June 10, 2005 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Watch storms from space: As Tropical Storm Arlene intensifies and heads for the coast, you can trace its path from hundreds of miles above.

The astronauts on the international space station have already shot video of the storm’s giant whorl, and NASA has set up a Web page where you can see the latest imagery, not only from the space station, but also from satellites such as the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (a most excellent orbiting hurricane-watcher that was once slated for destruction ).

Just this week, we learned that satellite readings from NASA have been used to develop a new method for predicting a hurricane’s track, based on changes in ozone levels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has its own weather-watching Web page, aptly named Storm Tracker. NOAA rounds up the latest satellite imagery, tracking maps, advisories and even ocean-buoy data for tropical storms and hurricanes. The Storm Tracker page refreshes automatically and is designed for resizing, so you can keep it up on your desktop as you go about your day.

Arlene won’t be the hurricane season’s only storm, of course. In fact, this year is projected to be busier than usual , just as last year was. So if you’re a weather-watcher, be sure to bookmark the NOAA and NASA sites as well as our own weather coverage.

For even wider-ranging views of Earth’s goings-on as seen from space, don’t forget NASA’s Earth Observatory and Visible Earth Web sites.

June 10, 2005 | 8:35 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
‘Nova’ on PBS: ‘World in the Balance’
The Guardian: Formula for sitcom success
Nature: Mayan crypt reveals power of women
BBC: Rings of bone grown for couples

June 9, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
‘Junk DNA’ has social role: Bits of genetic code that most researchers had thought were useless might well play a role in determining whether you're shy or sociable, researchers reported today. They said the DNA sequences may even be a determining factor for autism and other social disorders, as well as marital fidelity and parenting skills.

The latest research, published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, focuses on short, repeated DNA sequences called microsatellites that are scattered throughout the genomes of many species. Such sequences have been called "junk DNA" because they didn't seem to have any function.

Scientists at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Atlanta-based Center for Behavioral Neuroscience looked at microsatellites in the DNA code for small rodents known as voles — concentrating on a gene that codes for vasopressin receptors in the brain. Vasopressin is a hormone that has been linked to social bonding and parenting.

The repeating genetic sequences were much longer for monogamous vole species than for polygamous voles. So the researchers bred two strains of monogamous voles — one with the long version of microsatellites and one with the short version. The adult male voles with the long-version DNA had more vasopressin receptors in neural areas related to sociability. They also greeted strangers more readily, and were more apt to form pair bonds and nurture young.

"If you think of brain circuits as locked rooms, the vasopressin receptor as a lock on the door, and vasopressin as the key that fits it, only those circuits that have the receptors can be 'opened' or influenced by the hormone," Emory's Elizabeth Hammock explained in a news release from the National Institute of Mental Health. "An animal's response to vasopressin thus depends upon which rooms have the locks, and our research shows that the distribution of the receptors is determined by the length of the microsatellites."

Hammock and her colleague in the research, Larry Young, said the implications go way beyond the social lives of voles.

"These findings suggest that these unstable genetic elements significantly contribute to the individual differences in social personality that we see in animals and humans," Young said in a National Science Foundation news release.

Hammock and Young extended their research to primate species by looking at publicly available genome data. They found that the same microsatellite region was similar in humans and in bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees. Bonobos are known for their empathy and strong social bonds (and we hope humans are, too). In contrast, chimpanzees are less empathetic and more aggressive, and have significantly different microsatellite sequences.

Some research has suggested that there might be an association between microsatellites and autism in some families as well. It's far too early to make firm linkages, but geneticists are clearly coming to the conclusion that "junk DNA" is not junk at all.

June 9, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Purgatory on Mars: In Canto X of the Divine Comedy's "Purgatorio," the 14th-century poet Dante Alighieri might well have been foreshadowing the problems that bedeviled NASA's Opportunity rover: "We stopped upon a plain more desolate than roads across the deserts. ..."

In April, Opportunity got stuck in a sand dune in Mars' desolate Meridiani Planum, a plain more desolate than any road on Earth. It was a purgatory of sorts — a place where the rover had to stay for more than a month while its intercessors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked out the terms of its salvation .

