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The bean has landed

cloud gate.jpg
“Cloud Gate” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park

By Margaret Harris

Is this a strangely shiny cosmic singularity? An artist’s impression of life inside a tokamak reactor? An alien spaceship?

All good guesses, but actually it’s the underside of a sculpture called “Cloud Gate” that sits in a public park on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore. From the outside, it looks like a giant mirror-clad coffee bean, and it does a nice job of reflecting a slightly warped version of the city’s skyline — plus a few camera-happy journalists who wander past in search of lunch.

I’ll leave figuring out the bean’s optical properties as an exercise for the reader, because I’m on to bigger things: specifically “Our planet and its life: origins and futures,” which is the rather grandiose theme of the 2009 AAAS meeting. In practical terms, this means that most of the scheduled talks seem to fall into one (or more) of three categories: astronomy, environmental science, and evolution.

I plumped for the first and last category this afternoon by attending a briefing on “The Cosmic Cradle of Life.” During the session, Tony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke about how observers have found more than 150 different types of molecules — including ethylene glycol, or antifreeze — suspended in the interstellar medium. These discoveries have provided support for the idea that life on Earth (and potentially elsewhere) might not have required a complex homegrown chemical soup to get started — the key ingredients could have come from space instead.

Maybe they got there inside a giant mirrored bean…

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