March 25, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Revisiting holy history: Believers and skeptics alike responded to this week's item on the unorthodox Easter we're having, as well as the broader subject of the historical grounding for religious beliefs.

As usual, both sides held strong views about the Easter tradition — which, like many other Christian traditions, has picked up some elements from the rival religions of the ancient world. That's what makes the quest for historical evidence, ranging from the rediscovery of the Pool of Siloam to the study of ancient texts, so interesting.

Here's a sampling of this week's feedback:

Rev. Vaikko Allen: "Unless new documents are discovered dating from ancient times which have survived the various burnings, floodings and other destructions of time, not to mention all flavors of humankind's prejudice and proscription, we are left with the same set of myths, legends and anecdotes which have been used to fill in the enormous gaps that exist in verifiable sources of religious history, especially regarding the Bible. Perhaps it is time for us to focus on the simple messages of love, acceptance and compassion found there. Employing these would surely bring the lasting peace and prosperity the world longs for."

Don Dalhover Sr.: "As usual, you guys only gather half-truths. While your article is good, it lacks true biblical fact. Passover day is predicated on the viewing of the first sliver of moonlight and the barley that was planted is 'aviv' (matured). This signifies that this day is the first day of Nisan and is the beginning of the new year. Fourteen days later is the Passover holy day. The sightings were observed March 11, 2005, and the trumpets were blown all over Israel to signify as such. You're a month late!! Of course, you wouldn't know this, using the Gregorian reckoning."

Sorry for being such a Gregorian troglodyte. It's just the calendar I was born with. And although some people may have been blowing their own horns on March 11, the current rabbinical tradition is solidly behind an April Passover this year. From what I can tell, the references to the maturing of the barley — and differing dates for Passover — are frequently associated with the modern, not-quite-mainstream views of groups such as the Messianic Hebrews.

Marcel Tantu, New York: "It is always surprising to me that most do not realize that god-men similar to Jesus had existed for centuries before his supposed birth. The fact that a large part of Christianity was borrowed from mythology and ancient astronomy is well-known in academic circles, but is taboo among general society. Not to mention the scientific impossibility of a virgin pregnancy, and of life after death. As a professional scientist, I am appalled at the ignorance that is promoted around the very origins of this religion. It is as if Christians have no desire to know where their own beliefs originated. I highly recommend 'The Jesus Mysteries' by T. Freke and P. Gandy as an excellent scholarly introduction to the origins of Christianity in ancient paganism.

Jim Gillgam, Washington: "An investigative reporter wrote a small series of books on the historical Jesus as well as the question 'Is there enough evidence to justify any belief in God?' Both books are easy to find ... 'The Case for Christ' and 'The Case for Faith.' These have some very interesting findings and will shed light on other things. I would highly recommend them to people with questions or just a curiosity."

Mark Gerton: "You mention several sources for information about the 'Easter' season.  Unfortunately, these which you have mentioned all appear to be written by those who refuse to believe in the Divinity of Jesus (skeptics). Certainly, I would not trust any of those you mentioned for true or even accurate information — National Geographic, particularly.

"Any organization which promotes evolution, which is the biggest scam in the history of the planet, cannot be trusted to provide the truth.  Evolution is a 'fairy tale for grownups,' a famous non-Christian archaeologist has been quoted as saying. There is absolutely no proof for evolution at all, not even one transitional form. To paraphrase a quote by Dr. Kent Hovind, 'The only thing a fossil can tell you is that the creature was once alive, and then it died.  It cannot tell you even if it had any children!'

"Also, NBC News is well known for its liberal slant on the news, which does not tell the full truth about many important issues. I suggest you do more research before writing about Christianity, so that you may also suggest books and articles and movies by believers — you know, a 'balanced report.'

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "All of the Christian holidays were plunked onto 'pagan' holidays. The johnny-come-latelys just wanted to bring in the rubes. Any carney can tell you all about it. If you can't beat 'em ... Just like they had to compete with all the 'idols' and temple paintings. What was that about 'graven images'? Oh, yeah, that was the Hebrew god that said that, not the Christian god! The only definite time in the Christian calendar, sort of, is the crucifixion in relation to Passover.

"I once heard a mother telling her kid about the 'superstitions' the Egyptians had, when I was at the Smithsonian. I, with great glee, pointed out that the Egyptian belief system lasted for over 4,500 years with only one minor hiccup. I also noted that Isis was worshipped as far away as England and India. I then told the kid that a superstition is what other people have, and your beliefs are a religion — and that was the only difference between them. Left mom sputtering and the kid with a thoughtful look!"

Gary: "Over the years I've developed a simple, nearly mathematical formula for determining the exact date of Easter: It's one week after my wife starts complaining that the kids have nothing to wear to church for Easter Sunday."

