April 2010

The Real Science of Avatar - How James Cameron drew inspiration for the flora and fauna on Pandora from life forms on Earth

"The message of James Cameron's Avatar, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray April 22 in conjunction with Earth Day, is unapologetically green. "All life on Earth is connected," the director told me, when I interviewed him for my book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. "We have taken from nature without giving back, and the time to pay the piper is coming."

But Cameron took from nature, too. If the lush, alien jungles of Avatar feel eerily familiar, that's because the director rooted them close to home. His muse for Avatar's fictional moon, Pandora, and its wildly fantastical creatures, plants and landscapes was the planet Earth. In May of 2005, before the film was greenlit by 20th Century Fox, a four-man team of designers began secretly creating Pandora in Cameron's home in Malibu, Calif. The director gave them National Geographic photos, botany books and nature documentaries for reference. Says Neville Page, a concept artist and creature designer behind much of Pandora's spectacle: "The best we could do was try to capture what nature has done so perfectly and expand on it."

This two week summer course will be held in Utrecht, The Netherlands at the Universiteit Utrecht from July 5-16, 2010.

The history of life on earth can be studied by its fossil record. In this approach, each fossil is seen as a window into evolutionary history and paleoecology. Importantly, fossils provide us with essential information about the age of the layers they are found in. Moreover they comprise our single most valuable source of information on the environment in the past. Fossils ranging from marine micro-organisms to large terrestrial vertebrates are thus used as tools to reconstruct time, evolutionary history, climate, and ancient environments. In this course several fossil groups will be discussed and their practical applications will be explored.

A general introduction on the use of fossils to reconstruct time (biostratigraphy) will be followed by lectures on marine invertebrate paleontology, micropaleontology, vertebrate paleontology and plant remains. An important part of the course will consist of hands-on exercises where you will learn how to use fossils for age determination and for environmental reconstruction. Fossil rodents are used to demonstrate how to correlate and date fossil faunas. You will investigate the evolutionary history of marine invertebrates, based on their changing morphology. Marine micro-organisms and plant remains will be employed to reconstruct ecology and environment. Finally, Mesozoic vertebrates (251-65 Ma) are used to demonstrate morphological adaptations to changing environments. The lectures and excersises will be given by staff and guests of the Department of Earth Sciences. The recreational programme will be organised by student societies and the Erasmus network.

This summer school is held under the auspices of the Graduate School of Geosciences.

For more information: [Source NAI newsletter]

The deadline for the Research Focus Group Workshop for Early Career Astrobiologists has been EXTENDED to March 26th! There are a few spots left, and applications will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Applications for the RFG are due by *March 26* and can be found on the RFG website: The second astrobiology Research Focus Group (RFG) workshop will take place the weekend before AbSciCon2010 on April 23-25 at Crockett Family Resort. The RFG workshop is an opportunity for early career astrobiologists to develop original research proposals in a collaborative setting. All costs associated with the RFG weekend, including food, lodging, and transportation, are supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. [Source NAI newsletter]

NASA is accepting applications from science and engineering post-docs, recent PhDs, and doctoral students for its 22nd Annual Planetary Science Summer School, which will hold two separate sessions this summer (19-23 July and 2-6 August) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. During the program, student teams will carry out the equivalent of an early mission concept study, prepare a proposal authorization review presentation, present it to a review board, and receive feedback. At the end of the week, students will have a clearer understanding of the life cycle of a robotic space mission; relationships between mission design, cost, and schedule; and the tradeoffs necessary to stay within cost and schedule while preserving the quality of science. Applications are due 1 May 2010. Partial financial support is available for a limited number of individuals. Further information is available at [Source NAI newsletter]

Researchers from NAI's University of Wisconsin Team studied carbon and iron isotopes in core samples from 2.7-2.5 billion year old rocks in Western Australia. New iron isotope data integrated with previously collected carbon isotope data on the same samples document the sophisticated metabolic diversity of microbial communities that once lived in the region, showing that methane and iron cycling were likely coupled. Their results are published in a recent issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters. [Source NAI newsletter]

Rocco Mancinelli, PI of NAI's SETI Institute Emeritus Team, and his colleagues have published a major review of space microbiology in the current issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. They discuss that, in general, microorganisms tend to thrive in the space flight environment, but that the mechanisms responsible for the observed behaviors aren't well understood. The survival of microorganisms in space was investigated to tackle questions on the upper boundary of the biosphere and on the likelihood of interplanetary transport of microorganisms. While it is found that extraterrestrial solar UV radiation was the most deleterious factor of space, the data the team surveyed supports the likelihood of interplanetary transfer of microorganisms within meteorites, the so-called lithopanspermia hypothesis. [Source NAI newsletter]