Dec. 17, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Remaking the calendar: The urge to tinker with the 12-month calendar goes way back, to the days of Julius Caesar (100 B.C.-44 B.C.). But there really hasn't been a successful effort to bring calendar calculations up to date since Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) fine-tuned Caesar's scheme. Now a Johns Hopkins University physicist has started a campaign to make the most radical change yet, in just a year's time.

Professor Richard Conn Henry's scheme, known as the Calendar-and-Time Plan or the C&T Calendar, would always put Jan. 1 on a Sunday, and the same calendar could be used every year. He's established what he calls the "International Association for 2006," an online organization aimed at orchestrating a seamless changeover on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006.

The phrase "snowball's chance in hell" may come to mind, but Henry believes his plan can succeed where other calendar reform schemes have fallen short. In a JHU news release, he says there's a simple reason for those past failures.

"All major proposals involved breaking the seven-day cycle of the week, which has always been — and probably will always be — completely unacceptable to humankind because it goes against the Fourth Commandment of the Bible about keeping the Sabbath Day.

"C&T never breaks that biblical cycle," he says.

The sabbath factor may seem a bit outdated in this more secular age, but that was indeed the specific reason that U.S. diplomats cited back in 1955 for opposing U.N. calendar reform. Henry's seven-day-a-week scheme works because an entire seven days, dubbed the "Newton Week," would be added every few years to bring the calendar back into sync with Earth's natural cycles. (The next Newton Week is scheduled in 2009.)

As appealing as a changeover might sound, there's yet another reason why calendars haven't been improved in more than 400 years: Most folks are satisfied with the current, admittedly quirky system. Americans are already resistant to using the metric system, and the global resistance to changing the basic arrangement of the calendar (or the computer keyboard, for that matter) would have to be at least an order of magnitude greater.

Then there's the other part of Henry's plan: changing to the universal use of Universal Time. I think I hear the drip-drip-drip of a melting snowball, but if you want to lend your support to the C&T campaign — even to the point of becoming a national vice president of the International Association for 2006 — consult Henry's progress report.

Dec. 17, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
101 years of flight: Today is the first anniversary of the centennial of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. It's a good time to review our special report on "Tomorrow's Wright Brothers" and reflect upon the new frontiers of aerospace, in the realms of commercialization and exploration .

Ninety-nine years from now, historians may consider SpaceShipOne's first supersonic flight to be a milestone as significant as the Wrights' experiments a century earlier. (Rand Simberg of Transterrestrial Musings has more on the 101st anniversary and SpaceShipOne.)

SpaceShipOne's success has pushed forward new legislation on private spaceflight, as well as investment interest . There's fresh information on both fronts:

  • This week's issue of The Economist includes an in-depth look at the plans being made by Virgin Galactic as well as Jeff Bezos' mysterious Blue Origin venture.
  • Capitol Hill sources report that Congress' space tourism bill was presented to President Bush on Thursday and should be signed within 10 days. A signing ceremony just might take place early next week. Stay tuned for updates.

Dec. 17, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Oh, boy! A lump of coal! When I was growing up, finding a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking was a thing to be avoided. But how about a $99 lump from a Civil War-era shipwreck, mounted in a walnut shadowbox with a brass plaque?

That's the low-end item in an online catalog from Odyssey Marine Exploration, which is salvaging coins, collectibles and, yes, coal from the S.S. Republic, a ship that sank off the coast of Georgia in October 1865. The salvagers also are offering ink bottles, coins and logowear, at prices ranging up to $4,200 for a set of three half-dollars from the mid-1850s.

The folks at Odyssey are hoping people will pay a premium for the shipwreck angle. To cite just one example: If you were to buy a garden-variety 1860 "O" half-dollar through an online auction site, you might pay a tenth of the S.S. Republic price. But then again, it's that glint of history that turns a lump of coal into a gem.

Dec. 17, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: A brief history of the end of the world
'Nova' on PBS: Return to 'The Elegant Universe'
Science @ NASA: A breeze from the zodiac's 13th sign
Wired.com: Smaller is better on the battlefield

Dec. 16, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
A nebula’s twisted tale: The Helix Nebula looks like a colorful jelly doughnut of glowing gas, with a dying star at its center, but astronomers now say the truth is far more complex. There may be two stars at work, throwing off multiple rings of gas at different angles.

Video: New twist on old nebula The new conclusions, and even more new questions, spring from an analysis of observations that were made at several vantage points, then combined into a 3-D computer model.

