What Is Life – and How Do We Search for It in Other Worlds?

Spaceref.com, purveyors of “Space news as it happens”, on the surprisingly knotty problem of determining what counts as life on other planets:

“The obvious diversity of life on Earth overlies a fundamental biochemical and genetic similarity. The three main polymers of biology—the nucleic acids, the proteins, and the polysaccarides—are built from 20 amino acids, five nucleotide bases, and a few sugars, respectively. Together with lipids and fatty acids, these are the main constituents of biomass: the hardware of life (Lehninger 1975, p 21). The DNA and RNA software of life is also common, indicating shared descent (Woese 1987). But with only one example of life—life on Earth—it is not all that surprising that we do not have a fundamental understanding of what life is. We don’t know which features of Earth life are essential and which are just accidents of history…

…The practical approach to the search for life is to determine what life needs. The simplest list is probably: energy, carbon, liquid water, and a few other elements such as nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus (McKay 1991). Life requires energy to maintain itself against entropy, as does any self-organizing open system. In the memorable words of Erwin Schrödinger (1945), “It feeds on negative entropy.” On Earth, the vast majority of life forms ultimately derive their energy from sunlight. The only other source of primary productivity known is chemical energy, and there are only two ecosystems known, both methanogen-based (Stevens and McKinley 1995; Chapelle et al. 2002), that rely exclusively on chemical energy (that is, they do not use sunlight or its product, oxygen). Photosynthetic organisms can use sunlight at levels below the level of sunlight at the orbit of Pluto (Ravens et al. 2000); therefore, energy is not the limitation for life.”

Full article can be found here.

Politics, Ideas and Religion Today

There was a wonderfully heartening discussion at Trinity Church in Boston on Friday evening, Oct 8th. Taking place immediately before the 2nd Bush-Kerry debate, the crowd was energized, excited, and keenly receptive.

“MIT professor and author Noam Chomsky and Boston Globe columnist and author James Carroll discussed the domestic and international consequences of US foreign policy, and its relation to traditional American values, including religion. The session was moderated by Amy Goodman, host of National Public Radio’s DEMOCRACY NOW!”

Here are some details about the most recent writings of all three:

James Carroll:
“With the phrase “this Crusade, this war on terror,” President George W. Bush defined his purpose in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. And just as promptly, James Carroll, Boston Globe columnist, son of a general, former antiwar chaplain and activist, as well as recognized voice of ethical authority, began a week-by-week argument with the administration over its actions. In powerful, passionate bulletins, Carroll dissected the president’s exploitation of the nation’s fears, his invocations of a Christian mission, and his efforts to overturn America’s traditional relations — with other nations and its own citizens.

Crusade, the first collection of Carroll’s searing columns, offers a comprehensive and tough-minded critique of the war on terror. From Carroll’s first post 9-11 rejection of “war” as the proper response to Osama bin Laden, to his prescient verdict of failure in Iraq, to his never-before-published analysis of the faith-based roots of present U.S. policy, this volume displays his rare insight and scope. Combining clear moral consciousness, an acute sense of history, and real-world grasp of the unforgiving demands of politics, Crusade is a compelling call for the rescue of America’s noblest traditions.”

Noam Chomsky:
“From the world’s foremost intellectual activist, an irrefutable analysis of America’s pursuit of total domination and the catastrophic consequences that could follow.

For more than half a century, the United States has been pursuing a grand imperial strategy with the aim of staking out the globe. Our leaders have shown themselves willing — as in the Cuban missile crisis — to follow the dream of dominance no matter how high the risks. Now the Bush administration is intensifying this process, driving us toward a choice between the prerogatives of power and livable Earth. In Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky investigates how we came to this moment, what kind of peril we find ourselves in, and why our rulers are willing to jeopardize the future of our species.

Amy Goodman:
“In The Exception to the Rulers, award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, with the aid of her brother David, exposes the lies, corruption, and crimes of the power elite — an elite that is bolstered by large media conglomerates. Her goal is “to go where the silence is, to give voice to the silenced majority.” As Goodman travels around the country, she is fond of quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004

Jacques Derrida died on Friday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 74. The progenitor of deconstruction, the man who delivery the elegy for structuralism, and author of Of Grammatology, Derrida was probably France’s most-famous living philosopher, albeit a very controversial one.


