March 14, 2005 | Updated 3:14 p.m. ET
Dust devil caught on Mars: Even though Mars' atmosphere is only about 1 percent as dense as Earth's, there's still enough air to whip up whirlwinds known as dust devils. NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has tracked the mini-tornadoes from orbit, but they've never been spotted from ground level. Until now.

Last week, after more than a year of watching, the Spirit rover captured a couple of wisps making their way across the desolation of Gusev Crater, said a member of the rover science team, Geoffrey Landis of NASA's Glenn Research Center.

"In some of the navigation camera images, we actually spotted two dust devils, and one of those dust devils was visible in the rear hazcam," Landis told

The disturbance is extremely hard to see. "You have to stretch the images to really bring it out, but that’s actually typical of dust devils," Landis said.

It's possible to make out a flare of kicked-up dust in this image if you look at the hazy part of the plain, almost hidden behind a ridge of the Columbia Hills. You can also catch it out on the center of the plain a few minutes later, as seen here. The best way to see it is to flip between images for a "now you see it, now you don't" effect. Daniel Crotty has created just such an animated image, and after watching the picture flip back and forth for a few seconds, you should be able to see the dust devil in the distance.

Even before Spirit's landing in January 2004, scientists knew it was heading into an area with frequent dust devils, and the rover spotted fresh dust-devil tracks just a couple of months ago.

Landis said wind activity during Sol 420 on Mars — or last Thursday back on Earth — apparently swept some of the accumulated dust from Spirit's power-generating solar arrays. That's fantastic news for the rover mission team.

Over the past year, the dust buildup had reduced Spirit's power output by almost 50 percent. "Now that's suddenly changed," Landis said. "We've seen a couple of huge jumps in power for Spirit. It's improved things quite a bit."

He said Spirit's power-generating capacity bounced back to just 7 percent less than it was at the start of the mission.

Spirit's twin on the other side of the planet, the Opportunity rover, has similarly benefited from periodic sweepings, which are also thought to be due primarily to wind activity. Considering that both rovers are still going strong, long after their expected 90-day lifetime, last week's whirlwinds may not be the last ones caught on tape.

"We're hoping that now that we're starting to spot them, we can see a lot more and build up statistics about how often they occur," Landis said. Close study of the dust devils could provide atmospheric scientists with fresh insights about Martian wind behavior.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg contributed to this report, which was originally posted at 8 p.m. ET March 11. Correction on March 16: The Pathfinder rover captured at least one image of a dust devil back in 1997. For more, check the Cosmic Log correction and the revised story .

March 11, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
How to kill an earworm: Researchers now know where your brain stores remembered melodies, such as those annoying mental tunes known as sticky songs, song viruses or "earworms." But they haven't yet figured out a surefire cure. Even people who have lost their hearing can experience the extreme form of earworms, known as "musical hallucinosis." That's because the earworms don't originate in your ears, but in the higher-level areas of your auditory cortex.

Fortunately, Cosmic Log readers provided an ample dose of sympathy and folk-remedy suggestions. Here's a selection:

Justin Probert, Traverse City, Mich.: "It may not be a solution to eliminate earworms all together, but I've found that if you get a particular earworm in your head that you really wish you didn't get (Spice Girls' 'If You Wanna Be My Lover'), then focus on a familiar catchy song you wouldn't mind hearing over and over, and before you know it, you're humming a happier tune and people won't be wondering the reason for your cringing."

Kip Davis, Helena, Mont.: "Choose a long, complicated song (I use 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' or 'Both Sides Now' — all 3 verses) and sing it to yourself. You must get all of the words correct — start over if you mess up. By the time you get to the end of your complicated song, the earworm will be gone."

Gary Mosse, San Antonio: "As a lifelong musician I have always had songs in my head. I've found that when I have a song going in my head, one way to get rid of it is to concentrate on another song. As a composer, I find that when I work on a new piece, the music extends in my memory — when I go for walks, drive in the car, or mow the lawn — between the time I begin and when I finally bring the work to a conclusion."

Anonymous: "Two suggestions for battling earworms: 1. Create an arsenal of songs of your choosing to combat the annoying worms ('O Holy Night' is a song that works for me). 2. On a basic musical level, say if you're wormed by a song that's in the key of G, mentally hum a sustained F# or G#, or modulate between the F# and G# in order to 'squeeze' or disorient the worm — that is, let the waves 'beat' each other. Try these next time."

