“This is different from anything we’ve seen before”

When Nasa called a press conference “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” there was “snowballing speculation” about what they might have found, and calls to Nasa from the White House and Congress.  The Science journal’s embargo didn’t help – paper abstract here.

What they’ve found is a bacterium in California’s Mono Lake that, apparently, can use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA.  As the Nasa Astrobiology website notes

Up until now, it was believed that all life required phosphorus as a fundamental piece of the ‘backbone’ that holds DNA together. The discovery of an organism that thrives on otherwise poisonous arsenic broadens our thinking about the possibility of life on other planets, and begs a rewrite of biology textbooks by changing our understanding of how life is formed from its most basic elemental building blocks. Astrobiology Magazine has the story.

The Guardian quotes co-author of the study, cosmologist Paul Davies

Christened GFAJ-1, the microbe lends weight to the notion held by some astrobiologists that there might be “weird” forms of life on Earth, as yet undiscovered, that use elements other than the basic six in their metabolism. Among those who have speculated is Prof Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and an author on the latest research.

“This organism has dual capability – it can grow with either phosphorus or arsenic,” said Davies. “That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly ‘alien’ life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin. However, GFAJ-1 may be a pointer to even weirder organisms. The holy grail would be a microbe that contained no phosphorus at all.”

As the BBC’s Jason Palmer notes

Until now, the idea has been that life on Earth must be composed of at least the six elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus – no example had ever been found that violates this golden rule of biochemistry.

The bacteria were found as part of a hunt for life forms radically different from those we know.

“At the moment we have no idea if life is just a freak, bizarre accident which is confined to Earth or whether it is a natural part of a fundamentally biofriendly universe in which life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions,” explained Paul Davies, the Arizona State University and Nasa Astrobiology Institute researcher who co-authored the research.

“Although it is fashionable to support the latter view, we have zero evidence in favour of it,” he told BBC News.

“If that is the case then life should’ve started many times on Earth – so perhaps there’s a ‘shadow biosphere’ all around us and we’ve overlooked it because it doesn’t look terribly remarkable.”

Proof of that idea could come in the form of organisms on Earth that break the “golden rules” of biochemistry – in effect, finding life that evolved separately from our own lineage.

And a cautionary note from a detailed, and informative, report in the Washington Post

Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida has been involved in “shadow biosphere” research for several years, and will speak at the NASA unveiling of Wolfe-Simon’s work. He says that the Mono Lake results are intriguing – “I do not see any simple explanation for the reported results that is broadly consistent with other information well known to chemistry” – but he says they are not yet proven. And a primary reason why is that arsenic compounds break down quickly in water while phosphorus compounds do not.

His conclusion: “It remains to be established that this bacterium uses arsenate as a replacement for phosphate in its DNA or in any other biomolecule.”

Nonetheless, the paper and its results have created an excitement reminiscent of the 1995 announcement at NASA headquarters of the discovery of apparent signs of ancient life in a meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica. That finding was central to establishing the field of astrobiology, but was also broadly challenged and a scientific consensus evolved that the case for signs of life in the meteorite had not been proven.

The Mono Lake discovery highlights one of the central challenges of astrobiology – knowing what to look for in terms of extraterrestrial life. While it remains uncertain whether the lake’s microbes represent another line of life, they show that organisms can have a chemical architecture different from what is currently understood to be possible.

“One of the guiding principles in the search for life on other planets, and of our astrobiology program, is that we should ‘follow the elements,’ ” said Ariel Anbar, an ASU professor and biogeochemist. “Felisa’s study teaches us that we ought to think harder about which elements to follow.”

And that report has a great quote from lead researcher Dr Felisa Wolf-Simon

“Sometimes I’m asked why something like this has never been found before, and the answer is that nobody has run the experiment before,” Wolfe-Simon said. “There was nothing really complicated about it – I asked a simple question that was testable and got an answer.”

Adds  Nasa Science podcast (with script)

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  • joeCanuck

    Just underlines how much we don’t yet know. Science is thriving.

  • Dev

    Bit of an anti-climax, I was hoping they’d found a colony of clangers on Titan

  • joeCanuck

    Dev,

    Don’t rule anything out. A colony of clangers would be wonderful but a bit of a stretch!