“Derrida, who was born into a Jewish family in Algeria, published his ground-breaking work in the 1960s and went on to achieve enormous influence in academic circles, especially in America.

But in 1992, staff at Cambridge University in the UK protested against plans to award him an honorary degree, denouncing his writings as ‘absurd doctrines that deny the distinction between reality and fiction’.

Derrida also campaigned for the rights of immigrants in France, against apartheid in South Africa, and in support of dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia.

He was so influential that last year a film was made about his life – a biographical documentary.”

Here is the Le Monde obituary (in French). Here’s one of his last interviews (also from Le Monde and in French).

UPDATE: The New York Times has a long and interesting obituary.

Auden’s “The More Loving One”

Continuing with recorded poetry, here’s Auden reading his poem “The More Loving One”, a relatively recent Poetry in Motion choice.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Making sense of Foucault on the Iranian Revolution, 26 years later

The French philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution remain his most troubling. Foucault welcomed the “spiritual politics” ushered in by the revolution.

In a 1978 Nouvel Observateur article on Khomeini and an Islamic state, he wrote:

“One thing must be clear. By ‘Islamic government,’ nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clergy would have a role of supervision or control. . . . It is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience.”

The piece was attacked at the time, notably by the Left. A leftist Iranian exile denounced the choice between “the SAVAK and religious fanaticism”. Maxine Rodinson, the great Marxist historian of the Middle East who saw in the Iranian revolution the beginnings of “a semi-archaic fascism”, practically called Foucault ignorant.

This brief article tries to make sense of the episode and see what lessons it holds for today.

“Two questions for today emerge from Foucault’s Iran writings. First, were these writings aberrations, largely the product of his ignorance of Iranian history and culture?. . . [The second] concerns the whole issue of religious fundamentalism, more important than ever to debates over the crisis of modernity since September 11, 2001.”

(Via politicaltheory.info.)

Did Daniel Dennett admit that there is a “higher purpose” to life?

Andrew Sullivan thinks that this interview with Daniel Dennett shows Dennett admitting that evolution has a larger purpose (higher than the propagation of genes to succeeding generations, that is). I didn’t see it that way, although I did see Robert Wright talking far more than he was conducting an interview.

Wright: “Is it inconceivable to you that . . . there is some larger purpose unfolding or that natural selection is the product of design? . . . that there was a designer of natural selection . . .”

Dennett: “I can imagine that in some loose sense? I don’t know if that’s a coherent idea, but it’s not obviously incoherent.”

Wright: “But you certainly don’t buy it, in any sense.”

Dennett: “I don’t buy it.”

Also check out the interviews with Freeman Dyson, John Maynard Smith, Steven Pinker, Robert Pollack, Francis Fukuyama, and others.

UPDATE: Dennett’s sent an email to Sullivan objecting to the characterization. I can’t find it on Sullivan’s website, but here’s a segment.

“Wright misinterprets his own videoclip (I am grateful that it is available uncut on his website, so that everybody can see for themselves). All I agreed to was that IF natural selection had the properties of embryogenesis (or “an organism’s maturation”), it would be evidence for a higher purpose. But I have always insisted that evolution by natural selection LACKS those very properties. And I insisted on that in the earlier portions of the videoclip.”

Sullivan does, however, provide a full link to Wright’s reply. Here’s the link to Wright’s original account of the interview, in which he begins, ” I have some bad news for Dennett’s many atheist devotees. He recently declared that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose.”


For a site called 3quarksdaily it would be remiss not to mention that quarks look more and more like they are composed, as is everything else, of strings. It is all strings baby. The five (maybe six) versions of string theory continue to look more and more like arms of a single unified theory of everthing. Right now people are calling it M-Theory. ‘M’ for mysterious maybe. Anyway it is amazing stuff. Brian Greene’s book, The Elegant Universe is a very very worthwhile read especially for those who can’t browse through Witten’s latest paper or follow the more insane permutations of Calabi-Yau mathematics. This is cutting edge mind-blowing science.

