I was reading this post by Vjack at Atheist Revolution about a bunch of Christian busybodies staking out an adult store in Indiana, taking pictures of the establishment's customers and writing down their license plate numbers. It wouldn't surprise me if these busybodies, like Bubba Flavel in Porky's 2, are merely using their outrage to mask their own fascination with "indecency".

Blacksun wrote in the comments section of the post about "a drive-thru cappuccino shop in rural Washington state staffed by bikini-wearing baristas that was closed down. They claimed that the scantily clad women essentially amounted to an "adult business." Of course, since SO many children are driving around to cappuccino shops, they MUST be protected."

I did some searching on Google and while I did not come across the CNN article Blacksun mentioned, this article likely deals with the same establishment. From my brief research on this, it would seem that bikini barista shops are becoming a growing trend in the American Northwest.

Now personally, I don't find anything wrong with drive through coffee shops being staffed by bikini clad ladies, as long as they are at least 18 years of age and their participation is voluntary, that is that refusing to wear a bikini should not be grounds for dismissal. The way I see it, if the coffee at such an establishment is not very good, I doubt male customers are going to keep going back again and again to such places just to catch a glimpse of cleavage. I personally wouldn't go out of my way to be served at a coffee house staffed by buxom bikini clad baristas, but if it was close to where I live or work and I liked the coffee, I would consider the attraction to be an added benefit to patronizing a place I would likely frequent anyway.

From a feminist perspective, there are probably two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, some feminists would argue that using attractive, scantily clad women to sell a product is demeaning to women, while another valid feminist perspective would be that if a woman wants to flaunt her sexuality and feels empowered by it, then it should be her choice to do so. Some people will be swayed to patronize a coffee shop because it has hot bikini babes serving "a cup of Joe," while others will go to another coffee shop because the baristas are not wearing bikinis.

Showing some skin to sell more coffee is one thing, but it is quite another thing when the product being sold could be dangerous to your health. The photo at the top of this post is a picture of a Taiwanese betel nut girl, one of thousands who sell betel nuts from glass encased booths on roadsides throughout Taiwan.

The chewing of betel nuts is common in southern and south east Asia, particularly in India and Taiwan. I first heard of it last year when I was reading a tourist guide book about Taiwan, as I was (and still am) interested in visiting there in the near future. According to the tour guide, "Taiwan now has one of the highest rates of mouth and throat cancer in Asia, a statistic most doctors link with chewing the nut."

From this article from the Taipei Times:

"Before, we only knew that chewing betel nuts could lead to oral cancer and other oral-related diseases," Ko said, "but now we have found that it can also harm other parts of the body."

Ko said that betel nuts have been identified by academics and researchers as a first-class cancer-causing substance. Even though betel-nut chewers spit out the juice, some of it is swallowed and goes into the bloodstream. Arecoline, an ingredient in the betel nut, becomes the residue that stays in the organs.

Alas, efforts to reduce the chewing of betel nuts is running into an obstacle, as this Bloomberg article notes:

The Taiwan government's plan to curb cancer faces tough opposition: about 60,000 women who sit in roadside glass booths, often wearing little more than a bikini, selling the island's oldest legal drug.

The so-called betel-nut beauties, who are unique to Taiwan, peddle the island's second-largest crop to 17.5 percent of the adult male population, according to government estimates.

I believe that in this particular case, there is a legitimate argument in favor of curbing the sale of betel nuts as a public health issue, including discouraging its sale by scantily clad ladies. A product that is a known carcinogen should not be glamorized.

Below is a brief video from Youtube about Betel Nut girls.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Modesty Guard

While Israelis and their Arab Muslim neighbors do not particularly like each other, it seems as if some ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken inspiration from the Sharia police in Muslim countries and have started their own "Modesty Guard" to harass Jewish women who are deemed not sufficiently modest. Read about it and watch the video here on Haaretz.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Goldilocks Zone

Panorama of Martian landscape around the Phoenix Mars Lander

In the comments thread of this post on Vjack's Atheist Revolution site, a Christian commenter going by the name of Thomas wrote:

Now on a different note, this always amazed me. Science tells us that if the earth was a small amount space closer to the sun, our atmosphere would disintegrate and we would burn up. If the earth were a small amount of space farther from the sun, we would all freeze and die. What keeps us the EXACT distance from the sun so that life will continue on our planet? Is it something we as humans can take credit for?

I replied to Thomas that he was spouting the "Goldilocks Zone" argument, which is another way of saying that our Earth is "fine tuned" for life. After all, is it just a coincidence that our planet is in just the right spot for life? Of course, that assumes that we are at the "EXACT distance."

Yesterday, NASA announced that "[l]aboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples." There is now considerable evidence that there were once "vast lakes, flowing rivers and deltas on early Mars, all of which were potential habitats for microbes."

From the mission objective for the Phoenix Mars Lander:

"Recent discoveries have shown that life can exist in the most extreme conditions. Indeed, it is possible that bacterial spores can lie dormant in bitterly cold, dry, and airless conditions for millions of years and become activated once conditions become favorable. Such dormant microbial colonies may exist in the Martian arctic, where due to the periodic wobbling of the planet, liquid water may exist for brief periods about every 100,000 years making the soil environment habitable.

Phoenix will assess the habitability of the Martian northern environment by using sophisticated chemical experiments to assess the soil's composition of life-giving elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen. Identified by chemical analysis, Phoenix will also look at reduction-oxidation (redox) molecular pairs that may determine whether the potential chemical energy of the soil can sustain life, as well as other soil properties critical to determine habitability such as pH and saltiness."

So, Thomas is wrong. If the Earth was a small amount of space farther from the sun, we would not necessarily all freeze and die. If Mars had periods where parts of its surface were covered with liquid water, then our Earth could have been 100 million miles from the sun instead of 93 million miles, and our planet should still have been warm enough to possess liquid water. Then again, even at its current distance from the sun, there are some scientists who theorize that some 700 million years ago, our Earth was entirely encased in ice. This theory has been dubbed "Snowball Earth." As this article shows, while there is counter-evidence that the entire planet was not covered in ice, even critics of the "Snowball Earth" theory acknowledge that the Earth during the time period in question experienced more glaciation than at any other time in the planet's existence.

Of course, under such conditions, the human race would probably freeze to death. But life itself need not. There are organisms that seem to thrive in environments and temperatures hostile to human life. We call these organisms, appropriately enough, extremophiles. As Doctor Penelope Boston writes in the article I just linked to, "On Earth, we have environments ranging from the superheated waters of submarine volcanic vents to the ultra-dry bitter cold of the Antarctic Dry Valleys. We find organisms living in caves dripping with sulfuric acid and others thriving in intensely alkaline solutions. We find creatures happily existing in saturated salt solutions, enduring megadoses of ionizing radiation, or deriving their food and energy sources from unpromising inorganic materials like manganese, iron, and sulfur compounds."

Will we find evidence that such organisms currently or once did exist on Mars? Who knows? NASA reports that it is extending the mission of the Mars Phoenix Lander to September 30, 2008. In the weeks after that date, the data collected from the probe will continue to be analyzed. I, for one, eagerly await what new discoveries await us.