Planets, that is....outside our solar system....we (that is, the scientific community, of which I'm a junior member) have pictures:

A quick, up-to-the-minute but not dumb-downed presentation of the science can be found at this Science Express article, viewable as a PDF file. It comes with a wonderful schematic diagram in color at the end of the file that compares the two planetary systems imaged with our Sun and other well-characterized systems.

There's also a pretty good video with animations providing the context on these findings:

Let's be clear on what the long-term implications of these research programs are for those of us who study biology. If Earth-like worlds exist, they are going to eventually be visualized, and not just in the infrared band, but with visual light. Spectra will be able to detect the presence not just of elements, but of whether certain building blocks of life (amino acids, etc.) are present. The probability that a given world's spectra is consistent with or points toward the presence of life elsewhere in the universe will be estimated. As more such systems are discovered, an estimate of life's prevalence in this universe based on actual data will become feasible, as opposed to models like the Drake equation.

When we compare this data with the models, we are likely to come to some conclusion about the degree to which the capacity for life seems 'built-in' to our universe's structure. It could turn out either way, but my money is on the intuition that life, given the appropriate initial conditions, is inevitable, an inherent property of our universe's physical laws. I hope I live long enough where the debate on such a topic moves past intuition.



Well, since I've last posted a LOT has happened, including a historic election. I've also, as I feared, been asked to account for the pacing guide in Biology. More on that later, once I know more. Besides, I don't want to say anything negative right now. I just want to focus on what this last week has meant to me personally. I went to a party on election night sponsored by Democrats of Fresno County:

My wife (the former Republican) used to brag about how she was going to 'cancel my vote' on Election Day and, indeed, she did exactly that as far as the Presidential race was concerned in both 1996 and 2000. She was a solid supporter of the President's decision to go into Iraq initially, and I can remember telling her that while I had misgivings, I not only supported the troops, I supported the decision to go into Iraq on the basis of the intelligence laid out by Colin Powell to the U.N. I wanted to believe in Secretary Powell, I wanted to believe that my President would never lie to me or make such a momentous decision on less-than-compelling evidence. I wanted to trust the Bush Administration, but the moment the President pronounced 'mission accomplished' I began to get my hackles up. How could any mission of any sort be said to be accomplished when the alleged weapons of mass destruction had not been located?

As time went on, my wife eventually lost her faith in President Bush's leadership as well. For her, the Iraq war was a turning point. By 2004, she actually cast her vote for Senator Kerry. Dismayed at how Kerry's lead in the polls evaporated in the churches of Ohio, my Reagan Democrat of a spouse became increasingly distraught over our young men and women being placed in harm's way for the neocons. So, for her and I to share this night, where Bush and his surrogates were being routed, was a great moment:

But this wasn't really a partisan moment as I experienced it. I met more than a few Republicans at this gathering. While the local Dem leadership crowed over the ear-splitting PA, I nodded my head in agreement to Senator McCain's gracious concession speech and saw many faces at that gathering hanging on his every word, tears in their eyes. As the week went on, I began to see this as not merely an exciting and intriguing, but life-altering. In my life I have seen many acts of bigotry, ignorance and plain out-and-out hatred piled around me, like a jagged wall of ugly stones. Truth to tell, I've probably laid a few of those stones myself, and I would be willing to bet that all of us could say something similar. We've all been too quick to judge someone by their skin color, their gender, their house of worship. We've all yielded to the temptation to quickly fit another into a stereotypical role that fits our experience rather than take the time to know them as people. We've all known fear, and anger, and mistrust driven not by what we know, but by what we think we know.

On Tuesday night, the American people said, in effect, that they want to be better than that. Racism and prejudice are still alive in our republic, but more and more Americans want to get beyond the old divisions, and get down to the business of coming together to making the world a better place. It was as if they blew a gaping hole in that jagged wall of ugly stones, and then poured through it, driving a path for others to follow. What is on the other side of that wall is unknown, and scary. But it is a road that (for the first time in many people's memory) that we have chosen to travel together.

In this surprising odyssey, people come together. For example, this picture shows me shaking hands with a man I greatly admire, Dr. Ron Martin. We don't see eye-to-eye on an issue of great moment to me, which is to say evolutionary biology. Dr. Martin is a Reasons To Believe-trained apologist for old earth creationism. He has described passages in the textbook I use as an 'abomination' and feels very strongly that 'theistic evolution' almost inevitably leads down a slippery slope to a loss of faith. He's an evangelical Christian (Baptist) who strongly defends the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture. He and I are in truly different camps both scientifically and theologically on these points.

Nevertheless, Dr. Martin is even more enthusiastic about President-elect Obama than I am. It turns out that Ron worked as an unpaid volunteer for the Obama campaign within Fresno County, which (amazingly) appears to have actually gone for the Illinois Senator this year despite being Republican-dominated Limbaugh Country. Me? I gave $20 to the party, talked it up to people who asked me my personal views, but said rather little about the election otherwise.
Ron, by contrast, was cold-calling people and laying it on the line, purely based on his conviction that Sen. Obama was the choice that America needed. So what can I say? We just had to shake hands!

But, as interesting as that is, that's not my election story. You see, I left that party early. I had a 9:30 game with my softball team (the Knights). It was a game we needed to win if we were going to clinch our league. So, with my Obama T-shirt still on, I drove out to the sports complex. Many of my teammates had voted for McCain and grimaced at my shirt, but we strapped it on and went out there and played as a team. About halfway through, nursing a 10-run lead and with the season's outcome no longer in doubt, I felt a great peace. The political drama unfolding is part of our country, but (with apologies to all the politicians who got themselves in hot water by using this phrase) 'the real America' is also about people coming together from all walks of life to do things: to work, to play, to worship (or not) as they choose, coming together to continually reweave the fabric of our community.

And this is what we're going to need next year. It's going to get worse before it gets better, maybe a whole lot worse. We need to come together as a team, play hard and win as a team. And we will. I love my country, and I am proud to know so many people from all walks of life who have helped smash the wall of division and doubt. Tops on that list are our troops, who have protected our country and inspired us to rethink the direction of this country. Happy Veteran's Day, everyone, and may the Union be preserved!