December 13, 2012

River Patterns on Other Worlds

Just putting in a quick note about this picture of a river in Titan. It came in today just as i was in the early onset of reading this book, Design in Nature, about the Constructal Law which not only explains, but predicts the formation of patterns, such as river flows and other fractal structures in nature. If you ask me, this constructal idea is a pretty monumental claim of answering the question of how patterns and 'design' arises. For a while now, I've always been fascinated about the similar patterns that are visible all around us, like trees, and bifurcating networks, spiral galaxies and hurricanes, and so on. Well, it's worth writing about this river in Titan because what flows in that river is not water but liquid methane and ethane. It stikes me with awe that on the surface of an alien world with a wildly different chemical make up could produce a pattern that is so familiar to us. Should we then expect to see on other planets the familiar patterns we see on earth, or should we expect something different on truly alien exoplanetary worlds?

November 30, 2012

Solving the Puzzle of Life

Last week, I stumbled upon an idea called The Constructal Law (for an overview, see this PDF) and I am browsing through the book 'Design in Nature' by A. Bejan and J.P. Zane. Almost immediately I felt something click as I continued to read it. Some concepts in that book resonate with bits of ideas that have already crossed my mind in the past. This book has wasted no time in explaining the new concepts clearly.

Parts of the Constructal Law will have something to do with how we should think about exolife, too. It hasn't done that yet, but the time will come.

We are currently in the age of mashups, integrations, collaboration, and new ways of thinking about the questions and mysteries that confront us. In the context of this blog, some of these questions are timeless, and some are up-to-date with our current stage of discovery: What is Life? What are the patterns that we should look for in order to detect signs of life on alien environments? Will our earth-centric definition of "Life" change once we discover life on other planets?

Indeed, these questions require us to think beyond the limits of any particular field of science. We cannot hinge solely upon Astrobiology or Exobiology to define exolife and ignore other fields of thought. We also cannot limit our minds to think about life only in terms of computation, complexity theory, or emergence (think Wolfram's New Kind of Science, NKS), nor should we think about life only in terms of physics. We need scientists and thinkers in every field to collaborate and mash up ideas. If you still don't get my gist, please read this post. I have been lapse in blogging for a while about unorthodox ways of thinking about life, and i hope to post more about this interdisciplinary aspect of answering questions about exolife, especially on how exoplanets contribute vital clues to solve this exciting puzzle.

November 20, 2012

Extremophiles, Archaeans, Biogenic Stromatolites, and Mars

When a scientist teases the whole world about an "earthshaking" discovery on Mars, you just can't help but think what it might be. In the age of social media, you can't help but tweet about it. I was going to tweet about extremophiles on impulse but I decided to dig (no pun intended) a little bit further to be more specific and to put more substance into my tweet. For some reason, the word "Stromatolites" came up in my mind. But "Archaean Stromatolites" is a better deal. But now I think "Biogenic Stromatolites" is way much better.

Some Archaeans are extremophiles and this gives me a good reason to post about it here (because I love extremophiles!) In turn stromatolites are sedimentary structures produced by the activities of microorganisms (such as archaeans) in shallow water. They precipitate calcium carbonate or limestone when they metabolize. Putting together the clues that I know, such as the evidence that water once flowed on Mars, I would think that if they ever existed, these early martian single-celled critters (which I would temporarily equate with archaeans for lack of a better term) must have formed mats of stromatolites or calcites and their signature became fossilized, and then eons later this badass curiosity rover came along and scooped up some of it and unpacked the chemical evidence with its SAM instruments and beamed the data to earth. And then one Geologist got so excited that he remarked “This data is gonna be one for the history books," and then everyone got crazy on twitter.

Well, a little sleuthing about what would make a geologist so excited points me to this paper (PDF) which I think pretty much sums up most of the clues regarding the puzzle. I'm guessing the findings would be similar, i think, but the main idea is that evidence of fossilized by-products of ancient forms of life on the red planet may have been found by Curiosity. Or could just be organic chemicals, upon which further study is needed to know if it is biogenic or abiotic. But definitely the discovery is not Life itself but perhaps (or maybe i am just hoping) it may be microfossils or some ancient signature of simple lifeforms in the distant past. And so, with that little background you know what I'll tweet about. Of course I may be wrong most probably, but tweeting with some substance is better than tweeting some senseless snarkiness. And relax, it's just a tweet about a wild guess.

