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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Author wants more research on monument's age

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Image: Sphinx
Amr Nabil / AP file
The vertical, rounded weathering pattern on the Great Sphinx's flanks has sparked scientific debate.

Aug. 20, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Rethinking the Sphinx: After years of fighting the critics of his controversial theory on the age of the Great Sphinx, John Anthony West wants them to join him.

West — an author whose 1993 TV documentary, "Mystery of the Sphinx," laid out an unorthodox tale about Egypt's best-known sculpture — says he is trying to organize a panel of geologists to take an in-person look at the weathered limestone and render their judgment.

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It could be a tough sell. After all, it was more than a decade ago that West and his colleague, Boston University geologist Robert Schoch, made the claim that the Sphinx could be thousands of years older than the 4,500 years accepted by most scientists. Since then, a lot of harsh words have been exchanged.

Critics scoffed at West's suggestions that a mysterious Atlantis-type civilization might have chiseled the Sphinx somewhere between 7,000 and an amazing 38,000 years ago. West gave as good as he got, calling mainstream Egyptology "the mental equivalent of Agent Orange" and referring to the venerable society that frequently funds Egypt expeditions as "National Pornographic."

Now West wants to stop the jeering and focus on the geology.

"The plan now is to put together a panel of absolutely independent geologists who have never been there ... a dozen geologists and a handful of experts in other fields," he said in an interview last week. The panel, including "maybe four or five geologists who are committed to the opposition point of view," would make their own study of the Sphinx and its surroundings.

The problem is finding the money. "We're talking about $250,000 to get this crew over there and spend two weeks," West said. "But it seems next to impossible to get that out of any funding source."

If those sources are unavailable, West said he has a Plan B: "We're going to do it Howard Dean-style by soliciting small contributions over the Internet."

West hopes that the independent analysis will back up the geological theory Schoch proposed back in the early ’90s: that the rounded vertical cracks seen on the Sphinx and the walls of its enclosure had to have been created by water erosion rather than wind erosion, and specifically by rainfall. West and Schoch went on to conclude that the Sphinx must go back to a time when Egypt's Giza Plateau was a much wetter place.

West contends that the arguments against the theory "are so transparently inadequate that they don't hold water — or sand, for that matter." And it's true that Schoch's theory has led geologists to reconsider how the Sphinx was affected by the sands (or rivulets) of time. But the controversy is far from cut and dried.

"There are alternate explanations for what Schoch's seen there. It's not as simple as what he said," said Alex Bourdeau, a cultural archaeologist who has taken on the Sphinx theories in online forums, even though he's not a trained Egyptologist (but then, neither is West).

The mainstream explanation for the Sphinx's weathering patterns goes by the unwieldly label of "salt crystal stress-induced exfoliation," or SCrySIE in Egypto-geekspeak. The idea is that moisture percolates up through the limestone, depositing salt crystals in naturally occurring vertical cracks. As the crystals grow, they push the stone apart — and eventually fragments of stone break off the surface.

"That essentially puts an end to any of their arguments," Bourdeau said. "If you have a good alternative explanation, why turn everything on its head and start all over again as to when the Sphinx was made?"

West tried to explain why.

"It's a very minor sort of thing, and it's quite clear that it simply does not and cannot produce the pattern of erosion that we see, nor can it account for the severity. ... The long and short of it is that each time a new wrinkle is added to these scenarios, we are obliged to answer," West said.

West is hoping that further research will help turn the tide. If he can get his panel of geologists together, he's fairly confident the venture will pass muster with Zahi Hawass, Egypt's head of antiquities. Even though he and Hawass have argued bitterly over the Sphinx, "through an amazing set of circumstances, on a personal level we've become quite good friends," West said.

Assuming West gets his way on the geological question, there would be a natural follow-up: If the Sphinx predates the pharaohs, who actually built it? "The second question is difficult to address, but of course that's the interesting question," West said.