  • Greenflag

    Dewi ,

    ‘I was hoping they’d found a colony of clangers on Titan’

    If you’re looking for clangers no need to go to Titan . Just take a stroll past Stephens Green and the Shelbourne Hotel and take a left turn when you pass the infamous O’Donoughues pub of folk music fame . About half a mile down on your left hand side you’ll see the entrance to our House of Clangers a.k.a Leinster House 🙁

    arsCHenate -so much more evocative than phosphate . If arsCHenate based creatures can procreate and replicate I wonder what they’d look like? . They’d never survive in Ireland with the rain – maybe Qatar or Death Valley could be a good place to start a search for arschenate

    Bit of a downer Pete -there i was titillated by the headline of possible ET life and you serve up arschenate 🙁 no brownie points this time 😉

    My apologies for writing the a word elemental base in the German as slugger appears to disapprove of the english as being too close to a rude word 😉

  • Pete Baker
  • Jean Meslier

    “..Just underlines how much we don’t yet know. Science is thriving…”

    Yes Joe. Science is thriving indeed.
    I couldn’t help smiling at the quote from cosmologist Paul Davies when referring to the microbe GFAJ-1 as being “christened”!!!!
    Surely a paradox if ever I saw one.
    I can already see “Dr.” Grady McMurtry banging out his press release quoting Paul Davies’ reference.
    “He said christened, so God must have done it”

  • Pete Baker

    Jean

    That’s not actually part of the quote from Paul Davies.

    You need to follow the links…

  • Jean Meslier

    Apologies Peteb and indeed Paul Davies.
    I will rephrase.

    I couldn’t help smiling at the quote referring to the microbe GFAJ-1 as being “christened”!!!!

    My point being the irony of how religious conotations ridiculously show up where they do.
    No slight on anyone/thing relating to the article except the choice of the word “christened” in a science article.

  • Joe Bryce

    It’s time for us to let go.

    I’ll go first.

    I no longer care whether I live under a regime that flies a cloth with red white and blue but tolerates the flying of a cloth that’s green white and orange, or under a regime that flies a cloth of green white and orange but tolerates a cloth of red white and blue.

    It no longer matters. We are facing inordinately larger questions. The dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone muct at last submerge their quarrel.

  • pippakin

    Jean Meslier

    The possibility of a new ‘life’ and you are surprised at religion getting a word in? Get in early, get em young and put the fear of ‘God’ into the poor creatures, that’s the way religion has always done it.

  • Greenflag

    Dylan Moran explains it from 9.00 minutes in to the end 🙂

  • slappymcgroundout

    According to St. Joe, science is thriving. He must have missed:

    “At the moment we have no idea if life is just a freak, bizarre accident which is confined to Earth or whether it is a natural part of a fundamentally biofriendly universe in which life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions”

    “Although it is fashionable to support the latter view, we have zero evidence in favour of it,”

    So, that’s the state of the science, zero evidence for it, but fashionable nonetheless.

    Next, here is the periodic table:

    http://www.webelements.com/

    See no 15, phosphorus, and no. 33, arsenic. Now go learn what the columns in the table mean. Arsenic is a cousin to phosphorus and that’s one reason why it is so toxic to us, i.e., it fools the body into thinking that it’s phosphorus and so gains access to one’s metabolic system. Owing to the two being cousins, you can use arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus in many a reaction. But it’s a not satisfactory substitute since, as noted, arsenate compounds tend to breakdown in water, and so arsenic based compounds are inherently less stable than phosphorus based compounds, which isn’t a good thing for life. These bacteria seemed to have created a space, a vacuole, that that allowed them to (1) isolate the arsenic from the rest of the cell and (2) isolate the arsenic from water. And as it turns out, as noted, there was phosphorus in the cell, and so one simply cannot say that life can exist without phosphorus (i.e., as good as the arsenic might be for the bacteria, they may still need the detected phosphorus to survive).

    Lastly, remain calm:

    The discovery is amazing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it. For example, this breathlessly hyperbolic piece, published last year, suggests that finding such bacteria would be “one of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time”. It would imply that “Mono Lake was home to a form of life biologically distinct from all other known life on Earth” and “strongly suggest that life got started on our planet not once, but at least twice”.