I guess that's why the rover team decided to name the place of the rover's confinement "Purgatory Dune."

"We weren't calling it anything back when we were stuck in it, but now that we're out, it seemed there ought to be a name for the thing," rover principal investigator Steve Squyres said today in his latest mission update.

Squyres noted that the team that has guided the Mars Exploration Rovers is reaching a big milestone: 1,000 Martian days (also known as sols) of operation, 490 for Opportunity and 510 for Spirit, its twin on the other side of the Red Planet.

"The uplink process for these vehicles is intense, engrossing and exhausting," Squyres wrote. "At some point I probably should sit down and describe it in these pages. For today, though, I'll just tip my hat to all of my friends, colleagues and comrades — engineer and scientist alike — on the MER uplink team. One thousand sols is a remarkable accomplishment."

Amen to that.

June 9, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Eastward ho! I'm heading out from Seattle on Friday to visit family in Iowa and researchers in Wisconsin. Postings for the next few days won't be as regular as usual, but I'll be back in the office on Thursday.

June 9, 2005 | 8 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

The Guardian: Surgery that made me smile
New Scientist: Cell phones on planes bug astronomers
Discovery.com: Flying computers form swarm smarts
Wired.com: Honey, I shrunk the PC

June 8, 2005 | Updated 10:10 p.m. ET
Lights over Mars: Astronomers have detected an aurora for the first time in the skies over Mars.

The Red Planet's "southern lights," if you can call them that, are unlike anything seen on Earth. Earth's colorful auroras are created by the interaction between the electrically charged particles of the solar wind and our planet's magnetic field. But Mars lost its global magnetosphere eons ago — instead, Martian auroras arise when electrons from the solar wind are pulled in by local magnetic fields left over in pieces of the planet's crust. Those particles collide with carbon dioxide molecules in Mars' thin atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of ultraviolet light.

Europe's Mars Express orbiter detected just such an ultraviolet aurora back in August 2004, using its SPICAM ultraviolet spectrograph, and the results are written up in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The Martian aurora was pretty wimpy by Earth standards: The emission spanned about 19 miles (30 kilometers) at an altitude of 87 miles (140 kilometers), and was only about a hundredth of the brightness of a typical earthly aurora. In order to witness it to best advantage, you'd have to have eyes sensitive to ultraviolet light, said the University of Arizona's Bill Sandel, a co-investigator for the SPICAM instrument.

The phenomenon was also highly localized. "If you were under it, looking up, it would only be 12 degrees across," he told me. That's just a bit wider than the width of your fist, stretched out to arm's length.

Despite their wimpiness, Martian auroras are still of great value to scientists studying Mars' fractured magnetic field. "Now that we see the aurora, we'll get a better idea of what Mars' magnetic structure really is," Sandel said in a University of Arizona news release.

This week's report makes Mars the latest and perhaps the last of our solar system's auroral planets. Scientists have previously spotted auroras at Saturn and Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. Even Venus, which doesn't have a global magnetic field, has exhibited aurora-type emissions due to the interaction between the strong solar wind and the Venusian atmosphere. Auroras also have been spotted on moons such as Jupiter's Io. But don't expect Mercury or Pluto to join the list anytime soon: Each of those planets has only a tenuous atmosphere at best, and it's not known whether either one has a magnetic field.

For more about auroras on Earth and elsewhere, check out SpaceWeather.com as well as Norway's Northern Lights Web site.

June 8, 2005 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Genetic zoo expands: Just in time for "Batman Begins," two breeds of bats as well as 11 other species have been targeted for gene mapping under the auspices of the Large-Scale Sequencing Network, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Five research centers will focus their genomic firepower on the 13 newly named species, just as they've done for other creatures ranging from humans to slime mold .

"Sequencing the genomes of a diverse set of organisms is a powerful tool to understand the biological processes at work in human health and illness," NHGRI Director Francis Collins said in today's statement. "Comparative genomics has proven to be one of the most effective strategies for revealing the important structural and functional elements of the human genome sequence."

