Jan. 7, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
‘I hear dead people’:
"White Noise," the scary movie of the week, may have left the critics cold — but the marketing campaign behind the film fires up decades-old claims that dead people really can communicate with the living, through spooky messages hidden in recordings and broadcasts.

The American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena is capitalizing on "White Noise," and indeed advertisements for the movie prominently cite the AA-EVP Web site. Association members trade recordings, books and even tips on what kinds of recorders to buy.

For the scientific lowdown on electronic voice phenomena, or EVP, check out this article by York University psychologist James Alcock, presented by the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Alcock traces the 19th-century roots of the paranormal phenomenon, and includes some sound clips so you can hear EVP for yourself.

Alcock says some of the effect may be due to "cross-modulation," in which one audio signal slops over into another, mixing the two tracks together. But the likeliest culprit is our own brain, which does an exceptionally fine job of picking out patterns from chaotic data.

We often perceive patterns that don't exist in the actual data, particularly when we're prompted by outside suggestions. This phenomenon, known as apophenia, applies to how we see Rorschach ink blots, the 9/11 "Devil's Face" and the "Virgin Mary" grilled-cheese sandwich , as well as how we hear the backward sound clips associated with the "Paul Is Dead" Beatles hoax.

Skeptics say it also applies to phenomena that some people take more seriously, such as reverse speech, the "Face on Mars" — and EVP as well. The Skeptic's Dictionary provides further background.

What do you think? Even if "White Noise" rates a black mark, you can still share your thoughts about purported paranormal phenomena. Just send me a message (but preferably not from "the other side").

Jan. 7, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
America’s Stonehenges:
Scientists have won a $1.05 million grant from the National Science Foundation to uncover the subterranean secrets of the Tiwanaku archaeological site in Bolivia — without disturbing a square inch of the estimated 60 acres of buried structures. Instead, the project will rely on 3-D imaging and remote-sensing techniques to reconstruct the ruins of the mysterious city on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Tiwanaku is thought to have been a religious center, inhabited by an Andean culture that had its heyday between A.D. 500 and 950. By the time the Incas arrived in the mid-15th century, the site had long been abandoned, leaving behind an array of monuments that apparently had an astronomical purpose. Archaeologists at Penn Museum say Tiwanaku's Kalasasaya temple had a layout that made it an "incredibly precise and self-correcting solar calendar, only recently surpassed in accuracy by modern technology."

All this has prompted researchers to call Tiwanaku the "Stonehenge of the Americas." But that's not the only claimant to the title: For example, some have compared Sacsayhuaman, an Inca fortress in Peru, to Stonehenge. Others point to Mystery Hill near Boston. But my favorite compilation of American Stonehenges has to be "America Unhenged" on the Roadside America Web site. There you'll find references to Sam Hill's faux Stonehenge in Washington state as well as more whimsical entrants such as Carhenge, Foamhenge and Stonefridge (or is that Fridgehenge?).

Jan. 7, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
Tsunami hoaxes:
It happened after 9/11, and now it's happening after the Asian tsunami as well. No, I'm not talking about online charity scams, although that's a serious problem . These hoaxes take the form of faked tsunami snapshots. As usual, the Urban Legends Reference Pages are keeping track, just as they did after the Sept. 11 attacks and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. (Tip o' the Log to Gael Fashingbauer Cooper of MSNBC's .)

Jan. 7, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'The Boldest Hoax'
The Economist: Genetically modified trees
Scientific American: How geckos keep sticky feet clean
NASA: Saturnian moon reveals a bulging waistline

Jan. 6, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Before-and-after views revisited:
Satellites are continuing to document the devastation caused by the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and the latest perspectives from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird camera are the most dramatic yet.

A satellite view from Sunday — focusing on the area around Gleebruk village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, 30 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of hard-hit Banda Aceh — shows eroded coastlines, washed-out bridges and roads, debris-clogged channels and a wipeout of houses, trees and crops.

Image: Before and after view
Digital Globe
Before-and-after views of Gleebruk on the island of Sumatra show how the Dec. 26 tsunami wiped out fields, forests and village structures.

You get a fuller picture of the situation by checking comparable views from last April, detailed in a before-and-after analysis (PDF file). Other views show how the killer wave reshaped the landscape of Banda Aceh South.

Relief groups are using satellite imagery to map out their response to the tragedy, as discussed earlier in Cosmic Log as well as in a report from NBC News' Robert Windrem. Look for further coverage from NBC News in the days ahead.

Much more imagery and analysis is available from GlobalSecurity.org and Space Imaging. Clark Lindsey's Space Log links to other sources of tsunami imagery — and he also mentions a couple of applications that put you in virtual control of a cyberspace satellite:

  • Keyhole, which was recently acquired by Google, offers software that lets you navigate through satellite imagery, using what it calls a "3-D digital model of the entire earth."
  • World Wind, developed by NASA, uses imagery from space missions ranging from LandSat to shuttle surveys to create a virtual zoom-in Earth.

