Necronomicon Convention
Linton Herbert
Bay Hilton, St. Petersburg, Florida
Sunday , October 25, 2009
1 PM
More evidence is at

People hang out around water.  We may have at one point evolved in water.  Most mammals with little body hair are aquatic.  We have two airways and six ways to stop them compared with a porpoise which has one of each.  We have big flat feet, and Lucy had proportionately even bigger feet.  Anyone who has used swim flippers knows how helpful they are.  We have a diving reflex that lowers our metabolism under water.  Children have been pulled out from under ice after hours and recovered.  Babies can be taught how to bob and breathe.  Women have long hair, possibly for babies to hold onto in water. 

The first person who looked across water and saw land in the distance could have noticed that the bottom of the land was not visible, so the earth is curved.  It is round.  If that person later traveled to that land and noticed how far it was and how much of the land had been obscured, that person had some inkling of just how big the earth was.  A formal measurement, using the height of the sun at the summer solstice in two different locations, was made by Eratosthenes. (276 BC– 195 BC)


 When Copernicus, 1473 – 1543, (the portraits are all from Wikipedia) decided the earth was going around the sun, and the other planets were as well, there was a pressing question.  What were the stars?  Were they other suns with their own planets and life?  There were two responses.

One was by Giordano Bruno, 1548 – 1600, who was one of the last great sorcerers. 

Western Philosophy
Renaissance philosophy

His opinion was that of course the stars were suns with their own planets and their own intelligent life.  He got burned at the stake. (Best biography is said to be Giordano Bruno, Frances A. Yates, University of Chicago Press, 1964.)

The other approach was that of Tycho Ottensee Brahe, 1546 – 1602, who decided to put the matter to the test.  He did meticulous measurements of the positions of stars with a long iron rod.  (He didn’t have a telescope.)

He reasoned that if the stars were suns scattered in space that over the course of the year the nearer ones should shift back and forth against the more distant ones, a technique we now call astrometry.  “The Twinkle twinkle, little star,” rhyme used to continue, “How I wonder where you are.”  It was referring to astrometry.  The technique is considered valid today.  But Brahe found no shift, no parallax, with his method.  He calculated how far away the stars would have to be for there to be parallax he could not detect and came up with a distance so absurdly great that he dismissed it and announced that the stars were fixed in a crystalline sphere, just as many of the ancients had taught. 

Although he is now thought to be wrong, he did become the first scientist in that he used meticulous observation and drew his conclusions on the basis of evidence.  He was rich and famous for his work.  It beats getting burned at the stake.  There are those who say that he had a silver nose.  His own nose had been cut off in a duel over which of the two duelists was smarter. 

He also measured the positions of the planets, and one of his students, Johannes Kepler, 1571 – 1530. took Brahe’s

Johannes Kepler

measurements and calculated that the planets did not go around the sun in circles as Copernicus had suggested, but traveled in ellipses at a speed such that the area swept out by the planet between itself and the sun was constant over time.  Later Isaac Newton, 1643 – 1727,

Head and shoulders portrait of man in black with shoulder-length gray hair, a large sharp nose, and an abstracted gaze

calculated that the movement of the planets was not geometry but was due to a force he called gravity.  Newton, according to some, was the last and greatest of sorcerers, and he got to be really rich.  He spent a lot of time looking at ancient history, some of the material we have already looked at from Mesopotamia, and decided that the world would end around the middle of this century.  He dated it from the crowning of Charlemagne, 768 – 814,

Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans)

who he thought was the anti-Christ, or maybe the pope was the anti-Christ.  Actually he made more than one prediction, but this one coincides as close as you can call it with the fall of Western civilization calculated from the infertility data we have already looked at.  One of the prime driving forces of this, of course, is an effective market system based on an honest currency.  Newton became the director of the British mint and basically produced the first honest currency since Croesus, 595 -547 BC.

So in a way Newton created the very fate that he had predicted.  Of course he thought that the end of the reign of the anti-Chist was a Good Thing, so he would have brought it on if he could have.

Then Albert Einstein, 1879 – 1955,


Albert Einstein

decided that gravity was a myth and it was all geometry after all. 

But ever since Kepler, most people have believed that the earth was round, we were living on the outside of it, the earth traveled around the sun, and the stars were suns very far away.  So the question has hung over us ever since.  Is there life out there?

There are currently 5 approaches.  One is to look for UFO’s and maybe be abducted.  Maybe they’re here.  Has anybody here seen a flying saucer?  Second hand reports don’t count.  Have you seen one yourself you want to tell us about?  Maybe we will have time at the end.  A second is to listen for radio signals sent out by other civilizations.  A third is the astronomical approach.  Find the planets out there and look for certain characteristics.  The fourth is the go and look directly, which means go to Mars and look for methane and water.  There is water elsewhere.  It isn’t rare.  But Mars is the nearest best bet.  The fifth is to look for artifacts on Mars. 

1. Flying saucers. 

The most convenient way to check for extraterrestrial life is to look up and see if they are flying around overhead.  After all, any other civilized life is probably well ahead of us or well behind us, and if we get wind of a civilization elsewhere it would not be that many centuries before our robot scouts were buzzing them. 

And there have been reports, even pictures.

Here is one of the best.