Jeremiah Jones, Portland, Ore.: "I found that when I try to jumble the words or sing them backwards in my head, the 'earworm' goes away ... either me or my brain gets tired of the confusion and it gets quiet again (most of the time)."

E.G., Los Angeles: "I think this is most interesting, especially in the case of bipolar people who 'hear' voices. As a person who realized he is bipolar, I know that when I heard voices, it usually was most prominent whenever I was in crowded places. I'd overhear bits of conversation, and think that people were talking about me. But now that I read this, could research be far off that some of these 'voices' are earworms? Or that a few actual fragments of a conversation can be completed and made whole in the primary auditory cortex?"

A. Lisa Swift: "Usually, if I can identify the earworm or its source, that solves the problem. It is only when I cannot identify the snatch of music that it drives me semi-insane. Words help, but I seldom am plagued by music with words, except when it's an instrumental passage from a song (like the opening to the unplugged version of Eric Clapton's 'Layla').

"Classical music, however, can be a problem, because of a lack of people who have the ability to identify these earworms in this area. For years, I was 'possessed' by a particular passage from a classical source, and no matter to whom I hummed it, no one could identify it. (Please note that I was a classically trained vocalist.) One day I played a cassette of Grieg's 'Peer Gynt Suite,' and there it was: 'In the Hall of the Mountain King.' I hadn't listened to that music for over 20 years, and had been haunted by that particular theme ever since my last session with it.

"Now, I have to listen to the Suite, or have a cell call come in — I downloaded it for my ringtone, because I know that piece will always get my attention, no matter how distracted I am. LOL!"

March 11, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

The Economist: No Plan B for outer space
Christian Science Monitor: Bioengineered trees take root
BBC: Do you have a male or female brain?
Slate: The romantic's favorite mathematician

March 10, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Triumph of the CuteBots: Cute contraptions get their turn in the spotlight this week with the opening of "Robots," which is coming to the big screen as well as ultra-big Imax screens on Friday.

The animated kidflick has gotten some great advance press from Newsweek , although the Associated Press review is somewhat more mixed. In any case, the robots of "Robots" are decidedly cuter than the conflicted androids of, say, "I, Robot." And here at Cosmic Log, we don't really care about the plot. For us, it's all about the bot.

So far, real-life robots have come in two flavors: wheeled or fixed-position robots that are all work (ranging from your assembly-line automakers to your Mars double-take); and biomorphic bots that are pretty much all play (ranging from Robosapien to the Honda Asimo ).

But in the future, biomorphic designs may be used for business as well as pleasure. As in the movie "Star Wars," worker-bots could have legs, like C3PO, or wheels, like R2D2.

Last month, for instance, researchers demonstrated cute-looking robots that can walk much more efficiently than the climbing, dancing Asimo. The "passive-dynamic" walking robots being developed at Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Delft University require only about a tenth as much power as Asimo, and are just about as efficient as humans.

That's not to say wheels are obsolete: In fact, one of the leaders in walking-robot research, Cornell's Andy Ruina, says a scooter-equipped robot would be far more efficient than bots with legs. "We don't have hope of making these legged things as good as wheels," he told me.

But there are some places where wheels just won't do. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency found that to be the case in its experiments with battleworthy robots, according to this report on DefenseTech. Thus, DARPA is experimenting with four-legged "robo-puppies" capable of traversing the obstacle-strewn routes that fighters often have to face.

Video: Teen bests arm-wrestling robots Then there's the cuteness factor: Battlebots should look as scary as possible, I suppose, but for everyday interactions, robots should be downright sociable . In fact, some researchers argue that it's better to build robots to look like cartoon characters than humans — because if humanoid machines look too realistic, there's a risk of running into the "Uncanny Valley." That describes a situation in which a machine looks so eerily "almost but not quite human" that it just creeps people out.

That's the idea behind Leonardo, the furry, big-eyed robo-critter developed at MIT in cooperation with the Stan Winston Studio. Someday you might find yourself buying a theme-park ticket from one of Leonardo's cute cyber-successors.

Joel Garreau, who addresses the robotic revolution in his forthcoming book, "Radical Evolution," suggested a more adult-oriented fantasy for future strains of humanoid robots — a scenario reminiscent of "Blade Runner" or "A.I." As robots become more sociable, you'll be interacting more and more with cute cyber-personalities over the videophone, at the gas pump and at the office, Garreau said.

