Dec. 16, 2005 | 8:55 p.m. ET
Find your star: 'Tis the season for spacey gift-giving — and from now until Valentine's Day, you can expect to hear plenty of offers to name a star for a loved one. Such arrangements are the "pet rocks" of the astronomy trade, because the registry that matches up names with stars has absolutely no official standing.

Only the International Astronomical Union can give official status to the name of a celestial body, despite all the claims by "international" registries, as has been pointed out year after year. The IAU just might accept your suggestion if you're an astronomer who has discovered something, or can persuade such a person to take up your cause — as we found out in January . But don't expect your sweetie's name to live on in the astronomy books just because you've sent $40 or $50 to a mail-order outfit.

This year, there's an extra twist to the "name-a-star" offerings: Houston-based Space Services Inc. will throw in some time on the SLOOH Observatory's robotically controlled telescope so that you can gaze at "your" star over the Internet.

Space Services is the same outfit that is due to send the remains of scores of loved ones into orbit next year, ranging from "Star Trek" engineer James Doohan to Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper . The company says it plans to send the star names and personal messages into orbit as well, and will provide buyers with the usual array of star charts and certificates.

Frankly, the SLOOH angle is more interesting to me than the star-naming angle: SLOOH sells packages of online telescope time during which you can control 14-inch (356mm) telescopes at an observatory in the Canary Islands via the Internet, or tag along for an online group outing. The astronomical images pop up on your computer display.

If you're looking for a low-cost name in the heavens, you just might luck out by piggybacking on someone else's honor. Here's how it could work: Go to the IAU's alphabetical list of minor planets and look for a name that suits your purpose — say, asteroid Boyle, or asteroid Smith, or Kitty or Toni or Wil. Take note of the number in front of the name, then plug that into JPL's asteroid orbit finder.

I feel a lot better knowing that there's an official asteroid Boyle out there, between Mars and Jupiter — and it didn't cost a cent. You could even print up a do-it-yourself certificate with the orbit and official designation as a quickie holiday gift for the space buff on your list. I'd be quite satisfied with that. But if you've got a spare asteroid sitting around that you want to name Alanboyle or Cosmiclog ... don't let me stop you.

Dec. 16, 2005 | Updated 10:35 p.m. ET
Scientific storms: This week was a big one for the controversy over stem cells and cloning , and whether what seemed to be a breakthrough in May has turned into a scandal. Next week could well be just as big for the controversy surrounding evolution education and intelligent design . The current thinking is that a federal judge could issue a ruling in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover intelligent-design case as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

Stay tuned for updates on both subjects in the days ahead. Just today, the U.S. Senate gave final congressional approval to legislation setting up a national databank for umbilical-cord blood and bone marrow — something that people on both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate can support.

Here's a selection of the e-mail feedback received on stem cells as well as the evolution debate.

William J. Cashore, M.D., Brown University Medical School, Providence, R.I.: "The 'snafu' in the Korean stem cell project may damage not only the reputations of the scientists and universities involved, but also public trust and scientific credibility for the technology itself. We won't know for some time whether Dr. Hwang's approach is reproducible as a reliable source of the cells to be studied. The scandal hints at serious flaws in the ethics of 'big science' under pressure to produce breakthroughs and money, not the least being an appearance of very weak standards for supervision and co-authorship by senior investigators often distant from the lab benches and notebooks where the work is actually done.

"The ethics of co-investigation and scientific authorship have received some recent discussion, but apparently not enough to assure the honesty and accountability which such a crucial scientific undertaking as high quality stem cell research requires. We have enough public distrust of science and technology already without undermining and distorting a proper appreciation of an important branch of biology which has come to us with such overinflated expectations.

"Putting aside moral and 'theological' considerations for the moment, in my opinion the proper subject and goal of stem cell research would be a better understanding of normal and abnormal early human development with relationship to reproductive failure, malformations, growth of cancer cells, etc.

"For now, the idea of using human embryos, however derived, as spare parts depots for potential cures is an unfulfilled expectation and will be ethically problematic to some because of too many restrictions and to others because of not enough restrictions. Let's just get back to the basics of good developmental research and defuse the hype and rhetoric about cures on the one hand, and on the other the acrimonious mischaracterization of thoughtful people who would like to see progress in this research area but still have unresolved moral reservations about it. The apparent laxity and dishonesty which now clouds the Korean project will cause a few opponents to crow inappropriately over the latest failure, but will deeply trouble other reasonable people who think that ethical standards must be held exceptionally high for this type of research."

