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Thursday, June 7, 2007E.T Exist?
Intelligent extra-terrestrials almost certainly exist on distant planets beyond our solar system, leading British astronomers told the government yesterday.
The scientists expect that the first evidence of primitive alien life, such as microbes and vegetation, will emerge within 10 years, with more substantial finds following future space missions.
The experts, from high-ranking UK universities and research institutes, were gathered in London by the science minister, Malcolm Wicks, to describe the latest advances in the search for distant, habitable planets capable of harbouring life.
A recent revolution in technology means astronomers can now spot Earth-like planets orbiting faraway stars, raising the chances of alien life being found. By analysing reflected light, it is becoming possible to find any that may host vegetation and breathable atmospheres.
"Twenty years ago we only had one solar system to study and that's the one we live in. But since then, there's been an explosion in the number of planets outside our solar system that we've been able to detect," said Professor Keith Mason, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and former head of space physics at University College London. Some 200 planets have been detected orbiting stars other than the sun.
Scientists this year announced the discovery of a warm, rocky "second Earth" circling a distant star called Gliese 581, about 20 light years away in the constellation of Libra. Crucial measurements of the planet's surface temperature range revealed it was able to hold liquid water, believed to be a prerequisite for life.
In 2015, the European Space Agency will launch a mission called Darwin, a cluster of four orbiting telescopes that will scour the heavens for life-bearing planets. For five years, the telescopes will peer at 500 stars and conduct spectral analyses of the 50 most promising planets it detects.
"You can be pretty sure that if there's life out there, we've a good chance of being able to say so," said Glenn White, head of astrophysics at the Open University and a scientist on the Darwin project.
Our own existence may already have come to the attention of any aliens who are peering in our direction across the depths of space. Since the advent of radio waves, stray signals have leaked from Earth and travelled as far as 80 light years into space, far beyond the closest stars.
"If there's intelligent life out there, they sure as hell know we're here," said Michael Perryman, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency.
The seven scientists, who included Ian Stevens, head of extrasolar planets at Birmingham University, and Suzanne Aigrain, of Exeter University, all believed that life existed elsewhere. Only Dr Perryman believed humans to be the sole intelligent beings in the universe.
One of the word's greatest collections of historical letters, including a note written by Napoleon to his lover Josephine, has been found in a filing cabinet tucked away in a Swiss laundry room.
The treasure trove of almost 1,000 documents, collected over 30 years by a wealthy Austrian banker, includes letters written by Winston Churchill, Peter the Great, Mahatma Gandhi, Alexander Pushkin, John Donne and Queen Elizabeth I.
One of the rarest and most touching of the collection is a passionate letter written by an apologetic Napoleon to his wife to be, Josephine, the morning after a furious argument.
"I send you three kisses -- one on your heart, one on your mouth and one on your eyes," wrote the chastened lover in a spidery scrawl full of corrections and crossings out.
The letters, which cover more than 500 years and range across art, science, literature and philosophy, are to be auctioned by Christie's in London on July 3 and are expected to raise up to 2.3 million pounds ($4.6 million).
"It really is an incredibly dense, very carefully researched collection," Thomas Venning, director in Christie's books department and a specialist in signed letters, told Reuters.
"To get a collection of letters like this nowadays is really a one-off, it's almost unheard of."
The owner, Albin Schram, began amassing the archive in the early 1970s, steadily building up one of the largest and most comprehensive collections outside a major museum.
Though an inveterate collector, Schram wasn't interested in conservation or display -- the letters were kept in an old metal cabinet in the laundry room of his villa in Lausanne, Switzerland, ordered by size rather than author or date.
When he died in 2005, his family barely knew they were there.
Schram's interests spanned Russian poets, Argentine authors, French philosophers, English politicians and Italian sculptors.
One of the most prized lots, with an auction estimate of up to 120,000 pounds, is a note written by metaphysical poet John Donne to Lady Kingsmill a day after the death of her husband in October 1624.
A NEW York man has sued the makers of a health drink, saying it has given him a permanent erection for the last two years.
Christopher Woods said he drank the vitamin-enriched Boost Plus, made by the Swiss-based Novartis pharmaceutical company, on June 5, 2004.