November 18, 2012

Halo 4 Review : Exoplanetary Landscapes & Emotions

Having just finished the campaign in Halo 4, I just wanted to give a nod to 343 Industries for making this Halo installment such a great experience. From the perspective of this blog, I begin by expressing my appreciation for the impressive exoplanetary landscapes that was a major part of the game's appeal. All the planetary visuals, including the architecture of the forerunners, are beautiful art. I admire all the aesthetics that was put in every scene and multiplayer maps which makes it such beautiful worlds to step in to.
But the most important part of the game was the emotional aspect. Thankfully, the facial expressions of the characters (except Master Chief, who never shows his face) shows great detail in conveying human emotions. In Halo 4, you will not be burdened by the botox faces you have come to see in most games (such as in Mass Effect). Halo 4 has used the technology to appeal to the player's emotions, and it proved to be crucial in the storyline.
As the story goes, Cortana, the AI companion of Master Chief is dying. The emotional stress involved in the prospect of losing her life shows in her face which draws you in. I salute Master Chief because he actually tries to save Cortana and treats her rightfully--as a person. The common folk would have no attachment or feelings for such entities like software. People would simply install a new version or get a new one. But not Master Chief. He truly cares for his companion.
I am fond of AI constructs (such as EDI and Legion (Geth) in Mass Effect) so it was natural for me to identify my self with Master Chief at the onset. So I knew right from the start that I will definitely finish this game. Indeed I savored every moment of it, and cherished the last moments with Cortana.

October 23, 2012

Breaking Through the Limits of My World

You've heard it said, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world". It's one of the famous quotes from the only book ever published by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I'd like to share a bit of my personal experience on this matter as I curate content about exoplanets via social media tools such as twitter and google plus.

In the last few years of the ongoing discoveries of new exoplanets, I have indeed felt the limit of language in my attempt to describe the new ideas that is brought by the awareness of new worlds. I have often felt that our existing language(s) are not sufficient to support the new changes that will occur in our ways of thinking.
Aside from the English language, I speak another language and a dialect distinct enough to be considered as a unique language by itself. I experimented with shifting the language of my inner thought from one to the other, and I observed that without the proper words to describe any new concept, the mind is truly limited to effectively grasp, describe, or share new ideas. With this realization, I wondered what other concepts I am missing as a result of not knowing other languages. And I yearned to know more ideas. I longed to break free from the limits of language.

As I tracked the breath-taking pace of exoplanet discoveries, I stumbled upon new ideas, and new avenues of thought--about other planets, and on the topics of life elsewhere, on interstellar travel, and on the future of humanity. Yet I am at loss for words to efficiently share those new concepts that bubbled inside my mind.

I am sure others have felt the same. Here are some examples: how would one describe a double exoplanet transit in one word? As what happened with our observations of KOI-94 some has called it 'Exosyzygy'.

Another recent discovery of a pair of stars orbiting a planet (PH1) which is orbiting another pair of stars, I'm sure we don't even know what words to describe unique events on such a system (can we imagine an 'exoclipse' or 'multiclipse'?).

Some words I had to make up in order to make the idea fit within a constrained medium such as twitter. For some phrases I had to borrow and mash up some words. The words listed below are only a handful that I felt I had to 'invent' in order to express some concepts concisely: Exolife, Exogazing, Exoplanetary Thinking, exogasm, Hab Worlds, Known Worlds Law, exostellar, Habitable Bubbles, exoplaneteers, exoprobe.

I'm not sure if they were used before, or if these words will appear in the Google Ngram Viewer someday, but I am sure that the never-ending discovery of new planets will constantly create a plethora of new words as humanity's noosphere expands further onto other worlds lightyears away. And thus breaking through the limits of our world trains our minds to break through the limits of language itself.

July 18, 2012

Oh What A Tangled Exoweb...

As everyone in the exoplanet community have noticed, the Exoplanet Encyclopedia ( has updated its site with a nifty new look along with new functionalities. It's great. And I love change. The only thing is that it broke my Total Known Exoplanets Chrome Extension. I didn't think anyone ever uses it, until a twitter user inquired on when it will be fixed. So i spent some time to fix it. And now i'm happy to report that the chrome extension is back up online again. Well, at least for now, it's not showing blank. I know it's showing a count that is still late by a factor of weeks but it will be improved on the next deployment. I will now explain the changes that happened under the hood and what it would mean onwards.
When changed its pages, my robotic HTML scraper was no longer getting the updated exoplanet count. Much as i tried, I can no longer grab hold of the updated count from that site. So i turned to the coolest open to provide the exoplanet count. Using a simple AJAX call, it returns some data that includes the total count. Of course there's always room for improvement and I contacted the awesome developers of ExoAPI to provide a function to grab *just* the total count for speed and lighter load. So now my exoplanet count chrome extension fully depends on ExoAPI to show the latest stats on exoplanets. And I got some new upgrades planned that will make use of ExoAPI some more. Yes, this is another use case showing how important an open exoplanet API is.
Here's some quirky curiousity on how Salaak and Silver Surfer keeps track of planets. I am definitely sure that they maintain a database of planets to do their job (it would be awesome to see at least one issue of green lantern corps mention that 'fact') and that they must have some form of API in order to pass along data and work with other advanced lifeforms' technology. In light of this fiction, can you imagine what it would mean if we suddenly made contact with a more advanced civilization? For some reason, I think that their web developers would be awesome enough as to provide an API for us to be able to access their own planet database. But prior to that, via the Known Worlds Law it is automatic that advanced civilizations have a huge database of planets containing information on gazillions of worlds. And I am optimistic that they will share that information--which would mean access to study trillions of planets!

