May 28, 585 BC Battle of the Eclipse

This wasn’t the first recorded solar eclipse, just the first to have been predicted beforehand.

On this day in 585BC, ancient precursors of the Iranian and Turkish people squared off for battle, along the banks of the River Halys in modern Turkey. They were the Medes and the Lydians. They had been fighting one another for more than 15 years.

A total eclipse of the sun occurred sometime during the battle, causing both Kings and both armies to immediately cease fighting and lay down their weapons.

Solar Eclipse

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Thales of Miletus had predicted the eclipse in a year when the Medians and the Lydians were at war. It’s possible to calculate the date with precision because you can run the “solar clock” backwards as well as forward, and May 28 became one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity are calculated.

This wasn’t the first recorded solar eclipse, just the first to have been predicted beforehand. Two Chinese astrologers had lost their heads for failing to predict one, back in the 22nd or 23rd century BC. Clay tablets from Babylon record an eclipse in Ugarit in 1375 BC. Other records report solar eclipses which “turned day into night” in 1063 and 763 BC.

Eclipse of ThalesPredicting a solar eclipse isn’t the same as predicting a lunar eclipse; the calculations are far more difficult. When the moon passes through the shadow of the sun, the event can be seen by half of the planet, the total eclipse phase lasting over an hour. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon occupies only a narrow path, and the total eclipse phase is only about 7½ minutes at any given place.

The method Thales used to make his prediction is unknown, and there is no record of the ancient Greeks predicting any further eclipses. It’s possible that he borrowed his prediction from Egyptian astrologers, using their techniques of land measurement (geo metry in Greek), later codified by Euclid and loved by 8th graders the world over.

Be that as it may, for the first time in history a full eclipse of the sun had been predicted beforehand.  The Battle of Halys marked the first time in history, that a war was ended when day turned to night.  Aylattes, King of Lydia, and Cyaxares, King of the Medes, put down their weapons and declared a truce, and their soldiers followed suit.  The kings of Cilicia and Babylon helped negotiate a more permanent treaty.  Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis married Cyaxares’ son Astyages to seal the bargain, and the Halys River, now known as the River Kızılırmak, was agreed to be the border between the two peoples.

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April 14, 1958 Laika

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

Baker
“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

Laika
Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11lb mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

sputnik-2-launched-a-month-later-and-carried-the-first-living-animal-a-dog-named-laika-into-space
Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that onlyLaika and capsule allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

Mach2Sputnik2In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.Atomic_Robo_Last_Stop_Sputnik_Poster2

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

Afterward

belka-strelka-2As a dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript, to this thoroughly depressing story.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960, and returned safely to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in

Charlie, Pushinka
Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  Nikita Khrushchev gave “Pushinka”, one of the puppies, to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies.  Pups that JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka’s descendants are still living, to this day.

kennedy-dog-pushinka-puppies
Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn

April 11, 1970  Houston, We’ve had a Problem

For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only 1½ days

Apollo 13 liftoffJack Swigert was supposed to be the backup pilot for the Command Module, (CM), officially joining the Apollo 13 mission only 48 hours earlier, when prime crew member Ken Mattingly was exposed to German measles. Jim Lovell was the world’s most traveled astronaut, a veteran of two Gemini missions and Apollo 8. By launch day, April 11, 1970, Lovell had racked up 572 space flight hours. For Fred Haise, former backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11, this would be his first spaceflight.

The seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program was intended to be the third moon landing, launching at 13:13 central standard time, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Apollo spacecraft comprised two separate vessels, separated by an airtight hatch. The crew lived in the Command/Service module, called “Odyssey”.  The Landing Module (LM) “Aquarius”, would perform the actual moon landing.

Apollo 13 Schematic

56 hours into the mission and 5½ hours from the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence, Apollo crew members had just finished a live TV broadcast.  Haise was powering the LM down while Lovell stowed the TV camera.  Mission Control asked Swigert to activate stirring fans in the SM hydrogen and oxygen tank. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang”.

