Feb. 18, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Artists of the final frontier: The pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope often rise to the level of fine art, and it's no secret that astronomers may fine-tune Hubble's colors to bring out extra detail and drama.

So does that turn astronomers into artists? University of Chicago art historian Elizabeth Kessler argues that it does. But she doesn't see that as a sin. In fact, she argues that the artistic astronomers behind Hubble's gems are doing the same thing painters did for an earlier frontier.

"The aesthetic choices made result in a sense of majesty and wonder about nature and how spectacular it can be, just as the paintings of the American West did," Kessler said in a presentation prepared for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Washington. "The Hubble images are part of the Romantic landscape tradition. They fit that popular, familiar model of what the natural world should look like."

In the 19th century, painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran depicted scenes of the Western frontier in grand, luminous strokes. Were those depictions unrealistic? As a recent visitor to some of the same settings frequented by Moran, I'd have to say they instead conveyed a completely appropriate sense of heightened reality.

The same could be said for Hubble imagery.

"Just like Bierstadt's or Moran's paintings, the hope here is that the final image will capture the feeling of awe and majesty and wonder about nature and how spectacular it can be," Kessler said. "Scientists really want some kid to have a poster of this on their wall, as they did pictures of the moon. They want science to invoke a sense of frontier and discovery."

At the same time, scientists can still divine, with incredible accuracy, the true celestial chemistry from the space telescope's data — insights you would never expect to glean from Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."

To learn more about the romantic tradition in 19th-century American art, check out Encarta's encapsulation. And to touch the majesty of the next frontier, click through our Space Gallery , the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite and Hubble's European home page.

Feb. 18, 2005 | Updated 6:30 p.m. ET
NASA nixes claims of Mars life: NASA on Friday issued an unusual denial of a report that its researchers found strong evidence for life's existence on present-day Mars.

Earlier this week, sources told the weekly Space News that NASA scientists Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke had submitted a paper to the journal Nature outlining the evidence for biological activity on the Red Planet, based on the signature of methane found in the Martian atmosphere.

However, NASA's newly issued statement claims that's not the case:

"News reports on February 16, 2005, that NASA scientists from Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., have found strong evidence that life may exist on Mars are incorrect.

"NASA does not have any observational data from any current Mars missions that supports this claim. The work by the scientists mentioned in the reports cannot be used to directly infer anything about life on Mars, but may help formulate the strategy for how to search for Martian life. Their research concerns extreme environments on Earth as analogs of possible environments on Mars. No research paper has been submitted by them to any scientific journal asserting Martian life."

It sounds as if the life-on-Mars claims might be more of an extrapolation from the intriguing methane readings picked up by the Mars Express orbiter and Stoker's past work with drilling experiments at the Rio Tinto in Spain. Stoker and Lemke might have informally speculated on where all the evidence could eventually lead, but it doesn't sound as if they've put forth the claim for Mars life in any paper meant for publication. Get the full story.

The life-on-Mars debate already has sparked plenty of philosophical and scientific musings from Cosmic Log correspondents. Several referred to earlier rounds in the debate : the 1976 Viking experiments and the 1996 report about potential Mars nanofossils. Here's a sampling of the e-mail:

Adam Crowl, Brisbane, Australia: "I think the methane is a good sign of life on Mars. And I think those microfossils really were nanobes — but what kind of life is that? Could they have been RNA-based life without need of large complexes like ribosomes? Could the terrestrial versions — also controversial — be RNA organisms too?

"I think it would be exciting if Mars preserves an alternative life-path that the life that emigrated here didn't take. Very cool, if so. Interesting, but kind of ho-hum if the methane is from Mars versions of familiar microbes.

"Did you see Paul Davies' discussion that concluded an origin of terrestrial life on Mars was about 125 times more likely than origin on Earth? So we are all Martians. Terraforming would be finishing the job begun by our ancestors."

Guy S. Newell, Niles, Mich.: "If it were true that there is currently life on Mars, this would be the greatest discovery of my lifetime. It might also provide the first real scientific use of the $100 billion international space station. We would need it as a safe place to study samples, if we could ever retrieve any."