He woke up the next morning "with an erection that would not subside" and sought treatment of the condition, called severe priapism, court papers say.
Mr Woods, 29, had a penile implant to move blood from one area to another, acccording to the Associated Press.
The lawsuit filed yesterday said Mr Woods later had problems that required him to have blood vessels in his penis closed off, a procedure that lessens the likelihood of an erection.
Novartis's Boost Plus website described the drink as "a great-tasting, high calorie, nutritionally complete oral supplement for people who require extra energy and protein in a limited volume", in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.
Mr Woods' lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, names Novartis Consumer Health Inc as a defendant.
A spokeswoman for Novartis said the company was aware of the lawsuit but would not comment.
A DEVICE that can pick up on people's emotions is being developed to help people with autism relate to those around them. It will alert its autistic user if the person they are talking to starts showing signs of getting bored or annoyed.
One of the problems facing people with autism is an inability to pick up on social cues. Failure to notice that they are boring or confusing their listeners can be particularly damaging, says Rana El Kaliouby of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's sad because people then avoid having conversations with them."
The "emotional social intelligence prosthetic" device, which El Kaliouby is constructing along with MIT colleagues Rosalind Picard and Alea Teeters, consists of a camera small enough to be pinned to the side of a pair of glasses, connected to a hand-held computer running image recognition software plus software that can read the emotions these images show. If the wearer seems to be failing to engage his or her listener, the software makes the hand-held computer vibrate.
Would you trust a computer to warn you that you are being boring?
Discuss this story >> “If the wearer seems to be failing to engage the person listening, the computer vibrates”In 2004 El Kaliouby demonstrated that her software, developed with Peter Robinson at the University of Cambridge, could detect whether someone is agreeing, disagreeing, concentrating, thinking, unsure or interested, just from a few seconds of video footage. Previous computer programs have only detected the six more basic emotional states of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. El Kaliouby's complex states are more useful because they come up more frequently in conversation, but are also harder to detect, because they are conveyed in a sequence of movements rather than a single expression.
Her program is based on a machine-learning algorithm that she trained by showing it more than 100 8-second video clips of actors expressing particular emotions. The software picks out movements of the eyebrows, lips and nose, and tracks head movements such as tilting, nodding and shaking, which it then associates with the emotion the actor was showing. When presented with fresh video clips, the software gets people's emotions right 90 per cent of the time when the clips are of actors, and 64 per cent of the time on footage of ordinary people.
El Kaliouby is now training the software on excerpts from movies and footage captured by webcams. This week she plans to gather the first on-the-move training footage by equipping a group of volunteers, some of whom are autistic, with wearable cameras.
Getting the software to work is only the first step, Picard warns. In its existing form it makes heavy demands on computing power, so it may need to be pared down to work on a standard hand-held computer. Other challenges include finding a high-resolution digital camera that can be worn comfortably, and training people with autism to look at the faces of those they are conversing with so that the camera picks up their expressions.
The team will present the device next week at the Body Sensor Network conference at MIT. People with autism are not the only ones who stand to benefit. Timothy Bickmore of Northeastern University in Boston, who studies ways in which computers can be made to engage with people's emotions, says the device would be a great teaching aid. "I would love it if you could have a computer looking at each student in the room to tell me when 20 per cent of them were bored or confused."
Dutch students have invented powdered alcohol which they say can be sold legally to minors.
The latest innovation in inebriation, called Booz2Go, is available in 20-gram packets that cost €1-1.5 ($1.35-$2).
Top it up with water and you have a bubbly, lime-colored and -flavored drink with just 3 percent alcohol content.
"We are aiming for the youth market. They are really more into it because you can compare it with Bacardi-mixed drinks," 20-year-old Harm van Elderen told Reuters.
Van Elderen and four classmates at Helicon Vocational Institute, about an hour's drive from Amsterdam, came up with the idea as part of their final-year project.
"Because the alcohol is not in liquid form, we can sell it to people below 16," said project member Martyn van Nierop.
The legal age for drinking alcohol and smoking is 16 in the Netherlands.
The students said companies interested in making the product commercially could avoid taxes because the alcohol was in powder form. A number of companies are interested, they said.