Planetary nebulae like the Helix result when a sunlike star nears the end of its life and starts shedding layers of hot plasma. The various gaseous rings bump up against each other, producing often-beautiful displays of cosmic fireworks.

A casual glance at the Helix Nebula would lead you to believe there are a couple of rings nicely nestled within each other, but a research team led by Vanderbilt University's C. Robert O'Dell took a much closer look, using observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and other ground-based optical and radio telescopes.

They created a detailed computer model that showed which parts of the nebula were moving in different directions. It turns out that the two main rings are almost perpendicular to each other. The outer ring is thought to date back 12,100 years, while the inner ring was formed 6,560 years ago, the scientists said.

"To visualize the Helix's geometry, imagine a lens from a pair of glasses that was tipped at an angle to the frame's rim," said Peter McCullough of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The accompanying video and this labeled picture untangle the Helix's structure.

The research team speculates that the nebula's main star has a close companion star. One disk may be perpendicular to the main star's tipped spin axis, while the other may lie in the binary system's orbital plane. But the precise mechanism is still a mystery.

"If we could understand how this shape was created, then we could explain the late stages of the most common form of collapsing stars," O'Dell said.

The research is described in the November issue of the Astronomical Journal. For more on the latest twist in the tale of the Helix Nebula, check the HubbleSite — and if you haven't seen it already, don't miss our Hubble slideshow on Dazzling Deaths

Dec. 16, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
The world's fastest lift : Imagine riding in a car going almost 40 mph (60.6 kilometers per hour). Not that impressive, right? But now imagine going that same 40 mph ... straight up.

That gives you some idea how elevator riders must feel in the world's tallest building, Taipei 101. The Guinness Book of World Records has declared that the Taipei office tower has the world's fastest elevators, leading the manufacturer, Toshiba, to issue a celebratory news release.

The fast rides are available on only two of the tower's 61 elevators, and the 1,250-foot (382-meter) run lasts less than a half-minute. Nevertheless, it's another record notched for the 1,667-foot-high (508-meter-high) tower.

The cars go faster on the way up than on the way down — perhaps to counteract that free-fall feeling you could get during a rapid descent. Toshiba also notes that that the cars have "the world's first pressure control system, which adjusts the atmospheric pressure inside a car by using suction and discharge blowers, preventing those riding inside the car experiencing 'ear popping.'"

Dec. 16, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Everything you wanted to know ... about ancient "hobbits" but were afraid to ask. That's the topic evolutionary theorist Jared Diamond addresses in "The Astonishing Micropygmies," a perspective article published in this week's Science.

In the subscription-required article, Diamond discusses why the Flores Island hominids, whose hobbit-sized skeletons created such a stir in the scientific community this year, seem so exceptional — and speculates on how they were able to survive the spread of Homo sapiens until 18,000 years ago. Then comes the question many may have had on their minds: Did full-sized humans have sex with the micropygmies?

"I suspect that the answer is the same as the answer to the question of whether we modern humans have sex with chimpanzees," Diamond writes. "We don't, because chimps are too unlike humans to appeal sexually to most of us, and because chimps are much too strong, unpredictable and dangerous to make sex a safe proposition for any individual humans who might find them sexually attractive."

Frodo, we're not in Middle Earth anymore...

Dec. 16, 2004 | 6:15 p.m. ET
Science and more on the World Wide Web:
The Guardian: Is this the real face of Santa?
Herts & Essex News: New clue to the Holy Grail?
National Geographic: Five planets in a holiday sky show
The Guardian: The Bad Science Awards of 2004

Dec. 15, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Whip up your own nebula: After all these years of oohing and ahhing over imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, don't you wish you could get into the act? Danny LaCrue, a 23-year-old amateur astronomer from San Diego, sure did — and the picture he came up with is today's featured image from the Hubble European Space Agency Information Center.

LaCrue didn't exactly whip up this stunning image of the Tarantula Nebula from scratch, of course. He started out with 15 exposures made with Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, and combined them using a freeware program called FITS Liberator. The software, made available just six months ago, allows computer-savvy amateurs to create processed imagery almost as beautiful and detailed as the ones you get from the professionals.

Image: Tarantula Nebula
Danny LaCrue  /  ESA / NASA / ESO
The Tarantula Nebula, also known as 30 Doradus, is situated 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud in the southern sky and is clearly visible to the naked eye as a large milky patch.
LaCrue liked the results so much that he sent the picture to the European information center for sharing.