Could it have been Zulus, or Atlanteans, or Martians? Some of the suggestions seem pretty kooky, but West refuses to rule anything out — even a connection to the Face on Mars. "There are a number of people who say that it's still an open question," he said.

For now, West continues working on his writing, his lectures, his tour ventures — and on his unorthodox theory about the Sphinx.

"One of these days somebody is going to get over there and prove it once and for all," he said, "but I really would like it to be during my lifetime."

For updates on the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids, including the latest about the next "Pyramid Robot," check out Guardian's Egypt and The Daily Grail.

Aug. 20, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Space race update: The space race for the $10 million Ansari X Prize seems to be picking up steam: Space Transport Corp., which suffered a launch mishap this month, announces an investment from the Spacefleet Association in Britain, and Romania's ARCA team is planning a test launch on Sept. 8. Meanwhile, there's a hubbub in the Canadian press over just how dangerous the da Vinci Project's X Prize launch in October might be. Could Saskatoon be hit?

There are a couple of interesting non-X Prize developments as well: Doug Haynes, the aerospace professor behind Blue Ridge Nebula Airlines, writes that he's planning to test a flying-saucerish prototype vehicle this fall at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Haynes had applied to compete for the X Prize but was deregistered, as detailed in this article from the MetOnline student newspaper.

Meanwhile, subscribers to the aRocket discussion list are abuzz over the idea of establishing a series of rocketplane races, modeled after NASCAR auto races or hydroplane races. The flights would be more on the order of XCOR Aerospace's EZ-Rocket outings than honest-to-goodness suborbital space flights — but the concept seems to follow the spirit of the proposed X Prize Cup, and could be easier to execute. Would you pay Daytona 500 admission prices (say, $50 or $100) to watch rocket planes face off against each other? Let me know whether or not you think this idea will fly.

Aug. 20, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Take a walk on the wild side of the Web:
Wikipedia: John Titor, Time Traveler
The Economist: Gravitational anomalies
The Independent: Does homeopathy really work?
Weekly World News: NASA builds biggest paper airplane

Aug. 19, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Outlaws and aliens ride again: Who's buried in Billy the Kid's grave? Did aliens really land in Roswell in 1947? You might think there's no controversy over those questions, but then, you probably don't live in New Mexico.

Both subjects touch upon the scientific fringe, and have provided fodder for past Cosmic Log entries — so here are quick updates on the Billy the Kid story and the Roswell renaissance.

For more than a year, we've been chronicling the effort to dig into Billy the Kid's grave in Fort Sumner, N.M., and subject the remains to DNA testing to verify the Kid's identity. Three law-enforcement officials have been pressing in court for the exhumation. Recently, forensics expert Henry Lee (who played a role in the O.J. Simpson trial) joined the investigative team.

Perhaps the most bizarre twist came when attorneys were appointed to represent the interests of the Kid himself, dead for 123 years. Now those attorneys, Bill Robins and David Sandoval, say they are withdrawing from the court battle over the proposed exhumation. However, they'll still be working for the Kid on a more crucial issue: getting a posthumous pardon from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

In a phone interview today, Sandoval emphasized that the three lawmen — Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Sullivan, Deputy Sheriff Steve Sederwall and DeBaca County Sheriff Gary Graves — were continuing to seek the exhumation.

"Our role in that particular lawsuit that is filed in Fort Sumner is finished," Sandoval said. "We are still under the direction of the governor to continue to advise him on a possible pardon, and I think that’s where were going to focus our efforts in the near future."

The governor also has Roswell on his mind, according to the Albuquerque Tribune. The Tribune noted that in the foreword to a newly published book, Richardson is calling on the federal government to release everything it knows about the Roswell incident — even though the Air Force declared the case closed in 1997, and even though Richardson was himself part of the federal government just a few years ago, as energy secretary.

Today, as governor, promoting New Mexico tourism is one of Richardson's big concerns — which probably helps explain his interest in Billy the Kid as well as Roswell. But in each case, there are those who believe the best course is to leave sleeping legends lie.

