May 19, 2006 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Decoding the gospels: By now, everyone knows that the big idea behind “The Da Vinci Code” is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children —and everyone should know that the idea is pure fiction, at least as far as the experts are concerned. One of the world’s foremost experts on early Christianity, Princeton religion professor Elaine Pagels, says that the real story of Christianity’s roots is “much more interesting than fiction,” and that it’s all about power, not sex.

"The idea that Jesus was Mary Magdalene's lover, and husband, and father of her children is pretty farfetched, as far as I'm concerned," she told me Thursday. That's not what was on the minds of the leaders of the early church as they decided which gospels to preserve and which to ban as heretical, Pagels said.

"All of these texts involve authority — who's in charge, who do we trust," she said. "And I do think that happens to be an issue that concerns a lot of people, even today."

Pagel's best-known book, "The Gnostic Gospels," focuses on the gospels that didn't make the cut — and Dan Brown used her work as source material for the novel on which the "Da Vinci Code" movie is based. (It was also March's selection in the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.)

She doesn't expect Brown's version of the story to hew to scriptural scholarship ("Of course Dan Brown is writing a novel, so you can't pretend that he's a historian"), and she'll have nothing to do with all this fuss over the Templars, the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei ("I don't happen to like conspiracy theories"). But she does see Mary Magdalene as a focal point in the debate over the path Christianity took in its earliest years — and how that path has affected the church ever since.

One of the key issues was whether Mary Magdalene — and, by extension, women in general — could hold authority.

"That's what made the leaders of the church more nervous than sex," Pagels said. "Can women speak? Can they be disciples? And the answer in the orthodox church was, absolutely not. The answer in these other gospels was yes, but Peter wouldn't let them."

To hear Pagels tell it, the less orthodox gospels got into a bit of apostolic gossip as well. "They all say that Peter and Mary used to argue over whether she could be a disciple," she said. "Peter was trying to silence Mary — and Jesus kept silencing Peter, and not Mary."

The women's issue wasn't the only point of controversy in the early church, of course. As the church fathers decided what was orthodox and what was heretical, discussions over the nature of Jesus and the path to salvation were even more contentious. There again, the issue of authority entered into the equation, Pagels said.

Some of the Gnostic gospels set forth a radically different perspective on the question. "One sees Jesus as someone who embodies what anyone can be, and that suggests that anyone can find a way to God. ... That could also suggest that you could go a different way," Pagels said.

Scholars are still digesting long-lost scriptures that have come to light over the past few decades, and Pagels credits Dan Brown for being savvy enough to recognize that the new revelations could be woven into a page-turning yarn. "I think he was discovering things that the people he will reach through his novel and his film haven't yet heard about," she said.

"It's very interesting to see how people engage these issues now," she observed.

In a sense, the fascination goes back to a question Jesus himself asked in the earliest canonical gospel: "Who do people say I am?" Here's some of what you had to say, in response to my "Da Vinci Code" reality check from earlier this week:

Jim Jensen, Butuan City, Philippines:"If Dan Brown had introduced 'The Da Vinci Code' as a pure work of fiction, it might have made it through scrutiny as just a good story.  But, alas, not then, either, because the story is really not well-written and not very entertaining.  However, Brown did not present his work as total fiction, and even went so far as to claim that he’d put in hours and hours of research to find the exact historical truth and that he wove it meticulously into his fictional story.  If this is what Brown really tried to do, he failed miserably, because while there is historical fact in the novel, it is so blurred into the folk myth and pure supposition, also in great supply there, that it is all but impossible to extract fact from the mud of Brown’s ineptitude. The real danger of this is, as has been stated by others, that those ignorant of the true facts of Gnostic concepts will think that what Brown has written is the truth and that will inevitably come to give the wrong understanding of what Gnosticism really is or even turn people against it. ..."