Michael Wood, M.D., M.P.H.: "... As a physician, I'll be among the first to agree that stem cell research has the possibility for great medical wonders in the future.  That word, 'possibility,' means very many things to so very many people.  Most people in society today seem to have very little concept about the differences between possibility, probability and potential (hey, they all start with 'p,' don't they?).  That, however, is not the direct cause for my concern over stem cell research.

My concern, as demonstrated by this latest event, is that the ethics of stem cell research (indeed, many other fields of scientific research as well) is at best poorly defined.  In fact, the pre-eminent ethic found in the field seems to be one whose underlying principle is 'if it can be done, it should be done.' The leading researchers in the field are the ones who produce results (and any will do) fastest, regardless of any considerations except perhaps grant money. Obviously, such an oversimplification maligns many fine scientists in the field, but I state it that way to make a point.  As the letter to Science by Wilmut, West, et al. said, "Many patients and family members of patients with degenerative diseases place great hopes in regenerative medicine."  Is it too farfetched to wonder if such hopes have been falsely raised in an effort to obtain more research money?  Given the current scandal, it doesn't seem that implausible.

"One could say that great disservice, or even harm, has been done to those patients and family members by scientists raising those hopes by pointing to possibilities without any proven potential.   More importantly, however, is that there are just too few questions being asked about the research to begin with. Scientists are understandably frustrated by the amount of legal, political, and media interest in their field when it seems to interfere with their ability to do research instead of bringing additional grant dollars.  However, such scrutiny is required to force questions to be asked that the scientists themselves seem reluctant to ask.  'Is it right to do this research at all?'  Such a question has no place in a realm where the only guiding principle is to ask 'can it be done?'  Therefore it falls to others to ask the questions.

"'Is it right to do this research at all?'  I actually think that it is right to do this research, but if I'm honest I would have to say that I really don't know.  That's why I welcome the current debates and think that we should limit the research at this time until, for lack of a better phrase, we know just what we're doing.  Too many questions are still unanswered, too much potential is still unproven.  And this latest scandal only goes to show that we can't necessarily trust the scientists doing the research to answer the questions alone."

Turning to the evolution debate:

Michael Breland, M.D, Ph.D., Walla Walla, Wash.: "Your recent science vs. religion 'experiment' was quite interesting. However, in every discussion of this type I've read, there is always the same conclusion about intelligent design: You can't test it, therefore it's not scientific. I felt Rosemary Karalius' comments especially poignant in this aspect. She said: '... it isn't in any way useful from the standpoint of modeling.' I agree that in the present form intelligent design is not testable. However, I would disagree with her next statement that 'It could be true, but it doesn't matter.'

"If it is true, it matters a lot. Hopefully the reasoning behind that is obvious, since what we believe determines how we live and behave. As Einstein said, 'It's theories that tell us what we can believe.' However, in spite of the monumental importance of this issue, I have yet to see anyone suggest that the theory of intelligent design be modified so that it is testable. There are numbers of responsible people, groups, and organizations studying related topics with just that goal in mind. However, I have yet to see anyone discuss any of them. Perhaps they are not controversial enough, or perhaps there are so many flaky groups out there that it is hard to find the serious ones.

"As a start, I would suggest Ken Wilber's book 'The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.' He asks those hard questions and makes suggestions that point in the direction of resolving this millennium-long problem.

"The other point I always see made is that if we accept intelligent design, this will cause the United States to fall even further behind in science worldwide. I understand the concern from the standpoint of eroding science by accepting intelligent design as it stands. However, with a good, testable theory, I think it would open up an area of research that would enrich our culture in many ways. We have reached the point where we now have the tools and the knowledge to rethink our ideas in this area and reach forward and study them in a responsible, respectful way. In doing so, I would predict it would create a revolution in how we do things, similar in richness to that of the discovery of integrated circuits. To do otherwise is to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room."