That's certainly the case for Trish Saunders, spokeswoman for the Billy the Kid Historic Preservation Society, which opposes the exhumation.

"Again we reach into the realms of the ridiculous with this case," Saunders said today. "Last January, a man who has been dead for 123 years asks to have his own body exhumed. Now, he has apparently changed his mind, and wishes to remain where he is. If Sullivan, Sederwall, and Graves just wanted to have a little fun, couldn't they have just held a séance and saved everybody all this time and trouble?"

Astronomer Phil Plait, who maintains the "Bad Astronomy" Web site, has a similar feeling about reopening the Roswell case.

"The main point, which should not be lost, is that this is yet another pseudoscientifically driven waste of taxpayer money," he said in an e-mail. "What's next? A congressional investigation into the Moon Hoax? A House astrologer? A special Mars probe to investigate Cydonia? Feh."

NBC News space analyst James Oberg, who has written extensively on UFO tales, weighed in with some sorely needed historical perspective:

"In the bad old days of the Cold War, military establishments in the Soviet Union, the United States and elsewhere soon realized that many of their secret aerial operations could be camouflaged by public misperceptions and myths about flying saucers. ... And now, decades after the motivations for the misdirection have faded, and relevant files, memoirs and interviews have come out, it's almost touching that the last remaining holdouts of believers in the bogus stories are the UFO buffs.

"They proclaim their dedication to dispelling 'government cover-ups' — but in cosmic irony, they are among the last defenders of the convenient Cold War cover stories that protected spy balloons, super jets, missiles, space warheads, equipment malfunctions and accidents, crashed satellites and so many other military aerospace activities whose owners wanted to avoid public awareness.

"If so many dedicated people hadn't wasted so much of their lives on the wild space-goose chases, it might even be funny."

Aug. 19, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
CBC: Neptune's new moons 'irregular'
Science @ NASA: Have blood, will travel
The Guardian: How math helps pick a president
BBC: Teleportation goes long distance

Aug. 18, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Highs and lows for space sponsor: The Canadian-based da Vinci Project, which is taking aim at the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, is morphing into the GoldenPalace.com Space Program to give its new principal sponsor a publicity boost.

"A two-day comprehensive project management review took place the beginning of the week to identify every milestone and resource needed," team leader Brian Feeney said in a news release distributed today by the X Prize Foundation.

The da Vinci Proj... er, the GoldenPalace.com Space Program is still targeting Oct. 2 for its first launch attempt, which has led some to fret that Feeney is rushing into things. In today's update, Feeney addressed those concerns, saying that a scaled-down version of the launch balloon would be tested in September, and that rocket test firings would start Aug. 31 and run through September.

Space is by no means the only frontier for GoldenPalace.com. If anything, the Internet casino venture is better known for its disruptive stunts at sports events (not to mention its multitudinous pop-up windows). It was in that context that GoldenPalace.com made its biggest splash this week, with an Olympic stunt that could result in jail time.

A Montrealer named Ron Bensimhon sneaked over to the edge of the pool during Olympic diving competition, stripped down to a tutu and clown pants, then pranced and jumped into the pool. The news reports have studiously avoided mentioning the company whose name was emblazoned on his chest, but some photos clearly show a GoldenPalace.com connection.

The casino denies being involved, even though it's put a news release and a video link on its Web site (caution: watch out for pop-ups). Whether or not the casino paid for the exposure, it's Bensimhon who had to face the music. The Greeks didn't take kindly to the embarrassment, particularly since it cast a cloud over their vaunted antiterrorism measures. They sentenced Bensimhon to five months in jail (and also tightened up security to head off future breaches).

Bensimhon, a veteran of such sports stunts, is still free pending appeal, but if Feeney is ever asked to get a henna tattoo on his chest for October's launch, the best advice is not to do it.

Aug. 18, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Space tourism update: Russian millionaire Sergei Polonsky's bid to fly to the international space station in October is at a critical point, with Russia's Interfax news service reporting that the deal could be off unless negotiations are concluded by Thursday. The issue isn't the multimillion-dollar price so much as what happens to the money if Polonsky's flight is canceled. Russian space officials can be hard bargainers, and so this could well be an exercise in last-minute gamesmanship. Stay tuned for "the final decision."