June 21, 2012

Spaceships and Exoplanets [part 3]

Since we're at it, let me refer you to this wonderful collection of vintage spaceship art to wrap up my previous posts on the impromptu series "Spaceships and Exoplanets". This collection of rare retro space art by Dark Roasted Blend certainly made me reflect on how far we've gone and how far we have to go. In the 1950's there were no known exoplanets at all. Now we have more than 700 hundred exoplanets catalogued. How did our new planetary discoveries impact how we think? How did it change our designs of spaceships? If you look closely at these vintage space artworks, what do you notice? Did anything change in the design of the spaceships as the pioneers envisioned them back then versus our modern day ship designs?
First of all, these vintage photos confirm the pattern that spaceships and planets go together on spaceship artworks, as I've noted in the first Spaceships and Exoplanets post. Another thing is that spaceship designs back then were symmetrical, while spaceship designs nowadays are 'becoming' non-symmetrical (take a look at ship designs in Eve-Online to grok what i mean). Spaceships are mostly designed for outer space so they do not need to be aerodynamic (duh!).
I could go one blabbing about spaceships but I would rather leave you thinking about the fact that more than 60 years after these imaginative art were envisioned, we still haven't landed an actual spaceship on another planet. A lot of work needs to be done to make our science fiction a real fact for future generations.

June 20, 2012

On Prometheus

Prometheus is an eye candy. The visuals and special effects are well done. The design of the space suits are unique and beautiful. The user interface to control gadgetries and machineries are good. And the star maps are marvelous. The photos shown are part of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Beautiful as its visuals may be, an eye candy is what Prometheus will ever be. It failed to live up to the hype. It will not be among the classic science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Solaris, The Matrix (1), Aliens, or The Fifth Element that one would watch (over and over again) for the sheer engagement of the mind, complemented with great visuals.
I thought the film was going to be smart, as projected by snazzy marketing tidbits such as Weyland's TED talk and great interactives. I felt cheated because when the film finally came out it had a lot of dumb moments. It had massive holes in the plot. The science was flawed in many instances, and the stupidity of all the characters distracted me throughout the movie. The promotional materials used to market the film seemed smarter than the actual film itself. Lastly, I am disappointed because it made scientists (astrobiologists and archaeologists) look like fools.
Although I am happy about the exoplanetary aspects of the film, it's just that Prometheus is hollow and is not inspiring at all. There's no enduring character to remember and no brilliant concept to keep.
But I do recognize the artistic aspect in the cinematography of the film. I am aware that one must not be taken in by all the fantastic visuals and one must look deeper into the analogies and metaphors expressed by the movie--that it tells of our endless yearning to search and know our beginning and our future. And yes I am also aware of the claim that there is a 'religious hidden message' in it. But whatever those messages were, or the metaphors therein, the film's attempt to express them utterly failed.
Besides, I do not agree with panspermia--it will not answer our quest for the origin of life, so the idea that we were created by those burly but lame 'Engineers' was a wrong premise to begin with. Sure, the film gets merit for ending with a question (of who created our creators), but perhaps the film-makers should have started with that instead, rather than making this one which turned out to be a spectacular scifi incarnation of Dumb and Dumber.

Spaceships and Exoplanets [part 2]

Well, well, well. Two nice visualizations have grazed the interwebz just days apart. And now it's my job to make sense of it all and share the wisdom. The idea could be a variation on my previous post about spaceships and exoplanets but it's still worth reiterating nevertheless.
The other day, the spaceships chart came out from supernova condensate. Today the Exoplanets rendered by xkcd exploded on the net.
Why, spaceships should have destinations, right? And that is exactly the reason why I bring them together in one post lest people fail to get the point.
Our species must expand to other planets! Let's build the spaceships and starships and worldships and go to Mars and beyond. You see, the destinations are real. These exoplanets are out there for real. Yet the means to go there isn't here just yet. That means we have plenty of things to catch up with.
I know it's hard, but it's ok. We just have to do something simple persistently, like send out extrasolar probes every year as our technology allows. This will keep the inspiration alive to keep the action going for centuries to come.
The Voyager1 probe is on the threshold of being interstellar so it is a perfect time to stress the point: Let's go 'exo' !

