Famous Scotland volcano has only one 'heart,' not three

Hundreds of planets are being found
beyond our solar system, including some
that just might be habitable. But can we
ever confirm signs of alien life beyond our
solar system? It's theoretically possible —
but in a new book about exoplanetology,
"Five Billion Years of Solitude," science
journalist Lee Billings suggests that the
task may be beyond humanity's financial
The good news is that this is shaping up
to be a golden age of astronomy — thanks
in part to the Hubble Space Telescope, the
data from the Kepler planet-hunting
telescope, the yet-to-be-launched James
Webb Space Telescope and a host of next-
generation ground-based telescopes that
will be coming online. The prospects have
never been better for finding Earth-size
planets in Earth-type orbits around
sunlike stars.
However, it's not enough to find those
alien Earths. Those discoveries just open
the way to a bigger question: Does life
exist on those distant worlds?
Sniffing out life
In his book, Billings traces how scientists
have worked out ways to detect life's
signature: For example, you might see an
anomalous abundance of oxygen and
methane in a planet's atmosphere. Or you
might pick up a whiff of gases that are
harder to detect, such as nitrous oxide or
dimethyl sulfide.
Making the case for life on extrasolar
planets would probably require putting
more than one next-generation telescope
into outer space, Penn State geoscientist
James Kasting told Billings.
"For any interesting planets we'd find at
first, there could be a whole series of
follow-up missions done at greater and
greater expense of time and money to nail
down what exactly is being seen," Kasting
said. "It could go on for 50 years, a
century, who knows."
NASA already has committed itself to
following up on the planet quest, with a
$200 million mission known the
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite , or
TESS, due for launch in 2017 — plus the
$8.8 billion Webb telescope , now
scheduled for a 2018 launch. The quest
will also involve ground-based telescope
projects such as the High Accuracy Radial
Velocity Planet Searcher, the Automated
Planet Finder and the European Extremely
Large Telescope . Will all that be enough?
"I fear it's just going to leave us on the
cusp," Billings told NBC News.
In "Five Billion Years of Solitude," Billings
traces the successes and the setbacks in
the search for life among the stars. He
delves into five decades of ups and downs
in SETI, including the financial challenges
that have dogged the Allen Telescope
Array in California. He analyzes the
reasons why an ambitious mission known
as the Terrestrial Planet Finder fizzled. And
he highlights the hopes that surround
potential future missions — ranging from
the low-cost ExoplanetSat project to a
grand scheme to use the sun as the
gravitational lens for a cosmic-scale
telescope capable of imaging an
exoplanet's expressways.
Follow the money
The problem is finding the money to take
the planet quest to the next level —
especially in an era of tighter budgets,
and in the wake of the cost overruns and
schedule slips that have plagued the James
Webb Space Telescope. Billings wishes
there were extra money to build and
launch a separate starshade for the Webb
telescope, which would help scientists
reduce the glare of alien stars when they
look for planets. But that kind of add-on
just isn't in the budget.
"If I could gather the astronomical
community in a room, I would implore
them to consider the fact that the golden
age of astronomy in which we all live has
no guarantees of continuing," Billings said.
"It's not going to be around forever, and
it depends on the largesse of taxpayers
and the politicians who pull the strings."
The way Billings sees it, finding and
characterizing other Earths should be at
the top of the priority list for space
science — and although it's possible to
draw upon the generosity of billionaire
philanthropists and crowdsourcing
campaigns, it's impossible to pursue the
quest without NASA.
"If we're going to be dependent on the
largesse of billionaires to answer these
scientific questions, these existential
questions — you gotta wonder, what the
heck is NASA for? Now everyone is trying
to find any way but NASA to do it,"
Billings said. "We aren't going to find alien
Earths and life beyond the solar system
through the fantasies of multibillion-dollar
Kickstarter campaigns. That's a non-
More about the planet quest:
Astronomers spot lone planet without a
Flash interactive: The search for other
NBC News archive about planets
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science
editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log
community by "liking" the NBC News
Science Facebook page, following b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds. Share on Facebook Discuss 50 Who needs humans? Chimps go ape over sweet- talking robot Oct. 16, 2013 at 6:32 PM ET We lost the cats to the Roombas , and the dogs to the pointing PeopleBots . Now, it seems that robots are casting a spell on curious chimps, too. When 16 chimps from the Yerkes National Primate Center in Georgia encountered Robota, a doll who made pre-recorded chimp sounds from her chest, they tried to befriend her and talk to her, and they even banged on their cages to invite her to play. "In one case, a chimp laughed at the robot while gesturing 'play,'" Marina Davila-Ross, a psychology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and part of the team who watched the chimps interact with Robota, wrote in Ars Technica. Advertise Two chimpanzees, Faye and Jarred, offered the robot "toys," she writes. Almost all the chimps tried to communicate with the bot using gestures or facial expressions, Davila-Ross and her co-authors note in a new study in Animal Cognition . The chimps were particularly interested when the bot — to the extent that it could — mimicked apelike movements. They were less interested when her movements seemed more human. For anyone who's surprised that our primate relatives seem smitten with a robotic playmate, remember that we form bonds with robots, too. Studies have shown that robotic pets were sometimes more successful than live ones at engaging elderly adults . When it comes to robotic companions, chimps and humans seem to agree on one thing: So what if they're not real? — vi a IEEESpectrum and Ars Technica Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. You can follow her on Facebook , Twitter and Google+ . Share on Facebook Discuss 5 Ocean health suffers from overfishing, index finds Oct. 16, 2013 at 6:11 PM ET The health of the world's oceans are inextricably linked to human health and well-being; more than one-third of people worldwide depend on seafood for 20 percent of their animal protein, according to the United Nations. To gauge how well the oceans are doing, a large team of researchers created a wide-ranging measure of the oceans' health. On Tuesday, the second annual