April 1, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Reviewing the evolution film flap: The tide is turning for science documentaries that challenge the biblical version of life's origins. Last month, it came to light that some science museums and theaters were turning down Imax films such as "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," reportedly out of concern that they would offend religious sensibilities.

This week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science weighed in with "strong concerns" about those reports. And theaters in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as Charlotte, N.C., said they would show "Volcanoes" after all.

In fact, theater managers and film reviewers said that the references to the Big Bang and the origins of life on Earth weren't that big of a deal — and that the reasons they passed up "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" had more to do with the criticism that it was "disorienting and pedantic," or that it was "scary for children."

Be that as it may, Cosmic Log readers had a lot to say, from both sides of the Darwinian fence. Here's a representative selection of the feedback:

J. Newman, Columbus, Ohio: "Does it seem we have stepped back 400 years regarding the sciences? Science museums and theaters must now scrutinize or censor exhibits and films out of fear that certain subject matter will offend certain religious sensibilities. Offend, not because the material is bad science, but because it offends a theological viewpoint. It’s a wonder that NASA can still send space probes to Mars, as this might contravene someone’s scriptural worldview. Galileo was forced to recant his views and Bruno was burnt alive for challenging the church’s cosmological doctrine. From the fury of conservative Christians save us, O Lord!"

Chris Eldridge, Harrisburg, Pa.: "Watered-down documentaries are much like watered-down music: They are only intended to placate to the general complacency of those with no appetite for learning or deep thought. Though theories such as the Big Bang may never be proven with 100 percent certainty, evolution has been! Finding a simple fossil of a seashell on a mountaintop must surely be an indication of absolutely historic changes that have taken place over geologic time. ..."

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that evolution has been proven with 100 percent certainty, at least in terms of our current understanding of how it works. In fact, that's the hallmark of scientific theory — that it's always subject to revision based on new experimental data. Of course, the same data can suit a variety of purposes. For example, religious believers long cited the "seashell on the mountaintop" as evidence for the biblical Noah's Ark flood.

Joshua Stateham, Wichita, Kan.: "It cracked me up when you quoted Alan Leshner saying, 'Yet, the suppression of scientifically accurate information as a response to those with differing perspectives is inappropriate and threatens both the integrity of science and the broader public education to which we all are committed. It is also objectionable to many stakeholders — including many with strong religious convictions — who understand that religion and science are not in opposition.'

"This is so true, yet it seems to only be true when talking about evolution. They (the pro-evolutionists) will gripe and moan when evolution is questioned, but have no problems suppressing the intelligent design theory (i.e., banning putting a label on a science book stating that evolution is only a theory). They aren't willing to give any other theory but evolution the time of day, therefore Leshner's quote is quite hypocritical and, quite frankly, humorous. Evolution has become a religion for scientists. It is no longer based on logic and subject to critical analysis, which is sad for the scientific community. ..."

Selected Pete: "Kudos for a creative spin on this, but honestly — I cannot recall any Imax film of a scientific nature that does not tout evolution as the primary explanation for the subject at hand, be it ocean, land, biology or the existence of the solar system. Leshner comes across as a whiny child that has been used to having it his way and suddenly sees opposition for the first time. Leshner's crowd might get a little better reception if they would at least use the word 'theory' in conjunction with the term 'evolution' ... just once in a while."

G. Raymond: "When I heard Imax was planning on allowing religious extremists to define its programming, my wife and I were saddened that we wouldn't be going to Imax anymore. I'm open-minded about evidence presented regarding theories, pro or con. But religion is not theory — it's faith. If they want to sell religious programming that's fine — but it needs a Warning Label: 'Warning: The following program contains contemporary cultural beliefs mixed with non-controversial evidence in support of scientific theories. This program is intended for entertainment and is not recommended as a basis for educational purposes.' Needless to say, the warning needs to be on all advertisements and displayed at the beginning of the feature."