Spacecraft manufacturing and testing had both missed an exposed wire in an oxygen tank.  When Swigert flipped the switch for that routine procedure, a spark set the oxygen tank on fire. Alarm lights lit up all over Odyssey and in Mission Control.  The spacecraft shuddered as one oxygen tank tore itself apart and damaged another.  Power began to fluctuate.  Attitude control thrusters fired, and communications temporarily went dark. The crew could not have known it at the time, but the entire Sector 4 panel had just blown off.apollo-13-damage

The movie takes creative license with Commander James Lovell saying “Houston, we have a problem”.  On board the real Apollo 13 it was Jack Swigert who spoke, saying “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.

205,000 miles into deep space with life support systems shutting down, the Lunar Module became the only means of survival. There was no telling if the explosion had damaged Odyssey’s heat shields, but it didn’t matter. For now, the challenge was to remain, alive.  Haise and Lovell frantically worked to boot up Aquarius, while Swigert shut down systems aboard Odyssey, in order to preserve power for splashdown.

Apollo_13-insigniaThis situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but had been considered unlikely. As it happened, the accident would have been fatal without access to the Lunar Module.

For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only 1½ days. Heat fell close to freezing and food became inedible, as mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to jury rig life support, navigational and propulsion systems.  This “lifeboat” would have to do what it was never intended to do.

Atmospheric re-entry alone, presented almost insurmountable challenges. The earth’s atmosphere is a dense fluid medium. If you reenter at too steep an angle, you may as well be jumping off a high bridge. As it is, the human frame can withstand deceleration forces no higher than 12 Gs, equivalent to 12 individuals identical to yourself, piled on top of you.  Even at that, you’re only going to survive a few minutes, at best.

Apollo_13_Prime_Crew
Left to right: Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., Command Module pilot, John L. Swigert Jr., Lunar Module pilot, Fred W. Haise Jr.

We all know what it is to skip a stone off the surface of a pond.  If you hit the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, the result is identical. There is no coming down a second time. You get one bounce and then nothing but the black void of space.

For four days, most of the country and much of the world held its breath, waiting for the latest update from newspaper and television news.  With communications down, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  Onboard Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible, as the idea that the stranded astronauts could walk home.

As Odyssey neared earth, engineers and crew jury-rigged a means of jettisoning the spent Service Module, to create enough separation for safe re-entry.Apollo_13_timeline

One last problem to be solved, was the crew’s final transfer from Lunar Module back to Command Module, prior to re-entry.  With the “reaction control system” dead, University of Toronto engineers had only slide rules and six hours, in which to devise a way to “blow” the LM, by pressurizing the tunnel connecting it with the CM.  Too much pressure might damage the hatch and its seal, too little wouldn’t provide enough separation between the two bodies.  The result of either failure, would have been identical to that of the “shooting stars”, you see at night.

Apollo 13 after it came back to Earth.
Apollo 13 after it came back to Earth.

By this time the Command Module had been in “cold soak” for days.  No one even knew for certain, if the thing would come back to life.

Crashing into the atmosphere at over 24,000mph, the capsule had 14 minutes in which to come to a full stop, splashing down in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. External temperatures on the CM reached 2,691° F, as the kinetic energy of re-entry was converted to heat.

The Apollo 13 mission ended safely with splashdown southeast of American Samoa on April 17, 1970, at 18:07:41 local time.  Exhausted and hungry, the entire crew had lost weight.  Haise had developed a kidney infection.  Total duration was 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.

apollo-13-problem

March 11, 1918 Pandemic

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one.

In the world of virology, “Antigenic Drift” describes changes which happen slowly, the random mutation of virus DNA which takes place over months, or years. It’s why we get a new flu vaccine every year, even though there’s already some level of “herd immunity”.

“Antigenic Shift” occurs when two or more DNA strands combine, instantaneously forming a new virus sub-type. Like the dealer at some giant, cosmic poker table, this process may deal us a pair of twos. Occasionally, fate deals us aces & eights. The death hand.flu6

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, US Armed Forces were small compared with the mobilized forces of European powers. The Selective Service Act, enacted May 18, 1917, authorized the federal government to raise an army for the United States’ entry into WWI. Two months after the American declaration of war against Imperial Germany, a mere 14,000 American soldiers had arrived “over there”. Eleven months later, that number stood at well over a million.

