What a difference 180 years makes.
Back in the 1830s, a Scottish minister and amateur astronomer named Thomas Dick tried to calculate the number of intelligent creatures in the universe. He assumed that all heavenly bodies supported intelligent life, maybe not exactly like us, but similar to us in size and habits of living. Then he took population figures for Great Britain and, assuming that space aliens lived just as densely, he projected populations onto various planets.
There are, he decided, 50 billion Venusians living on Venus.
Mars, he thought, had 15 billion Martians.
22 Trillion Times 31
Jupiter? Seven trillion Jupiterinos — or whatever you call them. He even thought that Saturn's rings were totally occupied by 8 trillion inhabitants — on the rings alone! In the end, he figured our solar system was home to 22 trillion individuals, and that, he said, did not include the sun. The sun, he thought could support an additional 31 times as many creatures — because it only seemed sensible that every celestial orb was, in effect, a floating shelter for somebody. Everything you could see in the sky was a home.
A generation earlier, the brilliant astronomer William Herschel (discoverer of the planet Uranus) felt pretty much the same way. In 1794, he also said the sun was probably inhabited, "like the rest of the planets, by beings whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vast globe." Somehow, sun-dwellers had learned not to boil.
Itty Bitty Life
That was then. Today we are in a very different mood. We have ceased to expect any life form that's intelligent (or even large) in our solar system, other than life here on Earth. We spend our exploratory dollars painstakingly searching for little bits of microbial life or, failing that, we hope to turn up a rare fossil remnant of a life that blinked out hundreds of millions of years ago. Instead of Thomas Dick's universe jampacked with creatures, we are even imagining the radical alternative, that there is nobody anywhere — except for us.
If that's too depressing (or improbable), then there's the thought that if intelligent life exists elsewhere, it is so remote, so hard to find, we may never make contact. In the end, we may never know for sure if we are unique, extraordinary or commonplace. We just won't know. Ever.
That's a sad falling off from the exuberance of the 1830s. But stick around. The mood, says Columbia University astrobiology professor Caleb Scharf could change — and soon. In his new book, The Copernicus Complex, he addresses the riddle of life in the universe and says, "We are much, much closer to an answer than we have ever been in the history of the human species; we are on the cusp of knowing."
What's changed? Professor Scharf says we now have the tools we need — though I suspect they will have to be refined — to spot life's true colors. And when we look across the universe, that's what we should be looking for, he argues: colors. Telltale colors.
Given the "right instruments," he writes, we will soon be able to target a planet, and look at the light reflecting from its atmosphere (if it has one) and, by reading a spectrograph that tracks colors, we will see, in effect, signs of life.
To oversimplify, let's pretend we see a planet that looks like this ...
And let's say the presence of yellow (I'm making this up) is evidence of oxygen, while the presence of pink is evidence of methane. So this planet has both oxygen and methane floating in its air. So?
So, says Scharf, oxygen and methane are not usually found floating in an atmosphere. They normally combine with other elements and disappear from the air. "Detecting both of these gasses in an atmosphere ... tells us that something must be continually replenishing them, and one of the best sources is life itself." So this planet now has a "biosignature" — essentially a chemical exclamation point that says, "Check me out! I may be a Carrier of Life."
With 1,700 planets already discovered (700 just in the past year), biosignatures give us something specific to look for.
We already use color spectrum technology to map changes on Earth. Satellites use reflected light to track growing and shrinking lakes, deserts, forests, meadows, parking lots, beaches. Low-level plants reflect 10 times the usual near-infrared light. What's happening low on the ground sends different reflections back up to space, and there's hope, writes Scharf, "that as we get better and better at capturing the light from distant worlds ... we may spot these biosignatures."
If a tinge of blue, a hint of green, a splash of infrared catches our eye, that doesn't mean we're glimpsing anything intelligent. After all, for most of Earth's history, the only beings around were (to quote New York Times reporter George Johnson) "unicellular slime." Slime may leave a signal, but it isn't fun. Saturnal Ring Beings by the trillions? That's a party.
But once we see slime's telltale colors, then we can narrow our search, look closer, and maybe, just maybe, improve our chances of finding E.T.
If E.T. is out there, he, she, it is probably inhaling, exhaling, creating waste, making noise, building, buzzing about, leaving, as Caleb Scharf says, "a filthy fingerprint" of color which points straight back to its home like a rainbow landing in what would truly be a pot of gold — the secret address of our nearest neighbor.
Caleb Scharf's new book nicely tackles the probability of life in the universe question, arguing that what's improbable/probable depends on what you think life should look like. If you start at the end of the tale with yourself as the star of the show, the chances of you happening do seem very improbable. But what if you loosen up, and imagine countless different forms of intelligent life? Then the odds change. His book is called "The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance In A Universe Of Planets And Probabilities."
The ongoing California drought has pitted wild salmon against farmers in a fight for water. While growers of almonds, one of the state's biggest and most lucrative crops, enjoy booming production and skyrocketing sales to China, the fish, it seems, might be left high and dry this summer—and maybe even dead.