Stephen: "It seems the more I hope to find comfort in God's omnipotent powers, the more I am told by most that God is simply not capable of such miracles as evolution. They would have me believe that God can only snap his fingers, and ideas such as evolution of species is more than God can handle. I think we should give God a little more credit than we have in the past."

Mitch Bogart: "... I believe that there is a Creator who contributed tremendous intelligence to the design of the universe, including its living inhabitants. The actual mechanisms used in this development, however, have not been adequately or substantially discovered yet. For example, trying to get an intuitive feel for how things work at the quantum level still totally boggles the mind. Evolution simply can not explain how a biological structure requiring all of 10 innovations before it works can ever be 'evolved' through random mutations. Shakespeare can not be produced by typing monkeys — there is not enough time in the universe."

James Thompson: "The recent discovery of soft tissues in dinosaur bones casts extreme doubt on the scientific community's ability to date geological historic events, and sounds the death knell of evolutionary theory."

Michael, Durham, N.C.: "It just seems so incredibly ludicrous to me. If religious fundamentalists don't want to see a movie about evolution, they shouldn't watch it. How hard is that to realize? If people want to hear creation 'science,' they can go to Sunday school. How hard, in turn, is that? The issue isn't science vs. creationism, it's political and social control. With a lot of double-speak about equal time for opposing views and religious discrimination, the religious fringe has managed to create a climate in which they can (and do) take every opportunity to censor not only what they or their children consume from culture but what everyone else does, as well. How dare they appoint themselves as our very own homegrown Taliban?"

Rosemary: "Are you saying that science centers are reluctant to show films containing evidence of evolution?  Science centers?? Oh, my head (as Satchel would say)... I have yet to see a church that was reluctant to preach creation."

Richard C. Terzo, Atlanta: "I have to say this is the most ashamed I have been to be from the great South. Keeping children and parents in the dark about scientific facts in order to insure religious conformity sounds too much like a cult instead of a religion. Religion should be a choice made knowing all of the facts as we understand them. Hiding the truth will not make it go away. These institutions should be ashamed for compromising their scientific duties to appease a backward, redneck, dark-age and close-minded constituency."

Claire Wilson, Auburn, Ala.: "The more I hear about challenges by the Christian right to the teaching (or even mention) of evolution, the more I am prompted to ask this question: How strong is your faith if you can never hear anything that doesn't support your version of the world completely and utterly? I am an atheist living in the Bible Belt. I don't run screaming or cry foul when my neighbors tell me they feel blessed for the good weather we're having, or say that they are praying for the recovery of a sick relative. Why is it that fundamentalist Christians seem unable to simply ignore things that don't fit in with their worldview? If you don't like evolution, watch the volcano movie and think to yourself smugly, 'Too bad they don't present the real version of the origins of life on Earth. Oh well, at least I'm saved.'"

William W. Wilfong: "Faith-based ignorance is not even biblical.  After all, God's first job for Adam was to name the beasts of the field and the fowl of the air, 'and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.'  The identification of speciation was therefore a God-given mandate for mankind. Adam was the first taxonomist.

"Science is integral to knowledge, and science is the experimental method.  Evolution is testable; creationism, being inherently untestable, is a religious belief. Evolution therefore belongs in the corpus of scientific theory, alongside the theories of gravity, relativity, wave propagation, etc."

John, Washington, D.C.: "I was outraged to read about this issue last week.  So much in fact I wrote an email to Lisa Buzzelli, the director of the Imax theater in Columbia, S.C., one of the places that refused to show the film. This director was the one who made the decision arguing that religious people would not want to see the film.

"This is a convoluted argument.  First of all, it makes the assumption that religion and science are opposing views.  Secondly, what about the people who want to see this film?  If you are so opposed, then boycott the film.  Don't spend your money on it, tell your friends not to.  But for a director of a theater that is supposedly science-related to boycott the film for a population is ridiculous.  Maybe she should be boycotted and relegated to a job that would suit her better — maybe something in the clergy. There are many films that contain things which may offend some viewers. If all of these films were not shown because of sensitivities, the cinema would be a very dull place indeed.

