Why looking for aliens is good for society (even if there aren’t any)

Professor Ian Crawford from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences writes on the significance of astrobiology for the benefit of society. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.

The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.

Why is this the case?

First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.

By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.

Earth rising above the surface of the moon, as seen from Apollo 8 in December 1968.
NASA

By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.

It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.

Sand dunes near to Mars’ South Pole.
NASA

The cosmic perspective

Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.

It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.

In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.

Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.

The Earth photographed from the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, March 2004.
NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.

Political implications

Alexander von Humboldt, 1843.

There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.

I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.

The ConversationIn concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What’s in a face? Birkbeck researchers delve into what facial expressions reveal

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Birkbeck scientists in residence at the Science Museum have recently run a live experiment with members of the public, to discover how much we understand about people simply by looking at their faces. Two members of the team report on their experiences.  

Ines Mares, postdoctoral research assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences: As humans, we possess the remarkable ability to extract a wealth of information from even a brief glance at a face: we can identify people, judge the emotion they are feeling, assign character traits (rightly or wrongly), and in doing so, continue to thrive as a social species. Because faces are so interesting and processing them well is so important to us as humans, they made an ideal topic to explore in the context of the Science Museum’s ‘Live Science’ initiative.

In the Science Museum we ran a series of experiments to understand what factors make faces more rewarding or appealing – such as how attractive they were, the emotions they were displaying or how old the faces were. We were especially interested to see how these judgements related to our ability to recognise faces, and to see how our results would change for younger and older participants (our experiments tested children from five years of age to adults of almost 90!).

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant.

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant. 

“This was a great opportunity for us to engage directly with people and discuss the type of research we do and the questions that motivate us. It is also a unique chance to reach out and test a much more diverse set of people than we are conventionally able to do, with anyone aged from five to 105 invited to take part in our studies.”

Dr Marie Smith, Senior Lecturer, Lead Scientist with Dr Louise Ewing (UEA) and Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck)

Conducting this type of study, in which we focused so closely on individual differences with such a broad audience was outstanding.  It was a unique opportunity to interact with people from very different backgrounds and ages – something that can be challenging to do in the university labs.

To begin with, we were concerned about people’s willingness to take part in our experiments, but after the first day at the museum we understood that people were interested in being involved and actually wanted to know more about our hypothesis and what motivated us to do this type of work. It was an amazing chance to discuss these topics with members of the public and get feedback on our work directly from them. Initially this idea seemed quite daunting to me, but I ended up loving it, since the majority of people who took part in our experiments (and we had almost 2500 participants) were really motivated and interested to know more – not only about face processing, but also about other aspects of science in general.

Being part of a team running experiments in the Science Museum was an amazing opportunity.  Without a doubt, I would repeat this experience, not only because of the amazing breadth of data we were able to collect, but also because of the opportunity it gave us as researchers to disseminate our work and discuss science in general.

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Professor Anne Richards explains the purpose of our study to an interested volunteer. 

Michael Papasavva, PhD student in the Department of Psychological SciencesEven when working in a hub-science such as psychology, lab life can become monotonous. Surrounded by friends and colleagues who share similar views and challenges, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the bubble of academia.

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer!

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer! 

I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to get out of the lab and be a scientist in residence at the London Science Museum. This prospect invoked childhood memories of navigating this huge and stimulating environment on school trips and family days out; I knew that the experience was going to be awesome (in the nerdiest way possible).

Working as part of a team of 12 researchers, we ran experiments in the ‘Who Am I? Gallery.’ This is perhaps one of the more interesting areas of the museum; the space houses visiting scientists from various disciplines and facilitates their research. Members of the public are free to wander over and volunteer to participate in experiments (or query the location of the toilets or dinosaurs). Our team conducted a range of different face processing experiments that examined the role of development and individual difference on face memory and emotion processing. By the end of the residency, almost 2500 people had participated (832 children, 1487 adults), creating masses of data for us to explore once we were back in the lab.