“I always wondered what it would be like to create the pictures from Hubble, but I never imagined that I would one day actually get to make one myself,” he's quoted as saying.

The graphic designer had high praise for the Liberator data-processing software: "Converted to a color image, those inaccessible 1's and 0's in the original data appeal to our visual sense, and connect us, on a very personal level, to the universe around us."

LaCrue's not the only one in love with Liberator: The information center has a whole gallery of submissions from the program's users. For more imagery and background on the Hubble, you can always rely on the ESA's Hubble Web site as well as HubbleSite and our own space gallery .

By the way, if you can't afford to give your Hubble-hugger a homemade nebula for Christmas, you can always print out these Hubble calendar pages on some classy paper and put together a 2005 calendar.

Dec. 15, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Flight plan for the future: After more than a year of deliberation, a bevy of federal agencies has come up with a roadmap for tomorrow's air transportation system — a vision that could include a micro-jet in every garage, or at least in every neighborhood.

Video: Are flying cars in our future? The Integrated National Plan for the Next Generation Air Transportation System was delivered to Congress this week and made public today by the Joint Planning and Development Office, which brings together agencies ranging from NASA and the Pentagon to the Transportation and Homeland Security departments. You can read through the 40-page document over the Web (as a PDF file).

Among the themes are greater use of small-scale aviation systems, including personal jets and air taxis; integrated curb-to-curb security measures aimed at smoothing out the bottlenecks in post-9/11 air travel; and wider access for air vehicles ranging from micro-robo-planes to SpaceShipOne's successors .

"We are entering a new age of aviation with the opportunity to dramatically increase everyone's access, reaching farther and faster," the report says. If the agencies follow through on the sentiments they've expressed, we'd be a lot closer to the "highways in the sky" that many say would be required to make those decades-old dreams of flying cars finally come true.

Dec. 15, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
European Space Agency: Space elevator sci-fi contest
NASA: New book brings solar wonders to the sight-impaired
U. of Iowa: The 'Beanie Baby' region of your brain
Nature: Solving the mystery of the chirping pyramid
Slate: Can a laser really bring down a plane?

Dec. 14, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Near space gets nearer: For months we've been following the Pentagon's interest in "near space," the little-used realm between 65,000 and 300,000 feet in altitude that could serve as a staging area for low-budget, low-risk eyes in the sky.

The latest word comes from the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, who says in a Reuters report that he'll be discussing the future of near space with the Air Force Space Command next week.

The Pentagon has been funding near-space research through its Colorado-based Air Force Space Battlelab: The tests involve blimps or high-altitude balloons that could serve as platforms for surveillance or communications. A program manager, Maj. Bob Blackington, told Aerospace Daily last month that a near-space camera system could gather spy imagery comparable to satellite photos, at a cost of just $600.

Jumper noted that one of the big problems has to do with handling those unwieldy lighter-than-air craft on the ground, and here Cosmic Log readers should know exactly what the general is talking about: This summer's tryout of an experimental near-space system went awry when high winds at the West Texas test range ripped the balloon apart.

Despite that setback, the Pentagon is anxious to deploy near-space vehicles over Iraq, where lower-altitude blimps are already on watch around U.S. bases. The first true near-space platforms could be ready for prime time next year.

If this is the sort of technology that turns you on, turn your browser to Defense Tech.

Dec. 14, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Religion and science (cont'd): The saga pitting Darwinism's defenders against the proponents of "intelligent design" theory continues in court , but intelligent design scored a victory in the court of public opinion last week when it swayed a prominent atheist to change his view . Cosmic Log's Australia correspondent, Adam Crowl, weighs in from Brisbane:

"The recent news that Antony Flew has back-flipped on the existence of (a) God is interesting — the origin of life is one of those perennial scientific mysteries that has generated a lot of research and debate, but maybe not as many answers as skeptics and disbelievers would like. I just finished an excellent new novel by Stephen Baxter — 'Exultant' — which has one answer to the origin mystery. What if the seemingly inherent urge to complexity in matter is because of some kind of intelligence outside our universe? He posits 'monads' in a kind of superspace — they 'deliberately' chose our world because of the richness it would generate.

"Personally I think Baxter's 'answer' illustrates the real problem of the debate about 'God' — what is God like? Does God take an interest in the world God initiated? And how does God interact after the beginning? The theistic religions are just one possible set of answers. Flew's non-specific God, Martin Gardner's wholly good God or Robert Wright's vague 'divine purpose' in evolution are more modern updates on what 'God' might be. I tend to agree with Paul Davies who once said that science, particularly physics, might give us more solid answers about God than any faith."