Don Pointer: "By the reasoning used by Stoker and Lemke, Titan, being heavily covered with methane , is ripe with life.  The scientists at NASA seem to find signs of life anytime they can, which suggests a funding ploy rather than scientific reasoning.  Life on Earth is found in strange places, in a range of conditions, but there is a limit to those conditions.  Mars, with its low pressure, cold temperatures, poisonous soil, high UV and lack of surface water, exceeds those ranges where the molecules of life can exist."

Mark: "We would have to be so very ignorant and arrogant to think that we are the only show in this entire universe.  There is no deniability that there are living creatures on this Earth.  There are so many questions as to how any life can truly form, yet it happened here.  We might be amazed, and perhaps even horrified, if we knew what was really out there.  If proof was found of life out there somewhere, no matter how primitive or highly advanced, I wouldn't be surprised.  I am now certainly looking forward to find out what is forming the methane on Mars."

Vincent Lanzolla: "Nanofossils in a Martian meteorite, methane in the atmosphere, and the life detection experiments aboard the Viking landers all point toward the same conclusion: There is life on Mars. But the scientific community disregards the results. Yet this is the same scientific community that cannot design a probe that finds signs of life in the Atacama Desert, even as the researchers watched vultures circle overhead and were pestered by flies.

"The Viking Labeled Release experiments designed by Gilbert Levin demonstrated a reactive substance in the Martian soil, this substance was inactivated by extreme heat (sterilization of the soil), and the reactions observed displayed a diurnal cycle. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck ... it's probably a Martian duck!"

Wade Whitlock: "The 'Life on Mars' controversy is hypothesis in the absence of data. I believe Holmes referred to that as a capital offense! Viking results have been interpreted two ways, a whiff of methane (?), disputed nanofossils and evidence of past surface water is the 'evidence' so far. Pretty circumstantial, I'd say, but people have been convicted or acquitted with less. Since there haven't been any canals or footprints found, I expect we are going to have to wait for a deeper excavation capability combined with a biological culturing facility or, alternatively, a nice warm spring with critters! I can wait...."

Feb. 18, 2005 | 11:40 a.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'A Daring Flight'
The Economist: High-tech passports are not working
Technology Review: Domo arigato, Doctor Roboto
Popular Science: The five-billion-star hotel

Feb. 17, 2005 | 12:40 a.m. ET
Titan's big blast: The Cassini spacecraft's haze-penetrating radar has picked up the signature of an impact crater "the size of Iowa" on Titan, Saturn's biggest and most mysterious moon, NASA says.

Another radar image, taken during Cassini's close encounter with Titan this week, shows "cat scratches" on the moon's surface. "They may be formed by the action of eastward-flowing winds, or geologic processes acting on the crust itself," researchers say in Wednesday's report on the images.

Image: Titan crater
This radar image of Titan's surface shows the roughly circular edges of a giant crater.
The radar views are just one part of the imagery collected when Cassini flew within 980 miles (1,577 kilometers) of the smog-shrouded moon — a flyby we talked about earlier this week. Cassini's radar and optical camera focused on the same areas of the surface simultaneously, giving scientists a much better idea of the lay of the land.

This week's flyby provided the Cassini science team with its second opportunity to turn its radar imager on Titan.

"It's reassuring to look at two parts of Titan and see similar things," said Jonathan Lunine, Cassini interdisciplinary scientist from the University of Arizona. "At the same time, there are new and strange things."

Stay tuned to hear more about those strange things on Friday, when Cassini scientists discuss the flyby during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. I'm just settling in at the meeting, and over the next few days I'll be working with our partners at Space.com and LiveScience to bring you the scientific scoops.

Feb. 17, 2005 | 12:40 a.m. ET
Debating life on Mars: It'll be interesting to see what the astrobiologists at the AAAS meeting have to say about this week's report suggesting that there are chemical signs of life on Mars. Coincidentally, New Scientist magazine has a similar report this week, with a slightly different spin: European scientists are debating whether the methane readings turned up by the Mars Express orbiter are conclusive enough to back up the claims that there's something biological happening down on the Red Planet.

We could see the same kind of back-and-forth debate that followed claims in 1996 that a meteorite from Mars contained alien "nanofossils." Will the Martian methane debate be any more definitive? Stay tuned. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your side of the life-on-Mars story.

