Jan. 14, 2005 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Darwin debate evolves:
The latest court ruling in the debate over teaching evolution has sparked a fresh firestorm of letters on the subject, following up on our recent Science and Religion Symposium .

The "theory, not a fact" stickers that the Cobb County School District pasted inside high-school biology textbooks represent only one front in what is becoming a real battle in the red-vs.-blue culture war. There are legislative clashes brewing in Mississippi, Montana, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, according to the National Center for Science Education.

You could also throw in Wisconsin, where school districts are telling teachers to question evolution; and Kansas, where the battle over Darwinism made headlines six years ago and where the theory's critics are once again in the ascendancy.

Yes, I said "theory." The problem isn't so much that Darwinian evolution is considered a theory — that is, a "set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena." Rather, the problem with the sticker is that it seems to single out one theory as especially doubtful. I suppose that's the point, from the perspective of Darwin's detractors. I'm not sure that in itself is unconstitutional. But it's unwise.

To be sure, all theories should be put to continuing scrutiny, including relativity theory , superstring theory and quantum theory as well as evolutionary theory. But budding scientists have to learn the theory in question thoroughly in order to put it to the test.

I seem to be in the minority here: In our admittedly unscientific Live Vote , roughly equal numbers believe the judge in the sticker case was dead right or dead wrong. Only about a tenth of the respondents said the stickers were a bad idea, but not unconstitutional.

Here are just a few snippets from the hundreds of e-mail messages I've received in the past day. In some cases I've had to edit the messages for length, and I apologize if I've done too much violence to your arguments:

David A. Borrelli, Springfield, Pa.: "If Darwinism is to be taken at face value, we would need to ask a few questions. First of all, why did Darwin, after pursuing his theory all his life, renounce it in later years? Why did he find that the more he tried to disprove Genesis, the more overwhelmingly the evidence pointed to Genesis? ..."

Reality check: Actually, the opposite appears to have been the case. As Charles Darwin continued to develop his theories, he became less attached to his religious views, according to an account on the Christian Answers Web site that bemoans his loss of faith. This brief essay outlines Darwin's comments on religious belief through the years.

Craig: "The judge who just made the ruling stipulated that the placement of the stickers in the textbook violates the 'constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.' I am not a constitutional lawyer, but I know how to read. The Constitution does not mention one single time the separation of church and state. The Constitution guarantees the practice of religion, not protection from religion. The Constitution only provides for protection from a president or Congress passing a law stipulating that Catholicism, for example, will be the national religion."

Reality check: This was a theme in several letters — that the First Amendment merely says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," and that this left an opening for school boards (or judges who are fond of the Ten Commandments, for that matter) to do whatever they thought best. However, this constitutional issue has been expanded upon through a series of court cases going back to the 1925 Monkey Trial, as outlined in this online roundup. The law school at the University of Missouri at Kansas City also has a concise discussion of the complexities surrounding the Establishment Clause.

Robert McGee, Miami: "This whole problem could be solved by getting government out of education. There should be complete separation of education and state. Let parents decide where to send their children to school and let parents pay for the education of their children. It is inherently wrong to force some people to pay for the education of other people's children."

Chester Webster: "There is a simple reason it's always been called the 'theory' of evolution. The fact is, it's a theory, not a fact. Because of the nature of this theory it ultimately unprovable. That is, it can neither be proved nor disproved by scientific methods. So you look at the 'evidence' that supports the theory and the 'evidence' that does not support it and make up your mind. In other words, look at all the evidence, use your critical powers, be reasonable and scientific in your approach and feel free to disregard the totally closed minds on either side of the issue. To me this sounds like education (Yes, I'm an educator), and what the judge is ordering is state-sponsored propaganda. Don't think critically, don't examine evidence, don't even be exposed to contrary evidence, just shut up and memorize the answer. I don't see where religion or separation of church and state issues enter into the Cobb County statement at all."

Daniel, Ahoskie, N.C.: "If the Cobb County public school officials wish to put disclaimers on science textbooks, then disclaimers must be put on every book of unproven information. Guess which book will be first in that line?"

Bruce Entz, Wichita, Kan.: "I am appalled at the historical and ethical ignorance of North American Evangelicals. Various early 20th-century fundamentalist leaders, such as R.A. Torrey (of Biola and Moody Bible Institute) made neutral to positive statements regarding the compatibility of evolution and Christianity. ...."

