The Loom

Your Guide to Alien Life

I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised when Popular Mechanics got in touch with me a while back about writing a story about aliens. I had always associated the magazine with people who knew how to take their car apart down to the last bolt and put it back together again. (Me, I gush with pride if I can change a wiper blade.) But they’ve actually been making a big push into science reporting, and they wanted me to look into what scientists are learning about life on other planets. I ended up focusing specifically on how life on Earth (and in labs) can guide the search for aliens. That’s an angle I’ve been interested in for some time now, and has led to stories in Smithsonian and Discover. With moons spouting ice and other surprises in recent months, it was tricky to keep the story up to date, but I’m proud of the results, which are in the September cover story. You can get the text and some of the images online here. And if that doesn’t satisfy you, you can also learn how to build a shed.  


  1. #1 I heart Phylogenies of arthropods
    August 28, 2006

    But, but, we haven’t even discovered life on other celestial bodies yet. It’s so frustrating, damn the speed of light! We need to…you know, with te probes and such, but that would take forever. Maybe if we can make a strong enough telescope, we could penetrate the atmosphere of extrasolar terrestrial plantets and see what’s going on. What do I know, though, I’m just a drunken, enthused layman.

  2. #2 darkymac
    August 29, 2006

    Hi Carl,

    You may like to update your Smithsonian Life on Mars link.
    All of the links to the Smithsonian site on that page, including the one in the comments, now redirect to the Smithsonian home page.

    A search got me this working one with the “print” link still yielding a single page text version.

    Kudos to Popular Mechanics for commissioning the article from you.

  3. #3 darkymac
    August 29, 2006

    That first link was stripped from my html, so I’ll just copy it again for clarity

  4. #4 oldhippie
    August 29, 2006

    “Titans atmosphere may be similar to that of our planets before the introduction to life on Earth.” I wonder about Lovelock’s idea: that IF life existed on a planet for a long time, it would end up changing and controlling the atmosphere as it has on ours. Thefore the key to whether there is life on a planet lies in the nature of its atmosphere and if that atmosphere is different from what would expect assuming no-life.

  5. #5 drew hempel
    September 2, 2006

    evolution=ecological crisis via industrial revolution.

    So aliens gotta save us!

  6. #6 drew hempel
    September 2, 2006

    Also Zimmer will you read “Doubt and Certainty” by professor Sudsharshan (1998) since PZ is too busy.

    Also I studied under Karl Zimmerer and he just got a Guggenheim. He’s at UW-Madison and has a brand new book out (pricey academic thing)…. maybe you two should hook up? He’s speciality is indigenous techincal knowledge and biodiversity of potato cultivars but he’s branched out into sustainability.

    My background is policy on this stuff which is why I have 7 civil disobedience arrests and work part-time data entry.

    drew hempel, MA

  7. #7 drew hempel
    September 2, 2006

    I know, I know … but the best Alien book is “Evolving the Alien” by chaos math prof. Ian Stewart and biology professor Jack Cohen. (came out 2004?)

    I don’t agree with them (ok I’m anti-science but I’m strange that way) — regardless it covers all angles and is under the radar in the U.S.

    Can’t remember the Brit title….

  8. #8 Peter Erwin
    September 3, 2006

    Very nice article!

    I have one tiny, tiny pedantic correction:
    On page 4 (How Hot or Cold Can Life Get?), you mention that the ozone layer protects the Earth from “cosmic rays.” The ozone layer actually protects the surface of the Earth from short-wavelength ultraviolet light from the Sun. Cosmic rays are high-energy charged particles (usually protons and atomic nuclei) which mostly come from outside the Solar System, and are blocked by the atmosphere as a whole.

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