Doug Reitsch, Shelton, Wash.: "It occurs to me that while science in the narrow sense can only pursue a narrow band of truth that follows the classic scientific method (observation, hypothesis, prediction, and experimental testing of the prediction), to begin with the presupposition that there is no God is dangerous. It is theoretically possible that there really is a God, and that the universe, life, string theory, physical laws, etc., are unexplainable without recognition of a creator. If scientists (by the way, I am one) have a problem with allowing for the supernatural, then they (we) need to stay out of religion and philosophy until we have a purely naturalistic, consistent, experimentally verifiable Theory of Everything, which in my reading is at least decades away or perhaps impossible. Bottom line: If there actually is a creator, how can science pursue truth without including the supernatural?"

Joey Capps, Austin, Texas: "I'm both Christian by decision and a physicist and computer scientist by training. Science is nothing more than the attempt to discover how things work. Period. Religion is the attempt to understand why things work. The first requires the building and refining of models that show how something could work. When something comes up that messes up the models, you modify them. The second cannot be determined by any amount of science and can only be based on your personal beliefs and faith.

"As a scientist, using the methods I have been trained in, I cannot tell whether there is a God or not. Nor does the question come up in that setting, as I am pursuing how, not why. As a Christian, I believe because I believe, I have faith because I have faith. I feel that I am correct. As Christian scientist, I am not arrogant enough to tell God how he did things. I will look and try to build honest models that tell me how. Right now evolution is the best model going, so I accept it. Since the majority of the evidence says this model works, to do otherwise would be to raise myself above God and tell God that He could not have used evolution to do His work. That would be incredibly arrogant and un-Christian. On the other hand, if something comes along to cause us to need to modify the model of evolution, we will do so."

Dec. 16, 2005 | 8:55 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Forbes: The biology of King Kong
The Economist's annual Innovation Awards
'Nova' on PBS: 'Spies That Fly'
Australian Nat'l Univ.: Shakespeare's smoke and mirrors

Dec. 15, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Stem cell snafu: There's no question that the troubles surrounding South Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang represent a setback for his brilliant career as well as the whole field of regenerative research. Just today, Scientific American announced that it was stripping Hwang of his status as the research leader on its top-50 list, and calls for investigations are being sounded from Seoul to Washington.

Over the past year, Hwang's research promised to open the way toward a brave new world of tailor-made stem cells , produced from cloned embryos — not to mention canine clones as well. But if the allegations of stem cell fakery stand up, and if it's true that the colonies of cloned stem cells have all fizzled out in the lab, then it may take months or years for scientific truth squads to figure out what Hwang actually did or didn't do .

Eventually, the truth will out. As Columbia University Medical Center's Gerald Fischbach told The Associated Press, "Science is a self-correcting enterprise, and it's very hard for fraud or wrong results to be propagated. In fact, it's impossible." But in the meantime, some backers of human embryonic stem cell research are wondering how the cloud of suspicion will affect public support for their efforts, while some opponents are feeling just a tiny bit of schadenfreude.

"This is a scandal of historic proportions," Wesley J. Smith, a frequent critic of Hwang's research, observed on his Secondhand Smoke bioethics blog. "The human cloning cause has been set back years, and indeed, it is possible — and to be hoped — mortally wounded."

Even the folks who deeply hope research into therapeutic cloning is not mortally wounded recognize that changes have to be made. In a letter to the journal Science (PDF file), "Dolly" cloner Ian Wilmut, cloning researcher Robert Lanza and other pioneers in the field call for the contretemps to be resolved by the scientific community itself rather than the press or the blogosphere. (Science has a Web page full of open-access resources on the controversy, including Hwang's key papers.)

Wilmut and his colleagues suggest setting up an Internet database for storing the "fingerprints" of stem cells, to guard against sample contamination as well as scientific misconduct. Such a database could conceivably come in handy years from now, for matching regenerative tissues with potential transplant recipients. After all, that's the ultimate goal of the research.

Such databases needn't be limited to embryonic stem cells: Even now the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to boost cord-blood research, involving stem cells that are somewhat less potent (and less controversial) than the embryonic variety. Just today, Wisconsin's governor signed state legislation promoting cord-blood donations, and a couple of months ago New Jersey set up the first statewide cord-blood bank . But on the national level, the issue has become mired in the political trench war over embryonic stem cells. 

Are the political wranglings actually holding up medical breakthroughs? Or are they a sign that scientists should go more slowly on the stem cell frontier? We've already been talking a lot about science and society this week, but my mailbox is still open for comments.