    The results do nothing of the sort. For a start, the bacteria – a strain known as GFAJ-1 – don’t depend on arsenic. They still contain detectable levels of phosphorus in their molecules and they actually grow better on phosphorus if given the chance…

    Nor do the bacteria belong to a second branch of life on Earth – the so-called “shadow biosphere” that Wolfe-Simon talked about a year ago. When she studied the genes of these arsenic-lovers, she found that they belong to a group called the Oceanospirillales. They are no stranger to difficult diets. Bacteria from the same order are munching away at the oil that was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. The arsenic-based bacteria aren’t a parallel branch of life; they’re very much part of the same tree that the rest of us belong to.

    Next, there are other species that have genes that turn on so as to resist arsenic poisoning.

    Lastly, this was all about funding. Let the speculation reach fever pitch and hype this as some astrobiological finding when it isn’t. Oh, and by the way, back to our man’s “zero evidence”, such means that astrobiology isn’t a science at all, i.e., there is no extra-terrestial or astro biology to study, as there is zero proof that life exists anywhere else. The fitting reply to the one “astrobiologist” was provided by a comment to the relevant piece on the Discover website:

    @ Torbjörn Larsson, OM:
    > And you are simply wrong, astrobiologists have found life among the stars – we are it.
    True indeed, but should we call the study of such life… astrobiology? You could do with, you know, *biology*. Otherwise we should say also astrogeology, astrogeography, etc. etc….
    > This work shows how alive that first leg of astrobiology is
    You call it “first leg of astrobiology”, i call it simply biochemistry
    > Also, as a second leg we have started to look at planetary bodies with similar imbalances as our biosphere has made, Mars (methane) and Titan (hydrogen, acetylene, carbon isotope ratio) are among them […]
    Ok, but as of now we are only studying the ABIOTIC factors. If I set a study in the Amazon rainforest and measure only, say, atmospheric variables – temperature, moisture, whatever – but not anything directly related to living things, I’m not doing biology, astro- or not astro-
    Thus I don’t see how I was wrong, sorry…

    One more, to bring Pete and St. Joe back down to earth, and recall from the periodic table that As is arsenic while P is phosphorus:

    30. Steve Kass Says:
    December 3rd, 2010 at 12:42 am
    If I’m reading the paper right, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical.

    1) Funny numbers.

    From Table S1 of the supplementary materials, a) The authors found comparable As concentrations in *both* the +As/-P and -As/+P phenol extracts (~3,600 ppb for P-fed, 4,700 ppb for As-fed). b) The concentration of As in the As-fed DNA/RNA extract was <20 ppb (below the threshold of measurement? but the threshold is given as 1 ppb in the discussion and elsewhere in the table) vs. 118 ppb in the P-fed. Neither number suggests meaningful As uptake into anything. (The data do indicate that P was severely depleted in the As-fed sample – by as much as 99%, but I don’t see any data to indicate where more than a very tiny fraction of that might have been replaced by As.)

    2) A striking omission.

    Most telling to me: As was found in the P-fed bacteria (at ppb levels on the same order of magnitude as in the As-fed bacteria), and the bacteria are from an As-rich environment, so isn’t it plausible that *both* As-fed and P-fed bacteria contained a smattering of As in some of their biomolecules? Certainly there’s no reason for the researchers to ignore that possibility right? So why did they run the critical synchrotron X-ray analysis *only* on the As-fed sample? For that sample, the data were consistent with the hypothesis that As was in the DNA.

    Isn’t it a basic scientific principle to *compare* (and they did compare P-fed vs. As-fed in other analyses)? Maybe because if they had (I can’t help wonder that they might have in fact done [so] and suppressed the analysis) found As in the DNA of the P-fed sample, well, poof goes the press conference – it’s barely newsworthy. This is only exciting if As is *not* in the DNA of the P-fed sample – that is, if the As-fed sample in fact *incorporated* As into its DNA (and is using As-substituted biochemistry, which remains to be studied).

    Am I missing something, or is there little evidence of As-based biochemistry, and next to none to indicate that the As-feeding aspect of the experiment showed anything except that depriving these bacteria of phosphorus causes them to lose phosphorus and become very bloated?

    Truly lastly, noticeable bloating is indeed one of the observed effect of arsenic poisoning.