Tim, Shawnee, Ky.: "I purchased 'The Da Vinci Code' several years ago when it first came out.  I thought then, as now, that it was a very good and entertaining book of fiction. ... I still cannot see how it can be taken as a serious attack on the Christian faith, it is fiction. A great deal of it is stretched thin, and partial truths are mixed with true facts to make a truly entertaining novel.  The reactions over this seem almost as ridiculous as the painful backlash Muslims made over the Muhammad cartoons ."

Bill Komendant, Warrenville, Ill.: "I was astounded at the vitriol surrounding the opening of 'The Da Vinci Code.' I really don't recall movie critics using so many adjectives intended to tear the fabric of the movie apart. One has to ask whether or not organized religion played any part in this utterly amazing, unprecedented attack on the movie, its director, actors and writers. With that said, you still have to admit that it spurred healthy debate, forcing people to examine their most tightly held beliefs. So, I would have to say there really isn't any downside for people willing to open their minds and ask difficult questions."

Robert: "I am a religious studies major, and I welcome anything that will shake people from their entrenched dogmatic beliefs and open their minds to alternative theories. Even the canonical gospels should be questioned for their authenticity. They were, after all, written by human beings — human beings who were probably interested in furthering their own agenda much as the people who are so outraged about the movie are. This is not heretical or blasphemous. We need to get as close to the truth as we can."

Colleen Cretella, Greenville, S.C.: "If people want a real thriller, let them read the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. No one man could have compiled such a story. If we are to believe the Code, then Jesus went on to marry Mary and let his other disciples be martryed, dipped in boiling oil, crucified and so on. Come on, Dan!"

Ron Bell, Arlington, Texas: "As a minister, I am not worried about the examination of truth. My only worry is that too many people these days do not think critically. A movie such as this can lodge a false notion in too many heads whose owners will never work to dislodge by investigating further."

Maria Cicio,Omaha, Neb. "The movie hype is negative for both the spiritual and the skeptical quest — in fact, it is negative for our modern American society as a whole. A scholarly or even a spiritual perspective based on existing evidence — be it literary, archaeological or other — is healthy and desirable. Unfortunately, the average person who reads the book or sees the movie will most likely not further their knowledge or learning beyond these two mediums. All you end up with is a vast number of people who think they learned something based on a purely fictional work. The average person is much more likely to devote their time to debate over who should win this season's 'American Idol,' or pore over the tabloids to find out with whom Lindsay Lohan is most recently picking a nonsense fight. The only benefit the current hype over 'The Da Vinci Code' supplies is to those cashing in as average Americans flood the box office."

James Tabor, chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte: "Not to be self-promoting here, but I had the unfortunate fate of publishing a serious but accessible book on the historical Jesus right in the fog of things this past April. For me, it was the result of a lifelong research project: What do we know about Jesus and how do we know it?  The book is called 'The Jesus Dynasty.' ... There is a Web site, of course: JesusDynasty.com, but also a nice archive of reviews, pro and not so pro.  I thought the Salon.com piece was particularly thoughtful and well done."

D. Johnson, Columbus, Ohio: "I was bit mystified at first with all the hype surrounding 'The Da Vinci Code.' In fact, the hype made me wonder how much of it really had a basis in fact. Surely some of it must be true to engender such passion! Then I considered the opposite viewpoint. I mean, how many people really believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago, or a serpent can talk, or Noah took dinosaurs on his ark, or Jonah was swallowed by a whale, or Methuselah lived to be over 900 years old, or Jesus was resurrected — oh, is that too far? It's only the most extreme believers who would see these biblical tales not as metaphors and life lessons on faith but as as literal history, who would be bothered by a fictional thriller with some religious claptrap used to move the plot along. And it is these same extreme believers who are thin-skinned enough to attack a fictional book on its historical accuracy, scientific discovery on its 'liberal dogma' and anybody who doesn't believe as they do as heathens going to hell (whether you believe in hell or not). I'm sure my modest e-mail meets with the same derision, even though my main argument is that if everyone would just chill out and practice a little tolerance, we would all be better off, liturgicals and seculars."

