Episode 178 – 15th March 2013

We go bee-hind the scenes of an opera about bees! Why alien life might not be as common as we hope, the future of feminism, religion & criminality, weird Popes and outrage at the death of Google Reader.

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Bee Opera by Liz Lutgendorff (ft Lucy Yeomans, Mark Brown and Kelvin Thomson)
Life Isn’t Everywhere by Kash Farooq (ft Prof Charles Cockell)
Feminism Debate by James O’Malley (ft Helen Lewis)
Religion and Criminality by Salim Fadhley (ft Volkan Topalli)
Most Unlikely Popes by Chris Chapman
Free Doesn’t Mean Permanent by Georgia Gale Grant
The sketch at the end is by David Lovesy & Brian Two
The amazing image above is by Stuart Taylor

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4 thoughts on “Episode 178 – 15th March 2013

  1. Kash, something that I always find puzzling when I hear astrobiologists talk about the search for extraterrestrial life is that there seems to be a totally unquestioned assumption that life can only exist where there’s liquid water.

    Now, that may be true on Earth. But life on Earth has evolved on a planet where there is a huge abundance of liquid water. Who’s to say that life based on some completely different sort of chemistry couldn’t exist on other planets?

    I have to say (and I speak as someone with a PhD in chemistry) that I couldn’t actually imagine what sort of chemistry might evolve into life that’s completely different to what we have here on Earth, but then everything I know about the chemistry of life is conditioned by studying how it works here. So just because I couldn’t imagine a different way of doing things, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.

    Do you think astrobiologists have good reason for focussing on liquid water in this way, or could they be missing a trick?

  2. Hi Adam,

    Having recently completed an Astrobiology course with the OU, I’ll repeat what I learnt on that.

    Yes, there is a reason for concentrating on water. It has a number of properties that appear to be an essential requirement for life.
    Living systems need a medium in which molecules can dissolve and chemical reactions can take place. Water has been called the universal solvent because it performs this function so well – basically, it allows dissolved molecules to get close to each other and react.
    And water exists as a liquid in a wide temperature range – and this range is not too cold to sustain biochemical reactions, and not too hot to stop organic bonds from forming.

    Ammonia has been proposed as an alternative to water – it would be liquid on other worlds much colder than Earth. However, at such low temperatures it is thought that chemical reactions that could lead to life would operate too sluggishly and living systems may struggle to become established.

    I highly recommend Lewis Dartnell’s “Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide”. A PopSci level book about astrobiology.


  3. I worked for a parole board in a country other than the US. My experience was that there was some positive weight given to offenders’ reports of being actively involved in faith communities, as distinct from having taken on religious beliefs. This is because some of the things that have been proven to be effective in reducing reoffending happen in most faith communities because of the way they’re organised, not because of their particularly beliefs, eg, opportunities to meet and socialise with non-offending people (you may be surprised to learn that a lot of offenders don’t really know anyone who isn’t an offender or ex-offender, including in their family), making contacts that are useful for getting and maintaining a job, and structured activities throughout the week … ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ appears to be true, sans the existence of an actual devil.

    Ministers of religion often serve on parole boards, but they tend to be quite wary of the conveniently converted, and in such a role it is hard not to notice where religious belief is being used to justify and reinforce offending patterns, not just by the offender, but by those around them. I remember an offender who had particularly serious mental health-related violence, and when his parents came to his hearing it was clear their religious beliefs were a barrier to his future chances — they saw not reoffending as magically associated with being forgiven by god, not with managing his mental health and rebuilding a life. I remember his mother saying, “I promise you he will not reoffend, and if I’m wrong, god will forgive me.” It was quite chilling. I’m glad to say that the minister of religion who was there at the time saw that sort of religious belief as the blistering boil that it was.

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