Popular Science: Scientist in a Strange Land

Last December, Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced the discovery of a microbe that could change the way we understand life in the universe. Soon she found herself plunged into a maelstrom of bitter backlash and intemperate criticism. A dispatch from the frontiers of the new peer review.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon at Mono Lake, California, where collected the GFAJ-1 bacterium. Her paper in the journal Science, which suggested that the microbe could substitue arsenic for phosphorus, generated significant controversy in the scientific community. (Tom Clynes)

 

This should have been Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s moment in the sun. But as the television crew takes positions, the 34-year-old scientist glances at the gray, churned-up lake behind her and gathers her collar around her neck. On cue, she begins her explanation of this lake’s unique chemistry, her voice rising in volume and pitch above the wind.

She’s halfway through the take when the gulls arrive. They swoop and swirl above the shoreline in a swarm, calling in harsh, jeering tones that drown out her carefully chosen words. As the sound technician pulls off her headphones in frustration, the director Oliver Twinch halts the taping and ventures a smile in Wolfe-Simon’s direction. “How about we try that one again?” he says.

“I think we’ll have to move,” Wolfe-Simon says, peering down toward her boots. “I’m sinking in the mud.”

It is this mud, and the peculiar microbes in it, that have stuck Wolfe-Simon in the middle of one of the most extraordinary scientific disputes in recent memory. Last December, at a highly publicized NASA press briefing, Wolfe-Simon announced that her research team had isolated bacteria from Mono Lake, on the edge of California’s Eastern Sierra mountain range, that could subsist on arsenic in place of phosphorus, one of the elements considered essential for all life.

The research, financed mostly by NASA and published initially in the online edition of Science, jolted the scientific community. If confirmed, scientists said, the discovery would mean that this high mountain lake hosts a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth. It would open up the possibility of a shadow biosphere, composed of organisms that can survive using means that long-accepted rules of biochemistry cannot explain. And it would give Mono Lake, rather than Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where “alien” life was discovered.

Read the rest of the story at Popular Science

National Geographic: John McAfee’s Flying Circus Wants You!

John McAfee stands in the New Mexican playa in front of his trike ultralight, during a Sky Gypsies aerotrekking camping expedition. (Tom Clynes) John McAfee stands in the New Mexican playa in front of his trike ultralight, during a Sky Gypsies aerotrekking camping expedition. Click photo above for slide show.

Big ideas come easy to John McAfee. First he pioneered antivirus software, then instant messaging. Now the mercurial magnate thinks he’s on to something truly extraordinary: personal Icarus machines.

“And now, I’m going to count from one to five,” John McAfee says, his baritone dharma-salesman voice resonating through the small theater filled with meditating pilots. “And when I get to five, go ahead and open your eyes. Ready?”

One…

I’ve always considered myself an überskeptic, immune to the whole range of hypnotic experience. But I’ll be damned if John McAfee doesn’t have me believing one morning in early January that I can fly like a bird.

The day after my arrival at McAfee’s Sky Gypsies compound in the sparse and spectacular border country of southwestern New Mexico, I’m on the back of an open-cockpit, winged tricycle, swooping through the air above the Peloncillo Mountains. Up front, in the birdbrain position, McAfee pulls the control bar toward his right hip and sends us diving into Skeleton Canyon.

“This is what Icarus dreamed of,” McAfee yells, as we pirouette around a granite spire, then level off five feet above the floor of the Animas Valley, skimming over ocotillos and longhorn cattle at 65 miles an hour. McAfee stomps the throttle and aims for the crown of a small butte, then flicks the bar forward to spirit us over the top.

As we turn eastward in a broad, climbing arc, I glance over my shoulder and catch a glimpse of nine other airborne craft. They fly behind us in fast-and-loose formation, silhouetted against a backdrop of looming mountains. McAfee leads the squadron across a parched plain toward a sprawling, dry lakebed, and eases us down until the rear tires make tentative contact with the playa. Then, confident that the surface is solid, he cuts the throttle and plants the trike firmly on the ground. One by one, the others drop out of the sky and come to rest in a semicircle.

McAfee takes off his helmet and reaches into his saddlebag for a self-heating can of coffee as three women in red-and-black jumpsuits hop from their machines and run toward each other with hugs and hoots. The hugs become tackles, and the tackles devolve into a giddy wrestling match in the dust.

Opening the coffee, McAfee slices his finger deeply on the pull tab. Someone runs for a bandage as McAfee holds the wound together with his uninjured hand, squinting as he takes in a panorama of Mad Max flying machines, dust-kicking wrestlers, and jagged mountains pinned under a cerulean sky. As the dripping blood turns the dust at McAfee’s feet into dark mud, he glances at his watch and a broad smile creeps across his face. It’s high noon in the middle of nowhere, and John McAfee’s flying circus has arrived.

It’s hard to imagine another sexagenarian multimillionaire having as much fun as McAfee, the lead evangelist of the new adventure sport he has dubbed aerotrekking. According to McAfee, people can indeed fly like birds, and they don’t need full pilots’ licenses or constrictive, gas-guzzling tin cans to do it. What they do need are wide open spaces, a bit of training, and a new class of flying machines with kite wings, motor-driven rear propellers, and handlebars for steering. Variously called weight-shift ultralights, personal air vehicles (PAVs), or simply trikes, the machines have a range of 300 miles or about five hours in the air.

McAfee’s backcountry version of ultralight flying may or may not catch on, but if it does, it wouldn’t be the first time the world has found itself swept up in one of his improbable schemes…

Read the rest of the story at National Geographic