Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log
Watch a movie, take a quiz, win a prize
• April 9, 2004 | 2 p.m. ET
Happy Good Friday: Non-Christians must surely wonder what's so good about Good Friday, which Christians mark as the day Jesus was crucified. There are several theories, including the idea that the term comes from a Middle English twist on "God's Friday." Even today, the etymology stirs a discussion.
But the more philosophical approach is that the bloody Friday shown so vividly in "The Passion of the Christ" was good because it brought redemption after Adam's "happy fault." Comfort can be drawn from the view that even the most terrible things can be turned to good when you look at the bigger picture.
That may be cold comfort on a day like this one, when religion itself plays a part in Iraq's dark drama. But is religion to blame? In addition to being Good Friday, today marks the fourth day of Passover as well as the Muslim sabbath. So in honor of Holy Weekend, here is some of the feedback sent in response to this week's science-and-religion debate:
Richard Vale: "For the greater part of my life, I was an atheist whose core beliefs were dictated by the rules of science. As of this Saturday, after much debate and cynicism, I will become a Catholic. So from someone who has sat on both sides of the issue, No ... I don't feel that religion as a whole is responsible for the terrors of this world. While it is true that the largest wars of all time were fueled by religious disagreement, it is the actions of extremists that are currently making war in this world. People who think they are doing the will of their God. The irony of course is that the Jewish, Muslim and Christian God are one and the same. The God of Abraham. Talk about 'Open to interpretation!' What people miss is that the core teaching of all religions (regardless of leadership issues) has been the same throughout the centuries. Love each other.
"So who is at fault? Our religions dictate that we all love each other. The fact that most people don't cannot be blamed on the teachers, but on the students. We were all told the right way to live. But we have chosen another. As is the case with just about everything that is wrong with the world, it is the fault of the human race. We are prone to error and drawn to destruction. Think about that the next time you're driving past an automobile accident. Why is everyone slowing down? No, it's not to be careful. It's to gawk at how bad someone else's life just got."
Tom Coulcher, Sydney, Australia: "Firstly, let me tell you I was brought up as a Catholic. I went to Vietnam as a soldier. (Soldiers are allowed to kill because 'God' is on their side!). I dabbled in theology during my aborted university years, and opined that Buddhism is as good as any. I am now 57.
"I have concluded, though not scientifically, that religion is an invention. Invented for man, by man, to justify his existence. Without religion why are we here? Are we the only living beings (as we know it) in the entire, huge, mind-boggling, endless universe? Probably/possibly.
"Are we designated to spend our extremely short lives on this planet for no external reason? Ever since 'man' developed the ability to think, he thought there must be a better life. Since that better life could not be found on this planet in this life, then there must be a better life somewhere else. Ergo, God in Heaven, and throw in a hell for the baddies. Oh, and virgins for martyrs of any persuasion.
"There is no god. When we die the lights just go out, period."
Mike Roche, Brampton, Ontario: "Any individual, if they look back in time to any year since the advent of man, can see that the biggest curse man has ever invented is the name 'Religion.' This is an invention of man, whether it be from an interpretation of past stories or legends. The cradle of religion the Middle East has been in turmoil since the invention of their religions. Millions and millions over time have been killed over ridiculous, phony beliefs by all the Middle East religions. Next in line is geographical country borderlines, but that can at least make some sense. If the curse of religion was removed, whatever the name, everybody would be a lot better off."
Kenneth James Garrett, Abbotsford, British Columbia: "I wish Jews, Christians and Muslims would focus on Abraham and the many things they share. Also, the Mayans predicted Dec. 23, 2012, as the end of the age, we will be fully into Aquarius by around 2010, I read that the Vedas claim 2011 as the change of ages, and of course most Christians tell me that it won't be long. Coincidence? But maybe our ever accelerating rate of overconsumption of earth's biomass, our omnipresent pollution, all the wars, etc., will all be solved in the next 8 years, and we'll be OK."
Patrick Bishop, Caldwell: "Religion is not responsible for the world's condition. Isn't it in the nature of people to be contentious, to adopt an 'us or them' attitude? Religion is just one of the variables by which people distinguish the 'us' from the 'them.' The root of our problems is that 'us or them' attitude. If we could magically reprogram people all around the world to instantaneously and simultaneously forget our religious beliefs, we'd be fighting over something else ... maybe whether we're right or left-handed. So getting rid of religion won't stop the fighting. However, I think, and this is just my opinion, that far more people have been helped by religion than have been hurt by it. Lots of things bring out the worst in us, but is there anything that has a greater ability than religion to bring out what is great in us?