General “Black Jack” Pershing insisted that his forces be well trained before deployment. New recruits poured into training camps by the tens of thousands, while somewhere, some microscopic, chance recombination of surface proteins created a new virus, novel to almost every immune system in the world.

Flu pandemicOn the morning of March 11, 1918, most of the recruits at Fort Riley, Kansas, were turning out for breakfast. Private Albert Gitchell reported to the hospital, complaining of cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, more than 100 more had reported sick with similar symptoms.

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15-34 year olds 20 times higher in 1918, than in previous years. Perversely, it was their young and healthy immune systems that were most likely to kill them.

Physicians described the most viscous pneumonia they had ever seen, death often comingspanish_flu_death_chart-790-x-602.jpg_w=790&h=602 within hours of the first symptoms. There’s a story about four young, healthy women playing bridge well into the night. By morning, three were dead of influenza.

Over the next two years, this strain of flu infected one in every four people in the United States, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans. Eight million died in Spain alone, following an initial outbreak in May. Forever after, the pandemic would be known as the Spanish Flu.

In 1918, children skipped rope to a rhyme:

“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flu-enza”.

In the trenches, the flu cut down combatants on every side. “Operation Michael”, the final, no holds barred German offensive that would determine the outcome of the war, launched from the Hindenburg line in March. Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote in August that “poor provisions, heavy losses, and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of men in the 3rd Infantry Division”.

Some sources indicate that as many as half of the Americans killed in WWI, died of the flu.
The parades and parties following the cease fire in November threw gasoline on the fire. The end of war was a complete disaster from a public health standpoint. Millions more contracted the flu and thousands more died. President Wilson himself fell ill, while participating in 1919 treaty negotiations in Versailles.

1918-spanishfluAround the planet, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people. A third of the population of the entire world, at that time. Estimates run as high 50 to 100 million killed. For purposes of comparison, the “Black Death” of 1347-51 killed 20 million Europeans.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole, like they never happened. Today, the Spanish flu is all but overshadowed by the Great War, even though in the end, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 proved a far deadlier adversary, than the war itself.

January 22, 2000 A Hole in the Head

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill

It’s called “Trepanation”, possibly the oldest surgical procedure for which we have archaeological evidence. Trepanation involves drilling or scraping a hole into the human ancient-peruvian-trepanationhead, and seems to have begun sometime in the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age” period. One archaeological dig in France uncovered 120 skulls, 40 of which showed signs of trepanning. Another such skull was recovered from a 5th millennium BC dig in Azerbaijan.  A number of 2nd millennium BC specimens have been unearthed in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica; the area now occupied by the central Mexican highlands through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.

bronze_age_skull_from_jericho_palestine
Bronze age skull

Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, described the procedure in detail in his treatise “On Injuries of the Head,” written sometime around 400BC. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamon expanded on the procedure some 500 years later. Archaeologists discovered 12½%, of all the skulls in pre-Christian era Magyar (Hungarian) graveyards, to have been trepanned.

The procedure has obvious applications in the treatment of head trauma, though it has been used to treat everything from seizures to migraines to mental disorders. During medieval times, the procedure was used to liberate demons from the heads of the possessed and to cure an assortment of ailments from meningitis to epilepsy.

trepan-posterTrepanation took on airs of pseudo-science, many would say “quackery”, when the Dutch librarian Hugo Bart Huges (Hughes) published “The Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume (‘BBV’)” in 1964. In it, Hughes contends that our brains drained of blood and cerebrospinal fluid when mankind began to walk upright, and that trepanation allows the blood to better flow in and out of the brain, causing a permanent “high”.

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill. He must have thought it proved the point, because he expanded on his theory with “Trepanation: A Cure for Psychosis”, as well as an autobiography, “The Book with the Hole”, published in 1972.