"By the way, I never did get a response from the aforementioned director."

Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.: "I understand Mr. Leshner's concerns, but what many evolutionary scientists miss is the creationist contention that the information that is being presented by evolutionists is not scientifically accurate. Belief in something with as many unanswered questions (abiogenesis) and problematic issues (irreducible complexity) as we find in evolutionary theory requires as great a leap of faith as does belief in the creationist alternative. Creationists' gripe with evolution-themed programming is that it does suppress scientifically accurate information; any evidence that would tend to discredit the evolutionary assumption is summarily discarded when it is found.

"The fossil record is frequently cited as evidence for evolution, but there is ample evidence within the fossil record against evolution, too: Archaeopteryx is frequently cited by evolutionary scientists as a transitional form between true birds and their reptile ancestors, yet there are fossils of true birds which antedate Archaeopteryx. Archaeopteryx may represent an entirely different line in bird evolution, but it can't be an intermediate step. Archaeopteryx is a cool word to write as well as say, so perhaps that's why it is still in circulation among evolutionists when it shouldn't be.

"Here is the definition of theory I use. I like it because it has been used by the National Academy of Sciences as well. Theory: a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and tested hypotheses.

"The problem creationists have with evolutionists is that their theory does not incorporate facts, laws, or tested hypotheses; it is all based on inferences and thus, is not well-substantiated. To test hypotheses you'd have to do an experiment. That being the case, there really is no such thing as 'the theory of evolution.' When you get right down to it, the creationist point of view on the origins of life has as much going for it as does the evolutionist point of view because neither point of view is actually 'scientific.' They both seem pretty implausible to me. ..."

To my mind, faulting evolutionary theory because it doesn't fully account for abiogenesis — that is, the leap from nonliving to living things — is like faulting cosmology because it doesn't fully account for what gave rise to the Big Bang. It's the hardest problem to answer, and I don't think the broader theory should be dismissed because the answer hasn't yet been found — although researchers haven't given up looking.

As far as Archaeopteryx goes, it seems to me that there's rarely a clear progression of transitional forms in development. For example, the current thinking on human evolution is that the "transitional" Homo erectus co-existed with "true humans." Convergent evolution could come into play as well, as demonstrated this week by the case of the 150 million-year-old termite-eater .

As much as I like Patrick's postings (which is why I let him go on at length), I can't agree that the creationist view is on equal footing with mainstream evolutionary biology. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences uses its definition of "theory" specifically to show the difference between evolutionary science and creationism. But if Darwin's doubters raise valid questions that challenge current "facts, laws, inferences and tested hypotheses," that's surely a healthy part of the scientific process.

April 1, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
More Hubble trouble: This week also brought bad news for those who love the Hubble Space Telescope (and who doesn't?). Some of them are ramping up campaigns to keep hope alive for Hubble. Others are wondering what this says about the White House and the country's space vision . Here are a couple of representative comments:

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Even as Hubble continues to produce marvels, the chicken hearts at NASA and the Bush leaguers push for its demise. It never ceases to amaze me that they want to go to the moon and Mars but are scared fecal-less about being in Earth orbit. ..."

William G. Graham, Jacksonville, Fla.: "With all of this wonderful science from the Hubble telescope, why isn't the Bush administration willing to save it? It seems to me that we taxpayers deserve a better answer than to kill our investment in this magnificent discovery system or to remove its feeding tube."

April 1, 2005 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Five more reasons to dislike April Fool's Day:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: Water on Mars
Lirpa Sloof Foundation: $100 million moon prize offered
Google Gulp (beta): Quench your thirst for knowledge
Unmanned Spaceflight: Strong winds at Gusev Crater
NASA Watch: Shuttle canceled? Hoax upon hoax

March 31, 2005 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Galactic dustballs: The latest picture from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a giant elliptical galaxy with "dust bunnies" — blobs of cosmic dust and scattered star clusters, hinting at a titanic collision that still hasn't been completely cleaned up.