"Whether or not there really is a supreme being somewhere that is aware of humans and loves us, our belief that there is is very ennobling. Otherwise, humans are just an exceptionally bright species of ape, and apart from that there's nothing special about us. If we're just animals, why behave like anything else?"
Rick Monce: "I have always loved science and technology, as a child looking up at the night sky, lying in my back yard totally amazed at the space we all exist in. I also consider myself a moderately spiritual individual whose belief in a power greater than man has been at work long before man became self-aware. Reliance by people on a single perspective only limits us as a race. To truly find ourselves as a species, we must embrace all that makes us human, whether it be based on science or religion."
Roger Kern: "I offer this quotation in this debate. I believe it is an apt summary: 'The more I study religions, the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.' — Sir Richard Francis Burton"
Steve Wilhelmsen, Omaha, Neb.: "While I'm sure my 'religion' is the right one, and if you asked me why, I would tell you why, I will not by the grace of God force you to accept it! However, it seems too many folk just gotta make you believe like they do. But it's not between me and thee. It's between that God and the individual. Religious persecution is always wrong!"
• April 9, 2004 | 2 p.m. ET
Voting against e-voting: Electronic voting faced a decisive e-vote of no confidence from Cosmic Log readers this week, despite VoteHere's latest effort to boost support for the technology by releasing the source code for its verification software. Here's a sampling from the e-mailbag:
John Morales, Harker Heights, Texas: "Unless electronic ballots produce a paper record of all the votes cast, they should not be allowed. No exceptions. Here and there are spots in this country where dishonest election officials will take advantage of the holes in an easily accessed electronic voting system to swing the vote their way."
Stephen Samuel: "It's nice that VoteHere has released a copy of their source code, but it's still a big question as to whether or not the code that they're releasing is the actual code that gets used on voting day. From reading their source license, it doesn't look to me like they'd allow a customer to compile the released source code and use that self-compiled code to run an election. They also don't seem to make any promise that the source code released is exactly what's compiled into their systems. As a side point: Neither do they allow users to fix bugs that they find. If a customer were to find an error, they would have to inform the company and hope that they get around to fixing it, rather than being able to fix it themselves, and forward it to the company for installation in the official release."
Richard A. Stewart, Chicago: "The only verification I really trust is a paper trail, though even that, in the wrong hands, can be suspect. What really bothers me is that we are rushing not only to trust our votes to unproven technology, but putting the electoral process into the hands of private contractors. The country's leading manufacturer of voting machines has a CEO who has said he will do everything he can to ensure the president's re-election! Is nobody alarmed at this? Count me — on paper, please — as a voter who is not at all reassured."
Tom Paxton, Harriman, Tenn.: "It would be appropriate to standardize all voting machines used in national elections. In this manner we might get an elected president in the White House as opposed to a Supreme Court appointee. It should not be possible for a president's brother to steal an election by discarding unfavorable votes. Of course, it was thoroughly investigated by Jeb and Katherine."
Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Touchscreen voting. What a tangled web we weave ... Never forget: 'People who cast votes decide nothing. People who count votes decide everything!' Attributed to Josef Stalin, or was it Jeb Bush, I can't remember! As I am fond of pointing out to young engineers in rapture over computers, no one ever had a crash with a slide rule and pencil and paper. KISS. The same goes with voting! Nuff said! Change of subject — Go Burt!!!"
• April 9, 2004 |
2 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• National Geographic: See Jerusalem as a Christian, Jew, Muslim
• 'Nova' on PBS: 'Life's Greatest Miracle'
• The Economist: Science and the Bush administration
• SpaceDaily: NASA radar aids high-tech digs
• April 8, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Hubble's treats and trivia: You can always count on the HubbleSite to present some of the coolest images of the cosmos, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. But this month the Space Telescope Science Institute's Web portal is a veritable three-ring circus, with stunning still images, a new Flash video presentation, games and even prizes.
In one ring, you have today's release of a Hubble Heritage image showing the galaxy NGC 300. The spiral galaxy, 6.5 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Sculptor, looks much as our own Milky Way would from a similar distance.
Ground-based telescopes can see the sweep of the spiral arms and even pick out some of the individual stars, but Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys has a resolution 10 times as good as the best ground telescopes.
NASA / AURA / STScI
The Hubble Space Telescope's view of the galaxy NGC 300 makes out individual stars as numerous as grains of sand.
The finer resolution lets scientists measure the brightness of individual stars — and that information can be used to calibrate astronomers' yardsticks.
"By combining the stellar brightness with other information, such as the stellar temperature, surface gravity and mass outflow, astronomers are defining a new technique to measure distances to galaxies located millions of light-years away," the institute says in its Q&A about NGC 300.
