Human achievements: Bon voyage Voyager, Mars farts, eating insects


Oldies but goodies

Take a moment off from grinding your teeth about chemical weapons and mass shootings and the psychopathy in Congress to contemplate the majesty of at least some of Homo sap‘s technical accomplishments. The Sistine ceiling (I speak here of form, not content.) The Internet, warts and trolls and all. Teotihuacan. Ever faster and cheaper DNA sequencing. Sewers and potable water. Bach fugues in the hands of Glenn Gould. And our several plucky robot spacecraft, sniffing hither and yon and reporting back to Sol III Central.

There was a burst of praise a couple weeks ago when Voyager 1, launched in 1977 to nose around the solar system, officially left it and headed out into the rest of the universe. More recently Wired has kept the flame alive–for example with Dave Mosher’s post on how spacecraft are fueled in the far reaches.

A pellet of plutonium-238, aglow. Credit: Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

A pellet of plutonium-238, aglow. Credit: Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

Forget solar power, useless at great distance from the sun. Voyager has nuclear batteries filled with plutonium-238, a handy byproduct in the making of weapons-grade plutonium-239. Swords into plowshares of a sort. The piece is also a capsule history of nuclear-powered spacecraft, which began in the 1950s.  But now that worldwide peace has broken out, incipient warriors are no longer making nuclear weapons (except, maybe, Iran). That means no plutonium-238 for powering spacecraft. What to do? Mosher explains that, too.

Meanwhile, for those of us who never managed to get an 8-track tape machine operating smoothly here on Earth (and for those tots who have no clue what an 8-track tape machine is), Adam Mann explains how antique hardware from the 1970s manages to keep going and going and going, even in interstellar space. Mann compares and contrasts the puny equipment Voyager uses to accomplish its communication miracles with today’s electronics. Think about that the next time you can’t get a cell signal.

And then, just for fun, see Benjamin Breen’s rambling, affectionate post at The Atlantic, which leads up to praise of Voyager 1 by recapping the premodern history of ideas about life, the universe, and everything.

The 16th century monk Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for suggesting the universe is infinite, and that therefore there are an infinite number of other worlds out there. Although what really pissed off the ecclesiastical authorities was Bruno’s declaration that this means God must be “glorified not in one, but in countless suns; not in a single earth, a single world, but in a thousand thousand, indeed in an infinity of worlds.”

Absence of evidence is still not, you know

While we’re up, let’s move on to another plucky spacecraft, or rather a plucky spacecraft passenger. I speak, of course, of the Mars rover Curiosity, which has found, once more, no traces of life. This time it was looking for methane, on Earth a component of natural gas, a potent greenhouse gas, and the stuff of farts. In nature, methane is produced by microbes and also by non-biological processes.

2003 Earth-based observations suggested plumes of methane on Mars (in red)

2003 Earth-based observations suggested plumes of methane on Mars (in red)

As Adrian Cho tells us at ScienceNow, scientists making Earth-based observations of Mars in 2003 reported seeing plumes of methane. This was regarded as possible evidence of possible microbial life. No plumes or much of any other methane appears now. Explaining how real methane could have disappeared so fast requires an unknown physics and chemistry. Or, I would venture, although nobody is saying this out loud, ahem, what is required is a reevaluation of the 2003 observations.

At The Mermaid’s Tale, Ken Weiss is pretty scathing. He shares a widely held assumption that this Search for Life stuff (not just on Mars but on Jupiter’s moon Europa and maybe Saturn’s moon Enceladus) is simply NASA’s sneaky way of drumming up support for its space ventures. The space agency appears to believe that solar system exploration cannot be sold successfully for its own sake. Only a quixotic quest for fellow creatures will do.

Could be NASA is right.

What I’ve always wondered is whether it’s reasonable to expect that alien life will operate on Earthlike biochemistry and will be similar to life-as-we-know-it. Maybe searching for liquid water, or methane, or nucleic acids, or other familiar components of Earth life is utterly beside the point. I have no idea how we would go about looking for life-as-we-don’t-know-it, but perhaps others do. Would we even recognize it as life?


Don’t bug me about what’s for dinner

HT to paleontologist John Hawks for calling attention to a new blog on a genuinely novel topic: entomogaphy entomophagy. Insects as human food. (Nonhuman eaters of bugs are insectivores, not entomogaphists entomophagists.)

By which I mean insects as real human food. We are not talking here about ostentatious brief consumption of chocolate-covered ants to freak out your girlfriend. And just to be clear about the etymology of entomogaphy entomophagy, Wikipedia says entomogaphy entomophagy is “sometimes defined broadly to include the practice of eating arthropods that are not insects, such as arachnids (tarantulas mainly) and myriapods (centipedes mainly)”

The blog is Entomophagy Anthropology, and the proprietor is Julie Lesnik. Her dissertation topic was termites in the diet of fossil hominins, and how she managed to have something nonhypothetical to say about that is an interesting question. Is this an example of cryptozoology? Or maybe there are traces of a termite diet in fossil bones?

Forgive the raillery. She’s quite serious, and her timing is brilliant. That’s because, you’ll recall, the UN has just released a report arguing for insect-eating as an environmentally friendly partial solution to world hunger, both human and livestock. Lesnik speculates that eating bacon raised on bugs may be an easier sell than eating bugs themselves. Her post on the UN report is thoughtful and provocative.

A central problem in overcoming prejudices and selling entomogaphy entomophagy is developing effective marketing plans. It appears Lesnik knows how to take advantage of a trend.  Her idea: “I expect that there is a ‘paleo diet’ fad to be had with insects.”

Credit: ThinkGeek

Credit: ThinkGeek

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2 Responses to Human achievements: Bon voyage Voyager, Mars farts, eating insects

  1. Enro says:

    It’s funny how you go at length about the definition of non-existant (because misspelt) entomogaphy 😉

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Yes, you’re right. I muffed the spelling two-thirds of the time. But I do know how to spell “nonexistent.”