    You can read the piece I borrowed from and the comments I quoted here, and note the comments going to hype to get funding during the midst of a recession (and kudos to you Naoko, from Japan):

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/12/02/mono-lake-bacteria-build-their-dna-using-arsenic-and-no-this-isnt-about-aliens/

  • Rory Carr

    Very interesting. Perhaps I might be able to use this article on the life-sustaining properies of arsenic as a defence if they ever dig up the three ex-wives.

  • Mick Fealty

    Slappy,

    Got any evidence for this wee stunner? “the state of the science, zero evidence for it, but fashionable nonetheless.”

  • Jean Meslier

    “..if they ever dig up the three ex-wives…”

    Rory,
    are you an adherent, practitioner, follower, or constituent of the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints?

  • Pete Baker

    slappy

    You must have missed the “cautionary note” I quoted from the Washington Post report.

    As for “that’s the state of the science, zero evidence for it, but fashionable nonetheless”.

    It’s called a hypothesis.

    And when we look for signs of life on other planets we are testing that hypothesis.

    Science, dontchaknow.

  • joeCanuck

    And I didn’t even mention any branch of Science. Am I supposed to accept that it’s all dead? Who’s that fecker sitting typing at my keyboard?

  • Rory Carr

    No, Jean Meslier, but I was going to be a Mormon once until I found out that Jean Paul Gaultier didn’t do body-stocking designs. Appearances are all.

    “The way I like to put it is they [the GFAJ-1 bacteria] smoke it [arsenic] but they don’t inhale it,” said Paul Davies, a co-author of the paper and British-born cosmologist at Arizona State University.”

    Confirming a genetic link to Bill Clinton no doubt.

  • Jean Meslier

    I remember many years ago dating a girl who told me she was converting to Mormonism because she loved Donny Osmond!!
    It shows you how good my chatup patter was !

    Anyway I met her about 5 years later in Belfast.
    She was sporting a Huron haircut (mistakingly known as a Mohican).
    We spoke about work and her pasion for Punk music.
    I never mentioned Donny or Mormonism

  • slappymcgroundout

    “Got any evidence for this wee stunner? “the state of the science, zero evidence for it, but fashionable nonetheless.””

    Mick, read the one quote:

    “At the moment we have no idea if life is just a freak, bizarre accident which is confined to Earth or whether it is a natural part of a fundamentally biofriendly universe in which life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions,” explained Paul Davies, the Arizona State University and Nasa Astrobiology Institute researcher who co-authored the research.

    “Although it is fashionable to support the latter view, we have zero evidence in favour of it,” he told BBC News.

    So, that’s freak accident versus life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions, he doesn’t know, but it is fashionable to support the latter view, though we have zero evidence in favor of it. I posted the short version prior. Now you have the long version.

    Have you otherwise been following Pete’s science postings? More the comments than Pete’s posts. There’s been a whole lot of fashionable in the comments, and never mind the zero evidence. Consider the last discussion that we had on dark energy and dark matter. We do not “see” dark matter as dark matter is posited to not emit or absorb any electromagnetic radiation and so it is “dark”. Why do we have the notion of dark matter when there is zero evidence for it? Because their theoretical construct cannot work without it. That would have told scientists of old (a mere few decades ago), time to get a new theory, not posit the existence of something that would constitute more than 90% of all matter, and matter that is very unlike the matter that we do know exists, which matter that we do know exits emits and/or absorbs electromagnetic radiation.

    Next, try and research a study and subsequent paper on the death of frogs in a certain Central American locale. The study and subsequent paper was by Alan Pounds et al. Pounds et al blamed the death of our amphibian friends in Central America on global warming. Problem is, as noted by another team of scientists from Spain in a later study, Pounds et al did not bother to conduct autopsies on the dead frogs to determine cause of death. I’ll let you figure out how good science comes from determining cause of death without an autopsy. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t always need an autopsy, as jumbo jets flying into our skyscrapers may account for cause of death for some. But that doesn’t work with frogs in Central America. Our friends in Spain, studying their own amphibian decline, rightly took Pounds et al to task for failing to conduct autopsies. But that’s ever increasingly what we have. Fashionable belief with zero evidence (and some sloppy science as well).