In HubbleSite's second ring, you can watch a sight-and-sound documentary about galaxy collisions and what they tell us about the foundations of the universe. The newly released production, "Cosmic Collision," combines animations, still imagery and click-through graphics to explain how our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy will run into each other billions of years from now.
A frame from "Cosmic Collision" shows how the merger of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy might look from Earth.
As if that's not enough, a trivia quiz awaits in the third ring: "Way Out" tests your astronomical knowledge, and the more you know, the quicker you can "moove" a cosmic cow out of the Milky Way. Choose from three levels of difficulty, and see Hubble imagery at each stop along the way.
During Astronomy Week, April 19-24, HubbleSite will be awarding prizes to "Way Out" players in a daily drawing. Among the prizes: an 8-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope and special-edition Hubble posters and photos. You don't have to be a stellar quiz master — just answer eight of the 12 questions correctly and you're entered. Check out the official HubbleSite rules for details. I'll pass along a reminder on April 19.
• April 8, 2004 |
9:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
• CICLOPS: Watch storms merge on Saturn
• Science@NASA: A black box for people
• Asteroid impact simulator (via Slashdot)
• Christian Science Monitor: In cloning debate, a compromise
• April 7, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
How hummingbirds hunt: Hummingbirds cannot live on nectar alone, but must supplement that with every bug that flies into their gaping mouths. How does a hummingbird's slender beak, which seems so specialized for poking into flowers, snag the gnats needed for a balanced diet?
That's the question addressed by University of Connecticut researchers Gregor Yanega and Margaret Rubega in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. They turned high-speed cameras on three species of the evanescent avians, and found that the hummingbirds flexed their lower jaws downward to maximize their gape. That flexing apparently involves a deformation of the birds' lower jawbones — a phenomenon that has never been noticed before, the researchers said.
Most birds who catch bugs have short beaks, and flex the upper bill exclusively. Yanega and Rubega surmise that hummingbirds somehow evolved with a trick lower jaw as well to maximize the effectiveness of their long, downward-curving beaks.
Gregor Yanega / University Of Connecticut
A hummingbird flexes its jaw to catch a bug. Such a two-dimensional gape has not been observed before, researchers say.
The evolutionary implications of the avian jaw may not be headline news, but you have to admit that the pictures (and the video accompanying Nature's report) give you a new appreciation of the hummingbird as hunter. And it's particularly fitting that the research comes from the University of Connecticut, this week's big winner in the Final Four hunt.
By the way, if you're a birding fan, you'll definitely want to check out the "Ten Most Wanted" list at eBird, an ornithology Web site developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The Brant goose leads the list of sought-after birds, but even the American robin is rated in the Top Ten. If you've seen these birds, send in your sightings.
• April 7, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Aurora alert: SpaceWeather.com reports that the sun erupted in a coronal mass ejection on Tuesday, and that means there might be enhanced auroral displays late tonight and early tomorrow. Even if you're not well-situated for the northern lights (or the southern lights), you'll still want to check out SpaceWeather.com's aurora gallery to see what your brethren in Finland and Sweden are seeing.
• April 7, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
E-vote recount: Will VoteHere's release of the source code for its ballot verification technology make people feel more confident about using e-voting. "You've got to find someone without a vested interest to say that," says Bruce Schneier, an e-voting skeptic and the founder of Counterpane Internet Security. I've added some of Schneier's comments to the source-code story, but assuming that you don't have a vested interest in touchscreen voting technology, I'd love to find out what you think about the latest chapter in the e-voting controversy.
• April 7, 2004 |
10:30 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
• Science News: Riding on square wheels
• Dallas Morning News (reg. req.): Saving an ancient legacy
• BBC: Scientists seek 'map of science'
• April 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
The voting booth from hell: Were you flummoxed by Florida's hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election? Do you get touchy about touchscreen voting machines? If the current e-voting controversy makes you crazy, consider Purdue University's prize-winning voting machine, a contraption that requires 71 separate steps to mark up a paper ballot.
Some of the steps involve toy gorillas swinging bats at balls, water turning tiny waterwheels, a vacuum cleaner and a rolling conveyor belt. All that complexity adds up to a winning entry in last weekend's National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, conducted on Purdue's home turf in West Lafayette, Ind.
The goal for the contestants was to devise a machine to select, mark and cast an election ballot in at least 20 steps. The annual contest is named in honor of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who made a name for himself by drawing diagrams of wacky devices that did mundane tasks like sharpening pencils.
Unlike the cartoon contraptions, the entries in this weekend's contest had to really, really work — well, at least two out of three times. So when the machine entered by the Purdue University Society of Manufacturing Engineers flopped the first time, it was a cause for concern.