In addition to generating novel information, it’s the responsibility of a scientist to disseminate that knowledge to the wider public. Our residency provided us with an opportunity to engage with a very wide demographic. I must admit, it was heart-warming to see our younger participants having so much fun with the masks and games we had set up to help draw in the crowds and that so many of our  older participants chose to stay back to discuss our project with us. People genuinely enjoyed giving back to science.

I would strongly recommend the Live Science project.

Photo credits: Science Museum Group Collection

The full science museum team: Dr Marie Smith (Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck), Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck), Dr Louise Ewing (Lecturer, University of East Anglia), Dr Ines Mares (Post-doc, Birkbeck), Michael Papasavva (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Alex Hartigan (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Gurmukh Panesar (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Laura Lennuyeux-Comnene (RA, Birkbeck), Michaela Rae (RA, Goldsmiths College), Kathryn Bates (MSc student, Birkbeck), Susan Scrimgeour (MSc student, Birkbeck), Jay White (Intern, UCL Institute of Education).

Further information:

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Mars rover testing in the Utah desert

This article was contributed by Dr Jennifer Harris from Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Over the last week of October and first week of November 2016 a group of UK-based scientists and engineers carried out the first (of hopefully many) mission simulations of the ExoMars rover.

The Utah desert and site of the MURFI field trail (image credit: Jennifer Harris)

The Utah desert and site of the MURFI field trail (image credit: Jennifer Harris)

The ExoMars Rover

The ExoMars rover is the second half of the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars programme to investigate the surface and atmospheric composition of Mars, looking for signs of life. The first half, the Trace Gas Orbiter, successfully reached Mars in November 2016 and is now preparing to begin its mission.  The second half, the rover, is due to be launched in 2020 and will be going to some of the oldest terrains on Mars. There it will drill up to two metres into the surface to look for any evidence of ancient life.

Before we send over €1 billion worth of technology all the way to Mars, trials using prototypes of the rover and its instruments are necessary to ensure useful and correct data will be returned, and that the scientists who will be involved in the mission operations know how to interpret these data and use them to guide the rover in its exploration. Numerous UK scientists, including myself and some of my colleagues in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, are involved in the ExoMars program and were subsequently thrilled to take part in MURFI, a UKSA-funded field simulation of the ExoMars rover mission.

MURFI – the Mars Utah Rover Field Investigation

MURFI was a collaboration between a number of institutions including RAL Space, UCL, Birkbeck, University of Leicester, University of Oxford, Open University, University of St Andrews, Aberystwyth University, Natural History Museum and Joanneum Research in Austria. With over 60 people involved two core groups were formed.  One group set up camp in the Utah desert near to the Mars Desert Research Station and the Canadian Space Agency team (who were conducting their own rover field trials at the same time). With them were the rover supplied by the robotics group at the University of Oxford and various prototypes of the instruments that are currently being built for the ExoMars rover.  It was this field team who would be operating the rover and instruments, collecting the data requested. A second group gathered in the Satellite Catapult Centre in Harwell where a Mission Operations Centre (MOC) was established. This MOC would command the rover, sending detailed daily instructions to the field team.

MURFI Mission Operations Centre in full swing (Image credit: Pete Grindrod)

MURFI Mission Operations Centre in full swing (Image credit: Pete Grindrod)

Mission Operations – a daily race

Each day the mission operations team downloaded the data (primarily images) collected by the field team the previous day, analysed these and made a decision as to what we wanted the rover to do next. This was a constant race against the clock as these commands had to be sent to Utah by 2pm UK time, 7am Utah time, to give them a full day to complete our requests. Our primary aim in these decisions each day was to identify a patch of ground to drill into that is (a) drillable with the equipment available and (b) likely to hold evidence of past life. This will also be one of the major goals of the ExoMars rover operations team. Identifying the type of geological environment you are in when all you have are a handful of images to look at is significantly harder than if you are able to walk around the area yourself. However, it is exactly this challenge that we face with robotic exploration and thus learning this skill through field trials such as MURFI is a vital part of mission preparation.

