Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log
Hollywood version differs from Homer and history
• May 14, 2004 | 4 p.m. ET
Real and virtual Troy: The beefcake blockbuster "Troy" seems sure to be a hit in the summer movie market, but how does it rate as a depiction of Bronze Age reality? Surprise, surprise: Whatever truth there was in Homer's "Iliad" serves as the thinnest of window dressing for the Hollywood version of the Trojan War.
Archaeology magazine says the depiction of Homeric Troy (circa 1200 B.C.) is a "chronological train wreck," with princesses bedecked in jewelry from about 2000 B.C., heroes riding ships from 800 B.C., and fallen warriors who have coins placed on their eyes, even though such ceremonies — and indeed, even coins — weren't invented until centuries after the action supposedly takes place.
Archaeology's reviewer, Mark Rose, acknowledges that this is Hollywood, not reality: "Some of the inaccuracies are understandable from the point of view of the filmmakers — having Achilles standing below 50-foot-tall walls and calling out for Hektor may make for a better shot than having him stand on the far side of a ditch. But others of these errors, like the coins, are just ugly; they don't help the movie. Why not get it right?"
The real Troy — at least the Turkish dig and associated Bronze Age culture that was dubbed Troy by Heinrich Schliemann and other archaeologists — is the subject of several TV shows this weekend: "The True Story of Troy" on the History Channel, and "Beyond the Movie: Troy," on the National Geographic Channel.
Earlier in the week, Discovery Channel aired its own "Unsolved History" special on the Homeric Trojan Horse.
Even the Istanbul Archaeological Museum is getting into the act, by rushing to open its long-shuttered exhibit of Trojan treasures.
The archaeological Troy actually comprises the excavated ruins of nine cities, built on top of one another and denoted by Roman numerals, from I (the oldest) to IX (the most recent). Troy VI and Troy VII are the layers associated with the era of the Iliad, and in Archaeology magazine, the University of Tübingen's Manfred Korfmann provides an excellent recap of what's known about the site. For example, Troy VI/VII turns out to have been a much larger city than archaeologists originally thought, buttressing the site's claim to be the grand city of "The Iliad."
But does that mean "The Iliad" itself should be taken literally? The mainstream view is that Homer's epic drew together several separate stories from different eras. By the time Homer wove his tale, in the 8th century B.C., the Troy of "The Iliad" was reduced to ruins by war, fire or earthquake. Homer added new flavor to centuries-old stories — come to think of it, something akin to what the makers of Hollywood's "Troy" have done.
• May 14, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Space race revelations: Today's Los Angeles Times report on SpaceShipOne's third supersonic test flight, carried by the Hampton Roads (Va.) Daily Press, may add a bit of extra intrigue to Scaled Composites' effort to win the $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight.
In the past, Scaled Composites has kept the details about upcoming test flights close to its vest, but Times reporter Peter Pae had the inside track this week, quoting designer Burt Rutan as saying he had "tears in my eyes" as he watched the flight.
The most eye-opening part of the story is the video that accompanies the Web article (RealVideo required). You can watch the rocket plane blast its way into the blue, and actually see the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth from a camera mounted on the plane's exterior. The video is credited to the Discovery Channel and Vulcan Productions — providing a broad hint about who's filming the long-rumored SpaceShipOne documentary. Vulcan Productions, like the SpaceShipOne effort itself, is backed by billionaire Paul Allen.
Meanwhile, another X Prize team, Space Transport Corp., reports that it launched a three-stage sounding rocket Thursday from its test site on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. Team member Phillip Storm said the rocket apparently went higher than 150,000 feet — but couldn't be found afterward.
"The GPS was having some difficulties on the way down, which is our prime method of finding the payload," he told MSNBC.com in an e-mail update. "We'll need to launch another one shortly. The main thing is the microcontroller problem has been solved, and all engines lit as they should."
The small-scale rockets are being used for tests leading up to what they hope will be the piloted launch of a larger rocket later this year.
• May 14, 2004 |
4 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• Science @ NASA: Herding microbes for homeland security
• The Economist: How ravens think
• Business Week: The superwoman of supercomputing
• Discovery.com: Second thoughts on the human-apple tree
• May 13, 2004 | 4 p.m. ET
The terrible twos: As any parent knows, it's the 2-year-olds who cause the most trouble (or should that be the 22-year-olds?). So this could be a rambunctious time for Cosmic Log, which marks its second birthday today.
Two years ago, a Google search on "Cosmic Log" turned up only 18 references — but in the course of a year, that link count rose to 3,200. This year it's up to about 30,200, thanks to all the kind folks who have linked to past items. The Cosmic Log archive on MSNBC.com is only the tip of the iceberg; to trace the Log's full history, you have to go back to the mists of time in the Cosmic Log Warehouse.
Thanks to all of you for hanging with the ol' C-Log over the past two years. The next year promises a new crop of follies and mysteries, including more on the private race to space, more road trips and more scientific angles on the news of the day.The following quiz serves as a party favor for today's birthday celebration:
• May 13, 2004 | 4 p.m. ET
Voice of a terrorist: How does the CIA know the voice on that infamous beheading video is that of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Intelligence officials say they based their conclusion on an analysis of the voice heard on the video. But as in the case of Osama bin Laden's voice, the scientific technique is not infallible. For further background on voiceprint technology, check out this archived item on Osama's voice.