No Nobel, but “the Arab World” is the guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair

Every October, old publishing/editing types shack up at the Frankfurter Hoff for a week and deal in foreign book rights, taking the first step in the decisive process of what foreign literature we get to see over here in culturally isolated America. These are people for whom cross-cultural communication is paramount, people who believe in a kind of utopian global culture of writing and reading (and selling books). How strange, then that the Fair has bizarrely decided to cite “the Arab World” as their guest of honor at this year’s fair. And has then decided to implement greatly increased security measures over those of the last few years. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s nobel-laureate literary ambassador to the Western world, offered an anemic challenge to the idea of lumping some 20 countries and their distinct literatures under the same name while previous “guests of honor” have traditionally been single nations. “Did the West need to feel its security threatened so that it would engage in a rediscovery of Islamic civilization and Arab culture?” he asked. Probably. And as Edward Wyatt in his NY Times piece implies, the rediscovery of such non-specific, nebulous “culture” looks a lot more like an enlightened “fuck you” from a European nation to the US than it does a genuine literary nod.

More here.

Not Adonis, but Elfriede Jelinek wins the Nobel for literature


“Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy said Thursday, citing her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays.”

The decision to award the prize to a woman, and a poet, was the first since 1996, when Wislawa Szymborska of Poland won. Since the prize first was handed out in 1901, only nine women have won it.” (Read on.)

Nobel watch (literature): is Adonis the odds-on favorite?

Tomorrow, the Nobel prize for literature will be announced. The rumor mill has the Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) as the frontrunner. But then, the rumor mill had him as the frontrunner last year as well. (Adam Shatz’s article on Adonis from a while ago in the New York Times is worth a read.) See here, here, and here.

“The Academy is secretive, leaving pundits to guess the winner based on whether the prize recently went to a novelist, poet or playwright and what was their gender, language and race.

Fredrik Lind of Hedengren’s book store in Stockholm is known for predicting whose works to have in stock. His tip this year is Ali Ahmed Said, the Syrian-Lebanese poet known as Adonis.

‘Arabic poetry is a tradition that has never got any prize and he is the greatest living Arabic poet,’ said Lind.”

Adonis is controversial in the Arab world. He’s been an opponent of Arab dictatorships (not that controversial), a reformer, and has raised the question of Arab attitudes towards Jews (controversial), while remaining critical of it. At once he’ll condemn Zionism and also indict Arab treatment of Jews.

“What is the difference between the position of the Serbian militias which ostracize the Muslim and annihilate him for being Muslim, and this ‘position’ which ostracizes the Jew for being Jewish?”

His near-pagan views of Arab poetry also elicit alarm. For example:

“For in its original, pre-Islamic sense, poetry is inspiration — which is to say prophecy — but without commandments, institutions or norms. However, starting with Islam — and this also deserves a separate study — poetry in Arab society has languished and withered precisely insofar as it has placed itself at the service of religiosity, proselytism and political and ideological commitments.”

We’ll see tomorrow.

Other contenders mentioned in the rumor mill of Nobel watchers include Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Transtromer, Doris Lessing, Hugo Claus, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Ismael Kadaré, Ko Un, Don DeLillo, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Powell’s Book-a-Day versus Paid Online Subscriptions

I subscribe to a well-run and totally free service, Powell’s Book-a-Day at Powells.com, which sends me a book review every day. The reviews come from The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The New Republic, Salon.com, and the TLS. Powell’s does a good job selecting them. Yesterday I received an excellent review by Clive James about a new translation of Madame Bovary. (James had his problems with the book.) The review was originally published in The Atlantic. Out of curiosity, I went to see if I could find the essay in its original context on the Atlantic site. No such luck; you had to pay to see it ($2.95 per article). But at Powell’s, it is available for free.

What a curious state of affairs. The Atlantic is hoping it can sucker readers into paying for web content that it makes available for free elsewhere to promote itself. But the promotion backfires because the only thing I learn from this process is that I can get good book reviews every day from Powell’s for free.

What is the web for, anyway? I’d like it to be a kind of new 21st century encyclopedia, where information is exchanged freely, and where digital archives of great writing can endure. The Atlantic wants it to be an advertisement, essentially, for their “real” product. I think that in the end magazines like The Atlantic and The New Republic will lose out on their internet strategy, at least with readers like me. One reason why: savvy readers know that writers are not ever, ever paid a dime more for a story that is published online as well as in the print version of a magazine. So there is no guilt about not paying.