1870-Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. This photo is dubbed, "the oldest UFO photograph ever taken." This item was the subject of bidding at Ebay in 2002, when finally the photo was purchased for $385.00 by Samuel M. Sherman, who was the president of Independent-International Pictures Corp. This was originally a "stereo" photograph. Certainly it was difficult to manipulate photos at that time, and remember, there were no flying objects then; at least, not from this world.

It is posted online at
It was taken in 1870 at Mr. Washington, New Hampshire, apparently the first photograph of a UFO.  It was taken for a sterioptican, which was an old device with a handle, a couple lenses, a focusing slide and a holder for a pair of stereo pictures.  That would be hard to fake even now.  Most 3D computer graphics are less than totally persuasive to the eye.  The camera they used was a landscape camera, not telephoto, so this must be a vignette.  Trick photography had not been invented.  Any darkroom manipulation before computer graphics would have resulted in a conspicuously high contrast image.  Any support mechanism would have betrayed itself to a landscape camera.  There seems no doubt that this is actually what the camera saw in the sky, and there were certainly no human built aircraft at the time.  The only technology we have that I can think of that could account for it was to throw a stick up in the air and get a picture of it.  Even that might have required a shutter speed unavailable at the time.  The picture sold for $385 on Ebay, which seems pretty cheap to me.  Computer analysis should show just how far away the object was. 

Popular explanations of UFO’s include sprites, Chinese lanterns, balloons, lenticular clouds, meteors, flying wing, aircraft, planets, sundogs, moondogs, blimps, searchlights and mirage. None of those would account for this thing.  But even if you think it looks like an old piece of two by four, consider this.  Projectional holograms are a theoretical possibility.  One possible cloaking device, particularly for a robot probe, would be to scan some local object and interpose its hologram between itself and a viewer. 

Here is another from the same web site.
It is very impressive, but you see what I mean about the high contrast.  That’s suspect, but then if you wanted to make a copy of a photograph before computer scanning, and did not have the negative, you could photograph it.  That would give you the same excessive contrast. 

Here is another.  The good grey scale speaks for its authenticity.  Decide for yourself whether the image of the UFO is sharper than that of the trees.  It shouldn’t be if it was at the same distance and not moving slower.  It was taken at Cave Junction in Oregon in 1927.  To a certain extent the newer the photograph the worse the technique, so maybe the little green men are getting better at hiding or we are getting worse at throwing things up in the air. 

In general, the experts say a photograph is not to be trusted any more than the person who brought it to you.  In this case it was taken by a volunteer fireman, so at least he had that much civic spirit. 


1927-Oregon. Taken in Cave Junction, Oregon. There is some question as to whether the photo was taken in '26 or '27, but nonetheless, if this is an authentic photograph it is incredible. Reportedly snapped by a volunteer fireman. Be sure to click to see full size image to really appreciate the picture.

Here is a close up.  Whatever you believe, this is an impressive photograph.  And given that, you have to consider the possibility of a highly skilled photographer.  If the camera was panning with a moving object, it might show the object sharp and everything else blurred.  What do you think?  Are the vertical lines more blurred than the horizontal ones?  Putting the object over a cloud would be an obvious darkroom technique, but the photographer might have chosen a moment with it was superimposed. 

This past April, there was an article in sort of like, “Aha, the truth at last.  It’s all bunk.”  It ran to the effect that The Los Angels Times Magazine that month reported 5 men who had worked at “area 51” in Nevada, the secret military research and testing site much beloved of UFO buffs.  It is near Roswell, New Mexico, where reportedly an aircraft went down, and pieces were recovered, possibly occupants as well, by the military, who promptly announced they had recovered an alien space craft but soon afterwards said no, it was a weather balloon.  (However dumb they think we are, they are probably right.)  The men who had been interviewed at area 51 had been working on something they called project A-12 Oxcart.  It was a spy plane capable of over 2,000 miles per hour with a disc shaped fuselage.  That kind of speed was not reached by the spy plane Blackbird until 1976, so I am rather skeptical that it accounts for sightings in the 1950’s.  The Roswell flying saucer story dates to 1947.  Still, there is a government web site you can search, for details on Oxcart. 

One of the popular early theories of UFO’s was that it was some kind of secret weapon, so saying it was true hardly debunks the UFO tradition.  And you know something?  I had thought “area 51” itself was a myth.  Guess not. 

There was Project Blue Book, which was a place where people were supposed to send any reports of sightings.  That program has now been closed, but it wasn’t for lack of plenty of reports. 

Another project that may have been the cause of reports was the Northrop Flying Wing.  It was technology that had been explored by the Germans.  The flying wing was dangerous because it was very unstable, but it was noticed that it had a low radar reflection, and that ultimately became the impetus for developing the stealth fighter and stealth bomber, although the practical details were at least in part worked out by a Russian.  The “stealth fighter” was in fact a small bomber.  It was called a fighter because it was so very maneuverable.  The same instability that dogged the flying wing could be exploited as maneuverability once computer controls made the craft safe enough to use.