Mark Abshire: "...All of science is theoretical: gravity, electromagnetism, biology, quantum physics, and evolution. And since when did the conclusion that 'It's too hard to figure out — let's just quit trying" get anyone anywhere? The teachings in the Bible, too, can be labeled as theoretical. Would it be acceptable if the federal government mandated 'theory' stickers for the Bible? As one Harrisburg, Pa., school official stated, 'It only encourages critical thinking.' ..."

Emory Richardson: "The stickers which appear to be insinuating that evolution and creationism are equally acceptable sciences are just dumb; creationism is not a science. In any way. Period. It is a set of rationalizations and fuzzy logic to attempt to show that the world is less scientifically in matched to the Book of Genesis. I don't know what the constitutional rule of law would be here, but it seems that the judge's decision that the stickers were covert creationism is flawed. Obviously, they do have that intention, but the fact is, nothing in the wording is controversial. ... There's nothing wrong with encouraging students to think critically. So does the judge rule on the intention of the sticker, or the content? Also, the 'intelligent design' idea is sort of similar to real scientific/theological debates about "why is there something instead of nothing?" One thing science will never be able to explain is how everything happened so perfectly, in the one possible way in a million that could have produced life; so many millions of tiny variables, altered slightly, and there would be no life at all. However, this is something for a philosophy class, not a science class."

Joanna Clark, San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: "Evolution versus creationism. Creationism is for those who would limit God. It is really very simple. God, in her infinite wisdom, created evolution."

Les Lee, Seattle: "I admit I am an evolution vs. creation junkie. I buy magazines, collect books, read the wonderful resources on the Internet, listen to speakers and even tune into radio stations via the Internet to learn as much as I can about evolution vis-a-vis creationism. After 20 years of personal observation, having witnessed persistent trickery, obstinate refusal to learn rudimentary science, and an intentional disregard for sound argument, it comes down to this: A sizable number of Americans simply won't accept secular society. No attempt at rational discourse will ever bear fruit. No lengthy dialogues about the meaning of the scientific method, the nature of inquiry or even elementary refutations of commonly believed falsehoods can pierce the absolute certainty, the absolute conviction of the fool who has a 'personal relationship with God.' Take it from me: Arguing with a fool makes you the biggest fool of all."

Keith Wiley, Germantown, Tenn.: "I just found this site and I would like to thank you for printing so many different views in the letters regarding science vs. religion. I laughed; I cried; I even got mad. I understand why some people state that these two ideas are so far removed from one another that they should not be debated, but I think that the debate is in itself a form of evolution. ..."

Jan. 14, 2005 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Supersonic Dream'
The Economist: Why women live longer than men
Popular Mechanics: The CIA's secret UFO files
Sky & Telescope: Pointers on use of laser pointers

Jan. 13, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
Saturn in the spotlight:
It's showtime for the Huygens probe, which spent the last seven and a half years piggybacking on the Cassini spacecraft and is now making its final descent toward Titan, Saturn's largest and most mysterious moon. During the hours and days ahead, check our Space News section for updates on the rendezvous with Titan , and watch the mission unfold in real time on NASA Television. Slideshow: Greatest hits from Saturn

For the full story on the international Cassini-Huygens mission, click on over to the home pages maintained by NASA and the European Space Agency.

The nonprofit Planetary Society sponsored a Titan art contest in Huygens' honor, and recently 15-year-old North Carolina student Chelsey Tyler was named the grand prize winner. Tyler's Earth-toned depiction of the spacecraft's fall through Titan's murk won her an expense-paid trip to ESA's mission control in Germany to witness the climax of Huygens' journey.

You don't have to be an prize-winning artist to get a firsthand look at what all the hubbub is about: Tonight, Saturn is as close to Earth as it will ever get this year, and if the skies are clear, you should be able to see the planet's glint directly overhead at midnight. A small telescope provides an even better view of the planet's angled rings as well as Titan itself, and adept astronomers will be conducting an intense survey of the planet and its moons.

If you miss tonight's show, don't be disappointed: The view will be nearly as good for the next month. For more about sky sights, check out Space.com's sky calendar or Indiana University's "Star Trak" synopsis.

Jan. 13, 2005 | Updated 7 p.m. ET
Amazon founder reveals space plans:
After two years of work behind closed doors, Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos is laying out the blueprints for his Blue Origin suborbital space effort. The Seattle-based venture will build an operations and test facility on a portion of a ranch near Van Horn in West Texas, according to a report in the Van Horn Advocate.