Feb. 17, 2005 | 12:40 a.m. ET
Space race update: Space Race News is back in business with a report about American Astronautics, the one-time X Prize competitor that has changed its name to Aera and is now claiming that it will be the "first commercial space travel provider," with flights beginning as early as next year. The company has a spiffy new Web site, but beating Virgin Galactic to the marketplace will be a tall order, considering Aera's relatively low profile to date.

Feb. 17, 2005 | 12:40 a.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
The Guardian: Taking the measure of a kilogram
Nature: Lobster color has quantum cause
Science @ NASA: Ultrasound for astronauts
Space.com: Zoom in on "The Gates" from space

Feb. 16, 2005 | 9:25 p.m. ET
What would E.T. do? In the movies, extraterrestrials are usually of the flesh-and-blood variety, even if that blood happens to run green. But Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the alien-seeking SETI Institute, thinks intelligent machines are much more suited for close encounters.

Why bother sending emissaries who are in their prime for only a few decades, when it would take that long just to make the trip between habitable star systems? Robots like Nomad and V'Ger of “Star Trek” fame might seem poor substitutes for Captain Kirk (and in fact both those robots went wacko). But until we get that “warp drive” trick down, it might be the best we can do.

The idea brings to mind (once again) one of my favorite quotes from Agent Smith in the “Matrix” movies: “Never send a human to do a machine’s job.” It may well be that when the machines sent by Earth meet the machines sent from Epsilon Eridani (or some other favored star system), they’ll find more in common with each other than with their makers.

What would those interstellar machines tell each other? Here are some reflections on the speculative side, sent by Cosmic Log readers in response to last week’s discussions about contacting E.T.:

Valerie, Albuquerque, N.M.: "If it were up to me, I'd send the following message, 'Warning: Inhabitants of this planet are cruel and arrogant, operating under delusions of grandeur. Advised to stay clear, make a left at the nearest asteroid and never look back.'"

Kevin Lindsay, Largo, Fla.: "Most likely a more refined and advanced civilization does exist, watching us, as we are unaware they find us unstable as a whole. They'll continue to watch us undetected, much as how most people think God watches us, possibly from another dimension.

"How could any civilization more advanced than us save us from ourselves? Just as we will find that to truly teach our young, we must let them learn the hard way (tough love). I believe that we have been under surveillance for centuries and have just been at a technological deficit to recognize it."

Hunter Cressall, Birmingham, Ala.: "All the worrywarts who say we should hide from an alien menace by damping our radio-frequency glow are missing one very important point: They can’t get here.  Physics to date states that nothing can travel faster than light.  By the time an alien menace hears our annoying cry into the cosmos, the cry itself is likely 900 years old.  Ignoring the turnaround time, that means at best an armed response would be another 900 years coming.  In that nearly two millennia, it is just as reasonable to assume that either we won’t be here, Earth will be our least populated colony or we will be advanced enough to swat them away at a safe distance.

"While I won’t say it is outright impossible that there exists some advanced alien race which could mount a more timely response — well, there is still that 900-year lead time.  Further, any civilization advanced enough to mount a strike force across 900 light-years of vacuum either likely doesn’t listen to the radio-frequency bandwidth anymore or has more cost-effective ways of dealing with our existence — least of which is ignoring us.  Further, what resource that we possess would be worth plundering from 900 light-years away?

"In all probability, the SETI program will at most spawn an electronic exchange, maybe a dialogue.  That assumes we can say anything of value when it takes hundreds of years for each participant to respond."

Brian J., Springfield, Mo.: "Hell... We can't even understand women. Need I say more?"

Legion, Tau Ceti 4: "We of the planet Xargonath have read your comments and are amused. Babies are so cute. Your shrieking in the dark has been duly noted; the wail of the newborn echoes farther than you think. We shall abide a while till it becomes a unified voice. Typically this takes about 1 million to 2 million years, your time. Hope you make it! Love and kisses..."

Feb. 16, 2005 | 9:25 p.m. ET
More scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
BBC: New Zealand unveils new, improved Stonehenge
N.Z. Herald: Tasmanian tiger cloning project abandoned
Wired.com: Just how exciting is it?
Discovery.com: Color restored to ancient sculptures

Feb. 15, 2005 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Saturn's moons revisited: An old saying states that "the third time's the charm" ... so what does that make the fourth time?