One of the things that astonished early reporters of UFO’s was that they were incredibly fast and appeared to be able to turn at right angles.  Imagine this thing coming along side of your aircraft turned cockpit toward you so the pilot could get a look at you and then having it turn edge on.  You might be forgiven for thinking it has flown away at an impossible speed. 
On the subject of “you judge the person not his picture” here is something that came out this year:  It’s off the internet.
The story was that a helicopter pilot flying along the Baleh River in Borneo saw and took this picture of a 100 foot snake that corresponded to a local legend.  On the face of it, that does not sound likely.  For one thing, flying a helicopter until recently took using both hands and both feet all the time.  Autopilot equipment is now available, but probably not in Borneo.  So how could he have taken the picture?  For another thing, a helicopter pilot lives by ground reference.  Instruments aren’t much use because they have to be adjusted, which would mean letting go of critical controls.  An airplane pilot generally has one free hand available.  So if a helicopter pilot says it is 100 feet, it is not 50 and it is not 200, it is probably very close to 100 feet.  But if the snake is 100 feet long, how big are those trees?  1 foot high? 
The original picture was found by using a program called TinEye to search the web for a match.  The river is supposed to be the Congo.  Apparently the picture was made for a hoax contest.  I hope they won. 

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence goes on.  So far there is nothing.  Oh well.  Not much else to say.  They use radio-telescopes to listen to stars.  They have to assume that somebody out there is investing enormous resources to send us a signal.  This is not being paid for by your tax dollars. 
Donors include Gordon More of Intel and Paul Allen of Microsoft. 

Gordon Moore






Paul Allen. 
There are nay-sayers who point out that any planet we could talk with is probably 100 light years away, so why bother?  But the project has been going on for 50 years already, so it is not a stretch to think people might be taking an interest 200 years from now.  That’s if we survive, of course.
One thing to bear in mind is that since results are, and probably will continue to be, negative, there is no limit to the resources that could be thrown at it.  The static that is being listened to is searched by computer, so that means there is no limit to the computing power that could be thrown at it.  A program that made a reasonable model of a real community with real human sized genomes and followed it across generations would require plenty of power, but it seems I am the only one who has done something like that even on a tiny scale.
There was once a code cracking program.  They threw rules of grammar and a dictionary into a computer and told it to write a random sentence.  Then the sentence was encrypted and the code broken with a program that ran for years on a network of computers.    (Here are some of the radio-telescopes in action. Seti at 50. Nature vol 461 no. 7262 September 17, 2009 p.316.)
The message was: The magic words are squeamish ossifrage.  (A kind of South American eagle that breaks the bones of its prey.)  I suspect it was a 6 word dictionary.  That was the longest single computation of it’s time If SETI has not surpassed it yet, I suspect it will.  If you want to get in on the fun, look up
It is now possible to make lasers that for a fabulously brief instant can outshine the sun and be calumniated with great precision, so one could shine a light on a target solar system and with appropriate instruments they could see it easily.  So people are looking for laser flashes as well. 
A couple of gestures were made toward sending a message outward.  A radio signal was sent.  There are those who think it was a bad idea, since we might not want a more advanced civilization to know where they might find a nice planet and some slaves.  But not to worry.  The message was beamed toward a group of stars called a globular where, as we will mention later, there are unlikely to be planets.  However, it did get an answer, in the form of a crop circle.  Although the outward bound message is quite incomprehensible to me even after it has been explained and I can recognize some of the symbols, somebody understood it because the crop circle translates into the same code.  It is laid out in a pamphlet “The Face and the Message,” John Michell, Gothic Images Publications, PO Box 2568 Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 8XR UK 2002, but apparently it is out of print and I was unable to get copies for you.  The outbound message of course has not reached the globular cluster yet.
Another thoroughly baffling message was sent out on a plaque on a space probe that was going beyond the solar system.  Do not expect a reply to that one. 
3. The astronomical approach.  A reference for this is The Search for Life Continued, Planets Around Other Stars, Barrie W. Jones, Praxis Publishing, Chichester UK 2008.
If looking up for flying saucers seems less than completely satisfying, one could look for planets they might come from and where some century we might go.  There are a lot of planets out there.  More are being found all the time.  At least 330 have been identified at present.  One calculation by Duncan Forgan of the University of Edinburgh (ATLANTIS RISING #75, May/June 2009 page 11) suggests there are 37,964 inhabitable worlds in our galaxy.  (I don’t know whether that includes this one.)  But that calculation apparently only takes into account water (which is common as dirt), minerals (which are going to be there if the temperature is right) and temperature.
Of course what you’d really like is to have just the right amount of volcanic activity.  Too much really messes things up.  Too little and material that gets covered up doesn’t come up to get recycled.  So maybe we ought to have 4,000 not 40,000 planets.
Then of course you want to have both land and water.  That’s where life is most abundant, where the two come together.  That’s where people live, too.  I think I hear that most of the US population lives in counties adjacent to seacoast or great rivers.  And to have oceans, you have to have oceanic tectonic plates.  I used to think that the earth’s surface was sort of round with a superimposed random irregularity, and that the oceans just filled the low bits.  It turns out that the geology under the oceans is different from the geology under the continents.  It’s heavier and sinks into the magma, so that there are great abysmal planes under the sea of about the same depth, just as there are great planes on the land.  So that means you should probably drop that 4,000 to 400. 
And you’d want it gently stirred by tides, so things don’t stagnate and material can shift around, particularly near the shores where the life is.  So you need a moon, almost a twin planet.  That can’t be common.  Maybe you shouldn’t expect more than 10. 
And you want to have just the right amount of water.  If the sea level were 1,000 feet lower, it would be below the level of the continental shelves and those brave little amphibians we all know about would have had to scale thousand foot cliffs before they could catch a breath.  A thousand feet higher and there wouldn’t be enough land sticking up to be of much interest.  So we should probably drop that 10 to 1.
And then you don’t want to be where the bulk of the universe is, near the core of the galaxy, or magnetars and supernovae would fry your planet on a regular basis.  And you want just the right amount of tilt on your axis to get seasons that are gentle enough to survive but vigorous enough to stimulate diversification.  But wait.  We know we have 1 planet so there must be something wrong with my reasoning.
Basically it all probably hangs on something called the “ice line.”  Planets probably form from accretion discs, sort of like the rings of Saturn.  Somehow the stuff globs up and gives you planets.  If the globs are too far from the sun, ice can form.  
If a little boy throws something, he traditionally has a choice of missiles.  Rocks are dangerous as Goliath learned.  Dirt clods are good, but have to be handled carefully or they crumble.  And it is hard to pack your own dirt clod.  But if you life up north, you can make snowballs.  They are easy to pack.  You don’t read about it much, but if a boy can pack a snowball, maybe collisions between icy things in the solar system pack easily. 
Water is not rare, so these planets outside the ice line get really big, big enough to draw in huge amounts of light gasses like helium.  They are the gas giants of our solar system.  If they have a surface at all, it is so deep that sunlight is effectively excluded.  You might get microbes somehow, but not what we are looking for.  And if a glob is to close to the sun, there is the problem with the heat being too great for organic molecules to be stable.  So there is a habitable zone, which for our sun extends from just about Venus to just past Mars.  We came really close to having three pretty good planets right at hand. 
There is a band of icy material away out where Pluto sits and beyond.  It’s called the Kuiper.  It’s like the asteroid belt except that it’s ice not rock. 
For a while it seemed that Kuiper belts were common but asteroid belts were rare.  That did not bode well for there being many habitable planets. 

