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13 January 2011 @ 01:36 pm
Wonders of the Solar System; Aristotle's Lagoon  
We watched the last episode of Wonders of the Solar System last night - about the possibilities of alien life. I think I maybe noticed the simplifications in this one more, as it's closer to my field. Although it's also possible that I know just enough to miss the point ;) I think my two main quibbles were about the assumption that water is necessary and about lack of any coverage of how likely life is to start (he talked a lot about conditions under which it could flourish given that it started). I guess what my issues boil down to is that everything we know is based on one roll of the dice, so's to speak - life on Earth started once and is water dependent, does this necessarily mean that all life is water dependent? What about dependent on other liquids as the primary solvent on other planets? And it seems to've started once here, how likely is it to start somewhere else? It could be a vanishingly small possibility, but we'd be biased towards assuming it had a higher probability because obviously we're here. But like I said, maybe I just quibble about that because I don't know enough about what I'm talking about ;)

It was still a good programme tho, with lots of weird beasties that you find on earth as well as the things that indicate there may be simple life forms elsewhere. I particularly like the bacteria that live in glaciers in Iceland, melting the ice around them with anti-freeze chemicals creating their very own mobile pocket of ocean. And the stuff about the Scablands in the US was fascinating - this vast canyon system was apparently created in a matter of days by the breaching of a glacier that was damming a large lake at the end of the last ice age. Practically instantaneous in geological terms, and awe-inspiringly powerful.

Second programme of the evening continued the biological theme - Aristotle's Lagoon was a programme about Aristotle's work in the field of natural history, presented by Armand Marie Leroi (who is a developmental biologist). I thought I recognised Leroi's name, and it turns out he wrote "Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body" which I got for Christmas several years ago. Most of the programme concentrated on Aristotle's successes in zoological thought & practice - he was the first person to properly observe both behaviour and internal structure of the animals around him, and to write down & theorise about the patterns he saw. Leroi showed us some of the observations that Aristotle made - including opening up chicken eggs to look at the embryos inside, and dissecting dead fish to see what was inside them. He drew the line at repeating any of the vivisection that Aristotle undertook, tho. And then the last quarter of the programme was answering the question of why Aristotle was forgotten as a pioneer of biology - and it's because he didn't get everything right. In particular his theory of spontaneous generation (like he thought rotting meat spontaneously formed maggots that then turned into flies) was quite spectacularly wrong, and so once actual experiments were done they that showed this was not the case (which Leroi repeated and showed us the results of - one fish left to rot in the open, one in a covered container, only maggots in the one the flies had had access to, plump wriggly maggots on the telly *ick*). And that and other such things meant that Aristotle became the symbol of the old non-scientific attitude to the natural sciences, to be reacted against, rather than remembered for the things he did get right. We'd had this programme recorded for ages, and hadn't got round to watching it - glad we did in the end, coz it was really very good & interesting.
Current Mood: curiousinterested
Current Music: U2 "Elevation 2001 - Live from Boston"
Jen: moffedilleylla on January 14th, 2011 12:51 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. You are a Real Scientist and presumably know more about this than me, but I thought the point was that life based on water is the only thing we know how to look for. We can find planets with H2O, and suitable conditions for liquid water, and we can look for things that are by-products of life as we know it, and various other things - it's not that there couldn't be other kinds of life, but if you don't know what they are, where do you start looking?
Margaretpling on January 14th, 2011 02:40 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's a good point. I'd not thought of it quite like that - I was more thinking that it was possibly unnecessarily restricting the search (particularly since my gut feeling is that it won't be the same), but yes it's hard to detect stuff you don't know how it works.

(And being a Real Scientist isn't relevant outside of the very specific things I've worked on which this is not one of, and now I've not done so for 5 years it probably doesn't count for them either ;) )