Image: NGC 1316
This Hubble image of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1316 shows a complicated system of dust lanes and patches in the galaxy's inner region. NGC 1316 is about 75 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Fornax.
The galaxy, NGC 1316, is on the outskirts of a galactic cluster about 75 million light-years away from Earth, in the southern constellation Fornax. NGC 1316 is just filled with complex loops and blobs of cosmic dust. But there are also faint globular star clusters hidden inside the galaxy — groupings that can provide clues as to the galaxy's history.

Researchers led by Paul Goudfrooij of the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute analyzed the Hubble imagery and were able to trace how star clusters were disrupted by a merger of gas-rich galaxies billions of years earlier. That gradual merger is what created NGC 1316's current shape, including the complicated system of dust lanes and patches.

"These are thought to be the remains of the interstellar medium associated with one or more of the spiral galaxies swallowed by NGC 1316," the institute reports in today's image advisory.

For more cosmic wonders from Hubble, direct your browser to HubbleSite.org as well as our own gallery of Hubble's greatest hits and other space galleries.

March 31, 2005 | 9:15 p.m. ET
That's no sea monster! What do you suppose mariners were looking at when they reported sighting the tail of a sea monster off the coast of Greenland in 1734? In the April issue of the Archives of Natural History, fisheries expert Charles Paxton and his colleagues suggest that the "most dreadful monster" might have been the, um, apparatus of a sexually aroused male whale.

Marc Abrahams, who presides over the annual "Ig Nobel" awards for science that makes you smile, calls attention to "the 21st century's first great discovery about sea monsters." In an abstract of the study cited by Abrahams, the researchers report:

"The penises of the North Atlantic right whale and (Pacific) grey whale can be at least 1.8 metres long, and 1.7 metres long respectively [5-foot-7], and could be taken by a naive witness for a tail."

Abrahams notes that this isn't Paxton's only foray into the weirder side of science:

"Paxton is of course a 2002 Ig Nobel Biology Prize winner. He and three other colleagues were honored that year for their report "Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain," which was published in volume 39 of the journal British Poultry Science."

For many more tidbits of weird science, check out the April edition of Mini-AIR, Abrahams' bite-size version of the Annals of Improbable Research. And for a daily fix of frivolity, click on over to his "What's New" Web log.

March 31, 2005 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Next stop, Cloud City: Action figures from the upcoming "Star Wars" movie will be taking a real ride to the fringes of the atmosphere next month during JP Aerospace's "Away 26" high-altitude balloon mission.

In a Word-formatted press release, JP Aerospace says toy renditions of a droid, a Wookiee and the evil General Grievous will be part of the payload for the research mission, which is aimed at testing technologies that could someday be used as part of an unconventional airship-to-space system .

In the past, JP's balloons have carried up student-designed payloads small enough to fit inside pingpong balls — inspiring the educational program's name, PongSat. This time around, 140 student experiments are to accompany the action figures from "Star Wars: Episode III —Revenge of the Sith," riding up from Nevada's Black Rock desert to an altitude of 100,000 feet.

The toys will be brought back down and sold on an online auction site to raise money for the PongSat effort.

March 31, 2005 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Scientific questions on the World Wide Web:

Universe Today: Is the Kuiper Belt slowing the Pioneer probe?
The Guardian: Can 'mind readers' control robotic arms?
New Scientist: Would water splash on the moon?
Lifespan: How can kids cope with daylight-saving time?

March 30, 2005 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Take a virtual space ride: The rocketeers at Aera Corp. unveiled the design for their Altairis suborbital spaceship today, in a video animation that also touted their business plan to attract high-flying tourists.

