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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Web milestones and messages on Red Planet

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Feb. 20, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Mars' latest hits: NASA says its Web sites have recorded at least one hit for every man, woman and child on Earth since the Spirit rover landed Jan. 3. The hit count passed the 6.5 billion mark this week, compared with 6.3 billion for world population, the space agency reported Thursday.

The current Mars missions rank as the biggest space event on the Internet, surpassing NASA's traffic for Mars Pathfinder and even the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy.

"To the best of our knowledge this is the biggest government event in the history of the Internet," Assistant Administrator Glenn Mahone said in a news release. "We've passed the peak traffic for the IRS Web site during tax season and for NOAA's site during Hurricane Isabel last fall. Since the rovers' missions will last 90 days each, it's possible this will wind up being the biggest single event in Internet history."

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Of course, hits are an old-fashioned way of measuring traffic. As most Web geeks know, a hit is recorded for every data file retrieved from a computer server — and calling up just one Web page usually involves multiple hits. NASA says there are about 50 million unique visitors behind all those hits, and some of those 50 million may represent multiple computers being used by one person (like me, for instance).

Nevertheless, 50 million visitors are nothing to sneeze at, particularly since NASA says subscribers to America Online are counted as just one visitor. It's also significant to note that about 50,000 people were watching NASA's streaming video on the night of Jan. 3, in addition to those who tuned in via MSNBC and other outlets.

For a business perspective on all those hits, check out Jeff Foust's observations on the Space Politics blog.

Here's some of the week's e-mail feedback about Mars and Martian anthems:

Mark Carey, Toronto: "I thought you might like to feature Mars Rover Blog in one of your entries. It's a blog written by the rovers themselves, in the first person. The blog is light-hearted, the rovers don't get into technical details (though some readers delve into such topics in the forum, as they debate interesting objects in the rover photos, etc.) The blog also includes rover photos (with RSS feed) and integrated discussions."

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Anthems are all well and good, but meaningless. Unless you have someone standing on the ground and self-supporting, this music is of the same level of significance as a hymn to Isis. The Mars Society needs to work on being there before they sing about it (unless it is 'Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Mars We Go!'). Let's not put the cart before the horse! I doubt there were too many people singing 'America the Beautiful' in 1491."

Kimberly Newell, Albany: "Why are the Mars rovers designed to 'walk' so slowly? 100 feet a day is way too slow. The only thing I can think of is that is has something to do with the amount of power available given the size and weight of each rover, or the rover 'stops and smell the roses' way too much. But if that's not the case, why not go fast on the terrain that you know does not contain large rocks and then keep it slow on the rough terrain? I would have thought the rovers would be 'smart enough' to run when it knows there are no obstacles and slow down when the terrain gets a little rougher."

If the rovers' top speed is 2 inches per second, as frequently stated, they could conceivably cover 100 feet in 10 minutes — so I have a feeling Spirit's deliberate pace has more to do with making sure the terrain is safe and the science is thorough. That's especially important when you're driving a vehicle that cost $410 million.

Feb. 20, 2004 | 5 a.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Spies That Fly'
Philadelphia Inquirer: 'Squinting at the Present'
Flashbacks from The Atlantic: 'A Space in Time'
Topeka Capital-Journal: @ added to Morse code

Feb. 19, 2004 | 11:45 p.m. ET
Deconstructing evolution: For some, the origin of species was simply an act of the divine or a case of intelligent design, and no further explanation is necessary. But scientists can't resist trying to figure out the big questions surrounding the molecular mechanisms for evolution: Why is it that organic molecules are built the way they are? How could creatures reprogram themselves for  differentiation and natural selection?

It so happens that two studies addressing those questions appear in Friday's issue of the journal Science: The first one has to do with homochirality. We're not talking about "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" here, but the fact that all amino acids in living organisms swing to the left rather than the right.

There have been plenty of theories about why this is — published in Nature and other journals — and this week in Science, Sandra Pizzarello of Arizona State University and Arthur Weber of the SETI Institute take their own scientific stab at the mystery. Based on their studies of meteorites arriving on Earth, they argue that falling space rocks may have contained enough left-handed amino acids to nudge the planet's primordial chemistry down a crucial fork in the road. Arizona State University provides more information in a news release.

The second study is on how organisms can change their molecular chemistry to react to stresses in their environment. Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas played God with a strain of E. coli bacteria that had been bred without the ability to make disulfide bonds. Such chemical bonds are necessary in order for the bacteria's flagella — that is, their molecular motors — to work.

The scientists fiddled with the mutant bacteria's DNA, and found that making only two amino-acid alterations allowed the mutants to produce disulfide bonds through another method. Further study traced the precise chemistry involved in the bacteria's feat.