June 11, 2012

The Skroderider

I just felt compelled to share what I saw last saturday at the Bionic Garden: The Orchidarium named "Floriguay" by artist Mike Smith had a 'Big Dipper' setup solely for plants! Yes, for plants!!! A set of LED lights was used to simulate the constellation (and some fireflies) for the plants' enjoyment.
I think that the whole setup was fun and awesome. Imagine if plants can actually gaze up at the stars and see constellations. Wouldn't that be amazing? You know, somewhere at the back of my mind, on some other world there exists plant-like creatures that could really see and think.
It's a perfect timing that I've been reading Vernor Vinge's "Fire Upon the Deep" in which there are sentient plants called "Skroderiders" (one of them is aptly named Greenstalk). 
The Skroderiders often become lost in thought when they see spectacular landscapes which I imagine to be stars, constellations, and ringed star systems. They also are perched or riding on a contraption called 'skrodes' that enables them to move around (hence the term Skroderiders) but also contains other mechanisms that aid their memory, among other things. The skrodes were a gift to them by an advanced civilization.
So you can just imagine my delight when i saw the Floriguay, a wheeled frame outfitted with wires and tubes, a laptop, and LED lights and other contraptions. This is a Skroderider in the flesh! Or rather, a Skroderider on a skrode!

April 17, 2012

ExoAPI: SpaceApps Challenge

Yay! The ExoAPI I proposed to be included as a challenge to the INTERNATIONAL SPACE APPS CHALLENGE has just been posted. For now I just wanted to get the word out and encourage anyone and everyone to support this endeavor and share their ideas to help create an ExoAPI, a platform that will allow any programmer to grab exoplanet data and create mashups that is accessible on the internet.

The exoplanet era is upon us. And data about exoplanets are growing at a massive pace. However, most of that data are not being harnessed to its full potential. Most of it are locked into private databases that are scattered. The ExoAPI goal will allow us to harness these exoplanet datasets by making it accessible in a streamlined fashion.

Web Programmers like to create mashups and the first thing that must be done is to create accessible datasets. Currently, the most popular format on the web is JSON and the way to go about it is via AJAX or RESTful interface using javascript. If we are able to provide this capability to access exoplanet data in a RESTful way, it would allow web programmers to create fun and interesting things with exoplanet data.

With the exoAPI, programmers will be able to create mashups, games, visualizations, mobile apps, and an interface to allow the public to participate in research and discovery. The possibilities are endless! So please. Join this endeavor and lets move onwards to brave new worlds!

Note: For those who have a background in coding, I would like to encourage you to contribute a few cycles of your brain processing power to a worthy cause that has something to do with space and the future. I encourage you to participate in the International Space Apps Challenge. Please sign up and browse through all the other challenges and look to see where your talents could most likely be helpful.

March 31, 2012

Planets Outnumber the Stars. Planets Outlive the Stars

So I finally had the chance to attend a lecture from Debra Fischer, one of the great Exoplaneteers of our time. I managed to catch the last portion of her lecture, "Searching for Earthlike Worlds" at The American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

During the Q&A section, I raised my hand in an almost desperate manner to get to ask the last question but I wasn't selected by the moderator. So after the end of the lecture, when I started to walk toward the stage, I was surprised that she recognized me and knew I was the guy from all the way at the back of the room who desperately wanted to ask her something (planet-hunters truly have sharp eyes and a keen sense of observation!)

She went down from the stage, just so she could hear me ask the question face to face. I shook her hands and felt it a great honor to finally meet a great planet-hunter in person. She was keen to give her full attention to all other people who had questions as well. Though she is involved in searching for other earths, she's still a down-to-earth person! A very nice lady indeed!

So I proceeded to ask my question and it went something like this:

"We now know that planets outnumber the stars, right? In light of the recent findings from a survey of planets around red dwarfs, will it be that, even though red dwarfs live for a very long time, planets will outlive the stars?"

Yes, she said. Planets will outlive the stars. She also mentioned that not only do M-dwarfs live for a very long time, they're also the most common and numerous type of stars, comprising around 70% of stars in the galaxy. She added that this is the reason why a lot of planet-hunters are focused on finding planets around M-dwarfs.