However, this picture was taken.  The star has been blacked out.  This shows a warm accretion disc, analogous to our asteroid belt.  It now appears that these may be quite common, making the number of candidates for extra-solar life out there quite high.  (Proc. R. Soc. B 276, 2971 2009 as reviewed in SCIENCE vol. 325, August 14, 2009 page 794)
The search for extra-solar planets now includes looking for the telltale wobble in a star that would be caused by a planet circling around it, good old astrometry.  It seems pretty obvious, but so far only one planet that was already known has been seen this way.  A second candidate awaits verification.
Another technique is called “microlensing.”  Light is bent as it passes a massive object such as a galaxy.  This results in magnification.  Sometimes a small field of sky will hold multiple images of a galaxy caused by the light bending of an intervening galaxy.  That is called lensing.  When a single star does the same to a more distant star, the more distant star is projected forward as an Einstein ring circling the nearer star.  And the brightness of the ring, as I would not have guessed, is independent of the mass of the lensing star.  So when one star passes behind the other there is a brief flash as the Einstein ring forms and fades.  It is the duration of the flash that is proportional to the mass of the nearer star.  In fact, under the right circumstances a planet around that star will give a flash about as bright but much briefer.  It looks kind of like the graph below.  The graph is taken from The Search for Life Continued, mentioned above.  It is on page 131.  In fact a good portion of this part of the session might best be called a review of the book.  So if you want to have the hard science presented in a professional way, look it up.  But hurry.  The field is changing so fast that just about everything I am saying and a lot of what he is saying is probably wrong.  In this diagram, the horizontal line is time and the vertical line is the brightness of the