You might consider this a case of catching evolution in the act, but unraveling the puzzle of disulfide bond creation isn't merely an metaphysical exercise, University of Michigan biologist James Bardwell said. "Figuring out new ways to make it happen could be important to numerous disease states, like Alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis, that result from defective protein folding," he said.

If you're not a Science subscriber, refer to the news release on EurekAlert for further details on the experiment. And if the idea of molecular motors tickles your fancy, check out our interactive graphic on the subject. Be forewarned, however, that this is an old interactive that hasn't yet been tuned up, so some of the links may no longer work.

Feb. 19, 2004 | 11:45 p.m. ET
Virtual reading room on the scientific Web:
USA Today: Israel looks into the fake-antiquities trade
Wired: Satellites to track tiny dolphins
Forbes: Five robots that will change your life
The Economist: The origins of language

Feb. 18, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
The Martian anthem: What music do you play to wake up a Martian? Every morning brings a new song for the rovers on the Red Planet, selected by the mission team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and usually keyed to the theme of the day. For example, today's wakeup music for the Opportunity rover was the Bob Marley reggae anthem "Trenchtown Rock," played as a tribute to the six-wheeled explorer's trenching skills.

To tell the truth, the music is more of a boost for JPL's scientists and engineers than it is for the mechanical rovers. But the selection for last Saturday lifted the spirits of Mars enthusiasts around the world — and perhaps beyond. On that day, Opportunity was awakened to the strains of "The Pioneers of Mars," the unofficial planetary anthem for the fourth rock from the sun.

It's a bittersweet song for co-author Karen Linsley, who wrote the song with partner Lloyd Landa and entered it in the Mars Society's "music for Mars" competition in 2000. The song won the contest's Rouget de Lisle Award, but Landa died of a heart attack just 10 days before the song made its public debut at that year's Mars Society convention.

Linsley performed the song with tears in her eyes, and received a standing ovation. She remembered Landa in her remarks to the crowd: "Get to Mars. And when the notes of this song are heard on Martian soil, he will live again."

There were no human ears on Mars to hear the notes on Saturday — but I think the transmission nevertheless reawakened Landa's legacy. Listen to an excerpt from "The Pioneers of Mars," and hear the entire song on the Prometheus Music Web site.

This week, the Mars Society announced that it would conduct its second Rouget de Lisle competition, "for songs celebrating the cause of the human exploration and settlement of space." The deadline for sending in your entries is April 30, and 10 finalist songs will be submitted for consideration by Prometheus Music as well as NASA. Attendees of this summer's Mars Society conference will select the top anthem.

For details, consult the Mars Society Web site. For additional inspiration, listen to a musical tribute to Columbia's astronauts, and check out Craig Woodson's thoughts on music for Mars.

Feb. 18, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
The serious and strange sides of science:
Space.com: New plans for keeping astronauts safe
National Review: Can private enterprise save Hubble?
Nature: Caustic comments get girls a date
Archaeology: Pets of the pharaohs

Feb. 17, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
The facts about fusion: If you could invest in commodity futures for lunar helium-3, you would have reaped a windfall last month in the wake of President Bush's call for America to return to the moon.

Helium-3 (as opposed to the garden-variety helium-4 that fills all those balloons) is one of the rarest substances on Earth, produced primarily as the result of processing tritium for nuclear weapons. But it's known to exist naturally within lunar soil, and theoretically, it's one of the cleanest fuels around for nuclear fusion.

So when the space initiative was announced, visions of lunar riches danced in the heads of many space enthusiasts: Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a high-profile helium-3 booster, says a helium-3 mining operation could be set up in 10 to 15 years, and the European Space Agency says the stuff could be "more valuable than gold, diamonds or even enriched uranium!"

What are we waiting for, then? And why do we need NASA? With that kind of payoff, private industries should be lining up to blast off and harvest those helium riches.

Fusion researchers say there's a big catch: No one yet knows how to build any kind of workable fusion reactor, and building one that could use helium-3 would be significantly harder.

Dale Meade of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory said it could take 35 to 50 years to develop a commercial reactor that uses the easiest fusion fuels — deuterium and tritium.

"To do it with deuterium/helium-3, I would say it's a factor of 25 [harder] in terms of the temperature and the confinement time," he said in Seattle last week during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Other researchers may quibble over exactly how much harder it would be, but they agree that helium-3 is no slam-dunk.

"The plasma physics challenge is an order of magnitude greater than with deuterium/tritium," said University of Wisconsin fusion researcher Stewart Prager. "It's definitely a second-generation reactor."