Until the lights in the auditorium grew dim, Dr. Fischer proceeded to answer all other questions with enthusiasm. And she did not fail to mention her ongoing effort to find planets around the Alpha Centauri system. She is positive that even though the Centauri binary system is separated by around 25AU, it doesn't rule out the possibility that planets can still exist in a tight orbit around each star (she also mentioned that Proxima Centauri is actually on its way to leave the centauri system, on a weird trajectory away from the galaxy's disc). Even though it's been difficult with lack of funding, she still periodically makes trips back to the telescope in Chile--hopeful and persistent to find planets around Alpha Centauri.

March 29, 2012

Connected Worlds

For those of you who have been playing Mass Effect 3, you've seen how the 'Galactic Readiness' affects the outcome of the game. Playing the multiplayer mode increases your 'readiness' rating which helps you in the final run of your single-player campaign. The message is clear: There is a connection between multiplayer mode and the campaign storyline of Mass Effect 3.

Although some will dismiss this 'connection' as a mere ploy just to keep gamers playing, what I am about to reveal highlights the fact that this kind of simple 'connection' actually gives a hint of a very important innovation in gaming that is coming.

To highlight what I mean I'll need to point you to an awesome game called Dust 514.

Dust 514 is an upcoming shooter game whose settings are on the surface of different planets. It's already enticing that Eve fans and game developers have been discussing how the battle would occur on different types of planet. But what interests me even more is the fact that what happens on the surface of the planet--where all the action occurs--is connected with the persistent universe of Eve Online.

Eve Online is an MMO and Dust 514 is a shooter game. CCP ties them together in one persistent Virtual Universe. To illustrate the connection, just imagine this scenario: While you're in a battle on one planet, you request an airstrike from your pal who is the pilot of a warship hovering above the planet at that moment. You see, connection is a powerful thing.

I recognize this feature as a very important aspect in the evolution of gaming and I am quite excited about it. I'd like to see this innovation in all the other sci-fi games that I play. Kudos to the developers of Mass Effect, Eve Online, and Dust 514. You guys are truly exoplanetary!

February 17, 2012

Habitable Bubbles

Finding planets that orbit within the Habitable Zone (HZ) is hot in the list of Exoplaneteers. The growing list of habitable planets at the Planetary Habitability Lab's Habitable Exoplanets Catalog (HEC) and at The Habitable Zone Gallery is testament to the fervor at which scientists are focusing on finding that sweet spot.

All these are excellent! And now somehow i think that there should be an additional field of Thought to consider when trying to find life in other places.

How about the idea of Habitable Bubbles? It's very simple. Habitable Bubbles are tiny packets, or "bubbles" of environment where life can thrive. In contrast with the Habitable Zone, which is often represented as a disc around stars where liquid water can exist, Habitable Bubbles can simply be represented as tiny bubbles scattered throughout a planet--on the surface and underneath, and even above it, in the atmosphere.

The idea of habitable bubbles can complement the Habitable Zone, and their relationship can be explored in this way: a planet that orbits within the habitable zone may probably have more habitable bubbles than a planet that lies outside the Habitable Zone. Of course, that is not the rule, but it's something to think about, for starters.

In essence, Earth is a habitable bubble in and of itself. And it is a bubble relative to a 'hostile' environment that is outer space. It is pretty obvious, but this simple idea of a habitable bubble can be scaled to other astronomical objects and not just planets. If Europa is teeming with hydrothermal vents, then Europa has a lot of potential habitable bubbles within that icy crust. Now think of exomoons and how many more there are elsewhere.

The point is this: even planets that lie outside the Habitable Zone can have habitable bubbles. In these 'extreme' planets, where a large part of the planet is considered unfriendly to life, there may still exist small packets that may be conducive to life.

I think that viewing habitability in terms of 'bubbles' is a good addition to our methods in thinking about life. A planet that may seem hostile at first sight could in fact harbor habitable bubble regions that are hidden.

Perhaps thinking in this bubble paradigm can provide additional insights about habitability elsewhere in the universe. For example, Hydrothermal vents can generate a habitable bubble, the heat from black smokers create a sphere of environment that can support life amidst the frigid waters of the antartic.

The young earth itself was once an inhospitable planet. Yet somewhere, somehow, a tiny region of Habitable Bubble provided an opportunity for that spark of life. And the subsequent interaction of the bubble and life itself gradually expanded the sphere of habitability until the whole Earth itself became habitable.

In the search for life, perhaps we should not only search for planets within a habitable zone, but we should also  be on the lookout for planets with potential Habitable Bubbles!