Microlensing makes it possible to do surveys for planets at enormous distances.  They appear to have discovered that “globular clusters” of stars, which are very old stars, have few if any planets.  The thought now is that the stars are so very old that the matter in them has not been cycled through supernovae, which is how most matter heavier than hydrogen or helium is formed.  Elsewhere, it appears that there are fewer planets way out there than are seen by other means closer to home.  Maybe we live in a planet rich zone.
Another way to tell that a planet is present is to watch the star carefully.  If a planet passes in front of it, the star will dim very slightly but quite predictable.
Most of the extra-solar planets have been found by Doppler shift.  You know how when you watch a stock car race that sound of the cars drops to a lower key as they go past.  That’s because the sound waves are stretched out as the cars move away.  Similarly the color of a star changes to redder if it is moving away or bluer if it is coming toward you.  They don’t just measure the average color of the star.  They break the light up into different wavelengths, and look at them.  Different atoms and ions in the star will absorb light at specific wavelengths and then radiate the energy away at lower frequencies.  The result is a set of absorption bands in the spectrum.  What they measure is the position of the absorption bands.  If these shift back and forth regularly there should be a planet out there.
What they found initially was a great number of giant planets very close to their respective stars.  That was no surprise, since a big fast shift would be the easiest to see.  But then they found so many of them that it became a puzzle.  Big planets are expected to form far from a star, out where water freezes.  There just isn’t enough rocky matter in a typical accretion disc around a star to make a big planet.  But if it’s cold, ice can add to the gravity of the planet and hydrogen and helium settle in easily.  So what were all these giants doing inside the ice line?
Well, they had to move there from where they formed.  So people did some computations and found that a giant planet forming in a accretion disc (that’s a lot of stuff in a circular arrangement around a star, just like the rings of Saturn) would introduce inhomogeneity in the disc itself.  As the planet interacted with the inhomogeneous matter, energy was lost and the planet would move inward.  Then they had to scramble to explain why ALL giants didn’t move in close to their stars. 
It would be a bad thing if they did.  If Jupiter dropped past on its way to somewhere between Mercury and Venus, it would probably throw us somewhere other than the habitable zone.  Then they had to figure out why the ones that did move seemed to stop.  As I said, this is a new and rapidly changing field. 
In fact, one of the safest places may be on a moon of a giant planet that has worked its way into the habitable zone.
I was quite surprised to learn that the sun has an accretion disc.  You can see it.  (I have not yet seen it myself.)  On a clear night before dawn or after sunset and away from other lights, it is a faint white line in the plane of the planets.
Work continues.  There are even plans to make telescopes so big they will be able to see lots of extra-solar planets.  Astrometry will tell you a lot about a planet like its mass and a lot about its orbit.  But in order to be able to estimate temperature, composition and surface gravity, you need more than one technique on one planet.
After all this, if “after” is a good word in a field that is just beginning to stretch it legs, so far the smallest planet they have found is 5 times the mass of the earth and probably has a surface gravity of less than twice that of the earth.   It is around Bernard’s star, at about 20.5 light years away.  Bernard’s star is a brown dwarf, which means it is probably very old indeed.  The planet is within the habitable zone.  In short, it is to my thinking a very good choice for a habitable planet.  And at that distance, if that planet had been beaming signals to us that arrived 50 years ago, we might have picked them up, sent a message to them and got our first reply.
Well, that hasn’t quite happened yet.  But they keep trying.  The French had a satellite Corot, which was long the best for looking at transits – the passage of planets in front of stars, and the Kepler satellite launched recently for $600,000,000 will do a lot more of the same.  (This just in.  The Corot has found a rocky planet just about exactly the size of the earth.  Unfortunately it is too close to its star.  Last planet count was 340.  The Lonely Planet Guide, ECONOMIST, vol. 390, no. 8619, February 21, 2009 page 81.)
In further work, they have tried looking at the edge of the shadow of the earth during a partial lunar eclipse to see what kind of absorption pattern our own atmosphere has.  Then they will be ready to look at subtle effects of absorption of the atmospheres of planets in transit in front of their stars and see if they are earth like. 
Interesting things turn up.  There is the “three body problem.”  Newton’s laws of motion work just fine to describe how two bodies interact.  However when there are three bodies, there is no algebraic solution, at least there wasn’t one until recently if even now.  So it was assumed that any binary star could not have planets.  If our scientists couldn’t figure out where it was supposed to go, how could some dumb rock?  But they’ve found plants in binary star systems.  And super-nova remnants.  They shouldn’t have planets.  The explosions should have swallowed them or driven them away.  But there they are. 
4. Life on Mars.
When I was a child, there was already speculation about life on Mars.  Personally I was skeptical.  In those days nights were dark, air was clean, and you could see the night sky.  Mars was red.  It was the color of red subsoil.  As far as I was concerned that ended the matter.  It was a planet of dusty red dirt.  There were no lakes, no forests and there was no black soil.  There was no life.  It seemed odd that anyone should ever think otherwise.  On the other hand Venus was white.  It was the color of cumulonimbus clouds.  That meant rain cool rain.  That meant water.  That meant life.  Besides, I read that it was about the size of the Earth.
Not for the last time, I was completely off base.  Venus is hot and dry.  The clouds are sulfuric acid.  Life seems very unlikely there.  Mars, however, continues to intrigue people. 
Mars has water.  The story is not always a happy one.  An amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell

Percival Lowell 1855-1916

took an interest in observations by Giovanni Schiaperelli of Milan of what appeared to be channels or canals on the surface of Mars.  Lowell decided that Mars was dry.  Maybe he had seen dirt before, too.  He suggested that canals had been built by a dying civilization to capture ice from Mars’s ice caps.

Giovanni Schiaparelli 1835 - 1910

Although Lowell did a number of interesting things – he built an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, the first ever located deliberately where the seeing would be good, and initiated the search that ultimately resulted in the discovery of Pluto – his belief in intelligent life on Mars, and I rather suspect his amateur status, drew a lot of criticism.  Professional scientists, I fear, have a difficult time with other people who do the same work for free. 
Somebody didn’t like Lowell.  Anyway, they have dug on Mars and come up with plain old ordinary ice.  Pluto, which his program found, has been stripped of its honor as a planet.  I once saw images of Pluto and some of the other objects that are now also called dwarf planets.  Only Pluto looked round to my eye.  And the channels have been declared an optical illusion.

Picture from The Planetary Police, NATURE, vol.459 no. 7245 May 21, 2009 page 309.  Sorry I had to turn it sideways to get it on the screen.  This shows much of the surface of Mars.   Areas above and below the white lines (outside the white lines as shown here) are near enough to the poles so that water is suspected within 5 meters of the surface, and extra precautions are taken to avoid contaminating them with probes from earth.  As time goes on, the less protected area is expected to shrink.  For our purposes, the question is whether that linear structure in the lower center is big enough to see from the earth.  This is a false color image, which makes it more conspicuous.  To my eye, if the image of Mars as seen from your telescope is anything but tiny, that will be visible.  In that case, Schiaperelli and Lowell may have been over enthusiastic and seen more channels than were there, but they were not victims of sheer illusion.  Here is an upright view of the same area from Google Mars. 