Dec. 15, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Highlights from the scientific Web:
Nature: Alien search merges with other home projects
Defense Tech: Jailhouse tech in the spotlight
Christian Science Monitor: Eyeing Earth from clouds to sea
Sky & Telescope: The highest full moon

Dec. 15, 2005 | Updated 4:30 p.m. ET
Movie reviews from space: On the international space station, Bill McArthur carries a whole string of job descriptions, including station commander, science officer, spacewalker, even experimental guinea pig.

On Thursday, he took up yet another job: film critic.

McArthur's chance to review space movies came during a morning radio chat with students at Mount Carmel High School, facilitated by volunteers from a group called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS. The 10-minute chat was simulcast live on

We've occasionally aired these question-and-answer sessions as a public service, going back to the the days when Russia's Mir space station was still flying.

There are always some basic questions about how astronauts live, work and play in space. But on Thursday, one student asked McArthur whether he thought movies set in outer space did a good job of describing the reality — and got a frank answer in return.

"The movie portrayals are not very accurate at all," McArthur said, "because they just do not capture what it's like to live in the absence of gravity. The movie that did that best was 'Apollo 13.'"

McArthur said living in zero-G was one of the most interesting things about his six-month stint in space. But he told the kids that there are other things he finds even more interesting: namely, "the questions I get from students such as yourselves."

Here are the answers to a few more interesting questions:

  • "The most surprising thing is how hard it is to see mankind's effect on the planet," McArthur said. "For example, cities are really, in most cases, very difficult to spot. They just blend in with the background. The big exception is [that] we can see air pollution."
  • The temperature changes "very little" inside the space station. "We keep it at a nice comfortable temperature in the low 70s," McArthur said.
  • McArthur said he was certain that the station has encountered micrometeoroid debris, although the station's hull has never been breached. "There is a fair amount of space dust out there, so we see it more in the erosion of delicate equipment such as solar panels."
  • McArthur and his Russian crewmate, Valery Tokarev, keep fit by exercising on a treadmill, stationary bicycles and a machine that simulates weightlifting. McArthur is conducting experiments on binary colloid solutions and protein crystal growth in space, but the main experiment is finding out how life in space affects the human body. "We ourselves are experiments," he said.
  • So what do astronauts do for fun? "We like to look out the window and watch the earth go by. It's really quite beautiful. We take a lot of pictures — and also I like to talk on the amateur radio."

To hear an extended excerpt from Thursday's ARISS chat, click on the audio player link at right.

ARISS' mission is to improve the amateur-radio setup aboard the orbital outpost, which serves as an unofficial back channel for astronauts, loved ones and ham operators around the world. Check out the ARISS Web site for the schedule of upcoming school chats.

You can also listen to a couple of our archived school chats, including this audio from a post-9/11 session involving astronaut Frank Culbertson and Manhattan schoolchildren; and this video from last month's space station contact with students at Hermann Middle School in Missouri.

Next year, the space station's astronauts will be expanding the ham-radio program by deploying the SuitSat radio transmitter during a spacewalk. That just might provide one more reason for putting some amateur radio equipment under the Christmas tree.

There's yet another way to make contact with the space station, using nothing more than your unaided eyes: This week, the station may appear in the morning skies over North America, looking like a bright star that's moving eastward at a stately pace. Check out NASA's "Realtime Data" page for the viewing opportunities in your area.

Dec. 14, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Speaking Freely: Intelligent-design decision next week?
New Scientist: Strange new object at edge of solar system
Wired: The hydrogen gold rush is on
Science News: The sum of the parts
ESA accelerates toward new space thruster (via Slashdot)
Dilbert Blog: Intelligence is overrated (via Clicked )

Dec. 13, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Second thoughts on science: Even though the scientific groundwork supporting evolutionary theory is pretty well settled in place, there's a lot of cultural bridge-building to be done. You could contend that intelligent design is not science, just as you could contend that there's nothing substantial to astrology or the "Face on Mars." Yet, all those subjects continue to generate heat, if not light.

So when I gathered up the feedback from last week's year-end review of scientific controversies , I was frankly surprised by the overwhelming sentiment against intelligent design.

That's an interesting outcome of the experiment, and perhaps it demonstrates that mainstream scientists have made some headway after all, in spite of the political challenges in Pennsylvania and Kansas.