That sounds like the perfect opening to remind you about our third annual "Science and Religion" symposium, which will dominate a short week's worth of postings next week. Send in your reflections on the interplay between science and religion, and I'll publish a selection of the responses.

In keeping with the theme, I'm listing Stephen Baxter's science-fiction novel about the multimillion-year rise and fall of humanity's family tree, "Evolution," as the December selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club recognizes books with cosmic themes that are old enough to be accessible through used-book shops or your local library.

Baxter is the first two-time CLUB Club honoree: His time-travel novel, "Manifold: Time," was among the early nominees. Feel free to send in your own nominations for future CLUB Club selections. If your choice is used in January, I'll send you an advanced uncorrected proof copy of "Exultant," the book Adam praised so highly.

Dec. 14, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Sons of the pioneers: Who had the high bid for the retro rocket sculpture that was created by Erik Lindbergh, grandson of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, and flown aboard the history-making SpaceShipOne rocket plane? None other than online games pioneer Richard A. Garriott, son of Skylab/shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott, according to the CollectSpace Web site. The younger Garriott reportedly paid $15,540 for the sculpture, with proceeds going to the Lindbergh Foundation. CollectSpace's Rob Pearlman says this is the first SpaceShipOne-flown item to go on public sale. (Many other items were flown on the craft on the condition that they not be sold, as noted in this report .)

Dec. 14, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Popular Science: Best of What's New 2004
Space Daily: Desktop sonofusion reactors for sale
Discovery.com: Cleopatra ... scientist, not seductress
LiveScience: End of oil, end of civilization?

Dec. 13, 2004 | Updated 7:30 p.m. ET
NASA's future course: With Sean O'Keefe stepping down from America's top space post, experts and enthusiasts are assessing the NASA administrator's legacy and the road ahead.

While O'Keefe's tenure did have its successes, notably at Mars and Saturn , problems with the post-Columbia return to flight, space station resupply and the Hubble telescope repairs had led some critics to urge he be fired.

The harsh verdicts continued even after O'Keefe resigned: In her roundup of the reaction , Marcia Dunn of The Associated Press quotes space historian and NASA critic Alex Roland as saying his departure signaled double trouble for America's space effort.

"The captain's abandoning a sinking ship, and he was assigned to the ship to keep it from sinking. So I think it's doubly bad because, in my view, he is essentially confessing that there's no hope for NASA on its current trajectory," the Duke University professor said.

O'Keefe received a nicer sendoff from Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Science Committee. "Sean leaves NASA in far better shape than he found it," Boehlert said in a statement issued Monday. "Thanks to O'Keefe's leadership, the agency is better managed with an ambitious new vision and a solid budgetary footing."

Cosmic Log correspondent Mark Smith felt O'Keefe's departure was the honorable thing to do, in light of the agency's problems.

"It's about time that the head of NASA steps down," he wrote from Glendora, Calif. "Americans like winners, not losers. I feel we should adopt Japan's standards — if it fails, then the person at the helm steps down!"

Others worried about the future:

"I think that it's a great idea for NASA to explore and chart space," Joseph Walker writes from Monroe Township, N.J., "but the fact is that we won't be able to grant NASA all the resources and attention that it deserves until we can get people on this planet to stop killing each other."

Here's just a sampling of what other Cosmic Log readers had to say about O'Keefe's legacy, his potential successors and the long-term outlook for NASA:

Andy S.: "I was actually sad to see that Sean O'Keefe is stepping down. With the tragedy of Columbia and all the troubles that the ISS has had, NASA needs a stable management team. New leadership means new ideas but it also means the loss of valuable experience. You just can't 'knowledge-transfer' everything. I wish the new NASA administrator the best of luck. There are so many 'cooks' in the kitchen, with the CAIB, Congress, institutions, former astronauts and even private citizens offering up so much advice and criticism, that I can barely see how anything gets done. It is actually amazing that NASA has done as much exploration of the solar system and has built up as much of a space station as it has."

Bill Jaques, Litchfield Park, Ariz.: "NASA needs a goal, no matter how far out in the future that goal is. You cannot achieve anything without setting goals. Kennedy set such a goal that many said was unattainable, yet men did walk on the moon. Set a goal, set a timeline, make it happen or soon we will be watching China or Japan walk on the moon or Mars. It has not been a point of national pride that NASA has had to go to the Russians with hat in hand to keep our manned space program alive. We need new leadership and a new direction, and someone who can make it happen."

