Video: Rose Parade robot

Dec. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Space robot in Rose Parade: Worlds collide in Pasadena this weekend, when the rocket scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory field their first-ever float in their Southern California hometown's classic Rose Parade.

Hundreds of volunteers have been working on the 50-foot-high rolling display, made from flowers and other natural materials, and styled to look like a robot made from JPL spacecraft. Replicas of the Mars rovers serve as the robot's "skates," and other parts pay tribute to Cassini, Jason, Stardust, Genesis, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment.

The float should wow the Rose Parade crowd on New Year's morning with belching smoke, flashing lights and animation — but for the Web crowd, the coolest feature may well be the "Floatcam," a remote-control camera that should feed views from the parade route onto the Internet.

The California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL on NASA's behalf, is funding the float. Construction began in June, following a design by Pasadena-based Phoenix Decorating Co.

JPL gets another day in the sun on Monday, when its Mars mission team marks the first anniversary of the Spirit rover's landing. Check out our special report on Mars for more on the milestone, and tune in NASA Television starting at 1 p.m. ET Monday for televised recaps, briefings and festivities.

Dec. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Weird wave warnings: The Oregon man whose warning of another Asian tsunami prompted a panicky evacuation in India stands by his prediction , which he says was partly based on a reading of cosmic "ether." Larry Park of Manning-based Terra Research told reporters today that there was still a "good chance" for a potential cataclysm in the next few days — but the Indian government would probably be better-advised to heed its own seismic reports and follow through with its own warning system instead.

Dec. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Godspeed, John Young: NASA's longest-serving astronaut retires on Friday after more than 40 years in the corps, including flights in every U.S. space program except Mercury. Check out this interview , in which Young focuses on NASA's future — and check out this unauthorized tribute site as well.

As for me, I'll be taking Friday off, but regular postings will resume next year. May all of us have a happier 2005!

Dec. 30, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Online field trips for the long weekend:
Boston Phoenix: Cloning Hollywood pets (via Slashdot)
The Economist: 100 years of Einstein
Get ready for Einstein @ Home
India Daily: E.T. will save the world in 2012 (via Daily Grail)

Dec. 30, 2004 | Updated 1:35 p.m. ET
Tsunami seen from space: The killer tsunami looked beautiful, not horrific, from 280 miles (450 kilometers) above. But even from that height, you can get a sense of the waves' power.

The QuickBird satellite, operated by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, snapped a picture of Sri Lanka's battered southwestern coast just an hour after the first wave hit on Sunday morning. The detailed imagery, also available via NASA and, shows whirling whitecaps receding from the shores of Kalutara, rolling back from streets filled with sand, mud and debris.

A more placid image shows what Kalutara, a resort and fishing village 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Colombo, looked like almost a year ago.

Image: Before and after tsunami
DigitalGlobe / NASA
A typical image of the coastline at Kalutara in southwestern Sri Lanka is shown at left, taken by DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite in January 2004. At right, a Quickbird image of the same area shows the devastation left behind by the Dec. 26 tsunami about an hour after the first wave hit. Click on the image to see larger views from NASA.

USA Today provides a grittier perspective from ground zero in Kalutara, where Sunday's 30-foot wave blew away buildings and lives. Relief agencies say Sri Lanka suffered a heavy blow, with an estimated 21,000 lives lost.

QuickBird and another privately operated satellite, Space Imaging's Ikonos spacecraft, are pumping out imagery as fast as they can for the benefit of humanitarian agencies and governments trying to get a fix on the full extent of the devastation.

"Space Imaging is responding to requests from a U.S. government agency that has ordered more than two dozen areas — mostly along coastlines — to be imaged," company spokesman Gary Napier said.

Slideshow: Tsunami satellite imagery From an altitude of 423 miles (677 kilometers) Ikonos delivered comparative imagery of the Male International Airport in the Maldive Islands, taken in December 2003 and on Dec. 27, the day after the tsunami hit. Other sample images focus on the Indian coast around Madras (Chennai). The tsunami killed more than 13,000 people in India and at least 67 in the Maldives.

The Pentagon's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has turned its own spy satellites to survey the devastation as well. The imagery is being used to funnel damage assessments to the U.S. agencies handling disaster relief, so they can figure out where workers and life-support supplies should be sent first.

The only humans who could have seen the catastrophe with their own eyes from outer space — the crewmen of the international space station — missed out. reports that the station was in the wrong orbit and on the wrong schedule to see the tsunami while it was happening.

"We did hear the tragic news about the tsunami and were deeply saddened for all the people affected," station commander Leroy Chiao said.

Meanwhile, science-fiction author and longtime Sri Lanka resident Arthur C. Clarke provided an update on his situation Wednesday via his foundation's Web site:

"I am enormously relieved that my family and household have escaped the ravages of the sea that suddenly invaded most parts of coastal Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of destruction.

"But many others were not so fortunate. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to all those who lost family members or friends.