Slideshow: Tsunami satellite imagery Lindsey points out that a broadband Net connection makes downloading the 250-megabyte World Wind application a lot easier, and Keyhole has its own requirements for 3-D graphics and a 128KB network connection.

Here are a couple of additional scientific sidelights on the tsunami:

  • LiveScience tackles the risk assessment question: What are the chances of dying in a natural disaster as opposed to, say, a traffic accident? Experts rate the odds for a variety of causes — and it's no surprise that even for coastal dwellers, traffic is a bigger threat than tsunamis.
  • Caltech Today presents a field report from Kerry Sieh, a geologist from the California Institute of Technology who has been studying the Sumatran subduction zone for more than a decade. One interesting thing here is that Sieh was visiting Indonesian islands, getting out the word about the potential seismic threat, just months before December's magnitude-9 quake. Now Sieh is surveying the results and figuring out how to set up a warning system for future quakes.

Jan. 6, 2005 | 8:45 p.m. ET
Scientific alerts on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Cell phones could get disaster alerts
New Zealand Herald: Race is on to claim the Arctic
Defense Tech: ‘Rats, bugs, boys: Attack!’

Jan. 5, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Tsunami blame game:
It was only a matter of time before Asia's tragic tsunami became a scientifico-sociopolitical football — and there are ample signs on the Web that the games have begun.

One theme has to do with global climate change: On one side of the issue, you have climate alarmists who say Asia's rising waters were a foretaste of what global warming might have in store for low-lying coastal areas — a "slow-motion version of the same movie," according to The Independent's Johann Hari.

"Even worse lowland floodings of the future are threatened by global warming, which is preventable by human action, guided by science," evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes in a buzz-generating letter to The Guardian.

Even China's CCTV network gets into the act, quoting Chinese meteorologists as saying that the sea-level rise predicted by climate models could make future tsunamis worse.

Such talk is red meat for climate skeptics, who with some justification raise accusations of scare-mongering: "Environmental activists are shamelessly trying to exploit last week's earthquake-tsunami catastrophe in hopes of advancing their global warming and anti-development agendas," commentator Steven Milloy writes in a FoxNews.com article.

In counter-counterarguments, other writers point out that Milloy based his screed primarily on an article in The Independent that was a wrap-up of a disaster-filled 2004 rather than a meditation on the Asian tsunami per se, as well as a Reuters report that raised concerns about coastal degradation in general. For more on the anti-skeptic side of the debate, check out the Center for Media and Democracy or Info-Pollution.

The middle-of-the-road view is that if global climate change does cause a gradual rise in sea levels, coastal residents would have more time to adjust — thus, it would be wrong to paint a killer-wave scenario for global warming. As usual, science writer David Appell serves as the voice of reason over at Quark Soup: Trying to make a tsunami-climate connection is "exactly the kind of easy opportunism that leads to the right making fun of the left," he says.

"If the same tsunami as just happened were to occur in 2100, I don't see that there'd be much difference in terms of loss of life and material," he writes.

University of Alabama climate researcher Roy Spencer makes a similar point at Tech Central Station, with some added political spin:

"Maybe global warming activists will be silenced for a time by the absurd disparity between what had just happened, and what they are predicting to happen from global warming," he says. "After all, if someone living within 30 feet of sea level has to contend with the possibility of a giant wave suddenly destroying his house and drowning his family, how much will he worry about an inch of sea level rise every 10 years due to global warming?"

But Spencer hints at a worrisome argument that is popping up in places like The Wall Street Journal as well: If only the residents of the affected areas were richer, they wouldn't have been in the trouble they're in now. "Countries that have adopted free-market principles have built the knowledge base, wealth, infrastructure, and warning systems to greatly reduce damage due to earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.," Spencer writes.

It's true that the tsunami warning systems for Indian Ocean nations range from woefully inadequate to nonexistent. But that was also true in the United States until Alaska was hit by the deadly earthquake and tsunami of 1964. That event led to the creation of the U.S. warning system now monitoring the Pacific Ocean.

It's also true that broader political and economic reforms will likely make life better in any country, rich or poor. But the risk is that better-off nations might somehow try to link assistance for disaster preparedness to changes in political and economic policies.

If anything, the Asian tsunami demonstrates the need for wider international approaches to dealing with disasters and monitoring the restless Earth — including better warning systems for the Indian and Atlantic oceans and the Caribbean Sea (and yes, even the Pacific), as well as further research into tsunami mitigation.