This is just the tip of the e-mail iceberg. Next week, I'll try to put together a second helping of "Da Vinci" correspondence — unless enough of you tell me you're absolutely sick of the subject.

May 19, 2006 | 8:30 p.m. ET
More ‘Code’ talk on the World Wide Web:
The New Yorker: Hollywood heresy
AIP Inside Science: Best-kept secret of 'The Da Vinci Code'
Discovery Channel: 'Da Vinci's Lost Code'
ScienCentral: Da Vinci's flight plan decoded

May 18, 2006 | 9:40 p.m. ET
An army of planet hunters: A team of professional and amateur astronomers has detected a Jupiter-scale planet circling a sunlike star 600 light-years from Earth, using off-the-shelf equipment that's within the financial reach of thousands of stargazers.

The detection, made using a linked pair of 200mm telephoto camera lenses, adds to the list of more than 190 extrasolar planets. But even more importantly, the XO telescope project signals that legions of high-end hobbyists could well join the search for other worlds.

Image: XO-1b
G. Bacon / STScI / NASA / ESA
An artist's conception shows the planet XO-1b circling its parent star. The planet is roughly the same mass as Jupiter, but it completes one orbit in just four days.
"The discovery suggests that a fleet of modest telescopes and the help of amateur astronomers can search for transiting extrasolar planets many times faster than we are now," the leader of the research team, Peter McCullough of the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in today's announcement of the find.

McCullough and his colleagues — including nine other professionals and four amateur astronomers — assembled their system from commercially available equipment rather than the ultra-expensive, custom-made components usually required for the planet quest.

"To replicate the XO prototype telescope would cost $60,000," McCullough said. "We have spent far more than that on software, in particular on designing and operating the system and extracting the planet from the data."

The team set up the XO telescope at the summit of Hawaii's Haleakala volcano and gathered observations from tens of thousands of bright stars over the course of two years. A few dozen particularly promising stars were singled out, including a sunlike star in the constellation Corona Borealis that the team called XO-1 (also known as GSC 02041-01657).

The planet, designated XO-1b, was detected using the transit method, a novel approach for finding other worlds. It involves watching a star for regular dips in light intensity that can be correlated with the transit of a darker planet over the star's disk. In XO-1b's case, the star's light faded by 2 percent every four days — indicating that a planet was circling the star in a tight orbit.

Other observations, using different methods and bigger telescopes, led the researchers to conclude that XO-1b is at least 90 percent of Jupiter's mass. The results have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (PDF file).

Image: XO telescope
Jeff Stys  /  STScI
The XO telescope consists of two 200mm telephoto camera lenses and looks like a pair of binoculars.
Some amateurs already spend tens of thousands of dollars on sophisticated skywatching equipment — and they can play a huge role alongside professionals in several fields, ranging from the detection of asteroids and comets to the study of supernovae . On yet another front, thousands of amateurs will soon be poring through Stardust @ Home imagery looking for grains of interstellar dust. Who knows? Maybe the first Earthlike planet will be found by an amateur.

In fact, McCullough believe the XO-1 star system is eminently worthy of further study, by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes as well as by grass-roots skywatchers.

"By timing the planet's passages across the star, both amateur and professional astronomers might be lucky enough to detect the presence of another planet in the XO-1 system by its gravitational tugs on XO-1b," he said. "It's even possible that such a planet could be similar to Earth."

To learn more about the search for other planets, including the ins and outs of the transit detection method (which is to be used big-time by NASA's Kepler spacecraft), check out our "Other Worlds" interactive .