Artificial canals, no, I don’t think so.  But I can well imagine a careful observer looking over a long time under changing light conditions could conclude something was there.  Someone with less interest might see nothing after a cursory glance.  At least Lowell did not suffer Bruno’s fate. 
Yes, there is water on Mars.  Gullies have been found, indicating that there was liquid water in the fairly recent past.  As recently as March 2, 2009, they were announcing that water ice was there but all the water was locked up in ice.  The ice itself is easy enough to believe in.  The Phoenix expedition landed on Mars on May 25, 2008 with the mission of finding subsurface ice.  (H20 at the Phoenix Landing Site, Smith and others, SCIENCE vol 325 no 5936 July 3, 2009 page 58.)  It wasn’t easy.  They didn’t learn everything they wanted to.  But the machine did send back this picture of ice that they dug into or stepped on.  (Inset)

Phoenix Rose Again, But Not All Worked Out as Planned,  Richard A. Kerr, SCIENCE vol. 323 no. 5916 February 13, 2009 page 843.  The tweed pattern is from my scanner.  Mars is not tweed. 
And liquid water?  Well, yes.  Here are 3 a pictures of one of the legs of the lander.  According to Nitton Renno, one of the chief scientists of the expedition, the heat of the landing melted some of the ice and mud splashed onto a leg.  Enough water was vaporized so that salts in the mud sucked up enough moisture to be liquid.  The green spots are two droplets that merged while the pictures were being taken. 

Picture from Water on Mars, ECONOMIST March 21, 2009 page 88.
They tell us that there are areas on Mars where there is ample water, the soil chemistry is adequate and there is enough sunlight.  All you have to do is warm it up and plant asparagus, which seems to be a favorite vegetable in these discussions.  And you shouldn’t have to pull weeds or spray for bugs. 
You might not have to warm it up that much. According to The Search for Life Continued, there are times and places on Mars where the surface temperature is 7o centigrade.  That’s sweater weather.  You don’t have to warm it up.  You just have to keep it from getting cold again.
There is methane on Mars.  We all know methane.  It is the byproduct of digesting vegetables.  If you want to pass less gas, you can shift your diet to more meat and less vegetables and let cows do your farting for you.  However meat flatus smells worse than vegetable flatus.  There are two mysteries about Martian methane.  Where it comes from and where it goes. 
It is released in plumes by local sources, just as it is on earth.  Martian methane plumes are as big as the plume at Coal Oil Seep in Santa Barbara, California.  (Strong Release of Methane on Mars in the Northern Summer 2003, Michael J. Mumma and others, SCIENCE vol. 323 February 20, 2009 page 1041)  Terrestrial plumes are mostly organic in nature.  That is, they are the byproduct of living things.  So it becomes a question as to whether the Martian plumes are also. 
And the methane disappears very rapidly.  The mechanism that is expected on Mars is photochemistry.  UV light knocks it apart.  But it disappears 600 times faster.  If it was removed at the expected rate, it would be uniform in concentration all over the planet, but it is not.  One possible explanation is that there is something in the Martian atmosphere that is very destructive to organic chemicals.  (Observed Variations of Methane on Mars Unexplained by Known Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Franck Lefèvre and François Forget, NATURE, vol. 460 no. 7256 August 6. 2009 page 720)  Another distant possibility, which is not completely inconsistent, is that there is some sort of life form that eats it. 
So how are they going to be able to tell whether the methane on Mars comes from some geological process or is the result of life?  I wrote Dr. Mumma of NASA and asked, and I got a very kind reply.  Here is his letter to you.

WriteHeaderRow("From", msg.displayFrom); WriteHeaderRow("To", msg.displayTo); WriteHeaderRow("Cc", msg.displayCc); WriteHeaderRow("Bcc", msg.displayBcc); WriteHeaderRow("Subject", msg.subject); WriteHeaderRow("Date", Date(msg.receivedTime), opener.Config.Strings.MsgViewDateFormat)); WriteHeaderAttachments("Attachments", msg.attachments); From:

Mumma, Michael J. (GSFC-6900) <>


Actually he knew it was for you.


RE: Mars methane


Wed, 4 Mar 2009 2:15 pm

“ document.write(msg.body); The key isotopic measurements are on C13/C12 and D/H.  C13 and D are used in different ways by biology and geology, so the isotopic ratio in released methane is an important clue to its production.  This approach is used on Earth to distinguish biotic and abiotic production.  Another test is to search for related chemicals that are produced geologically (ethane, methane, ...) or biologically (H2S, N2O, etc.).  The SAM instrument package on the Mars Science Laboratory (launch 2011) will make some of these measurements, if it is placed at the right landing site.
Hope this helps –”