Aera says it's planning to start passenger service in the next couple of years, and has already taken the first step toward setting up operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The company had hoped to display a version of its crew capsule this month, but problems with the planned venue forced a postponement, said Bill Sprague, Aera's chairman, chief executive officer and chief scientist.

Video: Virtual trip on Altairis The new videos and animation stills are aimed at making up for the delay in the bigger event, Sprague told me today. "We will have that event in the future," he promised.

Sprague also said he hoped to announce the site of Aera's rocket manufacturing facility sometime in the next week or so. "There are so many irons in the fire. ...  If we're premature on certain things, it gives us a hindrance," he said.

Despite all those irons, Aera's plans are still on track, he said.

"I'm rather stunned," said Sprague, an aerospace veteran. "After 30 years in the industry, this is probably the only project that I've seen going on schedule."

Of course, Aera isn't the only company that is going after the suborbital tourist market. Virgin Galactic , backed by Richard Branson's money and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan's expertise, says it intends to start service by 2008. You can see real-life video from the SpaceShipOne flights, and Virgin Galactic has a pretty slick spaceflight animation as well, linked from the bottom of this news page.

For his part, Sprague paid tribute to Rutan and his SpaceShipOne success, which raised hopes that suborbital spaceflight for the masses could actually be a going concern.

"We're convinced the market is going to be very large, very quickly, and there's going to be room for a lot of people," Sprague said.

To keep track of the latest in the new space race, check in with our special section as well as Space Race News and RLV News.

March 30, 2005 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:

Tech Central Station: Looking forward to prize fights
NASA: Shape-shifting robot swarms on Mars
WHOI: Earth's tilt controls glacial cycles
Nature: Quake-hit Indonesia still in jeopardy

March 29, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Two thumbs up for evolution: Last week, word spread that some Imax big-screen theaters were turning thumbs down on science documentaries that didn't toe the biblical line on life's origins — out of concern that the evolutionary debate would hold down attendance.

This week, that reticence got a bad review from one of America's most prestigious scientific groups, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner expressed "strong concerns" about the potential suppression of scientific information in a letter sent to the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

"The desire not to antagonize audiences and to avoid negative business outcomes is entirely understandable," he said. "Yet, the suppression of scientifically accurate information as a response to those with differing perspectives is inappropriate and threatens both the integrity of science and the broader public education to which we all are committed. It is also objectionable to many stakeholders — including many with strong religious convictions — who understand that religion and science are not in opposition."

Leshner called on the ASTC, which represents science centers and museums around the country, to work with the AAAS on "strategies that would prove most useful to your institutions."

He also noted with approval that one of the films in question, "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," got a thumbs up from the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History after an initial rejection.

I just know you want to comment on all this. Send in those e-mails, and I'll put together a representative sampling of the feedback for Friday.

March 29, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
A new huddle over Hubble: Two of the space community's most active activists, Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation and Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, have teamed up to issue a joint communique calling for a space shuttle mission to rescue the Hubble Space Telescope.

For more than a year, NASA and independent advisory groups have been agonizing over whether the shuttle or a yet-to-be-designed robot should be sent to do the required maintenance on Hubble, or whether the preparations should be limited to devising a safe method for getting rid of the astronomical "crown jewel."

Video: Space program’s future NASA's erstwhile administrator, Sean O'Keefe, canceled the previously planned shuttle mission to Hubble, saying it would have been too risky in the wake of the Columbia tragedy. The subject is sure to come up again during the upcoming congressional hearings for Mike Griffin, President Bush's choice to succeed O'Keefe.

As usual, Tumlinson and Zubrin leave no doubt about where they stand.

"Frontiers are not opened by the meek. They are opened by the bold," the two say in today's statement. "The Hubble deserters’ embrace of irrational fear as a core ethic threatens a precedent that would preclude any future human accomplishments in space. Indeed, had such an ethic prevailed in our space program the past, we would never have been able to launch or repair Hubble, and the Apollo program would have been inconceivable. Should we embrace it now, the prospects for future human exploration of the moon and Mars will decline to zero."

