Jan. 6, 2006 | 7 p.m. ET
Hyperspace hyped: Could extradimensional physics provide a way to propel spacecraft to other stars without bulky chemical fuels, through shortcuts in spacetime that get around Einstein's cosmic speed limits?

The idea sounds like a "Star Trek" dream come true, and it's generated a Warp Factor 7 buzz this week, thanks to a report in New Scientist magazine that makes it sound as if some heavyweights in the physics world might be willing to look into the concept. But when you do a little checking around, there's little sign that the concept is actually gaining serious traction in the scientific community.

The reality behind the buzz boils down to a series of theoretical papers put out by Austrian and German physicists — one of which won a prize from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. (Here are the PDF files for the "best papers" list and the prize-winning paper.)

The papers outline a concept for an eight-dimensional universe where gravitational energy can be converted into electromagnetic energy through "gravitophotons."

"I looked through this stuff ... completely crackpot, as far as I can see," theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss told me in an e-mail early today. He said he found the New Scientist report "irresponsible in the extreme ... they did not interview any real particle physicists, nor talk about the fact that the theory appears to have no real quantum field theory in it."

Case Western Reserve University's Krauss is familiar with the frontiers of physics — and science fiction — as the author of books ranging from "The Physics of Star Trek" to "Hiding in the Mirror," his recently published page-turner on extra dimensions in cosmology and popular culture. Another book by Krauss, "Quintessence," is even among the works cited in one of the papers by Austrian theorist Walter Dröscher and German physicist Jochem Häuser.

In that paper, Dröscher and Häuser suggest that the theory they set forth, based on decades of work by the late German physicist Burkhard Heim, could be tested in the high-energy setting of Sandia National Laboratory's Z Machine. And indeed, New Scientist quotes Sandia researcher Roger Lenard as saying he might be "interested in getting Sandia interested if we could get a more perspicacious introduction to the mathematics behind the proposed experiment."

My efforts to contact Lenard on Friday were unsuccessful, but I know he's a guy willing to give more of a hearing to unorthodox ideas such as interstellar travel (and anti-Darwinism, but that's another story).

In any case, Sandia spokesman Neal Singer told me "it's unlikely that the Z Machine could play a part." Every high-energy "shot" from the federally funded Z Machine costs $100,000, and it might take 10 or 20 shots to build up enough data for an experiment, he said. Right now, it's not even clear how to design an experiment to test Heim quantum theory. "I don't think there's enough certainty to this" to justify the attention and expense, Singer said.

Lots of projects are competing for time on the Z Machine, with the top priority given to the federal government's nuclear-weapons simulations. Other Z Machine projects focus on inertial-confinement fusion energy and the physics of black holes and neutron stars. Thus, it's hard to imagine tests of Heim quantum theory moving to the front of the line.

It's more likely that findings from Europe's Large Hadron Collider , due to begin operation next year, could sort out the issues that Heim raised in particle physics. In fact, researchers hope that the LHC will help resolve a lot of the far-out ideas on the frontiers of physics.

There are always a lot of far-out ideas out there, including hundreds of papers on faster-than-light phenomena. Some far-out ideas even get funded — through the Pentagon or the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, for example. NIAC's past lineups have included spray-on spacesuits and space elevators, and the latest crop will be up for consideration in February.

This week's buzz echoes the flurry of hype over yet another far-out idea, having to do with antigravity drives. At one time, even NASA was studying the concept, known as the "Podkletnov Effect," but the agency cut off funding even before the magnetic spinning-ring experiments were completed. Ultimately, NASA shut down its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program, which looked into way-out ideas ranging from antigravity to vacuum energy.

Krauss saw the hyperspace concept as a case of deja vu all over again, saying that it's "based on other nutty things in NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Program ... a program I helped to end ... and the famous spinning superconductor that demonstrates antigravity, except that no one could actually get it to demonstrate such."

