Sunday, October 21, 2012

Science & SF Tidbits: Oct 21, 2012: Sequencing Martian DNA, Animal Language, Anthropology SF

More bioscience and science fiction bits from around the web:

Genome Hunters Go after Martian DNA - Technology Review »

It's a race: two biotech companies - J Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics and Jonathan Rothberg's Ion Torrent - want to send a DNA sequencing machine (made by their company, of course) to Mars. Both companies are adapting their hardware for Martian conditions, and are testing them in Mars-like Earthly sites like the Mojave Desert.

The advantage to sequencing the DNA of Martian microbes while on the planet, rather than sending the sample back to Earth - is that it makes contamination from Earthly life less likely. The experiment would have an incredibly high payoff, if any DNA were found to be sequenced.

Undaunted by the lack of any evidence that Mars currently hosts microbial life, Venter is already talking about reconstructing Martian organisms from their DNA sequence in a super-secure laboratory on Earth.
"People are worried about the Andromeda strain," says Venter. "We can rebuild the Martians in a P-4 spacesuit lab instead of having them land in the ocean."
I'm pretty sure this is a publicity stunt, but it's a fun one to think about the possible results if it were actually successful.

Is language unique to humans? » BBC Future

Parrots, bonobos, dolphins and even dogs can learn to understand human words and sentences. But is that language? Maybe not, if you think of language as a method of computation rather than a means of communication.
"What makes human language unique is not that it allows us to communicate with each other, but that it allows us to do so with infinite variety. A monkey can scream to warn its troopmates of an approaching predator, or alert them to a cache of tasty food, but it can't communicate something like "doesn't that hawk have a funny looking beak?" or "with a little salt, this fig would taste divine"."
How to Read Like a Science Nerd » New York Times Magazine

Science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker shares her book recommendations with The New York Times and recommends a science fiction classic:

“Lilith’s Brood,” by Octavia Butler, is the best book about an alien invasion that I have ever read. It’s smart, and it’s deeply human, and (as a former anthropology major) I think it should be on the required-reading list for anyone interested in cultural anthropology.
I agree with her recommendation. Butler's Lilith's Brood (also known as the Xenogenesis Triology) should be required reading for all SF fans, not just anthropology enthusiasts. It asks the uncomfortable question of whether alien takeover might actually be for our own good.

Image: Parrot Culture by Marendo Müller. Public Domain.

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