The Texas center will start small, but over the next six or seven years, Bezos plans to work up to flight testing for a vertical-launch-and-landing craft that could bring three or more people to the edge of space — a concept that sounds more like John Carmack's Black Armadillo than Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne . Check out the full story .

There are lots of other tidbits on the private-sector space front, gleaned from X Prize Space Race News and RLV News:

Jan. 13, 2005 | 7 p.m. ET
More destinations on the scientific Web:
The Guardian: Tell me something I don't know
Scientific American: Catching the flu, the right way
Wall Street Journal: Just how deadly is bird flu?
Johns Hopkins University: Return to Egyptian digs

Jan. 12, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Galactic baby pictures:
In a galaxy next door, astronomers have spotted stars so young they haven't yet fired up their fusion engines. The latest view from the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys marks the first time such infant stars have been seen inside the Small Magellanic Cloud.

The Small Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies, is only about 210,000 light-years away. It's visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch in the southern constellation Tucana.

Today's picture of a star-forming nebula within the galaxy, known as NGC 346, is actually a three-generation snapshot. Based on a detailed analysis of the light, some of the stars have been dated at 4.5 billion years old, roughly the age of our own sun. Others appear to have formed about 5 million years ago.

And then there are the babies: In NGC 346 alone, about 2,500 bluish infant stars are still forming from collapsing clouds of gas. These stars have not yet ignited their hydrogen fuel for thermonuclear fusion. Some of them are only half the size of our own sun.

There's more to the picture than its sparkling beauty. Astronomers say the Small Magellanic Cloud, or SMC, appears to be a more primitive galaxy than the Milky Way, because it lacks a large percentage of the heavy elements that are created through multiple generations of starbirth and stellar death.

Image: NGC 346
The star-forming nebula NGC 346 contains more than 2,500 bluish infant stars, as shown in this Hubble Space Telescope image. Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys was able to spot such stars in NGC 346 for the first time.
"Fragmentary galaxies like the SMC are considered primitive building blocks of larger galaxies," the Hubble astronomers explain in today's picture advisory. "Most of these types of galaxies existed far away, when the universe was much younger. The SMC offers a unique nearby laboratory for understanding how stars arose in the early universe."

The observations, by Antonella Nota of the European Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute, were presented today in San Diego at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

To learn more about how stars like our sun were born, check out this archived report on cosmic "EGGs." And for more of Hubble's wonders, click on over to the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite, ESA's Hubble home base and our own Space Gallery .

Jan. 12, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Low-tech election mess:
For me, one of the surprising things about November's election was how little electronic voting machines figured in the wide array of polling-place problems. Oh, sure, there were some computerized glitches — but most of the trouble was due to garden-variety bureaucratic screw-ups, such as the furor over provisional ballots, tardy deliveries of absentee ballots and registration problems.

Learn how voting systems work, from paper ballots to e-voting.In Washington state, where MSNBC.com is headquartered, the red-vs.-blue gubernatorial contest was still blazing today, even as Democrat Christine Gregoire was inaugurated . The incredibly close, back-and-forth tally (a margin measured in thousandths of a percentage point) led to revelations about the seamy underside of the election process — dead people voting, lost ballots found, etc., etc.

The vote is still being contested in court, and editorialized upon in The Wall Street Journal (registration required) as well as in red and blue blogs.

It seems to me that the election mess is likely to have a longer-term impact on voting technology as well: Just as past e-voting glitches revealed that you can't rely on software alone, this demonstrates that you can't rely on paper alone, either. As some scientists predicted a year ago , on-paper systems created more woes than e-voting systems.

A truly secure and accurate voting system will have to offer not only a paper trail , but an electronic trail as well. What shape would that system take? The next round in the voting tech debate has already started here in Washington state, with VoteHere's Jim Adler and other e-voting allies on one side, and Black Box Voting's Bev Harris and other e-voting skeptics on the other.

Jan. 12, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: Dolphins take on specialized jobs in hunts
New Scientist: Will we be ready for the next tsunami?
Chicago Tribune: Boeing bets big on plastic plane
Wired: Ethics for the robot age

Jan. 11, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Ghostly noises revisited:
Moviegoers liked the thriller "White Noise" a lot better than the critics did, to the tune of $24 million last weekend. But what about the film's paranormal plot element? Claims that the dead can speak to us through spooky sounds that are caught on tape or even on the phone received mixed reviews from Cosmic Log readers in the wake of Friday's item on electronic voice phenomena.

