Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Cafe Wall Illusion

Back at the end of the 1970s, when I was finishing my PhD at Bristol University, the exterior of a cafe close to the university had a black and white tile decoration that gave the illusion of being distorted from the true. One of Professor Richard Gregory's research team spotted it, and it became the subject of a famous paper, Border Locking and the Cafe Wall Illusion.

Just recently, I noticed that a local barbershop had been given a makeover, which included tiling that nicely shows the wedge distortion of the cafe wall illusion:

In their paper, Gregory et al described experiments which locked down the parameters that evoked the illusion, and proposed a model, border-locking theory, that suggested the functional mechanisms in the human eye that generated it. A nice example of how observation of something unusual in the everyday and close examination and dissection of what it is and how it works can uncover an underlying fundamental truth. Science in action!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

ET v. Shadow Life

A media advisory note posted by NASA yesterday about a news conference 'to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life' loosed the cats of speculation on the pigeons of improbability. Had NASA received a signal from passing ETs? Spotted signs of life on an exoplanet? Discovered that some kind of photosynthetic process was depleting hydrogen, acetylene and ethane in Titan's atmosphere? Found a fossil on Mars? Calmer voices, having checked out the research pedigrees of the scientists involved, suggested something more Earth-bound, but potentially very exciting: the discovery of microoorganisms with an alternative, arsenic-based metabolism: hints at a shadow biosphere.

Why is this important? Well, because they are neighbours in the periodic table, arsenic shares many chemical properties as phosphorous, and phosphorous is an essential element for life as we know it: amongst other things, it is at the heart of molecules that store and transfer energy, and helps to form the backbone of RNA and DNA. Arsenic is a poison to many organisms because it interferes with phosphorous biochemistry, but although the bonds it forms are weaker, it could also substitute for phosphorous; in other words, there may be organisms with biochemistries based on arsenic rather than phosphorous, forming a shadow biosphere in parallel with our own. Several of the scientists mentioned in NASA's note have been searching for signatures of that shadow biosphere like that, in places like Mono Lake, California, which have higher than average concentrations of arsenic. If they've found evidence for it, there are all kinds of implications, not least that life may have evolved more than once on Earth. And that's genuinely exciting.

By the way, I published a short story about searching for a shadow biosphere last year. 'Shadow Life' is still online, at Discover magazine's site. Read it now, before science overtakes it tomorrow!
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