But is the experiment repeatable? You can judge for yourself, based on this second round of e-mail feedback received over the past 24 hours:

Jason, Columbus, Ohio: "... It would be nice to hear from people who have both a scientific and religious background. As a neuroscientist and a Christian I have often toiled with these same debates amongst highly educated and diverse groups of people. There is no doubt to the amount of information and importance to humankind science has contributed. However, we do not now nor will we ever possess all the answers of the origins of life and its continuous evolution, and the true ignorance of humans is in thinking that we do. I think those who speak about the ignorance of religious groups are closed-minded themselves and are lacking information. There are many highly educated scientists with great faith. Maybe some of the people who responded in this blog should go out and speak with them."

J.A.C., Fairfax, Va.: "In light of our current declining international position in science and technology (as evidenced not just with diminishing numbers of advanced degrees, but also weakening rates of peer-reviewed publications), your decision to take 'the risk of falling into the "on the one side ... on the other side" trap' is a crisis in itself.

"What you are doing is not 'balance.'  It's dangerous ignorance. Balance is looking at a discovery and allowing multiple interpretations of the data.  It is not looking at a scientific discovery and then getting a non-scientist's viewpoint.  This isn't inside-the-Beltway reporting on politics or an expose on food additives.  This is science. Would you provide 'balance' to a story on who won the World Series?  Or on a story about a flight around the world? Or on the devastation of an earthquake?

"Are we looking forward to reading in your future articles, 'Fundamentalist Christians today denied reports of the earthquake, disagreeing with scientists and instead declaring that Jesus was angry at the people of Pakistan'? Fundamentalists already made such claims about Katrina .

"This must stop.  And the responsibility lies, at least in part, with you.

Mike Angove, Falls Church, Va.: "Can't say I'm too thrilled with how you've framed this 'debate.'  Will you ever allow that this is not science vs. religion? Let's start with some "facts":

"1. Evolution occurred — fact.

"2. Species adapt to changes in the environment via natural selection — fact.

"3. The sum of all these adaptations explains the diversity of life — absolute wild speculation. If methodological naturalism didn't deem the alternative unacceptable (i.e., purpose and design), no one would posit that bits of algae could ever 'adapt' into giraffes ... much less conscious beings (check that ... I guess one guy did) via this meager mechanism.  Add as much time as you want. So the debate isn't whether evolution occurred ... but on natural selection's adequacy to tell the whole story.  Maybe we can start focusing on that ... and lay off the scientific vs. religious demagoguery!"

Dennis McClain-Furmanski: "Please stop with the 'science vs. religion.' The issue is 'science vs. the same old power-mad, misguided, hypocritical zealots we've had to endure for centuries.' Both science and religion have had enough of them. They deserve no more justification in the form of attention, unless it is for explicating their real agenda and the hypocrisy they practice in pursuing it."

Greg Hignite, science teacher: "... I dare anyone who thinks the Bible is mythology to read it and try to disprove it based on historical and scientific facts. You may be surprised at what you find!"

Tim Gallagher, Davie, Fla.: "Bacteria in our small intestines have a better chance of proving our existence than we have of proving God's existence. Science and religion can not be mixed. God's existence is a matter of faith. Science is not based on faith but on observable, repeatable phenomenon. That is fact. I personally believe in God. I also accept evolution as the way it all came about. But if we are to accept the intelligent-design concept in biology, then astrology should be taught as part of psychology. Astrology, at least, has some statistical studies to give it some credence (Michel Gauquelin's works)."

Timothy Gray, Houston: "I've found a site where participants must show a high-school-level proficiency in order to discuss topics. I am no more impressed by 'scientists' who dropped out of religious education at the age of 8 or 10 and are proud of their ignorance, who babble on about the 'myths' of religion suppressing science, without having studied medieval history, than I am about 'religious' people who trust science to bring them cell phones and cars, but not to challenge their beliefs. Anyone who has studied history knows that religion and science have co-existed for thousands of years. My church, the Catholic Church, has used the "Inquisition" for nearly 2,000 years and continues to do so. Despite abuses, and a bad reputation, the Inquisition works. It is now repackaged as 'the Scientific Method,' and I expect this will be not only the story of the year, but of the century."