• May 13, 2004 | Updated 10:30 p.m. ET
Spaceship postscript: Today's flight of SpaceShipOne puts the rocket plane at about the two-thirds mark (211,400 feet, to be exact) in its effort to reach the magic altitude of 100 kilometers. The team behind the effort at Scaled Composites says "the future's looking up ... way up" — and promises that there'll be notice of a media event at the Mojave testing ground "very soon."
NBC News space analyst James Oberg says you could argue that SpaceShipOne has already touched the final frontier: "40.2 miles up is, for all practical purposes, already in space — near vacuum, no aerosurface capability, full sunlight, Earth horizon is curved."
Scaled Composites was uncharacteristically quick about releasing flight data after today's supersonic test: The hybrid rocket motor's burn time was 55 seconds — only 10 seconds shy of the 100-kilometer mission profile, as described a year ago by Aviation Week & Space Technology. The craft was boosted to a speed of Mach 2.5, and came back down to a "smooth and uneventful" landing.
The report noted at least one problem during the flight: "During a portion of the boost, the flight director display was inoperative; however, the pilot continued the planned trajectory referencing the external horizon." Also, it sounds as if the craft's feathered descent was a bit challenging.
All in all, I'd say I'm likely to lose my bet that SpaceShipOne would crack the 100-kilometer barrier on July 4 — but perhaps not by much.
While waiting for the next chapter in the space race saga, you might want to try your hand at building your own SpaceShipOne. OK, it's never going to get to 100 kilometers, or even 100 meters, but it would sure look cool on the bookshelf. (A tip o' the cosmic hat to Clark Lindsey's Space Log.)
• May 13, 2004 |
4 p.m. ET
The good, the bad, the ugly on the scientific Web:
• New Scientist: First space tug set for 2007 launch
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Why the world's a darker place
• Nature: Iraqi scientists targeted
• May 12, 2004 | 1:45 p.m. ET
Invisible wonders revealed: Infrared imaging has turned up some spooky things in its time — it's the technology behind the night-vision equipment commonly used by the military and the media in Iraq, as well as the UFO video that made such a splash this week in Mexico.
It's also the vision at the heart of the Spitzer Space Telescope, the latest of NASA's great observatories. Spitzer's infrared camera is particularly suited for getting a cosmic view of the "old, the cold and the dusty" — objects that are difficult or impossible to see in the visible-light spectrum.
This week, Spitzer's scientists unveiled two new images of dusty delights: One shows three blazing young stars embedded in a nest of interstellar dust, the other traces the dusty patterns of a distant galaxy. The releases were timed to celebrate the opening of Spitzer's data archive to members of the science community.
NASA / JPL / Caltech / CfA
Bright stars lie at the heart of a cloudy star-forming region known as Sharpless 140. Click on the image to see a larger version.
"We are opening Spitzer's floodgates to the world," Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, deputy manager of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, said in Tuesday's announcement.
"Any astronomer with Internet access has this information at his or her fingertips."
Astronomers can review spectral data from the telescope's 110-hour "first look" survey of the infrared sky and information from the Spitzer Legacy Science Program. But for regular folks like me, it's the pictures that make the biggest impact.
The image of nesting stars comes from a cosmic dust cloud called Sharpless 140, almost 3,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus. Each of the three stars is several times brighter than our own sun, but the surrounding dust is so thick that they are completely obscured in visible light. Spitzer's infrared eye cuts through the dusty shroud, which looks like a bright red arc in the false-color view.
"This arc is made up primarily of organic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which glow on the surface of the cloud," Spitzer's scientific team says. "Ultraviolet light from a nearby bright star outside of the image is 'eating away' at these molecules. Eventually, this light will destroy the dust envelope and the masked young stars will emerge."
NASA / JPL / Caltech
Spitzer's view of the galaxy NGC 300 reveals dusty structures within the spiral arms. Click on the image for a larger version.
"The findings provide a better understanding of spiral galaxy mechanics and, in the future, will help decipher more distant galaxies whose individual components cannot be resolved," the Spitzer team says.
• May 12, 2004 |
1:45 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
• Defense Tech: DARPA wants cars that think
• Yale: Big-bang afterglow may unlock string theory secrets
• Science @ NASA: See Jupiter and the space station
• BBC: In cyberspace, can anybody hear you pray?
• May 11, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Robo-bird scans the sea: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a robot ... It's ScanEagle, a small-scale aerial vehicle that its developers say conducted a milestone autonomous flight from a ship at sea.
The 40-pound robotic craft is being developed by the Boeing Co. and the Insitu Group as part of Boeing's arsenal of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Last month, ScanEagle took off from the Shackleton, a 58-foot fishing boat in Washington state's Admiralty Bay, then flew to a series of preprogrammed and operator-directed waypoints over Puget Sound. At the end of the test surveillance flight, it returned to the Shackleton and "landed" by snagging onto a rope hanging from a boom.