In the past, we've heard a lot from the Hubble fan club — and it will be interesting to see whether the tide will turn in the telescope's favor once Griffin takes charge. What do you think will happen?

March 29, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Make your own Mars rover: The Martian Soil blog points the way to Web sites that show you how to assemble a downsized paper version of the NASA Mars rovers, as well as a true-scale paper "MarsDial" like the one on each rover (PDF file). All you have to do is print out a copy of the pattern, then painstakingly cut out the pieces and glue them together. (OK, it's not as easy as it sounds.)

Clark Lindsey's HobbySpace Web site has a whole page devoted to paper models of spacecraft, including a SpaceShipOne replica that I put together myself months ago, and which still graces my bookcase.

If you can't handle quite so much paperwork, you can always turn to Lego's rendition of the Mars rover, build a more substantial EarthDial with guidance from the Planetary Society, and put in your order for a SpaceShipOne model rocket.

March 29, 2005 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Life on Mars? How can we tell?
Discovery.com: Expert says marsupials see in full color
Universe Today: New Milky Way satellite galaxy found
Space.com: How about a nuclear-powered trip to Pluto?

March 28, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Past, present and future shocks: Today's Indonesian earthquake rides the crest of a coincidental wave. For starters, March is the month when the two biggest earthquakes in U.S. history were recorded — and we've just started a week that Alaska has set aside as "Tsunami Awareness Week."

It also just so happens that PBS will be airing documentaries on two of the Indonesia's biggest seismic disasters on Tuesday night: Part of the "Nova" documentary series, "Wave That Shook the World" focuses on the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people from Sumatra to Somalia. The second show, "Krakatoa," reaches even farther back, to the volcanic eruption that caused tens of thousands of deaths in 1883.

Thomas Heaton, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology who served as an adviser to the "Nova" team, doesn't put much stock in coincidences: "These things happen," he said today. But he knew it was only a matter of time before the fault involved in today's quake let loose.

"That section where the quake happened today was more clearly identified" as a seismic hot spot, Heaton said. "The section that broke in the Boxing Day earthquake was more mysterious and less studied."

In the wake of the Dec. 26 quake, scientists already have gotten better at analyzing seismic data so that they can issue tsunami warnings for coastal regions ringing the epicenter. The tragedy also sensitized coastal populations to the tsunami threat — as evidenced by the rush away from shore when Monday's quake struck.

"The warning system is the earthquake itself," Heaton said. "It's an educational issue, that when people feel a long-duration shaking, they should not wait for a warning. They should get the heck to higher ground."

There's some hope, then, that scientists as well as coastal residents have learned hard lessons from December's quake and will be somewhat less vulnerable to future shocks.

Is there yet more seismic activity in store? Some scientists are already speculating that December's jolt set the stage for Monday's follow-up, which in turn could trigger another quake further down the fault line.

Video: Quake science

Closer to home , even Heaton speculates that the Cascadia subduction zone , off the Pacific Northwest coast, could someday be due for a magnitude-9 quake and tsunami, like the one thought to have taken place in the year 1700.

But Heaton said it's hard to see the patterns in seismic activity, except in hindsight.

"It's like the stock market," he said. "We can do statistics, in terms of saying when things get going, earthquakes tend to come in clusters. ... You can't predict anything other than the general statistics."

To see the patterns set by December's seismic catastrophe, check out our own "Anatomy of a Disaster" interactive, as well as PBS' "Anatomy of a Tsunami." Heaton is also due to participate in a Washington Post online chat at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday — so study our special report, watch the PBS programs, then join in the discussion.

March 28, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

Science @ NASA: Picking on Einstein
Science News: The real science behind pretend people
Wired: Psst ... wanna buy a Soviet spacesuit?
Technology Review: Ocean power fights current thinking

Check the Cosmic Log archive

Alan Boyle




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