Image: Titan
This raw image of Titan, taken in infrared wavelengths by the Cassini probe's narrow-angle camera, reveals the light and dark surface areas that have intrigued scientists.
Early today, Cassini had its fourth encounter with Titan, Saturn's largest and most mysterious moon, and the raw imagery is already rolling in. The views will be familiar to those who have been watching Cassini's mission to Saturn closely: Through the haze, you can see the outlines of light ice as well as dark fluid — most likely some sort of hydrocarbon-rich sludge, based on data from the piggyback Huygens lander's descent to Titan last month.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg has a couple of faves, including a dramatic view of Titan's haze layers in the upper atmosphere, as seen in ultraviolet wavelengths, and an infrared view that shows "finely filigreed bays and channels" leading into a dark area.

But wait, that's not all: Cassini is already turning its cameras toward another Saturnian moon, Enceladus, in preparation for a close fly-by on Thursday. From a vantage point as close as 733 miles, Cassini will snap pictures of the moon's complex surface, which just might be marked by ice volcanoes .

To get up to speed on this week's fly-bys, check out the Planetary Society's online briefing as well as the Web sites for the Cassini-Huygens mission and the Cassini imaging team. Some additional Cassini-Huygens goodies are making the rounds, including an audio sound bite from Huygens' descent and a Space.com profile of Carolyn Porco, the leader of the imaging team. Finally, don't miss our slide shows recapping the greatest hits so far from Cassini and Huygens .

Feb. 15, 2005 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Science fact ... or fiction?
New Scientist: Space tether to send satellite soaring
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Did humans and Neanderthals 'do it'?
National Geographic: Male insects seduce with fake finery
Scientific American: Skeptic abducted!

Feb. 14, 2005 | 7:30 p.m. ET
The science of love: Ah, February ... the time of year when all the scientific world loves a lover. There’s always a flurry of studies about the science of love around Valentine’s Day, and in addition to this week's study on the key to a good marriage , there’s yet more research into online dating and “speed dating.”

In England, a University of Bath study of online dating found that men tended to be more committed to e-relationships than women. Also, when online romance blossomed into offline encounters, 94 percent of the couples kept up the relationship, staying together for an average of seven months. That contrasts with the stereotypical view of online romance as a fly-by-night affair.

"It seems that these relationships have a similar level of success as ones formed in more conventional ways," psychologist Jeff Gavin said in an online report on the research. He speculated that the men were more likely to stick with an online romance "because the anonymity of writing gives them a chance to express their emotions more readily than in real life."

But Gavin and his colleagues found that the most successful relationships didn't jump from the computer screen to real life in one big step: Instead, the stage was carefully set for the face-to-face meeting through phone calls and gift exchanges, they said. The full study is to be presented to a psychology conference next month.

Meanwhile, evolutionary psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania report that participants in three-minute rounds of speed dating tend to make up their mind about potential mates unusually quickly, often throwing out carefully reasoned criteria in the process.

"Although they had three minutes, most participants made their decision based on the information that they probably got in the first three seconds," Penn's Robert Kurzban, a co-author of the study, said in a university news release.  "Somewhat surprisingly, factors that you might think would be really important to people, like religion, education and income, played very little role in their choices."

The study is to be published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Kurzban and his colleague in the research, Jason Weeden, acknowledge that the speed meetings are atypical of the dating scene — but they're hopeful that their database of more than 10,000 participants, developed in cooperation with a speed-dating company, will yield insights into how romance really works, as opposed to how romantics think it works.

"The actual behavior of people is worth more to us than their stated beliefs," Kurzban said. "In this case, because participants might suffer the consequences of a bad date with someone who might look compatible on paper, they had more incentive to follow their hearts and desires.  Behavior, more than self-reports, gives us an important window into the underlying psychology of mating."

Or, as filmmaker Woody Allen has infamously said, "The heart wants what it wants."

To trace the history of romantic research, click on over to a report from the Why Files, titled "Love Is in the Air"; to Discovery Health's "Science of Love" presentation; and to our own Sexual Health section.

Feb. 14, 2005 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Life on the scales
Wired.com: Altered HIV attacks mouse tumors
Nature: Scorpion robot could conquer worlds
BBC: Valentine tips from the animal kingdom

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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