They are taking it very seriously, on October 7. 18 days ago, NASA sent out a mission from Cape Canaveral, but in a boat, not a rocket.  (Living where the Sun Don’t Shine, ECONOMIST vol. 393. no. 8652 October 10, 2009 page 83)  It will examine thermal vents, starting with one near the Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean.  Current thinking is that life on earth is 3.5 billion years old, but there has only been photosynthesis for 2.4 billion.  Before that life had some other energy source, one possibility being the reaction of iron and aluminum deposits with water releasing hydrogen.  So if NASA is suddenly studying thermal vents it looks like they are trying to learn more about them before the next Mars mission. 
Meanwhile Russia and China have postponed a Mars probe they were going to launch a Mars mission this year.  (Mars Mission Delayed as mad Dash to Prep Probe Falls Short, SCIENCE vol. 326 no. 5949 October 2, 2009 page 27)  The story given out was that they did not have the probe ready and that it should be ready for a launch in 2009.  It seems possible that they have postponed it so as to be able to add equipment that will examine Mars methane for signs of biological activity.  If so, the race is on for what may be the second most exciting scientific discovery ever.  (The most exciting one of course is the issue we discussed in the first hour.)
So some day soon we may know.
If, and a very big if, it is of organic origin, what then?  It could be from life forms long since extinct or from contemporary ones.
One is reminded of a sentence from “The Assignation,” Poe, Edgar Allan Poe, The Library of America, New York, 1984.  Venice.  Night.  In order to lure her lover from hiding a mother has thrown her baby into a canal.  “The quiet waters had closed placidly over their victim; and, although my own gondola was the only one in sight, many a stout swimmer, already in the stream, was seeking in vain upon the surface the (life) which was to be found, alas!  only within the abyss.” and with more powerful prose from Exodus 20:4.  “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:…”  
There could be life under the surface.  The line from Exodus about the waters under the earth probably means ordinary fish.  There was a god Dagon that was worshiped around that time, a fish god.  The name was probably pronounced “doggone,” so have a care the next time you swear thus.  You may be invoking ancient power.  Water, after all, does run down hill, so the “waters under the earth” probably just means the sea is lower than the land.  But it does make you think. 
There is water under the earth.  There is very deep water.  In the crust of the seabed, where life was supposed to peter out a few meters down, living microorganisms have been found down in the bed rock at the bottom of the sea.  And on land, living organisms have been found, some in pockets of water, down to 3 kilometers.  (Low Life, Amanda Leigh Mascarelli, NATURE, vol. 459 no. 7248 June 11, 2009 page 770.)
These are very strange and very tough organisms, surviving under conditions far beyond anything we ordinarily see.  They are very primitive, and there are a lot of them, a significant fraction of the total biomass of the earth.  Some are archaea, ancient form more distantly related to ordinary bacteria than we are ourselves.  Many, particularly in the seabed, live on sediment from the biosphere we know.  Others live from chemicals derived from radioactive decay or other geologic sources, like the microorganisms that live in the geothermal vents of the deep sea.  Some of them have very slow metabolisms and reproductive rates.  Some people say there are those that divide one each thousand years. 
These deep creatures may be an example of the adaptability of life, the frontier pushing into extreme environments.  They can survive just about anything but fresh air and sunshine.  But it may be the other way around.  Perhaps this was the first form of life.  We may be their descendents ourselves, emerging after eons to live in an environment bathed in ultraviolet light and more recently in an atmosphere poisoned by oxygen. 
They are so strange that there are those who think there is a shadow biosphere.  There may be organisms that arose completely independently of us.  (Soundbites from Chicago, some insights from this years meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, NATURE vol. 457 no. 7232, February 19, 2009 quoting Paul Davies of Arizona State University)  They would not have the same DNA code or use all the same amino acids. 
Is there intelligent life down there?  It does not seem likely, but we evolved it up here.  And our sampling of those depths is so skimpy it makes our knowledge of the sea (in turn far less well known that the surface of the moon) seem like a done deal. 
So there might be life far beneath the Martian terrain.  As it turns out, it is not terribly rare for a meteor to strike Mars and cast up debris, some of which lands here.  It may go the other way, too.  Given the extreme toughness of these deep organisms, some might have survived the trip.  The possibility could be considered that one of the two planets seeded the other with life.  Perhaps if they are there and we find them, they will prove to have our own DNA code.  Then Martians would be our long lost cousins.
If that is the case, we might be able to catch each others diseases.  Simple prudence would require an absolute and permanent quarantine if there is life there.  That might not be such a bad idea anyway.  In fact, you have to wonder about the moon.  You remember “The War of the Worlds,” in which a Martian invasion of Earth fizzled when earth bacteria wiped out the Martians.  Imagine what would have happened on Mars if upon landing they had sent back a ship to report that all was going as planned.  That Chinese probe was supposed to bring back samples from the Mars moon Phobos.  Maybe it is just as well it was postponed. Now there are spoilsports who say we should spend our space dollars on something closer to home.  Here is a graph of data from a pair of satellites put up to monitor the thickness of glaciers on Greenland actually, and the South Pole.  They speed up and slow down as they pass over the glaciers because of the gravity of the ice.  That causes the distance between them to change, which gives you a measure of the mass of ice. 
(Both of the World’s Ice Sheets May Be Shrinking Faster and Faster, Richard A. Kerr, SCIENCE, vol. 326 no. 5950 October 9, 2009 page. 217)
As you can see, the ice loss appears to be real and to be accelerating over the past 6 years.  That’s the sort of thing you ought to keep your eye on.  But the satellites are very low and will fall in 2013.  So far there is no plan to replace them. 

5. Lost civilization on Mars.  Since this is a science fiction and fantasy fiction convention, we can go even farther.  What about a high tech civilization on Mars?  Google Mars seems to make it pretty clear that there is no system of irrigation canals on Mars, but some things have turned up.
There is a suggestion that a fossil of a macroscopic organism has been found.  The picture below is from Mars Exploration and the “F Word” ATLANTIS RISING March/April 2009 page 4.  I am sure there is a clearer image somewhere.  It is a fossil?  Your guess is as good as mine.

