Friday, June 12, 2020


And now for some news from the world of science. Calculating the odds of intelligent life in the universe outside the sphere of our own Earth will be of most interest to SFR authors perhaps, but there are plot bunnies to be found in an item on growing tiny livers in the lab, too. And we may all benefit from a technology that promises the manufacture of a new type of transparent face mask. Read on for more details.
The planets exist; now what are the odds of life?

Odds of Sentient Life Better Than 3:2: Scientists have long known that primitive life arose on Earth almost as soon as conditions were stable enough for it some four billion years ago. But the time required for those simple lifeforms to evolve into sentient humans capable of our complex technological civilization required a very long period of time. Given all the factors that affected that journey from no life to sentient life to “advanced civilization,” what are the odds that other such life exists in the universe?

In a paper published this month in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, David Kipping, an assistant professor in Columbia's Department of Astronomy, uses a statistical technique called Bayesian inference to calculate those odds. Initially, the probabilities fall into four main categories: Life is common and often develops intelligence; life is rare but often develops intelligence; life is common but rarely develops intelligence; and, finally, life is rare and rarely develops intelligence.

Kipping then ran the scenarios against each other using data from the geological and biological record of Earth over and over again. This is the essence of the Bayesian inference method, “to weigh the models against each other,” according to Kipping. In the professor’s analysis, based on carbon-13-depleted zircon deposits, life emerged some 300 million years after formation of the Earth’s oceans, a blink of an eye in geologic time. Given similar conditions, the odds are very good that life would emerge in the same way on other planets. 

As far as developing life, then, the odds are good. Says Kipping, “. . . a key result here is that when one compares the rare-life versus common-life scenarios, the common-life scenario is always at least nine times more likely than the rare one." 

Whether that life evolves into complex, differentiated and intelligent forms is more difficult to determine, however, given humanity’s late appearance on Earth’s stage. Kipping puts them at somewhere between 3:2 and 50:50.  He remains optimistic, however. "The analysis can't provide certainties or guarantees, only statistical probabilities based on what happened here on Earth," Kipping said. "Yet encouragingly, the case for a universe teeming with life emerges as the favored bet. The search for intelligent life in worlds beyond Earth should be by no means discouraged." 
Tiny Human Livers Transplanted into Rats: Okay, this one sounds like some kind of horror movie plot, but the experiment, performed successfully by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh, may have real benefits for the 40,000 Americans with liver disease, especially the 14,000 waiting for a liver transplant. The scientists converted skin cells donated by human volunteers to stem cells, which can be directed (through the use of hormones and other chemicals) to grow into any type of organ cell in the human body. In this case they were directed to grow into liver cells placed in a “scaffold” of rat tissue stripped of any rat cells, producing livers of a size that could be transplanted into five lab rats specially prepared to receive the tiny, fully functional human livers.
The livers did their jobs as human organs would for four days, using a functioning vascular and bile duct network. At the end of that time, the rats were euthanized and analyzed to determine the results. The organs had secreted urea and bile acids as they should have, though there were problems with blood flow and clotting at the graft sites.

The scientists acknowledged there is still a long way to go before the technology is ready for use in human subjects. But the first steps in providing an alternative to transplants of human livers (the supply of which is limited) have been taken.

Swiss Labs Develop Transparent Surgical Masks: Now that we have all learned to smile with our eyes, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) have come up with a face mask for medical professionals that does its job without obscuring anyone’s lovely smile. Scientists for these labs have devised a mask made from a transparent polymer with pores small enough to block viruses and bacteria, but large enough to allow the wearer to breathe.

Development of the new material began after the 2015 Ebola outbreak, when Klaus Schönenberger, the head of EPFL’s EssentialTech Center, saw doctors and nurses in Africa, covered head-to-toe in protective gear, place photos of themselves on their chests so they would appear more human to their patients. He was looking for a way to humanize the blank face coverings that have become so necessary—and ubiquitous—in this new pandemic, which would also allow the hearing-impaired to read the lips of doctors and nurses caring for them.

The new polymer uses electrospinning to produce a fine, see-through material for the masks. The material is also nearly one hundred percent biodegradable. Funds have already been raised to begin commercial production by 2021, with first priority given to medical professionals.

Cheers, Donna

Information for today’s post provided by: 
“New study estimates the odds of life and intelligence emerging beyond our planet,” Science Daily, May 18, 2020  

“Tiny Human Livers Grown in The Lab Have Been Successfully Transplanted Into Rats,” by Peter Dockrill, Science Alert,

“These Transparent Face Masks Might Make You Feel Normal Again,” by Courtney Linder, Popular Mechanics, June 10, 2020


  1. "Okay, this one sounds like some kind of horror movie plot," LOL My thoughts exactly.

    The advances in science are head-spinning lately. On the debate over if the universe is teaming with intelligent life or nearly devoid of it, I think another factor is time. There may be millions of other civilizations that evolved, but they may have existed at different points over the long life of the universe. So if they're out there, we may be separated by not only the vastness of space, but also eons of time.

    "doctors and nurses in Africa, covered head-to-toe in protective gear, place photos of themselves on their chests so they would appear more human to their patients." My muse is having a plot bunny holiday with that idea. Hmmm...

  2. Thanks for these updates on the advances in science. This was so interesting!


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