    Lastly, the evidence goes the other way for life out there. Recall my prior posts on Fermi’s Paradox. Here it is one more time:

    http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec28.html

    Almost forgot, it wasn’t me but instead Nobel Prize (chemistry) winning Kary Mullis who wrote:

    Science as it is practiced today is largely not science at all.

    If you were a Penthouse subscriber back in ’98 then you would have read the line. But seeing as how you weren’t subscribing to Penthouse for the articles, you might want to read this instead:

    http://www.globalwebpost.com/farooqm/study_res/mullis/method.html

  • Pete Baker

    “though we have zero evidence in favor of it.”

    slappy

    You appear to be [deliberately?] misinterpreting what Paul Davies is saying. And you don’t seem to have seen my previous reply.

    So let me walk you through it.

    We start with the fact of life on Earth.

    From that fact we have two competing hypotheses.

    1. Earth is unique in the Universe.
    2. We’re not.

    All Paul Davies is saying is that most people, or even most scientists, tend to view the second hypothesis as more likely.

    But because we haven’t observed life elsewhere in the Universe we can not know that for certain.

    Both hypotheses can be supported by the original fact.

    Nothing devious or conspiratorial about it. Perhaps you think no-one should have a view on which hypothesis they think the more likely?

    In the meantime we continue to look for signs of life elsewhere – testing the hypothesis.

    That’s the science part, btw.

  • joeCanuck

    Just to add, Pete, in case slappy is still confused, life doesn’t need little green men, or clangers, just any type of pond scum will do..
    I’m personally worried about slappy’s intellectual abilities since he has started to confuse me with some Saint.

  • slappymcgroundout

    “Both hypotheses can be supported by the original fact.”

    Were there horses here in the Western Hemisphere before the Spanish brought them here? No. So, now that we know that there weren’t horses in the Western Hemisphere before the Spanish brought them here, we ought to know the folly of saying, because our horses are here, it is more likely that there are horses there as well. Life on earth speaks to life on earth. Just as horses in Spain spoke to horses in Spain, and not in the Western Hemisphere.

    Lastly, I was a trial lawyer for 15 years, so notion of hypothesis is nothing new to me. I tended then and still tend to believe in the hypothesis that has the more compelling evidence in support of the same. When there is no evidence for or against a particular hypothesis, then I believe nothing with respect to the same, it’s just a hypothesis, not more probable, and not less probable.

    Almost forgot, but I understand Davies completely. Take out your dictionary and look up the definition of “fashionable”. So his use of “fashionable” supports my view, i.e., things fashionable tend to be conformist, and for the sake of conformity. Or if you prefer, the perceived lead scientists, or high priests, moved in one direction, and the herd is now following. Now throw in some others waving some money as if it were food for the hungry breasts…

  • slappymcgroundout

    St. Joe of Canuck, you are the patron saint of the mindless platitudes. I came up with the mindless platitude part, as you will most certainly recall. Someone else came up with St. Joe. I am sticking with the St. Joe, since to borrow from Paul Davies, it’s the fashionable thing to do, and never mind zero evidence in support of your sainthood. Or as Pete would put it, there were and are saints, just ask the Pope. That’s the original fact, and like Pete, I will be using the same to claim that my hypothesis that you are a saint is more likely than the hypothesis that you aren’t. Don’t worry, though, unlike those claiming alien abduction, there won’t be any anal probing.

  • Pete Baker

    “Lastly, I was a trial lawyer for 15 years, so notion of hypothesis is nothing new to me”

    Could’ve fooled me. And this isn’t a courtroom.

    “Almost forgot, but I understand Davies completely.”

    No. You’re deliberately misinterpreting what he’s saying. As I’ve already pointed out.

    “Both hypotheses can be supported by the original fact.”

    To which I’ll add, but neither is proven by that fact.

    We continue to test the hypothesis by looking for signs of life elsewhere.

    That’s all it is. A [scientific] hypothesis.

    That’s where the science is at the moment.

    You are, of course, free to favour the alternative hypothesis – that the Earth is unique in the Universe.

    But there isn’t any stronger evidence for that either.

  • joeCanuck

    Slappy,

    I find it insulting to be called after a denizen of a religion, religious sect even, that I do not adhere to and of which I haven’t got a particularly high opinion. It’s sort of man playing. So please desist. Feel free to try anothe less insulting term, please, although I do not guarantee not to be insulted and becoming the most oppressed person ever.