"The more personality these things get, the more you're going to start asking yourself ... 'What's the difference?'" he told me. "If you think gay marriage is something, wait until you start asking yourself what you think about having relationships with machines."

Will the cute inherit the earth? Let me know what you think and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

March 10, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
One small step ... backwards: Final-frontier fans are abuzz over New Scientist's report that Transformational Space, the space exploration consortium that includes the designers of SpaceShipOne, has decided against proposing a design for NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle because of the space agency's paperwork requirements. Instead, T/Space hopes to land a smaller deal for an orbiter, the magazine says.

T/Space's retreat led NASA Watch's Keith Cowing, who is quite familiar with wrangles over outer-space red tape, to observe: "Yawn. When the going gets tough, blame it all on paperwork."

New Scientist also has a report about, which is joining Deep Space Communications Network in the market to transmit messages spaceward for a fee, even though it's doubtful the aliens will hear them.

March 10, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

SpaceDaily: NASA cuts may doom interstellar Voyager
Scientific American: Back to square one on cold fusion Saturn's Titan has Earthlike qualities
The Guardian: Engineering from the cells up

March 9, 2005 | 7:20 p.m. ET
Where the earworms live: At one time or another, everyone's had a tune pop into their head and stay there, even though you wish it would just go away. Those meddlesome melodies are known as sticky songs, or "earworms," and over the past couple of years, hundreds of Cosmic Log readers have sent in contributions to the earworm list.

In Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, researchers report that they have discovered the place in the brain where earworms hide out. It should come as little surprise that the center for earworm activity is the auditory cortex, the same place where sounds are perceived.

Researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Aberdeen worked with 15 experimental subjects to develop individualized playlists — including songs with lyrics, such as the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," as well as instrumental pieces such as the theme from "The Pink Panther." (Are those earworms working on you yet?)

Each listener tagged certain tunes as familiar, and others as unfamiliar. Then the tunes were played while the listener was lying in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. At various points in the soundtrack, the music went silent for 3 to 5 seconds, and researchers watched how the brain responded.

During the gaps in the unfamiliar music, activity in the auditory cortex diminished. But when there was a gap in a familiar tune, the auditory cortex kept working away.

"It's like the brain is still hearing the music," one of the researchers, Dartmouth's David Kraemer, told me today. "It's still activating that part of the brain that’s activated when you’re hearing the music. ... And it's interesting to note that we didn’t instruct them to imagine the silent part. It's something that they just did spontaneously."

The researchers also saw a difference between the vocals and the instrumentals: Songs with lyrics activated an area known as the auditory association cortex, or Brodmann's area 22 — which links sounds with other aspects of experience, such as word recognition. The instrumental tunes sparked a more basic level of processing in the primary auditory cortex.

Kraemer speculated that when you hear a song with words, you use the words as a shorthand for the full melody — while a wordless melody forces your brain to go farther back to the notes themselves. "You react only as far back as you need to, to reconstruct the relevant part of the experience," he said.

Perhaps this explains why songs with lyrics tend to be "stickier" than instrumental tunes, and why it's so hard to stop an earworm in its tracks. Your auditory cortex wants to run through the entire experience of "Who Let the Dogs Out," even though the rest of your brain is longing to stop the music.

Earworms per se are not the focus of Kraemer's research interest. Rather, he and his colleagues are trying to understand the parallels between sensory perception and sensory memories. Kraemer said the research supports the view that mental imagery is "perception in reverse": that the process of remembering an experience retraces the neural route that was involved in perceiving that experience.

There's already evidence that visual imagery works that way — and now auditory imagery appears to follow a similar process.

Does knowing all this render you immune to earworms? Not on your life, Kraemer said.

"It happens to me all the time — 'Yellow Submarine' has to be one of the most recurrent themes," he said. "If you find any way to get it out of your head, I'd be very interested in hearing about it."

To learn more about the brain and its role in memory and perception, check out our interactive "Road Map to the Mind" and our guide to brain scanners.

March 9, 2005 | 7:20 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
CfA: Early universe looked like 'vegetable soup'
K.C. Star (reg. req.): 10 reasons why scientists feel bruised
ESA: Rosetta probe looks back at Earth
NASA: Cutting-edge physics for us all

March 8, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Fuel for the space race: Rocketeers like to debate whether hydrogen peroxide, kerosene, hypergolics or even rubber-based compounds provide the best way to power private-sector spaceships — but when you come right down to it, money is the most important fuel for space entrepreneurs.