The additions to the list include:

  • The Northern white-cheeked gibbon, a primate that would be the first on its particular branch of the evolutionary tree to have its genetic code unraveled.
  • Two bat species, the megabat and the microbat.
  • Six other mammals, including the 13-lined ground squirrel, tree shrew, bushbaby, hyrax, pangolin and sloth.
  • Two species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
  • A roundworm species, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora.
  • The zebra finch, which will have a physical map of its genome done in preparation for sequencing at a later time.

Check out the full announcement for more details about the next chapter in the genomic book of life, plus a recap of past and current gene-sequencing projects. And get ready for more revelations in the months ahead about diversity in the human genome .

June 8, 2005 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Cool collegiate science on the Web:

UCLA: 'Molecular' zipper may hold clues to many diseases
Wash. Univ. in St. Louis: Gamers are made, not born
Florida State Univ.: A better way to track hurricanes
UCSD: Virtual reality gets even more realistic

June 7, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Visit the supernova gallery: The astronomers behind the Hubble Space Telescope have added a new work of art to their collection: a chaotic mass of gas and dust left behind by a stellar explosion in a dwarf galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Image: N 63A
NASA / ESA / STScI
The supernova remnant N 63A sprawls out in a false-color image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Color filters were used to sample light emitted by sulfur (shown in red), oxygen (in blue) and hydrogen (in green).
The blob, called N 63A, lies within a star-forming region inside the irregular galaxy, about 160,000 light-years away in the Southern Hemisphere's skies. The star that blew up to create this mess is thought to have been about 50 times more massive than our sun. In the false-color image released today, the main gas cloud shines brightly in reds and oranges, due to sulfur emissions. You can also see some odd-shaped cloudlets that survived the explosion's shock wave.

N 63A may someday provide the raw materials for a new generation of planetary systems, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute.

"Data obtained at various wavelengths from other detectors reveal ongoing formation of stars at 10 to 15 light-years from N 63A," today's photo advisory reports. "In a few million years, the supernova ejecta from N 63A would reach this star-forming site and may be incorporated into the formation of planets around solar-type stars there, much like the early history of the solar system."

For yet another tale of a supernova remnant, check out this week's story about the case of the missing neutron star . And while you're at it, don't miss our own gallery of super views from space, as well as HubbleSite.org's archive of supernova snapshots.

June 7, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Magazine of mystery: If you're looking for the kind of news that used to set Agent Mulder a-twitter on "The X-Files," your list of Web favorites would have to include The Daily Grail, offered up by Greg Taylor, an Australian aficionado of arcana from all over. Now Taylor and his fellow Grailmasters have put together a slick magazine called Sub Rosa. At least it looks like a slick magazine, even though it's published online using PDF format.

The first issue's cover story is an interview with Sphinx geologist Robert Schoch, whose views on the age of the Egyptian monument were touched upon here in the Log last year. (Sub Rosa is kind enough to refer to the Log in the Q&A.) Other articles focus on quantum consciousness and "hyperdimensional ambassador" Terence McKenna. The online magazine also offers something you couldn't do with a print magazine: hyperlinks to video and other resources on the Web.

Meanwhile, if you're more of an Agent Scully type, you might prefer another Web site associated with a print magazine: the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which publishes the Skeptical Inquirer. (One of Sub Rosa's articles stirs up a point-counterpoint with CSICOP, as a matter of fact.)

June 7, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Quick tour of the scientific Web:

Discovery.com: Meditation changes monks' outlook
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): A better robot, with help from roaches
Slate: My short, scary career as a sperm donor
BBC: NASA cuts 'will hamper science'

June 6, 2005 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Reality check for robo-racers: Culling as ruthlessly as Simon Cowell from "American Idol," the Pentagon has reduced the field of robotic racers for its $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge by almost two-thirds.