Peter Halvorson, a Hughes follower and director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), would disagree with that quackery comment. Halvorson trepanned himself with an electric drill in 1972. Today, he explains on his ITAG website (www.trepan.com) that “The hypothesis here at ITAG has been that making an opening in the skull favorably alters movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world”.with-a-drill

On January 22, 2000, Peter Halvorson and Williams Lyons helped drill a hole in a woman’s head for producers of the ABC News program “20/20.” This was in Beryl, Utah, and the television program which ensued, airing on February 10, resulted in criminal charges and arrest warrants for the two men. At the time, the Iron County DA was also considering charges against ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo for aiding in the crime. There is precedent in Utah for such a charge against a reporter. In 1999, KTVX reporter Mary Sawyers (allegedly) provoked a group of Carbon County High School students into using tobacco products for a story on youths and tobacco. Sawyers later stood trial for contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Utah’s 7th District Court of Appeals.

St. Louis neurologist Dr. William Landau wasn’t impressed with Hughes’ brainbloodvolume theory, explaining that “There is no scientific basis for this at all. It’s quackery.” Dr. Robert B. Daroff, Professor of Neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was a little more to the point. “Horseshit,” he said. “Absolute, unequivocal bullshit”.

January 16, 2003 Columbia

231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype, dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first spaceworthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

columbia_sts1
STS-1, the 1st Space shuttle mission, launched aboard Columbia on 4/12/81

STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, aboard the Russian Vostok 1. It was the first, and to-date only, manned maiden test flight of a new spacecraft system in the US space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with its external hydrogen fuel tank painted white. From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted to save weight.

There were initially four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia was joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”. A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.  A piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank eighty seconds after launch, striking Columbia’s left wing and leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.  Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, they were unable to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even if there had been major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry. Columbia’s 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds in space came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003, as it broke up in the outer atmosphere. 231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing. The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

Debris and crew remains were found in over 2,000 locations across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The only survivors of the disaster was a canister full of worms, taken into space for study.

petr-ginz-drawingPayload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program. Colonel Ramon’s mother is an Auschwitz survivor, his grandfather and several family members killed in the Nazi death camps. In their memory, Ramon carried a copy of “Moon Landscape”, a drawing by 14 year old holocaust victim Petr Ginz, depicting what the boy thought earth might look like from the moon. Today, there are close to 84,000 pieces of Columbia and assorted debris, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. To the best of my knowledge, that drawing by a 14 year old boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

December 17, 1900 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

On December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian. That was considered too easy

In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that the world was made of atoms.  Physically indestructible and always in motion, these atoms are infinite in number, differing only in shape and size.  Democritus taught that everything around us is the result of physical laws without reasoning or purpose.  He asked only “what earlier circumstances caused this event?” Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?”, while Plato disliked him so much he wanted to burn all his books.

Democritus also taught that there are an infinite number of worlds with inhabitants like us, though the prevailing view in antiquity was that the Earth was special, that we are alone.

In the time of Copernicus in the 1600s, it became widely believed that there is life on other planets.  Astronomers saw several features of the moon as evidence, if not of life, then at least that intelligence had at one time paid a visit.

Interest in Mars began to develop in the 1870s, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli described physical features of the red planet as “canali”.  The word means “channels” in Italian, but it was mis-translated as “canals”.  The English speaking world was off to the races.extraterrestrial-life

Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by the popular concept that canals had been excavated by intelligent Martians.

The idea was near universal by the turn of the century.  On this day, December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian.  That was considered too easy.

war-of-the-worlds-alien-tripod-attackingThe British author H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien invasion of earth by Martians fleeing from the desiccation of their planet.  The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, so realistic that many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.

The idea of life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when close observations of the Martian surface were made possible by the Mariner series of spacecraft.

While much of “mainstream” science seems to steer clear of the subject, the University ofis-anybody-out-there California at Berkeley is running a “distributed computing effort” to identify extraterrestrial life, called SETI@home.   With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home currently operates on over 5.2 million computers.  With the introduction of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or “BOINC” (I didn’t make that up), SETI@home users can even compete with one another, to see who can process the maximum number of “work units”.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-alien-portrait-stars-image14135012The website explains their mission:  “SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data”.

You, too can participate at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Please feel free to insert the “there-is-no-intelligent-life-here” joke of your choice HERE.