  • joeCanuck

    Just in case anyone is interested, the horse originated in N.America millions of years before the Spaniards brought their breeds over.

    From Wiki; The original sequence of species believed to have evolved into the horse was based on fossils discovered in North America in the 1870s by paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. The sequence, from Hyracotherium (popularly called Eohippus) to the modern horse (Equus), was popularized by Thomas Huxley and became one of the most widely-known examples of a clear evolutionary progression. The horse’s evolutionary lineage became a common feature of biology textbooks, and the sequence of transitional fossils was assembled by the American Museum of Natural History into an exhibit which emphasized the gradual, “straight-line” evolution of the horse.

  • Rory Carr

    Will someone please remind old Slappy that Spain is in fact in the Western Hemisphere and that, contrary to his Americocentric belief system, there are other places out there. The trouble is that one may require possession of a passport to visit them and I believe that this is not something that most Americans possess.

  • Greenflag

    Spanish is spoken by more people in the Americas (North , Central & South ) as a first language than English approx 350 million to 330 million for English. French has about 7 million (Quebecois) and Portuguese almost 200 million . And given population projections it can be projected that by 2075 English may fall to third place in the spoken language headcount in the Americas but will probably still be the world’s number one lingua franca unless the authoritarian Chinese capitalists impose their language as well as their treasury bill investments on the US .

  • slappymcgroundout

    Pete:

    (1) Davies can posit whatever hypothesis he wants, as can you. The point is the absurdity in believing that a proposition, any proposition, is more likely than not when you have zero evidence in support. He said zero evidence. And that’s why he called it “fashionable”, as opposed to “reasoned”.

    (2) I don’t need to fool you. I did, however, need to explain to you why some call dark matter, dark matter. So you really don’t want to go there.

    Joe:

    The horse had died out in the Western Hemisphere. No humans living here before the Europeans came have a story involving a horse in their tribal history. See also:

    http://www.jstor.org/pss/2507859

    If you wish another example, we can use the one labelled “cruel irony”, aka the potato. Not indigenous to Europe but brought to Europe as part of what we call the Columbian Exchange. Perhaps if your ancestors hadn’t imported the potato there wouldn’t have been mass famine in the land. For purposes of this discussion, that’s the cruel irony.

    If you want yet more examples of things that were here and went over there: sunflower seed, pecan, cashew, peanut, sweet potato, pinto bean, lima bean, kidney bean, tapioca, tomato, bell pepper, chili peppers, maize, cranberry, strawberry, black rasberry, blueberry, avacado, guava, papaya, pineapple, passionfruit, pumpkin, chocolate, vanilla, maple syrup, alpaca, chinchilla, guinea pig, llama, American mink, Muscovy duck, and our Thanksgiving favorite, the turkey.

    Was about an even trade as far as foods and animals go. What wasn’t even, however, was disease, which was rather one-sided. Perhaps Pete might consider this as well, since his avatar spacesuit man will have to stay in the suit, lest he die:

    The Americans gave to Europeans:

    syphilis

    The Europeans gave to the Americans:

    bubonic plague
    chicken pox
    cholera
    common cold
    influenza
    leprosy
    malaria
    measles
    scarlet fever
    smallpox
    typhoid
    typhus
    yellow fever

    Would have helped if some hadn’t brought slaves as well, as yellow fever, to take the one, is indigenous to western Africa. You can add malaria. Oh, and Pete, re your spaceman there, in his spaceman suit, the other risk, of course, is that not only might he die, but as happened here with our humanity, spacepersons Billy and Mary might be found waging unpremeditated biological warfare on the newly “discovered” alien species. I put “discovered” in quotes, since just as here with us, they’ll take umbrage with our claim to having “discovered” them.

    Rory:

    Sorry, but I married one of the natives, in the one judge’s chambers, in Calauag, Quezon province, Luzon, Republika ng Pilipinas. I did my best to bear the white man’s burden.

    Lastly, the reason why most here don’t have a passport, well, take out your map and see how large the place is. You could fit a goodly portion of Europe into the US. We otherwise didn’t used to need a passport to visit Canada and Mexico (now need one for air travel but can use a PASS card or new high tech drivers license to travel by land). So we can go to Quebec and experience the arrogance of the French, and not to insult those of central and south America, but when you’ve seen the Mexican version of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the only thing you miss from not going further south is hearing Portuguese being spoken in Brazil.