The 40 racing teams listed today were selected from 118 entrants to compete in semifinal trials beginning Sept. 27 at the California Speedway in Fontana. The Grand Challenge is aimed at promoting the development of autonomous ground vehicles that can find their way around an obstacle course (or a battlefield) without human intervention. The Pentagon aims to have one-third of all its ground vehicles unmanned by 2015.

"The teams' creative sparks are flying, and they are making impressive progress toward DARPA's goal of developing technologies that will save the lives of our men and women in uniform on the battlefield," Grand Challenge program manager Ron Kurjanowicz said in a statement (PDF file).

Many of this year's competitors are returning from last year's inaugural Grand Challenge , which went unwon because none of the robotic vehicles could complete the 142-mile course through the Mojave Desert.

Last year's front-runner was the Red Team from Carnegie Mellon University, which is fielding two teams in this year's semifinals under the leadership of robotics professor (and former Marine) Red Whittaker. Last week, Whittaker compared the Grand Challenge to the "Survivor" TV show, and today he paid tribute to those who were voted off the island.

"Those 78 worthy competitors made this a great race and a great community and a game worth playing," he wrote in his racing log.

Actually, "American Idol" provides a slightly better analogy: The 40 teams have just been told the Pentagon's equivalent of "You're going to Hollywood, baby!" Fontana isn't exactly Tinsel Town, but during this fall's nine-day trials, known as the National Qualification Event, the field will be divided into 20 finalists and 20 also-rans. The finalists will go on to the big show, scheduled for Oct. 8. The first vehicle to complete a desert obstacle course autonomously within 10 hours will take the prize — assuming that any of them can do it.

The vehicles are at least as varied as they were last year: pickup trucks, sports utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, military-style Hummers, dune buggies, a panel van, a 15-ton cargo truck, a custom-made, six-wheeled contraption and even a motorcycle. Here's a quick list of the 40; DARPA's Grand Challenge Web site has details and Web links for each of them:

A.I. Motorvators, Autonomous Vehicle Systems, Autonosys, Axion Racing, BJB Engineering, Blue Team, CIMAR, CyberRider, Desert Buckeyes, The Golem Group / UCLA, Gray Team, Indiana Robotic Navigation, Indy Robot Racing Team, Insight Racing, Intelligent Vehicle Safety Technologies I, The MITRE Meteorites, Mojavaton, MonsterMoto, Oregon WAVE, Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors, Red Team, Red Team Too, SciAutonics / Auburn Engineering, Stanford Racing Team, Team AION, Team Banzai, Team CajunBot, Team Caltech, Team Cornell, Team DAD, Team ENSCO, Team Jefferson, Team Juggernaut, Team Overbot, Team TerraMax, Team Tormenta, Team UCF, Terra Engineering, Virginia Tech Grand Challenge Team, Virginia Tech Team Rocky.

June 6, 2005 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Near space gets nearer: The U.S. military has reportedly given the all-clear for the real-world use of a new kind of balloon-based communications platform in "near space," a zone between 65,000 and 350,000 feet in altitude.

Such near-space platforms received positive reviews in reports published last month by C4ISR Journal and Inside the Air Force. The first battle-ready system, Combat SkySat I, performed well during a test tryout in March in Arizona and "can now be used in theater operations," Inside the Air Force reported.

Near space is above the region of the atmosphere that can come under threat from enemy aircraft — and it's a place that's easier to reach than outer space. The balloon-buoyed platform does have its limitations, however. The tryout indicated that the untethered balloon could provide radio coverage over a given area for about a day during calm weather conditions, but for less time than that on windier days.