Rosemary Karalius, Moncure, N.C.: "I think this evolution vs. creationism debate is completely missing the point.  The reason why intelligent design should not be taught as science is simply this — it isn't in any way useful from the standpoint of modeling.  It could be true, but it doesn't matter.  Science is nothing more (or less) than our attempts to build models of phenomena we can't measure or study directly — because they're too big, too small, too far away, or take too long to occur, etc.  Models are never perfect, but they can be refined to the point where they become extremely valuable in furthering our understanding and allowing us to make predictions.  Models must be testable for validity to be useful.  Maybe there is an 'intelligent designer,' but if we need to know what's going to happen next in an epidemic, let the creationists pray, but give me a good model of evolutionary processes."

Garrett Wilson, Overland Park, Kan.: "I wonder what the percentage of the pro-evolution/anti-ID crowd believes in UFOs. I bet there are quite a few hypocrites."

Steven E. Crum, Omaha: "...  I, for one, find science incredibly interesting, and I am as Christian as it gets. I find science incredible simply because God made every single smidgeon of science and, quite frankly, God knows science beyond any human's ability to even come close to comprehending. ... What I don't agree with even slightly is when idiots abuse science by stretching it into lies about the incredible unscientific garbage of evolution or other stupidity. ..."

Jeff Shafer: "If the proponents of intelligent design are successful in foisting their delusions on a new generation of young Americans, they will likely further undermine future American competitiveness in the biological sciences, and possibly in other fields of scientific endeavor as well. Furthermore, given the burgeoning amount of global intellectual talent, the fallout from this will be additionally magnified, with the result that America will fall further behind in the world, both scientifically and economically.

"To those who find the prospect of such a future distasteful, (and what American would not, given the tremendous level of prosperity we have enjoyed during the past century?) I say take action now! Write your representatives and encourage them to improve public education! Vote for those who are proponents of sound scientific education! Run for office with this as your mantra! Get involved in promoting education in your community! And educate yourself and serve as a role model to others. Above all, make your voice heard!"

And now for something completely different ... Marine scientist Ellen Prager, whom I referred to last week as the author of "Adventure on Dolphin Island," weighs in with her own informed opinion on one of the year's biggest science stories:

Ellen Prager, Ph.D., St. Petersburg, Fla.: "Let's not forget a truly catastrophic and eye-opening story. When Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast this summer, scientists had previously warned of just such a potentially catastrophic scenario and its consequences. The numerical models were clearly showing the storm's impending route and potential intensity at landfall. Unfortunately, neither disaster preparedness managers, nor the local, regional and federal government agencies, nor the public heeded such warnings with adequate seriousness and timeliness. The tragedy that ensued exemplifies in horrific and long-lasting detail why science is important to society and how poor of a job we are doing in incorporating it into societal decision making and explaining it to the public!"

Dec. 13, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
‘Space Cadets’ lift off on British reality TV (via Slashdot)
Scientific American: Getting a leg up on land Man on the moon’s age determined
Technology Review: E-voting deadline looms

Dec. 12, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Grading the year in science: What would you say is the past year's biggest controversy on the science beat? In our admittedly unscientific online poll , most users who answered that question said the political and legal battle over evolutionary theory and intelligent design rated the top spot.

The biggest news on that front could be coming in the next few weeks, when a federal judge issues his ruling on a Pennsylvania school district's policy toward intelligent design, or ID — that is, the claim that some aspects of biology are so complex that they can't be explained by natural processes, but are rather best seen as the handiwork of an intelligent designer who shall remain unnamed (wink, wink).

Legal observers are already trying to anticipate how the judge might rule, and what it might mean for the long-running creationism-vs.-Darwinism controversy.

Do the controversies over evolution and other science-related topics noted in my year-end roundup really merit being called "controversies" in the first place? Not in the view of at least one Cosmic Log correspondent:

Mike Donovan: "Your poll is skewed toward the publicity surrounding a 'controversy' — there is no controversy except as created artificially. I also disagree with the headline 'science vs. society.' Whose society? I agree with nothing the fundamentalist right says, yet here it is — they represent society! How about a poll on that?"

Here's a sampling of the other e-mails I've received in response to the year-end science roundup:

Jim: "Well, I'm apt to go more with science. Without science, our world would not be better in many ways, and the research has provided many possible and potential cures in the near future. Furthermore, we have many potential major discoveries that are coming, as well as more in the future that will benefit mankind. Too bad the Christians and major religious groups have such a hold on our political and scientific communities to curb the great discoveries. I blame them for many of the issues we have today in both our science and political environments. What a shame."