Trial outcomes

The final pieces of data are still being analysed and mission debriefing is still to come but it’s safe to say everyone involved learnt a lot about being part of a rover driving team, and in the case of some, being part of a rover! With approximately five years to go before the ExoMars rover begins its mission this was an important step towards ensuring the UK’s planetary science community are prepared for the heavy work of searching for life on Mars.

MURFI rover and instruments (image credit: Pete Grindrod/MURFI field team)

MURFI rover and instruments (image credit: Pete Grindrod/MURFI field team)

Further details

The BBC came to visit us at Harwell one day to film a section for the Sky at Night which can be found at the end of this episode.

More in depth details of the field trial rationale and daily activities can be found at the MURFI blog and via the #MURFI hashtag on twitter.

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Training attentional control improves cognitive and motor task performance

This post was contributed by Emmanuel Ducrocq, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. It is about a paper based on research he and his supervisor (Professor Naz Derakhshan) did in collaboration with Dr Mark Wilson and Dr Samuel Vine, and which is published today in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Emmanuel tweets at @manuduc and Professor Derakhshan at @ProfNDerakshan

tennis-player-676310Successful performance in sports is usually evaluated in terms of technical, tactical or physical abilities. However a crucial index of performance is the ability to perform under stress and high pressured situations. This is especially relevant sports demanding a high level of attention, such as tennis, golf, archery or shooting.

Recent research in sports psychology has shown that a key factor responsible for poor performance in sports under pressure is the inability to focus on what needs to be done and reduce distraction. This is often referred to as attentional control: the ability to resist distraction and attend to task goals efficiently. If athletes can’t exercise attentional control efficiently then they cannot plan and execute a skilled movement flexibly. The pressure to perform well, increases anxiety and so maintaining attention focus on task goals becomes exceptionally challenging giving way to worries, and doubts about performance  as well.

Attentional control has usually been targeted in sports by trying to promote specific gaze behaviours which has proven to show benefits to motor performance in sporting tasks such as golf or basketball. Crucially though, while this method is useful, it hasn’t been able to identify the underlying mechanisms responsible for sports improvement.

In a series of three exciting studies we wanted to improve motor task performance and we specifically focussed on tennis, which requires good attentional control to flexibly resist distraction. To this end, we trained inhibitory control using a computer-based training task to see how it could improve performance in a tennis task.

In the first experiment, participants were allocated to a training or control group and underwent six days of training on a visual search task that included task-irrelevant distractors requiring inhibition (training) or contained no distractors (control). Performance was measured pre- and post-intervention using an antisaccade task measuring distractibility. We found that training elicited a near-transfer effect; as performance on the antisaccade task was improved in the training group, and not in the control group. This was important to establish, as it showed that training on the visual search task could improve inhibition on another unrelated task.

In the second experiment training on the same paradigm showed transfer benefits on an attentional control index that we validated for tennis performance. Tennis players were assessed on a return of serves task and we found an initial far-transfer effect of training. Participants in the training group displayed an enhanced ability to focus on the ball around the time of contact with the ball.

The third experiment pushed the boundaries of this work further by assessing the potential effect of the training task on an objective gaze measures of inhibitory control during performance of a tennis task. Participants’ pre and post intervention performance was assessed on a volleying task performed under pressure while their gaze behaviour was recorded. We found a substantial effect of training on tennis performance when levels of pressure were elevated. Transfer effects of training were also observed on a specific gaze behaviour index of ‘inhibition’ in the field, confirming the mechanism by which training protected participants against the negative impact of anxiety.

Taken together, we have shown that a simple computer-based training task that reduces distraction and improves attentional control can have direct transfer benefits to tennis performance under pressure. This can obviously have great implications for improving motor performance in any competitive sport that needs to be performed under pressure.

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