Jan. 5, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Terror shows only in the eyes
Discovery.com: Was iceman killed in a power play?
First light for NASA's SWIFT gamma-ray mission
Edge: What do you believe without proof?

Jan. 4, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
High-frontier highlights:
Over the past year, history was made on the closest edge of outer space, where SpaceShipOne proved private space flight was possible; and on the frontiers of Mars, where NASA's rovers found the best evidence yet that the Red Planet could have sustained life in ancient times. But which achievement gets the top rating?

The winner is ... both.

For the first time, our annual turn-of-the-year Live Vote on the top space stories has resulted in a statistical dead heat. Voters gave each achievement 38 percent — thanks to a late Red Planet surge that may have been related to this week's anniversary of the Spirit rover's landing.

Looking ahead, the voters picked the Huygens mission to Titan as the top outer-space trend for 2005. The Huygens probe, which took a piggyback ride to the Saturnian system on the larger Cassini spacecraft, is due to descend through Titan's atmosphere on Jan. 14.

The voters' verdict came as a surprise to me, because I expected interest to focus on the shuttle fleet's expected return to flight. It could be that readers are in a "show me" mood when it comes to getting the shuttle flying again. The first post-Columbia mission has been delayed several times already, and NASA is still a long way from giving the final A-OK for a launch in May or June. NASA is coping with a number of challenges, ranging from keeping the international space station going (SpaceRef reports a new glitch with the oxygen-generating system) to finding out who the new boss will be.

Cosmic Log readers also pointed out a couple of space-related trends I missed in the initial go-round. Oscar Saffold, for example, called attention to efforts to develop the space elevator , an unconventional concept for putting payloads in orbit. Space-elevator enthusiasts hope to put on their first "Elevator:2010" competition this summer, with support from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Another reader, Charles Kersey, had this to say:

"What about The Planetary Society's Cosmos 1 Solar Sail project? Sure, 'private spaceflight' is a big deal now, but it's the arena of moneyed individuals with splashy publicity backing. Don't get me wrong, it's a good thing still. But Cosmos 1 is something that's been doggedly in the works over 20 years, something I helped bring about with my support of the Planetary Society. Surely it merits some mention."

Once I received Kersey's message, I did indeed add Cosmos 1 to the list of future trends. The solar sail's launch is scheduled for March 1, and just before the holidays, Planetary Society executive director Louis Friedman declared in a status report from Moscow that "we are well on track" to meet that date. So stay tuned: Even though SpaceShipOne is being retired and the rovers aren't getting younger, 2005 is already shaping up as an eventful year

Jan. 4, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Tsunami reading list:
Last month's killer wave was a global wake-up call to the tsunami threat — but if you want to delve deeper than the latest headlines, what would you read?

My colleague at MSNBC.com, Tom Brew, recommends "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded," Simon Winchester's gripping tale about the 1883 volcanic explosion that spawned a similarly ruinous tsunami in the same part of the world. Winchester's book explains how the natural disaster sparked long-felt political and cultural aftershocks — something to think about as the world deals with the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami.

"Krakatoa" is hereby designated the January selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that could be found at your local library or used-book shop.

Another option for the reading list is "Furious Earth: The Science and Nature of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tsunamis" by Ellen Prager. Prager is a former collaborator with MSNBC.com on underwater adventures in the Florida Keys — and a longtime educator in earth and ocean science. "Furious Earth" serves as an easy-to-follow introduction to the nitty-gritty science of seismic activity.

Do you have your own suggestions for the tsunami reading list? Send them to the Cosmic Log mailbox and I'll pass along a selection of the recommendations.

Jan. 4, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Other perspectives on the Asian tsunami:
Discovery Channel: 'The Next Wave: Science of Tsunamis'
Science News: Could infrasound provide early warnings?
National Geographic: Did animals know tsunami was coming?
The Guardian: 'Where is God in all this?'

Jan. 3, 2005 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Are astronauts obsolete?
No way, says Steve Squyres, the top scientist for the Mars rover missions.

You might think Squyres would feel a bit of sympathy with the sentiment expressed in "The Matrix" by Agent Smith, the movie's virtual-reality villain: "Never send a human to do a machine's job." After all, Squyres serves as the principal investigator for the wildly successful robotic Mars adventure, which has lasted a year as of today .

But in a recent interview, the Cornell University astronomer said that human exploration has to be a central part of our effort to figure out what's going on in the universe. The current rover missions fit right in with that wider vision of exploration, he said:

"Anyone who would point to the success of Spirit and Opportunity and say, 'Oh, this means we should just spend our money on robotic programs, we don’t need to send humans to Mars,' is missing the point completely.