A big stir was made by Richard Hoagland.  His web site is  What seems undeniable is that NASA’s Viking expedition took a picture of the surface of Mars that looked rather like this:

Image from The Face On Mars, Randolfo, Rafael Pozos, Chicago Review Press, Chicago, 1986.  I would have thought there would be a small cottage industry of selling really good prints of evocative pictures like this.  I understand they are supposed to be available from NASA, but when I tried years ago I had no joy.
Anyway, as you can see, it looks kind of like a face.  Then over to the left are some pyramid shaped things that fascinated Hoagland.  Straight to the left of the face and a trifle higher is something that strikes me as most remarkable.  It is on about the same scale and shape as the pyramids, but it looks for all the world like the top has fallen in, and that we are looking at the broken tops of two walls of he same thickness.
Well that is about as far as I can go with it.  It’s a picture.  NASA certainly did not concoct it to make us think there was a lost civilization there.  They said it was a trick of light and shadow.  After some years, they were hounded into re-photographing the same area.  The repeat picture looked nothing like a face.  I am sorry I do not have the pictures they released, but it was clear at a glance that the image had been digitally filtered to remove information on the scale that was of interest.  A nearby crater looked as flat as a flounder.  To add insult to injury, they released the picture upside down.  Either they were being total clowns, or they tried to mislead us, and they didn’t put their best talent on it.
They later released a less grotesquely misleading version of the picture, but for my money their credibility was shot. 
That, of course, does not mean the picture is significant.  All sorts of strange things turn up in pictures.  This is just in.  There is another face.  First let me tell you about one that was a mystery for a short while.  You won’t see this on the history channel yet, but it dates back to World War II.  The marines would storm an island.  It was terribly dangerous.  The defenders could not retreat because they were on an island.  The island would be heavily fortified with troops and gun emplacements dug in well ahead of time.  The beach would be defended by obstacles like railroad rails welded together to impede landing craft.  Those had to be cleared by sending in the frogmen or Underwater Demolition Team to blow them up the night before the invasion.  So the defenders had little trouble knowing just when and where the attack would come. 
This fearsome invasion force would storm ashore into withering fire with terrible losses.  And they would find, painted on a wall or some suitable surface and as high as a man something like this picture. 
And so it went, island after island, deathtrap after deathtrap, bloodbath after bloodbath for a long time.  In the end it turned out that it was the frogmen.  They would slip ashore in the night and paint it up just to jerk the marines around. 
So prepared, take a look below at what was released by the University of Arizona from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. 

Picture and story from “2001-like Monolith Discovered on Mars,” Atlantis Rising, November/December, 2009, page 14. 
They pointed out something in the red square that looks like an obelisk from the movie “2001.”  It’s about 15 meters or about 45 feet wide, which would make it 90 feet tall.  Below it is turned around straight up and down. 

One cannot deny a certain resemblance.  But and context is everything.  They didn’t mention this in the article, look over toward the left.  There is another one with a cap on it like Stonehenge.  And in between, is something that looks a little like our old friend Killroy, with some kind of symbol on his forehead.  Maybe it’s a hexagon.

And he’s sticking his tongue out at us.  It seems clear that somebody is making fun of us.  It remains a bit of a question as to what planet that person lives on. 

Closer to home, Google Earth released a version that showed the sea floor as well as the land.  It included this in the Atlantic.
It shows a grid pattern in the floor of the Atlantic.  Of course there were immediate cries of “The lost continent!” and Google immediately announced that it was no street pattern; it was an artifact of the course of the ship that had done the soundings.  Neither idea seems very sound.  There is no point in building streets on the bottom of the sea.  Anything big enough to use them could swim.  And if Atlantis sank, where is the edge?  It would have to be the whole Atlantic Ocean, which would have done spectacular things to the sea level.  And the sea level could not have been that low.  Where would you put all the water?  If you tried to pile it up as glaciers on the continents, the tops would be above the weather.  They couldn’t grow that high. 
The soundingss artifact seems weird, too.  Why aren’t there similar artifacts elsewhere?  Why did the ship make such clean corners?  Why did it leave defects? 
Then they came up with the clincher.  The city blocks would have been ten miles across.  So the matter was dropped.  But that explanation doesn’t hold water (sorry) either.  Look at this:

It’s a map of a lost civilization in the Amazon.  Lost Cities of the Amazon, Michael J. Heckenberger, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN vol. 301 no. 4, October, 2009 page 64.  The black lines and the dashed lines are excavated roads, nice straight roads, and places they think roads were but haven’t excavated them.  They are close enough to being 10 miles apart. 
As I remember, there was once a similar layout in Mesopotamia.  Villages were spaced about 10 miles apart.
So the 10 mile blocks is no problem.  It’s called a garden city. 
You can see faces in trees and animals in clouds. 

Italy looks like a boot. 


Wales looks like a pig.

Japan looks like a dragon.

Hudson’s Bay looks like a bunch of craters.

The Gulf of Mexico looks like craters or maybe a dolphin.

The trouble is that these things have no context.  That’s why Hoagland was so eager to put the Face on Mars into the context of what he thought were artificial structures nearby.
Try this for context.  It is a triple image: there is a wing, a heart and a turtle.  Can you see them?  The wing is something in the heavens above, the heart is on the earth, and the turtle is an aquatic reptile.  It is flat.  A tortoise is a land animal and is taller.  So the turtle is something that is in the waters under the earth.  Guess where it is.  If you think it might be an artifact, go and have a look.  It is accessible to tourists.  The view is from the east.
That center square is at the tip of the heart is Mount Sinai.  

There have been 2,524 visitors so far.

Home page.