    And so Joe doesn’t take offense, Canada is something like 6% larger than the US, though tundra doesn’t really have all that much appeal (after Russia, Canada is the next largest country in the world). For comparison purposes, the US, the 50 states and DC, is 9,629,091 sq. km. France, the Euro leader, is 632,759. Then Spain at 505,992. Then Sweden at 450,295. Then Germany at 357,114. So with those 4, that’s right around 2,000,000 sq km, so equivalent to seeing just under 1/4th of the US.

    Now to continue, we can also go to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands without a passport, so too American Samoa and Guam. And before the era of al Qaeda, we also used to be able to go just about anywhere in the Caribbean, and even to Panama, without a passport (only some proof of US citizenship or residence, such as birth certificate or drivers license, and a return ticket home was req’d).

    To sum, America is rather multicultural along its west and east coasts, with places like Los Angeles, which has more Koreans living there than any city outside of Korea, and then up to San Fran, where the Chinese make up 20% of the population of San Francisco proper. I’ll let you figure out how many we have here from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, etc. Then, as I said, your nations in your Europe are dwarfed by the size of the US. Look at the land area of France again and compare that with the land area of the US, 50 states and DC, and never mind territories and possessions. You see every square kilometer of France and you still haven’t seen even 1/10th of the land area of the US. So we could spend a lifetime, as many do, simply seeing our own country. That may be hard for the UK and ROI folks to grasp, given that you all live on small rocks in the North Atlantic, but there it is.

    And it’s not merely the size, but the differing experience. You can visit Alaska. You can visit Hawaii. And if you want to pull the usual Euro trip of beach vacation, we have that in our own country, not only along our own west, south, and east coasts, but Hawaii, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. So who needs Ibiza. F Ibiza. Give me Hawaii, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In other words, who needs an island of another country with a Med scrub climate when I can have my own country with a tropical climate. And, lastly, did I mention the single Japanese females who come to the land of aloha to partake of a forbidden fruit that would be all too taboo back home in Japan? Have fun in Ibiza.

  • Pete Baker

    “Davies can posit whatever hypothesis he wants, as can you. The point is the absurdity in believing that a proposition, any proposition, is more likely than not when you have zero evidence in support. He said zero evidence. And that’s why he called it “fashionable”, as opposed to “reasoned”.”

    slappy

    You continue to ignore the point I have made twice in this conversation [I use the word loosely].

    There are two competing hypotheses.

    1. The Earth is unique in the Universe.
    2. It is not.

    Them’s the only choices.

    Both hypotheses can be supported by the fact of life on Earth, but neither is proven by that fact.

    Now, while many favour the second hypothesis as the more likely of the two, we continue to look for signs of life elsewhere – testing the hypothesis.

    That’s where the science actually is at.

    Of course, when the first hypothesis was fashionable we didn’t bother looking…

  • joeCanuck

    Slappy,

    You are a thorough researcher. One small possible correction.
    It seems that syphylis may not have originated (solely) in the Americas. There was a report a few months back that some 11th (?) century bones exhumed from an old graveyard in Europe had unmistakeable 3rd stage syphylitic lesions.

  • Greenflag

    Slappy ,

    Very thorough research there -I refer you for back up if needed to ‘Charles Mann’s 1491 -New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus’ -Not what you’ll read in your elementary school book I’d guess .

    Whatever about the past it’s today we should be focused on and the future .

    Today (including the recent past ) the USA has given the world toxic assets in the form of waste paper CDO’s from the sub prime debacle, several wars and the threat of more just to ensure the demise of the dollar and as if that were not enough the USA is trying to export ‘democracy ‘ abroad when less than half it’s own electorate bother to vote and corporate lobbyists decide government policy ?

    As for the humble potato . If it had’nt been for the same it’s likely that Europe would not have exported such vast numbers to the Americas for they would not have existed and Frederick the Great of Prussia would not have won his wars against the French , Austrians and Russians and the modern German State (since 1870) would probably not have come into existence ?