York University psychologist James Alcock, who wrote a detailed analysis of the phenomenon for the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, said in an e-mail that "the movie is of course stimulating all sorts of interest in yet another paranormal claim, but there is nothing significant happening in this area of any interest to anyone of a scientific bent."

"A chap by the name of Alexander MacRae ... has apparently received some research money to do some sort of research into this, but I have no further details," he wrote. "So far as I am aware, mainstream parapsychologists, who actually believe in paranormal phenomena but do try to use science in their (unsuccessful to date) quest to demonstrate that psychic phenomena exist, show no interest in EVP — for good reason."

Here's what other Cosmic Log correspondents had to say about EVP:

Anthony Sanchez: "Although there might be some legitimacy to these 'claims,' I believe it is like most other kinds of paranormal phenomena. If one looks hard enough, and 'wants' to believe, then you'll find the evidence to believe in whatever your looking for. This is similar to most religious beliefs.  People are afraid of the unknown, and in order to cope with the reality of the world around us, we invented god(s) and all the icons that accompany all religion. I know this sounds cold and hard, but it is a cold and hard universe."

Cliff Hall, Ph.D.: "I'm a scientifically trained individual who has given this EVP business some thought.  Here's some additional reflections that I haven't ever heard discussed:

"1) Our society has airwaves riddled with radio and other electromagnetic radiation.  Every place where these emissions strike conductors, that conductor is essentially some form of antenna. This even goes for the conductors that are inside these silly investigators' tape recorders. So a question I think we could ask is: If I run a tape recorder with blank tape in it, do the circuits it contains sometimes pick up voice noise from the airwaves like a radio of suboptimal design?

"2) Do these people really use fresh audio tape that hasn't been previously recorded?  Or are they trying to record silence over muddled remnants of previously recorded speech (with possible persistence of previous recordings)?

Bill: "I was 12 years of age and bored with the Saturday-morning programming.  So in switching over to UHF and trying to find something else to watch, I settled for a screen of static. As I gazed into the black-and-white chaos, there appeared to me a dragon of the Chinese sort. It undulated around the screen, and I found the whole experience entertaining until I detected a high-pitched laugh that just seemed to go on and on. I felt chills and got a bad case of the creeps, turned off the set, and headed outside. Thanks for providing the name of this phenomena — apophenia.  I can understand that static noise is just a big dream screen.  Our brains must produce such stuff that we make our dreams of."

Frank Valentyn, Johannesburg, South Africa: "The reporter in this article made a rather bad mistake in confusing what he refers to as apophenia with pareidolia, which this phenomenon actually represents. The confusion may have arisen more easily as pareidolia is more often associated with a mental image generated by visual stimuli and not aural. Apophenia is the perception of causal relation which is not warranted by the presented stimuli, whereas pareidolia is the distorted perception of percept, imagery or pattern not present in the stimuli concerned. A simple dictionary would have cleared up this little category error."

Upon review, I'd have to agree that I mixed up the two closely related phenomena. Actually, Alcock says EVP is indeed an example of apophenia, which "involves seeing or hearing patterns where in reality, none exist." He cites the Rorschach inkblot test as another example. On the other hand, seeing the face of Jesus on a tortilla chip is cited as an example of pareidolia, "an illusion involving misperception of an external stimulus." A Web site called The Folklorist offers a catalog of pareidolia-inducing pictures.

Rob, UnSpace: "As an amateur radio operator, I've listened to a lot of white noise. I've never heard anything that makes me believe the dead are trying to contact us.

"Strangely, I've spotted a different supernatural phenomenon, but it's quite obvious and repeatable.

"There's a spooky curse, but it's the ancient Egyptians who have been cursed! Just about any photograph of things relating to ancient Egypt you look at has this old, gray haired gentleman in the picture. Even the photo of King Tut on MSNBC has him! See the white-haired apparition in the blue long-sleeved shirt?

"This living ghost shows up on video as well — he can be seen in just about every National Geographic, TLC, or Discovery Channel program about ancient Egypt. Over half the video time has this being in the picture.

"Why have the ancient Egyptians been cursed to be followed around by this living apparition?

"By the way, I've checked, and the photos don't seem to be doctored.

"As the Count used to say on SCTV, 'Woooo! Scary!'"