"I love sending robots to Mars. That’s what I do, OK? I'm a robot guy. But even I believe that the best exploration — the most successful, the most inspiring exploration — is ultimately going to be done by humans. And I’ve always viewed our mission as robotic precursors — being advance scouting missions. If you’re going to go through the enormous cost and dangers of sending humans to Mars, you better be sending them to the right places, and doing it for the right reasons. So I view our mission as very much laying the groundwork for that by helping to find the right places to go on Mars, by helping to frame the scientific questions that astronauts are going to Mars to try to answer.

"I think 'humans vs. robots' isn’t even the right dialogue to have. The right dialogue to have is, 'How do you use the two together in a complementary fashion to achieve the best science?'"

Just as orbiters like Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey point the way for on-the-ground robots like Spirit, Opportunity and the future Phoenix rover, those remote-controlled missions will serve as pathfinders for eventual human missions.

But sending humans safely is far more difficult and expensive than sending machines — leading many people to wonder whether the trip is really worth the effort. Cosmic Log reader Bob Cannarsa provided that point of view in an e-mail:

"I feel space exploration is fascinating, and I am certain mankind will eventually benefit from this program. It seems to me however, in light of the recent loss of so many beautiful lives, that we have to focus our attention (dollars) on aiding and safeguarding the inhabitants of our world. Had there been a tsunami early warning system implemented in the Indian Ocean, it is quite clear the loss of life would have been a lot less.  For people who are living at a substandard level to begin with to have to endure such hardship is tragic. Let's get our priorities straight starting now!"

It's hard to argue with that sentiment: Right now, federal tsunami relief funds ($350 million) amount to less than half the original expense of mounting the twin-rover missions ($820 million). But the relief figure will surely grow, especially if you count the charity drive that President Bush announced today.

In the meantime, we have to learn about other, longer-range threats and opportunities. For example, the past and current climates of Mars and Venus could give us a better understanding of how Earth's climate could change in the future. And it's particularly worth noting that if a recently discovered asteroid were to hit the ocean, it could generate a tsunami comparable to the one witnessed on Dec. 26. NASA's Deep Impact mission, due for launch later this month, could help us figure out how best to deal with potential threats from comets or asteroids.

In the long run, human missions to Mars could help provide the ultimate insurance policy for the species — which is the bottom-line reason for space exploration. But all this will take time. Under NASA's current timetable, such a Mars landing would have to wait until sometime after 2020. For that reason, Steve Squyres doesn't expect to put on a spacesuit anytime soon:

"I'd love to go myself. If the opportunity came to go to Mars, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I'm 48 years old, and I'm expecting that by the time people really do set foot on Mars, I'll be back here watching it on TV."

If you can't wait to find out about the next steps on Mars, check out our special Red Planet report — and don't miss our new "Greatest Hits" slideshow .

Jan. 3, 2005 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
NASA: Saturn probe gets close-up view of Iapetus
Popular Science: The prophet of immortality
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Tantalizing clues to future tsunamis
Science News: Bright future for humble concrete
Scientific American: Prime time for quantum cryptography

Jan. 1, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Fireworks for the new year:
Amid all the tragedy at the turn of the year, the heavens still provide some portents for a happier new year: The Gemini Observatory in Hawaii provides a new image of the spiral galaxy NGC 6946, ablaze with the celestial fireworks of starbirth.

Image: Fireworks Galaxy
Travis Rector  /  Univ. of Alaska / Gemini Obs.
The "Fireworks Galaxy," also known as NGC 6946, is aglow with bursts of starbirth as seen in this image from the Gemini North telescope's Multi-Object Spectrograph.
In its description of the image, the observatory notes that NGC 6946 has been the most prolific known galaxy for supernovas over the past century.

"For reasons not completely understood, it experiences a much higher rate of star formation than all the large galaxies in our local neighborhood," the observatory says. "The prodigious output of stellar nurseries in this galactic neighbor eventually leads to accelerated numbers of supernova explosions."

You need the specially equipped spectrograph on the 26-foot (8.1-meter) Gemini North telescope to get this level of detail about NGC 6946, which is 10 million to 20 million light-years away, on the border of the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus. But there's another burst of celestial fireworks that requires nothing more than clear skies, your naked eyes and a little patience: the annual Quadrantid meteor shower, which is due to peak early Monday morning.

The Quadrantids are at their best for only a few hours, but the timing of this year's peak — at 4:20 a.m. PT — favors observers in the western United States. Unfortunately, the last-quarter moon provides extra glare during the peak hours after midnight.

To maximize your meteor sightings, pick a place far from city lights, then make yourself warm and comfortable in a prone position. The Quadrantids appear to originate in the constellation Bootes, but they can appear anywhere in the night sky.

Check out SpaceWeather.com for more on the Quadrantids — as well as updates on the X-class solar storm that just might generate some great auroral displays over the next couple of days.

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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