    And now I read we are exporting the humble spud to Russia where it’s been ‘transformed ‘into cheap Russian vodka so as to further reduce the life expectancy of Russian men from already the lowest in Europe to near Central African norms 🙁

    Amazing what a tuber can do eh ?

    As for the alien life hypothesis . Based on the known fact that life as we know it is made up of some of the most common elements in the universe it’s not an unreasonable hypothesis to suggest that extra terrestrial life forms will be found . I just wish they’d get a move on with the search .

    We know what effect the discoveries of previous generations of scientists scientists had as regards the Earth’s place in the cosmos . The discovery of similar based or even differently based life forms outside of the Earth would be a consciousness changing event for humanity as would a second coming 😉 But I expect to experience the former before the latter .

  • slappymcgroundout

    Joe: Thanks for the note re our old friend syphilis. Was aware of that as well, but the old view still seems to be held by most. To add to my last, there is also dengue fever. Not a problem on the continental US, but here in Hawaii, every few years, we have introduced cases of dengue as some returning from endemic dengue regions (such as New Guinea, big with the scuba crowd) bring the dengue back with them and it gets into our mosquitoes. Love the public service announcements reminding everyone to make sure that there’s no standing water about the place. We have a particularly nasty mosquito as well, the Asian tiger mosquito. The sons of unwed mothers leave a bite that turns into a blood blister (more or less). Not a problem in the city, but in the country, well, I don’t use the usual avoidance products, as they are probably somewhat toxic to humans. I instead use suntan oil. Sure, it isn’t all that comfortable at night to feel all oiled up, but it sure keeps the mosquitoes away (or if they’re stupid enough to land, they get overwhelmed by the suntan oil). I also used the suntan oil when I was in malaria endemic regions of the Philippines and managed to avoid contracting malaria. Before you or anyone else tries to use it for the same purpose, when I say, lathered up with suntan oil, I well and truly mean lathered up.

    Pete: We are talking past each other. My critique of the spending is not based on likelihood or not, but instead, as I’ve said before, we have millions living in absolute poverty and it’s time we started to spend on them. My critique here is limited simply to more likely than not when the statement is that you have zero evidence to support the proposition.

    Greenflag: You are probably right about the potato. As for Russian men, I imagine that their use of the potato for vodka is much like the Irish and poteen, i.e., use of that magical elixir that keeps the cold and the poverty out. Don’t know many who’ve been to Russia of late, and those who did only took photos of the main tourist type sites, and didn’t otherwise travel much outside the cities. However, I know people from the Ukraine, etc., and they have home videos. More than a few there live in what we here could only call ramshackle huts. Reminded me of the poorest parts of Appalachia here in the US. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me at all that my old friends in LA tell me that the Ukraine, etc., are the new heaven for the making of porn pictures and movies (apparently, the girls will work for much less)(it first came up in connection with a comment from a friend who works for the FBI who reported that there was substantial concern as to the age of the some of the gals; not little girls, but teens in the 15-17 year old range, or perhaps more correctly, underage by US standards but postpubescent). Lastly, while the banks and finance men played their role, so did govt and many in the general public. Many in the general public, well, what is the American Dream but to own your little pink house with the white picket fence? Throw in politicians who pander to voter desire and so say goodbye and/or who needs you to the needed regulation, especially when the market went subprime sometime around 2004. The humans that I feel rather sorry for are those who didn’t depart from the time-tested mortgage of 20% down and 25% or so after-tax income for monthly mortgage payment, didn’t go hog-wild with their credit cards, and still were crushed by collapse. They have every right to be rather angry.

  • Pete Baker

    “Pete: We are talking past each other. My critique of the spending is not based on likelihood or not, but instead, as I’ve said before, we have millions living in absolute poverty and it’s time we started to spend on them. My critique here is limited simply to more likely than not when the statement is that you have zero evidence to support the proposition.”

    slappy

    Your critique of the spending is irrelevant.

    Again,

    There are two competing hypotheses.

    1. The Earth is unique in the Universe.
    2. It is not.

    Them’s the only choices.

    Both hypotheses can be supported by the fact of life on Earth, but neither is proven by that fact.

    Now, while many favour the second hypothesis as the more likely of the two, we continue to look for signs of life elsewhere – testing the hypothesis.

    That’s where the science actually is at.

    Of course, when the first hypothesis was fashionable we didn’t bother looking…