Thousands of adult king, or Chinook, salmon are now struggling to survive in the Klamath River of northern California, where waters are running dangerously low and warm due to diversion of river flows into the Central Valley, an intensely farmed agricultural area. If more water isn't let into the Klamath River within the coming days, the salmon, which are migrating upstream toward their spawning grounds, could succumb to a disease called gill rot.
The disease, which played a role in the 2002 Klamath die-off of tens of thousands of Chinook, flourishes in warm water and is already creeping through the salmon population. Frankie Myers, a member of the Yurok tribe, a Native American group that lives in the Klamath River basin, tells The Salt about 1,000 salmon have already died this summer in a 100-mile stretch of river. Now, the remaining fish, which cannot survive in water much warmer than 70 degrees, are clustering in dense schools around the mouths of cold tributary streams, seeking relief from the sun-warmed river.
Members of local tribes have pleaded with government officials to step in and help by releasing cold water from the federally managed Trinity Lake, a reservoir upstream of the salmon. This would chill the river, stop the disease in its tracks and allow the salmon to continue their spawning migration.
The problem is, most of Trinity Lake's water has been promised by government water managers to other users, including cities and industry.
On Tuesday, members of Klamath basin tribal groups convened in Sacramento to rally officials to save the Klamath's Chinook salmon. "For us, salmon is life," Chook-Chook Hillman, a 30-year-old tribesman who was at the rally, tells The Salt. "Without salmon, we'd might as well just pack it up as a people." Hillman says the regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages much of the state's water, promised in a private meeting that his agency would decide sometime Thursday whether or not to give the Klamath salmon more water.
The Klamath River flows into the Pacific Ocean near Oregon and is naturally separated from the interior regions of California by a coastal mountain range. But in the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation built an 11-mile tunnel connecting Trinity Lake to the Sacramento River basin to send Klamath-basin water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, the arid valley is a major producer of the world's almonds, as well as other nuts and stone fruits, grapes and alfalfa.
But the North Coast tribal people question the fairness of a system by which crops hundreds of miles away depend on their river water at the expense of salmon.
"It's not our fault they have orchards to water in the desert, and it's not the fish's fault, either," Hillman says. "We shouldn't have to pay for that."
While the BOR technically has not allotted any water to farmers this year due to drought, producers in the valley whose supplies have been cut may still purchase water from others who didn't experience cutbacks. Others may tap into the state's shrinking groundwater reservoirs. One way or another, most fruit orchards receive the water they need each year.
Almonds are one of California's most important crops, with 80 percent of the crop now exported (mostly to China), according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. From 2004 to 2013, California's almond harvest exploded from a billion to 2 billion pounds and record high production is forecasted for this year, in spite of ongoing drought.
Jenny Nicolau with the Almond Board of California says almond growers have learned how to use water more efficiently. In the past two decades, she notes, the almond industry has reduced its water consumption by 33 percent per pound of almonds produced. And while production has increased, the industry's water use has remained about the same for at least a decade. She says agriculture uses less than 50 percent of the state's water.
But David Zetland, a water policy analyst and author, says this is a distortion of facts. He tells The Salt that of all the state's water that is diverted from rivers and reservoirs, 80 percent ultimately lands in fields and orchards.
Decades ago, dams built to create reservoirs for agricultural use dented or killed most of California's salmon runs. Relatively healthy runs of Chinook salmon still spawn in the Sacramento and the Klamath rivers, though sustaining them involves a complex life-support system of hatcheries, transporting migrating fish in trucks and boats and constant monitoring of water supplies.
As of Aug. 20, the BOR was pumping about 2,100 cubic feet per second of water from Trinity Lake into the Sacramento River system, leaving just 430 cubic feet per second flowing into the Trinity River, a major tributary of the Klamath. Many of the salmon currently at risk are stranded below the confluence of these two rivers, which means higher releases from Trinity Lake could save them.
Janet Sierzputowski, a BOR spokeswoman, says the water currently being diverted from the Trinty-Klamath system is intended to benefit the Sacramento River's own salmon. After all, two of the Sacramento's four distinct salmon runs — the spring Chinook and the winter Chinook — are on the endangered species list.
But Zeke Grader, a board member of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, an environmental group, says the Bureau's claim is "nonsense." He explains that, by this time of year, the Sacramento's threatened spring run and endangered winter run Chinook are already too far upstream to reap any of the benefits of the cool Trinity Lake water, which flows into the Sacramento downstream of where Grader says the fish are now spawning.
"They're not [transferring Trinity water to the Sacramento] for the salmon," he says. "They're doing it for the almonds."
In a statement released on Aug. 19, the Bureau of Reclamation's regional director David Murillo said conditions affecting the health of salmon in the Klamath system would be "monitored on a real-time basis" and, if necessary, addressed with more water released into the river.
But real-time may not be fast enough. That's because it takes three to four days for water to flow from Trinity Lake to the region where the salmon are currently holding, according to Craig Tucker, the Karuk tribe's natural resources advocate.
"They're telling us they'll let water go once they see dead fish," Tucker says. "But once an epidemic starts, it's hard to stop."