Jan. 11, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Stay tuned on space tourism:
In the wake of all the X Prize excitement, private-sector space entrepreneurs are absorbed in the more down-to-earth aspects of their projects. Virginia-based Space Adventures, for example, is still checking out potential spaceport sites in Australia and plans to make an announcement by the end of March. (Originally, a decision was to have been announced by now.)

In that same time frame, Space Adventures also plans to name its next candidate for a multimillion-dollar trip to the international space station. (The previous candidate, entrepreneur/inventor Greg Olsen, was grounded last year due to health concerns.)

Meanwhile, the Canadian-based Golden Palace / Da Vinci space effort is still engaged in ground-based engine testing for its balloon-launched Wildfire rocket, says da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney.

"We're not going to fly anything this winter at all," Feeney told me today. He's now aiming for an unmanned launch from Saskatchewan in late spring, with two piloted launches to follow during the summer.

Some might question whether Wildfire will ever fly, now that the $10 million Ansari X Prize has been taken off the table. But Feeney says the da Vinci volunteer effort is still "alive and well" — and what's more, he plans to show off the engineering drawings for a second-generation, eight-person spaceship Jan. 30 at the Canadian Student Summit on Aerospace.

"It's a rippin' design," he said.

The prospects for getting that spaceship, known for now as Tiger Shark or Project Tiger, off the drawing board depend on whether Feeney can find tens of millions of dollars in financial backing. Feeney is hoping that success with the X Prize-class flights this summer will spark investor interest.

Is there really money to be made? Private-spaceflight enthusiasts are abuzz over a Motley Fool commentary on "Stocks' Final Frontier," as well as the Wired magazine feature on Virgin tycoon Richard Branson's space aspirations. The next few months are sure to be interesting — or disappointing.

Jan. 11, 2005 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
NASA: Get set for an Antarctic demolition derby
Discovery.com: The world's top tsunami hot spots
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): How quakes renew the planet
Defense Tech: Israel wants space weapons

Jan. 10, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
How much did the earth move?
Right after the Sumatran earthquake and killer wave, NASA astronomers knew that the planet moved on its axis — but it took some heavy-duty computing power to figure out exactly how much.

Upon further review, NASA announced today that the quake shifted Earth's mean north pole by about an inch (2.5 centimeters), and shaved 2.68 millionths of a second off the length of the day. The mass displacement caused by the seismic event also changed the planet's shape, making it more evenly round by one part in 10 billion.

"Any worldly event that involves the movement of mass affects the earth's rotation, from seasonal weather down to driving a car," Benjamin Fong Chao of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center explained in NASA's announcement. But not all those changes are noticeable — in fact, the magnitude-9 Sumatra quake turns out to be just on the edge of having a measurable effect.

Video: The earth moved Chao and his colleague, Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, have been tracking the long-term trends in Earth's rotation for years, correlating changes to seismic activity. The trends are right in line with the Sumatra quake's effect: a pole shift (in this case, toward 145 degrees east longitude), a decrease in Earth's oblateness (that is, its fatness around the equatorial middle) and a shortening of the day's duration.

Those trends are usually seen only in the bigger picture, however. The current calculations for the Sumatra quake are based on a computer analysis, drawing upon the Harvard University Centroid Moment Tensor database. The change in length of day is too small to be detected directly, scientists say, and the change in Earth's shape is barely measurable, but the calculated pole shift can — and will — be checked against readings from satellites and ground-based sensors.

Gravity sensors indicate that the planet is still reverberating like a bell , two weeks after the seismic shock in Sumatra.

Although the earthquake was devastatingly momentous, seismic activity is not the biggest factor changing Earth's mass distribution, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth. That role falls to climate variations such as the El Niño weather pattern, scientists at the University of Texas' Center for Space Research reported. Such variations shift the distribution of water in the oceans and on land masses, as illustrated in this graphic listing the factors that affect Earth's gravity field.

"Earth's large-scale transport of mass is related to the long-term global climate changes," one of the researchers, Minkang Cheng, said in a NASA report on the gravity-field study.

So although they're not as sudden and catastrophic, future shifts in climate could conceivably change the shape of our planet as much as the Sumatran earthquake did.

Jan. 10, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Reports from the American Astronomical Society meeting:
Telescope spots aftermath of Pluto-sized collision
Is our galaxy's center swarming with black holes?
Researchers unveil 'telescope of the future'
Gemini Observatory's gallery makes stellar debut

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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