To sample the buzz, check out Rand Simberg's Transterrestrial Musings, Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News and Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit. The bottom line is that the odds against developing a hyperspace drive are astronomical. But we can still dream, can't we?

Feel free to let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback next week.

Jan. 6, 2006 | 7 p.m. ET
Pluto pros and cons: Is Pluto a planet, or is it just one among thousands of iceballs? The controversy has been brewing for years , but the Planetary Society is turning the topic into a full-blown debate.

The discovery of the "10th planet" —a more distant world in our solar system that appears to be even bigger than Pluto — is definitely a blow to the pro-planet side. In his essay, Bill Nye the Science Guy says Pluto still deserves a place of historical honor as "the first of the non-Main Plane, icy dwarf, Plutonian planets."

Meanwhile, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse-Tyson (who is also the Planetary Society's chairman of the board) has long argued for Pluto's demotion.

So who decides? So far, the International Astronomical Union has kept Pluto in the planetary fold. But the Planetary Society wants to hear your reasons for (or against) Pluto's planethood. Check out the society's call for entries, and get your vote in before Jan. 12. A selection of the best reasons why (or why not) will appear on the Planetary Society's Web site in advance of the Jan. 17 launch of the Pluto-bound New Horizons mission.

If you'd like to share any of your reasons with Cosmic Log as well, so much the better. For what it's worth, participants in our unscientific Live Vote have favored keeping Pluto as a planet, and adding anything new that is Pluto's size or bigger.

Jan. 6, 2006 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Birthdays and brickbats: The second anniversary of the Spirit rover's landing winds up as nearly a footnote in rover scientist Steve Squyres' latest mission update. Squyres was far more interested in Opportunity's discovery of a geological feature known as festoon cross-bedding, which may hint at the presence of liquid water during the deposition of sediment.

"The thing I find really striking here," Squyres reports, "is that if it hadn't been for the busted wire in the motor on Opportunity's arm, we would have blown right by this without seeing it. Ironic." (Tip o' the Log to NBC News space analyst James Oberg.)

Meanwhile, Noah Shachtman celebrates the third birthday of his Defense Tech blog with a nod to yours truly. Many happy returns, Noah!

Finally Sam Dinkin takes issue with me on Transterrestrial Musings on the question of whether lunar voyages will become profitable sometime in the 21st century. It's true, I'm skeptical , but I'd be glad to be proven wrong (especially if I can be there for 2101).

Jan. 6, 2006 | 7 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
BBC: New cat family tree revealed
Go on a virtual dig at Egypt's Temple of Mut
Space Law Probe: Regulating rocket rides
The Onion: 'They tried to teach my baby science'

Jan. 5, 2006 | 2 p.m. ET
Visit a celestial cavern: Is it a cosmic cave, or an interstellar smoke ring? Actually, the cavernous ring seen in a new image from the Gemini Observatory is known as the N44 superbubble complex — a hollow shell carved out of the middle of a colossal cloud of gas, by radiation from a cluster of massive stars.

Image: N44 superbubble complex
Travis Rector  /  Univ. of Alaska-Anchorage / Gemini Observatory
Composite color image from the Gemini South Telescope shows the N44 superbubble.
Astronomers believe one or more of the stars in the cluster blew up, blowing out a hole about 325 by 250 light-years across. A close analysis of N44's tunnel-like structure can tell astronomers a lot about the dynamics behind cosmic blasts.

"This region is like a giant laboratory providing us with a glimpse into many unique phenomena," Sally Oey of the University of Michigan said in a Gemini image advisory released today. "Observations from space have even revealed X-ray-emitting gas escaping from this superbubble, and while this is expected, this is the only object of its kind where we have actually seen it happening."

Scientists have spotted smaller bubbles clinging to the wall of the main superbubble. Those regions may have formed as part of the same process that formed the main cavern, perhaps pushed out like cosmic surf foam from a supernova-sparked shock wave.