For Myers, the government's reluctance to save the salmon his tribe depends on comes as yet another blow to their embattled traditions.
"Not only are they asking the Native Americans to sacrifice their culture, but we're doing it so we can sell almonds to the Chinese," he says.
Alastair Bland is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who covers food, agriculture and the environment.
The jails aren't overflowing in San Antonio anymore. People with serious mental illnesses have a place to go for treatment and the city has saved $10 million a year on. How did it happen?
"You know Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball?" asks Gilbert Gonzalez, Director for the Bexar County Mental Health Department. "Well, the success in that movie was based on the data and analytics. We needed to do the same thing."
Gonzalez's task was to look at all the money San Antonio was spending on mental health in one way or another.
Just eight years ago, the jails, hospitals, courts, police and mental health department in Bexar County all worked separately.
Each part of the system was encountering the same people with serious illnesses, but the people were just cycling through, not getting better. Gonzalez found that the city was spending enormous sums of money while taking care of people with mental illness poorly.
So Leon Evans, director of the community mental health system for Bexar County and San Antonio, got everyone talking. That turned out to be the most challenging piece of the puzzle.
"If you think law enforcement and mental health workers have anything in common, we don't," says Evans. "We speak a different language. We have different goals. There's not a lot of trust there."
But once the decision-makers saw what could be done if they pooled their resources, every sector chipped in and the county built a single, integrated system where people with mental illnesses could actually get better.
Among other things, the San Antonio center has a 48-hour inpatient psychiatric unit, outpatient primary care and psychiatric services, help with substance abuse, housing for people with mental illnesses and job training. More than 18,000 people pass through the Restoration Center each year.
"San Antonio is ahead of what's a growing trend across the country to try to build a non-hospital alternative for people who are experiencing a psychiatric emergency, often with co-occurring alcohol or other drug abuse," says Dr. Mark Munetz, a psychiatrist and professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University who toured the Restoration Center last year.
But he says the San Antonio model might not work everywhere. The Restoration Center and homeless shelter, he says, felt like "a psychiatric oasis, removing the people from the most central part of the city. It felt a little like segregating people in that part of the city, especially with the homeless shelter next door. I'm not sure how that would fly in other parts of the country."
Nonetheless, the rest of the country has started to notice. City officials say every state in the country has sent delegates to San Antonio to see if they can model their own mental health systems after this one.
Achieving any kind of longevity in the music business is a tricky proposition. So when a genuine legend continues to produce engaging and artistic music, we take notice.
This week, we play a track from such a legend: Sergio Mendes. He played with the pioneers of bossa nova back in the late 1950s and had a string of popular albums in the mid-'60s after moving to the U.S. Fast-forward to this year, and Mendes is enjoying his third or fourth wave of popularity with a series of albums he's recorded with artists such as will.i.am, John Legend and Brazilian contemporaries such as Milton Nascimento.
Who among the new crop of artists we feature this week on Alt.Latino will achieve that kind of longevity? My crystal ball cracked recently, so I won't even pretend to guess. But give the show a listen and let us know who you think will be around making music 50 years from now.
Not surprisingly, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha's hand-picked legislature voted 191-0, with three abstentions to legitimize the coup leader's role as head of government. He was the only candidate.
Michael Sullivan, reporting for NPR from Thailand, says: "Today's vote is the first step toward creating an interim government, but the army remains firmly in control. Gen. Prayuth says his aim is to create conditions to allow fresh elections and a restoration of democratic rule by October of next year."
The Associated Press reports that Prayuth, 60, is due to retire from the army next month and until then will hold both positions.
"Thursday's appointment appears aimed at keeping him at the helm as the military implements sweeping political reforms critics say are designed to purge the ousted ruling party's influence and benefit an elite minority that has failed to win national elections for more than a decade."
"'He could have refused the job, but what would be the point?' said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian studies at Japan's Kyoto University.
"'If he wasn't prime minister, he would have been manipulating the prime minister from behind the scenes,' said Pavin, whose passport was revoked after he criticized the coup and refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him home."
In an article in The Bangkok Post headlined, "After vote, Prayuth gives coy smile," the general is quoted as saying he had not been approached prior to being nominated on Thursday.
"I only want ... the country to move forward," he told the English-language daily.
Last month, the country's ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved a junta-authored provisional constitution, the 19th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In it, the ruling military council, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, maintains near complete control.
Prayuth staged a May 22 coup against Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra, who, like her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by the military despite landslide election victories. May's putsch marked the 12th time in 82 years that Thailand's military has seized the reins of government.
Ahead of Thursday's vote, The Wall Street Journal reported that Prayuth had promised the new constitution would be the second phase of a three-step program of overhauling the country's politics:
"That plan focuses on eradicating corruption and promoting good governance and a proper checks-and-balances system.
"The junta will be in charge of security affairs and provide advice and recommendations to the new government, Gen. Prayuth said earlier.
"Political analysts predicted that the general himself may take the position of prime minister. 'I think it's going to be a spoils system. Prayuth's loyalists will get nice postings [in the cabinet],' said Paul Chambers, a professor and military analyst at Thailand's Chiang Mai University."