Aug. 18, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Prions speed evolution
Popular Science: Cold fusion gains new respect
CNET: Crypto researchers abuzz over flaws
Wired.com: It's just the 'internet' now

Aug. 18, 2004 | 2:15 a.m. ET
Robot racers sign up: Organizers of the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, the robotic road race scheduled for October of next year, have released their first list of entrants — 31 teams who submitted applications at the conclusion of last weekend's Participants Conference in Anaheim, Calif.

As time goes on, we'll learn a lot more about some of the teams — and there will be additional entrants as well. For example, the front-runner from this year's race, Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team, has not yet signed up. But it surely will.

According to the post-conference list from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's list, 16 teams that applied for the first Grand Challenge are returning to the fray: AI Motorvators, Arctic Tortoise, Autonomous Vehicle Systems, CajunBot, Dark Horse, Ensco, Go Baja, Golem Group, LoGHIQ, Overbot, Palos Verdes Road Warriors, Rob Meyer Productions, SARA, The Prodigies, Vista Engineering and ZingerBot.

Here are the new team names on DARPA's list: Dakota Robotics, Excelsior, Kart, Eavin, McNeilly, Mojavation, Omnitech, SC, Spider XTV, Spurriers Hurriers, Tau Ceti, Fast Forward, Juggernaut, The A Team, True Vision. Stay tuned for further details — including the teams' organizational affiliation, contact information and sponsorships.

Some of the teams are also listed on the International Robot Racing Federation's Web site. The IRRF is planning its own million-dollar challenge for next April.

Aug. 17, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Statistics as sport: Computer modeling, it seems, is turning into an Olympic event.

Last week, I mentioned the research conducted by two economists that predicted medal counts for the Athens Games, based on population, per capita income, past performance and the "host effect."

It turns out that the PriceWaterhouseCoopers accounting firm developed its own medal-count prediction, using those same variables — plus a "former Soviet bloc" bonus.

The two studies come up with different results, however: For example, the academic economists predict that the United States will finish with 93 total medals — not quite as many as the 97 garnered during 2000 Sydney Games, but still in the same ballpark. PriceWaterhouseCoopers' prediction is far more downbeat, with a projection of 70 medals.

The United States still leads the list, but only because Russia is also projected to suffer a substantial drop. The accountants say the big gainers should be Greece (by virtue of its host status), India (due to population and income) and the Olympics' lower echelons. Collectively, the top 30 countries are projected to win 9.4 percent fewer medals, while the 172 other participating nations are due for a 47.7 percent increase.

Slate's Daniel Gross takes an in-depth look at PriceWaterhouseCoopers' model.

Both of the purportedly scientific predictions look positively dismal when compared with media forecasts from, say, Sports Illustrated (111 total U.S. medals) and USA Today (119).

So who will turn out to be right, the academics, the accountants or the professional athlete-watchers? It's a little early to tell, and that makes it just the right time to register your own prediction. Cast your ballot using the thoroughly unscientific Live Vote at right, then monitor the medal count as the Olympics progress.

Aug. 17, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Space-race updates on the World Wide Web:
Flight International: Could SpaceShipOne go orbital?
X Prize Foundation: Argentine rocketeers test escape tower
Masten Space Systems: New entrant in suborbital market
The Guardian: Space travel goes sailing

Aug. 16, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Tracking the science of storms: When it comes to forecasting the course of hurricanes, the surest prediction is that there will be some unwelcome surprises — and such was the case with Hurricane Charley. Over the weekend, the director of the National Hurricane Center found himself on the defensive because Charley unexpectedly strengthened and turned into Florida's Gulf Coast south of the originally projected bull's-eye.