Tony Ernst: "Right now the two lead stories on your Science front page are about the crucifixion and the Shroud of Turin .  In what way is this science?  Please consider putting this type of article in the Faith in America section rather than in Science — it is anything but."

Yes, Tony, we do sometimes look at religion-oriented subjects in the Science section, but from the perspective of scientific evidence (we hope!). Other examples of this include the search for Noah's Ark , the astronomy behind the Star of Bethlehem and the controversy over biblical fakes . We're not the only folks who think there's a synergy between religion and science: Witness this month's award of the $1.5 million Templeton Prize to the Nobel-winning co-inventor of the laser, Charles Townes, who distinguished himself in the realm of religion as well. It just seems to me that Eastertide is a fitting time to look at the intersection of science and religion.

March 25, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Dust devils galore: NASA's Spirit rover has benefited from not-so-ill winds on Mars this month. For one thing, the robot's cameras have taken snapshots of the mini-whirlwinds known as dust devils . Just as importantly, Spirit's solar panels have been swept clear of dust, boosting its power-generating capability more than a year after landing.

Although this month's dust devils represented a first for Spirit, they weren't the first spotted from the Martian surface. Science writer David Chandler set me straight on that fact last week, quoting Matt Golombek, the mission scientist for the 1997 Pathfinder probe, as saying that one confirmed dust devil was spotted during that mission. Now Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, who is an atmospheric scientist for the current rover missions as well as a veteran of the Pathfinder team, is setting us both straight. Here's his e-mail:

"Just a very small correction to a correction here — Pathfinder imaged 14 dust devils that were confirmed in peer-reviewed publications, some of those more impressive looking than the 'one' Matt is referring to. Some are shown at http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/~lemmon/impMPF/.

"Spirit has probably just surpassed that — but the array cleaning event wasn't a dust devil. No way, no how.

"The main clearing was at night; some clearing happened on different days; all clearings left wind tails on the deck that point in the same direction. But of course, this is just my opinion, since we can't know for sure. But the same conditions that give us dust devils during the day give strong diurnal winds.

"So Matt is right that it is no coincidence.

"Anyway, it's nice seeing atmospheric stuff that makes the news, especially when it gives us so much new power."

For more Martian atmospherics, check out Lemmon's look at earthly and Martian skies , reports on Martian winds and the sights in Spirit's skies , and the Opportunity rover's first view of a Martian eclipse .

March 25, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

The Economist: Decoding the 'Codex Sinaiticus'
'Spaceflight or Extinction'
National Geographic: Rocket for the rest of us
'Nova' on PBS: 'Wave That Shook the World'

March 24, 2005 | 1 p.m. ET
Ticket to ride ... in space: Add Doug Ramsburg's name to the space passenger list, alongside those of SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson. The Denver-area resident was picked from a pool of 135,000 entrants in a Volvo sweepstakes to win a seat on a Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceship.

Volvo kicked off its space-oriented "Boldly Go" promotion during the Super Bowl and announced the winner today, amid the hoopla of the New York International Auto Show.

But even before today's announcement, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post got the scoop on the 41-year-old Ramsburg and his prize. He works at the University of Colorado at Denver, evaluating the credentials of transfer students. Sometime in the next few years, he should get a chance to evaluate Earth's surface from more than 60 miles up.

"You look up at the stars and you think, 'Wow, wouldn't it be awesome to be able to look back on the planet from space,'" he told the News. "And I'm getting that opportunity."

The News even checked in with Ramsburg's longtime partner, Jeff George. "My reaction was, go for it. Kind of like the Nike thing," George said. "Go for it. It's that once-in-a-lifetime thing that very few people get the opportunity to do."

The suborbital tour package is valued at $200,000, and will take in flight training as well as the trip itself. The ride takes three hours and climaxes with a rocket blast to the edge of outer space, where passengers would experience several minutes of weightlessness and be able to see Earth curving below the blackness of space.

The Virgin Galactic venture is a commercial spin-off from last year's historic SpaceShipOne suborbital space voyages. The plan calls for passenger service to start in 2008, and Rutan and Branson have said they both want to ride on the first flight (Branson wants to bring along family members as well). Virgin says 14,000 people have signed up for rides, although it's not clear how many of them will actually take the plunge and pay the six-figure fare.

If you missed out on the Volvo contest, don't fret: There are several other suborbital space promotions in the works, involving the soft-drink company behind 7UP, the Oracle software company and Nidar, a Norwegian candy company. Heck, you could even redeem American Express frequent-flier miles to get a suborbital ticket. Sure, it'll be a few years before you'll be able to fly, but that will give you enough time to save up the 20 million points you'll need.