That's why the Virgin Galactic effort , which has billionaires Richard Branson and Paul Allen as investors, is seen as the current front-runner in the space-tourism race. And that's why business plans and funding deals are so important for other entrants.

In that vein, Bill Sprague — the chairman, chief executive officer and chief scientist of Aera Corp. — sent a quick response to Monday's report on his company , in which I noted that he had been fond of saying his X Prize effort might have come from behind to win the prize. "I am 'fond of saying' that 'we are (were) not out to win a prize, but an industry,'" Sprague wrote in his e-mail.

Cosmic Log correspondent John Rusi reflects further upon the primary fuel for final-frontier ventures:

"So far, the funded, or nearly funded, commercial spacecraft projects boil down to Bigelow Aerospace (where I used to work), Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin (listed in the Seattle phone book as Blue Operations) and Pioneer Rocketplane in Oklahoma. I like Bill Sprague, and I have hoped that he would obtain full funding for nearly two years now. It appears the recipe for private space is similar to the Chinese recipe for rabbit stew, i.e.: First, catch a space angel. I think an article examining why funding is so difficult to obtain would be in order."

On a related topic, Volvo reports that its "Boldly Go" promotion, which included an online sweepstakes for a Virgin Galactic suborbital space ticket, attracted 135,000 entries and more than 1,000 pre-orders for its new V-8 sports utility vehicle — making it one of the company's most successful marketing campaigns ever.

The winner of the sweepstakes will be announced March 24 at the New York International Auto Show, providing Volvo with a second shot of publicity. All this just might hint at a not-so-secret ingredient for the space investment stew — although this "Snide Remark" on The Auto Channel wonders whether Volvo really got its money's worth.

March 8, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
BBC: Clock ticking on fusion decision
Nature: The earth moves most for humans
New Scientist: Teenage girl beats arm-wrestling robots
NASA: Learn the real science behind Pokemon!

March 7, 2005 | 5:55 p.m. ET
Bad news about black holes: You just had to know that slipping into a black hole wouldn't be as painless as it seems in the movies. Now a detailed computer simulation of black-hole behavior has shed additional light on the violent processes that should occur around a black hole.

According to Einsteinian gravitational theory, a black hole results when a sufficiently large star collapses in upon itself, creating a singularity so dense that nothing — not even light — can escape its gravitational grip. Such objects have not been detected directly, but only through their apparent influence on companion stars and the emissions of radiation thought to be sent out from matter violently swirling into the singularity.

The new simulation, produced by physicists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia, indicates that the relativistic effects in the vicinity of a black hole magnify random motions within that infalling swirl, creating disturbances in density, velocity and magnetic forces. Most of the swirling matter falls into the black hole, but some is blasted away at nearly the speed of light.

Video: Hear the sound of a black hole "Just like any fluid that has been stirred into turbulence, matter immediately outside the edge of the black hole is heated. This extra heat makes additional light that astronomers on Earth can see," the University of Virginia's John Hawley said in a news release issued today. "One of the hallmarks of black holes is that their light output varies. Although this has been known for more than 30 years, it has not been possible to study the origins of these variations until now. The violent variations in heating — now seen to be a natural byproduct of magnetic forces near the black hole — offer a natural explanation for black holes' ever-changing brightness."

So if Captain Janeway and the crew of "Star Trek: Voyager" were to come too close to a singularity, it would not be a pretty sight. The idea that your starship could survive a fall into a black hole is pure science fiction, based on what's currently known about physics. But you probably already knew that.

Check out Johns Hopkins University's Web site for more about the latest black-hole simulation, including MPEG videos.

March 7, 2005 | 5:55 p.m. ET
110 sights in just one night? This week offers a golden opportunity for hard-core stargazers, Tammy Plotner reports at the Universe Today Web site. It's theoretically possible to see all 110 objects in the Messier catalog of star clusters and nebulous objects in the course of a night — or, more realistically, a week. To finish the "Messier marathon," even in a week's time, you'll need great viewing conditions plus a good telescope, preferably equipped with a computerized "go-to" motor drive.

"Unless you are using a computer-guided scope, it truly takes a lot of practice to find all the Messiers with ease, so don't be discouraged if they just don't fall from the sky," Plotner says. "You might find all of these in one year or one week — and you just might find all of them in one good night."

March 7, 2005 | 5:55 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: The latest primal surge
Defense Tech: Grammar for spyboys
New Scientist: Monkeys see competitors' point of view
NASA simulates Martian dust devils in the lab

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 or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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