"Our staff members are all safe, even though some are badly shaken and relate harrowing firsthand accounts of what happened. Most of our diving equipment and boats at Hikkaduwa were washed away. We still don't know the full extent of damage — it will take a while for us to take stock as accessing these areas is still difficult."

Sir Arthur recommends that contributions be made to international aid agencies such as CARE or Oxfam, or to Sri Lankan charity Sarvodaya, "which has a 45-year track record in reaching out and helping the poorest of the poor."

Dec. 29, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
SpaceX's latest snag: Rocket-watchers are abuzz over a Wall Street Journal report (subscription required) on the dispute between SpaceX and Northrop Grumman over the anticipated launch of SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket next year. According to the report, Northrop accuses SpaceX of stealing its pintle engine technology (acquired by Northrop as part of its purchase of TRW), while SpaceX accuses Northrop of abusing its government-advisory role in overseeing launch preparations.

The dispute has held up Air Force approval of the Falcon 1 launch of a military satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Journal reports. Trial proceedings could begin in February, unless an out-of-court settlement is reached first. Discussion of the "David-and-Goliath battle" has spread to Clark Lindsey's RLV News and the aRocket mailing list.

Dec. 29, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
Transterrestrial Musings on intelligent design
Science Commons to open up access to research Taming lightning isn't that easy
Discover Magazine: The year's top science books

Dec. 28, 2004| 8:35 p.m. ET
How your brain evolved: A genetic speed-up led to the development of bigger and more complex brains in humans, indicating that human brain evolution was a "special event," researchers report.

In Wednesday's issue of the journal Cell, a research team led by Bruce Lahn of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Chicago reports their comparative analysis of 214 brain-related genes in four species — humans, macaque monkeys, rats and mice.

Changes in the DNA sequences can be used as a type of molecular clock, calibrated based on assumptions about the rate of divergence between species. For example, evolutionary biologists say humans and macaques shared a common ancestor about 20 million to 25 million years ago, and rats and mice diverged 16 million to 23 million years ago.

Brain-related genes appeared to change much faster in the human-macaque line than in the rat-mouse line, and the rate of change was far greater for human DNA than for macaque DNA.

"People in many fields, including evolutionary biology, anthropology and sociology, have long debated whether the evolution of the human brain was a special event," Lahn said today in a news release. "I believe that our study settles this question by showing that it was."

Lahn speculated that in the course of human evolution, there must have been strong natural selection "for greater intelligence and hence larger and more complex brains" — and he suggested that this strong selection for bigger brains may well be continuing today.

Today's provocative report provides an opportunity to wedge in a final batch of evolution-related feedback from our "Science and Religion" Symposium .

T. Arthur Wheeler, Dayton, Ohio: "The controversy is not so much the issue of evolution vs. creationism per se. It is that of creationism being taught in a science textbook or classroom. Creationism has no more place as an 'alternate theory' in a science textbook or classroom than evolution would have as an alternate biblical interpretation in a Christian fundamentalist Sunday school class. (A noteworthy distinction, however, is that posing as science tends to elevate creationism — which is the motivation for promoting it in the guise of science — whereas posing as religion would serve only to diminish evolution.)"

Jorge Fernandez, Hialeah, Fla.: "As a high school student in a Christian school, I first take issue with the idea that since we're already losing to other countries at mathematics ... we're going to let them beat us scientifically. I do not see that blindly following and memorizing what we are told by proud scientists is in any way making us any smarter. In math, the reason why we are doing so poorly, I feel, is that school has become a place of memorization and not critical thinking. ... We are not challenging brains in both situations, which is our problem. We will be better off if we give students both sides of the debate and let them decide for themselves, and use the brains that God gave them to actually think."

Chad Bryan, Concord, N.C., who says he's a descendant of William Jennings Bryan: "I would hope that all scientific evidence would further prove the existence of God. If He made the universe, then discoveries should support what he says about His own creation. I am not a scientist, but I can only say that at least arguably in every law of science, it would agree with the Bible. In the case of the theory of evolution, could you say that the automobile has evolved from the wheel to the cart to the horse and carriage to the first Ford ... to what we have today? Well, they evolved because a creative mind was making them. I would say that this is much how God made animals and man. They evolved in his mind as he created them."

Willie, Sacramento, Calif.: "I am a taxonomic botanist with a Ph.D. in plant biology (concentration in evolution and systematics). Several letters claim that micro-evolution is possible because it occurs within a species, but that evolution above the species level does not occur. That argument is based on the claim that species have never been observed to originate from other species. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of species originating as polyploid (multiple chromosome sets) derivatives of intra- and inter-species hybrids. Sterile triploid offspring of crossing between a diploid and a tetraploid species often double the chromosome number to form a fertile hexaploid. This hexaploid is fertile among other similarly originating hexaploids, or may be self-fertile — but in either case it is sterile when backcrossed to its parents. Thus, it is genetically isolated and forms an interbreeding unit that behaves like and indeed is a newly evolved separate species. Similar situations have been observed where chromosome rearrangements have rendered individuals intersterile with their nominal species. In the cases where these individuals are self-fertile, they can form populations with the exact structure of a distinct species; again, these are newly evolved species."