March 24, 2005 | 1 p.m. ET
Quick trip around the scientific Web:

The Guardian: In from the cold
BBC: Study will debate monkey future
Scientific American: Aerial base station
Discovery.com: Easter roots lie in pagan festival

March 24, 2005 | 2:35 a.m. ET
Space dreams deferred: If you've been counting the days until the launch of the Cosmos 1 solar sail, or the naming of the next millionaire space passenger, you'll just have to count a little bit longer.

That's the word from Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, and from Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures. Both men were among the speakers at this week's Flight School conference in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Cosmos 1, a project organized by the Planetary Society and funded by Cosmos Studios, had been due for launch into orbit from a Russian sub by late April. The gossamer sail would test technologies for using the sun's outflow of photons to steer spacecraft to the stars.

On Wednesday, Friedman said preparations for the mission were moving a bit more slowly than scheduled.

"The Russians are using a great phrase nowadays: 'Due to the high volume of work, testing is taking longer,'" Friedman told the audience. "But we are in the final stages. It's going to be a risky and exciting venture."

He said his current prediction is a launch date in early to late May.

Meanwhile, Anderson said it will be a few more weeks before his company announces the identity of the next new candidate to fly on a Russian Soyuz craft to the international space station. That person is likely to be a Japanese citizen, and will likely aim to fly in April 2006. Inventor/entrepreneur Greg Olsen, whose initial astro-bid was rejected last year due to medical concerns, is still on the list of prospects as well.

Anderson said he's still checking out an Australian site for a potential spaceport and isn't yet ready to make a decision on that front — all of which means that his big announcements will be coming later than he had hoped late last year .

March 24, 2005 | 2:35 a.m. ET
Dyson's sphere of influence: The Flight School conference was definitely a family affair for organizer Esther Dyson: Not only was her brother George a moderator for one of the panels, but her father, well-known physicist Freeman Dyson, basically stole the show.

A video clip from an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" that used his concept of the Dyson sphere as the plot setup was displayed on the big screen as a warmup act. Then the 81-year-old theoretician reflected on his work with Project Orion, the '50s-era concept for a nuclear-powered mission to Mars. The project demonstrated that when it comes to space visions, "quick is beautiful," he said.

"You want to get in there quick with a minimum of people, and do something," he said. "And if it doesn't work, quit and find another line of work."

He also provided his take on subjects ranging from the space elevator ("I'm on public record saying that it won't work, but I'd love to be proved wrong") to the prospects for a new race to the moon ("We'll probably be back on the moon in 15 years ... if the Chinese are pushing us, we'll go faster") to the future of science ("The 21st century is the century of biology, not the century of physics ... Biology is going to be the driver for the real expansion into space").

When he finished, Dyson won a rare standing ovation from the group, and afterward Google co-founder Larry Page engaged him in a nice long chat about one of the physicist's favorite far-out launch technologies, the Slingatron.

March 24, 2005 | 2:35 a.m. ET
An extra cup of cosmology on the Web:

Science @ NASA: Was Einstein a space alien?
New Scientist: Exotic black holes spawn new universal law
RedNova: The good and bad of string theory
Universe Today: Seeing the planks in Einstein's cross

March 23, 2005 | 1:45 a.m. ET
NASA starts the prize parade: NASA kicks off its first two Centennial Challenges this week, in partnership with a group that is boosting technologies essential for building futuristic elevators to the sky.

Details about the competitions are to be released at 7:45 p.m. ET today at the Flight School conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., according to Tuesday's advisory from NASA. The space agency's partner is the Spaceward Foundation, which has been working for months on "Elevator 2010," a contest program modeled after the X Prize for private spaceflight.

"Elevator 2010" actually comprises two contests: One would reward the team that built the fastest and most reliable climbing robot capable of carrying a payload up a tether. The other would go to the team that creates the strongest tether for such a climbing system.

Those two technologies are considered essential building blocks for a future space elevator. Here's the idea: Super-strong tethers would be extended tens of thousands of miles into space, then climbers powered by beams of light would ride up the tethers, bringing their payloads to orbital altitudes. If the concept works, it could dramatically cut the cost of access to space.

When I talked with the Spaceward Foundation's leaders months ago , they proposed starting the contests this year, with top prizes of $50,000 in each contest and more money set aside for the No. 2 and No. 3 teams.

Spaceward's Ben and Meekk Shelef declined to talk about NASA's upcoming announcement in detail Tuesday night, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the first two NASA-backed challenges will most likely parallel the "Elevator 2010" contests. Read my status report about the space-elevator concept, then stay tuned for more from Scottsdale.

