Anything Out There?, The Pharaoh's Asses, Monkey Talk, Science Fact or Science Fiction: Morning Sickness, Listener Feedback: Shock Therapy

 

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Anything Out There?

earthm.jpg Earth as seen from space- our best example of life in the universe

For hundreds of years, humans have asked, are we alone in the universe? Until recently, if we wanted to answer that question, we had to rely on alien life contacting us. By definition, that meant the aliens had to be intelligent enough and technologically advanced enough to send out signals we could interpret. But over the last decade, there's been a fundamental shift in the search for life in the cosmos. For the first time, we're able to look for life directly, on other planets.

Dr. Maggie Turnbull is a freelance astrobiologist at the Global Science Institute in Wisconsin. She's spent a career concentrating on the question of whether life exists beyond our own planet. She works with a number of scientists developing missions to look for extra-terrestrial life. While she hasn't abandoned the radio telescopes, she's now trying to work out where we should look, and what we should look for. Of course, the life they're looking for won't talk back to us. It's not intelligent life people are hunting for now, it's any life, even simple forms like bacteria.

The first step will be to find planets where life could exist. These would probably be small, rocky worlds similar to our own. Dr. David Charbonneau, a Canadian scientist at Harvard University, is one of the researchers leading the hunt for small extra-solar worlds. He thinks he may find some examples within the next three years.

Once we have small planets, then we'll need to figure out whether or not life could survive there. Dr. Sara Seager, another Canadian scientist, working at MIT, is working on this. She's developed techniques for measuring the atmosphere of small planets that are too far away to directly observe. And, in an interesting twist, she's worked out what our own earth would look like from a great distance. After all, it is our only example of a planet that holds life, and provides a good standard for comparison when we do look at other worlds.

Finally, being able to support life is one thing, but how does life get started in the first place? For that you need complex biomolecules that, here on Earth, we've had trouble figuring out how to make. But making them on a planet may not be necessary. Dr. John Debes, from the Carnegie Institution, has discovered these complex molecules around a star that's in the process of forming planets, which suggests they may be relatively common. And, from our own example, if the molecules are there, life will find a way to blossom.

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The Pharaoh's Asses

pharoah_ass.jpg Ancient donkey skeletons at Abydos, Egypt

Recently, archeologists excavating a previously unexplored tomb complex of one of the earliest Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, made a thrilling discovery. It wasn't a mummy, or hieroglyphs or treasure. It was the immaculately preserved skeletons of ten donkeys. They weren't exactly donkeys, however. While the condition of their bones indicated that the animals were clearly used for carrying heavy loads, they were, in most other ways, more similar to the wild ancestor of the donkey, the Africa wild ass. Dr Fiona Marshall, a professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks that this is the very beginning of domestication of the donkey, the first beast of burden in ancient Egypt. Furthermore, she thinks that these donkeys might have been part of a transportation revolution that was vital to the development of the Egyptian nation and empire.

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Monkey Talk

puttynose.jpg Putty-Nosed Monkey - Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund

Researchers interested in human language often look to our primate cousins, in order to figure out how we developed our way with words. Dr. Klaus Zuberbühler, a comparative psychologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, has been studying communication in African putty-nosed monkeys. He's discovered that they have two distinct calls, one for leopards and another for eagles, the two most common predators they encounter. Interestingly, Zuberbühler and his colleagues noticed that when the monkeys combined the two calls, it meant something else entirely. While it's not exactly language, it is one of its necessary elements and, it's surprising to find it in monkeys.

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Science Fact or Science Fiction: Morning Sickness

From time to time, we present a commonly held idea or popular saying - and ask a Canadian scientist to set us straight on whether we should believe it or not.

And today?s saying is: Morning sickness is a sign of a healthy pregnancy

To determine whether it is science fact or science fiction, we go to Dr. Janet Bodley, an obstetrician at Toronto?s Sunnybrook Hospital.

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Listener Feedback: Shock Therapy

Last week on the program, we interviewed Dr. Edward Shorter about his new book, Shock Therapy. Today we read a few excerpts from some of the many emails we received in response.

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