Even Gerald Kulcinski, director of the University of Wisconsin's Fusion Technology Institute and the biggest proponent of helium-3 research, agrees on that last point. However, he contends that fusion power may not be economically viable unless the research gets to that second generation. He said a deuterium/tritium reaction throws off so much radioactivity that it would quickly degrade the structure surrounding any reactor. In contrast, the deuterium/helium-3 reaction throws off far fewer neutrons and produces far less radioactivity.

"Helium-3 fuels reduce the radioactivity and the damage by a factor of 30 to 50," he said.

If NASA came to believe that a helium-3 reactor was viable, and if the U.S. Department of Energy came to believe that a lunar mining operation was viable, fusion research would get a whole lot more support, he said.

"If we could show it could work, I think we would go very quickly from first-generation fusion to the second and the third," Kulcinski said.

Even first-generation fusion wouldn't be too shabby, other researchers say, and they would take issue with the idea that deuterium and tritium won't be good enough for the nation's future energy needs.

"It's relatively safe, it's clean and roughly inexhaustible," Prager said.

The bottom line has to do with money and politics, for the fusion effort just as much as for the space effort. The countries that are wrangling over the future of international fusion research still haven't decided whether their ITER experimental facility should be located in France or Japan, although a compromise may be worked out this month. If a deal isn't reached soon, the United States might just decide to go it alone — or let fusion research languish in limbo.

Meade estimates that it would take about $20 billion to produce a breakthrough in fusion power.

"If you threw money at it like it was in the nation's interest, you could do it in 15 or 20 years," he said. "But at the moment, at $250 million a year, we'll never get there."

Feb. 17, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of gee-whiz on the Web:
Defense Tech: DARPA aims for foodless fighters
Science News: How bird brains retrieve treasures
Discovery.com: NASA eyes plane for Mars survey
The Onion: Human cloning ... what do you think?

Feb. 16, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Quantum fiction: Thanks to research from the frontiers of science, you can find quantum entanglements even in the plots of romance novels and comic books.

Scientists described how the weird world of quantum physics is reflected in pop culture during the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Seattle. For example, physicist/author Catherine Asaro's science-fiction novel "The Quantum Rose" spins a romantic plot that is actually an allegory for quantum scattering theory, complete with technical notes in the back of the book.

As she described the book this weekend, Asaro made quantum physics terminology sound positively sexy.

Image: "The Quantum Rose"
Tor Science Fiction
Catherine Asaro describes "The Quantum Rose" as an allegory for quantum scattering theory.

"We have 'bound states,' and 'captured states,' and 'degenerate states,'" she said. "When you start to think about it, it's really provocative."

Asaro is also one of the world's few romance writers who has had a paper published in the American Journal of Physics. The paper, "Complex Speeds and Special Relativity," laid the theoretical groundwork for the faster-than-light travel method employed in her debut novel, "Primary Inversion." But don't expect the book to read like a physics textbook.

"It's essentially 'Romeo and Juliet' in outer space, but it has a much better ending than 'Romeo and Juliet," she said.

Meanwhile, University of Minnesota physicist James Kakalios keeps track of the scientific frontier as reflected in comic books, and notes that even the Justice League of America had to struggle to keep up with the latest in quantum mechanics. For example, in an issue published six years ago, an evil genius used entangled photons to screw up the universe's probability curves and cause superheroes to disappear. It took The Atom's knowledge of subatomic physics to figure out the cause of the crisis.

"They had to untangle the quantum states and bring the photons together to save the earth," Kakalios said.

Kakalios said that "comics actually get their science right more times than you imagine" — that is, assuming that you grant each superhero a "one-time miracle exemption." That's why he's not afraid of using superhero science to get his students calculating how much force Superman needs to leap a building in a single bound, or what would really happen if Spider-Man could spin a web to catch a falling girlfriend.

"What I'm really doing is sneakily getting students to eat their spinach by hiding it in a superhero ice-cream sundae," he said.

Students often whine that what they're learning in science class has no application in the real world, Kakalios said — but strangely enough, his comic-book physics students have never lodged those kinds of complaints.

"Apparently they have plans after graduation that involve wearing spandex," he joked.

To learn more about real-life super-science, check out Science's look at Spider-Mammals and Wired's "Super Power" issue. And if you want to separate science fiction from science fact — or just have a good laugh — you can always turn to Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics or the Cartoon Laws of Physics.

Feb. 16, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
More from the AAAS annual meeting:
New Scientist: Half of all languages face extinction
BBC: Hunt for ancient human molecules
Seattle P-I: Action to save oceans backed
Nature: Doctors need to get wired
EurekAlert: AAAS Newsroom

The fine print: 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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