May 18, 2006 | 9:40 p.m. ET
‘Idol’ scorecard: So how well did the "DialIdol" telephone-traffic analyzer anticipate the outcome of the "American Idol" reality-TV singing competition this week? DialIdol got the order of finish exactly right, with Elliott Yamin at the bottom, even though the actual vote tally was so close that it could be just a happy coincidence for the software's programmer. The final test of DialIdol's computer model is due next week — and unscientifically speaking, Taylor Hicks has been mentioned as the early favorite. Click here to trace earlier updates on the DialIdol experiments.

May 18, 2006 | 9:40 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Popular Science: Winning — and losing — the first wired war
NASA: Lunar orbiter cleared for launch in October 2008
Lunar Lander Challenge Weblog
New Scientist: Looking for aliens on the moon

May 17, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Beyond ‘The Da Vinci Code’: The hype over “The Da Vinci Code” is reaching its zenith with the movie’s premiere at Cannes, providing another shot of publicity for unorthodox religious claims and grand conspiracies. But how much truth is buried in the "Code"?

The movie , like Dan Brown's novel, weaves a fast-paced plot around the idea that Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene, and that a secret society has been wrangling with Christian orthodoxy over this hidden knowledge ever since. Like the book, the movie has stirred up angry protests from organizations that are getting a bad rap, such as the Catholic-affiliated Opus Dei .

Scholars who focus on the frontiers of scriptural study generally agree with mainstream religious leaders on this one: There’s a lot of hooey wrapped around slivers of the Bible story. But at least some scholars say that if the hype gets people thinking about what they believe ... well, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Harvard Professor Karen King, who has written extensively about Mary Magdalene and the role of women in the early Christian church, hopes the book and the movie will raise awareness about lesser-known versions of the scriptural story. These "non-canonical" books, also known as the Gnostic gospels, include the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and the recently published Gospel of Judas .

Slideshow: Secrets and symbols "It's a positive whenever it leads people to ask questions, to find out what these new gospels are," she told me today. "It's negative if they don't take it further. ... That would be a big problem."

King says she assumes that moviegoers will realize the story is a work of fiction, not a documentary. And she hopes they won't blindly accept the "Da Vinci Code" version of Christianity, even though a recent British survey indicates that could well happen.

Already, "The Da Vinci Code" and its ilk have added some much-needed perspective to the traditional Bible stories. For example, for centuries Mary Magdalene was portrayed as little more than a reformed prostitute who fell in with Jesus' crowd. "Now everyone, including scholars and the Catholic Church, agrees that that portrait is not accurate," she said.

Mary Magdalene has now become a media-hyped "it" girl — but more seriously, scholars have come to accept her as an influential follower of Jesus who never got her historical due. Does that mean she was Jesus' secret lover? "The Da Vinci Code" and other books may make that claim, but there's absolutely no evidence of that even in the non-canonical scriptures, King pointed out.

"One sees that they're not really promoting any kind of sexual relationship at all," she said. The Gospel of Philip may make mention of a kiss between the two, or claim that Mary was Jesus' most loved disciple — but all that is clearly set in a spiritual rather than a sexual context.

"He loves her more than the other disciples, because she understands the teaching and is able to preach the gospel," King said.

Another common "Da Vinci Code" misconception is that the Gnostic gospels were judged heretical because they portrayed Jesus as more of a human figure, King said: "In fact, these texts portray Jesus as only divine, and not human. Their heresy is not that they claim he was human, their heresy is that they claim he was only divine."

Video: Matt talks with ‘Da Vinci Code’ cast Looking beyond the scriptures themselves, "The Da Vinci Code" builds its page-turning plot around the conflict between the guardians of orthodoxy on one hand, and a secret society that supposedly included Leonardo da Vinci and other luminaries of humanism on the other. King said she was in no position to talk about that aspect of the story — but scriptural scholar Robert Price, a participant in the controversial Jesus Seminar, takes it on with gusto in an essay titled "The Da Vinci Hoax."

Like other historical sleuths, Price contends that the secret society cited in "The Da Vinci Code," known as the Priory of Sion, was largely made up in the 1950s by a right-wing Frenchman named Pierre Plantard to boost his claim to royalty.