It shouldn't be so surprising that hurricanes can be surprising — after all, they rank among the most violent and chaotic weather phenomena on Earth. Their fearsome power makes it difficult to get close enough to take an accurate reading. So how do meteorologists get the data they need for better predictions?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "hurricane hunters" are in the front lines of the struggle to understand severe storms: They supplement satellite imagery by flying instrument-laden airplanes into the hurricane, in cooperation with NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

Since 1996, the hunters have been harvesting real-time data by dropping dozens of parachute-equipped instrument capsules, each about the size of a thick rolled-up newspaper, into the heart of each hurricane. The capsules, known as dropsondes, contain sensors to monitor pressure, temperature and humidity, plus a GPS locator device and a radio transmitter.

All those readings are fed into modeling software at the hurricane center, and that's where things really get tricky. As with most chaotic systems (even, say, the stock market), a small change in a variable can mushroom into a huge difference in the result. That's what makes hurricane forecasting an inexact science.

Some scientists are looking beyond the issue of tracking hurricanes, focusing instead on what makes a hurricane tick. For example, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which NASA recently extended through the rest of the hurricane season, is providing satellite-based "CAT scans" of severe storms.

At the Colorado-based Center for Severe Weather Research, lead scientists Joshua Wurman is interested in how a hurricane evolves once it makes landfall.

FREE VIDEO
Storm-tracking science
Aug. 16: MSNBC Science Editor Alan Boyle explains how forecasters track hurricanes, and why there are gaps in their predictions.
"Drastic changes occur with a hurricane as it comes on land," Wurman explained today. For example, some hurricanes turn into major rainmakers, leaving dangerous floods in their wake. And all six of the hurricanes that Wurman has studied so far seem capable of whipping up "windstreaks," gusts of super-strong wind that may set the patterns for the storm's destructive power.

Wurman hopes to do further research into windstreaks during the current hurricane season.

"We're trying to first confirm that these things really are present all the time," he said. "Are they stronger in some storms, weaker in others? We're at the beginning of our study on this, and there aren't many chances to see it."

His crew missed out on Charley, but Wurman is planning to bring the center's radar-equipped trucks to the scene of the next big hurricane — then ride out the storm. "The goal is basically to park them where the eye is going to come on shore or just to the right of where it comes on shore," he said.

It sounds risky, and Wurman always advises others not to try this at home. But he has confidence in his "Doppler on Wheels" fleet.

"The strongest winds we've seen are over 100 [miles per hour], and the trucks do fine," he said. "Certainly if it was a Category 5 storm, we would have concerns, mainly for airborne debris."

The bottom line? "The main thing is just to plan smart," Wurman said.

Good advice, whether you're studying hurricanes or just trying to cope with them.

Aug. 17, 2004 | Updated 12:20 p.m. ET
DARPA's Grander Challenge: Thirty-one teams have signed up for next year's $2 million edition of the DARPA Grand Challenge, presented by Pentagon researchers to promote the development of autonomous vehicles that could someday show up on combat resupply routes.

The 31 teams submitted applications by the end of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's "Participants Conference" in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday, organizers said. That lineup includes 16 fresh entrants who didn't compete in the run-up to the first Grand Challenge in March. The full list of applicants should be available Tuesday.

More entrants could well apply in the next few months, including the Stanford Racing Team, which is modifying a 2004 Volkswagen Touareg for the robotic race.  They'll all have to do up "audition tapes" demonstrating their vehicles by next March, then go through a winnowing process. The race itself is scheduled for Oct. 8, 2005.

None of this year's entrants came even close to finishing the 142-mile course through the Mojave Desert, and Grand Challenge organizers say next year's course will be even longer and tougher. But the teams may well be tougher-minded as well. Stay tuned for updates Tuesday.

Update for Tuesday: Although the Stanford team attended the Participants Conference, they did not at that time formally apply for the Grand Challenge. This item has been updated to reflect that status.

Aug. 16, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Technology Review: Death of the dinos, 25 years later
Discovery.com: Beluga whales have distinct voices
S.F. Chronicle: New Mexico governor rekindles Roswell
Popular Science: Is science fiction about to go blind?

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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