Thomas Engel, Fort Worth, Texas: "More than anything we need someone who can work in Washington and will get approved by the Congress and still have two fundamental traits. A grounded person who is also a dreamer. It is very important that the head of NASA be a person who wants to reach to the stars and build that sense of community within the organization. This person must also be pragmatic when needed. I don't believe that person exists. I'd take the job."

India Williams, Denver: " Burt Rutan for NASA chief! Is there any other person more qualified or steeped in success? Possible problem: He wouldn't have the job because of the visionless, dreamless, mindless federal bureaucracy. I wouldn't blame him."

Vincent, Clayton, N.C.: "Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish? I hate the idea of a military man leading NASA. Should be a civilian, preferably a former astronaut. Ron Sega or Bruce Crippen would be great."

Joe Flaugher, Dayton, Ohio: "The list of candidates is surprisingly weighted towards space mission veterans. While on the first review, this seems like a good thing, it could be a major stumbling block for a technocrat rather than a politician to lead NASA through the stormy years ahead. While Bush's plan for the future is a bold one, many feel that the funds already granted (again, a major surprise!) would be better spent in other endeavors. This sort of divisiveness can be a crippling blow to the program as Congress re-evaluates the checks already written and ponders whether the yield will be worth the investment."

Daniel M. Gilsdorf, Kingman, Ariz.: "My vote would go to Ron Sega. Not only does he have an inside track on the president's space policies, but he clearly has a commitment to manned flight. How America's manned space efforts play out is anybody's guess, with private enterprise entering the field and making big strides, but we cannot afford to step back from the final frontier just as others step up to the challenge. We need a new manned vehicle with one mission: moving people safely from ground to orbit and back. If it needs to do anything else, let it dock to an appropriate module. In this way, one crew vehicle can do it all without bankrupting the space program. We should also pay close attention to the inflatable crew modules now under development."

Chris Eldridge: "I would rather see realistic steps that lead to the moon and Mars than one giant leap. A realistic reason for leaving low Earth orbit would be to combine a small space station with expensive communications, weather and GPS satellites so that those vital systems can be maintained and upgraded by astronauts working from within. So too expensive low-Earth-orbiting spy, WMD and environmental monitoring satellites in polar orbit could be combined into one outpost that is upgradable, giving much more validity to having a space station that just microgravity research! We'll get to Mars and the moon — but let's do it as a process of expansion."

Christopher Munroe, Lynnfield, Mass.: "First things first. Do not put the cart before the horse. Before any further fantasies of spaceflight, human civilization must deal with oil depletion and find alternative sources of energy in order to keep modern industrialized civilization going. I recommend going flat-out with a program of researching and implementing solar energy, nuclear fusion and windmills. After that, we can pick up where we left off. The best place to start would be to build space elevators."

Dec. 13, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): The Year in Ideas
Science News: Remnants of the past
Bio-IT World: Brain atlas serves as 'Google for gene activity'
Nature: The most thanked people in science

Dec. 11, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Will NASA lose its chief? NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who was brought in by President Bush to put the space agency's financial house in order and ended up having to deal with the Columbia tragedy and its aftermath, is considering leaving the space agency to become the chancellor of Louisiana State University, according to two reports published Saturday.

Florida Today quotes O'Keefe, a New Orleans native, as saying that he is under consideration for the position at LSU. Although he didn't say whether he would leave NASA if the job were offered to him, he told Florida Today as saying he's "always interested in talking to anyone."

NASA Watch's Keith Cowing, who recently co-wrote a book on the space agency's new vision for exploration and seems to be in close touch with O'Keefe's perspective on matters, says the administrator is expected to announce that he's stepping down as early as next week, after LSU's Board of Supervisors makes its decision.

Cowing cites unnamed sources, but he goes into so much detail about the timing and motivation behind O'Keefe's reported move (including family concerns) that it's hard to believe he isn't getting the word straight from the horse's mouth. Less than a week ago, Cowing said a scenario that had O'Keefe going to the Pentagon was "very unlikely," but apparently academia has much more appeal for a man Cowing calls an avowed academic.

Cowing says that O'Keefe would stay on until a successor is named and wins Senate confirmation, and that a leading name on the list of potential successors is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, who headed the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

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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