"There was a Priory of Sion that had some connection with the Jesuits, but that folded in 1617," Price told me today. "Plantard pretty much revived the name 'Priory of Sion' to give his original right-wing political group a false mystique. ... It's like saying Ralph Kramden's Raccoon Lodge holds the secrets of Western civilization."

Plantard's claptrap found its way into a variety of books, including "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," which in turn provided the underpinnings for Dan Brown's totally fictional plot. "You find these books in the 'New Age' and occult section, which ought to be a tip-off," Price said.

Perhaps the most unfortunate side effect of the "Da Vinci Code" hype is the taint of anti-Catholicism that it leaves behind, Harvard's King said. She said that only contributes to a troubling trend of religious divisiveness in society.

But Price said the anti-"Da Vinci Code" protests may be counterproductive. "I'm really at the opposite pole from these poor religious zealots who want to boycott the movie. It's ludicrous, and it only promotes the movie," he said.

Price, whose career as a theologian has taken him from fundamentalism to deep skepticism about religious claims, said portraying the scriptural debate as a case of "The Da Vinci Code" vs. orthodoxy is way too simplistic.

"The question that's more interesting is: 'Are you that sure that the Gospels are not equally fictitious?' As a religious scholar, I say that they are," Price declared. "The real issue is, do we really know what Jesus was about? There are many scholarly guesses, and 'The Da Vinci Code' isn't one of them."

Even the scholars haven't yet fully worked out the meaning of recently discovered writings such as the Gospel of Judas, and the flap over "The Da Vinci Code" is by no means the last word on the grand debate.

"One thing I really want to get out in this climate of movie hysteria is that it's not a question of whether 'The Da Vinci Code' is true and therefore Christianity is debunked, or 'The Da Vinci Code' is bunk and therefore Christianity is true," Price said. "There's a third and a fourth and a fifth option, and if we get those out there, that's a good thing."

On balance, is the movie hype a positive or a negative for the spiritual (or the skeptical) quest? Let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

May 17, 2006 | 8 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Is It the Future?
HubbleSite: Black hole site wins prize | Visit the Web site
CollectSpace: Spaceman laws | Men of the square table
Onion: Heroic computer dies to save world from master's thesis

May 16, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Time for Humans 2.0?  If we can use genetics to counter scourges like AIDS and the bird flu , should we try fixing some of our deeper self-destructive tendencies while we're at it? Are we hard-wired for survival through aggression, or can we change our own operating software?

Those are the kinds of questions that would have intrigued the late Carl Sagan, who was a social commentator as well as an astronomer. And those are the kinds of questions that his son, science-fiction author and futurist Nick Sagan, addresses in his latest novel, "Everfree."

Image: Nick Sagan
Angelica Mitchell
Nick Sagan completes his first science-fiction trilogy with the newly published novel "Everfree."

The book, which is being released this week, completes a trilogy that began with "Idlewild" and continued with "Edenborn." The plot focuses on a small group of post-apocalyptic adolescents who have been genetically enhanced (and raised in virtual reality, a la "The Matrix") to cope with a civilization-killing virus called Black Ep.

As the Humans 2.0 grow up and get around to restoring society, they confront all manner of reality-based challenges, ranging from cloning and rogue VR viruses to bioterror and even an alien invasion (or is it?).

Because each book starts out with an unconventional technological twist, it takes a while to get oriented — but once you get the lay of the land, the narrative is addicting, just as it is in Dan Brown's novels (including a little book called "The Da Vinci Code" ).

Like "The Da Vinci Code," Sagan's "Everfree" revolves around cosmic questions as well as a page-turning plot.

The main issue in "Everfree" is whether humans are innately programmed for conflict. That programming may have worked well when our ancestors were moving out from Africa to steamroll over megafauna , Neanderthals and any other species that got in our way. But now that humans control the globe, armed with technologies of potential mass destruction, is it time to change the programming?

