Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We Come in Peace, with Snack Chips for All

The domain of human commerce is about to grow dramatically. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a group of British astronomers plans to transmit a Doritos (TM) commercial - yes, you read that correctly - to the star system 47 Ursae Majoris. The broadcast, according to the article, will "mark the first interplanetary solicitation of the hitherto untapped alien food market." (Aisha Labi, "The Universal Snack," Chronicle of Higher Ed. [March 28, 2008], p. A6.)

47 Ursae Majoris is a G0-1 class star in the constellation Ursa Major, about 46 light-years from Earth. It has at least two Jupiter-sized planets. Researchers at U.T. Arlington believe that the star could potentially have one or more rocky planets within its habitable zone (the range of orbits within which liquid water can exist, assuming the theoretical water-bearing planet also has some kind of atmosphere). There's a good article on the star and its known planets here. If there are potential customers in the UMa 47 system, we might expect their earliest snack orders in 2100 AD.

This Interstellar Doritos Initiative reminds me of an economics paper presented at an Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in the 1990s. The paper's author observed that the total value of our planet's imports exceeded the total value of its exports, and argued that this was decisive proof that humans were involved in interstellar trade. "Space aliens," he concluded, "are stealing American jobs."

(The photo above is of a radar dish at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association station in Norway, which will transmit the UMa 47 Doritos solicitation on June 12th.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

From Yenisei to Arizona

The March 4th issue of the Anchorage Daily News reported on a fascinating paper by linguist Edward Vajda, who, after ten years of research, has found a solid link between an obscure Siberian language and the large Athabascan (or Na'Dene) language group of western North America. After interviewing many of the surviving speakers of Ket, the language of a native Siberian tribe from the Yenisei River valley, Vajda found "several dozen cognates" in the vocabularies of Ket and the Athabaskan languages, and identified consistent morphological rules governing the transformation of Ket words into Athabascan. His findings help to reinforce the Beringian hypothesis of Native American origins - the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from eastern Siberia during the Pleistocene epoch. If he is correct - and his peers in the field seem to think he is - Vajda has also discovered one of the most widespread human language groups. Pre-historic Ket and Athabascan speakers can be found in Siberia, in the Alaskan panhandle, in western Canada, in California, and in present-day Arizona and New Mexico, where the Athabaskan-speaking Navajos settled around 1400 AD. And they accomplished this expansion without draft animals, wheels, or sailing ships.