Another researcher on the N44 team, Philip Massey of the Lowell Observatory, noted that there were "inconsistencies in the size of the bubble and the expected velocities of the winds from the central cluster of massive stars."

Slideshow: The year in space pictures "The bottom line is that there's still lots of exciting science to be done here, and these new images will undoubtedly help," he said.

Toward that end, the full data set behind this new image of N44 from the Gemini South Telescope in Chile is being released to astronomers for further analysis. The superbubble, visible from the Southern Hemisphere, is about 150,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies.

For more superbubble pictures, check out another view of N44 from the Magellanic Cloud Emission-Line Survey, or the images of N70 from the European Southern Observatory.

Jan. 5, 2006 | 8:25 p.m. ET
The space game’s afoot: As I mentioned on Wednesday, SpaceShot founder Sam Dinkin is just a couple of steps away from unveiling an online skill game that offers a suborbital space ride as grand prize. He'll be talking about his plans on "The Space Show" Friday, during a session that also features Rocketplane test pilot (and former NASA astronaut) John Herrington.

Even as Dinkin is gearing up for his own launch, he's keeping an eye on his competition in the space-themed skill game market, Virgin Galactic Quest. Just today he clued me in to the appearance of a Galactic Quest game on the Virgin Skill Web site, which as of yet makes no reference to a space-ride prize. I've been using up some of my free $6 worth of playtime to give the game a whirl.

My editor, Lori Smith, notes that Galactic Quest is quite similar to Zuma, a popular online game that is also available on Virgin Skill. Is this Galactic Quest game the real thing? Will Virgin change it to make the SpaceShipTwo connection more obvious? We'll have to see how this play develops.

Jan. 5, 2006 | 2 p.m. ET
Farewell to Topex/Poseidon: The U.S.-French oceanography satellite known as Topex/Poseidon has ceased operations, ending a storied 13-year mission, NASA announced today. The satellite played a key role in monitoring the sea changes behind the El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, and provided insights into the role of ocean circulation in hurricanes and climate change.

When it was launched in 1992, scientists expected the satellite to last only five years — but Topex/Poseidon far exceeded expectations, providing more than 600 scientists with enough data for 2,100 scientific papers.

The sad news is that the satellite's orientation system finally failed in October, leaving it in a safe but useless orbit 830 miles (1,336 kilometers) above Earth. The good news is that NASA's Jason satellite, launched four years ago, is continuing Topex/Poseidon's legacy. Yet another oceanographic satellite, the Ocean Surface Topography Mission, is in development for a scheduled launch in 2008.

Don't miss NASA's podcast and retrospective on Topex/Poseidon.

Jan. 5, 2006 | 2 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Discovery.com: 'Outlaw' mummy illuminates Wild West life
Slashdot: The physics behind car crashes
Science @ NASA: Dark shadows on the moon
Edge: 'What is your dangerous idea?'

Jan. 4, 2006 | 8:20 p.m. ET
The politics of stem cells: Now that lawmakers are returning to work for the new year, the controversy surrounding human embryonic stem cells is likely to surface again on the national as well as the state level.

Just before the holiday break, a minor tempest arose over a federal bill boosting umbilical cord-blood research — in large part because Democrats worried that Republicans would use that legislation as political cover when it came time to consider the more controversial House-approved Castle-Degette bill easing some of the limits on embryonic stem cell research. For example, some lawmakers might say there would be no need to consider Castle-Degette, because they had already given the basic technology enough of a boost.

In the end, the Democrats let the cord-blood bill go through, trusting that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist would clear the way for a vote on Castle-Degette early this year. Will the newly signed cord-blood law change the political calculations? Will the Korean stem cell scandal have an effect? We just might find out in the next few weeks.