"What brought you to the dance can wind up destroying you," Nick Sagan explained during an interview today, "and that's the danger we're facing now."

Image: Everfree
Putnam
"Everfree" completes a trilogy that began with "Idlewild" and continued with "Edenborn." Nick Sagan chose an eight-letter, two-word title for each book.
Sagan said he tried to hit on the "conflicted view of humanity and human nature" in the latest book.

"We're capable of so many wonderful things, and at the same time we're a dangerous and shortsighted species that may carry the seeds of our own destruction in our DNA," he said.

That tone may remind some folks of Nick Sagan's father, who sounded the alarm over the potential for nuclear winter more than 20 years ago.

Today, the Cold War is history — but in this post-9/11, post-anthrax age, there's still enough paranoia to go around. And Nick Sagan's prescription isn't all that much different from what his father would have prescribed.

"I would say that there are skills that are needed to live in a society, and take advantage of the positive and avoid the negative. The most useful tool is a combination of science and skepticism, to be critical of the motives of people who are trying to play on other people's fears," he said.

The stakes rise higher as a society becomes more technologically advanced, Sagan said.

"I think we need to use reason and logic and skepticism and rationality, and not fall prey to the more reptilian parts of the brain that say everything is 'fight or flight,' and 'you're either for me or against me.'"

Now that the "Idlewild" trilogy is finished, Sagan is looking to other issues for inspiration — for example, ranging from the unfulfilled promises of technologies to the "deeply Orwellian" character of modern discourse. But he's also left himself an opening to extend the trilogy into yet another book — perhaps addressing the alien invasion that's hinted at in "Everfree."

The space-alien concept provides yet another parallel between Nick Sagan's fictional works (including his work on the "Star Trek" TV series) and his father's real-life research. The younger Sagan, whose greeting to the aliens can be heard on the Voyager probe's Golden Record, said he was struck by the fact that his father's years-long inquiry into the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence turned up nothing.

"That silence spoke volumes," Sagan recalled. "I think it changed his point of view, and led him to focus more on life on Earth, and the idea that perhaps we are unique in the universe."

If that's the case, then the stakes for Humans 2.0 may be even higher.

May 16, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Relevant reading: This month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club provides yet another sci-fi perspective on the prospects of the human species. The recommendation comes from Cosmic Log correspondent David Hegge:

"A lot of things recently make me want to suggest Frank Herbert's 'Hellstrom's Hive.'  There are so many lovely ambiguities of what is right, which should make even a person with a minuscule amount of brains from either political spectrum think about their position. Of course, even minuscule brains are in short supply these days. Perhaps we should address nanobrains."

The 1973 novel spins a tale of an insect-inspired, technologically savvy human "hive" that takes root in Oregon — making it suitable fare for the CLUB Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available from your local library or used-book shop.

Hegge's suggestion earned him a free book from the Cosmic Log storehouse: "Classic Feynman," a collection of works by the late, great physicist Richard Feynman. Send in your suggestions for future CLUB Club selections, and you just might get a book as well.

May 16, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
More on Mars: Last week's discussion on the prospects for settling Mars — and the reasons for doing it — sparked a fresh wave of comments. Here are the latest responses to the idea of offering one-way trips to the Red Planet:

Sam Dinkin, founder of SpaceShot, Austin, Texas: "Noah took on a great project. The Polynesians took on a great project. Survival and expansion of range are good reasons to go. Far more than half the expense of going to Mars and back ... is the back. Trying to get a rocket to work months after landing on a foreign planet requires transporting a spaceport and a launcher, and not just life support. If you start with a system for a nine-month trip there and a nine-month trip back and a two-year stay, and skip the rockets and fuel to return, you can invest a portion of that mass in more spare parts, more redundant systems and more on-site manufacturing capability, and maybe even a couple more crew members, and still have a lot less mass to heft to low Earth orbit. Life would be about as risky for the first three years as a go-return mission (minus the extra cosmic rays, launch and re-entry risks). After that, it might depend on TV ratings, continued exploration or good luck. If it is cheaper than two-way and qualified people are willing to go, does morality hold them back from going?"