Last year, the wind factor came into play during a round of tests conducted by JP Aerospace. In part because of the wind problems, JP Aerospace eventually had to part ways with the Pentagon, but the group is continuing work on a lighter-than-air system for getting to the fringes of space. JP Aerospace conducted its most recent test flight just last month — sending up, among other things, "Star Wars" action figures and a commercial billboard. (Word press release)

Meanwhile, a Cosmic Log reader living in London, J.R. Dumas, sends along a link to Sanswire, yet another near-space venture aimed at lofting "Stratellite" airships to provide wireless Internet coverage. A prototype Stratellite is being prepared for tests this summer at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

June 6, 2005 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

Defense Tech: Los Alamos whistleblower assaulted
Technovelgy: Breathe like a fish
Space.com: Big Universe, tightening budget
Archaeology: Modern chef takes on ancient cooking
Scientific American: Monkey hear, monkey count

June 3, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
DNA data dangers: Genetic identification techniques have revolutionized victim recovery operations as well as criminal investigations. Just this week, officials in Japan and Ireland have been discussing the expansion of their national DNA databases as a crime-fighting measure.

But the technology has its limits, as illustrated by the complications that have arisen during a rape trial in Texas where identical twins are the defendants. In fact, some scientists say that as DNA databases become bigger, the chances of coincidental genetic matches will increase — raising the prospect of innocent people being wrongly accused on the basis of their DNA.

A suggestion from a Cosmic Log correspondent that DNA databases should be expanded to the general public — so that victims could be quickly identified in the event of, say, a catastrophic terrorist attack — brought a mostly negative response as fast as you could say "Big Brother." Here's a sampling of the e-mail:

Tom: "... DNA databases could never be secured. Nothing is secure, and the inevitable abuse of the information would far outweigh any benefit gained from the technology. By the time we would need such a database nationally for a nuclear terrorist crisis, it will already be too late for our society. We had better work towards making sure things don't ever reach that point. When the desperate poor and disenfranchised (as well as the terrorists that recruit them) feel threatened enough to make that kind of attack on Western societies, we will have already failed as civilzation. We must increase our efforts of inclusion so that the current crisis never expands to that point. The DNA database is a moot effort. It reminds me of the insane concept floated throughout America years ago of a 'winnable' nuclear war. We all know by now there is no such thing."

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "How Orwellian can we get? Oxytocin the hormone of trust and DNA banks being discussed today. Hmm? Anybody around with an aerosol can during a Shrub appearance? With the paranoids running the government, I distrust almost everything. National ID cards for entry into federal buildings or air travel? Electronic tracking? Oh, yeah! Fear your government as much as you love your country!"

Jorge Fernandez, Hialeah, Fla.: "The DNA database would be an excellent for crime, health and dating. Crime would be drastically reduced because people would know they would be identified. The thing with this is an extension of the privacy problem with cameras, but if you are not doing anything wrong then you do not have to worry. ... Health benefits could be amazing as personalized recommendations and diagnosis could be beamed to the doctor's office or your home computer if it was made electronic. Dating would be so much easier because you would not need a compatibility test but could be matched up on your DNA! It would probably make the time-wasting, old-fashioned way obsolete. The con [side of the argument] would be if it got into the wrong hands (like anything). It would make it easier to frame you especially if they made evil clones (Hey, you never know with developments these days) — not to mention what could happen with ID theft (though it could help us identify impostors). ..."

Burton: "Would you really want the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Tom Ridge or any member of the FBI, CIA or any corporation to have access to your most personal information? Does '1984' or Big Brother come to mind? Why not just have babies bar-coded and implanted with a tracking device at birth?"

Actually, it might not be a bad idea to create your own family "DNA database": The idea would be to collect DNA samples for storage at home, just in case they're needed for identification purposes later. Lots of companies sell collection kits, but according to the S.A.F.E Network, the procedure could be as simple as swabbing the inside of your cheek with a sterile cotton swab and storing it inside a clearly labeled bag.

The Travelers Protective Association works with community groups to provide free DNA collection kits for child safety purposes. A large collection campaign was conducted just last month for kindergartners in Maryland's Washington County.

June 3, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

The Economist: Do Ashkenazi Jews have genetic genius?
Slate: How do space pictures get so pretty?
'Nova' on PBS: 'Lost Roman Treasure'  
Seattle P-I: Will epigenetics rock evolutionary theory?
CollectSpace: Suits for space spies found decades later
NASA: Mercury probe snaps pictures of Earth and moon
N.Y. Times: Museum quits as intelligent-design film sponsor

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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