Several states also have the stem cell issue on their political agendas:

  • Missouri: Lawmakers, attorneys and signature-gatherers are exercised over a proposed state constitutional amendment that would provide additional legal protection for embryonic stem cell research.
  • Iowa: Politicians are debating whether to overturn a 3-year-old state ban on somatic-cell nuclear transfer, also known as therapeutic cloning. The issue could play a role in this year's gubernatorial election as well as the bellwether state's stance in the 2008 presidential election, according to the Des Moines Register.
  • New Jersey: A legislative effort to put $500 million into stem cell research appears to be going down to defeat.
  • Delaware:This state's debate focuses on a bill that would set up a detailed regulatory system for stem cell research using surplus fertility-clinic embryos — with those who oppose embryonic research mounting a vigorous campaign.
  • Nebraska: The state Legislature is considering several measures, including a ban on therapeutic cloning as well as reproductive cloning. Here's an unusual take on the issue from the Bioethics Blog.

The National Conference of State Legislatures rates the stem cell debate as No. 9 on its "Top Ten" list of legislative issues for 2006. To find out where your state stands on stem cells and other biopolitical issues, check out the conference's Genetic Technologies Project. To get a quick read on the worldwide situation, consult the World Stem Cell Map. And to keep tabs on the controversy, get the feed from our special report on stem cell research.

Jan. 4, 2006 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Staying dry in space: Although alcohol has always been a no-no on NASA spaceships, it wasn't unheard of for Russian cosmonauts to bring a little vodka or wine aboard their own craft, as noted in this five-year-old report. So it shouldn't be shocking to hear that some Russians feel the time has come for alcohol to be allowed on the international space station.

Last year, Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov said the station crew should have a little nip of wine or cognac every day to ease the tension of orbital life. And just this week, Russia's Interfax news agency hinted that a policy change might be made sometime this year.

Today, however, NASA spokesman Rob Navias nipped that idea in the bud.

"We — NASA — have not changed our policy regarding alcoholic beverages on an operational spacecraft," he told me in response to the Interfax report. "We do not endorse that, nor do we execute that manifest."

Navias said "there's no debate" with the Russians on that point. And he disputed Interfax's claim that a recent cargo shipment to the station bent the rules by including some "chocolate liqueurs" (or would that be liqueur-filled chocolates?) for station commander Bill McArthur.

"That has not happened," Navias said.

Jan. 4, 2006 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Getting set for SpaceShot: Economist/entrepreneur Sam Dinkin says he's just one beta test away from unveiling an online skill game that would offer a ride in space as first prize. The computer servers that would manage the SpaceShot competition are ready to go, he told me today.

"Soon we will be starting our final dress-rehearsal beta test," he said. "If I pass that, I'm open for business."

Dinkin is still holding many of the details close to the vest, but he is willing to say that the game will be a single-elimination tournament, with players putting down less than $5 to enter. Once players are eliminated, they would have to pay another fee to start fresh. The winner of the tournament would get a ticket to ride Rocketplane's yet-to-be-built suborbital spaceship, plus $100,000, Dinkin said.

Assuming that the limited-audience beta test is successful, SpaceShot would open up for a "fully functional" public beta test that would take in money and offer space prizes, Dinkin said.

He noted that the private-sector space race has been getting a lot more media coverage lately, including an observation in The Economist that space travel will soon be almost too "humdrum" for rich folks. Dinkin's also expecting the subject to get wide airing on the BBC's "Horizon" program on Jan. 12. The BBC crew came out to the States to talk with Dinkin and other space entrepreneurs last fall.

Jan. 4, 2006 | 8:20 p.m. ET
A heaping helping of science from the Web:
CNet: Tiny worms survive shuttle crash
Nature: Ocean currents flip out
NASA: GlobalFlyer arrival postponed due to wing damage
Defense Tech: Air Force wants space war game
New Scientist: How brands get wired into the brain
BBC: The surprise secret of soccer's success

Jan. 3, 2006 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Mummy mystery tour: It took about 3,000 years for an Egyptian mummy to make his way back home — after being stashed out of sight, stolen by tomb raiders, sold and resold as a nameless curiosity, then finally recognized as royalty.