March 23, 2005 | 1:45 a.m. ET
Mars on the ultra-big screen: Also in Scottsdale, documentary filmmaker George Butler showed a preview of his Imax film project on the Mars rovers. The 12-minute clip, which traced the preparations for the Spirit and Opportunity missions, drew oohs and ahs from the Flight School crowd — and the clip didn't even include the good stuff from the missions themselves, because the film was shot before the rovers even landed.

The large-format film, which has "Mars" as its working title, should be ready for showing in Imax theaters in the next year or so. Butler is already famous for "Pumping Iron," the movie that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his start, as well as documentaries on Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. He hopes his Mars movie will make just as big a splash.

"Just as a film like 'Pumping Iron' changed everyone's perception of bodybuilding ... I think this film can really influence a whole new generation of high school students," Butler said.

March 23, 2005 | 1:45 a.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

Nature: Right-to-die case highlights brain mysteries
Nat'l Geographic: Babies recognize faces better than adults
Boston Globe: Einstein's genius wasn't just about I.Q.
Indiana U.: Does light violate relativity?

March 21, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Unorthodox Easter: This year's Holy Week is unquestionably unusual, with an ailing pope and a nationwide life-or-death debate . Even the calendrical calculations that go into figuring out the Easter schedule are unusual this year — but at least those are more predictable in their outcomes.

Traditionally, Easter and Passover are in roughly the same time frame. This time around, Western Christians observe Easter on Sunday, but the weeklong Passover observances begin nearly a month later, on April 24. And Orthodox Easter is more than a month after Western Easter, on May 1. That stretch between the Western and Orthodox holy day is about as wide as it could be.

This year's Christian Easter gap has to do, strangely enough, with the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar.

The calendar, which goes back to the 4th century, is primarily based on the lunar cycle. But because 12 lunar months amount to about 11 days less than the standard 365-day year, leap months have to be added every so often. In fact, the Jewish system adds a 29-day month called Adar Sheni (Adar II) seven times in the course of a 19-year cycle.

Got all that? This "Judaism 101" primer might help.

In the Jewish calendar, Passover occurs on the 15th day of the month of Nisan — traditionally, the first full moon after the vernal equinox. In leap years, however, the addition of Adar Sheni moves Passover a month later in the spring, and this year is just such a year.

Now, back to Easter: Over the centuries, Christian churches have established that holy day as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. But there are a few ecclesiastical footnotes to that rule.

One of those rules is that the equinox is always considered to occur on March 21 — which is becoming less and less the case, as this report from Space.com explains . A more significant rule has to do with Easter's relationship to Passover. Orthodox Christians say Easter has to come after Passover, just as it did in the Bible, while the Western church doesn't have that requirement.

This year, the first full moon falls quickly after the equinox, on Friday, March 25. That means the Western Easter is unusually early. But the fact that this is a Jewish leap year means that Passover, and hence Orthodox Easter, are unusually late.

This explanation goes through the whole Orthodox timing procedure, and Encarta give the full encyclopedic treatment to the subject of calendars.

Over the next couple of years, the West and the East will be more in sync: In 2006, Easter dawns on April 16 for the West, and April 23 for the East. And in 2007, all Christians observe the holy day on April 8. But then things go out of whack again in 2008, for much the same reasons as they do this year. Easter will be March 23 for the Western church, and April 27 for Orthodox believers.

This Easter/Passover Calculator provides dates for the Western ("Gregorian reckoning") and the Orthodox ("Julian reckoning") Easters as well as the start of Passover through the year 9999, plus a heck of a lot more information than you need.

The bottom line is that we're getting an early start on the Easter parade of religion-themed articles, including Newsweek's cover story as well as reviews of the new book "Why Jews Rejected Jesus." There's also a new National Geographic special titled "The Quest for Truth: The Crucifixion," while the Discovery Channel will be rebroadcasting its series on the "Real Family of Jesus." Meanwhile, we here at MSNBC.com and NBC News are spotlighting "Faith in America" this week.

It doesn't seem that long ago that we had a long, drawn-out symposium on science and religion , focusing on the evolution controversy, but this time I'd like to focus on holy history instead. Do you think there are hidden mysteries yet to be unraveled, a la "The Da Vinci Code," or do we know pretty much all that can be known about the historical grounding for the Bible? Feel free to let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the e-mails.

March 21, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
On the road again: I'll be traveling to Scottsdale, Ariz., this week for the Flight School conference on private space travel and personal aviation, so postings between now and Good Friday will be dependent upon developments as well as hotel bandwidth.

March 21, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Imax tangled in evolution debate
Telegraph: Pupils make more progress without computers
Science News: Cops with six legs
New Scientist: Classic math puzzle cracked at last

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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