"We believe ScanEagle's autonomous recovery aboard Shackleton was a first for fixed-wing UAVs," Al Awani, Boeing ScanEagle program manager, said in a news release issued today. "Launching and recovering a UAV on open water is not an easy task, and the ScanEagle system performed flawlessly."
The ScanEagle, which has a 10-foot wingspan, was in good enough shape to take off immediately for another flight.
At the end of its flight, ScanEagle finds its way back to the Shackleton and grabs onto a rope.
The camera-equipped ScanEagle can be used for military surveillance or as a communications relay, and can stay in the air for more than 15 hours.
Small-scale UAVs have civilian applications as well: For example, Insitu developed the Seascan for use by the commercial fishing industry for fish spotting, and is working on the Geoscan for long-endurance scientific missions.
• May 11, 2004 |
6 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
• Archaeology Magazine: Was there a Trojan War?
• Astrobiology Magazine: Two new hot Jupiters
• JPL: NASA plans to put two planet finders in space
• University of Florida: Radio antenna on a chip
• May 10, 2004 | 10:30 p.m. ET
Revision in space vision: United Press International reports that President Bush is looking for an opportunity to give NASA's space initiative an extra boost this summer, after his advisory commission releases its report on how to get back to the moon and send humans onward to Mars.
UPI also says NASA is still working on the agency reorganization plan that will be rolled out along with its fleshed-out vision for space exploration. That meshes with today's report in Space News that NASA is considering a merger of its space science program (which deals with outward-looking spacecraft such as Hubble and the Mars Exploration Rovers) and its Earth science program (which deals with climate studies Earth-observing projects such as the Terra satellite).
Members of the presidential commission have already said the White House needs to do a better job of laying out the rationale for space exploration, and showing how NASA's plan fits that rationale. With all the controversy over the war in Iraq, and the election season heating up, that challenge seems greater than it was four decades ago.
At that time, President Kennedy raised the profile of America's space effort because Soviet successes in the field were having an impact "on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take." Today, there's a similar competition for the minds of men and women — but it's playing out on cultural rather than technological grounds.
Bush's job would be easier if he could show how exploration can bridge the gaps between nations, or provide an edge in the competition between cultures, or have any sort of impact on a clash that was foreseen a decade ago and could last as long as the Cold War did. That's a pretty tall order, particularly for between now and early June, when the commission's report is to be released. Can this space vision be saved? Share your opinion.
• May 10, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Cloning ethics revisited: Back in February, when South Korean researchers announced a dramatic advance in the use of human cloning to produce stem cells, the projects was hailed as a model for ethical reproductive research: The 16 women who donated the eggs for experimentation were volunteers who participated without compensation, the scientists said.
At the time, researchers outside South Korea were impressed that the donors would go through the painful procedure without being paid thousands of dollars — but now there's a renewed debate over just how voluntary their participation may have been.
The current issue of the journal Nature cites concerns by bioethicists and human-rights activists that documentation for the volunteers seems to be lacking, and there are also questions about whether a female graduate student may have donated her own eggs to the project. Nature reported that she acknowledged such a role in an initial interview, then denied it in a follow-up.
University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who is also an MSNBC.com columnist, is quoted as saying that kind of involvement could be seen as a form of coercion — a quid pro quo with publication and heightened professional status as the payoff.
Nature's report drew an angry denial from the head of the Korean research team, Woo Suk Hwang. "For some reasons, the journal is trying to undermine our study,'' Hwang told The Korea Times. The newspaper quoted him as saying he hoped Nature wasn't going after his team because the research was published in the peer-reviewed journal's principal rival, Science.
Human cloning and embryonic stem cells are stirring controversies on several other fronts as well: Last week, maverick Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori claimed that three cloned babies had been born, although virtually no one took him seriously. The godawful movie "Godsend" set off alarms for Caplan and other bioethicists. And former first lady Nancy Reagan cast a surprising vote in favor of embryonic stem-cell research.
Have the recent developments affected your opinion? Let me know what you think.
• May 10, 2004 | 11:30 a.m. ET
Free shrimp today: It's time for a seafood restaurant chain to make good on an offer issued after data from NASA's Opportunity rover indicated that water once flowed on Mars.
Back in January, Long John Silver's declared that it would give away free giant shrimp to everyone in America if NASA found conclusive evidence of an ancient ocean on Mars. In March, that's essentially what happened. A welcher might have quibbled over whether the water was conclusively shown to be deep enough to qualify as an ocean, but the scientific findings were satisfying enough the Kentucky-based corporation.
Don't set your heart on getting a satisfying meal delivered for free today: The terms of the offer specify that each customer at participating Long John Silver's restaurants is eligible to receive one giant shrimp gratis, between 2 and 5 p.m. local time today, while supplies last. The chain has locations in 36 states, according to its store locator.
• May 10, 2004 |
8:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• Mars Society finishes its desert field season
• Discovery.com: Poet Petrarch loses his head
• Scientific American: The boom in bomb detection
• L.A. Times (via SLTrib.com): Archimedes' alma mater found
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.