Sean Henley: "It is my observation that the most significant science-related social controversy of our time has definitely got to be George W. Bush. He stifles scientific progress at every opportunity. Most significantly of course with stem cell research, but there are too many other less significant instances to list as well. The human race would be far more advanced today if it weren't for the 800-plus years that science was fanatically denied and persecuted in the name of religion."

K. Cameron, Waikoloa, Hawaii: "We must as a nation get back on track to developing and maintaining the highest technical and logical scientific education to compete in the understanding of our world and universe. For too long, politicians have skewed the arguments between science and society/religion for personal gain. No matter how cumbersome, science seeks the truth. The fate of our nation and people should not rest with those who would use demagoguery to meet their selfish aims."

David J. Geracitano: "I'm sorry to rail on you, your article was good. I think it's scary that our culture is so ignorant that some scientists feel the need to blog about their work, lest the public get an inaccurate depiction of it from the media. I especially liked Gavin Schmidt's comment: "But where there is a consensus, I think it's important that the media be able to deal with that in a way that takes you out of the 'on the one side ... on the other side' style of journalism, because I think that confuses the public to a large degree." Beautifully said...

"As the science editor at MSNBC, I am sure that you have some power in deciding what stories get published (do you use that term in Internet news?). We need the media to stop reporting on ID and creationism. Almost two-thirds of the public believes that evolution is invalid. That is just absurd. By reporting the views of these ignorant fundamentalists who can't accept the fact that their religion was built on myth, and reporting them in a nonbiased way, you are simply giving them more credit than they are due.

"There is no debate about evolution. There are just a bunch of uneducated fools saying that it didn't happen, and thousands of experts shaking there heads, incredulous at how to combat such a level of ignorance. Stop making them sound legitimate. If you are going to write about their foolish, mythical view of the world, then at least explain in a nonbiased way, that their views are based on myth. There's nothing wrong with that. Myths played an important role in history and in the development of society. They are not to be taken literally, however, and this is clearly true, therefore, not opinionated. People say that money is the root of all evil, and they're right. But in a modern, open society, money leads to evil only because of its ability to sell ignorance to the masses."

I know there are some of you out there who want to give the other side of the story — succinctly, of course. At the risk of falling into the "on the one side ... on the other side" trap, I'm willing to entertain more of your feedback on the sociopolitical debates surrounding science nowadays.

In the next week or two, we'll be presenting still more year-end roundups — including the biggest scientific breakthroughs as well as the top space stories and images of 2005. So keep an eye out for science surveys that are relatively unsullied by social commentary.

Dec. 12, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Zero-G vs. 300 G’s: The winner of Diet 7UP's "First Free Ticket to Space" contest is J. Landers of Austin, Texas, according to the promotion's sponsors. But Landers won't be using that ticket, said Greg Artkop, a spokesman for Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages. Instead, Artkop told me that the winner went for an alternate prize of $300,000 in cash, which he said was permissible under the contest rules.

I was unable to reach Landers today, but if I had to choose between cash today and a ride tomorrow, I might well have made a similar choice. Although Landers would likely have ended up riding on a Virgin Galactic spaceship, the specifics are still very much up in the air. And there are already several other contest-winning space riders waiting their turn, as I noted last week .

On a related topic, Virgin Galactic is due to provide more details about its spaceport deal with New Mexico this week. Based on advance reports, it sounds as if Virgin Galactic will start with limited operations based at the Mojave Airport in California, then provide space rides from New Mexico starting in 2010 or so, when the yet-to-be-built spaceport is due to be finished. Stay tuned for the full story.

Dec. 12, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Al’s adventures online: The interactive tutorial that won the top prize in the Pirelli Relativity Challenge is now available online, reports Canadian physicist-musician Kiran Sachdev. "Al's Relativistic Adventures" — created by Sachdev, Jackie English and Bogdan Luca — explains Einstein's special theory of relativity in terms that even a ball-bouncing kid could understand. You can even print out a "diploma" at the end of the tutorial. My colleague Clay Frost and I are proud to be their fellow travelers. You can sample some of the other honorees in the "Winner's Gallery" on Pirelli's Web site.

Dec. 12, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
Sub Rosa magazine via The Daily Grail
BBC: The body snatchers' legacy to medicine
National Geographic: Megaplume found in Indian Ocean
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Madness about a method

Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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