Steve Turner, Cedar Falls, Iowa: "Colonize Mars? We should colonize North Dakota first. What a monumental waste of money from those who can't afford it, and a gold mine for the Martian Bay Company."

May 16, 2006 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Scientific specials on the World Wide Web:
BBC: Neanderthal yields nuclear DNA
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Spacewear meant to dazzle in zero-G
ZDNet: Ready to test a 'SmartShirt'? (via Slashdot)
Responsible Nanotechnology: Singularity Summit Summary

May 15, 2006 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Worlds on your desktop: Imagine having a zoomable map of the globe right on your computer screen. OK, maybe that's not such a stretch. Google Earth and MSN Virtual Earth have been there, done that. But now try to imagine having 3-D globes not only representing Earth, but also the moon, Mars, Venus and Jupiter and its four biggest moons.

Again, that's no longer such a stretch: You can get all that and more, from the latest version of NASA World Wind, the space agency's open-source map visualization program.

Image: Jupiter on World Wind
NASA
A screen shot from the NASA World Wind program shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot and other features.
"The users — from the comfort of their own homes — can visit anyplace on Earth, Mars and other places in the solar system," Chris Maxwell, lead World Wind developer at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in today's announcement about the release of World Wind 1.3.5. "All you need is (a) standard personal computer (PC) with a decent video card, and a decent Internet connection."

One of the coolest extras is a zoomable rendering of a wide swath of the night sky, using imagery from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. "You get to see spiral galaxies that you couldn't even see as blips of light" with the naked eye, Patrick Hogan, program manager for World Wind, told me today.

The 5-megabyte program draws upon many, many megabytes' worth of archived imagery from the sky survey and a wide variety of satellites, ranging from Landsat 7 to interplanetary probes such as Mars Global Surveyor, Galileo and Magellan. As you click and zoom, World Wind downloads sharper images of the areas you want to see close up, then caches that image data for reuse.

As new data sets become available, they're automatically added to the program's "Layer Manager" in the background, Hogan said. "Those data sets will pop in and become part of the hierarchy," he explained. (Saturn, here we come!)

More than 10 million users have downloaded the World Wind program since it was first made available, and Hogan said more than 100,000 new users from around the world join up every week. You can add a plug-in to add in MSN Virtual Earth data (provided through Microsoft, a partner in the MSNBC joint venture). The program also recognizes Google Earth's KML locator files — and like Google Earth, World Wind lets you come up with your own geospatial-based information layers.

"We're not delivering pizza parlors and ATMs," Hogan said. "We're trying to deliver the earth. But we're also trying to leave the door open for other folks to deliver the fanciful or business-world applications."

Hogan gave a nod to the grass roots of the wired world, saying that "a lot of the functionality has been donated by the open-source community." And he said the interface is already being adopted by some high-profile users, such as the National Guard, the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

It's definitely fun to play around with the Earth, moon and planets, plus the Jovian moons of Europa, Callisto, Ganymede and Io. To get the full experience, click into the World Wind Wiki (a.k.a. World Wind Central), which provides tutorials, forums, documentation, pointers to downloads and add-ons. You can even click onto shortcuts for sights ranging from the galactic pair ARP 240 to terrestrial highlights. "I like to turn off everything and just cruise the 'Blue Marble' data set," Hogan said.

PC users can start their interplanetary odyssey by visiting the World Wind Wiki or going right to NASA's World Wind Web page. Hogan said a Java-based version, suitable for Macintosh and Linux users, should be released in September.

May 15, 2006 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Nectar ... the first soft drink
New Scientist: Patenting the human cannonball
L.A. Times (reg. req.): Celestial find at Andean temple
Wired.com: Power up with magnetic bacteria

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.

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