Tom Coulcher, Newcastle, Australia: "I love reading Cosmic Log, especially when I read an assertion from a writer who is both right and wrong. Greg Throop of Las Vegas stated : '... No way are fish changing into birds because they want to fly.' Is it not commonly accepted that dinosaurs changed from ground-dwellers into birds? Over much time, of course. He is very right, however, that survival of the fittest not only applies within species but also between species: "Look how many species are going extinct every day..." One only has to look at this planet's most aggressive and successful parasite to see the truth of his statement. I refer to Homo sapiens."

Dec. 28, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Tsunami timeline: The tsunami tragedy continues in the Indian Ocean, prompting Americans to wonder whether such events could happen here.

As I noted on Monday , there is indeed evidence of a tsunami of comparable size that swept out from the northeast Pacific in the year 1700, generated by a magnitude-9.0 quake. A reconstruction of the event has been corroborated by historical reports from Canadian Indians as well as Japanese records. That seismically active area of the Pacific, known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, is a prime suspect for future monster waves.

Video: Could it happen here? But there have been Atlantic and Caribbean tsunamis as well: In 1755, the Atlantic earthquake that devastated Portugal also sent a tsunami toward North America and the Caribbean islands; scientists believe the waves hitting America's East Coast might have risen as high as 10 feet. More recently, a 1929 earthquake and underwater landslide about 150 miles south of Newfoundland generated a tsunami that killed scores of Canadians.

An underwater seismic zone around Puerto Rico and the northern Virgin Islands periodically generates tsunami waves as well, though nothing on the scale of the Asian catastrophe.

One of the more unusual scientific sidelights of the 9.0 earthquake that spawned the tsunami has to do with another potential effect: whether it was so strong it affected Earth's rotation. Reuters quotes Richard Gross, a geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as saying the gravity shift might have been enough to shorten the daily rotation rate by a few microseconds — but it will be weeks before we know for sure.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, reported that the quake shifted the tectonic plates beneath the Indian Ocean as much as 100 feet.

Dec. 28, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
SpaceShipOne's final trip: The National Air and Space Museum confirms that it's talking with the team behind the historic SpaceShipOne rocket plane to bring the world's first privately developed spaceship to the museum's Milestones of Flight gallery. Designer Burt Rutan, whose Voyager round-the-world plane already hangs in the museum, said as much this month. Some sources say SpaceShipOne's move from its hangar in Mojave, Calif., could come next spring, but a museum spokesman would say only that the timing and the method of transportation are still under discussion.

Dec. 28, 2004 | 8:35 p.m. ET
More excursions on the scientific Web:
Wired: A billionaire with a mission
The year in Defense Tech: Sticky armor and robo-dogs
CSICOP: How did 2004's psychic predictions turn out?
IOL: Indonesian 'hobbit' legends may be factual

Dec. 27, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Sir Arthur and the tsunami: The past weekend's magnitude-9 earthquake sparked killer tsunami waves that swept over the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to East Africa. It also sparked plenty of questions about tsunami preparedness , the limits of scientists' predictive powers, and future possibilities for taming earthquakes .

Among the survivors of the deluge was one of Sri Lanka's best-known residents, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who is famous for a string of science-fiction novels including "2001: A Space Odyssey." Clarke's home page on the Web provides this update from the author (I've added a couple of relevant links):

"Thank you for your concern about my safety in the wake of Sunday’s devastating tidal wave.

"I am enormously relieved that my family and household have escaped the ravages of the sea that suddenly invaded most parts of coastal Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of destruction.

"But many others were not so fortunate. For hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans and an unknown number of foreign tourists, the day after Christmas turned out to be a living nightmare reminiscent of 'The Day After Tomorrow.'

"Among those affected are my staff based at our diving station in Hikkaduwa and holiday bungalow in Kahawa — both beachfront properties located in areas worst hit. We still don’t know the fully extent of damage as both roads and phones have been damaged. Early reports indicate that we have lost most of our diving equipment and boats. Not all our staff members are accounted for — yet.

"This is indeed a disaster of unprecedented magnitude for Sri Lanka, which lacks the resources and capacity to cope with the aftermath. We are all trying to contribute to the relief efforts. We shall keep you informed as we learn more about what happened.

"Curiously enough, in my first book on Sri Lanka, I had written about another tidal wave reaching the Galle harbour (see Chapter 8 in 'The Reefs of Taprobane,' 1957). That happened in August 1883, following the eruption of Krakatoa in roughly the same part of the Indian Ocean."

Keep posted on the recovery efforts by checking our special report on "Asia's Deadly Tsunami."

Dec. 27, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Science News: An electron runs through it
Popular Science: The Year in Science 2004
New Scientist: The Year in Space and Astronomy
Archaeology: The Three Kings and the Star

Check the Cosmic Log archive

Alan Boyle


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