edition of the Ocean Health Index was released, which shows that unsustainable fishing has taken a toll on fish populations around the world, putting many people's food security at risk, said Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the project's lead scientist. Advertise The index ranks the health of the oceans in 10 different categories, including subjects such as purity of water and levels of tourism, on a country-by-country basis. This year the world's oceans scored a 65 out of 100 possible points, unchanged from when it was first released last year, Halpern told LiveScience. While it could be worse, the score suggests there's "definite room for improvement," he said. Overfished The index's category of "natural products" — a measure of how well humans sustainably use non-food ocean products such as fish oil, sponges, ornamental fish and coral products — received the lowest score this year, with a 31 out of 100, according to the index's website . The low score is an indicator of overfishing, which takes fish and other ocean resources out of the ocean faster than they can be replenished, a statement from the index said. For this same reason, the category of food production also scored low, a 33. [Video: Humans Hit the Oceans Hard] The index also found that many countries have less natural protection from storms and hurricanes than they did several decades ago, with a number of these are in the annual path of tropical cyclones, according to the index. Halpern said the index has helped him visualize and integrate many disparate aspects of the world's oceans into a single whole. "It was really transformative in how it helped me understand the oceans (and) gives me far deeper insight into what is doing well and what isn't when it comes to improving the oceans' health," Halpern said. Halpern and colleagues have worked on the index for more than six years, and at different times up to 20 scientists have been employed full time. The plan is to update the index every year, to see how patterns change over time. For instance, in the span of one year certain changes have popped up; for example, increased pollution in Eastern European countries has reduced several countries' scores, Halpern said. Some debate Not all ocean scientists are finding the index useful, though. Jake Rice, chief scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told LiveScience he was "cautiously positive about it" when the index first came out last year. Since then, however, he thinks that the index has gotten too complicated, in part due to criticisms that it was oversimplifying. "Now it's harder to interpret what the values mean," he said. Rice also said that the index appears to be unduly affected by countries' economies and relative isolation, and that values aren't likely to change much from year-to- year. For that reason, the index may say more about static or slowly changing aspects of each country — such as the geography and economy — than about the relative health of the ocean in each area. And because of this, a yearly update provides little value for a lot of effort, he added. That said, over longer time scales, it could help show trends in ocean health in different countries, Rice said. Becky Goldburg, director of ocean science for the PEW Charitable Trusts, an environmental and public policy group, said the index helps to combine disparate information about the world's oceans and how conditions change over time. The focus on overfishing is apt, she said, since "it's certainly one of the major problems in ocean management." Email Douglas Main or follow him on Twitter or Google+ . Follow us livescience , Facebook or Google+ .
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Steffi Burchardt
One of the thousands of cone-sheets from
Ardnamurchan volcano, exposed as an
inclined wall of basalt.The land of the rings brings hundreds of
pilgrims to a windswept corner of western
Scotland every year.
A journey around Ardnamurchan
volcano's well-worn trails is an annual
rite of passage for geology students in
Europe. Regular tourists also brave the
remote trek to the national geopark,
which protects 1 billion years of Earth's
Ardnamurchan's fame comes from an 83-
year-old study that launched volcano
science in Europe. The study, a
meticulous geologic map of ringlike
structures preserved in the
Ardnamurchan volcanic rocks, revealed
the volcano's hidden source: a series of
three magma chambers.
Now, it's time to rewrite history, scientists
Instead of three magma pulses, just one
big push birthed Ardnamurchan volcano,
according to a study published Oct. 8 in
the journal Scientific Reports.
"What we see is one big magma chamber.
There's not three distinct places," said
Steffi Burchardt, lead study author and a
geoscientist at the University of Uppsala
in Sweden. "It is much more like we see
magma chambers Ardnamurchan is one of four extinct
volcanoes on Scotland's northwest coast
that mark the opening of the North
Atlantic Ocean starting 60 million years
ago. As Greenland drifted away, the first
floods of magma arrived from a hotspot
that now sits under Iceland . In epochs
since, glaciers ground away the tops of
the volcanoes, leaving their hearts
Nearly a century ago, British geologists
mapped hundreds of thin, cone-shaped
intrusions at Ardnamurchan. The
intrusions are magma that pushed into
underground cracks and cooled beneath
the surface. They're like guiding arrows,
arranged in a ring, narrowing down
toward their source. [ The 10 Biggest
Volcanic Eruptions in History]
The original mappers, James Richey and
Herbert Thomas, concluded that three
distinct magma chambers fed
Ardnamurchan volcano, because the
"cone sheets," as the intrusions are called,
converged at three different spots.
But when Burchardt and her colleagues
brought Ardnamurchan's geologic map
into the modern age, inputting the
precisely mapped structures into a 3-D
computer model, they encountered a
Instead of three meeting sites, the cone
sheets focused on a single, saucer-shaped
chamber where the roiling molten rock
once awaited its release. The chamber lies
about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) below the
current surface and was up to 6 km (4
miles) long when active.
The size and alignment of the magma
chamber created by the computer model
matches with recent geophysical surveys
of the volcano , as well as displacements in
sedimentary rocks, Burchardt said. (The
covering rocks were shoved and
deformed as the magma pushed its way
Burchardt said that since the 1930 study,
knowledge of how volcanoes form has
advanced tremendously. "They were
among the scientists who laid the
foundation of modern volcanology," she
said. "I guess if they had all the
knowledge we had today, they may have
seen Ardnamurchan differently."
"The mountain is a real icon, so people
have a bit of respect for it," Burchardt
told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.
"Maybe this is the reason why scientists
haven't dared