Dave Umberger / Purdue University
Purdue’s Andrew Nymeyer watches his team's machine perform a perfect run at the National Rube Goldberg Machine contest.
Fortunately for the home team, the second and third runs went off perfectly, winning Purdue the $300 first-place prize and a $50 "People's Choice" award. Ferris State University's Underdogs team was awarded $150 for second place, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers team from the University of Texas at Austin received $50 for third place. Other teams competing were from the University of Toledo and Michigan State University.
"I was definitely pleased with the quality of the machines," said Joshua Sandler, national contest chairman and a Purdue senior in electrical engineering technology. "There was no clear-cut winner. Most years you see the teams bring in their machines and one stands out over the others. This year, all of the teams brought strong, impressive machines."
• April 6, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
• UPI: Congress warms to new space plan
• New Scientist: Solar-wind samples seals its scoops
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Computers don't lie ... or do they?
• Nature: Size does matter
• April 5, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Holy terror: Tonight's paschal full moon comes amid one of the biggest weeks on the Judeo-Christian religious calendar: For Jews, Passover begins at sundown today, while for Christians, this week marks the buildup to Easter Sunday. For Muslims, meanwhile, the next major religious celebration comes next month with Mawlid al-Nabi, or the Prophet's Birthday.
In an ideal world, this would be a good time for reconciliation among the People of the Book — but just one look at MSNBC's home page will tell you this is not an ideal world.
In fact, there's ample evidence that relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims are slumping precipitously: Muslim extremists put Rome on their target list ... Jews and Christians wrangle over "The Passion of the Christ," while some Arabs hope the film will whip up fresh waves of anti-Semitism ... and the attitudes of some Christians are giving Muslims at home and abroad cause for concern.
It's enough to make some non-believers wonder whether religion is worth the trouble: In this month's "Science and Religion" issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, several writers argue that the God of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad should be put in the same pigeonhole as the Loch Ness Monster.
On the other hand, the Bible and its historical underpinnings are a perennial subject for mainstream media. By their fruit shall ye know them: The recent offerings include "Jesus and Paul" and "The Trial of Jesus" as well as "Shroud of Christ?" on television, "The Da Vinci Code" and "Glorious Appearing" at the bookstores, and yet another big-budget biblical film project, "The Gospel of John."
Is it the fault of religion that the world's a mess? At least twice a year, we look at the tension between science and religion, so consider this a fresh invitation to join the Cosmic Log debate.
For further reading, check out this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club: "Angels and Demons," written by "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown. This is a prequel to Brown's better-known thriller, also starring symbologist Robert Langdon and set mostly in Rome. The book manages to touch upon the Illuminati, the arcana of papal succession and Catholic lore, antimatter physics and CERN, and even typographical treats known as ambigrams. And in keeping with the CLUB Club rules, the book should be a lot easier to find at your local library or used-book shop than "The Da Vinci Code."
• April 5, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Space race update: Canada's da Vinci Project is hoping to play the role of David against the American Goliath in the X Prize competition to put a privately funded vehicle through suborbital spaceflight, according to The StarPhoenix in Saskatoon. In this version of the tale, Goliath would be Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne effort, considered the favorite to win the $10 million X Prize.
"It's the Canadian team with no money against the American team with unlimited resources," spokeswoman Melanie Wildman is quoted as saying. "But they just did some test flights and had a failed landing and our testing has gone perfectly. We feel like we have the edge."
The da Vinci team plans a summer launch from Kindersley in Saskatchewan, and is due to announce the timing of its X Prize attempt on April 18, The StarPhoenix reports. For more on the X Prize buildup, check out X-Prize Space Race News.
• April 5, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Moonbuggy update: North Dakota State University in Fargo was last weekend's winner in the college division of the Great Moonbuggy Race, NASA's annual moon-roving contest.
As we reported last week, the race gives college and high-school students an opportunity to design human-powered vehicles for racing over lunar-style terrain at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. NDSU's team covered the half-mile course in 3 minutes and 46 seconds; Cornell University came in second with a time of 4:23, and Arizona State University was third at 5:20.
Other awards went to Utah State University for best engineering design and "most unique" buggy. The judges were impressed by USU's use of carbon fiber reinforced composite material. The University of Evansville in Indiana won an award for perseverance in the pits, while Cameron University of Lawton, Okla., won a special "Crash and Burn" award. Get the full details from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
• April 5, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• Defense Tech: Generals knew 'future combat' faced peril
• Science News: Monkey business
• Discovery.com: Were Roman gladiators fat vegetarians?
• Chandra X-Ray Center: Titan casts a revealing shadow
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.