Obviously, magazines could not long endure if they made all their content available for free online and everybody stopped subscribing as a result. But would this really happen? If a magazine is worth subscribing to, it is worth having around the house; it is worth supporting and paying for. Did the e-book kill the book? I think the system of The New York Times makes a good compromise. Most everything it publishes is available via a free online registration while it is current, and then on a paying basis after its topical relevance has expired. I haven’t noticed that The Times has collapsed financially as a result. The Atlantic – and the most arrogant offender, The New Republic – should follow suit or risk losing increasingly web-savvy younger readers over the long haul. At any rate, the system of internet magazine archiving has not reached its philosophical bedrock yet.

IBM claims supercomputer speed record with “Blue Gene”

“The information technology firm IBM says it has developed the world’s most powerful computer.

The Blue Gene/L system performed just over 36,000 billion calculations a second during tests at IBM’s Rochester office in Minnesota, the company announced on 29 September. Although the claims are unlikely to be independently verified until November, when the next worldwide supercomputer league-table is published, experts have long predicted that Blue Gene/L was destined for the top spot.”

More here from Nature.

Science & Technology Web Awards 2004

“Every year it gets more difficult to separate Web wheat from chaff and pick a handful of sites out of billions to receive the Scientific American.com Science and Technology Web Awards. The Web is no longer just a tool for finding the occasional fact or trivium–it’s a necessity, an integral part of our daily lives, and the sheer amount of information available can be overwhelming. But somehow, once again, we have winnowed the best sites from the rest. We think you’ll agree that the 50 science and technology sites listed here are indeed worthy of high praise.”

More here from Scientific American.

Need a book reviewed? Got $350?

“Kirkus Reviews has long prided itself on being a sort of Consumer Reports for the book publishing industry, proclaiming its independence by steadfastly refusing to accept advertising and producing early, plain-spoken reviews that can amplify or smother a new book’s early buzz.

Now, however, Kirkus is embracing a new spirit of commercialism. This fall, it is starting two new online publications with the Kirkus name: for $350 Kirkus Discoveries will review a new book from any publisher; for $95, Kirkus Reports will recommend a selected lifestyle title in a listing. And for the first time in its 71 years, the company is considering selling advertising in its flagship publication.”

More here by Edward Wyatt in the New York Times.

Sociologists’ Guide to Technology

“Right after you’ve had a superb dinner out, you often want to recommend the restaurant to friends. But sometimes when you later reflect on your experience, you realize that the service was slow and the room stuffy, and your enthusiasm wanes.

That’s my situation in reviewing How Users Matter, a collection edited by sociologists Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch. I’m delighted by their central thesis: that technology analysts need to give more thought to how people use computers, telephones, cars, medicines and consumer appliances. Oudshoorn and Pinch powerfully and convincingly promote paying more attention to ‘how users consume, modify, domesticate, reconfigure, and resist technologies.’ The unifying notion of the ‘social construction of technology’ (SCOT) that they put forth is a powerful idea, one that should have a strong influence on academic researchers and professional developers. In this approach, users are viewed as a social group that helps shape technologies. Technologies in turn are observed to have different meanings for different social groups (for example, a device that’s safe for young people may be dangerous for the elderly). The SCOT approach provides an important counterweight to the technology–centered strategies that guide many managers, entrepreneurs and innovators.”

More here from Ben Shneiderman’s review of How Users Matter: The Co–Construction of Users and Technology edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, in American Scientist Online.

Speaking of blogs and journalism . . .

Continuing on the theme of the Internet, 411blog.net

“[is a] service [that] exists to create a constructive, symbiotic relationship between blogging and traditional forms of journalism.

Reporters: Use 411blog.net to quickly authenticate highly technical or specialized story elements with subject-matter experts drawn from the best the blogosphere has to offer. Simply contact one or more of the bloggers listed by subject area, pose your question(s), and have a small army of experts begin defining and/or explaining the significance of details that could take days (or longer) to elucidate otherwise! You may also arrange to interview subject-matter experts directly. Each listing includes ways to contact a source so you won’t miss getting the information you need before deadline.

Authentication and expert judgment by bloggers (and their readers) is a significant but under-used force in improving journalistic quality. Put it to work for you with 411blog.net!

Bloggers: Use 411blog.net to nominate subject-matter experts, build trust with traditional media, and increase your standing in the blogosphere.”

Take a look around.