But the whole saga, which ends with the mystery mummy's return to Egypt as Pharaoh Ramses I, takes just an hour to tell in "The Mummy Who Would Be King," premiering tonight as part of PBS' "Nova" documentary series.

Video: A mummy's odyssey Could Ramses I, the founder of a great dynasty that some scholars believe included biblical personages , really have spent decades on display at the Niagara Falls Museum? "The evidence points pretty conclusively in that direction," Peter Lacovara, curator of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, told me today.

To reach that conclusion, experts studied the high-class embalming job, and used radioisotope dating techniques to estimate the mummy's age. They took note of the way his arms were crossed — which was no big deal for 2,000-year-old mummies, but a solid sign of royalty for 3,000-year-old specimens. They made skull measurements and conducted full-body CT scans, then compared the mummy's vital statistics with those of Ramses' mummified descendants. They even brought in the alpha male of Egyptology, Zahi Hawass, to confirm the look and smell of a pharaoh.

Ramses I's mummy had been missing for millennia — and the show traces what might have happened to it: Priests apparently moved the mummy out of its original tomb to foil grave robbers, but by the 19th century, the secret cache was found, and Egyptian antiquities dealers moved the mummy out. It was sold to a Canadian collector named James Douglas, who passed it along to the Niagara Falls museum. When that museum changed hands and was closed down in 1998, the specimen was sold, along with other lesser-born mummies, to the Carlos Museum.

Although some researchers had had their suspicions about the possible royal connection even when the mummy was back at Niagara Falls, it was only after the cross-armed specimen came to Atlanta that the mystery got the full attention it deserved. In the end, the experts were convinced that the one-time sideshow mummy was indeed a 19th-Dynasty pharaoh. That's when the Carlos Museum decided to send the specimen back to Egypt.

Usually, curators are reluctant to give up their Egyptian treasures, whether it's the Rosetta Stone or the bust of Nefertiti. Not this time. "We approached the Egyptians first," Lacovara said. "It was kind of the reverse of normal. ... At first they had to be convinced."

Amid great fanfare, Zahi Hawass brought the mummy back to his home country, and it is now installed in a special gallery of the Luxor Museum. But the case isn't completely closed: Although Hawass and most Egyptologists are confident that the mummy was a pharaoh, they're not "100 percent" convinced that he was Ramses I.

During the show, Egyptologist Aidan Dodson says that the evidence doesn't prove the Ramses connection beyond a reasonable doubt — in the sense of a criminal trial — but that the pro-Ramses side would win out in a civil trial. Lacovara agreed with that view: "Any other possible candidate is far less likely. There's no other plausible scenario one can think of."

Genetic testing could conceivably provide the smoking gun, but the Egyptians say that technology is not yet ready for prime time — at least when it comes to identifying mummies. The potential for DNA contamination and spurious results is still too great. As long as that's the case, there's no way Hawass or his colleagues will give the OK to cut samples out of those priceless mummies.

"That is reserved for the future," Lacovara said. "That will be the 100 percent solution, but we have to wait for science to catch up with the questions."

Jan. 3, 2006 | 4 p.m. ET
Real sea monsters: I did a double-take Monday night when the E.T. sleuths of NBC's "Surface" were shown going on a faked-up version of MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" to talk about sea monsters . (Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising, considering that NBC is a partner in the MSNBC joint venture.) If you're looking for sea monsters, you can go to MSN Video and do a search on "Surface" — or you can check out real-life tales of giant squids and 135-million-year-old "Godzillas" of the sea .

Jan. 3, 2006 | 4 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times: Einstein has left the building (via Slashdot)
Scientific American: Innovations from a robot rally
Technology Review: DNA building blocks
ACA: Art in crystallography

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 http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments